Warnings from the Dead!

Roxie, an unusually prolific dead wire-haired fox terrier, has some great advice for those of us who labor under the burden of administrative “efficiency.”  She suggests that efficiency is a two-way street, and has some great advice for tenured faculty who are seeing their departments adjunctified as well as for adjuncts and junior faculty.  We must, as the Canadians say, work to rule.  Ignore that urge to volunteer for more uncompensated work, and resist pointless service bull$hit.  Here are her “Faculty Tips for Surviving in the Age of Excellence Without Money:”

Refuse to take on independent studies. That won’t really hurt students, who tend to take independent studies as much for the sake of scheduling convenience as to satisfy a burning desire to conduct research that couldn’t be undertaken within the context of a regular course. Special note to the untenured: You should say no to independent studies under any and all circumstances. They are major time sinks. You get no credit for them, and they take away from the already limited time and energy you have available for the work that will matter come tenure time. The clock is ticking! Say NO!

Refuse to take on service roles that feel pointless and don’t advance the cause of shared governance. Example: Conducting merit reviews in years when there is no merit money. The argument has always been that you do the reviews anyway so that the money can be awarded retrospectively on that magical day when the bronze turtle out in front of the library turns into a pot of gold. Bull$hit. Conduct the review if and when the funds materialize. Stop wasting our under-compensated time in the meantime.

Reduce the size of thesis, exam, and dissertation committees. In the moms’ department, for example, dissertation committees have four members from inside the department and one from outside. Lop off one of those insiders, and the student is still assured a range of input and an adequate supply of recommendation writers. . . .

Scale back the surveillance/mentoring of junior faculty, which crossed the fine line between helpful and pathological about two years ago. Moose jokes that junior faculty are observed so frequently that their classes might as well be co-taught. . . .

Similarly, dial back on the number of external reviewers required for tenure and promotion,which slipped into crazy territory about a decade ago. Srsly, folks, given the size of some fields in the age of hyper-specialization, it’s darn near impossible to find six people that candidates haven’t known in either a biblical or dissertational sense. . . .

Unionize if you can; work like hell to make your faculty senate an effective advocate on workload and compensation issues if you can’t. A recent studysuggests unionization “‘greatly increases faculty influence’ over faculty salary scales, individual faculty salaries, and the appointments of academic department heads and of members of institutionwide committees.”

Much of her advice falls into the category of avoiding “invisible teaching work,” as Dr. Crazy memorably named it.  Why should we pay the price for administrative “efficiency?”  Why should we cover the cracks in the edifice of higher education with smiling, simpering, grateful countenances?  As Cotton Mather would say, it’s “Madness.”

Not Roxie, but dead

After Mather’s “Warnings from the Dead” (1693), heed Roxie’s “solemn admonitions unto all people, but especially unto young persons.”  Of course, her advice can’t save any of us from the big sleep, but it just might help some of us avoid career death.  As that ol’ debbil Dr. Mather himself once said, it’s a “Blessed Medicine for Sinful Madness.”  I’m busy today yukking it up in the eighteenth century, so get on over to Roxie’s World and share your further ideas with her.  (Or state your opinion–do you agree that “A Living Dog is better than a dead Lyon?,” 3.  He seems to cast aspersions on dogs in disagreeing with that proverb.)

0 thoughts on “Warnings from the Dead!

  1. Much to react to here, mostly agreeably, but with a modest demurrer or two. I *do* take on independent studies, mostly in the form of honors theses, in the always hopeful but frequently disappointed spirit that some sneeze of inquiry might result in a storm of knowledge. But also because, since we ARE unionized, this activity is, in fact, revenuized to the overseer.

    But this brings me to the union question, and a modest demurrer, or at least qualification. Faculty unions can be great on issues that are, in fact, centrally about collective bargaining matters. They have clearly affected our compensation packages positively, although this ebbs and flows with the larger economy. They can be surprisingly indifferent, however, to working conditions issues, such as noise systematically and continually projected into classrooms by maintenance activities. The grounds crews are also unionized, and their hours structures and cultures map perversely and pervertedly onto those of the faculty. Unions can also be remarkably irrelevant on governance issues. We have no “faculty senate,” but rather a “*university* senate,” which accords representation down virtually to the folks who put the lines on the football field on Saturdays, and all questions are open to all of these estates. A wack-bunny curriculum revision was rammed through last year by a united First Estate (administrators) over a partially divided Second Estate (faculty), by prolonging the question while conscientious members of the Third Estate (students) one-by-one slipped away to harvest the grains (I mean to attend their early evening classes). Since administrators don’t work in the evenings, time is on their side. The football guys, I’m told, were out striping the end zones, so where they stood on issues like required science and math courses I never heard.

