academia: April 2006 Archives

The Vice of Loyalty

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I've been meaning to blog this for a few days now. It's been a while since I dialed up the ol' Chronic-what?!-le of Higher Ed, and last week, when I did, I happened across a little ditty by Jason "Not His Real Name" Stone, called "The Price of Loyalty." Therein, the good Prof. Stone bemoans the fact that he now makes less money than a colleague of his who, although hired at the same time as he, tested the market, got a counteroffer, and a significant raise ensued.

Now, being a junior faculty member, I will confess that I am still learning the politics of salary negotiations, counteroffers, and the like. But here is how I see it: My productivity and loyalty to my department are not being rewarded; my salary will stay the same. My colleague, on the other hand, will be making several thousand dollars more than I do simply because he played the game.

In a sense, I'm being punished for loyalty to my department, and he is being rewarded for his lack of same. Ever hear the saying "Nice guys finish last"?

To be fair to Stone, there are probably a lot of people out there unaware of how frequently this happens, how there are certain people far more willing to play this game than others, and how the reward system in academia actually encourages this kind of mercenary-ism. Those people, as Stone notes, are paying the "loyalty tax." It was really driven home for me the first time that I saw an assistant professor being hired at a higher salary than I was currently making, which implied that my years of service were less valuable to me than procrastination would have been. (That's not quite accurate, but from the perspective of a relatively new assistant prof with a mountain of debt, that's how it felt, certainly.)

I've made no secret of the fact that that I'll be on the market in the fall--beginning this summer, I'll be going up for tenure, and considering that it's possible that Syracuse would choose not to renew my contract, searching for another position is the only sensible option. Considering that it's possible that Syracuse will renew my contract, having offers from other schools is the only sensible way to provide myself with negotiation leverage.

It's a little daunting, I suppose, to realize that next year at this time, I will either be leaving the ranks of the untenured, or leaving the ranks of Syracuse altogether, but if there's one thing I don't feel about this whole process, it's disloyal. I'm really a pretty loyal person, but I'm loyal to people more than I am to places, and certainly more than I am to institutions. I am grateful to every institution that's supported me, I suppose, but I don't feel awkward about saying that they probably got the better end of the deal in each case. Honestly, I feel as though I have been loyal in about the same proportion (and often more) than my various institutions have been to me.

Michael Bérubé has a nice reply to the recent DOE "report" blaming rising college costs on tenure, and this despite the fact that the number of full-time faculty has dropped substantially in the past 20 years, and faculty salaries rarely keep pace with inflation from year to year. Worth a glance is his parody of the attitudes that are at play in misleading, nonsensical junk like the DOE report. What's neither nonsensical nor misleading is the fundamental disloyalty involved in that mindset, though. Reading reports like that are what make me scoff just a little at Stone's essay. I don't fault him for his naivete, because I think our institutions benefit from keeping us in the dark about the tenure process, about each other's negotiations, and about just how loyal they actually are or aren't when it comes to our continued employment.

I certainly don't mean for this to sound like I have anything against SU, because I don't. I'll have to weigh my feelings about Syracuse if/when I have to make a decision about where I'll be in 07-08, but choosing to give myself options, to me, isn't an act of disloyalty.

That is all.

Slow to reply? That's why.

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I'm making what I consider to be excellent progress on one front this month, and that's the revisions to my manuscript. I'm still planning on having the whole thing new and improved by the end of the month, and with each passing day, that goal seems more and more realistic. I can't tell you how delightful it is to have a writing goal not only seem realistic but to be such. It ends up carrying its own momentum from day to day, and that's the way writing works best for me now.

The downside of this newfound productivity is that I'm being particularly mercenary about the rest of my life, only surfacing occasionally, and really, being pretty unapologetic for this. I trust that those of you reading this, and expecting something from me, will understand. After months of trying to squeeze my writing into a full-to-bursting schedule, and slowly feeling the clouds of an imminent tenure case approaching, I've simply reprioritized for a spell.

The blog, it understands, if begrudgingly.

More to today's point, I resurfaced briefly to attend the awards ceremony for the Graduate Education Award I received. I'll point to the picture when it's up, but I did want to mention that maybe the single most important thing about these kinds of award ceremonies to me is the fruit spread. Not that I can't go out and buy a bunch of fruit, but I tend to buy it one at a time, given that I live by myself. So canteloupe one week, grapes another, etc. Today, I got to load up my plate with a variety.

There's something vaguely unsettling to me about launching into an encomium on the fruit plate, but I'll leave it there. Let it stand as a reminder to anyone whosoever might think about inviting me to give a talk on their campus. A variety of fresh fruit could very well cover for a multitude of sins.

Just don't invite me to do anything this month. That is all.

News Flash: Yale Cares!

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It's hard not to approach this story from today's IHE, Finishing the PhD, with bemused snarkiness. The story is about Yale's current attempt to streamline its doctoral programs:

Currently, Yale does better than most institutions, with humanities doctorates (which in national comparisons tend to take longer than other disciplines) finishing in just under seven years on average, but Butler said he would like to see that figure closer to six.

