Why adjunct labor matters to all of us

Today is National Adjunct Walkout Day, and if National Anthropology Day (from my last post) is not going to become a statutory holiday, you can be doubly sure that this one won’t either.   It has come about in order to raise awareness of and provoke action against a serious problem: the working conditions of adjunct faculty in academia.  Along with organizations like the New Faculty Majority, the aim of NAWD is to highlight the low pay, lack of benefits, and insecure employment of most of the people who teach college students today.

I, along with a significant but declining number of faculty, am tenured, having recently completed my probationary six-year period as a tenure-track assistant professor.  We (the tenure-track and tenured) currently constitute about 30% of all faculty, and probably are what you think of when you think of a college professor.  The other 70% consist of a range of contingent or contractual faculty whose working conditions and pay vary enormously, but at the low end – the faculty labelled ‘adjunct instructor’ or ‘part-time faculty’ or ‘sessional lecturer’,  who teach courses on a per-term, no-benefits basis – those conditions are frequently deeply exploitative.  This ratio of tenure-stream to others is not an inevitable or eternal state of affairs, however: forty years ago it was basically reversed.   The present situation has arisen out of a variety of circumstances, including but not limited to decline in governmental funding for higher education, increased labor supply (production of PhD graduates), and changing expectations of the role of universities.

As a tenured faculty member at a public research institution, I’m extremely lucky and privileged.  I’m not nearly so naive as to suppose that my current conditions of employment were an inevitable product of my superior merit for the job I occupy.  I also believe that we (the tenured few) have a positive obligation to think and talk about the aspects of our profession that, by virtue of our protected status, we can safely address.  Between 2001 and 2008 I held a variety of positions as an instructor, none of which were tenure-stream: graduate student instructor, adjunct instructor, postdoctoral fellow, and visiting professor.  I was never unemployed but also never secure.   I haven’t forgotten – nor, as I am reminded every time I look at my disciplinary job listings virtually out of habit, have I fully recovered.

In the weeks to come, I have a couple of posts floating around in my head that talk about some of the issues that I think serve as obstacles to progress in this discourse, some of which I’ve been talking about privately with colleagues for years, others of which are incompletely formed.  But today I have just one real thought to impart.  You may think that it doesn’t much matter whether the person teaching your kids freshman composition is on food stamps, that it doesn’t matter whether your spouse’s chemistry instructor has health benefits, or whether your own favorite anthropology professor works at four different colleges to make ends meet.  You’d be wrong, but I get that you might think that, because to be honest, most of the adjuncts I’ve worked with as colleagues –  and most of the instructors I’ve been in the past – are good at their job, and they don’t sit around bemoaning their lives.    That they do their jobs well, paradoxically, renders them more invisible than would otherwise be the case.

That is exactly the problem that National Adjunct Walkout Day is meant to remedy. As part of NAWD, some adjuncts (and others) will engage in job action including but not limited to public protests, cancelling classes, or other forms of direct action, even though they know their employment is at risk.  But here’s the thing: their employment was already at risk, just by virtue of their status.  So if you happen to be on a college campus today, or if you see the hashtag #NAWD on Twitter, bear in mind that the ivory tower is built from a foundation of the labor of many whose absence would rapidly bring about its collapse.

How and why (not) to go to grad school (Happy National Anthropology Day!)

Today, Feb. 19, is National Anthropology Day.  Now, you may not have previously heard of this hallowed waypoint in the seasonal cycle, and the likelihood that you’ll see Hallmark picking up on this is close to zero, but nevertheless, here it is.

In honor of this most glorious occasion, I will be presenting a talk I’ve given many times before, in various forms, entitled ‘How and why (not) to go to grad school’, in this case, at a seminar sponsored by the Wayne State Anthropology Learning Community.  (By the way, in case you were wondering, learning communities, when well done, are more or less the best.  And ours is the best.)   Stop by if you’re around.


I posted about this topic more than five years ago, when Glossographia was just a baby-blog, in ‘To grad or not to grad‘.  In reading over the old post, I still agree wholeheartedly with the general point.  To simply offer a blanket ‘just don’t go to grad school’, which many faculty do, is wrongheaded.  It’s insulting, and will likely convince the wrong students to avoid grad training, while failing to sway many who shouldn’t apply.  In place of unambiguous injunctions, we need fact-sharing and clear thinking. We should indeed be interrogating our students as to why they want to go to grad school.  We ought to be ensuring that they are aware of (and have clear paths laid for) other career options.  And we certainly shouldn’t be encouraging otherwise ambivalent students to pursue this path.  But advice, not platitudes, is called for.

