• September 5, 2015

Dodging the Anvil

An Academic in American Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

The job market in the humanities this year reminds me of those old Road Runner cartoons. Wile E. Coyote, a self-proclaimed "super genius," is devising some elaborate plan to catch his dinner, usually involving the creative use of Acme products, but instead of dining on Road Runner, he falls off a 1,000-foot cliff, suspended in midair just long enough to realize his fate. As he lies on the desert floor, flattened like a pancake, Coyote looks up and sees that a large anvil is about to fall on his head. The Road Runner makes his "beep beep" noise, and the cartoon ends.

Even with some cyclic ups and downs, following the U.S. economy, the academic job market has been in a depression since the early 1970s, and—just as we were beginning to accept that things were not going to improve—we are now confronted with an even more desperate situation for the humanities job seeker. If we regard the Modern Language Association's Job Information List as representative of the humanities, then we are seeing the most rapid decline in advertised positions since the MLA started keeping records, 34 years ago ("MLA Newsletter," Winter 2009). Last year, at the beginning of the recession, the number of positions advertised in English declined by 24.4 percent; this year it is down by an additional 40 percent. Last year foreign-language positions were down 27 percent; this year they are down by an additional 52 percent.

I complained about the lack of tenure-track jobs back in 1998 in an essay I wrote for The Chronicle, "A Graduate Student's Life," but I had it easy in comparison with this year's graduates. Of course, my cohort had been encouraged to go to graduate school by two factors: the recession of the early 1990s and the prediction that a wave of retirements and growth in the undergraduate population would produce a hiring boom at the end of the decade. That boom never materialized. What did was an overabundance of graduate students and adjuncts willing to work part time for peanuts in the hope of earning a real, tenure-track job.

I don't think the current crop of humanities graduates can claim that they were not warned about the weak job market, but the situation is actually much worse now, if you are finishing a Ph.D., than you had any reason to expect when you started. If you once thought that a 40-percent chance of finding a tenure-track position was a risk worth taking (after maybe eight years of graduate school), then how do you feel about a 20-percent chance? Those odds made me feel like protesting for reforms at the MLA convention; the odds suggest either resignation ("What's the use?") or revolution ("Nothing left to lose; let's go out in blaze of glory").

I am sure there will be plenty of soothing talk about the coming rebound in the academic job market. As the economy recovers, institutions gradually may resume their normal hiring plans. If so, by that time, the market will be even more crowded, with a backlog of underemployed Ph.D.'s from previous years and lots of shiny new graduates, along with plenty of more experienced people applying for the more appealing positions. The job search is probably not going to be easier for you in a few years, even if there are more jobs available.

But that's an optimistic scenario. It seems likely that this is not a temporary setback in academic employment. I think we are seeing a structural transformation of higher education that makes the current situation—bad as it seems—the beginning of the new status quo. Traditionally trained academics are like Scottish hand-loom weavers in 1848 and German carriage-makers in 1910. We may look back on this time as a wake-up call after more than a generation of slumbering and inaction on a variety of interconnected issues, such as unsustainable levels of tuition and undergraduate debt, a shift toward practical degrees, a perception of the humanities as out of touch and overly politicized, an increasing split between elite and nonelite institutions, the need for just-in-time adult education rather than lengthy degree programs, the competition from for-profit education, and, perhaps most seriously, doubts about whether colleges are actually educating students effectively. And that's just the beginning.

While some elite liberal-arts colleges, and major universities with huge endowments, may weather this storm without big changes, most institutions are going to reduce student services and demand more teaching productivity, while requiring more-rigorous measures of assessment and accountability. Less emphasis will be placed on scholarly monographs—favoring quality over quantity—than in the comparatively flush past two decades, and more emphasis will be placed on fund raising, technological innovation, and partnerships with foundations and corporations.

