Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The War on Work

cross-posted from Dagblog

When I worry about the future of my chosen profession, which I do too often these days, I take bleak consolation from the fact that every other profession I considered during my early years is also in crisis. Was it a mistake to become a university professor just as the job market for professors collapsed? Maybe. But if the original question was, "Should I become a professor, a lawyer, or a newspaper journalist?" then maybe not. Lawyers are having a hard time finding jobs; newspapers are laying off. And I can't say I would have been better off staying a high school teacher, as wave after wave of "reforms" make that job harder and worse.

So I can console myself that I didn't make an unwise choice of career, because there was no wise choice to make. It's not that I chose the wrong profession, but that it's a bad time to be a professional. The professions are no longer the path to security, let alone to upward mobility, that they were during the long post-war boom. That doesn't actually make me feel any better.

The last three decades of our public life have been dedicated to the proposition that people should be paid less for their work. Naturally, nobody means that they, personally, should be paid less for their work. But the idea that other people are being paid too much for their work has come to be seen as simple, virtuous common sense. Our decision-making classes believe, with a profound and unshakeable conviction, that workers make too much and that investors do not make enough.

 This core belief is expressed in many ways. There is the Federal Reserve, which has become obsessed with preventing even non-existent inflation (which cuts into investment profits, and is connected to rising wages) and nearly abandoned its mission of combating unemployment (which depresses wages and, of course, puts people out of work). There is a dominant school of business-management dedicated to reducing labor costs in the name of increasing bottom-line profits, meaning round after round of layoffs and pay cuts. There is a steady attack on labor unions. There is the obsession with "reforming" Social Security by cutting retired workers' pensions. There is the rage for "reforming" education by making public-school teaching a less attractive job, with no other measure deemed necessary. And there have been changes in the tax code, which now tax money made from investments at a lower rate than money made by working at a job, something our recent struggles over tax rates did not change. (This is allegedly necessary for economic growth, but during the post-WWII boom investment income was taxed at a higher rate than salaries or wages.) Many of these specific measures are explained as inevitable consequences of technology or globalization or "economic conditions," but together they form a pattern larger than any of those proposed explanations can successfully explain. Globalization did not cut the capital-gains tax. Soaring profits and stagnant wages is not an inevitable result of technological change. It reflects a choice about what to do with new technology. All of the things I have listed grow ultimately from a set of clear policy preferences, with investors favored over workers at every turn.

These things have been done even at the cost of wrecking the economy. These things are more important to our decision-makers than the country's broader economic health. Both Democrats and Republicans do them, although the Democrats generally moderate things a little and the Republicans often double down. The very fact that Clinton-era Democrats could say "jobless recovery" revealed that they'd bought into the basic worldview, which imagines a "good economy" as a good economy for investors and views salaries, wages, and pensions the way investors do, as costs that need to be contained. The result Ramona blogs about, with workers pulling eighty-hour weeks but afraid to ask for the overtime that the law mandates, is not a side effect of these policies. It is an expression of their central goal.

If you think about this as "the rich vs. the poor," or even "the rich vs. the middle class," it doesn't always make sense. This is not primarily about how much money you have, but about where your money comes from. Small business owners are a favored class under these policies (although not nearly as favored as they are in public rhetoric). The point is that the rules have been repeatedly changed to favor people who make money from things they own (whether that's a business or shares of stock or simply money they have lent out) at the expense of people who make their living by selling their work to employers or clients (whether that work is driving a bus or practicing the law). Favoring one group means hurting the other; stockholders and business-owners and commercial lenders increase their profits by reducing how much workers take home at the end of the week. This works great for the business owners and investors until it doesn't; our current economic crisis results from things getting so out of balance that workers, as a group, no longer have the money to buy much. But most of the proposals for fixing our economic problems aim at increasing the imbalance even more.

The problem for white-collar professionals is that they did not see this coming. Many of us are used to viewing the world as upper, middle, and lower, white collar and blue, thinking about how much money a person makes rather than how that person makes the money. People who work in offices in business clothes tend to view themselves as in the same class as the people, say, who manage a car company rather than the people in the automakers' union. But this is a mistake. The preference is not for investors over blue-collar workers. The preference is for investors over workers, period.

