Awhile back, I had the parent of one of my students call me. The student had run away from home, had done some rather clever things with shared family finances to cover their little get away, and, oh by the way, the student was in all sorts of trouble at school. There were MIPs, weeks of missed classes, failing grades, you name it.

The parent, rightly frustrated, was hoping that I could offer some advice and intervention on how to keep their child in school.

Not too many days preceding this phone call, that very student had turned up three weeks late for an advising appointment. In the twenty minutes they spent in my office, they'd talked about a week long trip they'd taken to New York City (in the middle of the term) and about how they were going to Cancun the following week (this would be finals week). So you can imagine that this knowledge combined with the parent's details about their precious filled me with all sorts of joy. For all sorts of reasons - I'm not a trained counselor, there are substantial privacy issues with talking about the progress of a 20 year old to another adult without their consent, etc - I couldn't actually offer the parent much advice.

But the real problem was that, even if I were legally allowed, what I wanted to say is simply unutterable in the current climate: some children aren't cut out for college.

It's interesting that there's a sort of theme to this in this week's Chronicle. There's an article by a former faculty member, discussing her experiences with teaching and the need for a variety of opportunities beyond just college. But there's also an article from a student addressing the formulaic nature of college application and what a prospective student should really be prepared to think about.

What both are speaking implicitly to is the place that higher education has come to occupy in American society. Effectively, a college degree has become the equivalent of a high school diploma - we expect that everyone can and should have one. This view of higher education as a right (rather than the opportunity of higher education as a right) has resulted in all sorts of problems for the modern institution and its employees. Tied to this is the idea that college is a right of passage that follows hot on the heels of high school.

When I think about that student and her parent, what I think someone should have been able to say - without fear of lawsuit or recrimination from parents or institution - is simply that maybe that student hadn't yet formed the discipline that higher education requires and, so, perhaps they simply shouldn't be here. This isn't the same thing as saying they never should, since many faculty will tell you (and this has by and large been my experience) that the "non-traditional student" - those who have returned later in life or who are working while they're in school or juggling a family - tend to be the students who get the most out of it.

The reason, I would argue, is that they're the ones prepared to put the most into it.

Off Like A...Charity Drive?

So I'm sitting here grading papers, the tv on making noise, and I hear a public service announcement. It tells me that many high school students in the area can't afford new gowns for their proms and so they're asking the city to help by donating "gently used" prom dresses.

Am I wrong to find this the funniest, saddest, most misplaced attempt at charity? What's next, used beer steins for down-on-their-luck frat boys?

Is it bad that it immediately made me feel like someone who'd lived through the Great Depression and needed to remind every whippersnapper that there are more important things?

That said, it's been ages since my prom, but I do recall a few folks who managed to find the fun way to "gently use" that prom dress. I hope the charity is also promoting safe sex...

Looking for love in all the wrong places...

Not so long ago, one of my relatives sent me a gift card and a note wishing me well. This was especially kind of them as I've not been in touch the way I should be, and I certainly haven't managed a visit. Tucked in the card was a note asking about my well-being and about that most typical of my family's concerns - am I seeing anyone.

I've been struggling for months with how to answer the question, and it may seem strange to address it here rather than across the dinner table or by the tried-and-true "reach out and touch someone." But bear with me. Let's ignore for a moment my own dating idiosyncrasies (and there are a lot of them, to be sure). Why talk about it in light of my career as a fledgling academic? The reason is relatively simple economics. What my relative doesn't understand - in fact, what many friends and family don't quite get (and what is never addressed directly) - is that I simply can't afford what they think I can. Not only am I not visiting (and rarely calling), but dating itself becomes a dicey proposition at best because I live on an income that's decidedly smaller than you'd expect.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out that while for the first year in quite awhile faculty salaries have grown at a pace that is higher than inflation and cost of living, it's only one year out of many. And, it notes, there are pretty wide disparities by discipline, rank, and type of institution.

Let me take a moment for anyone unsure of how life in academia works to help explain the notion of rank and type of institution.

In (American) academia, there are a variety of ranks which are largely invisible to anyone not actually involved in some way with this career ladder:
  • adjunct/instructor
  • assistant professor
  • associate professor
  • full professor
Generally speaking, as you move from the top of that list to the bottom, job security and pay increase. One hitch in this is whether a position is a tenure-line or not. Typically adjunct/instructor positions are not tenurable. In some cases, this is strictly a financial decision on the part of the institution; in other cases, such positions are offered because the person in question hasn't completed a step in the process (and academia does love its process).

For example, it isn't uncommon for someone who is still completing their Ph.D to be hired as an instructor with the understanding that once the process is complete, they will jump to the next rung. The lack of the Ph.D is often a distinguishing feature for the adjunct/instructor position.
Moreover, quite often adjuncts and instructors carry a different workload - sometimes less, sometimes more - as a cost saving measure. At some institutions, for example, adjuncts are only allowed to teach a limited number of courses because exceeding that number would require the institution to offer health insurance to them. It is worth noting that at many institutions, a large percentage (often a clear majority) of undergraduate coursework - particularly large courses and introductory courses - is taught by people employed at this level.