Tenure-track faculty lines will not be retained, particularly in the humanities, as service-teaching loads increase, major and elective courses are trimmed, and efficiencies are gained by the creative use of new technologies, outsourcing, and automation of nonadministrative functions such as grading and advising. Full-time faculty members—as they become relatively few compared with adjuncts and other contingent instructors—are going to shoulder more and more of the administrative load, and will need to be qualified and willing to do so.

I am not saying those are good things, but changes are coming whether we like them or not. The next decade is going to be a rough time for traditional humanists, but it will also present opportunities for those who are prepared to adapt—or, better yet—already have adapted before they've arrived on the job market.

For your interviews, particularly the second-round, on-campus ones, make sure that you understand the stresses faced by the institutions to which you are applying, and that you have some vision of how you—and your scholarly work—might contribute effectively to the changes that are coming.

Graduate students should be reading publications on the profession as assiduously as they read the leading journals in their disciplines.

We are all more than a little nervous (even those of us who somehow managed to get tenure), and the demonstration of some confidence about the future—and the skills and strategies for meeting it—from the rising generation is more compelling than yet another scholarly project ("redrawing the boundaries," check) and teaching philosophy ("student-centered," check) that fits nicely into an institutional culture that is not likely to exist much longer. With so much uncertainty about the future, would-be academics need to be potential entrepreneurs and administrators, in addition to being able scholars and teachers from the time they are hired.

Beyond that, I do not have much advice for you—at least none that you probably have not heard already. And I am certainly not posing as some kind of role model for a successful job search.

Essentially, if you want an academic job, you'd better be really good at what you do. You should be at a top university (although sometimes less-famous institutions can be effective at local placements); have at least a few high-quality publications, preferably in top-tier journals; have a dissertation that's nearly a publishable book, preferably under contract with a university press; be a charismatic and challenging teacher; be socially energetic without being threatening; have well-known and well-connected advisers who will support you without any reservations; be willing to live anywhere; be prepared to work as a visiting professor and move a few times in the first decade of your career; and be willing to live with the possibility that you will always have an itinerant, insecure, poorly compensated existence.

But you knew all that already.

And let's face it, if you are someone with any chance at all of finding a job, then you've already done everything anyone could reasonably expect, and probably much more. I remember feeling insulted by people hired in the 1960s lecturing on how "a cover letter should address the responsibilities of the position." Well, "duh," as we used to say. You don't need me to tell you to spell-check your statement of teaching philosophy or whatever.

Given how much talent is concentrated in academe, being really good is not good enough. You also have to be really lucky—and that's something maddeningly beyond your control. I didn't possess all of the qualities and achievements I mentioned—I am certainly not charismatic; I was often quite nervous; my publications were second-tier; and my dissertation was not yet under contract—but I was also very flexible about location and willing to adapt to a wide range of institutional settings. And I got lucky. I know plenty of people more talented than me in every way who held out for the "perfect fit" for so long that nothing short of a prize-winning book could have revived their viability on the market.

The last bit of advice is something you do not want to hear, not after possibly a decade in preparation for the life of a traditional professor: If you have been unlucky on the job market with your doctorate in hand (ABD's shouldn't expect much success) for more than two years, and are currently in an unsatisfactory teaching position (not a visiting professorship or a postdoc at a well-regarded institution), then I suggest you cut your losses and look for options outside of academe—unless you really are on the verge of some breakthrough that will renew your career. Don't waste years that could have been spent building another career, possibly using your humanities skills and values, in the hope of beating odds that are increasingly stacked against you.

Accept that your hope of being a tenured professor has reached a dead end. Overcome academe's indoctrination process, which tells you that leaving academe means failure. There are other rewarding things you can do with your life, and you've got to get started somewhere. Don't rush into another graduate program or law school. Let go of your desire for prestigious affiliations. Find a job and let the status come later. Better yet, start thinking like a free agent or an entrepreneur, since you can't rely on any employer to survive long or to care about your prospects.

