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Job Market Update - The Unexpected Twist

On March 1, 2011, I wrote about the difficult state of the academic job market in fields such as mine: "digital rhetoric" and "new media" studies. Even with a specialization in "special needs pedagogy" (disabled students), the market is challenging. There are several reasons for this and I want to share those before I share my personal update.

Let me first point to a trend that has finally reached the university setting: "Software as a Service" (SaaS). For several years, and even before the rise of the Internet, companies and non-profits alike could pay to access software remotely. In fact, this was the original model of computing back in the ancient days of mainframe dominance. A company would "lease" time on a mainframe, housed at a data processing center. Universities would lease time on their mainframes, too. Often, smaller universities and local public schools would use a regional minicomputer or mainframe. Today, this is "the cloud" and "Web 3.0" applications -- really just the "centralized computing" model updated and repackaged.

For universities, the result is outsourcing of "learning management system" (LMS) and "content management system (CMS) maintenance and support. Companies like Blackboard house the computers and simply enable or disable software features based on a school's contract with the SaaS provider. This is great, in theory, because it spreads out costs among hundreds of campuses. When there is a software update, the software developer simply updates one set of servers and every client (as in academic site, not client-server jargon) instantly has the newest release.

One team of "usability experts" (that would include me), one team of programmers, one team of compliance experts -- namely the employees of Blackboard -- can serve universities globally. A university might hire a few designers, one or two people to support Web-based systems internally, but for the most part Blackboard offers a turnkey solution. I'm not needed to help install and customize an LMS, CMS, or CRM platform.

Specializing in online education might not have been wise. That's simply the way things work. Years ago, I knew a programmer who wrote accounting programs for small businesses. Today? Those businesses all use QuickBooks and the programmer has retired. Change happens.

The next thing that changed was student demands for courses: in a down economy, vocational degrees explode in demand. Approximately 19 percent of undergraduates study a "business-related" field. That massive number of students were drawn from other programs, especially the humanities and creative arts. Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors have expanded slightly or remained constant, but students are not pursing degrees they (mistakenly) believe don't lead to good jobs.

A drop in student (and parent) demand means fewer offerings in communications, English, journalism, and new media. It doesn't help that media companies are cutting employees, discouraging potentially great minds from entering media-related fields. If you're a 17-year-old pondering what to study and where, the draw of "media" courses and anything "creative" is rather slim right now.

The third swipe at the humanities was the alarming increase in remediation at colleges and universities. Students, often a third or more on any one campus, are not meeting basic requirements in English or math, so they must take non-credit courses to meet the most minimal mandates. These "NC" classes require resources: teachers, space, time, and so on. They cost the students money, too. As a result, an English department might have 20 percent or more of its total "teaching hours" dedicated to NC remediation. These are hours that professors are not teaching about great writers or inspiring the next generation of greats.

Faculty cannot teach four sections of remedial math or English and then find the time and energy to explain the thrills of scholarship in their fields. Imagine being a newly-minted mathematics professor… and you're asked to teach pre-algebra four times a week and one class of calculus. I love the idea of teaching high school, but I'd rather do it at a high school than a university. (It's a hard job to teach high school, so don't consider this an insult of high school teachers -- it simply is a different career path.)

In my field(s), the trend is to end up teaching "NC" first-year writing courses. I'm not a "composition" scholar and I admit that. I'm a new media researcher and creative writer. Helping students master the art of the term paper? That's not really my life's ambition. Again, there are wonderful, dedicated composition experts. These men and women are under siege because every person landing in an English department is assigned to teach composition. The pay for these posts drops, lower and lower, with administrators imagining (incorrectly) that anyone with a communications, journalism, or English degree must also be a good academic writing instructor.

Teachers of academic writing are among the worst paid, most over-worked, and least-likely to be tenure-track. I'm sure they're thrilled when someone like myself is asked to teach composition courses. ("He studied how color choices in a design affect online readers? And now he's going to teach writing?") Don't get me wrong, I love writing -- I am a poet, after all. But, I'm not the best scholar to teach composition. I'm more qualified to teach Web design, screenwriting, or any number of topics. But, all but three job interviews mentioned I would teach first-year writing with the promise of someday, maybe, teaching a new media seminar.

Finally, colleges and universities struggling to retain students have altered "core curricula" at campuses. Foreign language requirements were among the first to be dropped. Then, universities started to allow students to "test out" or "place out" of writing classes. Some schools ended any math requirements for humanities students, while other dropped humanities requirements for science majors. You get the idea: we allowed students to specialize and stay within their preferred disciplines instead of "forcing" students to receive a solid foundation in the liberal arts tradition.

Now, the good news.

I had several interviews after March 1. One of the universities has extended a job offer that includes researching online course designs. I should have an official announcement in two weeks or so.

Yes, there are jobs out there. They are not plentiful, though. Universities are focusing on those programs demanded by students and supported by politicians. I still would caution anyone against pursuing a doctorate outside the STEM fields unless he or she had a safety net. The job market has left several of my classmates "marooned" professionally. Thankfully, I have options, but many graduate students do not.

I believe I'm going to be teaching and researching within a great academic community. If hired, I will owe my job to a great colleague who thought of me when the post opened. I'm certain there were hundreds of applicants, so I did have to be qualified, but the referral helped.

Stay tuned.

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