There have always been two basic paths to increased prosperity for workers. One is unionization, so that a group of workers can negotiate as a group for a better deal. The other is professionalization, investing in education and training that makes your labor more valuable to employers. During the decades when our economy grew, both the unions and the professions were strong. But most people who followed one path understood themselves as belonging to a different group than the other, with different interests. Lawyers and journalists and so forth did not see the crisis of the factory worker, or the terrible treatment of workers at places like Wal-Mart, as anything to do with them. But investors want to cut money everywhere. They view all salaries, and perhaps especially professional middle-class salaries, as liabilities that need to be reduced. And suddenly, surprise: it's tough to be an architect. Even if you have invested time, education and training into increasing the market value of your labor, you're facing an employment market that is constantly trying to decrease labor's value.

The final result is that it becomes harder and harder to work your way up, no matter how hard you work, because work itself is held increasingly cheap. That is not what we say we believe about America. But that is how America has started to run.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why Should Professors Do Research?

cross-posted from Dagblog

My high school physics teacher was a fraud. He claimed to have two PhDs, but had no graduate degree of any kind and as I understand it didn't even have a BA in physics. He left in a sudden flurry a couple of months before the end of my senior year.

Unlike our history teacher who really did have a doctorate, the physics teacher insisted that we call him "Doctor" and liked to digress in class about how they had done things in various private-sector labs where he had never actually been. (The history teacher was addressed as "Mister" and only displayed his education through his enormous knowledge of history.) And while the physics teacher was absolutely lousy at teaching, this was somehow considered a point in his favor. He performed the stereotypical role of the woolly intellectual too caught up in his complicated, difficult ideas to explain them for mere mortals. If you didn't understand him, that was a sign that you weren't as smart as he was. Poor Dr. Fraudster, we would say. He's obviously a brilliant man. He just can't teach.

In fact, he couldn't teach because he didn't know any physics. He had the textbook and an answer key for the homework questions. That was basically it. The one time I approached him for help, he just repeated the sentence in the textbook that I'd asked about, twice, and stared at me like I was an idiot. That cured me of asking for help. But his show of contempt was to conceal his ignorance. He did not explain that physics concept to me in other words because he could not. He did not understand it well enough.

I think about Dr. Fraudster sometimes, when people complain that university teachers do too much research. The problem wasn't that Dr. Fraudster had focused too much on research; he'd never done any in his life. That was why he was such a lousy teacher.

Yes, every college teacher does know a few co-workers who are better in the lab or the library than they are in the classroom. Understanding the material is not enough to teach it effectively. But if you don't understand the the material, all of your other teaching skills are useless. You can't teach what you don't know. And to teach something well you need to know more than the material you want the students to learn.

Just knowing the material in the lesson plan itself won't cut it. If your knowledge is shallow, your other teaching skills are crippled. It's not just that I can't go over to my university's math department and take over a class on math that I don't know how to do. I also couldn't be effective teaching high school geometry, which I "know" in the sense that I can solve the problems. Knowing enough to get an A in the class isn't enough to teach it. My fraud of a physics teacher was capable of solving the homework problems and doing the labs. It wasn't enough. I also know how to cook a nice dinner, but not enough to teach a cooking class.

Lots of people think about teaching as content delivery. There's some information, and the teacher tells it to the students. But that's not how it happens in reality. In the information-delivery model, a student who'd learned the lesson should be able to turn around and teach it to someone else immediately, but it turns out that they can't. And if teaching were really just delivering content, there would be little need for teachers at all. Books have been delivering content very efficiently for a couple of millennia now. But just giving students the textbook has never worked.

If you imagine teaching not as delivering information but as helping students understand information, it requires the teacher to understand so thoroughly that they are completely at ease with the material. And if you imagine teaching as teaching the students skills (how to write an argument, do a statistical analysis, use primary historical documents), it works best when the teacher has already practiced those skills until they are second nature.

When a teacher knows the subject in depth, she (or he) has many different ways to get it across to the students and can choose between different approaches. It's like knowing your way around a city, instead of just knowing a single route between two places in that city; you know how all the different roads and avenues are connected, and you're free to move around. You can take short-cuts; you can give your passengers the scenic route. And if the route you were planning to take is blocked for some reason, you can find another way without floundering around. Depth of knowledge also helps the teacher understand which parts of the lesson are important for work the students will need to do in later classes.

