"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Monday, May 23, 2011

Thanks, IHE, for Making My Eyeballs Hurt Today

It's the end of the day. I've been doing nonacademic, secretary crap mostly (you know, making restaurant reservations, calling the power company and leaving yet ANOTHER message about a billing dispute we thought was resolved but wasn't, researching random stuff I don't really care about). By 5:00, my eyeballs were starting to hurt already, so, thanks IHE, for making them feel even better with this little piece of career advice and the comments that followed.

The message of the article is generally one I support (the humanities job market is crap, so have a back-up plan if you're in grad school), but here are some things that irritated me about the article itself, as well as the comments it generated:
  • The author starts with the premise that "In a perfect, pre‐economic‐crisis world, the path from graduate studies in the humanities to the professoriat" would be a smooth and easy one. But it's never been a path as easy as the author suggests here. And the lack of historical perspective sets off the Old Guard from the get-go, who get all huffy-puffy in their comments about how baaaaaad it was back in the 70s. Their criticism that people have been talking about "a crisis in the humanities" for a long time is a fair one. How is the current "crisis" any more of a crisis than crises past? The problem we're dealing with, in fact, isn't a crisis in any real sense of that word. It's a systemic failure that's been screwing a lot of people over for a long time -- not a crisis but an ongoing trend that has been exaggerated by the recent recession such that many more people are now feeling the urgency of no longer lying to ourselves about the problems with the profession.
  • The "present" situation, as the author narrates it, isn't anything I recognize. Who the fuck finishes their Ph.D. in 4 years these days, given that most of us are teaching our asses off? I know one person in my starting cohort who finished in 4 years, and ze entered the program knowing exactly what ze would write hir dissertation about. In addition to the time-suck of teaching, few people know exactly what they're going to do from the start. Few people know EXACTLY even at the time they take exams. Research and reflection take time -- time well spent, IMHO, if you're going to get out 7-10 years later and be able to find a job as a professor. When we talk about the fucked-up state of the profession, it's important not to underestimate the amount of time the average person invests because spending a decade in pursuit of a career -- perhaps a third of your entire life -- is a more significant sacrifice than merely dabbling at being an intellectual for 3 or 4 years. Personally, I think the perseverence such an investment requires is an admirable and valuable quality that we are wasting by turning such people away from the profession when they ask for fair compensation only to be replaced by a newer crop of graduate students who don't yet know what they're worth.
  • The author misrepresents the current situation, as well as the systemic problems that cause it, by saying "There are no jobs." There are jobs, adjucnt jobs, and adjuncts don't just teach "lower level service courses" anymore. We do it all, with the possible exception of graduate classes -- and even that depends on the institution. It's important not to misrepresent the job "market" this way because doing so misleads people into thinking that "only the bestest and brightest" get the very few "real" jobs available, when, in fact, we've had "real" jobs all along. The problem is that when we earn our credentials and start demanding stable positions and fair compensation we get kickecd to the curb and told we're not good enough. Saying "there are no jobs" perpetuates the myth that academia is a meritocracy.
Best line of the article, which somewhat ameliorated the pain in my eyeballs was this:
Begin to suspect that the leftist virtue of the university conceals a system of privilege and good‐ole‐boyism every bit as sordid as the Corporate America you went to graduate school to avoid. Begin to suspect that the leftist virtue of the university conceals a system of privilege and good‐ole‐boyism every bit as sordid as the Corporate America you went to graduate school to avoid.
Oh, yes. It's easy to criticize corporate America, but at least those corporate fucktards don't try to disguise their motives. Jobs go to China because labor is cheaper over there. Duh! But don't put me in the same room again with another tenured professor making $113K (don't worry, there's another post coming to clear up what I'm talking about here) who responds to my gripes with "Yes, of course we should pay adjuncts more, but where is the money going to come from?" Dude, are you kidding me? Like, I'm sure this isn't your intention, but I'm hearing, "Let them eat cake!" I'm not saying you don't deserve your salary. But I am saying that my partner and family members who have been supporting my little academic adventure these past 10 years should not be (and should never have been) responsible for also subsidizing the education of the students you don't want to teach. There is a connection, you know. And it's not as if that book you just published was really groundbreaking. You could've taught an extra service course or two. I'd sure be willing to for $113K, even if it meant my book took an extra year or two to finish.

