Asking for a Letter of Recommendation

I’ve received several requests for letters of recommendation over the last few weeks, so I’m posting this blog by way of advice for those seeking letters of recommendation. If you’re going to ask for a letter of recommendation for graduate school in the humanities, be prepared for the fact that any responsible professor is going to ask you questions about what you want to study and why, and for the fact that a responsible professor will also give you horrible news (check out this more recent Atlantic Monthly article too) about the state of the profession.

You can respond to these questions one of two ways:

1. Like this:

To put it as basically as I can in limited time, I’m heavily influenced by the work of Paulo Freire in literacy studies and pedagogy. But, this transfers over to how I look at works of literature too. I’ve been fascinated for the past few years about the way literacy sponsorship shapes our identities within groups and between groups. In essence, education and literacy is a political act, there is no way to get around that. This is where Freire and identity and democracy always struck me as the most powerful in terms of theory–which I’d like to really study more in my next program, as I haven’t had the chance to dive into the theory and application of these concepts as much as I’d like to. In such a way, it is also very important not to overlook or discourage conflict and dissent in classroom dialogue (which should be the driver of knowledge and learning). It’s important not to just validate but to allow learning through these conflicts of experience–looking at the shape and method of the dialogue as much as what’s being said. In this way, I’d like students in my classroom to come to a sense of identity and voice through learning about literacy, not just how to write for college or whatever genre, but why we write and what that means.

And I realize I’m writing all of this in 2 minutes on my break from grading, so if that sounds like a jumbled rant, I apologize, ha.*

*Text of actual Facebook IM session with a former student of mine in which she answered my questions right off the top of her head.

That student gets a glowing letter of recommendation. The job market is bad right now, and I told her, but she’s up to the risk.

2. Or, answer this way:

Funding Higher Education…

There’s been quite a bit of discussion about educational funding in general, especially higher education funding, over the last two to three years. It’s a highly politicized issue, and it should be, because it affects everyone. I’ve seen a range of opinions about the subject, and many of these opinions — even from people who know better, or should — often lack nuance, grasp of significant detail, and an awareness of the forces working against colleges and universities to provide more inexpensive and thus more accessible higher education. Tuition prices are rising at rates far exceeding that of the general inflation rate, and many people think that colleges are to blame. There’s some truth to this impression, but people often don’t know what exactly it is, and there’s only some truth to this impression. It’s hardly the whole story. It’s not even most of the story.

I’d like to tell you a bit about myself before I start so that you know what background and point of view I bring to this discussion. I started working full time at age 19, the weekend after my honeymoon. I worked as an electrician for over sixteen years, with fourteen years construction management experience (I earned my  journeyman’s license two years after starting the trade). From my first day on the  job I knew I didn’t want to be an electrician all of my life (though it was great experience for me), so after earning my journeyman’s license I realized that I needed to start college.

I started at Valencia Community College at age 23, earned my A.A., attended U.C.F. for a year (a.k.a. U Can’t Finish), and then transferred to Rollins College’s evening program, the Hamilton Holt School, where I finished my B.A. in English at age 32. I continued to work as an electrician until I started graduate school three years later, entering a Ph.D. program in English at Drew University. In 2004 I completed requirements for my M.Phil. degree, then returned to Rollins College as a full-time Lecturer in English, where I worked until I completed my dissertation. The year I graduated I started in my current position as Assistant Professor of English, where I have worked for five years now.

While in graduate school I did adjunct teaching for my own institution, another four-year private liberal arts college nearby, and a community college, so that I have experience teaching at five different colleges in three different states: one community college (NJ), three private liberal arts colleges (two in NJ and one in FL), and one private professionally-oriented institution (OH).  I also worked about 30 hours a week in the Financial Aid Office as the Administrative Assistant for the Director; after about a year, I was given increasing responsibilities in the Admissions Office and the Registrar’s Office, so that I was made Coordinator of Enrollment Services with responsibilities in Admissions, the Registrar’s Office, and Financial Aid.