Reading accounts like this are like watching from afar the inbreeding of European royal families or reality television celebrity for me. It's so distant from my own experience as a grad student at two different schools and a professor at another two. At these schools, 3 of which have doctoral programs, 6 years would have been considered a borderline problem, not an average to work towards. In some ways, this speaks, I suppose, to the implicitly classed nature of the field I'm in, but stories like this, where the Ivies stumble upon stuff that we out here in the sticks have been doing for years, makes me smirk.

Let's see:

  • Students finishing in less than six years (Check)
  • "good adviser-advisee relationships are established in the first two years" (Check)
  • "early on, students...plan an intellectual agenda" (Check)
  • "focus on preparing students for the job market" (Check)
  • "integrate students into professional life sooner" (Check)

And I could go on with all sorts of features that aren't in the article itself, like the ethics of allowing program size to be determined by departmental labor needs or faculty-student ratio, for instance. By no means is our own program perfect, but articles like these, about programs like these, makes me sympathetic to those students who attend institutions like Yale expecting graduate education and receiving instead an education in the corruption of graduate school.

While I'm not a big fan of discussions of accountability, which are too often initiated by people whose motives are less than pure, it's hard not to look at situations like these and to believe that what they need are some standards for program performance and corresponding incentives, both positive and negative, for meeting them.

That is all.

Black Swan Blogging

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Spencer has a post from near a week ago now where, in part, he talks about the difference between revising and rewriting. I take the former to be much more modest in scope, a tweaking of a basically stable text, while the latter, as Spencer observes, is a lot more messy and transformative. When I think back on the writing that I've done that I've considered successful, I can name the places where I did good work revising and also the ones that required rewriting.

I've been thinking about this distinction lately, because I think there's an analogous distinction to be made when it comes to organizations--perhaps someone's already made it, I don't know. But there's a difference between making tweaks to an organization headed in the "right direction" and trusting in its momentum on the one hand, and making large changes or having to generate that momentum on the other. It's not so much that one is right and one is wrong--I can imagine each is appropriate in particular circumstances, just as I've had pieces of writing whose needs for revision or rewriting have varied widely.

Problems emerge, though, when there's a clash between perceptions, when one person looks at a situation and sees "revision" while another looks at it and sees "rewriting." For the record, I'm neither person in this example, at least initially, but this is an oblique way of getting around to the fact that I've been sitting on my hands for the past week or so. I've been specifically not blogging what I hold to be a fairly important situation occurring in the background right now, and I say this knowing that some of my colleagues who read this may be after me to tell them what I'm talking about. Some of them will already know, and everyone else will just have to trust that I'm being intentionally careful for a reason, both here and in general.

This is sometimes the point where those of us who post under our birth names express a desire for a pseudonymous blog, some place where we can write through our thoughts, but that's not the issue here. There is no way for me to talk about the situation without tipping it off, so ingrained is it in our particular context. Instead, all I can do is not blog about it, but doing so makes it harder for me to post about more inocuous topics. Big changes have a tendency to seep into your spare thoughts, and even as I've started a post or two in the past few days, I find my mind drifting back to the big things, distracting me from my attempt to deflect my attention a little.

We don't talk much about the "not blogging" that we have to do sometimes--the examples we hear about blogging are all Dooce and Tribble--when for every person who missteps online, there are probably dozens who exercise judgment or restraint, or at the very least, think carefully about the implications of what they say and don't say in these spaces. A couple of weeks ago, in his CCCC talk, Thomas Rickert referred to Nassim Taleb's discussion of black swans, events that are by definition rare and unpredictable. I don't mean to suggest that showing restraint or good judgment is rare (!!!), but rather that there's something similar to the logic of black swan events and what I'm talking about here. Here's Taleb on our inability to understand risk:

Our system of rewards is not adapted to black swans. We can set up rewards for activity that reduces the risk of certain measurable events, like cancer rates. But it is more difficult to reward the prevention (or even reduction) of a chain of bad events (war, for instance). Job-performance assessments in these matters are not just tricky, they may be biased in favor of measurable events. Sometimes, as any good manager knows, avoiding a certain outcome is an achievement.

Although it's a little misleading to call it "black swan blogging," I suppose, I've been thinking of it in these terms. My own affective experience of "not blogging" is that it's taken a great deal of effort on my part to hold my tongue or my fingers, and yet, the page itself empties out as older entries fade into archive, and it looks like I'm just not engaged. There's a certain degree of engagement that is necessarily invisible, a threshold past which transparency can do more harm than good, and lately, I've been struck by how hard it is to articulate this idea positively. Harder still to recognize it and its value, when judicious restraint and inactivity look the same. Neither is as sexy as tales out of school about job searches and the danger, danger, danger of blogging.

That's all for the moment. Maybe it will have helped me a little to write about why it's been hard to write. We'll see.



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This page is a archive of entries in the academia category from April 2006.

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