Thursday, July 28, 2011

When You're Feeling Like a Detroit Auto Worker circa 1978

I'm a worker in the higher education industrial complex.  In 1992, I finished my Ph.D. and during my grad school years, I started teaching college level English.  Until a few years ago when I began moving into administration, I taught section after section after section of a variety of English, Literature, and Creative Writing classes.  I thought I had found a job that couldn't be offshored.  I bragged that the world would always need English teachers.

Now I'm feeling like a Detroit auto worker in the late 1970's.  I'm feeling like a newspaper writer in the early 2000s.  I'm watching my industry shift under my feet, and I'm not sure where it will all end up.  I no longer brag--I'm not that confident.

I have colleagues who believe that the U.S. system of higher education could never go the way of newspapers.  But until recently, we wouldn't have believed that newspapers would go the way of newspapers.

Let's play with this metaphor.  Obviously the Harvards and the Yales of the educational world are the newspapers that will survive, The New York Times and The Washington Post.  Is the for-profit educational sector the local paper?  How about liberal arts colleges?  State Universities?  These institutions fill a need, just like a wide variety of newspapers once filled a need.

But will they still fill a need as the demographics change?  We're nearing the end of the echo boom heading to college.  Who comes after them?  We're in an age of worsening economics and tightening credit, which means more and more students can't afford to go to college.  Which schools will survive?

Maybe we'll all reinvent ourselves and emerge from all these challenges in stronger shape.  Or maybe it's time to make alternate plans.

I have friends in their late 50's who are working with me in the higher education industrial complex.  They'll likely make it to retirement before major changes hit them.  I'm 46, and I'm not sure I'll be that lucky.

At the end of my summer trip, I dreamed that I was packing up my office because I was about to go on tour with my band.  I don't think that my subconscious was recommending that particular career switch--the music world isn't exactly unscathed these days either.

I do think that my subconscious was reminding me that although I may think that my options are ever narrowing, they really aren't.  I may need to imagine something new for myself and to reinvent myself, but as long as I can keep doing that, I'll be OK.

I hope my subconscious is correct.


Wendy said...

And my friends and I who've just finished grad school aren't sure we'll ever get to start...

Sandy Longhorn said...

Here's one area where community college faculty, many non-tenured and only mediocre-salaried, have a bit more surety. We see students from 17 - 77, so no reliance on the echo boom there. Our tuition is sometimes 50% less than state school and 100$ less than a liberal arts college, and as the market for PhDs and MFAs tightens, we now boast even more stellar faculty members. I'm not saying it's perfect or immune, but it's another look at the shifting system.

Kristin said...

I started my professional career, back in the second or third or fourth worst job market for PhDs, back in 1992, with a community college job. I won't be surprised if I head back there eventually, for just the very reasons you mention, Sandy.

Our community colleges here are still hiring full-timers. It's worth checking out, Wendy. I even got to teach some really cool courses that I might not have gotten to teach at a 4 year school kind of job (like creative writing and specialized lit--I have a friend in the Chicago area who has made quite a name for himself teaching sci-fi, along with endless Comp classes.

Wendy said...

CC would be great, but not great enough to give up my spouse's job/retirement/house (the things that give me stability, but limit my options--I am grateful for them), so it would have to be local. Unfortunately, they're in as much trouble as the rest of education in California. They're not even opening adjunct pools right now (one place where adjuncting can lead to a job). I expect they will turn around sooner than some of the other schools, though, and I need to keep my antennae up for possibilities there.