This article came to my attention the other day, and I wanted to let it marinate before responding.

One thing I’ve gleaned from my position of Temporary Honorary Colonel is that the hiring process is the most delicate and important part of the academic life. Get that right, and invariably it leads to a better institution. Get it wrong, and, well…The problem is that every candidate these days comes in with a PhD, scads of publications/presentations/performances/what have you, and letters of recommendation that would imply this person would walk on water if it wasn’t for the fact that s/he is an Olympic swimming champion. So I understand the impulse to find Yet Another Way to seek out that A-1 top-notch person who is perfect for the position. We have more data (and the ability to access more data) than at any other time in human history. We routinely use technology that was unimaginable two decades ago to do things impossible ten years ago. I am most certainly in favor of adapting technology for our needs, including this process.

And yet…

There was a line in the article that concerned me.

“It offers a way for his GameChanger unit to avoid wasting time on the 80 people out of 100—nearly all of whom look smart, well-trained, and plausible on paper—whose ideas just aren’t likely to work out. If he and his colleagues were no longer mired in evaluating “the hopeless folks,” as he put it to me, they could solicit ideas even more widely than they do today and devote much more careful attention to the 20 people out of 100 whose ideas have the most merit.

My fear is this: who controls the algorithm? Throughout human history, attempts to seek out “the best and the brightest” almost invariably fall back to “the best and the brightest from a very specific social, intellectual, and cultural circle.” Maybe this is the old class-warrior chip on my shoulder, but in an age where social mobility is declining and income inequality is increasing, I can’t help but think that folks like me (working-class/agricultural background, not exactly in a Major Metropolitan Area) would have been still passed over for the possibilities generated. Put simply, no matter how good I would be, my background strongly implied I would be one of “the hopeless folks.”

What does this mean for higher education?

I never really believed in the idea of the “intangible.” I wanted to believe that American Higher Education was truly a meritocracy, and that it didn’t matter where you came from so long as you were among the best. Then reality hit, and I saw people far better at this than I limited to long-term adjunct positions (assuming they were able to get positions in academia at all) and people far worse end up in positions of power. I saw brilliant minds from the working class shunted off to career paths that were not in their best interest and mediocre minds from the upper classes given control over higher education. I remain skeptical that even a pure data-driven exercise would be set up in such a way as to remove this basic unfairness, especially now that the megacorporations are taking hold of this idea. So now I do believe in the “intangible,” and when I serve on a hiring committee I take the time to look beyond the data and see what kind of person is lurking under that CV.

What say you?

WF

In my last post, I made a reference to this horrific event. As word of this has filtered out, we’ve seen an array of reactions, but the general consensus is that people are finally starting to realize how precarious a position most people who work in the academy actually have. (Even tenure is not as stable as it once was.)

So what to do about it?

My friend (an outstanding composer as well – if you’re in central NJ on SundaySaturday, go to his recital!) Christian B. Carey mentioned this idea on Twitter yesterday, and I think it shows some promise: Why not have consortia of colleges that, between them, can hire an adjunct at nearly-full-time status and split the costs of benefits? It’s not perfect, as you’ll see from the discussion, but some systems (Mike Berry mentions the Washington State higher ed system) are doing things like this already.

Another solution, of course, is to separate health insurance and access to care from employment. The new exchanges may help with regard to that, but we need to pressure all states to expand Medicaid (since many adjuncts are below the poverty level) and/or push for a single-payer/Medicare for all system.

Here at UMM, at least in music, we’re lucky – for the majority of our adjuncts, this truly is a second or third gig. We also offer some pot-sweeteners because of our distance from major population centers. We have an “adjunct coordinator,” and we make it a point to include contingent faculty in the governance of the discipline as much as possible. Still, I have been in positions where adjuncts have been mistreated, and having lived that life myself and knowing how challenging it can be (and knowing current adjuncts), I recognize that we need to fix this. It is unsustainable over the long term.

What thoughts do you have on the adjunct crisis?

I read this at The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier today, and something about it really popped for me.

