A Bit of Relief for Independent Scholars in the Pacific Northwest

By Philip L. Tite

Academia is composed of various levels of social stratification and inequalities. Hierarchal structures between administrators and faculty, faculty and students, and different ranks of faculty (assistant professor, associate professor, full professor in the North American system or lecturer, senior lecturer, reader, professor in the UK system). In the academy, we have long discussed the divide between part-time or contractual employment (especially when framed within an apprenticeship model imposed upon graduate students) and full-time or tenure-track employment (see, e.g., my 2002 article).

However, there is a growing sub-class of scholar that is typically overlooked: the unemployed or underemployed academic, the independent scholar. In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Stacey Patton has presented a shocking situation within this class of academic. From 2007 to 2010, according to a study by the Chronicle, those with advanced degrees who receive social assistance such as food stamps has increased dramatically in the United States. The break down is shocking. People with doctoral degrees receiving social assistance went from 9,776 to 33,655 during this period, while those with Master’s degrees went from 101,682 to 293,029. This increase stands in contrast with the rise of those with advanced degrees (rising from 20 million to 22 million). Patton offers not only quantitative data but qualitative vignettes in order to put a human face to those figures.

The academic world felt the economic crisis hit back in 2008. That year the job market in religious studies buckled under the pressure of the crisis, with universities and colleges scrambling to survive as their endowments tumbled and as their students struggled to pay tuition. That year I watched as nearly half the posted jobs on the AAR and SBL career websites were cancelled. Those supervising doctoral candidates advised these emerging scholars to delay finishing their programs in an attempt to help their doctoral students survive the collapsing job market. For the discipline this was certainly the Great Recession on various fronts.

In a previous blog I tried to set forth the struggles that those on the current job market face. Reflecting on that blog, I think there are two key factors underlying the problem of the job market during the Great Recession. First, there is the obvious power differential in both economic resources and social capital between those on search committees (those with jobs) and those on the job market (those without jobs). Second, there is the typically overlooked role of the professional societies (e.g., AAR and SBL) in addressing or ignoring the hardships of the un- or underemployed scholar. Although our societies have mechanisms and helpful programs in place to assist students and international scholars there is little attention given to those scholars who have slipped into that category of “independent scholar”.

A few weeks ago I was attending the Pacific Northwest Regional AAR/SBL meeting in Portland, Oregon (hosted at Concordia University, Portland). During the business meeting, while quietly munching away on the remnants of our lunches, those of us in attendance turned our attention to the topic of raising registration fees given the rising costs in holding these annual meetings. At this meeting, I raised my concerns about independent scholars, those with limited financial means to attend such meetings (though, as I pointed out, the cost of regional meetings is small compared to that of the national meetings in November). What I had hoped is that a sliding registration scale would be adopted by the region, much like the AAR membership fees. To my surprise, two of the officers on the region spoke up with a motion to increase the registration fees but to waive registration completely for students and un- or underemployed scholars. The motion passed by a large majority.

The next day, while chatting with one of those who made this motion, he mentioned that he had read the article in the Chronicle, that he felt that the change in registration was really only symbolic, but hopefully moving in the right direction. After all, the individual would still need to pay for accommodation, travel, and food (and likely a late registration fee or on-site registration fee, like anyone else).

Such a change, however, strikes me as an important step forward in rehabilitating the status of the independent scholar within the profession; a step that I hope will be emulated by other regions and sectors of the academy. In contrast, I emailed one of the heads of one of the major societies in our field about a month before, asking if a committee could be established to assess and make recommendations on the status of the independent scholar in the discipline. This struck me as timely given the current economic climate facing many in the profession. That email went unanswered. This lack of a response was not surprising. In the past, the independent scholar or contractual instructor was seen as a temporary stage in the career of an academic. That scholar was supposed to land a tenure-track position within three or four years from earning her or his Ph.D.; otherwise, there was something “wrong” with the candidate or, alternatively, they were the small minority of academics who decided to build a career on the periphery of “proper” academic appointments (such as a pastor or librarian who teaches on the side). Occasionally a scholar may fall through the cracks, but she or he was seen as an aberration, one who would be better off finding a home outside the sacred walls of the ivory tower. After all, if they really belonged in the tower, wouldn’t someone have given them a “real” job by now? That was the perception when I was a student in the 1990s.