In several less central respects, however, my position needs to be clarified from the one I advocated in 2009:

– I wasn’t clear enough that an unfunded MA may indeed make sense, if it’s the only graduate degree you want, and if you are pursuing it for clear professional reasons that do not include the PhD.  My original post  may read as assuming that if you are doing an MA, it is because you are eventually planning to do a PhD.  But the vast majority of MA students in anthropology never apply to doctoral programs, and they end up (largely) professionally successful.  Funding is still great, where available, but a targeted two-year masters without funding will likely be worth it in the long run, if you know what you want out of the degree.

– I didn’t emphasize as clearly as I should have the importance of planning, as much as two to three years before you apply to graduate school, to become the sort of applicant whose chances of success are greatest.  You can have a fancy GPA in the upper 3s, but if you don’t have a record of undergraduate research and multiple full-time faculty to support your application, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.  Identifying faculty to work with/study under, and projects to undertake, means that you can’t just decide six months before that you’re ready to apply, no matter how bright you (think you) are.

– Like many social scientists and humanists, I probably have some ‘science envy’, and put too much emphasis on the bad market in these fields.  In fact, I probably underemphasized (or was unaware of) just how bad things are in the natural sciences as well.    The programs are larger, there’s the expectation of one or more postdocs before a tenure-track job, and it’s just as terrifying.   Honestly maybe moreso: I do not look at my colleagues on the tenure track in the sciences with envy.

– I really didn’t talk enough (or at all) about the role of class and gender in ‘just don’t go’ advice.  I am  concerned that female students, given the pressures of impostor syndrome and stereotype threat, are more likely to take ‘just don’t go’ to heart, where less or equally capable male students may press on.  That doesn’t help anyone. The role of class, too, in dissuading working-class students from pursuing graduate work, seems to me deleterious to the profession.  Grad school is economically risky, but so too is post-degree unemployment, and I guarantee you that scarce post-BA internships and professional jobs get snapped up with people with social networks and cultural capital to back them up.  For academically-strong students whose family and community ties offer no meaningful employment support for someone with a BA, graduate school may be the least risky option.

Wayne State folks, hope to see you there.  Happy National Anthropology Day!

P.S. Finally, and this is just a minor complaint, but I object strenuously that no one seems to have noticed or commented on the fact that I used the verb ‘decimate’ in its etymologically-correct but practically-useless sense in my original post, to refer to the reduction of something by 1/10 (in this case, endowments).  Hmph!  Do you know how hard you have to work to find a context where you can use ‘decimate’ to mean what pedants think it always ought to mean? What fun is it being an anti-pedant when pedants don’t even notice your playful anti-pedantry?

Language, Culture, and History: a reading list

Having appropriately propitiated the curricular deities, it appears that this coming fall, I’m going to be teaching a graduate seminar in linguistic anthropology on the topic of Language, Culture, and History.   The readings will be drawn from linguistically-oriented historical anthropology and ethnohistory, anthropologically-oriented historical sociolinguistics, and linguistically-oriented archaeology, if that makes any sense.  Maybe not?

Anyway, last night I put together my ‘long list’ of 40-odd books that we might potentially read. Some of these will come off the list due to price or availability.  Others I haven’t looked at thoroughly yet, and when I do will come off because they aren’t suitable.  That might get me down to 25, but then I’ll need to get it down to 13 or 14, one a week. The rest can go on a list from which individual students can pick to do individual book reviews and presentations.

Here’s the list, below.  Additional ideas of books that fit these general themes would be welcome. Any thoughts?

Continue reading

Still embuggered up

Over five years ago, I published what was (for a long time) to be my most popular post here at Glossographia, A feisty embuggerance, in which I described in the wild a particularly bizarre sort of optical character recognition error that found its way into Google Scholar’s metadata, resulting in an otherwise ordinary paper authored by the unlikely duo of Escalate Embuggerance and Holistic Feisty (Embuggerance and Feisty 1985).  After the folks at Language Log talked about it, I thought for sure that it would be scant weeks before the error was corrected.   Alas, here we are, in 2015, and Mother Google can share my search history with any advertiser it chooses, following me around with ads for products I’ve already bought, but can’t fix a basic and obvious error even after I did all the work of pointing it out to them.

Embuggerance, Escalate, and Holistic Feisty. “The linguistics of laughter.” English Today 47 (1985).

