A Ph.D. should result in a tenure-track job, not an alt-ac one (essay)

What’s the measure of a successful doctoral program? In many fields, placement in tenure-track positions used to be enough. Today, however, many Ph.D. programs are claiming other kinds of success, particularly placement in what is being described as alt-ac (short for alternative academic) employment. Alt-ac positions are often in administration on a campus, in museums or in libraries. Others are in government or nonprofit organizations. Typically these alt- or nonacademic jobs involve research, analysis and writing -- skills that many people hone in graduate school -- though few require completing a doctorate.

Some people believe that in competitive hiring between individuals who have some degree of postgraduate education, actually holding the terminal degree can offer an advantage. But is that theoretical edge in nonprofessorial employment a good reason to run a graduate program?

One explanation for the changing metric is that graduate faculty members are being more respectful of the actual career pathways of their students. As Bethany Nowviskie, the director of digital research and scholarship at the University of Virginia Library and a research associate professor of digital humanities at the university, puts it, “That our culture for many years has labeled these people ‘failed academics’ is a failure of imagination.” Her complaint is fair enough, particularly for those with nonfaculty positions on campus: professors do sometimes inflict status injury on nonfaculty staff members, even those with advanced degrees.

A more cynical explanation is that faculty like having graduate programs and, perhaps more to the point, administrators need them. For faculty, grad programs confer status, provide emotional gratification of several kinds and legitimate the teaching of fewer, smaller classes.

Crucially, however, administrators need doctoral programs across fields to maintain the institution’s Carnegie classification. One of the four major correlates of research activity used to measure aggregate institutional performance is Ph.D. conferrals. The hundred or so universities in the Very High Research Activity (VHRA) class push out a median of 35 humanities doctorates annually, 900 percent more than the hundred or so institutions in the merely High Research Activity group, whose median production is just four per year.

So long as continuing high levels of doctorate production are part of the price of admission to the most exclusive club in American higher ed, it’s hard not to imagine that many universities will continue to run a menu of smallish graduate programs even at a financial loss -- and find ever more elaborate rationales to keep them running.

With the support of influential graduate faculty and staff members at academic associations, the alt-ac brand of hashtag activism has won a tidal wave of big-dollar institutional support. While serving as president of the American Historical Association in 2011, Anthony T. Grafton issued a manifesto saying graduate curricula and culture should value and target alt-ac and nonacademic jobs and stop treating them as plan B to professorial appointment.

Today, the AHA actively sponsors “value-added” changes to graduate curricula in support of what it has called “The Malleable Ph.D.,” a vision of next-generation degree holders who respond flexibly to job-market opportunities other than their first-choice professorial careers. The association and its funding partners want prospective degree holders to know they are 100 percent behind those who, as 2015 AHA President Vicki L. Ruiz puts it, refuse to dismiss “a career outside the classroom as some sort of consolation prize.”

Armed with a $1.6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in support of “Career Diversity for Historians,” Ruiz is using her presidential year to whip up rationales for Ph.D. programs to value “service to multiple publics” -- i.e., beyond the faltering mission of reproducing tenure-stream faculty. Similarly, the University of Miami has attempted to brand itself as a “national leader” in graduate education by launching a program of internships in alt-ac careers alongside traditional forms of apprenticeship training such as teaching.

In short, suddenly a lot of money is being spent proving something that the Bureau of Labor Statistics could have told us for free: people who have earned doctorates have extremely low unemployment and generally have good jobs. The Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Historical Association (AHA) have each run expensive surveys to this effect.

The Council of Graduate Schools has the support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Mellon Foundation to extend those survey efforts to other disciplines. The explicit intention is to articulate new rationales for Ph.D. production and new metrics appropriate to those rationales. CGS President Suzanne T. Ortega says the goal of acquiring better data about the alt-ac and nonacademic careers that previous degree holders have already found for themselves is to “develop curricula and professional development opportunities that better prepare graduate students for the full range of careers they are likely to follow.”

