Having just returned from the annual AAC&U conferences in DC, I’m full to the mental brim with reflections on the state of higher ed in the 2012 US. In an effort to parse those into digestible portions, I’ll be writing about the ACC&U experience in a series of installations (posts whose chronology is no indication of their salience–at least not from the perspective of today). This is the first of said posts.
>>”The situation of the declasse intellectual was no longer exceptional. It had become something permanent and unpleasant to confront.”
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
So Kundera writes this in Unbearable Lightness.1 In context, he’s describing what had happened (dismissal) to Czech intellectuals and professionals during the Communist rule in their country (late 60s through the 80s). One of his main characters, for example, has gone from renowned surgeon to window washer in that political climate. I was rereading this on the plane back from DC2 when I came to the above sentence and zoned on the feeling of its relevance in the current economic climate and sat meditating on the irony of the trip I was concluding.
First, an interpretive caveat and, then, some context.
I thought immediately of the academic job market–the one glutted3 and ominous4 for newly-minted PhDs. Think late 20s, early 30s young adults with fresh (or pregnantly expectant) credentials and no less than 30 applications a piece out to universities looking to hire.
I thought next of terminal undergraduates5 and their grim employment prospects (Unemployment rates by college major and experience are helpfully summarized here.) and their sense of, ‘I have/will have this degree but no skills. What can I actually do?’6
I’m pointing to two populations whose members are (grad students) yet to have tenure-track positions or (undergrads), in some cases, much employment experience. So I’m going to go ahead and interpret “declasse” to mean something like the declassing of a credential set <degree as necessary-and-insufficient, if you will> rather than unseated.
The situation of the degree’d individual not being able to find employment traditionally in line with his or her credentials is no longer exceptional. It has become something permanent and unpleasant to confront.
You could pick this apart in a lot of ways–like, (1) pin me with the fact that only about a third of those currently seeking four year degrees look like anything related to the movie Animal House or, (2) What is “employment traditionally in line with credentials” and has that “traditionally” ever been the case anyway? And so, fine. Semantics. What I mean is that the value of a degree has changed and that’s not changing.
The above interpretation is not simply my intellectualized application of some random line in a novel to my life experience <though, also, it is>. It was actually, more or less, the leitmotif of the AAC&U Meetings: we’ve been telling our young people that a college degree is the ticket to social mobility/a job, but we can no longer deny the problems with that claim.7 <Maybe in a later post, I’ll call it the national conversation we’re currently having about the meaning of an undergraduate education. Maybe I’ll call it that tomorrow.>
Some more context:
More specifically, though, it was the motif re: the meaning and value of credentials at the undergraduate level. The AAC&U Meetings are not a conference on graduate education or anything related specifically to my own discipline8 –AAC&U is concerned with undergraduate education in the liberal arts.
Graduate student that I remain, I attended as a Cross Scholar <forgive this seeming self-promo9 >, which is an award the organization gives to a group of graduate students that they believe represent the future leadership of higher ed. There are eight of us. <You should see the CVs of these people.> And of the eight, I’m the only one whose presence on the job market is questionable. That is to say, I was among seven highly-qualified academic job-seekers who are genuinely concerned with higher ed and student civic engagement therein.
And now the conclusionary irony:
So I’m at this conference put on by an organization concerned with the quality of higher education, largely attended by the current leadership of higher education, that is granting distinctions to a group of young(-er) people it pegs as the future leaders of higher education. But those “future leaders” are, as yet, without jobs.
Let me be clear:10 this award is not about writing papers and giving conference presentations and “excelling” at graduate studenthood in the research capacity. It’s about teaching and developing students–caring about that and investing in it and showing potential as a person who will continue to do so in substantive ways. And the job-seeking, qualified recipients of this award are having a time of it out there in the market.
It hasn’t been uniformly dead for the seven–some have/had campus visits, others fewer bites. But there’s something strange and hopeless or at least concerning about this, right? That a person who could win an award like this would struggle to find employment at a university–i.e. an institution concerned with teaching and learning? As you might imagine, the group of us was presented and co-mingled with various university bigwigs at various receptions and lunches throughout the conference, variously. Our introductions were, in fact, routinely delivered along with jokes about our need for gainful employ. Paraphrased: ‘Meet our best and brightest, our future leaders. Ha ha. Now get these people jobs. Ha ha.’
I’d say humor is universal a tactic for dealing with something that has become permanent and unpleasant to confront.
So what does this mean, exactly? Here are some possible implications:
Possibility 1. Investment/experience/excellence in teaching and learning is not a valuable set of qualifications on the academic job market.
Possibility 2. The profile of the so-called future leadership is at such variance (or simply enough variance) with the patterns, trajectories, and preferences of the current leadership, that they’re (we’re?) being ignored. That sounds a bit extreme in this font. What about the expression “not taken seriously”?
Possibility 3. There really are no jobs.
None of these is promising because each implication has a set of sub-implications. Like: if there really are no jobs for qualified (in the quality sense) educators, is that an issue of supply or demand? Are there just too many English professors or is there just too little money to pay all the needed ones? And if there is an oversupply, why and what do we do with all this “excess” intellectual capital?
This is a set of questions focused on graduate education, but applicable at all levels. We’re working (increasingly) within a system that makes credential accumulation necessary but renders it insufficient. No ultimatums here <she said to herself after beginning to type, “Unless we do xyz, doom!”>, but I suspect a realignment is in order. A liberal arts education (and whatever professional/graduate work follows) shouldn’t be morphed into job training, but neither should the practical application of aptitudes developed and honed in the course of that education be a thing apart.
It’s good to talk about Plato. Now let’s talk about why talking about Plato is valuable. And why each of those levels of talking is valuable outside the classroom and the term paper. Otherwise, we’re just fertilizing the dormant disenchantment of the declasse intellectuals to-be.
- –a book I’ve only recently read and am quickly learning is maybe pretentious to reference. Apologies for that, but I evidently love–yes, love–the book more than I feel concern for the implication of the reference. Have you read it? It’s incredible. [↩]
- Yes, I’ve pretentiously read it twice now. [↩]
- from the backlog of those who couldn’t get jobs last hunting season [↩]
- partially/mostly because of the glut [↩]
- Take that all the ways you want to. [↩]
- Versions of this have been said to me on multiple occasions. [↩]
- like the cost of college, the non-inevitable translation of college degree into employment, the question of whether employers and degree-granting institutions agree on what the degree means…etc. [↩]
- Here’s one response I got when I told an Associate Prof I would be attending: “AACU. Isn’t that just a bunch of university presidents and provosts? Just like administrator types?” Telling. [↩]
- although, it is my blog. [↩]
- as I’ve a tendency for the opacity of deconstruction, with the foreknowledge that most anything I say can be recontextualized and rebuffed [↩]