Reading the Times

The NYT reported on a new study from the National Endowment of the Arts demonstrating that people who don’t read don’t do well on reading tests. I’m glad we have the NEA around to point these things out to us.

While the reading news nationally may be discouraging, I will give thanks as we move to Thanksgiving that my own child seems to have the right environment for academic success. I wrote earlier how I believe just having books around encourages reading and thinking. Even math seems to improve, which surprised me some. According to the NYT article:

“In examining the average 2005 math scores of 12th graders who lived in homes with fewer than 10 books, an analysis of federal Education Department statistics found that those students scored much lower than those who lived in homes with more than 100 books. Although some of those results could be attributed to income gaps, Mr. Iyengar noted that students who lived in homes with more than 100 books but whose parents only completed high school scored higher on math tests than those students whose parents held college degrees (and were therefore likely to earn higher incomes) but who lived in homes with fewer than 10 books.”

With a few master’s degrees and 2-3000 books around the house, maybe my daughter’s math scores will even be good.

This news is relevant to higher education for obvious reasons, since students who read and do math well will probably succeed in college, but what should also be obvious to us all is that reading ability is necessary for all sorts of jobs, especially jobs that pay enough to eek out a middle class existence. 75% of those employing people with 2 years of college, and 90% of those employing people with 4 years of college said reading comprehension was very important for their workers.

The article notes that reading better means more money. “In an analysis of Education Department statistics looking at eight weekly income brackets, the data showed that 7 percent of full-time workers who scored at levels deemed “below basic” on reading tests earned $850 to $1,149 a week, the fourth-highest income bracket, while 20 percent of workers who had scored at reading levels deemed “proficient” earned such wages.”

However, I assume that is an average, because I know of a lot of people with PhDs, who presumably can read well, who don’t earn $1,149 per week. The Times also reported this week that non-tenure-track adjuncts outnumber tenure-track faculty at colleges and universities nationwide now. This trend hasn’t been news to anyone in academia for years. The story profiles one adjunct teaching six courses at four different schools. With that schedule, I hope she earns $1,149 a week, but I doubt it.

This leads to a different question about reading ability and jobs. It puzzles me why so many people, especially in the humanities, are willing to work for years on a PhD knowing their chance of a tenure-track job at a decent school is very slim. Here are thousands of presumably well educated people who end up working for several schools teaching courses for a couple thousand dollars each per semester. The Times article quotes a lot of people complaining about the lack of tenure track jobs, and how students who take more classes with adjuncts don’t do as well because the adjuncts aren’t around for them since they teach several classes a semester. I don’t think the problem is with the lack of tenure so much as the treatment of adjuncts, which is deplorable in most places. I was discussing this at lunch with a friend of mine, and his opinion was that the two-tiered class system created by the miserable treatment of adjuncts was worse than the lack of tenure, and I agree. It’s not the absence of tenure, it’s the absence of decent treatment and pay of adjuncts that rankles the most.

On the other hand, it still puzzles me why people are willing to put up with that treatment. Scholarship and teaching is often seen as a vocation, and understandably so, but teaching 5-6 courses a semester to make half of what a tenure-track professor might make and never having any job security can hardly be considered a vocation. Based on the people I know, it seems that after 5-10 years of grad school people seem unable to think of doing anything else, and living like a grad student for the rest of their life seems more noble than trying to work for a corporation. Regardless, with the glut of PhDs willing to work for peanuts, there’s no financial incentive to create more tenure-track jobs, and the situation at most schools is unlikely to change in the adjuncts favor. I like teaching a lot, but I think I’d rather be a librarian at Princeton than a professor at most other schools or an adjunct anywhere at all. I always thought I might be willing to sell my soul to some corporation for a ton of money, but it turns out no rich corporations are interested in my soul, so I’ll probably stay a librarian. I’ll just be thankful I’m a librarian with a good job and not an adjunct teaching 10-12 classes a year to stay alive. Sometimes life is good.

2 thoughts on “Reading the Times

  1. “the two-tiered class system created by the miserable treatment of adjuncts was worse than the lack of tenure”
    The reliance on adjuncts mocks the tenure system and all that it is supposed to provide. It says: we really don’t care about academic freedom, researchers teaching courses, or taking good care of our employees. What we really care about is not paying very much for teaching faculty, not granting research time to faculty, and having faculty who can never say anything controversial for fear of not being asked to teach again.
    And most people who start out their careers as adjuncts get locked into that, unable to ever find a tenure-track job.

  2. Hmm. I saw both Times articles but hadn’t thought to put them together in the way you do here. I guess the combined lesson is to raise kids with a lot of books lying around–just don’t get too attached to them. (The books, that is.)
    P.S. For what it’s worth, I thought the piece on adjuncts was deeply and fundamentally flawed, but your point above is a good one.

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