The Grad-School Decline

More than 10 years ago, I decided to stop teaching graduate courses in English at Emory University.  The reasons were:

• the job market for Ph.D.’s in English was so bad that I couldn’t see participating in the system any longer;

• the steady prestige decline of the humanities at research institutions called for more faculty members to bolster their disciplines by taking on freshman and sophomore courses;

• a growing disenchantment with the research productivity agenda in the humanities.

An article in The Chronicle by Robin Wilson is forcing others to do the same.  It recounts declines in enrollment in graduate programs in the humanities at several campuses, including Emory (the  history department).  It offers three reasons for the cuts:

“Some of that is the result of an extra push to get longtime graduate students to finish up and get out the door. But universities are also purposefully shrinking graduate programs because they are reluctant to continue flooding the already swamped academic job market with more Ph.D.’s, and because institutional budget problems have reduced fellowship money for students.”

The job-market problem is the most compelling one, I think, and because of it the trimming should have happened many years earlier. What stands out to me in the article, however, is the reaction from professors interviewed in the article.

Here is one:

“‘The only place I can really use some of the research I have is at the graduate level, and now I don’t have someone to impart it to,’ says Anthony Colantuono, an associate professor of art history at Maryland . . .”

And here is another, a history professor at Emory:

“‘Training graduate students is part of the soul of what we do,’ he says. Emory’s history department has cut the number of graduate students it accepts by more than half, from a high of 16 in 2008-9 to just six this year. ‘For many people, they are defined by their ability to train grad students in a particular model,’ says Mr. Crais. ‘And without that, it is causing people a great deal of anxiety.’”

Here is the problem for humanities professors committed to graduate education.  Graduate studies in English, history, art history, etc. could never survive by themselves for very long.  Only if built upon the foundation of a solid undergraduate curriculum and steady undergraduate enrollments could it continue.  If undergrad enrollments go down, then departments need fewer professors, which leads to fewer hires, which leads to more Ph.D.’s without a job.  If professors focus too much on graduate study and not on undergraduate curricula, they veer further into specialization and insularity, making it more difficult for them to communicate the value and purpose of the humanities to people who don’t quite understand why the 4,003rd study of Macbeth is really necessary.

Graduate study shouldn’t be the “soul” of a humanities professor’s life and labor.  That’s the place for undergraduate instruction.   It’s not just a matter of principle, but a matter of practicality.  Financial conditions and cultural trends have forced that realization upon the humanities.  Graduate research and training  in the humanities, we shall realize 20 years hence, was a three-decade (say, 1975-2005) excursion, and it’s unlikely to arise ever again.

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