As both of my readers will recall, I spent the spring semester serving in a minor administrative capacity. This all-too-brief introduction to real academic administration* got me to contemplate the critical issues facing academia. Among the issues that have been on my mind:

(1) Treatment of adjuncts. How we treat these freeway flyers can have dangerous consequences; this is nothing short of shameful. No doubt I’ll have more on this later.

(2) The continuing destruction of our commitment to higher education. At a time when we’re asking – nay, demanding – that everyone get a college education, we are defunding our public higher education system at a breakneck clip. This can’t end well.

(3) MOOCs and online ed. This is where the above article comes in. I’ve taught online, and I can see certain situations where it can be quite effective. But, just as there’s no substitute for a fresh tomato from your own garden, there’s nothing like a master teacher, working in concert with excited, ready-to-learn students, operating with a real sense of place. Small liberal arts colleges, like the wonderful institution that pays me every two weeks to do things I love, are uniquely positioned to provide this opportunity. Take advantage of it. Support your local college.

*I’ve headed up theory-composition programs, but those positions lacked budgetary and other responsibilities.

WF

In my previous post, I asked what could be done.

I think you’re looking at one path.

Blogging with commentary has the potential to help reshape scholarship. We are already seeing some experimentation with this, and in an age when publication can be instantaneous it is patently absurd that major journals in most fields take anywhere from 18 months to 3 years in the submission-to-publication process.

Further, blogging allows for ideas to be “workshopped,” with input during the whole process, rather than a big hit of commentary after submission but before publication (assuming the work is even allowed a “revise-and-resubmit”). In this way, authors can work out issues and problems in a timely but not rushed manner instead of trying to do a large amount of revision in a short amount of time.

Further still, a more transparent process means people are able to see different intellectual trends and major players thereof develop in real time. Instead of “anonymous” responses, people put their name – or a reasonable pseudonym, let’s be honest – on the line. If it’s a question of making sure that only actual scholars in a field will have a chance to take part in the commentary, there are ways to maximize security. I actually like the idea of enlightened amateurs taking part, but I can see how it could be problematic.

Finally, it can conceivably cost nothing (or, at worst, the price of webhosting and DNS registration). I am using a free blogging platform. The material can be put out, reviewed, and accessed for no financial outlay (beyond the cost of Internet access).

I am told the SMT Conference this year will feature a session on peer-review. If I don’t end up doing a research trip in October, maybe I’ll go there and check it out.

WF

This article came to my attention this morning. While number 3 doesn’t apply to me (and is very impressive), numbers 1 and 2 do to a certain extent, and number 4 really applies.

I have written before about the problems inherent in our discipline; I am still working on formulating part 2 of that particular discussion. So, consider this part 1.5 – You Are Not Alone. This discipline of music theory is wider than you would know from examining our journals (which showcase a fairly wide discipline to begin with).

WF

So I’ve been thinking about this article, and I’ve come to a few conclusions:

(1) We don’t have actual evidence to say this is limited to music or that being in music makes things more likely to happen, just anecdotes;

(2) On the flip side, every one in this discipline has a story or two (or seven or thirty-five);

(3) In a court of law, the operating premise is “innocent until proven guilty” (note: “innocent” and “not guilty” are two different things, as recent court cases have shown), but that premise does not necessarily apply in an academic misconduct hearing;

(4) There are bad people who have chosen a career in music, just as there are good people who have chosen a career in music, and sometimes those bad people are in a position of power – or in a position to make false accusations (though, unlike some, I will never assume an accusation is false until I see evidence to the contrary); and

(5) The best thing we can do is arm students and faculty with knowledge, tools, and courage.

Knowledge: What is and is not appropriate?

Tools: How do we report? What kind of systems are in place?

Courage: Whoever the wronged party is, s/he shall be supported and need not back down or be ashamed.

