ads without products

Archive for March 8th, 2009

bad news all around

with 12 comments

More bleak news on the academic job front, via the NY Times.

Fulltime faculty jobs have not been easy to come by in recent decades, but this year the new crop of Ph.D. candidates is finding the prospects worse than ever. Public universities are bracing for severe cuts as state legislatures grapple with yawning deficits. At the same time, even the wealthiest private colleges have seen their endowments sink and donations slacken since the financial crisis. So a chill has set in at many higher education institutions, where partial or full-fledge hiring freezes have been imposed.

A survey by the American Historical Association, for example, found that the number of history departments recruiting new professors this year is down 15 percent, while the American Mathematical Association’s largest list of job postings has dropped more than 25 percent from last year.

“This is a year of no jobs,” said Catherine Stimpson, the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at New York University. Ph.D.s are stacked up, she said, “like planes hovering over La Guardia.”

The anticipated wave of retirements by faculty members who are 60-something is likely to slow as retirement savings accounts and pensions wither, administrators and professors say. That means that some students who have finished postdoctoral fellowships and who expected to leave for faculty positions are staying put for another year, which in turn closes off an option for other graduate students coming up the ladder.

Glad to see that the Times has gotten one of the secret and small issues at play here – secret and small but bound to make this problem worse moving forward. In the USA, where there’s no manditory retirement (as there is here in the UK, and probably as there should be everywhere, but only if there are proper state pensions in place of course, which is not at all a given….) lots of the long tenured types who were headed toward retirement have had their stupid TIAA-CREF accounts shredded by the stock market dive. Their answer, of course, will be to defer retirement even longer than academics usually defer retirement, which is a long, long time.

At my last job, I had a choice between a state pension and a managed retirement account with TIAA-CREF. I really wanted to choose the former, really did for so many reasons, but with things the way they are in terms of mobility / precarity, it seemed (in the five minutes I was given to make the choice after some infotainment at the HR building) like a very bad bet to start a habit of accruing tiny little pension pots all over the USA… and as it turns out, not just the USA. So I took the non-pension. And wow, has it ever bled cash over the past year.

Well, at least if the academic job-market tanks everyone could just become freelance writers instead of boring academics. Erm… Francis Wilkinson, executive editor of The Week, suggests that writing may well be becoming – or already – exclusively the province of the rich:

It’s not obvious how young writers without accommodating, well-to-do parents or a trust from gramps make it these days. Surely they can’t spend a year or two blogging without pay until an audience evolves to nurture them. They’ll starve. Meantime, freelance rates for non-fluff magazine writing have barely risen in the past 15 years. And the chances of getting a job at a quality newspaper or a serious magazine are fast approaching zero.

There are exceptions, I know. There always are. But on the whole, the writing game seems likely to become even more a province of the upper middle class and flat-out wealthy than it is already. The offspring of the affluent, branded college degrees in hand, can afford to give it a go. But anyone hailing from more hardscrabble environs may find it too difficult to get traction before succumbing to the dismal economics of it all. (In contrast with another industry under siege—music—in which rising from the hood or the farm still seems plausible, even stereotypical.)

The Internet has brought the newspaper business to its knees. Some serious magazines are undergoing stress tests of their own. Maybe a certain kind of writing about the world, informed by underdog experience and lower-class perspective, will also prove to be a relic of the dead-tree era. Such writing wasn’t in great supply before. But movie stars, business executives, even accomplished authors all write for free these days. Why should some kid nobody’s ever heard of get paid?

It is a bit hard to understand, and the older I get (and the better circles that I move in) it only gets harder. A little while ago I was out for drinks with a relatively famous writer in multiple genres who had just spent an hour, among other things, baiting his academic audience with their failure to publish relevant work, to publish in the newspapers and the like. Despite the fact that he is, as I said, relatively famous, I doubt we’re talking about boatloads of money from the books and the increasingly rare journalism, and certainly not enough to support a lifestyle that at least resembles, if not betters, those of the academics that he was drinking with afterwards. I wanted to ask the unaskable question – the question about how this all worked, how with the family and the kids, the tennis games on Saturday mornings and the house in a decent part of the city – he kept it all together without tethering himself to a department and lectures and seminars, essays to mark and students to meet and sub-committees to sign on for. But of course, I did not ask. Though there are a few options, one does not really need to ask.

In America, it is hard to think of anyone remotely near my age who writes who is not an academic of one stripe or another. In the UK, it is slightly easier, I suppose because of the low cost of education and the free health care, and the fact that the pay scale seems to be slightly more humane than the one decscribed by Wilkinson above. But only slightly easier. Back home, I do or did know a few who went the intern to editorial assistant to subeditor to managing editor route, while writing on the side – a route fraught with perils of more than one stripe, but every once in awhile it works out. And of course there are a few exceptional cases where it can happen the way it should happen, occasionally even very deserving cases like this one. Or then again, some try other lines of work, but this usually comes to no good, I suppose because too much of your mind is elsewhere for to much of the time. At least when, say, a literary academic isn’t writing because his or her job is too demanding, she or he is still working through the operative questions and issues at least part of the time. Working as a bank teller or a store clerk or a lawyer or, dunno, an intinerant apple picker might well be a good source of material, but I can imagine (and remember) how intellectually depleting such work can be.

One feels a reflexive need to say at this point in this sort of post that it is important to remember that academics are only academics, writers are only writers, and that everyone else in the world has it worse. I am sure that is very true. But on the other hand, and without being a blinders-on technocrat about things, it does seem a bit worrying to thing about a world in which almost all would-be academics have to find something else to do, or else teach themselves crazy until writing is off the table, and where absolutely the only writing that gets done is done by the children of the idle rich. Of course, we’re already there and getting more there everyday.

I’d like to find a way to write about this. It’s interesting – given the choice between blurring the distinction between what we do and what everyone else does via “the modern office is the victorian factory” move and some sort of elderly-sounding defense of art and thought as the eyes and mind of the polity stance, my instincts are on the side of the latter. I am not a factory worker; I’m not really treated like one. It doesn’t take a very deep look into Victorian factory life to realise that this is true. On the other hand, it may be harder to produce and disseminate decent work now than it used to be. There’s some other way at this than the ways people are generally thinking about it, but I’ve been warned not to be so promisory in my posts, so no promises.

(I’ll come back to it later, soon…)

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 8, 2009 at 10:13 pm