Put plainly, CGS and other big institutional players want to move the goalposts from a difficult challenge -- placing Ph.D. holders in tenure-track positions -- to a far simpler one -- taking credit for positions degree holders are already finding for themselves. They’re responding to programs desperate to find measures justifying Ph.D. production at a time when they can no longer pretend that the “market” in tenure track jobs is going to turn around.

Ruiz is up front about this, frankly adopting the approach articulated by advice columnist Leonard Cassuto earlier this year: “Instead of thinking wishfully about how great it would be to have a better system, let’s focus on what can be done with the bad system that we have.” What Cassuto and Ruiz mean by a bad system is one that trains people for positions that don’t exist because the jobs have been converted into temp work.

As responsible analysts have understood since the mid-1990s, this isn’t because of an oversupply of Ph.D.s but an intentionally created undersupply of tenure-stream positions. Beginning in 1970, administrators began systematically turning teaching-intensive jobs into part-time or nontenurable positions that -- they claim -- don’t require a Ph.D. As a result, many teaching-intensive appointments are filled with students, staff members and other people who don’t have doctorates -- while those with doctorates quit the academy or take alternative academic jobs.

So from at least one informed, activist perspective, keeping Ph.D. programs running makes sense. There’s actually plenty of faculty work for everyone with a doctorate. The real solution is turning temp work back into tenurable positions, just as the American Association of University Professors has long maintained, and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has recently proposed with a bill to make federal education aid contingent upon states restoring a 75 percent tenure ratio in publicly employed college faculty. If the Sanders plan succeeded in restoring that ratio in even two large states, many disciplines would soon see an undersupply of persons with terminal degrees.

However, what Ruiz and Cassuto want is to keep programs running without changing the labor system. That’s a far less ethically tenable posture. Unlike the AAUP and Sanders, they prefer to believe the system is fundamentally unfixable, and dismiss meaningful change as “wishful thinking.” They think people studying for doctorates should actively plan on jobs in filmmaking, government or nonprofits. Cassuto’s new book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, reiterates this thesis, claiming that graduate schools in the humanities with a “realistic” approach must alter curricula to emphasize “practical, transferable skills” that prepare Ph.D. students for a “wide range” of work entirely outside the academy.

Even while people without doctorates make up an ever-larger fraction of college teachers, Cassuto and his supporters dismiss as “utopian” such straightforward Sanders-style fixes to the system as employing those with Ph.D.s in teaching-intensive positions. Although Cassuto occasionally lauds examples of Ph.D.s in teaching-intensive positions -- including one of his own students whose admission he might have blocked if he’d known she wanted to teach at a community college (gasp!) -- over all, he assumes that graduate students have little interest in pursuing careers in what he airily dubs “low-caste teaching.”

Apart from the distasteful confusion of curricular location with caste, there are at least two big factual mistakes here. First, grad students and nontenurable faculty members teach the full range of courses at many institutions, from the first year to disciplinary seminars, including at the graduate level. Second, most faculty positions, tenured or not, involve teaching courses at different locations in the curriculum.

Dismissing lower-division teaching as “low caste” isn’t just offensive; it paints a false picture, dismissing from consideration the majority circumstances of the professoriate. The superficial pragmatism of Ruiz and Cassuto conceals how foundations, associations and much of the academic chattering class continue to evade the real problems of contemporary faculty.

For people with doctorates, by far the most common “alternative” to professorship is a nontenurable appointment. Ditto for persons who went to graduate school but didn’t complete the degree requirements. Those with these part-time or nontenurable appointments have long outnumbered the tenured minority. They too are treated like “failed academics.” What is really needed is much more aggressive support for the nontenurable majority faculty.

While no one is going to argue against supporting degree holders who search for nonprofessorial employment, there’s little evidence that they actually need more of this help. My cohort of graduate school activists in the mid-1990s was already perfectly aware that folks with doctorates who went the nonprofessorial route generally had low unemployment and good jobs. According to the MLA and AHA surveys, that hasn’t changed. These folks have consistently found excellent employment without placement help from their professional associations.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for foundations and associations to actually address the more substantial question -- raised by activists, the AAUP and Sanders -- of whether persons with doctorates should hold teaching-intensive positions as they did in 1970, and on what terms, with what preparation?

