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English department as Caste system

December 14, 2006

[My final comment on this thread]

Au contraire, mon ami…it is personal.

You are “Unapologetically” presenting yourself as a representative of a specific group. The top of the pyramid, as it were. You are part of what this whole discussion is all about. But, I will refrain from commenting on tone and comment on the tenor of your ideas.

Tim Mayers hits upon the elephant in the room. English departments are a caste system with lit crit the Brahmins. If you disbelieve, ask yourself this simple question: what are the three reasons for my English department to exist?

Your honest answer would include waxing elegiac about exposing young minds to ideas, texts and cultures far from their own. English is a mission field of Reader Saints amid a crowd of Philistines, Rubes and other undesirables. With patience and Keats, they too may know the enlightenment of Big Thoughts rendered poetic/prosaic.

Does UT speak for this view? Yes. Quoted from above:

As for the standards being raised over time, would we really want it to be any other way? That’s called progress.

Higher standards, as defined by the Received Tradition, means a monograph contribution to the study of literature. A professor must aspire to be Bloom in order to succeed. Little Elbows gets, well, elbowed out. “Scholarship” (read “progress,” read “virtue” and “light”) comes from aspiring to be like the “successful” R1 programs. Skill-based comp adjuncts are deceived in their idea that Virtue comes from eloquence. No, tenure comes from participating in a closed circle of “reading” approaches and insights.

Community Colleges, Land-grant U’s? They are not to hinder their ascent into Readers of Literature by getting clogged down in composition, writing or other pedestrian pursuits. You want to teach at a “real university”? then avoid anything that takes away from research time (reading what other have thought about the works of still others—or better yet, how to read the writing of those writing about the works of others) like teaching because Success is a Darwinian scramble to achieve Recognition/tenure. Once received, you can sit back, tsk-tsk the melee below and thank the lucky stars you were smart enough to escape, resting assured that you achieved all of the success by your own merits alone.

My final though in this comment stream. UT asks:

… I know that nothing I say will persuade the rabidly anti-tenure folks who, for reasons that make no sense to me, continue to frequent a website devoted to higher education.

Perhaps there are those who feel (I am beginning to think more and more that they feel this foolishly) that even though the present system is stacked against them (for secure wage, advancement, recognition), that the rewards of instruction will pay off. Cynically I would say that there are many longing after a lost cause. But, then I am here, pursuing the debate with no intention of rejoining the team.

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4 Comments
  1. Miranda permalink
    December 15, 2006 12:06 am

    PPP situations like yours are simply untenable in the long run. I couldn’t wade through that entire thread where too many were completely divorced from the reality facing younger academics. Heck, they seem not to understand the realities their students face, but that would be a rant for my blog. Once grades are submitted, perhaps I will share my experiences at my pretentions of R1 university.

    I will say that those “poor souls” relegated to community colleges have a far a greater impact on my and many other students lives than have the holed up in the Ivory Tower types.

  2. SourDad permalink
    December 15, 2006 9:40 pm

    Some of us aren’t exactly younger academics. When you start seeing 40 something adjuncts you know there’s something wrong. I just hope it’s the system.

  3. Miranda permalink
    December 18, 2006 12:01 am

    Many adjuncts either are working at three different schools to make ends meet (but not by much) or else tend to be “trailing spouse” types. It seems to give departments even greater incentive to continue ignoring the growing inequalities in the academic hiring system.

    As to age, I was in my third semester of college before I had a “young” professor. And by young I mean not over 40. I can’t imagine how intimidating the age factor is for the young, fresh out of high school students.

    Heck, far too many of my professors over the years would be considered “old” even to my parents!

  4. Second Line permalink
    December 24, 2006 6:21 pm

    There’s one segment of the adjunct population not mentioned in any great detail in this discussion; namely, those for whom adjunct work is the only option. For myself and many of my friends, the idea that there are a bounty of well-paid non-academic jobs out there is a canard.

    BOA, you pointed out somewhere that you are self-taught in your IT job. That’s impressive. You also pointed out something I have had a hard time explainign to my non-academic friends: my Ph.D. is not worth the paper it’s printed on. You did this more gently, though, when you noted that your graduate work was not germane to your present IT job. I’ll take a further step: when I have applied for non-academic work, I leave my Ph.D. off of my resume. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help. There’s the small matter of all those years working as a “teacher” at however many colleges and universities. And that’s a hard one to explain.

    I and my cohort are in an odd position. Most of us would hate to see the end of adjunct and casual positions in academe. Why? Becasue we would be out of work. Sadly, adjunct work is the only work we can get.

    After a certain age, 30? 35? 40? Starbucks just is not a viable option.

    I’ve come full circle. I used to be striving for a full-time position. I wrote, published, went to conferences, the whole deal. But … nothing. I got interviews, but never got the job — the list of stated reasons is baffling. And then, finally, I just gave up trying. But I kept teaching, albeit as an adjunct. Why? Because I had (and have) no choice. Now, when I learn that someone is retiring, I hope they don’t re-fill that position because that means there may be more work for me.

    It’s a living. Granted, it’s a high-brow version of a McJob. But it does pay the bills.

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