    Faculty unions, in the main, can be great, but faculties, like ancient monarchs, have at least two bodies, and really should be addressing some issues outside of the collective “bargaining” process.


  2. Many of the listed suggestion may not be useful universally. I have no control over the size of the doctoral committee or the tenure one.

    I urge everyone to unionize but realize that it has limited effect on our daily work life.

    Universities are now run as corporation including outrageous salary to top managers (president, provost and 2000 VPs). The grants getting schools and departments (engineering, medicine, biology, physics,…) are pressed to bring in grants. Small grants, up to $200,000 bring advantages to faculty member. Above that, it’s uncompensated work and a lot of it. At least 50% of the grant goes directly to needy people like an overpaid VP. I don’t think that one can fight and win against this parasitic reality.


  3. Small grants, up to $200,000 bring advantages to faculty member. Above that, it’s uncompensated work and a lot of it.

    This is incorrect. For federally sponsored grant awards–such as from NIH, NSF, USDA, DOE–the overhead rate is generally consistently applied to every grant dollar, regardless of how large or small a particular grant is or total revenues for a particular faculty member. My institution takes overhead of about 40 cents of each total dollar of my grant revenues, which are currently about $1,000,000 per year. They would be taking the same 40% if my total annual grant revenues were only $100,000.

    In relation to the “micromanagement” of junior faculty, in the natural sciences, we have the opposite problem. I’ll copy/paste the comment I left at that fucken dogge’s blogge:

    Junior faculty get their jobbes because they were really fucken good at sitting at a benche doing experiments in someone elses labbe. As soon as they get the keys to their own labbes, their jobbe becomes completely different: writing grants, recruiting and managing their own trainees who sitte at the benche doing experiments, networking and salesmanship marketing the importance of their labbe’s research in their fields.

    Because they have almost always received no training whatsoever at any of this shitte before they became junior faculty, they have a dire need for intensive mentoring by their more senior colleagues. I have been voluntarily doing a substantial amount of this kind of worke at my own institution, and even helping junior faculty at other institutions. My opinion is that the mentoring of junior faculty should be considered as essential a part of the performance of more senior faculty as the mentoring of grad students and post-docs.


  4. Thanks for the shout-out, Historiann! In the season of gratitude, this unliving dog is mighty grateful for your blogalicious generosity and friendship.

    I defer to CPP on the real economics of grants and on differences between the sciences and humanities in terms of the need for mentoring of junior faculty. Note that I said “scale back,” not “eliminate.” And I know you refer to me as a “fucken dogge[]” in affection, my expressive Anlgo-Saxon friend.

    Totally agree with Indyanna’s qualification on unions. They are not a panacea and obviously not an option at all institutions, but the thrice-furloughed profs of Roxie’s World have come ’round to thinking we ought to give them a try if we can. Nothing to lose but our chains and all that.

    Peace out, and a very happy Thanksgiving to the virtual and actual famille Historianne.


  5. CPP is right about the overhead (on non-equipment costs) but koshem Bos may be getting at something else. As we scale up the size of the grants we bring in, something there is considerable pressure to attempt, the amount of time devoted to management goes up. The time I spend on managerial tasks scales with grant revenue while the time I devote to my own intellectual fulfillment does not.

    There are, at my institution, thresholds for access. As in, if you bring in less than X per year, you are not at the table when strategic decisions are made. Or you are boxed about the ears less than others. Or something. Heck of a reward system, all stick, no carrot.

    At a few 100 k per year, I can pay my students, send them to some meetings, and pay myself to work during the summer. After that, where is the motivation? World domination? This attitude reflects the fact that I don’t need to buy big equipment or pay lots of lab techs to do what I do. As a trade-off, I get to argue with accountants who only view big ticket items as legitimate scientific equipment.


