Friday, June 20, 2014

It's Not Just Institutions Driving the Amenities Arms Race: Meet American Campus Communities

Many higher education institutions have received critical scrutiny for building luxury resident halls, student centers, and recreational facilities. Some observers have argued that institutions compete with one another to attract students through these buildings and services in what higher education scholars call the "amenities arms race." A careful study of spending in higher education reveals that climbing walls and swimming pools are easy targets for critics looking to confirm widespread allegations that colleges and universities are wasteful and drive up prices that students and their families pay for higher education.

Some of this critique is warranted. However, in a common theme that runs throughout popular portrayals of education issues in America, a major player in the amenities boom is missing in the conversation: the private sector. A whole range of companies are cashing in on the college student market, with little regard for how their products encourage frivolous spending and increase the price of attending college. You may say these costs do not matter because they are outside the tuition that students must pay. I would counter this thinking by arguing that: 1) many of the services offered by institutions that are condemned for costliness do not factor into tuition; and 2) with this in mind, we should always think about the price of attending college in broad terms, encompassing tuition, as well as fees, books, as well as discretionary spending.

One of the companies that is a major force in the higher education landscape (physically and figuratively) is American Campus Communities (ACC). You may not have heard of ACC, but you've likely seen their products if you've spent any time on a college campus recently. Launched in 1996 by a former resident assistant, ACC has developed $4.2 billion in properties and $4.6 billion student housing assets. They own and operate their own buildings off campus, but also work with colleges in public-private partnerships to manage or develop specified housing facilities. In 2004, they became the first publicly traded student housing real estate and investment trust (REIT). Their buildings grace the campuses of the University of New Mexico, Princeton University, Portland State University, Arizona State University, and the University of South Florida, to name a few examples.

Vista del Sol Apartments in Tempe, AZ
ACC does not specialize in run-of-the-mill dormitories. You won't find cinder block rooms, rickety furniture, and communal, bleach soaked bathrooms in their Vista del Sol property or Casas del Rio property. These are luxury residence halls that cater to the consumer demands of the Millennial generation. In fact, it would be difficult at first glance to even determine that ACC buildings are, in fact, designed for college students. They look more like resorts, complete with swimming pools, high-end fitness centers, and movie theaters. Rather than being criticized for opulence, ACC is praised for its profitability and sustained, recession-proof growth. It has been regularly named a company to watch and its stock has several times been pinpointed as a smart investment. In other words, when a private company creates expensive amenities to compete in the lucrative college student market, they are viewed as forward-thinking and entrepreneurial, not symbols of a system spinning out of control as it strives for prestige.

The double standards are less concerning than the presence of companies like ACC (there are many others) on campuses and the influence they exert. As privately constructed buildings infiltrate a university space, public or quasi-publicly-funded and operated buildings must change to keep pace. The amenities arms race, in other words, is not just a product of institutions competing with one another. It is also a product of competition created by companies like ACC building on and around campuses nationwide. Before long, luxury student housing becomes normalized, such that students and parents feel like it is the most acceptable option. A family could certainly look into less expensive options, but they fail to capture the imagination, communicate a sense of comfort, and convey status quite like a resort-esque apartment complex. And if so many others can afford it, they reason, so can we. The normalization of spending in higher education is not something that has been systematically studied, but there is reason to further explore the ways in which companies like ACC do not simply respond to consumer demand--they create demand where it previously did not exist.

The Varsity, an ACC property down the street from my house in College Park, MD
 The costs of living in these buildings adds to the rising tuition burden at many institutions. While it is true that institutions themselves have increased student fees to pay for services and facilities, and many have built their fair share of lazy rivers and Mongolian barbecues in partnership with companies, we should not ignore the private sector. Many, many companies are profiting as students fall further into debt. And while we can express outrage at institutions, at least the non-profit ones are investing the money they earn back into an enterprise ostensibly dedicated to further education. The same cannot be said of a company like ACC, where profits go shareholders.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Guilt and Learning to Own My Academic Job

Eric Anthony Grollman wrote a poignant piece last year for the blog Conditionally Accepted on what he called "graduate school garbage." This garbage consists of complex feelings of anxiety, stress, trauma, and even depression that accompany graduate school, finishing a dissertation, and surviving the highly competitive academic job market. Like any garbage, Grollman argues, we should dispose of these feelings and counter the forces that produce them. I stumbled upon this piece for the first time yesterday, and I appreciate it because it helped me identify one of the feelings with which I have been struggling: guilt. I have come to realize that guilt informs the way I talk about my recent appointment in academe, and it is something on which I'm working to improve.

