Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Should Students Be Encouraged to Pursue Graduate Education in the Humanities?

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Should Students Be Encouraged to Pursue Graduate Education in the Humanities?

Article excerpt

Last January at the Modern Language Association convention in Seattle, Brian Croxall, one of the leading young scholars of the digital humanities--and a self-described "failure," since he does not hold a permanent academic position--began his talk with a PowerPoint slide of a rejection letter that he had just received from a small department of English: "Please accept our sincere thanks for your interest in the position. We received more than nine hundred applications, so it is truly the case that there are many, many talented scholars whom we are not able to interview." (1) With odds like that, Croxall observed, it might be time to rethink graduate education in the humanities, at least insofar as it trains students to become college teachers.

As The Economist recently observed, "there is an oversupply of PhDs" because "universities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour." Choosing to participate in this system--if only for the sake of intellectual growth--has the unfortunate consequence of undermining the profession those students hope to enter because, as The Economist notes, "Using PhD students to do much of the undergraduate teaching cuts the number of full-time jobs." (2) According to the current president of the MLA, Michael Berube, "adjunct, contingent faculty members now make up over 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges and universities." (3) Writing for the Manhattan Institute's online publication, Minding the Campus, Charlotte Allen recounts some alarming statistics: "In 1975, according to a 2009 AAUP study, some 57 percent of all university faculty either had tenure or were on the tenure track. Now only 31 percent of them fall into that category, while 50 percent of university faculty are part-time adjuncts earning next to nothing." (4) Since the beginning of the recession, the number of tenure-track positions advertised has dropped sharply, so one might reasonably conclude that the percentage of tenure-steam faculty is also significantly lower now.

During the last forty years, graduate schools have shifted most of the work of teaching from tenure-track faculty members to a variety of contingent workers, including graduate students, visiting professors, and adjuncts. Such workers are far less expensive than tenure-stream faculty members; apart from graduate students, such workers usually have no health benefits and no job security. Contingent faculty members can be fired--or rather "not renewed"--for any number of reasons, undermining the integrity of the grading process, the autonomy of the classroom, and the processes of faculty governance. In most cases, there is no way to enter the profession without contributing to this process by working for five or more years as a teaching assistant and, in most cases, serving for several more years--if not permanently--as a contingent teacher at multiple institutions. Moreover, the difficulties of that position are compounded by the probability that a humanities doctoral graduate has accumulated substantial debt, perhaps more than $30,000 in addition to any debt remaining from his or her undergraduate education. (5) The Chronicle of Higher Education regularly recounts the woes of recent graduates who are underemployed, burdened by debt, and without prospects for any career path besides ongoing contingent teaching or some form of self-employment. That outcome--the experience of many, if not most, doctoral recipients--is not reflected by what departments say about themselves to prospective students. (6)

Writing for The Nation last year, William Deresiewicz observes, "Most professors I know are willing to talk with students about pursuing a PhD, but their advice comes down to three words: 'don't do it.'" "At Yale," Deresiewicz continues, "we were overjoyed if half our graduating students found positions. That's right--half. Imagine running a medical school on that basis." (7) It seems safe to say that the graduates of most humanities programs do not fare as well as those from Yale. …

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