It should also be noted, though I'll keep this part brief, that it isn't uncommon for institutions to hire someone at any of the above ranks as a fixed-term faculty member, which denies them the chance for tenure but tends to pay better than the typical one-year or term-by-term adjunct or instructor position.

With that in mind, one of the perks of academia that seems well-ensconced in the public consciousness is the notion of tenure. Typically this is understood to be a perpetual sort of job security that once achieved makes the holder invulnerable to being fired, etc. This isn't actually true, and it also ignores the process both pre- and post-tenure. In the typical case, tenure requires a six or seven year process (it varies slightly by institution and by the individual worker).

In order to get tenure, the typical faculty member must:
  • produce enough research (measured in books and articles published, conferences attended, etc.),
  • taught to acceptable standards (a particular number of courses with acceptable student and peer evaluation)
  • served at an acceptable level for the university in other capacities (serving on committees, helping get the university's name out into the academic and civic communities, etc.)
In practice, this is the first step to moving up the career ladder. Once tenure is achieved, some small reward is given (at my university, it is a one time pay raise of about $1,000 - I'll let anyone reading this offer other figures), then you begin the process again to move from assistant to associate, and then from associate to full professor with fairly similar pay increases.

Pay also changes by the type of institution - whether the school is large or small, whether is has endowments from the State or outside business, whether it produces only undergraduates or graduates (and if so, what kind - schools that grand doctorates tend to pay higher wages). For more information, see the Carnegie Foundation's explanation of its classification system and uses.

In my case, I'm at a small, non-doctoral granting institution with a fairly small outside resources (State assistance is minimal as it is private, business support is limited because we're in an economically depressed area and the university hasn't done a good job at tapping alumni or seeking outside connections). I'm in the liberal arts side (which tends to pay less than the hard sciences and business sectors, though it is consistently the area that most employers indicate helps future employment the most). And my university doesn't pay well (this will come up again in this blog, I'm sure). So my pay is going to be smaller than it might otherwise be.

Let's put it in perspective: most people in this career path are going to have roughly ten years of higher education in order to get such a position. Think about that a moment and jot down or make a mental note of what you think that career must pay, considering the cost of higher education, the limited number of degrees, the importance consistently placed on education by employers, government policy, etc. Got your number?

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the average starting salary for someone with that education is roughly $55,000 a year at the typical Master's granting liberal arts school.

And that, my friends, is why I'm so rarely dating or visiting.

No more teachers' dirty looks?

I'm thinking about quitting my job.

This morning one of my students confided in me. She said, fumbling for words, that she's wrestling with the things most of us wrestle with - family issues, big questions of life, how to balance desire and duty. Her monsters were, to be fair, bigger than most. On her arms are the scars of someone who's cut themselves or been cut in the distant past. She's witnessed things no one should, and she's coming out the other side. Facing the end of her time at a university must feel like - as it did for so many of us - looking down into a big blackness we never before imagined.

Like most of my students - honestly, like most students (myself included) - she isn't particularly brilliant. But she is amazingly talented, and it is her work ethic that sets her apart and that will push her on to brilliant things. And I do believe - and I told her so - that she will go on to those brilliant things. I told her that some selfishness is warranted - sometimes you have to do what's best for you so later you can do what's best for someone else. I told her that I'd juggled the same questions about whether to even get an advanced degree or to simply find some quiet middle management job so I could tend to the calamities of my own family. Maybe it helped.

This isn't why I'm thinking about quitting my job.

I tell you this story because it is moments like this that are the best part of my job: not when a student is struggling, not when I can tell them that they're going to be amazing. It is the moment where a connection is made that makes this job worthwhile. Teaching is a bit like standing at the crossroads and hoping a car will pass your way at just the right speed to see you waving. It isn't about making the car stop, though sometimes it does. It isn't about making the car change directions though that happens sometimes, too. Most days, teaching is just about helping someone to notice the things outside of their own car.

Seen from that perspective, which sounds pretty good I think, it might be hard to see why I'm thinking about quitting my job. So why then?

Here's the story. I'm 35 years old. I'm going into my fourth year of teaching at a small university somewhere in America. I get to discuss big ideas and controversial notions on an almost daily basis. I get to ask questions, and watch people go past that crossroads, stop, look around, check the map, change directions and change themselves on a regular if not daily basis. There are worse lives to lead.

But I'm 35 years old. I'm looking for a roommate because I can't afford my bills let alone the loans it took to get the education to get the job that allows me to do these things. The job pays, as many university teaching jobs do, just a little more than I might make as a middle manager at a call center or a small bank. Each Christmas as my students depart, I spend my first day of vacation balancing my checkbook to decide whether I can spare the few hundred dollars it would cost me to go see my own family. I've spent the last two holidays in my ramshackle bachelor apartment with my dog, re-reading old favorites and assuring my aging parents that I'll be home next year, I promise. Sometimes we open presents over the phone. Sometimes there aren't any because it doesn't seem right if I can't get them much that they should get me something.

Now I haven't said I'm a particularly good teacher. That a student confided in me at the beginning of this entry doesn't tell you much, really. But the thing is, I'm not alone. I know more than a few people in the same job with the same problem. And at least one of us is bound to be good in the classroom even if I'm not. And more than a few of them are having similar thoughts.

It makes me wonder if any one is thinking about whether the idea that you get what you pay for might apply to education.