Grollman cites in his piece an article in The Chronicle that discusses "survivor's guilt" among those who navigated the academic job market and ultimately landed a position. While this article fueled my reflection, I cannot comfortably claim that I am survivor of an arduous process. In truth, as I entered what appeared to be my last year as a graduate student, I did not expect to enter academe as a faculty member. Over the course of five months, I applied for approximately 20 jobs. Only two of them were for assistant professor positions. I simply didn't think I would be competitive enough on the academic job market, and there are many jobs in my field outside of tenure-trackdom. When I received the phone call to schedule a phone interview for an assistant professor gig, I was astounded. I carried that sense of shock as I advanced through the interview stages, and I still feel it as I write this today. However, my experience was not like those who applied for dozens of tenure-track jobs, sometimes over several years. I recognize that I ran a 5k, while they ran a marathon, and we each got the same medal at the end.

That inequality has cooked up a potent stew of guilt, which works its way into my interactions with others. The best example of this is a conversation with a friend last week. We ran into each other for the first time since she returned from West Africa, where she had been collecting data for her dissertation thanks to a Fulbright grant. We talked about how her writing was progressing and when she hoped to finish. (Although we universally hate these questions, graduate students still ask them constantly.) As a political scientist married to a fellow PhD who was taking a post-doc, she was preparing for a difficult job search down the road. The conversation shifted to me, and I shared that I was soon beginning a tenure-track position. Rather than own this and celebrate my success, I elected to completely downplay the whole thing. I framed my job search as low-key and my appointment as mere luck, since I only applied to two academic jobs. As I left, we hugged and she said something that struck me immediately: "I hope you are grateful for all of this. It's really great news."

My mistake was thinking that downplaying my appointment would make my friend feel better. Assuming I had cheated the system, I did not feel like I deserved the job. I felt guilty for securing something that proved elusive for a multitude of very talented people. And so my cavalier attempt at humility backfired. It made me seem pompous--as if this was a fun game that I just happened to play well because of beginner's luck. This was not just insensitive, it was inaccurate. Despite my "graduate school garbage," I had worked tremendously hard to position myself for a good job at the finish line. I applied to a faculty job for which I was qualified in a program looking for someone with my expertise. I prepared like a madman for every interview and received great mentorship from top scholars in my field. My appointment was not just a product of good fortune, it was earned.

Disposing of my garbage, then, means realizing that downplaying this exciting new career phase does not help my friends who are looking for academic positions. They don't want to hear the guilt-inflected version of my job search. They know this system isn't all apple pie and butterflies. It is extremely hard, and everyone struggles to run their individual race. There is a way for me to own and share my appointment without rubbing it in their faces. If I want to help my friends, I should confidently work to correct all of the sources of fear and anxiety in graduate school and beyond that infect academe, from bigotry to mistreatment of academic labor (and, yes, labor is the right word for many reasons, including those David Perry eloquently expressed). I should use my position to rid the path of unwarranted pot holes for the others hot on my heels. As I strive to shed feelings of guilt, I should also work in my small way to chip away at the bigger issues in the academic profession.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Humanities Filter Bubble?

Not long ago, I posted an innocent question to Twitter about "alternative academics."
I have continued to think about this question, particularly in the context of online writing on the academic job market and higher education journalism more generally.

There has been an efflorescence of online writing, it seems, about the academic job market, especially since The Chronicle of Higher Education launched their new jobs site, Vitae. The news and advice columns in Vitae represent but one part of a large body of journalistic work related to the state of higher education. Many journalists are tackling tuition increases that outpace inflation and skyrocketing student loan debt. They are taking on President Obama's proposed rating system and sexual assaults on campus. In general, all of this writing is a good thing. It demystifies, at least to some extent, the academic job market and highlights crucial issues that demand public attention and conversation.

Not all of these articles are written by "traditional" journalists. Many of them, in fact, are PhDs who have found a way to cobble together a paying gig out of their highly developed analysis skills and experiences in higher education. Based on a remarkably unscientific scan, many of these writers come from the humanities. There are several reasons this could be the case. First, the humanities prioritize the ability to craft strong narratives, meaning those trained as scholars in these fields are more than capable of churning out cohesive, well-articulated essays. Second, I have gathered that there are more humanities PhD graduates than available academic jobs, creating a pool of people seeking work outside of academe that recognizes their unique skills.