I worked in this position full time from the time I completed my graduate coursework until I graduated with my M.Phil. Many of my responsibilities were web-based, such as entering the catalog onto the University’s web servers, setting up a Policies and Procedures Manual online not only for my own office, but helping almost every office on campus establish one, and working as a liasion between Admissions and the University Webmaster’s office, working out different ways to promote Drew University to students exploring us online. I also developed an online version of our Financial Aid budget survey (by which we determine total cost of attendance) and started developing an online FERPA test.  My last year at Drew University I was elected Graduate Student Association President, a responsibility that included serving on the University Budget Committee — a real learning experience, as I had to sit in on meetings in which every department on campus presented its budget to the V.P. for Finance and make its case for its budget request. The committee had to vote to approve or deny each department’s budget request.

So before graduating with my Ph.D. I gained extensive administrative experience: a little bit, in fact, from most departments on campus, with extensive experience in Admissions, the Registrar’s Office, and the Financial Aid Office. Since arriving at my current institution, I’ve served as Program Chair for the Humanities Division in the College of Arts and Science and for the Masters of Humanities program, for whom I extensively revised the curriculum (a redesign that seems to have worked as enrollment has more than doubled since my curriculum redesign).

Now don’t take this administrative history to mean that I haven’t been teaching: I typically taught a 4-4 load at Rollins College (though only contracted for 3-3) and have taught a 4-4 load continuously at my current institution, even while serving as chair. I think I’ve gone maybe one summer without teaching since 2000, and I have certainly taught every summer since the summer that I finished my dissertation. I’ve also invested a great deal in scholarship too: I have a book, articles, book reviews, poetry and fiction, one show (mixed media: my poetry with a photographer’s work), and twenty-two conference presentations, and I will be a summer scholar for an NEH Summer Seminar this year. So I’ve seen how universities work from many different angles, participating in university life as an administrator, a teacher, and a scholar.

From the perspective provided to me by this background I would like to shed what little bit of light on this issue that I can.

Universities are in financial distress for three reasons:

1. “We,” and I mean the collective “we,” “we” as a nation, are unwilling to fund it. Now, don’t get me wrong — “we” always fund it. We either fund it through tax allocations, or we fund it through tuition dollars, which more often than not means debt. What this means, then, is that the costs of higher education are being transferred from tax dollars that you’re already paying to debt that you need to incur. No one benefits from this debt but banks, by the way.

CPBB_Per_Student_Spending_CutsTo say it another way: college tuition costs so much because we’d rather fund unnecessary wars than our children’s education. It doesn’t get any more complex than this. The adjacent graph from a recent article in The Atlantic is probably all that  you need to see — average state cuts are around 28%. Only two states have increased educational funding. Alaska only marginally decreased it (3.2% down), while the majority of states range from cuts of 14.5% (North Carolina) to 50.4% (Arizona).

The chart (left) speaks for itself.

2. College tuition is going up because colleges and universities are being treated like for-profit entities rather than the non-profit entity that they are. While this point sounds more like a mindset, it does very much affect spending patterns. I recently reblogged a talk delivered by Prof. Beni Balak of Rollins College about what difference a for-profit model/mentality makes. I’d like to quote it again here:

So let’s start with what for-profits are broadly. Everyone likes to tell me the joke about how “aren’t all colleges for profit; hee hee.” Trust me, I’ve heard that one. Yes, we all increasingly participate in profit-seeking activities, but the difference lies in what one can do with that profit: it’s the difference between profit-taking versus reinvestment.

That difference between “profit-taking verses reinvestment” is all of the difference in the world.

A typical for-profit business — one that sells to the general public, rather than to elite customers, such as those for high-end sports cars — will cut costs as much as possible and raise prices as high as possible. That gap between costs and price is the business’s profit, which goes to the business’s owner(s), whether it is owned by a sole proprietor, a group, or stockholders. The purpose of the business, in this case, is not necessarily its product, but to make money for its owners, although the best businessmen value the product and their customers as well. In other words, it is in the business of profit-taking.

