Ponzi scheme thwarted; Professor Ponzi cries foul

Humanities Ph.D. programs are admitting fewer graduate students in response to there being no academic jobs. Professors who are complaining about this should be ashamed of themselves.

An article by Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes a trend. Having realized that it’s mathematically impossible for most of their Ph.D. students to land academic jobs, many humanities departments are, shockingly, admitting fewer graduate students.

As someone whose (infrequent) Ph.D.-level teaching occurs in what is effectively one of the humanities, namely political theory, I think that what the article describes is too little—most programs described are trimming their admissions rather than slashing them—and about a generation too late.

Many have compared higher education in the humanities, as well as many social sciences, to a pyramid scheme. That’s because it is a pyramid scheme. Dangling false assurances of future employment—or at the very least, cynically avoiding full disclosure regarding the job market—academic departments every year lure thousands of the country’s brightest college graduates into courses of study that will turn them into bitter, often indebted, thirty-year-olds. These unemployed doctors are commonly less attractive to the non-academic job market than they were right after graduation. For what we’ve taught them amounts, outside our halls, to bad writing; esoteric, counter-intuitive ways of thinking; and a knowledge of useless facts. Except for the writing, such an education was perfectly fine, in fact fully appropriate, when the academic job market was robust. It was no odder than teaching lawyers to think, research, and write like lawyers. But now that the Ph.D. is no longer a professional degree (as a Harvard administrator once nonchalantly told an audience of Ph.D. students at the end of our training—not, of course, at the beginning), nothing can excuse it. For the sake of being able to teach engaging seminars and expand our academic influence via the occasional disciple, we have been deliberately, continuously, and callously ruining young people’s lives. We are, simply, doing evil.

As the Chronicle notes, professors don’t like what the end of the Ponzi scheme entails. One laments that “training graduate students is part of the soul of what we do.” Their souls thus threatened, professors are feeling “a great deal of anxiety.” Some professors are getting to teach graduate seminars only once every year (or two or three)—a trend, by the way, that’s been common at UCLA for some time. Some graduate seminars must be opened to students in other disciplines. A few programs are starting master’s degrees for students who plan to work outside academe.

Finally, many professors find themselves having to teach, unimaginably, more courses for undergraduates. One professor quoted says that only graduate seminars keep him on his toes: in undergraduate lectures, “you stand up there and talk and you could be saying great stuff, but it just kind of washes over them.” Granting that the professor probably regrets a single sentence quoted out of context, the sentence as quoted—which represents, let’s admit it, a widespread sentiment—displays, put charitably, a certain lack of imagination. Leaving aside that this famous eminence hasn’t bothered to explore the value and the dignity of introductory lecture courses, he also can’t seem to imagine that beyond those freshman courses lie upper-level lectures on more specialized subjects, and specialized junior and senior seminars where the brightest undergraduates can do their own toe-keeping. Nor has it occurred to him that undergraduate students whose tuition is rising all the time might have a claim to some of our time and attention.

As the pyramid scheme unravels, the changes we’ll face will go far beyond converting some of our graduate seminars to undergraduate ones. Many of us may have to teach at least one additional undergraduate course, beyond our current roster, every year or two. This would still be a lot fewer than almost all of us would have taught a few decades ago.

I love research. I understand wanting to have one’s whole academic career maximally resemble it and contribute to it. But you can’t always get what you want. And frankly, beyond a few sublime researchers whom society should rightly subsidize to think at the highest level at all times, we academics mostly don’t deserve to get it. Taxpayers and tuition-payers will inevitably come to demand their money’s worth. That means that we’re going to have to relearn how to communicate more of what we know to people who don’t share our level of scholarly commitment and specialized expertise.

