what would you do?

I’d prefer not to write this. I’d rather spend my this time focusing, as I have been, on writing my first book, and on preparing for my new job. But I feel compelled to respond to some chatter.

When this post publishes, I’ll be busy on my first day at Brooklyn College and CUNY. I am incredibly grateful to have this opportunity after a long struggle trying to get academic employment. The internet has found out about my job, not that it was a secret, and some of the usual suspects are predictably coming after me. A particular attack is that my position is an artifact of the neoliberal university, and that as a non-teaching administrator I am necessarily robbing an underfunded university of badly-needed money that could better be spent on a new tenure track line. This is an argument of convenience for most of my critics, but it’s the argument that’s been put before me, and I take it seriously.

First: I cannot be an unbiased judge of whether or not my position is worthwhile to Brooklyn College, the CUNY system, its students and faculty and staff, and to academia writ large. I believe in the value and importance of assessment, done correctly and with the right mindset, and have been arguing that case for years both within academia and in the broader public. Longtime readers will have heard this all before. But I can’t pretend that my self-interest isn’t influencing my own perception of this job; no one can fairly audit themselves. I don’t see this job as the kind of useless admin job that has cost the university system so much, but I would think that way, wouldn’t I? My paycheck depends on it. Still, here’s what I think.

Rather than being necessarily the enemy of faculty and faculty independence, assessment can help them by demonstrating the value of the professoriate, their teaching, and their research to audiences that are often hostile to faculty and who only take certain kinds of arguments seriously. The university has enemies, and many of them are in high places. The language power speaks is the language of numbers, validity, reliability, and related ideas. You can lament the dominance of that language, but you cannot ignore it. Since at least Ronald Reagan’s administration, federal education policy has pressed for more and more assessment of college learning. No administration has been more aggressive in that effort than the Barack Obama administration, so I’m afraid simply hoping for liberal Democrats is not a solution. Someone has to be able to speak back to them, to the Department of Ed and to the governors and state legislators and bigwigs the country over, to argue for the funding and independence of public universities in the language that power understands. That’s not capitulation, not necessarily. In fact it can be a form of resistance.

The broader world is full of claims that college isn’t worth it, or that the physical university should be dismantled and replaced with online-only education, or that tenure should be a thing of the past, and so on. I think these arguments are wrong, and I think that the evidence can show that they’re wrong. The notorious book Academically Adrift, for example, seems to me to be both methodologically unsound and incorrect in its conclusions. And it’s important to say so, given that the book penetrated the popular consciousness. But you have to actually make that case; you have to gather evidence and present it to the world. I have and I’ll do it again. I believe that best evidence demonstrates robust learning gains across all manner of American colleges and universities, despite media claims to the contrary. I believe that because of evidence generated through assessment.

Also, absent assessment, our vision of the relative value of various institutions and fields and degrees are subject to the whims of conventional wisdom. The notion that Harvard’s undergraduate education is the best in the world has almost no evidentiary backing. But how to challenge that perception? Without any forms of assessment, we get the tyranny of US News and World Reports, a popular perception of the relative value of different schools based almost entirely on how exclusive they are, how long they’ve been around, and how much money they’ve got. I believe there are better ways. Same with STEM mania and evidence-free assertions of the uselessness of certain majors. It’s not true that English majors specifically or liberal arts majors generally are economically doomed – that’s empirically wrong – but to fight back you have to gather evidence. To oppose people who think every student should be getting a computer science degree, you have to gather evidence. Assessment is not the enemy of the liberal arts; undertaken carefully, it is an instrument to defend the liberal arts, and the value of the faculty members who teach them.

Finally, I actually, honestly believe that we should be doing assessment to ensure that students are learning, because the value and importance of a college degree is large and growing, and the costs are growing even more quickly. We are sending thousands and thousands of students into the world with crippling student loan debt. It is therefore our moral and academic duty to ensure that we’re doing a good job of teaching them and preparing them for the workplace. Yes, that vocational focus worries me too, and I deeply believe in the higher values of college education. But students themselves tend to have a vocational approach to college, as is sensible given the world we live in. And while I would never embrace a purely monetary educational philosophy, I find it cynical and cruel to say, out of scholarly conviction, that you can’t put a dollar figure on a college education. Because Sallie Mae certainly does. This does not mean endless testing and teaching to the test, as we see in K-12. Instead, it means carefully gathering several different types of evidence, in a way that’s minimally invasive to students and faculty, to create low-stakes assessments that can guide our administrative practices and pedagogy, with the input and involvement of the professors who will and should retain control over curriculum and grading.

Wonderful things happen in American colleges, but we have not done a good job of demonstrating them to the broader public. You might say that it is naturally the role of faculty to do this work. Perhaps that’s true. But you know, one of my jobs here is to run the Writing Across the Curriculum program. I’m interested in that work and qualified for it and want to do it. It happens though that this was previously undertaken by a faculty member, so you could see this as the awful administrative creep that I have complained about in the past. But do you want to know why I’m running the WAC program? Because it was offered to faculty and none of them would take it on. And this is a reality understood by almost everyone who works in assessment: faculty don’t like losing control of assessment to administration, but very many of them don’t want to do it themselves. I don’t pretend that this is the fault of individual faculty members, who face absurdly high and growing publication requirements and a host of drains on their time. But the fact remains that assessment is going to happen, given the state of our government and our institutions, and someone needs to do it. And it has often been the case that administrative growth has not in fact been met by resistance but instead by faculty saying “great, now I can concentrate on my research, which is my real work.” Faculty complicity in the neoliberal university is a complicated topic. Let me say though that the notion that I would have automatically been an agent of noble political resistance to the corporate university, had I secured a TT job, is absurd. This job might be an agent of the neoliberal takeover of CUNY, or it could be a means through which the vital work of faculty is better recognized. Only my work can say which.