This kind of in-depth knowledge of the subject matter has to be maintained. And this is where research comes into college teaching. If you buy into the information-delivery model, research just seems like a waste of time. You went to school and learned some things and now you will tell your students those things. But in the real world, your knowledge of a subject degrades over time if you don't keep studying it. You forget things. You simplify things and oversimplify them. Your range decreases, as you stop thinking about parts of the field that aren't covered in the courses you happen to teach, and your knowledge becomes shallower, because you never think about anything except what's in the lesson plan and because you never talk about your subject with anyone but a student. You're never challenged. You never have to stretch. And so your knowledge very gradually shrinks and weakens, until you become that guy who's been lecturing from the same notes for decades and no longer dares to deviate from them because it's been years since you worked on or read about or thought about anything except delivering those notes. You've become a sixth-or-seventh generation photocopy of the scholar you used to be. If you don't keep learning the subject you teach, you will lose your ability to teach it well.

Research is how university teachers keep learning their subject. If you think of it as "continued learning," its relationship to teaching becomes clear. It's true that most faculty's research projects don't (and shouldn't) have much obvious bearing on the material covered in their classes. Of course not: research projects are advanced work, which also means they have to be fairly focused, while undergraduate classes are much more elementary and more general. (An undergraduate class on a topic as specialized as the professor's current research project would almost always be ridiculous. But a research project with the same topic of an undergraduate class would be pointless. Rest assured that my next book will not be "British Literature from 600 to 1800 AD.") The point isn't that the professor necessarily walks into class and tells everyone about the documents she was reading in special collections yesterday.  The point is that she keeps practicing the skills she's teaching. Do you want to learn history from someone who's a working historian, or do you want to learn history from someone who took some classes in the 1980s and is willing to tell you about them? More to the point, do you want advice on how to write a history paper from someone who actually writes about history or someone who doesn't?

As I've admitted before, I have two graduate degrees in different but related fields. I haven't done any sustained work in one of those fields for years, but do work steadily in the other. And I am no longer qualified to teach in the field I don't work in, although I have occasionally taken over a beginner's class as an emergency substitute. I'm perfectly qualified on paper. I have an advanced degree! I have publications! I've taught classes in this field before. But I know that I should not be teaching those classes. My publications in that field are from the Clinton Administration. I'm rusty. I don't pay attention to everything new happening in that field. And because I don't produce any work in that field anymore, I don't think hard about it. I don't have to. The truth is, you can only really think about a subject in such a hard and sustained way if the project that you're working on makes you, and I no longer have a project. I can't teach that subject nearly as well as I can teach the subject I work on, although I bring the same classroom communication skills with me. One subject is no longer as clear or sharp in my mind as the other.

Would the students realize why I was less of a teacher? Probably not. I'm perfectly good at projecting my classroom authority, just like Dr. Fraudster was. There are college professors who are revered by their students because they, like Dr. Fraudster, play the Grand Old Man so well that the students presume they must be very accomplished. Sometimes they are, and sometimes it's a big, tweedy bluff. Dr. Fraudster was a champion bluffer. But research keeps you from bluffing in that way. Teachers who never research spend all of their working time talking about a subject they know well, or used to, to people who know very little about it. Researchers have to spend some of their time talking to other experts, who know the subject as well or better. You don't get to be an unquestioned authority. You have to face the fact that you could be wrong. It's always healthy to be reminded.

A university where faculty weren't judged on their research would be like earlier versions of the American university, where the faculty's authority was based on how cultured and classy they seemed. Basically, what we would go back to would be Dr. Fraudster's paradise, where seeming learned and intellectual was all it took, and professors never had to submit their intellectual work to the embarrassment of any test. I'd get along fine under that system: I'm a tweedy white dude with a big vocabulary and degrees from fancy schools. But I don't want any part of it. I don't want to be Dr. Fraudster's peer, and don't want to be judged on his standards. I'd rather keep sending my research into the world, where there are other people more than happy to tell me how wrong I am. The humility is good for me, and good for my teaching too.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Your New Year's Public Domain Report, 2013

It's January 1, which means it's the day that works whose copyright has expired enter the public domain. Here's the list of works that entered the public domain in the United States today:

Nothing. Nada. Not a thing.