  6. Unionization efforts are important, not only to people at institutions that get unions, but for everyone else because it raises the bar on compensation and treatment. It’s like a kind of labor immunization- it provides herd immunity to shitty treatment. That’s the reason (along with changes to the tax system) that median income in the US has plummeted as union membership has declined. Even though private sector union membership in the US never got much above 1/3, that was enough to provide benefits across the whole economy.

    So people like Indyanna (who is constantly but understandably down on unionization because she lives in a Right to Work state) need to just cheer on unionization wherever it happens, even if it’s never going to help them directly. It’ll help indirectly.


  7. No wonder unis like sponsored research. 40% is a pretty sweet profit!!!

    Truffula–your satisfaction with $200,000 versus $2M or $20M a year makes a lot of sense to me. I would imagine that you didn’t get your Ph.D. so that you could administer your growing fiefdom of lab space and continue to write more grant apps. But, with what I’m witnessing in the medical community’s schemings right now, it’s all about the empire-building and the market domination, isn’t it? (Even when there’s no real market.) Hence the interest of your accountants in purchasing big-ticket items. Expensive equipment can be bragged about and put up on the website, right? Lots of smaller grad fellowships and travel money: not so much.

    All of this grant information in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars is pretty amazing to me. In my field, grants of more than $60,000 or $70,000 are pretty rare (and more often “big” grants are in the $30,000-$50,000 range.)


  8. I don’t fully comprehend the Comrade’s disagreement with me. I never said that the pimping money the university takes is variable. Ours takes 49% off all grants. (There are cost sharing grants that are different but less common.) If I have 3 RAs I can live with it. But when I am a PI of 10 RAs, it’s hell.

    The Dean wants me to have 10 RAs otherwise he is not a happy camper. As I restate when called for, if he doesn’t like it, he can resign.


  9. @ rustonite: I’m not at all down on unionization, and in fact live in one of the last remaining state bastions, legal and to some degree cultural, of big labor. Both parents were union members and my mother was a statewide union officer. I just note, with Roxie, that it’s not a panacea. It sometimes happens that the faculty members who organize unions can romanticize the solidarity forever part while underinterrogating how the broad principles of the movement at large map onto the work that faculties actually do. Hence the refusal of our unit to criticize the desire of our maintenance brethren to run 500-decibel leaf blowers right outside of the classrooms all the livelong day. And even within faculties, at composite institutions anyway, the interests of different sectors can diverge or clash significantly. In not too many labor organizations would a significant minority of the membership vote to oppose a management proposal for 17% fewer hours on the assembly line for the same or slightly more pay. Other than that, I’m on the picket line the second we strike, which we never seem to do.

    On grants and overhead, I fear the day when the research V.P. decides to come after hir nonexistent “share” of the tiny NEH Summer Stipends and historical society one-month travel-to-archives awards that we tend to get; ones that would make even $30,000 look like big money. Those revenue-sniffers over in admin are like ant-eaters or even baleen whales. Us humanists may be like zooplankton on the menu of academic life, but in the aggregate we go straight to the bottom line, or to the bottom, whichever comes first.


  10. Big ticket equipment is often a loss leader. The university doesn’t get indirects on it and usually has to pony up a significant part if the cost. But you do it because the dude who uses the big machine is a rainmaker. Deans and v-p’s for research sometimes get burned on these things. A good v-p for research has to know how to manage risks like this. At a typical state university like mine, indirect costs, the 40-whatever percent added on to the proposed cost of a project, don’t cover all the costs of reducing my teaching load to the point where I have a chance of doing the work I said I’d do to get the grant. I pay in-state tuition no matter where my students come from (though they also have to register for an inflated member if credits in order to draw a salary). We all rely on student contact hours to make ends meet. I don’t know what things are like at schools with big endowments.

    At some universities, faculty get kick-backs from indirects. We don’t. The Dean says you want kick-backs, fine, don’t ask for start-ups for new faculty or for help with the last little bit you need to make something work out. I think it is a more cut-throat environment with kick-backs but on the other side of it, you are not at the mercy of an administrator to the same extent. The last time I asked my Dean to kick in the last little bit on something, he yelled for the accountant, who ran in to report on my spending trends. My record is that bets on my future revenues pay off for him but I still didn’t get the $. They’ve got my picture on a f*ing poster (really) but I’m not a big enough revenue center. Or it could have nothing to do with me. It could reflect the indirect revenue per tenure line of my department overall.


