In which I needlessly weigh in on academic searches and “the humanities”

I’m not entirely sure why I feel compelled to post about this, but here’s a meandering response to Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman that started with “Naming and Shaming: UC-Riverside English Gives Candidates 5 Days’ Notice,” continued with a response from Claire “Tenured Radical” Potter with “Job Market Rage Redux,” followed by many other posts by Schuman (too many to link to/summarize) responding in various ways, along with this post from Chuck “Dirigible Humanities” Rybak and this post from A Post-Academic in NYC about how there is no academic “profession” (about which I am reminded of a problematic argument from Baudrillard about how The Gulf War Did Not Take Place). Anyway, a few thoughts.

  • Whenever anyone in either the mainstream or the “education” media says “humanities,” they do not actually mean “the humanities” in the sense of including disciplines/fields like Art, Political Science, History, Gender Studies, Communication, etc., and they certainly don’t mean Composition/Writing and Rhetoric Studies. What folks writing about the “crisis in the Humanities” (or more specifically, the job market in “the Humanities”) mean is Literature– English mostly, but (as is the case with Schuman) other modern languages like German, French, Italian, etc. This is an important distinction. I can’t speak with any expertise about what it’s like to get an academic job in History or Poli Sci or whatever, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that the academic job market in Comp/Rhet is a completely different animal than the job market in Literature.
  • The job market in Literature (and here I am speaking of English specifically, but I feel relatively confident in guessing it’s like this in other modern languages as well) has been shitty for a long long time.  When I graduated from college in 1988, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but I was torn between getting into an MA/PhD program in literature or an MFA in fiction writing. I ended up in an MFA program because of the opportunity/assistantship at Virginia Commonwealth and because my GRE scores in literature were horrible. In that program, I was exposed to this field I’d never even really heard of as an undergraduate called “Composition and Rhetoric” that I thought was interesting in a variety of different ways. And besides that, I had figured out by about 1990 or so that the job market in literature was just too bad/too risky for my tastes. So I started a PhD program in Comp/Rhet in 1993.My point here is this was 20 years ago. TWENTY. And for those who were really paying attention to these things, the fact is tenure-track jobs in literature have been increasingly harder to come by since the 1960s.
  • So when folks like Schuman or Post-Academic in NYC or others express “rage” about the terribleness of the job market in literature, I have to wonder what it was they thought they were getting themselves into when they started down the PhD in literature path in the first place. I mean, I had (and I guess continue to have) a lot of “survivor’s guilt” because I’ve been able to land a couple of tenure-track jobs, mainly because I’m in a field that is considerably more employable than lit. But at the same time, I think a lot of their anger– and Schuman is angry, no doubt about it– comes from this realization that they didn’t beat the odds, that they fooled themselves (and/or allowed themselves to be fooled) into believing that they were somehow immune from the job market laws of supply and demand.
  • I think Schuman is right in her complaint (which I link to above) that is is bad form for the UC Riverside people to give their candidates only five days notice for the MLA interviews.  (Though way back in 1996 when I was on the job market for the first time, I had several interviews set up with less notice than that.) I think Potter is right regarding her analysis of the rage from Schuman et al. But what I think odd is the lack of questioning of the basic process, the face to face MLA interview. In the last seven or so years, I’ve chaired three searches and been on a couple of others, and we did the screening via phone conference calls (that was like five or so years ago) or via Skype.These late 20th century technologies (especially Skype) make the face to face screening interview at a centralized conference like MLA as ridiculous as asking candidates to arrive at the cotillion in a horse-drawn carriage. There are downsides of course, just like there are downsides to talking to people on the phone rather than in person. But we saved a ton of time, a ton of money (both on our side and on the candidate’s side), it’s dramatically more comfortable and pleasant, and we’ve been able to conduct successful interviews. No MLA, no thank you.
  • Most academic searches take about a full year and in many cases because of delays and asking more than once, several years. In my experience, dealing with “Academic Human Resources” (aka, the “wonks” outside of academic departments) can be ridiculously Dilbert-like and difficult to predict or control. I could go on, but my point is this: I have no idea what was going on at UC Riverside, but I guarantee you that no one on that committee said “Hey, let’s mess with folks and only give them five days notice.  That’ll be fun!” So for Schuman and her commentators to suggest they’re doing this on purpose for some reason is some combination of stupid and naive.

20 thoughts on “In which I needlessly weigh in on academic searches and “the humanities””

  1. I’m unsure why my post is included here–it mentions none of the people you discuss or deals with UC Riverside at all. It was actually unrelated to all of that.

  2. The rhet/comp market is flooded like lit now. Unless you specifically apply for WPA positions, you are fighting for the possibility of 1 or 2 interviews at best, with the likelihood of competing against 100 other applicants. Even with publications in respected journals and an extensive teaching CV.

