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.
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