  11. Historiann — the thing about indirect costs are not that they are really a profit center (as trufulla noted), but the money — at least where I am — can be used for multiple purposes, and is not as hedged about as most state money or tuition money. So while indirect costs don’t cover the actual costs — overhead, salary, etc., they have great value. And for reasons known only to dog, grant income is now a major metric of university quality. Thus the pressure truffula gets.


  12. The benefit to certain types of big ticket items is that it can continue to generate grants in the longer-term. So, the dudes that built the hadron collider on grant money are more likely to get the next set of grants to continue that line of research, than somebody who in addition to wanting money to do research in that area also wants money to build a new hadron collider. The *right* big ticket item can direct money to you in the longer term (I realise that is a bad example cause it is a joint-owned big ticket- but work with me here).

    On an unrelated note- I notice in the list of survival tips, there is nothing about restricting the amount of hours your work. Now, in Europe cause of our fancy left-wing agenda, we have a nominal maximum of 39 hours on the working week- and you have the right to refuse to work more than this (although it doesn’t prohibit you from doing so). The fact that refusing to work more than this can kill your career is not really mentioned. But, while in reality academic contacts do not specify the number of hours work- they say ‘as many as takes to do the job’- when we want to work to rule, we (theoretically) do not do more than 39 hours. If you want to be really mean about it, if you contract specifies 40% research, 40% teaching and 20% service- then you divide up your working week along those lines (taking into account that teaching doesn’t always happen all year). So, when you have done your x hours of service, and x hours of teaching for the week, you stop. And if stuff doesn’t get done- tough. And, that becomes a way of refusing to take up the slack for lack of other tenured staff- there isn’t enough hours in the week, sorry- employ someone else.


  13. I’m totally down with these ideas – and as a non scientist, I’ve got no reason to wade into the sponsored research question.

    Here, we have eight external reviewers, and a tenure process that freaks every single junior faculty member out. We produce 6 cubic feet of paper. And each page is clad in a plastic sleeve. Think of the waste!

    After all that, we tenure roughly 98% of those who go up.

    A timesink, this is.

    As for independent studies, though, this is what we do, isn’t it? I mean, the single student petitioning for a focused research project or readings class is the quintessence of individualized learning. If if we start to say no to the students who actually want to learn and want to work with us, well, then, what is the point of teaching the 100 frat dudes in survey 101? I don’t mean, what is the point to the U. I mean, what is the point to us? I’ll keep my 2-3 searching learners, and give you the hat-wearing, slumbering, beer-stinky boyz, thank you very much.


  14. “As for independent studies, though, this is what we do, isn’t it?”

    I entirely disagree that independent studies are “what we do.” In my department, we are not compensated for them, they factor not at all into the evaluation of our teaching or performance review (I mean, we can list them, but doing them or not is totally meaningless), and, for the most part, I do not believe that the vast majority of undergraduates have developed their ideas on the topics that I teach that they just can’t find what they need in the courses that I offer. As Roxie wrote, independent studies are often used by students to get a more convenient schedule. I, for one, think that if the university wants me to offer students that sort of convenience, they can compensate me for it.

    BUT. This is really what I think the problem is about saying no to independent studies as a rallying point. It’s not that faculty who are inexperienced or uninitiated say yes to them or are exploited or manipulated by students. It’s that faculty who have been around the block take these students on, thinking that these students are worth more than “the hat-wearing, slumbering, beer-stinky boyz.” Further, at least in my context, the people who do the majority of independent studies do no research anymore (if they ever did) and they don’t do the heavy lifting when it comes to service. They’re too busy with offering uncompensated individualized learning to their acolytes, while the rest of us scramble to take care of all the stuff that they actually do pay us to do.

    (Note: I am not saying that this necessarily reflects Lance or all people who takes on independent studies, but this is what it’s like in my department, and so Lance’s comment about this work being our raison d’etre riled me up.)


  15. (I should note that I don’t actually include thesis work – whether undergraduate honors theses or graduate-level thesis work – under the heading of “independent study.” In thesis contexts, I am teaching a student how to research a long project of his or her own design, after they produce a prospectus. The “point” of the class is the independent work, and not the content area so much.