Many of these writers have strong opinions about academe. This is refreshing in most cases, as many people working in higher education need a wake up call. I love reading the pieces they produce because they often have a deep-rooted sense of social justice. However, their writing also raises questions about the existence of a humanities filter bubble, of sorts. (I qualify this because the original concept of a filter bubble was based upon a computer algorithm that cuts out of view disagreeable things. I recognize it's an imperfect concept for what I'm arguing here). A filter bubble in which the major issues of higher education are described and assessed through the lens of humanists. If a large amount of writing about finding a professorship comes from humanists who struggled on the job market, for example, is the picture unduly informed by their discipline-based experience? Are certain issues ignored and others given greater attention simply because they are most related to the humanities? Are we missing important voices and perspectives?

I don't have answers to these questions. Thus, this post is largely speculative. I may not be tapped into circles of writers coming from other disciplines. I'm not at all suggesting here that humanists stop writing about higher education issues. I hope they continue their good work. Rather, for the sake of balance, I would like to see more writing from people in other fields. More scientists, clinicians, educationists, engineers, and artists.

I would love to hear from writers about this idea. Is there a humanities filter bubble in online writing on the academic job market and higher education?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Round One with the Tenure Monkey

As a graduate student, publishing was a relatively painless process for me. I typically cleaned up a paper I wrote for a class and submitted it to a decent journal in my field or to an online publication. I avoided the top journals, recognizing that my papers were often glorified literature reviews. I didn’t get nervous about sending anything in because the stakes were low. I had no idea at the time that I was going to become an academic, so a rejection did not much matter to me. In fact, I expected rejection on some level. When it worked out, I was, naturally, thrilled. When it didn’t, I simply shrugged and kept moving.

A few months ago, I found myself finished with graduate work and restless. I felt the need to do something--to fill the void left by my finished dissertation. Although I had been advised to set my dissertation aside, I pulled out a chapter and started cutting and pasting pieces together. I rewrote a few sections to ensure it was cohesive, but this was, I admit, largely a recycle job. The result, I thought, was a decent paper. Certainly not groundbreaking work, but it was a newer topic in the field. Unlike my class papers, it actually featured data that I collected and analyzed. With this in mind, I sent it in to a top journal.

In some ways, my approach to publishing this paper was nothing new. It might be captured in the rhetorical question, “Why not?” However, part of what compelled me to even open my dissertation was the desire to begin a pipeline of publications as I entered my first year as an assistant professor. Assuming that I would have little time to write in the coming months, I figured I would have a few pieces under consideration before I even started. This was a strategic decision, but it was not particularly thoughtful. It was predicated on the idea that my dissertation work was ready for publication. In reality, it needs a great deal more refinement. I succumbed to the “publish or perish” mantra before even starting the job.

This week, I received word that my paper didn’t even make it beyond the editorial review. I was shocked. While I had certainly experienced rejection, I couldn’t believe that my paper was so bad that it wouldn’t be sent to external reviewers. The email from the editor was polite and encouraged me to consider other journals, but provided no other feedback. I immediately opened my paper and re-read what I submitted. Using 20-20 hindsight lenses, I noticed a few weaknesses, but was still somewhat perplexed. Was I aiming too high in submitting to a top journal? Is this topic now old news? Should I simply get over myself and realize that rejection is part of the game?

I thanked the editor and shared the news with a few friends and mentors. They told me that this happens to everyone. Some people don’t bat an eyelash, tweak a few minor things, and quickly submit their rejected paper to another journal. Some people ask colleagues to make suggestions, before trying again. My strategy is to take some time to think more carefully about how to best transform my dissertation from a 300-page graduation requirement into a true piece of scholarship. In the meantime, nevertheless, the experience has sparked a fair measure of reflection.

One of the ideas that I have repeatedly mulled over is that, as a graduate student, I wrote with a certain degree of bravado. I was not particularly worried about how the paper would be received by the sages of my discipline because it only had to be good enough to pass a course. As a result of this perhaps foolish air of invincibility, my writing was good. I went back and read a few old papers and was shocked by how well the narrative flowed and how convincingly I presented arguments that I wouldn’t dare vocalize today. There was an edge to my work--an edge that came with the liberty of writing without overthinking a topic or torturing each sentence. I came to realize how vital that edge can be.