Ph.Dining: the art of social eating in grad school

It’s probably not a secret to anyone who has ever been in grad school (or who reads PHD Comics) that departmental and college social events can be an important way to stave off starvation. My own graduate studies in anthropology at McGill were characterized, in my dim recollection, by half-full plates of cheese and bread stuffed not-so-surreptitiously into backpacks and carted away by those fortunate souls whose hard-earned anthropological knowledge of generalized reciprocity or optimal foraging theory translated into practice. Oh, right, and the wine. So much department wine. Less of that here at Wayne State, alas. Chalk that up to American social mores, I guess.

So yes, if you are a grad student or are thinking about becoming one, you may be in crippling poverty for years, but the good news is that, at least once a month or maybe more, there will be some opportunity to avail yourself of some cornucopia of donuts or pizza or (dare you dream?) smoked salmon skewers.  To enumerate just a few:

‘Brownbags’ – Contrary to the name, many of these have plentiful free food provided, often of the donuts-and-coffee variety, but sometimes ranging up to a full-on lunch.  Find out which of these have complimentary snacks on hand and take full advantage.

Lounge Scrounging – Departmental lounges and common areas are an excellent source of leftovers from events you couldn’t make it to, classes with generous professors, or any of the other items on this list.  This is a qualitative leap forward from dumpster diving – bon appetit!

Dissertation Defenses – These are often a good place to chow down on some cake, sip champagne, and enjoy other celebratory goodies.  At least, we hope they’re celebratory …

Bait – There are all sorts of events where food is essentially the cheese in the mousetrap of work. Writing workshops, assessment workshops, anything where mid-level administrators want to bribe faculty to do something they might not otherwise do.   Many or most of these are also open to grad students, so even if you think you know all about learning outcomes, bear in mind that a full belly is also a great outcome.

All Saints’ Bonanza – If you thought that Hallowe’en parties were fun, just wait until Nov. 1 when faculty bring their leftovers to campus.  Also of some benefit on The Feast of Romantic Rejection (Feb. 15) and Really, Really Fat Monday (which is a statutory holiday among my people).

Pot Luck – Dirty little secret: someone may notice or care if I (a tenured faculty member) bring a tray of crackers poured out of a box in exchange for a bounty of delicious meats, but nobody cares if budget-constrained grad students do the same.   Buy low, eat hearty, I say.

Eating ‘Up’ – As it turns out, the higher you go in the pecking order, the better the food gets.   And sometimes events for or by bigwig administrators are free to the public, because deanlets and assistants-to-the-executive-vice-president-for-hyphenation like to see people come to things, and demonstrate, potlatch-style, their magnanimous ability to fill people with hors d’oeuvres.   So the next time a new building is opening or a provost is being welcomed to campus, take note.

But beyond gorging yourself at the trough of academia, it’s worth thinking about why you should want to be there, beyond the food. Eating, after all, is a social activity. And although we’re not taking attendance, faculty definitely do notice who’s around at events, who takes the opportunity to stop by even for half an hour, to (appear to) pay attention at a talk that just happens to have a side-table feast.  As it turns out, we (faculty) also like free food, and some of us (OK, not all of us) actually like hanging out with one another from time to time.  And we also pay attention to students who (appear to) share our predilections.  I’m not saying that you forget about the opportunities to sate yourself on someone else’s dime, but also remember the social capital that will attach to your foodiness.

I promise we won’t care if you take home a ‘graddie bag’.

Reassessing reasses in our pubic schools

As a college instructor, I run into the same typos and spelling mistakes all the time.   You just have to laugh, because I don’t think I’ve ever written a typo-free paper, and most of the time they’re just honest mistakes.  I might be aggravated by writing that is vague, unclear, or awkward, but not whether you’ve spelled aggravated correctly.   So just to be clear, this is NOT a ‘kids these days’ rant.

Having disposed of that, let’s get on to the fun stuff, and talk about two of my favourite frequent errors that show up, not only student writing, but in all kinds of written English.  As you might have guessed from the title, these are reasses in place of reassess and pubic in place of public.    These snigger-worthy faux pas happen all the time; when I see them, maybe I circle them and maybe I don’t, and  I don’t take points off, but I do chuckle.  Because hey, I’m human, and so are they.  So are the numerous people who use ‘reasses’ on Twitter every day, or the authors of major educational texts (or this giant billboard) that refer to ‘pubic schools’.

But there’s a major difference between these two errors, namely that reasses is not a word, whereas pubic most certainly is.  As a result, when I type reasses in my word processor or here in my WordPress interface, it gets a little red squiggly line underneath it, whereas the only way to catch pubic is with a careful eye.   (That sounds like a double entendre, but it isn’t. Or is it?) Let’s look at some Ngram data that shows how this makes a difference.  First, the Ngram for reasses (multiplied by 200 for comparability) vs. reassess.


