A Letter To the Academic Proletariat

December 4, 2008, 12:27 pm

Many well-wishers wrote in to sympathize with the hazards I encountered mailing recommendations to Ph.D. programs: thank you, I am better. Nothing was broken, and the bruises are fading.

But the pain is only beginning elsewhere. The thought that I was sending more unlucky holders of the B.A. down the chute to the slaughterhouse of graduate school raised this question for frustrated job-seeker and blogging comrade Sisyphus. “Do you ever feel like you shouldn’t be sending students on to grad school and contributing to the whole PhD ponzi scheme?” asks this industrious young scholar, who applied for over 60 jobs this year, fifty of which have fallen to budget-cutting. “Esp. when there are all these dire predictions about even undergrad degrees becoming priced out of affordability for the middle class? I’m trying to get an academic job right now and bad as this year is compared to other years, people keep telling me it will just get worse [from] here on out.”

I guess my first response is no, I don’t feel bad about it, because all education is useful even when you can’t extract profit from a degree in the way you originally planned to do so. And my advice is to stay away from these doom-and-gloom types who tell you your life is over without suggesting any viable alternative, particularly if they are members of your dissertation committee. They are only bringing you down at a time you need optimism more than ever.

But back to the question of our mission as educators, which is really what you are asking about, my dear Sisyphus. On Monday, (Not So) New President addressed the value of an undergraduate liberal arts education and its role in creating an innovative, flexible, critically-minded citizenry. “A liberal education remains a resource years after graduation because it helps us to address problems and potential in our lives with passion, commitment and a sense of possibility,” he argues. “A liberal education teaches freedom by example, through the experience of free research, thinking and expression; and ideally, it inspires us to carry this example, this experience of meaningful freedom, from campus to community.” In this vision, undergraduates become cultural and political workers who fan out into industry, finance, education, community organizations, and all kinds of labor to renew the nation. It isn’t just places like Zenith who articulate the value of what they do (because they must, really, it is such a great financial sacrifice for many of our students to come to expensive private schools.) Look on the web pages of most colleges, public and private, and there will be some carefully crafted rationale for the larger social value of an undergraduate degree in fields the chattering classes view as useless: philosophy, literature, classics, women’s studies. Individual departments, and professional associations, often feel the need to rethink the answer to questions like: “Why Study History?”

In other words, the liberal arts education is not a trade school, but it prepares students to undertake many trades all the same.

So what happened to graduate schools? When did they become trade schools that prepared students for one thing, and one thing only, teaching college and university? Tragically, perhaps, although colleges and universities have had several periods of dramatic expansion since the 1880′s, that has not been the norm: college teaching, I think it is fair to say, is in a prolonged period of stasis interrupted by repeated declensions. Recently, this is because education does not hew easily to neoliberal market models in which an industry only grows through supporting itself and reaping profits for investors. I think it is not insignificant that the university job market flat-lined and then began to shrink in the 1970s, at around the same time when public transportation and the Post Office, two essential public services, were forced to compete in the free market. And then, government more or less abandoned — then gutted — higher education in the 1980s as part of a multi-faceted Republican strategy for disempowering young people who had effectively organized as college and university students to promote social and political change after 1945.

That was the end of your job market and the birth of your voluminous adjunct market: the first year I went on the market, 1990, there were three jobs in my field advertised in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives. Three. And yes, I taught adjunct for two years before landing a job at Zenith.

I think that it is also worth saying the vast majority of Ph.D. programs do prepare their students for other useful work in the world outside the university, but a handful do not and should probably be held accountable for it by their professional associations — either that, or the professional associations need to be held accountable for their lack of leadership on this issue. Among this handful of fields that hand out a tin cup with the hood are history and literature; not unreasonably, it is the jobless holding these advanced degrees who have the most to say about their immiseration. And so I feel compelled to answer the question as posed by Sisyphus, who must continue to find some way to feed that darling kitty on her profile page next year.

1. Yes, sometimes I do feel that I should not be sending them on to graduate school, given the bad market. Like your local rabbi, I refuse them three times before accepting them to the faith. And yet, I find that without the help of many History or Lit departments rethinking their role in the world at all, many of my students have made some practical choices. Some are applying to history programs that combine the Ph.D. with a J.D.; others are applying to history and American Studies programs that offer a certificate in public history, museum studies or archives. Some students have used the history or American Studies degree as a leg up into a social science, public health (very popular these days) or a social work degree. In other words, while some of these young people will go on to teach, others will become public intellectuals of one kinds or another.

But I do wonder: how is it that this conversation about the terrible job market has been unfolding for over two decades, and cohort after cohort of graduate students find out to their great surprise after enrolling that there are no jobs? It’s never been a secret. But it is something you ignore because you want to be a scholar. Hang onto that, because it is an important thing to know about yourself whatever happens next.

2. Ponzi schemes are utterly fraudulent; graduate school is not. Because the Ph.D. cannot automatically be converted into a cash job reproducing knowledge as a professor doesn’t mean that you were cheated of those years. I think one of the toughest things about a bad market is that some people will get jobs, and other, equally qualified, people will not. And frankly, this will be the first time any of you will have failed. That it isn’t your fault doesn’t lessen the sting and self-doubt that will linger. What is somewhat fraudulent, I would argue, is the failure of graduate schools
to adjust your expectations prior to you going on the market, and the lack of responsibility many universities feel for your unemployability while they continue to churn out fresh cohorts of you with equally narrow training and expectations. This is something undergraduate institutions would never get away with: if you leave a private college with a B.A. but without the credentials or skills to get a job, it will be because you successfully evaded an army of well-paid professionals whose only job is to help you do that.

3. Who are these people who are telling you it will get worse? Having all but (by my calculations) 8% of the jobs in your field pulled from the market is pretty bad, in my book, and no, I don’t think it will get worse. I think it will get better. Remember that when a job is established, or re-filled, it is budgeted on the understanding that X amount of endowment is available to fund it and/or on projections from the next budget year, and everything is pretty volatile right now. But that doesn’t mean things will be good soon enough for you, I’m afraid: you know as well as I do that the half-life of any person on the market is limited. Yet, this is what could change: that beginning at the top — the Harvards, the Yales, the Princetons, the Michigans — graduate departments admit that their own hiring processes are discriminatory, and that they discard wonderful applications from people whose only flaw is that they have been on the market for several years. That then might jolt loose a conversation among undergraduate institutions about why we more or less discard applications from people who have never held a tenure-track job, or who have failed to get tenure somewhere else, but whose scholarly record is actually good enough to get them tenure at our institutions had they entered at a conventional time.

Obviously, Sisyphus, this is a complex problem, and I have hardly begun to answer your question. But perhaps my readers will finish the job for me? And don’t forget — you are an amazing writer. All of your readers know that: that is not an unmarketable skill.

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