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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Faulty Faculty Towers: Coming to an English University Near You?

Monday, May 09, 2011

Reading William Deresiewicz's long discussion of the crisis in US graduate schools, I am left feeling that this is the dystopia coming soon to the UK, with its now quasi-privatised university sector. In the US system, PhD programmes are aimed at those wanting to become university lecturers and researchers; given that gaining a PhD can take nine years, rather than the three or so it takes in the UK, the US PhD is more focused on training for the university culture, rather than providing a higher class of transferable skills for industry as it can be in the UK.

With the advent of higher tution fees in the UK, we can anticipate that in future most of those who choose to stay on in postgraduate education will be sponsored by industry or will be focused on PhDs as a vocational training option for a specific career. For the rest, those who are either wealthy enough, or foolish enough, to want to continue in a PhD for academic reasons, things look pretty bleak on the basis of the US experience Deresiewicz writes about.

The problem with US graduate programmes is that there are simply not enough decent university-level jobs to go around for increasing numbers of PhD graduates. Deresiewicz describes the job situation as a "bloodbath"; as a professor, he reckons it successful if half of his students gain academic jobs - and that's his students from Yale, no less. And even those successful ones are not entering tenured, full time, permanent posts, but are acting as casual, transient labour. As the US higher education market expanded in the late 1990s, rather than taking on full-time academic faculty:
Departments gradually shifted the teaching load to part-timers: adjuncts, postdocs, graduate students. From 1991 to 2003, the number of full-time faculty members increased by 18 percent. The number of part-timers increased by 87 percent—to almost half the entire faculty.
I have previously predicted that post-Browne that we can expect UK higher education to fracture teaching from research along the US model. A relatively small pool of faculty will focus on research, competing for whatever funds happen to be available in the public budget (with research satisfying the demands for public "impact"); some of these well-established academics will be recruited as brand names to gloss prospectuses, and may teach a couple of exotic modules. But the majority of university staff will be teaching-only, satisfying the more immediate demands of students - now consumers - of higher education. And the grunts bearing the load of basic module teaching will be the postdocs, teaching-only staff, and casual lecturers recruited in accordance with fluctuating demand. Unlike tenured academics, these are easily sacked when the income from student numbers falls.

This is why universities in the US continue to "sell" postgraduate programmes to naive ranks of graduates, even as the proportion of decent academic jobs that indicate the ultimate value of these programmes is falling:
You’d think departments would respond to the Somme-like conditions they’re sending out their newly minted PhDs to face by cutting down the size of their graduate programs. If demand drops, supply should drop to meet it. In fact, many departments are doing the opposite, the job market be damned. More important is maintaining the flow of labor to their domestic sweatshops, the pipeline of graduate students who staff discussion sections and teach introductory and service courses like freshman composition and first-year calculus. (Professors also need dissertations to direct, or how would they justify their own existence?)
It suits universities to continue to pitch the notion that a PhD will lead naturally and easily to an academic career. On their graduation day, as cohorts of postgraduates face joblessness, any alternative such as casual, teaching-only work is welcome, partly to bring in some sort of income and partly to sustain the fantasy that their shiny new PhD was, after all, worthwhile as preparation for an academic career.

Which leads onto another issue. Universities in the US justify the sweatshop conditions in which postgraduates and postdoctoral staff teach, with the word "training":
Teaching is part of the training, you hear a lot, especially when supposedly liberal academics explain why graduate-student unions are such a bad idea. They’re students, not workers! But grad students don’t teach because they have to learn how, even if the experience is indeed very valuable; they teach because departments need “bodies in the classroom,” as a professor I know once put it.
This is something that is already sadly familiar in the UK, which looks set to get worse. The UCU's campaign against fixed-term, hourly-paid postgraduate or postdoctoral staff continually butts up against the argument that they are not really staff at all; in fact, they should welcome the opportunity to teach for a pittance, with limited employment rights (such as contracts that can be reduced in line with student numbers without invoking redundancy), because they are being "trained" for a full time academic career that allegedly awaits at some putative point in the future. Such arguments do not only come from university managers. I have heard them being made from the same tenured academics who are supervising the PhDs of students suffering under poor working conditions. Far from protesting against the system, the words "Be thankful for what you can get" are the mantra circulating on university campuses from both PhDs and academics alike.

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Posted by Alistair at 7:25 am

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