We see that reassess is really a product of modernity – it doesn’t start to take off until the 1950s and then steadily rises until 2000.  Reasses, its ill-begotten error-form, takes off around the same time (at about 1/200th the rate, so that there is a consistent 0.5% error rate) until the early 1980s, and then it undergoes a sharp decline until the present day.   This decline can reasonably be attributed to the rise of spellcheckers in word processors, publishing software, etc.   Human error is still human error, but the little red squiggle is immune to the vagaries of the eye and the mind.

Contrast this with the Ngram for pubic school (here multiplied by 5000) vs. public school. (I’ll use the phrase in order to avoid any intentional uses of pubic.)

pubic school

First of all, we can see that pubic school is far less frequent an error than reasses; by 2000, it’s about a 0.05% error rate, or one-tenth that of reasses, but for most of its history it was far less common.  This might be because pubic stands out more to the eye as an error.  Another possibility is that while there are probably no writers who think that public is spelled without an l (i.e., it can only occur as a typo), there certainly are writers who don’t know the spelling of reassess (and, of course, words with two sets of double letters are notoriously prone to error).

Secondly, pubic school has a long history, at least according to the Ngram; setting aside that blip in the 1830s, we still have over a century of pubic schools.  Looking through the actual sources, though, a lot of these are OCR-related errors in the Google corpus – for instance, some are actually the typo publc rather than pubic,  and others aren’t errors at all in the original text, but just Google’s OCR having an off-day.

But note that just at the point when reasses starts to go down, right around 1985, pubic school takes off quite dramatically (even as public school remains perfectly flat). I don’t think this is a coincidence.  Rather, I suspect that it’s just at this point where the little red squiggles take their revenge.  Just as the addition of spellchecking to the editor’s arsenal brought reasses under control, it brought about a new era where the role of authors, copyeditors, and publishers in controlling for typos began to be handed off to machines.   It’s not that we stopped caring, but we started to take for granted that spellcheckers would do our work for us better than we could ourselves.  And while that works well for words like reasses, not so much for pubic school, much to the amusement of all.    I do note that my current version of MS Word puts a blue usage squiggle under pubic in pubic school, but not in the general pubic, so there’s at least some awareness of this error, but without highlighting every single instance of pubic, you can’t solve the problem.

To show how this works, let’s look at some asses.  No, you filthy-minded person!   I’m talking about when you asses the impact of something:

asses the impact

We can see that assess the impact is becoming more common over time, but asses the impact, which gets a slower start, takes off more rapidly in the late 1980s – where it was once a 1/500 error in 1980, it’s 1/250 by 2000 – in other words, right about where reasses was (0.4% error rate) before spellcheckers were common.  The moral is that reasses get caught, but asses don’t.  (Insert humorous quip here.)

Of course, you can also get the opposite problem, found in phrases like public hairThe Ngram here shows a lot of noise and possibly a slight increase over time, but I don’t want to make too much of it, since there are real contexts where you can use the two words ‘public hair’ side by side innocuously.   But there certainly are several modern biomedical texts that use it in error.  Apparently the photographer Edward Weston once received a letter from a museum administrator complaining that his work could not be exhibited due to its ‘public hair’. Weston was so enamored of the phrase that he used it thereafter to refer to pubic hair.

The fine folks at Language Log have talked for several years about the Cupertino effect, a term coined by Ben Zimmer to refer to errors introduced by uncritically accepting the spellchecker’s recommendation for a word (like Cupertino for cooperatino).    The effect I’m describing here is slightly different, because it relies on the blind spots of spellchecking software – it basically subdivides typos and spelling errors into those that it catches, which decline dramatically over time, and those that, because they’re English words in other contexts, actually become more common as we rely on spellcheckers.

I’d call it typographical assesment, but I’d worry that no one would get the joke.

Five great 2014 articles on number systems

The scholarship on numbers is, as always, disciplinarily broad and intellectually diverse, which is why it’s so much fun to read even after fifteen years of poking at it.  This past year saw loads of great new material published on number systems, ranging from anthropology, linguistics, psychology, history of science, archaeology, among others.  Here are my favourite five from 2014, with abstracts:

Barany, Michael J. 2014. “Savage numbers and the evolution of civilization in Victorian prehistory.The British Journal for the History of Science 47 (2):239-255.