    1. I don’t know, JMP. I haven’t been on the market in a long time, so it’s hard for me to gauge from the applicant’s side of the table. And our grad students are finishing with MAs, so I don’t track the PhD placement rate as closely as some of my colleagues who are working at places that have PhD programs. This is an educated guess, but it appears to me that what has changed the most in the last 10 or so years is the definition of what it means to be a “specialist” in the field has firmed up, which means that folks who did PhD work mostly in literature with only some classwork and scholarship in comp/rhet– “carpetbaggers” or “retreads” we used to call them– aren’t competitive for these comp/rhet jobs anymore. We’re not looking to hire a lit person who does some comp/rhet; we’re trying to hire someone who does comp/rhet, period.

      From my perspective as someone on hiring committees, I can tell you we have had challenges filling jobs with the right people. It certainly doesn’t feel like there is a glut of qualified people to choose from. Without going into exquisite details, I chaired a search last year where we had three rock-solid candidates (and we were able to hire one who is great), but the quality of the pool for our search dropped off pretty quickly after that. The year before, we weren’t able to hire.

      1. I would be curious what you mean by “the right people.” The cases I discuss above (including myself) involve those with purely Rhet/Comp degrees on the PhD level. Now…that’s not to say that those folks didn’t, at some point, publish or interact with the field of lit studies. I am one of those. I completed my MA in literature. Do you think in order to be the “right candidate” it would be best to leave that information off the CV? I’m asking seriously. I became a rhet/comp scholar because once I learned about the field, I fell in love with the research, with the emphasis on student growth and authorship, with how writers do what they do best. To police the boundary of the field so strictly as to ignore candidates with a background in literature seems rather ridiculous on many levels. But if you think that’s what it takes, I will certainly keep that in mind.

        1. Oh, I wouldn’t skip the MA in Lit on the CV for all kinds of different reasons. For one thing, it might raise more flags and make a search committee wonder why you left it off. For another, what matters most is the PhD.

          The days when people could finish a PhD in some field of literature and then, via some teaching experience, a few conference presentations, and maybe even a publication, be competitive as a hire for a comp/rhet position are pretty much over. And by the way, that’s reflected in the applicant pools too: the last couple searches I’ve chaired only had a three or four “non-comp/rhet” candidates in them; everyone else had or were working on PhDs from well.

  3. I was really hoping for some kind of correction here, or removing me from this post, or at least linking to it so that a reader could judge for themselves how unconnected it is to anything you’re writing about here, no matter how interesting or relevant it might be. You’re really mischaracterizing what I wrote, and out of professional respect I’d ask you to do something about that. That’s the idealist in me, where I feel like simply talking about these things will be beneficial, especially with someone you don’t know. But if you’re not going to do any of that, or link to the post, then as this sits this is pretty bad form, and I say that as respectfully as possible to a professional I don’t know in any capacity. So, a few points:

    1. You refer to my piece as being part of a conversation that it’s not engaged in, at all. The other pieces mentioned are actually in dialogue with each other and mention each other by name. Mine is totally unrelated.

    2. After mentioning my piece, you don’t once refer to it again for evidence–not once–leaving any reader to think that what you’re writing about somehow applies. It doesn’t. Not a single one of your bullet points applies to anything I wrote.

    3. To those bullet points: when I refer to “the humanities” I do indeed mean “the humanities.” I’m not actually in a budgetary English department; I’m in a Humanities department that includes all areas, thus I’m familiar with the job market and hiring practices in those areas. Why? Because I serve on the committees.

    4. Your second bullet point is about the job market in literature over time. I don’t write about that or refer to it once. My post post is about wasted talent in the academy, whether it was 20 years ago or now.

    5. Your third bullet point is about rage at not getting a job. If you’d read my post, you’d see that I have a job. That’s the whole point of the post–I’m currently serving on a search committee, which is what prompted me to write the post in the first place.

    4. Your fourth bullet point is about the specifics of the search process. I don’t write about that at all in my post. And again, like you, I’ve chaired searches and don’t need any of this explained to me, let alone mistakenly attached/applied to something I wrote.

    5. Your last point, also about the search process, applies to nothing I wrote. Again, I’ve chaired searches–like you, I could probably write a dissertation on the Rube Goldberg mechanism that is HR policy and procedure. And more importantly, I didn’t write at all about UC Riverside, their search, or the specifics of any search process and/or delay. At all. Not once. But there’s really nothing I can do to stop you from giving readers that impression.

    It’s not like anyone will care that much, but you have five bullet points above that don’t remotely connect with what I wrote, but yet here I am typing this. Again, I’m not sure why I’m included here, and if I could again say as professionally as possible, this isn’t very good form. If you stop over at my blog again there’s a post there called “A Few Words About Michael Berube”; it’s a post where I correct a wrong impression that I gave in something I wrote. I tend to be vigilant about such things when other people are involved.

    Have a good day. I hope you’re not feeling the effects of the power outage I’ve been reading about it Michigan.