For professors this will represent a compromise, but also a chance to develop our own minds in areas where they’ve atrophied. We’ve come to believe that the life of the mind means the same thing as the standards of our disciplines. It doesn’t. By embracing undergraduate teaching, we will learn things that Socrates knew but we’ve forgotten.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

23 thoughts on “Ponzi scheme thwarted; Professor Ponzi cries foul”

  1. It sounds to me like the end of the road for doctoral level humanities. Having gutted our culture in every other way, the invisible hand of the market leaves no space for advanced consideration of non-economic topics. What’s next? Philosophy? Sayonara!

    I feel very badly that all intellectual exercise has devolved into vocational training.

    1. That’s not what’s being said (or predicted) at all. What’s being foreseen is not an abolition of doctoral level humanities but a shrinkage. Still not pleasant for those now in the pipeline who would like to teach grad students, but not the end of the disciplines. I actually think that the quality of the work-output (i.e. research) will probably go up as entrance into these fields is tightened.

    2. The explosion of PhDs in the humanities is a phenomenon of the last 50 years. It is neither necessary nor sufficient for `advanced consideration of non-economic topics’.

    1. That’s not really anything new. Education researchers have argued for a long time that there are better ways to teach than the traditional lecture (in fact, according to a former professor of mine, lectures are about the worst possible format if you want students to actually learn things).

      For example, as a graduate assistant, a little over a decade ago, I helped teach a couple of courses that relied heavily on collaborative learning (basically the same approach that Prof. Mazur discusses), and my impression was that it worked far better for students than the traditional format.

      Traditional lectures allow you to theoretically cover a lot more material, but students will also have to spend significant time outside the classroom trying to actually comprehend that material and will still retain only a relatively small fraction of it. Other approaches may look like they cover less material in the same allotted time, but may actually result in higher retention and deeper understanding, making them more effective.

      1. Amen.

        I don’t know that I care much about whether professors have to teach more undergrads v. grads.

        But it would be too bad if we end up with fewer people teaching overall. I think one of the most profound things you can teach someone is how to be a better writer. It is labor intensive as all get-out — I don’t think a machine will ever be able to do it (though I could be wrong). I think it’s important though. It seems to me to be basically teaching logic (though I never studied it). It couldn’t *be* more important. I kind of think it’s the whole ball of wax, and it’s not as if there isn’t a huge crying need for more writing instruction.

      2. I don’t think one should paint with a broad brush on this one. For math or science, or indeed most any kind of learning meant to produce skill in solving problems, lecturing is ineffective and other teaching techniques are much better. For art history or Russian literature, I’m far from sure. Small-group discussion is great, and I’m very sad that budget cuts have caused public universities to cut the discussion sections (yes, with graduate students) where that can occur. But until all undergraduates do all the reading all the time and have fully developed skills in absorbing it, I don’t see any substitute for having *some* of the learning take place in lectures by someone who really knows how things fit together and can tell a story that illuminates the subject’s purpose and logic.

  2. Can I suggest treating undergraduates as worthy of intensive graduate level seminars? Some of my best experience in college was my Freshman math seminar that involved lots of blackboard time, and little lecture time. College should be rife with direct contact, low on passive listening. Waiting 4 years for a graduate level seminar is about 5 years too long.

  3. The natural sciences are a similar Ponzi scheme in many ways. The quantity of natural-science Ph.D.s is determined by the volume of grants, the salary needs of foreign grad students, and demand for academic serf labor. Unsurprisingly, this number bears no relationship to the need for U.S. scientists, much less academics.

    But at least a natural science Ph.D. can usually find a job somewhere that pays enough to support a middle-class lifestyle. Training in physics, for instance, comes with two near-guarantees: you will be gainfully employed, but it will not be as a physicist.