One final thought, which probably comes too late for the current crop of desperate job-seekers: What would graduate school have been like if you had never seriously considered the idea of becoming a professor?

What if, instead, you had pursued a Ph.D. simply out of a desire to learn, and with the expectation that you would have to develop an independent career path—instead of twisting yourself into some version of what the ever-changing academic job market seems to want? What if graduate students were not entirely dependent on a system of hierarchical publications, institutions, and professorial sponsors? How would things change if students were suddenly empowered to demand support for opportunities that really exist and for ideas that are currently not offered a space in the established academic system?

A generation of graduate students with no aspirations to become professors might finally bring about changes that have been needed since the profession ran off the cliff at full speed back in the early 70s.

It's certainly better than hanging suspended in midair, awaiting the fall, or, worse, watching helplessly as the anvil descends.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. He writes a monthly column for The Chronicle called An Academic in America that focuses on faculty life and culture. He welcomes questions and comments from readers directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com.


1. theo_gnis - January 04, 2010 at 09:05 am

This is, unfortunately, absolutely on the mark.

This article, along with all of your other articles, will be required reading for any student of mine who is thinking about graduate school.

Many thanks for your service to the profession.

2. viscommprof - January 04, 2010 at 10:09 am


Your trenchant insights go beyond the humanities. Indeed, internal and external pressures are forcing restructuring throughout academe.

Ironically, given the volatility of the job market in all areas, a liberal arts education will be more important -- and pracitcal -- than ever. Solid written and oral communicaiton, crticial thinking, cross-cultural awareness and other competencies are necessities in the current and future workforce in all fields.

There's entirely too much hand-wringing and self-pity in academe. We need to explain, defend and fight for the liberal arts for ourselves, our institutions, our students, our nation and our society.

Jack Zibluk
Associate professor of journalism
Arkansas State University

3. lms347 - January 04, 2010 at 10:15 am

Once again, you hit the nail right on the head (or the coffin, as it were). But I like the idea of revolution. What do all of you already-tenured profs have to lose by demanding that your universities fund humanities programs the same as they fund business or science program? Let's see--a future where tenure will be meaningless because there won't be enough tenured professors for the state to have any real barganing power? A future where administrative responsibilities prohibit you from embarking on the research that you want to do? Seems like the few, the proud, the tenured have as much (if not more) to lose from this brave new world of academia as we, the miserable job seekers do.

4. wasabi - January 04, 2010 at 10:23 am

A very thoughtful article Dr. Benton, but is your appraisal unduly gloomy? By restricting job searches to members only, it seems likely that the MLA.org job information list (if you were referring to job notices in hardcopy, that would be even less effective) may be alienating job advertisers and seekers alike. Is a decrease in the number of jobs posted there the best indicator of a waning profession?

A search of higheredjobs.com for job postings in the category: "Faculty - Liberal Arts - English and Literature"
and position type: "full-time," "four year," "community college"
yields 183 positions posted since September.
55 of those jobs were posted within the last month despite the fact that this is not the time when colleges typically announce vacancies. (Note: if one were to refuse to consider community colleges as an option, the prospects would indeed be dismal.)

5. amnirov - January 04, 2010 at 11:02 am

Advice: if you show up to an on-campus interview and you don't have some really concrete and specific ideas on how you can serve the institution, you can forget it. And don't mention serving on the curriculum committee. Everyone says that. We need people to sit on the workplace safety committee.

6. rmalamud - January 04, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Your articles are so honest, and so good. . . and also, so very depressing.

7. neoconned - January 04, 2010 at 02:51 pm

very good article, especially the bit out luck. it's true and anyone who pretends otherwise is kidding themselves.
but i think 2 years is a bit soon to pack it in -- i know personally of a number of people who adjuncted/lectured/visited or served at 4th tier institutions but who went on to get TT jobs in 1st and 2nd tier research institutions
my advice, rather than packing it in, is begin moonlighting as a grad student so that with luck you have a parellel career to shift into if necessary.

