As the happy academic, I contemplate the profession’s journey to hell in a handbasket. Or not.

I’ve been working all day trying to figure out what my classes for the winter term (which starts tomorrow) are going to look like.  I was going to write “working my ass off,” but let’s face it:  working in academia isn’t exactly manual labor, a point I’ll return to in a moment.  It involves a lot of sitting, a lot of thinking, a lot of reading online and on the page.  It’s fun.  Hitting the gym and eating right to reduce the size of previously mentioned ass– now that’s work.

Anyway, earlier today via Facebook and Twitter, I came across this CHE article by Thomas “not his real name” Benton, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go.” It’s an article about why getting a PhD in “the humanities” in general is a bad idea, and it comes on the heels of a number of articles about how dreadful the job market is for academics at the MLA and, as this piece in Inside Higher Ed suggests, fields like history and economics as well.  I agree with at least two things in Benton’s article:

  • A lot of potential graduate students in his and my generation received bad advice.  “Having heard rumors about unemployed Ph.D.’s, some undergraduates would ask about job prospects in academe, only to be told, “There are always jobs for good people.” If the students happened to notice the increasing numbers of well-published, highly credentialed adjuncts teaching part time with no benefits, they would be told, “Don’t worry, massive retirements are coming soon, and then there will be plenty of positions available.” The encouragement they received from mostly well-meaning but ill-informed professors was bolstered by the message in our culture that education always leads to opportunity.”  I think that’s spot-on, and it makes me glad that my entry into graduate work in the late 198os was in an MFA program– not that that was a great career move, but the stakes were a lot lower than a PhD, and it was useful in lots of other ways.
  • Getting a job as a professor– particularly a humanities/literature professor– is not as easy as getting the degree, and getting the degree isn’t that easy either.  “They don’t know that you probably will have to accept living almost anywhere, and that you must also go through a six-year probationary period at the end of which you may be fired for any number of reasons and find yourself exiled from the profession. They seem to think becoming a humanities professor is a reliable prospect — a more responsible and secure choice than, say, attempting to make it as a freelance writer, or an actor, or a professional athlete — and, as a result, they don’t make any fallback plans until it is too late.”  Also very true, and I like the comparison of being a professor to these other less than “sure thing” professions.  You want a “sure thing” at a job where you can make good money, live almost anywhere, work on your schedule (within reason), and help people?  Be a nurse.

But as I skimmed and reskimmed the article during my day, while I was putting together the previously mentioned syllabi for English 328 and English 516, I got to thinking a bit more.

First off, what Benton (or whatever his real name is here) is saying is pretty much similar to what I wrote on my old blog almost exactly six years ago on my old blog in this post, “The Happy Academic, Part III:  ‘Should I get a PhD?’ (an answer in 3 parts).” Among other things, I point out in that post that the market in literature has been crappy for a long, long time.  True, the current great recession is hitting all of academia quite hard right now, but I don’t think it is much of an exaggeration to suggest that the academic employment prospects for those with PhDs in literature have been “less than great” since the mid 1970s.  So while it is true that the market for literature professors is grim, this isn’t exactly new.

Second, it’s pretty clear that what Benton means by “the humanities” is literature, or rather “Literature.”  The premise here is that everyone who teaches in an English department teaches American, British, or Medieval Literature, with a few obligatory comp/rhet classes.  But those times have changed, at least in departments like mine.  My department has about the same number of faculty now as it did 30 or so years ago. The difference nowadays is that the faculty are much more diverse– comp/rhet faculty, English ed faculty, linguists, journalist/PR faculty, creative writing faculty, and literature faculty. And even though faculty in English departments routinely forget this, there are lots of other “humanities” besides “English,” some of which traditionally have better employment options– communications immediately comes to mind.

Again, I’m not disagreeing that the academic job market in humanities and other fields is bad right now and that the job market in Literature has been bad for a long time; I’m just disputing the definition of “humanities.”

Speaking of the definition of humanities here:  someone I was reading today– I think Cynthia Davidson, but I’m not sure– pointed out that it seems kind of odd that CHE would run this piece lamenting the prospects of academic success in the humanities when just last week they were praising the possibility of the digital humanities. Which again raises questions about some definitions.

In the end, I think that Doug Downs’ comment on my earlier Facebook post is right:  to paraphrase, Benton is just kinda crabby and bitter, and he sounds crabby in that midlife crisis/post-tenure/”is that all there is?” sorta way.  It’s easy enough to be bitter about almost any job I suppose, but it does make me wonder what’s eating Benton.  Is it just that he was reminded once again that the prospect for new Literature PhDs is still terrible, or is it his own problems? Every job (and let’s not forget this– being a college professor is a “job”) has its downsides. But considering the fact that I was able to work today at home, online, and in sweat pants– not to mention I actually was able to do what I like to do– I kind of feel like Benton might be whining a bit.  As I like to say, it beats shoveling coal.

4 thoughts on “As the happy academic, I contemplate the profession’s journey to hell in a handbasket. Or not.”

  1. Hi Steven; (coming via James Schirmer on Twitter). I’m a classicist with a Comp Lit Ph.D. who has a traditional job, and it looks to me that crappy as the picture you paint is, it’s rosy in comparison to reality for people getting traditional degrees.

    BUT I also think a sea-change, or perhaps a foundering, is at hand, and that antiquated degree is close to becoming almost completely irrelevant. The confluence of technology and economy is, I think, about to push us over the edge into wonderland (and you could take that literally, if Sun and their Project Wonderland should have anything to say about it).

  2. I don’t think I’ll still be around academia (or anywhere else) in this time of which you speak, Roger. If anything, I think that having a college degree is more important now in American culture than it was previously, and I think there is some argument that some graduate work at the MA level is becoming the “new necessary” degree that distinguishes someone on the job market.

    But I’m talking about graduate work in more applied areas, like my own (teaching of writing/tech writing), like MBAs, etc. Not Literature, not the Classics.

  3. Ah–I just noticed a serious unclarity on my part. By “traditional degrees” I actually meant “Ph.D’s”–sorry about that. I agree that what we now call “college degrees” and “masters degrees” will continue to be important–I just don’t think they’ll be obtained by paying absurd amounts of money to institutions packed full of irrelevant scholars who couldn’t care less about teaching.

  4. I had a similar reaction when Benton’s column was shared on Facebook — “This is news? Who doesn’t know this already?”

    Benton seemed to be dredging up events from the past, either because of the bitterness you suspect him or because he wanted to get something published so he invented a “straw man.” He cites a hypothetical professor who advises students with “Don’t worry, massive retirements are coming soon, and then there will be plenty of positions available.”

    Later he cites the report that predicted those “massive retirements” but he doesn’t say when it was published — 1989!

    That report is more than 20 years old, and people figured out its predictions were not going to come true by the mid-90s. I know of no one who still advises students about job opportunities that will be created by retirements. Who has Benton recently heard giving that advice?

    That report, by the way, is William G. Bowen and Julie Ann Sosa’s “Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences: A Study of Factors Affecting Demand and Supply, 1987 to 2012” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989). I read it the year it was released, as I was making my decision to quit an unsatisfying job to pursue an academic career. Things turned out well for me, but I never give students the impression that similar success is easy or likely.

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