The mindset of a non-profit entity is entirely different. A typical non-profit is service-oriented: it’s trying to help as many people as possible within its sphere of influence. The goal here is to provide the most service that budget limitations will allow. It’s a service mindset rather than a profit mindset, so when it has a budget surplus, it reinvests that surplus back into the non-profit.

Now keep in mind that universities are non-profit entities when you hear this story: not that long ago, the President of the University of Toledo was awarded a $150,000 “longevity bonus” by UT’s Board of Directors the same year that about 100 positions were eliminated at the science and health campus. Can you wrap your head around that one? Is this a service mentality?

If you think this is an isolated incident, you should perhaps check out the results of the recent IRS compliance questionnaire, which was designed to explore whether or not college and university spending patterns were consistent with regulations for non-profit organizations. Here’s a quotation for you about the report from “The IRS also found that on nearly 60 percent of the Form 990-Ts examined, colleges and universities had misallocated expenses to offset unrelated business income for specific activities.”

Your federal tax dollars are paying for business expenses unrelated to the educational mission of the institution. This is not to say that administrators don’t deserve to be well-paid. It’s just that those leading non-profit organizations should be paid following compensation structures similar to their for-profit counterparts. This issue is important across the non-profit sector at large; e.g., consider this recent story about the compensation structure for the Goodwill CEO and  his wife. The media is complaining about the overcompensation of non-profit administrators and the IRS is investigating it. It’s time to stop it.

If you think a profit-model is a good one for higher education, think again: 63% to 67% of students at private non-profit institutions graduate in six years, compared to 27% to 30% at for-profit institutions. The profit motive just doesn’t help the educational sector.

3. The educational mission of colleges and universities have taken a back seat to… almost everything else. This third point is very closely related to the previous one. You need to understand that faculty salaries aren’t driving educational costs, because about 50% of all college classes are now being taught by adjunct or contingent faculty. Remember what I said about a for-profit model? When a school is being run following a for-profit model, faculty are just an expense that needs to be cut as much as possible. That’s why we’re relying more and more on adjunct instructors and why MOOCs are being touted as all the rage now: invest a few thousand dollars in a single MOOC and you can teach hundreds of thousands of students — if you can call giving students a reading list and making them passive recipients of information with no feedback on their work or any attempt to develop reasoning skills teaching.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a Luddite. I teach online regularly, and I don’t see much difference between a MOOC and a seated lecture class with 400 students. I think MOOCs can be good recruiting tools and good supplements to seated courses, but they shouldn’t become our primary means of teaching.

What we cut is not nearly as telling as what we’re spending on, which includes premium salaries for top administrators. But not only that: our sports programs suck up an enormous amount of  money too. In 41 out of 50 states, the highest paid state employees are college sports coaches. In the other nine states, they are university administrators. I’m not talking about state salaries just within the university systems, mind you. These are state salaries overall, including the governor.

Now you might say that college sports generate revenue, but if you look at the numbers, they don’t for most schools. Most schools have increased spending on sports by more than 10% over the last two years, and most schools spend more on sports than they make on sports. Only 23 Division I schools (out of 345, or less than 7%) reported a profit on athletics in 2011 and 2012 according to this article.

We’re also spending a lot more on administrative and other non-instructional staff, as pointed out by a recent Washington Monthly article:

Between 1975 and 2005, total spending by American higher educational institutions, stated in constant dollars, tripled, to more than $325 billion per year. Over the same period, the faculty-to-student ratio has remained fairly constant, at approximately fifteen or sixteen students per instructor. One thing that has changed, dramatically, is the administrator-per-student ratio. In 1975, colleges employed one administrator for every eighty-four students and one professional staffer—admissions officers, information technology specialists, and the like—for every fifty students. By 2005, the administrator-to-student ratio had dropped to one administrator for every sixty-eight students while the ratio of professional staffers had dropped to one for every twenty-one students.


If you think I’m just a griping faculty member, you might want to take note that the IRS is becoming concerned about administrative salaries at non-profit institutions as well.