There are various suggestions, including the videotaping of lessons. I would actually be in favor of lessons being recorded, but primarily as a pedagogical tool. (I had great teachers, but I was not great at remembering what they said in lessons unless I took the time to write it down. I didn’t write enough stuff down. It would be nice as I’m trying to rebuild my chops to review what they had to say. But I digress.) Both parties would be informed of the recording, and under normal circumstances no one but professor and student would have access to the material unless both parties agreed to it. (This would be to prevent appearances on YouTube, etc.) In the case of allegations, the university’s or conservatory’s officer in charge of such things would have access to the recordings.

This wouldn’t prevent everything, and of course there’s FERPA and the like with which you’d have to work, but I see nothing wrong with recording lessons if both parties agree. Now as far as non-lesson events, well, following Wheaton’s Law seems to be the best advice.

WF

Since I’m getting ready to start my second year at UMM, and since I haven’t yet broken the publication drought (couple of near-misses, got two rejections on Memorial Day, and let me tell you that stung), I’ve been trying to get my publication record back on track. I do have a book chapter which I should be finishing within the next couple of months, but I haven’t gotten anything into a peer-reviewed journal in…oh, let’s just go with “a while.”

In my field, there simply aren’t very many journals. We have Music Theory Spectrum, Music Theory Online, Journal of Music Theory, and maybe 8 – 10 other online and print journals. (There are more music theory journals than that, but they often have a narrow focus like computing in music or Schenkerian theory – or they’re specifically designed for graduate students or people in a certain country.) The process is, as is standard, blind peer review. I would like to make the case that (1) peer review is likely not so blind, and (2) as it is currently constituted, peer review as currently constituted may not be an ideal gatekeeper. I would further like to make the case that this is ultimately bad for the discipline, as it leads to narrow foci and intellectual insularity.

As I mentioned above, this discipline is not particularly large, especially when compared to other disciplines in the Humanities. There’s a general kinship with each other. We’re Facebook friends. We get everyone’s Twitter feed. We hang out at conferences and when it’s time to read the AP exams. Many of us went to grad school together – more on this in a moment. We know, at least generally, on what subjects people are working. So when a paper crosses an editor’s or reader’s desk, it’s likely not all that blind. “Oh, this sounds like what so-and-so was doing.” As a friend further points out, if you write a paper on topic X there’s a pretty good chance you know exactly who is going to be reading it, even if the review is officially blind, because there are only so many people in the world qualified to read said paper. I do believe that blind peer review can be a good way to examine a paper, but I further believe nothing is truly blind.

The second point is a little darker. I mentioned above that “many of us went to grad school together,” and that may be the problem. There are a handful of schools that produce the lion’s share of theorists. These schools – good as they are, and they are very good – do have specific ideological and philosophical approaches to this discipline. They may have a decent variety of approaches, but they’re certainly not pan-philosophical. I am not saying the approaches are ill-formed or irrelevant, because they are not; I am simply saying that these approaches tend to dominate the rest of the field, to the exclusion of different ideas. When a discipline is limited to a handful of approaches, then no matter how well-developed or how reverberant those approaches are, the discipline’s ability to develop further is stifled. Format becomes formula. New – or potentially effective but not yet fully-formed – approaches are dismissed out of hand. With so few outlets for publication, and with those dominated by the handful of approaches above, it becomes more and more difficult for scholars who don’t easily fit into molds to get a fair hearing for their ideas. We hear people talk about what a friend who is on the editorial board of an academic journal calls the “fit” of the paper, but if the number of journals is limited, then there aren’t very many places where something might “fit.” (This has ramifications for the tenure process as well, but that discussion can be reserved for another time.)

Perhaps this is all sour grapes on my part, but I don’t think I am that bad. I believe my work has merit, I believe it can inform performances and understanding of the pieces I study, and I believe the discipline benefits from it being out there. I don’t want this to be about me, however; my beliefs are applicable to any number of theorists – young and old – who are outside the mainstream of the discipline. I have heard it suggested that we should get away from single-author papers as well, as the process of collaboration often works out the issues most brought up in peer review.

So what can we do about it? More on that at some point in the future, but you may have the answer right in front of you.

Postscript (courtesy of Mike Berry): It’s not just us.

WF