  4. Too little too late.

    I spent 5 years in the adjunct/itinerant track after completing my doctorate; when my wife and decided to start a family, I had to get my first non-academic job in my mid-thirties. (This was almost 20 years ago.) Even with an unemployment rate at 3%, it was hard finding a decent job. A friend of mine in banking told me flat out “You’re too old and smart to put up with the crap we put the 22 year old trainees through, but you don’t have the experience necessary to start out any higher.” I eventually got a job at a non-profit in the jolly-olly field of work-force development, and gained some insight into how employers think about PhDs. It wasn’t pretty. I remember one HR Director at a Chamber of Commerce party, who after a few drinks, told me “Why would I hire some PhD who can’t cut it in his own field? I’m not in the business of hiring losers, even smart ones.” (He had no idea I was one of his smart losers, and I didn’t tell him.)

    If the following job description ever appears, there will almost certainly be a mile-long queue of over-ripe humanities Ph.D.’s vying for the position:

    WANTED: Well-educated, disgruntled individual with absolutely no knowledge of or background in business. Proven ability to work long hours for microscopic financial compensation. Strong sense of entitlement coupled with shame and self-doubt a must. Requires ability to deconstruct shallow management fads for the benefit of coworkers, whether they want to hear it or not, while simultaneously looking down on same coworkers ironically for their “uninformed” passion for consumer culture. Excellent verbal skills, sardonic humor, and a strong desire to be elsewhere a plus. Preference given to individual with literary “Deep Theory” background who despises capitalism.

    The academic job market began imploding in the early 80’s. By now,there may be more PhDs in the humanities outside of academia than in.People who are in the academy would do well to remember that “recovering academics” (and I will always be one, taking each day one at a time) on the outside of the Ivory Tower are often very poor advertizing for the humanities PhD programs. If only in self defense, they should restrict, or eliminate, entrance into many doctoral programs.

    1. Excellent.

      Incidentally, you can do worse than trying to make a living in academia in the humanities. How about trying to make a living writing poetry or the Great American Novel?

      1. Sure. The difference–and it is a huge difference–is that people who go in for those pursuits know perfectly well that they won’t have secure employment at it: that they’ll need day jobs until and unless they become writers famous enough to live of writing and public readings, and that that day may never come (in the case of poets, is guaranteed never to come).

        If we told graduate students straight out that wanting to “be an English professor” was a career choice akin to wanting to “be an actor”—or writer, or artist—I would have few or no moral objections. (A Chronicle article from a few years back advocated presenting them with precisely that analogy.) But we don’t do that because we know full well that graduate students wouldn’t come unless we suggested they were training themselves for secure employment. And we’re not willing to pay that price.

  5. I personally loved this line from someone (who presumably teaches at an institution with a doctoral program): “training graduate students is part of the soul of what we do.” For most of us luck enough to have tenured or tenurable positions, this is something we never do and never have done. Undergraduate teaching is at the heart of our jobs, at the center of our schools’ missions. So I find it difficult to work up much sympathy for someone who is being *that* inconvenienced.

    1. And some prefer teaching freshmen. My wife teaches English: her favorite courses are not the technical writing/editing that is her research area. Her favorite courses are the freshmen comp courses. I asked her why once. She said she loves those courses because that is the place she makes the greatest difference and can see the greatest progress.

  6. “It was no odder than teaching lawyers to think, research, and write like lawyers.”
    Legal education has its own crisis of overproduction, irresponsible marketing, high fees and indebted and unemployed graduates. The situation is even worse in that there’s no “pure learning” defence.

    “… a few sublime researchers whom society should rightly subsidize to think at the highest level at all times…” I beg to differ, and suggest that even the greatest researchers should be asked to pay the dissemination tax. It’s a proper expectation of the taxpayer, and good for the Great Minds. Many, like Feynman, are actually brilliant at it. What they should be granted is freedom how to pay the tax. Blogging and fronting TV series is perfectly OK. Mentoring their successors, the traditional path, may as you say be unnecessary and an inefficient use of their talents.

    1. The Feynman lectures are so brilliant that they are incomprehensible to almost anybody who doesn’t already know the subject-matter. (If you do, they are delicious.) Feynman tried teaching physics, in a very subtle way, without the math. He admitted that even most CalTech students couldn’t handle it.