    1. Sorry Chuck– I didn’t mean to ignore you and I made a link for the post I read (I thought I had done this before). I included a link to your post because it was just one of the more interesting posts I had read about “the market” and one of the few ones I read that actually is from the point of view of someone who has been on a search committee.

      And as a slight tangent: one of the problems I have with a lot of the social media “rage” as of late about the job market is it is coming from people who only have experiences as candidates/applicants for jobs. That’s understandable of course, but it means that they’re only getting a part of the picture and a surprisingly small part of the picture at that.

      Anyway, that’s why I linked it and why I think people ought to go and read it.

      1. Thank you for the response and the link. And your point in the comment above: now that’s something I think people need to hear more of. I’ve written about a similar issue with how actual funding pools work in higher ed, where I find a lot of folks writing about a process they are not actually all that familiar with (say, the difference funding pools that pay tt and tenured faculty vs adjuncts, rather than the assumed giant pool of money that can be dispensed at will). It is a tough task rhetorically, and one people don’t have much patience for: writing about and detailing the hiring process in a way that sheds light on the myriad factors outside of a hiring committee’s control (no matter how negative those factors might be)… you know, like writing a job ad, sending it to HR, and then have it returned to you rewritten in an unrecognizable form. Anyway, thanks for the clarification. Much appreciated.

    1. Oy. Maybe it didn’t work for PAINNYC because they don’t read carefully. Or maybe ze/she just didn’t read my posts here carefully.

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful contributions to the conversation in both this post and the one following. As a long-time comp/rhet teacher (20+ years in the classroom, about 80% of that time spent teaching First-Year Comp or an upper-level writing-in-the-discipline class), albeit one of those people with a lit Ph.D. (but/and a real interest in teaching writing), I would, however, suggest extreme caution in portraying comp/rhet as a field in which there are still “good” jobs (however one defines that), and/or in which it would be a good idea to start a Ph.D. (or a Ph.D. program) now. It strikes me that there are major, probably intractable, structural problems with comp/rhet, precisely because it is a relatively new field, one which has arisen within, and thus encodes some of the assumptions of, the present contingent-faculty-dependent academy.

    In my experience as a graduate TA, a part-time adjunct, and, now, a full-time contingent (with experience at everything from an Ivy-League university to a conservatory in the process; the only major kinds of schools I haven’t taught at are a private liberal arts college or a community college), I’ve yet to see a writing/comp/rhet program that functions like a traditional (i.e. traditional as of 2 or 3 decades ago) department, with a majority of the teaching faculty either possessing or eligible for tenure or its equivalent (i.e. equal or potentially equal in rank), and leadership of the department/program rotating among at least a subset of the more senior faculty. The fact that there is a far more active association (e-list, etc.) of Writing Program Administrators than there is of English Department Chairs (though the latter exists), and the fact that Writing Program Administrator is a career track, not a position temporarily held by a member of the teaching/research faculty, strike me as symptomatic. There’s a ratio issue:because rhet/comp jobs are, indeed, almost always at least semi-administrative, every tenure-track job in rhet/comp seems to require that there be a certain number of people for the incumbent of the job to serve as administrator to/over, and those people are nearly always of lesser status than the administrator, sometimes temporarily (grad students, who eventually have to go somewhere, and also need to be replaced regularly if the program is to function), or permanently (contingent faculty of some sort, all of whom were once grad students). I don’t question that there have been administrator openings for rhet/comp Ph.D.s in the last decade or two, as the field (and the need for administrators to manage ever-larger numbers of contingent faculty and/or TAs) grew, but I suspect that that market might be reaching saturation. At that point, you may have an even worse situation than that of lit departments/programs, since the assumption of a permanent hierarchy (rather than rotating leadership) seems to be built into the professional language and training of the field. Maybe that will change as there’s no longer a disciplinary distinction between administrators and the adminstered (since more rhet/comp Ph.D.s will undoubtedly find themselves among the administered), but it does seem likely that such a shift will require a cultural change (not that moving back to a mostly-tenure-eligible lit faculty wouldn’t require such a change, but at least there’s a tradition/ideal there that doesn’t seem to be present in the rhet/comp field).

    At least rhet/comp has the advantage of being a true teaching/scholarly field (as opposed to, say, higher education administration, another field in which it’s increasingly possible to get both a graduate degree and, at least at present, a job), but I still worry about holding it up as an ideal, or even a bright spot. There are, I suspect, some difficult times, and some need for soul-searching, ahead.

  5. SK; think you are on the right track.
    My daughter is “only’ an undergrad sophomore, and she is smart enough to spend time thinking about majors and jobs.

    As to the arrogance of TT faculty: doesn’t anyone have any sense of academic history – maybe from reading Galbraith’s memoirs, or that funny Sontagish day at yale on Crooked timber a few months ago ?

    Doesn’t anyone have any sense of history, and how in the past, except for Harvard, TT faculty was a penurious job ?
    as they used to say, Harvard paid twice Princeton, and Princeton twice everyone else, so when Harvard called…

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