Sure, that would require sustained civic engagement and serious political effort. It would raise further tough questions -- such as how to safeguard the workplace rights of current faculty without doctorates while recreating teaching-intensive tenure-stream positions. But that would be in the best interests of graduate students, for many of whom the goal of getting a doctorate remains quite straightforward: a tenure-track job.

Marc Bousquet is an associate professor in the department of film and media studies at Emory University.

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Advice on interviewing techniques (essay)


When talking with potential employers, you should communicate in a way that projects clear and detailed images rather than complex and distorted ones, writes Thomas Magaldi.

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Rembrandt van Rijn, "Self-Portrait," 1659, National Gallery of Art, Washington
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Study finds that inflexible partners block female academics from international collaboration

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Female academics are frequently blocked from international work, and the problem isn't children, study finds.

How to Find a Job in the First Trimester of Pregnancy (essay)

Mieke Beth Thomeer gives tips for surviving long airplane flights, campus interviews and dinners with wine.

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Study suggests pressure to publish impedes innovation

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Study suggests that publication pressures lead to more familiar -- and more likely to be published -- research, at the expense of innovation.

Establishing a Good Mentorship (essay)

Determining your needs, choosing the right person and setting realistic goals are the keys to success, according to Susan L. Phillips and Susan T. Dennison.

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A Middle Ground on Trigger Warnings (essay)

Recently, a nonacademic friend asked, “If you were teaching William Butler Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan,’ would you use a trigger warning?”

“Leda and the Swan” is a vivid account of Zeus, in the form of a swan, raping a young woman named Leda. I hadn’t read that poem since high school, and after rereading it, I can’t say for certain what I would do as an English professor. I probably would take an approach similar to the one I use as a professor in sociology as well as women’s, gender and sexuality studies.

The concept of a trigger warning has become quite controversial in recent years, with some people on campuses encouraging or demanding its use, and others discouraging it -- such as the Faculty Senate at American University, which recently passed a resolution citing the potential negative impact on academic freedom. As a faculty member who regularly teaches course content on trauma, I take more of a middle ground.

The term “trigger warning” has come to refer to introductory statements on web postings of graphic descriptions of rape, eating disorders and self-harm. They are used to alert readers who may be struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to those topics so that they can choose whether to continue reading. The purpose of using a trigger warning in the classroom is to let students know that the material that their professors have assigned may cause physiological or psychological reactions as a result of past traumas.

I started teaching in 2000, before the term was regularly used in academe or had received any news media attention. I now teach many of the same topics I taught then, about rape, violence, trauma and eating issues.

My approach on the first day of class, when I discuss the purpose of the course and learning goals, is to review the syllabus, pointing out topics that may be emotionally difficult, such as trauma and eating issues. I explain the content in the texts and any films that I plan to show in class.

In the past two years, I've also said something like, “I can’t predict what material may trigger someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or what will upset people for other reasons. If you are concerned or uncertain about this course, please closely review the course materials and decide whether you want to continue taking it.”

I tell students that I’m available to meet with them to discuss any questions they may have about any aspect of the course. Typically, the week before we engage content that explicitly depicts violence or trauma, I remind students about the upcoming material.

If a student cannot view a film or discuss raw readings in the class setting, they are still responsible for that material, just as is a student who cannot attend class because they have a fever or other illness. I do not change my expectations or assessments concerning quizzes, exams, papers and so on -- regardless of the reason a student misses class. In the handful of cases when a student (typically a rape victim) has met with me to tell me that she cannot attend an upcoming class because the material is too emotionally charged, I tell her that she can use one of the two allotted absences that I give all students for any reason, such as if they are sick or need to attend a family event. I also tell her about the mental-health resources available to her to encourage her to seek help if she has not yet done that. I’ve never had students tell me they cannot read the course material because they are dealing with PTSD. (The reality is that some students don’t read all course material for a variety of reasons.)

The intent of a trigger warning is to acknowledge that some students may need to prepare themselves before engaging with explicit texts or films that might otherwise catch them off guard. But what preparing oneself looks like differs based on where each specific student is in the healing process. As noted by Mental Health America, people can have very different reactions. One student may need to seek counseling, while another may need to focus on mindfulness techniques and other strategies before coming to class. And yet another may need to skip class altogether.