Best line from the comments was this:
Even in the humanities, the problem is not that there is no demand for college instructors. The problem is that most TT lines have been replaced by adjunct gigs. Bend, flexible labor, bend!
People do get better at teaching over time. It is a profession in which experience counts. Which is exactly why having a majority of faculty positions remain disposable -- knowledge workers replaced as soon as they pass their underpaid prime -- is bad news for the profession and bad news for the future of higher education. It is a long term trend aggressively exaggerated by the recession, and we should all be working to change it -- that is, if we care at all about the future of the profession.


  1. I teach graduate classes as an adjunct!

  2. I thought I remembered you writing that. It wasn't common at Grad University. I can think of only one example in my department, and ze was an adjunct in name only (i.e. not paid per course but had same job title as the semester-by-semesters), but "real" adjuncts, even those eithout PhDs, regularly teach upper level courses for majors at Grad University. I did, and it irks me, as I'm sure it does you, when people perpetuate the BS that teaching "lower level service" courses is all we do -- and that we do it mainly "to gain experience." Even if that were true, it doesn't justify the pay and working conditions.

  3. I got my PhD in the UK in two years. So four years is very doable. But, I did no teaching there and did know what I wanted to write before starting the program. As a result of having no teaching experience, however, I was unable to get a job in the US even as an adjunct. I thought that having two academic books and a number of peer reviewed journal articles would help me. It did not. I ended up teaching in Central Asia from 2007 to 2010 and then moved to Ghana.

  4. From what I've heard, average completion time in the U.K. is much less than in the U.S., and while there are some shared problems, it's like comparing apples and oranges. When I talk about grad programs, I am, for better or worse, exclusively talking about the U.S.

    I actually don't know a whole lot about U.K. programs, but I believe the difference in time-to-completion has to do with 2 things:

    1) Teaching. Most people in U.S. programs start out with teaching assistantships and end up adjuncts when their TA funding -- typically granted for 2-4 years -- runs out. You might get a fellowship here or there that relieves you of teaching responsibilities for a semester or a year, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Being fully funded without any teaching responsibilities at all is almost unheard of, even in Ivy programs. Unless you are independently wealthy, there is no way to get a Ph.D. in the humanities in the U.S. without teaching.

    2) Differences in program requirements. Again, as I said, I don't know a whole lot about U.K. programs, but in the U.S. coursework alone takes several semesters. How many depends on how much you're teaching, but it's typically 1-2 years of coursework. Add a semester for exams and another semester to put your prospectus together, and very few people start actual work on their dissertations until 3 years in. By that time, your TAship has run out or is about to run out, and you have to hustle for adjunct money.

    It's a terrible system. Sounds like things are a little better in the U.K. if it is typical for people to finish in 2 or 3 years. But then again, if you want to come from the U.K. over here, you run into the problem you had. You'd think a book or two would be enough, wouldn't you? Just another reminder that academe in the U.S. isn't a meritocracy, and for most of us, it's not "publish or perish" but "publish AND perish."

  5. Yes, it does irk me. And you know,t he time to degree? I so agree with you. Maybe that youngish guy with the wife who works full-time and does his laundry so he has nothing to do but write can finish in 4 years (or even 5). I don't know anybody else who did.

  6. The system in the UK for getting the PhD is better, but the job market is just as bad. A PhD is supposed to normally take three years in the UK and there is no course work per se. You have one tutorial the first semester that focuses on writing the dissertation. A lot of people take four years to complete. But, after that there are severe financial penalties levied on the institution. That is if more than 3 grad students take more than 4 years to get the PhD, public institutions lose public funding. At least that is what I remember was the policy.

    Having a British degree, however, and being a US citizen gives me the worst of both worlds in applying for jobs in the North Atlantic. Unless your degree is from Oxford or Cambridge, you are at a disadvantage in the US market. My degree is from the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies. It is a highly respected institute here in Africa, but few in the US seem to have ever of heard of it.