So let me summarize:

We can’t afford to invest in teachers (so provide better educational quality) or provide lower tuition for students because we’re paying premium dollars for college sports and administrative support while cutting funding at the same time.

We cut funding to colleges and universities because we would rather spend $1 trillion dollars on a military jet that still doesn’t work than on educating our children. We’ve also experienced a recession and government revenues are down, but that’s not the whole story.

I want you to consider that your tax money is being spent in this way: not to educate your children, but to pay a few people at the top a lot of money. That’s your money I’m talking about. Your taxes.

I keep emphasizing this point because I’m getting to the really hard part of this article now: this situation is not the fault of university presidents, university board members, or sports coaches. This situation is your fault and my fault. We’re being given what we want. When prospective students visit a college campus, they can’t see good teaching. They can’t see that the teacher they’re meeting during their campus visit is a good teacher (a situation that MOOCs can actually help, now that I think about it). But they can see amenities, a stadium, a sports team, a building, and technology in the classroom. Alumni who later give to their college tend to follow typical patterns too: people will give to something they can see. That’s even true with church giving. But an endowment, a named chair, support for operating expenses so that we have fewer adjuncts and more full-time faculty? You can’t see that.

So I want to emphasize that it’s your money I’m talking about so that you can very deliberately choose how you spend it, give it, pay it, and want it spent — and make that choice known to your Congresspersons and to the colleges and universities that your children apply to, and to the colleges and universities that you contribute to as an alumnus.

What kind of thinking about higher education do I envision?

We can begin by treating schools like the non-profit organizations that they are, and treat them like organizations that provide a vital public service. We need educated people to function as a society. Even people who do not go to college benefit from those who do have college educations, as they are the doctors who care for them when sick, the teachers who educate them through high school and who educate their children, the engineers who design everything that they use on a daily basis, and the accountants and other administrators who help keep every business that they interact with running.

We value a school’s educational mission more than its business identity and invest accordingly. Instructors aren’t a liability. They are the ones serving the purpose of the institution on a daily basis. Instructors, as a group, care more about the education of students than any other group on campus, including students. They are a large body of highly educated and very committed individuals who present a great resource for any challenge that a college or university faces.

We hire university administrators and appoint university board members who have a public service mindset. They see their work for their colleges and universities as giving back to the country that has given so much to them.

We view students as our products and not our customers. We treat them as our customers only after they graduate. That’s when they’ll really know the value of what they learned and the meaning and value of what instructors do in the classroom.

We remember, first and last, that a university is all about educating students.

Should I even have to say it?

Graduation Time = Advising Time

As we near the end of the academic year, I’ve been mulling over what college graduates should be thinking about as they consider their future plans. If you’re about to graduate with a four-year degree and your plans include graduate school, here are a few things you should consider.

First, a Master’s degree is always a good thing. Employers understand and appreciate them, and in some fields they are required. But doctoral degrees need to be very carefully considered. Employers might look askance at overqualified candidates.

Your first consideration is the amount of debt that you will need to take on during the course of your study versus your likelihood of employment and your potential income. This consideration is important for any graduate degree, but is vital when considering a Ph.D., as debt for many programs can approach or exceed six figures.  If you’re likely to graduate with $100,000 worth of debt or more, you need to be very careful about the field that you pursue and your employability within it.

I would only consider advanced (doctoral) study in any field, but especially law and the humanities, under four conditions:

  1. Expectation of low debt exiting the program.
  2. Closely tied to the “low debt” condition is time to complete.
  3. Name recognition of the school — sadly, the name brand on your degree is often much more important than the quality or originality of your thought.
  4. Employment opportunities in the field.

Tenure-track positions in humanities fields have been declining for some years now. I would advise against pursuing a Ph.D. in any humanities field unless you can attend a Tier 1 research school, an Ivy League school, or make it through the program with less than $10K to $20K in debt.

