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Common Dreams

Welcome to the Knowledge Factory

The lead article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education Review is titled “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps.”

More than 350,000 Americans with advanced degrees applied for food stamps in 2010, part of “an often overlooked, and growing, subgroup of Ph.D. recipients, adjunct professors, and other Americans with advanced degrees who have had to apply for food stamps or some other form of government aid since late 2007.

“Some are struggling to pay back student loans and cover basic living expenses as they submit scores of applications for a limited pool of full-time academic positions. Others are trying to raise families or pay for their children’s college expenses on the low and fluctuating pay they receive as professors off the tenure track, a group that now makes up 70 percent of faculties. Many bounce on and off unemployment or welfare during semester breaks. And some adjuncts have found themselves trying to make ends meet by waiting tables or bagging groceries alongside their students.”

And the numbers of impoverished Ph.D.s may actually be much higher than this.

“Leaders of organizations that represent adjunct faculty members think that the number of people counted by the government does not represent the full picture of academics on welfare because many do not report their reliance on federal aid.

“Even as the number of highly educated aid recipients grows, shame has helped to keep the problem hidden.”

Yes, I know that shame well.

How could it be that a highly educated, well-groomed, extremely intelligent individual with everything going for her is so embarrassingly poor?

Why is it that after more than 20 years of teaching college—and doing a very good job of it, I might add—I  still make only $10,000 more now than I did as a freshly minted B.A. starting out in publishing in New York back in the 1980s?

It is very hard to earn a Ph.D., in case you didn’t realize.  It takes many years of study, great determination and self-motivation, the ability to see a major, high-quality independent research project through to its conclusion, generally a book-length manuscript.  It also takes a lot of money, especially in the poorly funded humanities.

By the time one finishes the intense slo-mo marathon of the Ph.D. program, one feels like someone of consequence: someone who has jumped through every hoop, earned lots of accolades, managed to accumulate a great deal of social capital.

And yet all that evaporates in the face of the reality of American higher education today.

Except for a very few lucky ones with good connections or true star quality, most of us discover that it’s a buyer’s market out there in higher ed, and whatever we’ve got to sell is a dime a dozen.

You take that first adjunct job telling yourself it’s going to be temporary, only to find five years later that you’re still doing the same frantic shuffle of trying to teach enough courses, at something like $4,000 apiece, to make ends meet.

If you want to get on with your life and have a child, good luck!  You’d better have a spouse working a real job—because adjunct pay and adjunct uncertainly is not what a family needs as its bedrock.

This is what 70% of American faculty—70%!!—are doing now.

And I am afraid it’s going to get worse.

Just as American manufacturing turned belly-up in the face of the out-sourcing of labor in the globalized market in the 1990s, higher ed is now poised to do exactly the same thing with the professoriate.

Distance learning, the fastest growing segment of the higher education market, will make it possible for a Ph.D. in New Delhi to teach that big section of Chemistry 100 to students from all over the world.  And in New Delhi, $4,000 will probably seem like pretty good money.

Within a few years, I will not be surprised to find that American Ph.D.s are competing with academics from all over the world for the same few positions.

What does it say about us as a society that we not only force our students into deep debt to buy their educations, but also refuse to pay their teachers a living wage?

There are some alternatives on the horizon, such as the free, online University of the People, a start-up that is attracting a fair amount of attention right now.

Maybe in the future education will be free, entirely online, and totally globalized.  I am not so enamored of bricks and mortar to cast this shift in a wholly negative light.

Perhaps the end result will be that American professors will simply have to up and move to cheaper locales…teaching their classes from an internet cafe in Central America, let’s say, or East Asia.

But we need to be careful, as the transition to online education shifts the sands beneath our feet at lightening speed, that we continue to focus on the most important aspect of any form of education: the shared excitement over common interests and new ideas that is the hallmark of a good student-teacher relationship.

This excitement can be transmitted just as easily over the internet as in the classroom, as long as the ratio of students to teacher remains humane, and as long as neither student nor teacher is driven to distraction by the bank creditors slavering in the background.

To tell the truth, I am more interested in strengthening local education, rather than following the dangerous globalized outsourcing model.  But I’m willing to play the game, as long as we, the players, are treated with respect as human beings, not wage slaves and pawns.

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez teaches comparative literature and gender studies with an activist bent at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, MA and blogs at Transition Times.

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