Things have changed. Or, perhaps, things are clearer. There are many who have top-notch credentials, who are engaged in cutting edge research, and who continue to grace the conference centers of our professional societies as full colleagues – but who lack an academic appointment in the traditional sense, who may teach occasionally, who struggle to earn the respect of their colleagues, and have refused to simply “walk away” from their chosen path. What the Pacific Northwest Region has done is to take these independent scholars and the hardships they face seriously, to recognize that they are important members of the discipline who are making significant contributions to the academic study of religion.

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One Response to A Bit of Relief for Independent Scholars in the Pacific Northwest

  1. Brian H says:

    I think your points on professional societies and how they can help the un- or underemployed scholars are great! I particularly like the idea of them doing anything they can to help those without funding take advantage of attending the meetings and associated career centers. I also like your reminders to those doing the hiring in your November, 2011 blog.

    I always find it interesting to read how things are working (or not) in another segment of academia — my fields of statistics and psychometrics are seeming outliers in that they have large number of jobs outside of academia that are specifically designed for those with Ph.D.s. I haven’t checked for the past two years, but historically our particular program has close to 100% employment in field (although not always in their 1st choice part of the field). I’m also glad to work in a department that intentionally relies very little on temporary adjunct instructors — the few we have are usually M.S. level with other full-time in field employment and teach one class each. As such, most of our teachers are either tenure-track faculty, full-time faculty at the instructor rank, or graduate assistants. I think this has spoiled me into having a “traditional” (?) view of the distinction between the tenure-track, full-time instructors, graduate assistants, and temporary/adjunct faculty.

    I think I am in agreement with you on temporary/adjunct faculty versus full-time employees. It strikes me as immoral for a department that regularly needs x-courses taught to package them in such a way that the same person regularly teaches enough to be equivalent to a full-time instructor, but isn’t made one. I have the same objections to similar practices in retail and food service, where part-time employees are used to avoid the additional obligations like health care.

    In regards to your 2002 article, I don’t think I agree with trying to view TA-ships simply as “employment” in the same sense as a tenure track or full-time faculty member. In mathematics and statistics, the compensation (paid tuition + salary) received by TAs who are responsible for their own class each semester seems to be around 70% more per class taught than the salary of full-time salaried instructors who have a three course per semester load (and also have relevant service responsibilities). In addition to adjusting the total compensation for TAs down, I’m not sure why a purely “employment” model wouldn’t legally separate the positions from being a student (which I think kills accessibility of graduate education). Further, while advanced TAs do have full lecture and grading responsibility for their classes, they are supervised in ways that simply aren’t done for tenure-track faculty and full-time instructors (choice of textbook, coverage given to various topics, mandatory peer review of exams, only having smaller class sizes, etc…). That being said, I am not disagreeing here with your argument that they deserve protection, legally and academically, and I certainly think that TAs are vital participants in teaching and should be treated as such in terms of respect and pay.

    In terms of employment opportunities for PhDs, the issues seem similar to some of those brought up by the recent flood of articles on undergraduate student loans and employment opportunities for new lawyers. I’m not sure what the solution is. What can programs do to inform students of the career opportunities that are realistically out there (besides given them an accurate recent placement list for their program and trusting them to check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics web-site)? Should a degree program in a lower-demand field have to turn away unfunded (in terms of merit based scholarships or TAships, and not needing large loans) students who are willing to pay their own way? Should the availability and interest rates on student loans depend on the student’s estimated chance of getting a job that can repay the loan (based on projected demand, their academic credentials, and that field’s salary)?

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