    2. “Legal education has its own crisis of overproduction, irresponsible marketing, high fees and indebted and unemployed graduates. The situation is even worse in that there’s no “pure learning” defence.”

      The difference is that people with a legal education are often well placed to generate increased demand for people with legal educations, by writing laws. While humanities degrees may qualify you to write opaque texts, but don’t carry with them the power to force other people to care enough to read them…

      1. I agree with Brett, with one proviso. General humanities degrees may not “carry with them the power to force other people to care enough to read them”, but if the conservative movement has its way, theology degrees might carry such power.

      2. I disagree that lawyers create a need for lawyers by writing laws. It’s rarely the lawyers who dream up the need for regulations. I recall some decades ago when the government of Canada was considering wage and price controls (which it imposed for a few years). That prospect was described by a lawyer as a full-employment scheme for lawyers, but the demand for it was not driven by lawyers. My day job is law reform, but one of the criteria for good law reform, in my view, is that people can understand it without having to hire a lawyer. (That can’t work in every case – depends what the topic is – but being able to explain the basics in lay language is a one good test of a good law.)

        The crisis in legal education is largely driven by the huge pay expectations in ‘Big Law’ that clients are less and less willing to fund, while law schools have jacked up their fees to astronomical levels on the basis that graduates will go work for Big Law and thus be able to pay off their debts. As the over-rich jobs disappear, tuition has not fallen back, and many graduates find themselves with huge debt and no serious way to earn it out.

        There was a problem in the model anyway because there are lots of very useful law jobs that do not involve billing $400 an hour right out of law school, or making $150 000 a year, but the tuition levels at many schools were set as if everyone was going to go or wanted to go to Big Law. Even if Big Law is hiring, lots of excellent lawyers didn’t fit the model.

        All that is quite independent of the situation for graduate students; people who do graduate work in law are pretty few (given that law school in North America comes after some years of undergraduate education already, sometimes after several degrees.)

  7. Where did this bizarre and self-hating screed come from?
    It reads like a greatest-hits rendition of every stereotype of academe imaginable.
    You don’t bother to document your claims with links – they’re just a string of
    insults and anti-intellectual received wisdom. I’m not seeing anything original here.
    Campos has been strident on legal education, for example, but he does more than string
    random platitudes together. He shows his work.

    1. I speak from years of direct observation, listening, and reading; a commentary on what is presumably an accurate piece of reporting; and a few minutes with a calculator looking at the number of Ph.D. students admitted to humanities programs every year and the number of tenure-track humanities jobs listed.

      If I’ve done a poor job, tell me:
      (1) which part of what I said was inaccurate?
      (2) are you claiming that full-time, tenure-track academic jobs will be available for the majority (or even a substantial minority, say 30-40%) of graduating humanities Ph.D.’s who were led to expect them, and educated in a way that only makes sense if they exist?
      (3) if your answer to (2) is no, what, precisely, is the defensible reason for Ph.D. programs to admit so many students?
      (4) if your answer to (3) is that you don’t know, for what reason does the standard operating procedure of Ph.D. programs not amount to evil?

      And nothing in what I said is self-hating. Academics are wonderful people who have gotten sucked in, through professional expectations and institutional pressures, to doing some evil things. I absolutely love my teaching and research and that of my colleagues. If we stop luring innocent graduate students into a life of unemployment, and reconcile ourselves to what amounts in historical terms to a very modest reorientation towards undergraduate education, I’ll go back to considering academe both noble and useful, full stop.

      1. Nothing Sabl says is original because the problem he describes is of such long standing.

        Marc’s inability to recognize how bad his own criticism makes *him* look is the intellectual equivalent of an ostrich’s head in a hole. Except, alas, Marc appears not to be a legend.

  8. There’s a ‘Marc’ over on Crooked Timber. He posed a few zillion comments opposing grad student unionization.

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