What’s been in the news a great deal this year is law school. A recent article provocatively titled “Law School is a Sham” reports dismal employment figures for law school graduates: every year, approximately twice as many law students pass the bar exam as there are jobs available for new lawyers. This article follows on the heels of over a year of reporting on law schools’ misreporting of graduates’ employability and ensuing lawsuits against them, especially in the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  Articles such as “Law Schools on the Defensive over Job Placement Data” (October 2011), “Law Professor Gives Law Schools a Failing Grade” (May 2012), “Reinflating the Law School Bubble” (October 2012), and “A Law-School Lesson, Learned the Hard Way” (January 2013) do not paint a flattering picture for law school hopefuls.

This timeliness of this issue has been reinforced by the American Bar Association, which reports which law schools have the highest and lowest employment, underemployment, and unemployment rates for their graduates. The Atlantic usefully reported in “The Jobs Crisis at our Best Law Schools is Much, Much Worse than You Think” (April 2013) that only 56% of law school graduates found employment but many racked up about $100,000 in debt.

So, what should you do?

If you’re interested in law school, I’d recommend either applying only to schools with top employment rates (see the links above), considering a different field, or pursuing that goal wherever you can so long as you keep your debt to a minimum. Keep in mind, though, that tuition and fees and then, afterwards, debt (interest payments on your student loans are also part of the cost of attendance) are only some of the costs of attendance. While you are in school full time you probably won’t be working in jobs that meaningfully contribute to a future career, so lost wages are also part of the cost of your attendance. If all of that doesn’t add up to significantly increased wages soon after graduation, then you’re cutting yourself out of your own retirement and greatly hindering how much you’ll be able to do for your own children later on.

If you’re interested in humanities study, I would recommend attending a school with an M.A./Ph.D. program, getting your M.A. first, and then looking at your prospects, your amount of debt, and the job market before pressing on to a Ph.D. If you get an M.A. within a state system, odds are most or all of your credits will apply to a Ph.D. program within that state system, but they will certainly apply to a Ph.D. program in the same school. If you get any Master’s degree from a private institution, odds are only six to nine credit hours of coursework will transfer to any other institution (one semester), so unless that institution also has a Ph.D. program, you will have to duplicate about two years of coursework or more. I would only pursue an M.A. at a small private school if it has a Ph.D. program that you want to attend, or if you were a mediocre student at the undergraduate level and need to re-establish yourself to move forward, or if you’re pretty sure you want to stop with an M.A.

But no matter what you do, watch your debt. What is particularly sad about this situation is that our system provides disincentives for principled academic advising (such as I’m trying to give here). Every undergraduate institution wants to be able to say that many of their students have gone on to advanced study. Every graduate institution wants to enroll students. They will all say, “You can do it,” or maybe, “It’s what you do with the degree that matters,” and, “I know these three or four graduates who found jobs just fine.” Or, even worse, “I’ve done this and had a great career.” If they graduated with their Ph.D.s before the 2008 crash, they were living in a different world. None this advice is principled as it doesn’t reflect the ways that the deck is already stacked against you. ABA data and MLA jobs data is what you should be following regarding the financial aspects of your decision. Your advisors should be able to tell you about your possibility of success within the program, but you need to know about the scarcity of jobs out there. Remember, schools will admit you, advise you, and recommend you, but you alone will carry your debt into the job market.

In short, you probably shouldn’t consider law school or humanities Ph.D.s, as you will be left with high debt and low employment prospects unless you can get into a top school and graduate with low or no debt in a relatively short amount of time (less than six years for a Ph.D.).

Your best bets for humanities Ph.D. programs right now are rhetoric and composition or digital humanities. Those are hardly guaranteed fields either, but you have much better odds of getting a tenure track position in these fields at least for the time being than you do in other areas of the humanities.

I’m only talking about the financial aspects of study, of course. The personal aspects of advanced study are enormous for those who are both interested and capable in terms of sense of accomplishment, intellectual and creative development, and personal identity. Advanced study is always a good thing. But, someone always has to pay for it. Carefully consider how you plan to pay for it before you start graduate study beyond the M.A.

P.S. I’m only discussing the situation of higher education in the United States. Other nations may fund advanced study differently.

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