8. nacrandell - January 04, 2010 at 08:46 pm

As the anvil descends...

A successful pyramid scheme presents a simple-to-understand business plan with hopes of success yet without an end benefit.

In academics the mass positions for aspiring liberal arts majors never materialized and if you've read the Chronicle lately, some of the older profs are "volunteering" to teach course for the foundering schools for free. The business schools have enlarged their degrees to include BS in HR. These positions were formerly filled with Sociology, Psychology, and Anthropology graduates.

Graduate students are at the bottom of the pyramid and end up with a deficit otherwise known as student loans while faculty members ensure their course load with new promises.

Are liberal arts important and if so then why not stand up to the business schools? The cranberry growers successfully took Ocean Spray to court several years ago. OC promised the growers that if they increased production, then OC would market cranberries in force and new products. When the growers grew increased harvest and OC did not develop new product lines, the price of cranberries dropped. The liberal arts professors, sticking their heads in the sand while the business school enlarges their degree options, are responsible for "la student continuing their studies as they profited from full course loads.

Three cheers for Dean/Dr. Bernie Madoff from the university's grad school admissions department.

9. pappyjohnson - January 04, 2010 at 11:46 pm

"There are other rewarding things you can do with your life, and you've got to get started somewhere. Don't rush into another graduate program or law school. Let go of your desire for prestigious affiliations. Find a job and let the status come later."

Just find any old job, huh? There are lots of those available these days. Plus, nothing impresses a corporate hiring manager more than a PhD in English, Comp Lit, or Philosophy.

10. jovanevery - January 05, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Brilliant analysis. ANd much needed.

I particularly like your invitation to imagine graduate school differently.

The same could be said of higher education as a whole, probably.

11. alleyoxenfree - January 05, 2010 at 12:21 pm

The willingness of tenure track faculty to stick their heads in the sand and hope that what has happened to adjuncts and job seekers does not happen to them is very little discussed here. The fact is that they have been beneficiaries of this system as the presence of cheap labor has subsidized their ability to teach grad students over undergrads, pumping out more jobless grad students onto the market. One wonders why medical schools and libraries have been able to restrict degree seekers so as to keep their professions alive while liberal arts professors have not.

At the same time, the notion that tenure track faculty will shoulder the administrative load does not consider the strong possibility that with fewer fulltime and tt faculty, those left will soon be outnumbered by administrators and the entire system of faculty governance will slip away - as indeed it has been doing with the proliferation of administrators and student services personnel.

Just as Americans seem unwilling to believe in a climate tipping point, incapable of understanding that one big event, or a series of strong events, could alter the climate as we know it, current tt faculty seem unwilling to understand that life as they know it may soon all crash down around them. As faculty in departments that are closing entirely now see.

12. 12068801 - January 05, 2010 at 05:31 pm

Just one rejoinder to alleyoxenfree -- the majority of tenure-track faculty in the majority of humanities departments do not in fact have a lot of cheap labor available to teach their undergrads and subsidize thei research programs etc. They are simply dealing with larger class sizes all on their own, in addition to the heavier burdens of administrative and faculty governance issues you mention. I write this because there are lots of departments other than English departments, and many, many institutions which lack graduate programs. I'm floored by the new statistics we've been hearing about only 27% of the previous professoriate being tenured or tenure-track! We must fight in our individual departments to prevent further loss of tenure-track lines, OR give up and fight for a greater role in faculty governance etc. for NTT faculty.

13. evan97yo - January 06, 2010 at 03:46 pm

Tenured academics in the USA do not own the humanities road of research and writing, teaching and community service, because when the world's readers, students, and communities choose their professors there will always be some who will not require a tenured Professor, but instead choose according to their particular needs. So if you would advise supposedly untenurable folks to get off this road, then in service of what it's all about, perhaps you should consider "another career, possibly using your humanities skills and values," because rather than trying to discourage your downtrodden-but-indomitable co-contributors to this profession, "there are other rewarding things you can do with your life, and you've got to get started somewhere."

