Monday, January 13, 2014

Embrace the Market? What Role for Academics?

I have been tempted to post about the MLA meetings this year.  The Modern Language Assocation, as far as I can tell, is not just for linguistics but for the humanities in general.  These particular meetings have earned heaps of scorn for a variety of reasons (see here and here), but especially being especially tone deaf about the 21st century academic marketplace.

The first bit of news was that one department was telling prospective applicants that they would be informed if they had an interview at the conference with that department ... with five days notice. Which means paying exorbitant fees to fly to Chicago.  There was a whole lot of blogging and tweeting about this.  My first reaction was a smug superiority that while conference attendance is important for Political Scientists, one can engage in a job search without interviewing at the APSA or ISA meetings.  APSA has a meat market but it is not the make or break kind of thing--more departments and candidates selling themselves to each other.  Anyhow, the time has passed for extensive comment on this.

The second bit of news is more recent--that the report back from the MLA about how folks should react to the difficult market represents ... um.... a bit of cluelessness about how the world works.  Yes, there are more adjuncts and fewer tenure track jobs because there is less funding.  But like most good Marxists, the diagnosis is on target and the recommendations suck.  Tossing aside the ideas that perhaps we ought to reduce our output (if there is too much supply, then cut supply, right?), folks think we should have more programs or just keep steaming ahead.  When some scholars suggested that the humanities people ought to learn something about economics, I suggested that they ought to learn something about politics, too.  I don't think we are going to see big reversals in the cuts to funding anytime soon, so hoping for a good market in the near future is not in the cards.

Anyhow, a person responded to my tweets by essentially saying this is how markets work--that it is not up to us academics to figure this out but up to students to stop applying to grad school.  Sure, sure.  This is working so great for law schools now that folks figured out that massive debt plus fewer jobs is a bad recipe for a future.  Markets do work by punishing bad decisions--hey, you bought crappy medicine and it killed your kid, but that's ok because others will learn from your example and the company will eventually go out of business.  Woot!  Ok, we have governments to prevent that kind of thing.

The key difference between this market and a market for meatballs or chairs or software is that we are dealing with .... people.  That we get to know and care about the students, so we do not want to say at the end of the day: hey, you screwed up by coming here, thanks for your money, good luck with your life.  We do not want to see folks punished by the marketplace.  If we can change the marketplace a bit so that it is more humane (that we teach them other things to besides become research oriented profs), that it produces better outcomes (we reduce the supply so more of products of grad schools get those cool TT jobs), wouldn't that be swell?

Of course, those of us in the social sciences understand that there are huge political and economic obstacles and dynamics that get in the way.  Wishing for funds is not going to work.  Hoping that collective action appears and is powerful is not terribly realistic.  I am not sure what should be done, but Johns Hopkins just made moves to reduce its output.  I am not sure the drastic nature of the move is right.  I do think universities need to consider freezing or cutting the size of their graduate programs even as deans and provosts imagine having more and more grad programs even as they forget to fund them or do the market analysis to figure out if the folks can find jobs. 

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