Because of repeated extensions of copyright, virtually nothing has entered the public domain since January 1, 1979. The United States' first copyright law (the one passed a few years after the Constitution gave Congress power to enact copyrights "for a limited term), set the maximum length of copyright at 28 years. That had grown to a maximum of 56 years in the early 20th century, but in the Seventies Congress extended that to the author's lifetime plus fifty years, and 75 years for previously existing copyrights and for anonymous or corporate-authored works. In 1998, even those generous terms were extended by a further 20 years. The result is that for the last thirty-five years, everything published in 1922 or earlier has been public domain and everything published in 1923 or later has been private property and will be until January 1, 2019.

What would the world look like if not for these unprecedented laws?

If not for the Milennium Copyright Act:

Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would enter public domain today, and all of the songs from its score. Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work we go. So would Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd.

Other films entering public domain would include The Awful Truth, The Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races, Captains Courageous with Spencer Tracy, Heidi starring Shirley Temple, Capra's Lost Horizon, The Prince and the Pauper with Errol Flynn and The Prisoner of Zenda starring Ronald Colman, Fred and Ginger in Shall We Dance?, Topper, the original versions of Stage Door and A Star Is Born, and Jean Renoir's cinematic masterpiece Grand Illusion.

In the world of literature, The Hobbit should be entering public domain today. So should To Have and Have Not, Out of Africa, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and three Agatha Christie novels including Death on the Nile. W.H. Auden's "Spain," Wallace Stevens's The Man with the Blue Guitar, Edna St. Vincent Millay's Conversations at Midnight and the fifth book of Pound's Cantos should be leaving copyright. And Dr. Seuss's first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street! should become part of the public domain like so many other classic works for children.

"My Funny Valentine" should enter public domain today. So should "In the Still of the Night," "The Lady Is a Tramp," "A Foggy Day," "Love Is Here to Stay," "They Can't Take That Away from Me," Robert Johnson's "Cross Road Blues," Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump," and holiday classic "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony should become public domain, too.

According to Congress, all of these works are too recent, and need to stay in copyright until 2033 so that people can have a chance to make a little money off them.

If not for the 1976 Copyright Act:

Under the copyright laws in force when it was written, Allen Ginsburg's Howl would enter public domain today, becoming the common property of angel-headed hipsters and shocked bourgeois alike. So would A Long Day's Journey into Night, Look Back in Anger, A View from the Bridge (three theatrical masterpieces), and the concluding volume of C. S. Lewis's Narnia series.

This would be a banner year for Elvis Presley hits, including "Don't Be Cruel," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Love Me Tender." Lots of other early rock-and-roll classics would be entering public domain: "Roll Over Beethoven," "Fools Fall in Love," "Chain Gang," "Good Golly, Miss Molly," and so would Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" and Leonard Bernstein's "Maria." Classical works by Britten, John Cage, Stravinsky and Shostakovich would enter public domain. And a number of musical works adapted from earlier works would join their originals in the public domain: Aaron Copland's Variations on a Shaker Melody, Ralph Vaughan Williams's versions of traditional British folk songs, and the musical My Fair Lady. (If you're keeping score at home, Shaw's Pygamalion entered the public domain on January 1, 1969, and My Fair Lady will stay out of public domain until January 1, 2052.)

The movie versions of The King and I and Around the World in Eighty Days would become public domain today, as would the last films of James Dean (Giant) and Humphrey Bogart (The Harder They Fall), and The Bad Seed, Carousel, Forbidden Planet, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Love Me Tender, High Society, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Moby Dick, Rock Around the Clock, War and Peace, The Ten Commandments, Fellini's La Strada and Bardot star vehicle And God Created Woman.

All of these will remain in copyright until 2052 at the earliest, unless Congress is persuaded to extend copyright beyond a century. It is almost certain that they will be lobbied to do so, and all to likely to comply. But what is certain beyond a doubt is that nothing will enter the public domain next January 1, not even the works from 1923.