Some Ph.D.'s always have had dedication independent of academe's guilds and prestige economies: we know that no matter how we may labor for cash, we'll find plenty of crucial work to fill our careers in research, writing, teaching, and community service. We'll adapt our economic plans as circumstances may absolutely require, at our own judgment, and survive without changing careers, thanks.

14. maya2080 - January 08, 2010 at 01:53 pm

What if we all starting thinking about the PhD as preparation for things other than exotic tenure track positions? One of the things I don't like about the article is that, though "Benton" accurately depicts the reality of traditional academic work in the current reality, he continues to address his advice to those who would still hold out hope for such a position. For the rest, his only advice is not to do doctoral level study in the humanities. This is, I think, an unfortunate binary--one which, by the way, aspiring scholars in other fields have avoided.

What would it mean to think expansively and creatively about the kinds of work well-trained scholars in the humanities might do in, say, public policy and service fields? Journalism, non-fiction, and creative writing? Educational or religious leadership? How are our skill sets and content competencies valuable in connecting, for example, technological change and social meaning? How might doctoral programs be different if rigorous coursework in new information technologies, medical practice, ecology, fiction and non-fiction writing, publishing, management and leadership, demography, entrepreneurism, and so on were included? What if they included practicums in non-academic settings? What would it mean to envision our futures expansively and prepare for wider possibilities rather than seeing those options as "fallbacks" from the "real" academic prize?

You know, what if really exceptionally smart, well-trained people got deeply involved in the world outside of academe? What if your dissertation moves you toward that? Even if the "perfect" traditionally-configured position becomes available, I'd think you'd be so much better prepared to teach, research, and write for the world outside.

15. observer001 - January 09, 2010 at 02:34 pm

I agree with the author's advice to students considering grad school and agree that there is a major shift taking place.

However what is taking place is not a fundamental shift in the model of American higher education that provides social mobility and opportunities for people, but rather, a new model of access to it. Most of this contraction in number of tenure line faculty and humanities is occuring at state universities and lower tier colleges.

As people vote to degrade their state supported institutions (where the majority of American students have been educated) into trade schools more than elite universities, a corresponding gulf will widen between the quality of education and, just as importantly, opportunities available to the elite compared to those available to the middle and lower classes. (http://chronicle.com/article/A-Plan-to-Save-Americas/63358/)

Many Chronicle commentators (mostly smug, aged professors coasting out the end of their career at elite institutions: http://chronicle.com/article/Are-Too-Many-Students-Going/49039/) seem fine with this as they repeatedly assert that most of these students from the lower classes should not be in college anyway.
Perhaps the nation really needs less well-educated people than previous models have predicted and perhaps elite-quality education is wasted on the middle and lower classes. However this does not bode well for the nation maintaining its place as a world leader in higher education, scientific innovation or cultural vibrancy. (http://chronicle.com/article/The-Clouded-Future-of-American/63353/)

America's best universities will still have real professors and full arts and sciences curriculums. Despite the rhetoric about the benefits of 'practical degrees,' we all know that a Classics major from a 'Harvard' has a much better chance of a rising career trajectory in law, government, business etc. than any 'pre-law' or 'pre-business' major from a 'Quincy College.' However, if this model of vocational/technical/military education for the proletariat and liberal arts and sciences reserved only for the elite persists, like a new Victorian era, the elite alone will have access to the means to govern, control the economy, interpret the past and create the future.

16. john_drake - January 27, 2010 at 07:54 am

theo_gnis, I agree. I have my students read the Benton articles, too. I'm also having mine read the "Academic Bait-and-Switch" pieces about life in grad school. Here's a link to the most recent: http://chronicle.com/article/Academic-Bait-and-Switch-Part/63701/

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