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Saturday’s report on academic employment by the New York Times hangs on the peg of a fact: in many fields, tenure track hiring will be down this year.

Accompanying the story by culture reporter Patricia Cohen is a photograph of a forlorn-looking UT-Austin doctoral candidate in sociology who “after two dozen applications” still “has no job offer.”

Zounds! Shocking! He cut and pasted the addresses of twenty-four search committees into a job letter, and the capable young fellow still doesn’t have a tenure track job?By jove, it must be “the bad economy” causing this sad state of affairs!

Indeed so, Cohen informs us, duly noting that half the candidate’s rejection letters mention the economy and that there were “300 applications” to some of the positions the young fellow found interesting.

Cohen’s piece goes on to acknowledge that tenure-track positions “have been hard to come by in recent decades.”

But that’s an interesting locution. She may as well have said “the United States has not had legal apartheid in recent decades” or “Harry Truman has not been president in recent decades.”

In point of fact, Cohen uses this locution as butt-cover because her analysis is dead wrong. To prop up her thesis (which makes the news peg the causal focus of the story) she uses inapplicable evidence, like the 300 applications (news? not!) and quotes inexpert “authorities” saying ridiculous things.

As a result the reporting in the lead paragraphs of the story is essentially puppetry: after the sad grad student she has NYU grad-union buster Catherine Stimpson pop up to prattle, “This is a year of no jobs!”

Um, no. It’s actually a year of maybe 25% fewer tenure-track jobs. That’s a modest cupful in the overflowing bucket of reasons for the disappointment and possibly nontenurable future of our young sociologist.

Most of the people who won’t get tenure track jobs this year, like last year, and every year since 1968 (that’s all four “recent decades,” but who’s counting?), won’t get them because universities have substituted casual student labor for full-time faculty and staff positions.

Student Perma-Temping, Not “The Economy”
Why did campus employers substitute student workers for faculty and staff labor?

Because it’s cheaper in salary and benefits, and they prefer to use the money saved on salary to do different things–build business centers and stadiums, or go into venture capitalism by starting e-learning scams, trying to patent intellectual property, and so on.

That means that many campuses have undergraduate carpenters, truck loaders, nurses’ assistants, and nannies, and graduate students working as faculty.

At elite privates, the undergraduate truck loaders might come from the nearby public campus; at community colleges, the adjunct faculty might be graduate students who have gone non-status while hoping to finish their dissertation.

This isn’t good for anyone’s education: the only virtue of the arrangement is its cheapness, and that cheapness hasn’t lowered tuition; it’s simply served to provide money pots for high-rolling administrators to spend on favored projects and the expansion of the business curriculum. It’s also created a need to expand the ranks of management to train and supervise the constantly-churning mass of student and other casual workers.

Fixing this lousy arrangement could provide millions of jobs. Graduate students shouldn’t be teaching their asses off, and undergraduates should be working a lot less too. Many forms of this “work as financial aid” or extreme work-study are essentially using up and spitting out young people as disposable labor–costing them their chance at degrees, not enabling them.

It wouldn’t cost very much to support students on a kind of GI Bill.

And there sure are plenty of highly-qualified people eager to do the work that higher education employers have handed off to students and other casual employees.

That’s the issue, and it’s time we started holding the New York Times and its “cultural reporters” responsible for accurate analysis. Indeed, when Cohen reported on the dusty news of the Nixon tapes, recently, she put a lot more effort into getting the story straight, and when she still screwed up, editors at the paper complained about it. In public. In their paper.

Why don’t we hold her higher education reporting–which affects tens of millions of people right now–to the same standards that we hold her discussion of the Nixon tapes, which is at least moderately less urgent?

Ignoring Both Evidence and Testimony
It isn’t just the fact of four decades of student casualization that the piece fails to digest, or the fact that it misrepresents the hundreds of applications for a single position as a) news or b) having anything to do with the economy (unless “the economy” has been plotting against those students for over a decade, when they first went to grad school!).

Even Cohen’s inexpert sources are trying to tell Cohen the truth. She eventually quotes Columbia’s Andrew Delbanco on the gap between apprenticeship and “insecure laborers,” notes that half of all positions are part time, and pastes in several sentences from one of Bill Pannapacker’s “don’t go to grad school” op eds at the Chron. She even quotes Luke Menand, who like Delbanco is no expert on academic labor, saying that grad students spend too much time working.

However the analysis –or the germ of an analysis–implicit in these comments makes no dent on the piece’s cheerful need to hang on a news peg, ie, that “the economy” did it… in the stock market… with a brass endowment.

But the truth is that campus employers did it… in their administration of higher education seminars… with student labor… and the collaboration of tenure-stream faculty… who were just like most other U.S. senior workers, in collaborating with management to keep their good deal at the expense of young workers.

Was that so hard? Sure, it’s easier to play “the market” explains everything, but that kind of faux analysis is best left to Karl Rove and Fox News. And for crying out loud, journalists are living the same permatemping as the faculty, under the same quality management gutting the public sphere under both Republicans and Democrats–all you have to do is watch The Wire.

Dear Ms. Cohen
Yes, Catherine Stimpson and Luke Menand have graduate students, but they also have livers without therefore being expert gastroenterologists.

You didn’t have to call me individually, but you ought to have talked to someone at AAUP. Cary Nelson, Jane Buck or Gary Rhoades could have set you straight, or staffer Gwen Bradley, who specializes in permatemping. All of the academic unions have reams of data and good analysis of these issues–you didn’t talk to any of them? At your own paper, Stanley Fish’s obtuse and narcissistic mention of a recent book on the question by Frank Donoghue sold several hundred copies for its publisher, Fordham. Your readers clearly want a real explanation by folks actually thinking about the issue, not random bloviation.

Since you were featuring a grad student in sociology, you could have called one of the premier sociological thinkers in the country and experts in the crisis of higher education employment, Stanley Aronowitz. Or his colleague at the head of the CUNY union, Barbara Bowen.

You don’t like CUNY? Okay, at NYU you could have called Randy Martin or Andrew Ross. What about Joel Westheimer, who they illegally fired for supporting the grad student union, despite having the support of his entire discipline? Or any of the grad students themselves, who are doing better analysis of their employment than Stimpson.

Let’s do a better job next time, Ms. Cohen.

We expect more from the New York Times, and given the role that educators play in making that paper a leading national voice, we deserve better. Or else perhaps we should be looking for alternatives.



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