    Independent studies, in contrast, produce nothing more than a regular course (so, say, a derivative 10-15 page research paper) and usually happen at the last minute when a student needs to fill in a gap in order to graduate on time.)


  16. As for independent studies, though, this is what we do, isn’t it?

    Or you have an advisor who takes on independent study (or undergraduate thesis) students and then shunts all that work onto hir graduate students instead of doing it hirself. I guess showing that I’ve successfully mentored undergrad theses is a good thing if I want to head to a teaching school, but I think having a few more publications might actually be better.


  17. It’s a pity most faculty don’t understand grant economics (even in STEM, they don’t — the disparities are fairly shocking). It would strengthen individual’s self-advocacy, even some of the field between disciplines, and it is not precisely difficult information to come by.

    Your institution’s much-complained-about 40-60(!)% grant overhead rate is assessed and set by federal government audits of your university’s operations. Every university resource and physical space is allocated according to its proportion of instructional, public service (if applicable), and research use. This goes for the library, the farm, the lab, the faculty office, the collider, and yes, the dense administration layer that daily thwarts visionaries.

    Humanities ARE different (though their research does tend to make use computers and library collections). They certainly get screwed by the grant system — in large part, it should be said, by having deans who never had to bother learning about modern grant economics.

    As you might guess, however, every unit can make a uniqueness claim. The humanities don’t get the benefit, so they shouldn’t be charged as much. The STEM disciplines bring in all the money, so they should get to say how it’s spent. The public service departments in land-grant institutions improve broader state economics and the university’s political power come appropriations time, so they should have district earmark money to hand out.

    One alternative to the system where there are audit-based, federally-monitored set rates for the research “tax” (as it is often called) applicable to nearly every grant is to let certain funders/units negotiate their own fees. How do you think that will work out for NEH v. Cargill? Industry’s already winning, of course, but while a flat tax isn’t a fair tax, it beats the hell out of an explicitly regressive one.


  18. Oh, I totally get your point, Dr. Crazy. I wasn’t suggesting that one set of students is worth more than another. I’m at a public U, and we’re meant to serve all sorts, and so we do, generally, with mixed results but the best of intentions.

    I should have added that I’m an administrator of a small program, and so my name is automatically attached to the independent study option. Most of our students aren’t looking for a circumvention of the schedule. They have an idea for a research project, and they want to work closely with me or someone else on it. I have about 2 a semester.

    In my case, this isn’t technically uncompensated labor, then, because I get some modest $ for serving as director.

    And no, this shouldn’t ever be passed along to grad students. What a revolting idea!

    But still, for highly motivated students who want to work on a designed research project – derivative or otherwise – I think we’re bound to say yes. If a student wants to skip around a requirement, or have a light Friday class schedule, then forget it. But if they want to work on something with you, because they’ve had you in class or even (gasp) read your stuff, then this is all pre-professional, and I’d feel obliged to say yes. Even if I wasn’t compensated. Indeed, I’ve done this for as long as I’ve been teaching.


  19. That second sentence was to read:

    [Understanding grant economics] would strengthen some individuals’ self-advocacy and even out the playing field between disciplines; it is not precisely difficult information to come by.


  20. Hi there. I’m only an interested observer of academics, but I do work with research grants at a large university. Here, the 51% of indirect costs/facilities and administration is mostly needed to support research, whether that’s literally keeping the lights on and keeping the shared equipment functioning, sending students to conferences or paying for accounting and grants management staff. (And it’s easy to say–as people do here–that we spend “too much” on accounting staff. Those people have never worked in accounting and don’t really get that paying someone $25,000-$35,000 for a skilled salaried position with a lot of weekend work is in fact underpaying.) Research does not–cannot–make money for the university, because research time and research facilities are extremely expensive. Research partially subsidizes itself and partially supports students and postdocs, but it by no means covers all its expenses.

    It would be better get decent funding from the legislature, which would then be supplemented by grant money. Right now, no matter how we move the numbers around with our indirect costs, there just isn’t enough money to pay for all the things that research faculty quite legitimately need and deserve. Everyone gets very unhappy with each other and tries to assign blame, but the fact is that there simply isn’t the cash because our appropriate state funding has been eroded and eroded.


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