Einstein ardently believed that individual liberty was the cornerstone of creativity. He constantly rebelled against convention and noted that God’s punishment was to make him an authority later in life. He was painfully aware of the fact that, as he became more rooted in the comforts of being a celebrity academic, he was less able to entertain new theories of physics. He lost some of his revolutionary spirit and he knew it.

Throughout the past week, I have not reached the conclusion that my creativity has run dry. I’m certainly not an authority on much of anything, nor do I regularly compare myself to Einstein. However, I have been reminded of how important it will be to protect that sense of edge and not let the tenure monkey steer my thinking and writing.  If I publish simply to publish, I may not perish on the tenure track, but I certainly won't have much fun.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Not A Journalist, Not An Academic, But A 'Journademic'

I shared an article on my Twitter feed today whose title alone seems to have struck a chord. Whereas most of the articles I retweet seemingly receive little attention, this one resulted in a string of new followers. It was called “Why Academics Need to Think Like Journalists.” It’s a simple piece that, upon further inspection, seems to be a sales pitch for a service to help academics reach “influential audiences.” The few tips it provides were not particularly helpful to me, but the article lingered in my mind all day.

It’s not that I disagree with the article’s basic premise. Pushing academics to write for real people and come up with sexy titles is great. Many of us are very much attempting to insert ourselves in the “social story.” We recognize that certain academic publications do more to pad our CVs and fill dusty bookcases than influence public opinion through compelling narratives. Perhaps it is true that not enough of us think this way, but the reward structure, as it currently stands, makes thinking like a journalist a luxury. Nevertheless, your call to action is right on target. But what if, wise journalists, the spotlight it similarly directed in your direction? 
Journalists, it seems to me, could learn a thing or two from academics. Unlike journalists, academics constantly ask: How do we know what we think we know? We are steadfast in our convictions yet work to ensure that our claims can be supported with rigorous research. Without belittling the power of individual experience, we question the application of a single observation to a larger population. When we as academics get something wrong, there can be significant consequences. I wish I kept a running count of how many online articles from journalists have completely misrepresented issues in higher education finance. But it doesn’t seem to matter: the article gets clicks, the comments section fills with heated debates, and the journalist moves on to the next story.

And let’s not forget a final but crucially important point missing in this conversation. Whether or not a piece of scholarship is read or immediately understood by the public is not, by itself, a metric of quality. When Einstein’s theory of general relativity was confirmed with experimental data, there was phenomenal press coverage. Very few people understood the theory, and many journalists blatantly mocked its abstruse language and equations. Einstein wrote a book that was designed to explain his work in more accessible language, but he struggled to respond to a litany of journalists begging him to sum up his theory in a sentence. While I agree that academics publishing work that never reaches the hands of those who most need it makes little sense, we must also admit that there is intrinsic value in producing knowledge, irrespective of the medium through which it is ultimately communicated.

What I would like to see even more than academics thinking like journalists and journalists thinking like academics is something closer to a true a hybrid. A journademic, if you will. This is not entirely invented out of thin air. I’m inspired by writers like Ida Tarbell, who wrote extensive, painstakingly researched pieces for McClure’s Magazine (no relation). Along with writers like Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens, Tarbell helped invent investigative journalism and took on major issues of the day, including wealth inequality and corruption. I’ve been encouraged to see long form journalism become marginally popular again, after years of listicles and, ironically, blog posts. However, I would love to see a whole movement of hybrids arise, channeling the muckracker spirit.

The ingredients for this movement are already sprouting. There is a growing population of people who are trained as researchers yet find little enticing or attractive about traditional academe, with all its exclusivity, competition, and bickering. And there are those who have PhDs that, due to a range of structural problems and through no fault of their own, could not find steady employment as professors upon graduation. Although some people do not believe “alt-ac” (short for alternative academic) is a solution to these structural problems, there is reason to be optimistic about the potential of people who can write fantastically well, are sensitive to social justice concerns, and approach problems with the conceptual vocabulary and methodological maturity of an academic.

What we need now are courageous publications and organizations who are willing to fund journademics. If academe is too rooted in the status quo and journalism is beholden to clicks and thinly disguised product placements, how can we promote writing at the intersections? I’m short on answers, but hopeful that such platforms exist and will readily support any that emerge.