This paper identifies ‘savage numbers’ – number-like or number-replacing concepts and practices attributed to peoples viewed as civilizationally inferior – as a crucial and hitherto unrecognized body of evidence in the first two decades of the Victorian science of prehistory. It traces the changing and often ambivalent status of savage numbers in the period after the 1858–1859 ‘time revolution’ in the human sciences by following successive reappropriations of an iconic 1853 story from Francis Galton’s African travels. In response to a fundamental lack of physical evidence concerning prehistoric men, savage numbers offered a readily available body of data that helped scholars envisage great extremes of civilizational lowliness in a way that was at once analysable and comparable, and anecdotes like Galton’s made those data vivid and compelling. Moreover, they provided a simple and direct means of conceiving of the progressive scale of civilizational development, uniting societies and races past and present, at the heart of Victorian scientific racism.

Bender, Andrea, and Sieghard Beller. 2014. “Mangarevan invention of binary steps for easier calculation.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (4):1322-1327.

When Leibniz demonstrated the advantages of the binary system for computations as early as 1703, he laid the foundation for computing machines. However, is a binary system also suitable for human cognition? One of two number systems traditionally used on Mangareva, a small island in French Polynesia, had three binary steps superposed onto a decimal structure. Here, we show how this system functions, how it facilitated arithmetic, and why it is unique. The Mangarevan invention of binary steps, centuries before their formal description by Leibniz, attests to the advancements possible in numeracy even in the absence of notation and thereby highlights the role of culture for the evolution of and diversity in numerical cognition.

Berg, Thomas, and Marion Neubauer. 2014. “From unit-and-ten to ten-before-unit order in the history of English numerals.Language Variation and Change 26 (1):21-43.

In the course of its history, English underwent a significant structural change in its numeral system. The number words from 21 to 99 switched from the unit-and-ten to the ten-before-unit pattern. This change is traced on the basis of more than 800 number words. It is argued that this change, which took seven centuries to complete and in which the Old English pattern was highly persistent, can be broken down into two parts—the reordering of the units and tens and the loss of the conjoining element. Although the two steps logically belong to the same overall change, they display a remarkably disparate behavior. Whereas the reordering process affected the least frequent number words first, the deletion process affected the most frequent words first. This disparity lends support to the hypothesis that the involvement or otherwise of low-level aspects of speech determines the role of frequency in language change (Phillips, 2006). Finally, the order change is likely to be a contact-induced phenomenon and may have been facilitated by a reduction in mental cost.

MacGinnis, John, M Willis Monroe, Dirk Wicke, and Timothy Matney. 2014. “Artefacts of Cognition: the Use of Clay Tokens in a Neo-Assyrian Provincial Administration.Cambridge Archaeological Journal 24 (2):289-306.

The study of clay tokens in the Ancient Near East has focused, for the most part, on their role as antecedents to the cuneiform script. Starting with Pierre Amiet and Maurice Lambert in the 1960s the theory was put forward that tokens, or calculi, represent an early cognitive attempt at recording. This theory was taken up by Denise Schmandt-Besserat who studied a large diachronic corpus of Near Eastern tokens. Since then little has been written except in response to Schmandt-Besserat’s writings. Most discussions of tokens have generally focused on the time period between the eighth and fourth millennium bc with the assumption that token use drops off as writing gains ground in administrative contexts. Now excavations in southeastern Turkey at the site of Ziyaret Tepe — the Neo-Assyrian provincial capital Tušhan — have uncovered a corpus of tokens dating to the first millennium bc. This is a significant new contribution to the documented material. These tokens are found in association with a range of other artefacts of administrative culture — tablets, dockets, sealings and weights — in a manner which indicates that they had cognitive value concurrent with the cuneiform writing system and suggests that tokens were an important tool in Neo-Assyrian imperial administration.

Sherouse, Perry. 2014. “Hazardous digits: Telephone keypads and Russian numbers in Tbilisi, Georgia.Language & Communication 37:1-11.

Why do many Georgian speakers in Tbilisi prefer a non-native language (Russian) for providing telephone numbers to their interlocutors? One of the most common explanations is that the addressee is at risk of miskeying a number if it is given in Georgian, a vigesimal system, rather than Russian, a decimal system. Rationales emphasizing the hazards of Georgian numbers in favor of the “ease” of Russian numbers provide an entrypoint to discuss the social construction of linguistic difference with respect to technological artifacts. This article investigates historical and sociotechnical dimensions contributing to ease of communication as the primary rationale for Russian language preference. The number keypad on the telephone has afforded a normative preference for Russian linguistic code.