How professors should use the phrase “trigger warning” is a source of contention. Students often do not have an accurate understanding of what it means, so they need an explanation of PTSD to appreciate the warning’s purpose. They may not realize there is a difference between course content that they will find emotionally disturbing for reasons other than trauma, and course content that is triggering due to PTSD. Some types of course content are upsetting for most students, such as films that depict genocide or natural disasters. Not all students who become visibly emotional are reliving memories of trauma (unless, of course, they have direct, traumatic experiences with genocide or natural disasters).

Then there’s the issue of whether to use trigger warnings at all. Discerning whether material is potentially triggering due to PTSD is arguably a slippery slope. And no professor can warn students about all possible triggers that might occur in their classroom.

I certainly don’t have all the answers when it comes to the debates about trigger warnings, but I never only use the term “trigger warning,” if I use it at all. If we as professors incorporate the phrase “trigger warning,” we should include more information than those two words, whether in a syllabus or before showing a film. I’m not trained about all possible PTSD triggers, so I risk misleading students by labeling some material as triggering and overlooking other content altogether. Instead, I continue to prefer course content overviews and reminders about upcoming content on violence and trauma.

All that said, things can get especially complicated in an academic setting. Outside of academe, a person with PTSD who is learning how to manage triggers may successfully avoid news, films or other potentially difficult stimuli. What is distinct about college is that students may be enrolled in courses that require them to read, watch or discuss content that graphically depicts violence or trauma.

Sexual assault, in particular, is associated with a greater risk of developing PTSD symptoms, and a new survey among 27 universities finds that cis women, transgender and gender nonconforming students experience the highest rates of sexual assault and misconduct during their college years.

So, whether using the term “trigger warning” or not, I strongly believe that professors should say something about that content before requiring students to engage it. Here’s an example of a time when I regret that I didn’t do that.

In a senior sociology seminar, I showed a clip from The Invisible War, a documentary about sexual assault in the military. I described the film’s content, but I did not specify that the clip we were about to view included distraught, first-person interviews. One segment showed a young woman shaking as she described a rape’s impact on her life. The film then cut to her father weeping about his failed attempts to reassure her that she is still a virgin.

A student became agitated. She shifted in her chair, wiped away tears and left the room for a few minutes while we wrapped up the clip.

After class, I sent an email to check in with her. She wrote back first thanking me for covering these issues in class rather than avoiding them. Then she said that she wished that I had better prepared the class for the content of this particular film. Watching first-person accounts of rape is much more difficult to absorb in a class setting than academic readings on the same topic. Not acknowledging that difficulty risks leaving sexual assault victims in the classroom feeling more isolated than they already do.

She’s right.

I had unexpectedly received a copy of the film, and I could have sent an email giving a more detailed description of the film before we met in class that day. And I wish I had.

Higher education cannot identify all possible topics or classroom moments that might trigger students suffering from PTSD. Professors may decide to abandon the language “trigger warning” altogether to avoid the impression that they have drawn a bright line between material that is and is not triggering. But let’s not forgo giving students advanced descriptions of course content on violence or trauma. Whether it’s a content alert or a preparatory overview, professors have a responsibility to let students know about such content.

Not giving students a heads-up risks a return to the status quo of intellectualizing violence and trauma as something that happens only outside the classroom. And those in the classroom who have suffered such trauma may needlessly suffer even more.

Julie A. Winterich is an associate professor of sociology and the director of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Guilford College.

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The 13th International Sun Conference on Teaching and Learning

Thu, 03/17/2016 to Fri, 03/18/2016


500 W. University Avenue
El Paso , Texas 79902
United States

U Texas professor emeritus will leave teaching job over campus carry law

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A professor emeritus at the U of Texas says he'll leave campus rather than give lectures to hundreds of students who could bring guns.

Paper suggests being more intellectually arrogant corresponds to better grades

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Study suggests having a high opinion of one's intellectual abilities is linked to better grades -- but not necessarily being a good team player.


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