Like I said, I can’t possibly be an unbiased judge of whether my position will actually benefit the traditional academic values that I believe in. I am in no position to adjudicate that fairly. I can tell you this for sure: I tried. I tried to get a TT job. I tried so hard. And I endured the litany of petty indignities, major expenses, and endless insults that go along with the job market. I wrote a whole thing, detailing all the ways in which that process robbed me of my dignity, sanity, and money, but I ended up cutting it out. It would have taken way too long. Let me just put it this way: being on the academic job market was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me, and I’m an orphan.

I was on the job market for two years. The large majority of jobs I applied were tenure track faculty positions. But I also applied to non-tenure track teaching positions, research assistantships, post-docs, librarian positions, and yes, administrative positions. I did so because the academic job market is what it is, and I needed a job. I applied to jobs at public schools and private, big research universities and small liberal arts colleges, elite institutions and open enrollment schools. I applied to tenure track jobs in 44 states, including Hawaii and Alaska. I applied to faculty jobs in Europe and South America. I was willing to apply everywhere and I did.

I had a peer reviewed journal article and another on the way, multiple reviews, multiple chapters in edited collections with more on the way, a white paper that was solicited by one of the biggest think tanks in the country, extensive experience in teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate level, multiple teaching awards, presentations at a dozen conferences including the biggest in my field, several competitive grants and fellowships, several research assistant positions, a year-long administrative position of direct relevance to my research interests, every type of in-department and in-field and university service you can imagine, an editor position at a journal, professional academic editing and textbook writing experience, volunteer work in education, employment history in public schools, experience working as a peer reviewer for major journals and conferences, a skill set that included rare quantitative and programming skills for my field, sterling recommendation letters, and a book contract with Harvard University Press. I spend hundreds of hours on job materials, developing my CV, my cover letters, and my ancillary documents. I solicited advice from everyone I could think of and read every book, essay, and pamphlet on the job market. My 211 applications netted me 19 Skype and phone interviews, 10 campus visits, and no tenure track job.

I dunno. Maybe I just didn’t want it enough.

So when Brooklyn College, exactly the type of diverse public school I wanted to work for, in a system I have respected unreservedly forever, in a wonderful city, asked me to come and work for them in a capacity where I would make direct use of my research skills, where my continued academic publication would be valued, where I would be part of the faculty union and be on the same payscale and advancement schedule as faculty (sans tenure), in a position that I genuinely believe can be of value to students and professors, and most importantly of all, to get to stay on campus, the only place where things have ever made sense, the only environment in which I have ever fit in…. I said yes.

And for the record, I have sacrificed to be here. I have spent every dime I have, getting a sublet I couldn’t afford, paying over a thousand dollars for a UHaul from Indiana, going through the headaches of finding an apartment in New York City, and paying first month’s rent, a security deposit, and broker fees. I have stretched every credit card to its limit and borrowed thousands of dollars from my siblings, and believe me I know how lucky I am to have their support. And because of a quirk of the calendar and when I’m starting, I won’t get my first paycheck until mid-October, meaning that there’s a rent payment coming up that I have no idea how I’ll pay, to say nothing of how I’ll afford to live in the coming weeks. I am not trying to elicit your sympathy. I got a good job, and that alone is an incredible blessing, a privilege for which I’m so grateful. I know how lucky I am. I know it much better than you do. I am saying that anyone who thinks I have arrived in some cushy position without sacrifice is wrong.

Three months ago I was sweating in an Indiana apartment I could no long afford. My income had stopped a month previous; I had not had health insurance in over a year. I had and have a mountain of student loan debt, a big tax bill, and a very sick dog. And I suffered, as I have for my adult life, from severe bipolar disorder. For about a year, or a little more, I have finally received adequate treatment for that condition, and it has changed me and changed my life. It has saved my life. But early this summer I was out of money and had no health insurance, and for six weeks I went off my medication. Some people will tell you that it takes getting treatment to know how badly you needed it. I would amend that: for me it took living with the illness, getting treatment, and then going off my treatment for me to really understand. I was broke and hopeless and alone and could feel my mind coming apart again. If none of the jobs came through, I was unsure if I would have it in me to do a third year on the market, to hold it together long enough. See the cruel Catch-22 is that to get healthy I needed to get stability, the kind of stability a job can offer, but to get a job I needed to convince the working world that I was stable. Finally, after years of rejection, Brooklyn College said yes. I am thankful that I survived this past spring and summer. Today I am medicated again, and I have great health insurance, and I am in a position to build a stable and happy adult life. I do because I was offered this job. What would you have done?

Perhaps my critics would, in my position, have told Brooklyn College “no thanks,” out of a conviction that my job is too administrative, too corporate, not sufficiently scholarly. Perhaps. That’s up to them and their conscience. As for me I have a job to do, I’m very well qualified for it, and I aim to do it the best I possibly can.