As long as I have your attention: one more addendum on the state of the job market and decreasing tenure-track jobs in “the humanities”

Boy, mention Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman in a post about a fight on the Chronicle of Higher Education site and the hits just pile up! All of this and some tweets from Elizabeth “@badcoverversion” Keenan about trends in higher ed and non-tenure-track hiring and a whole bunch of tweets from Schuman this morning! Follow the link/follow Schuman to get the whole story, but here’s a screen-shot of those Schuman tweets:

A lot of what Schuman and her various followers are talking about is the job market in higher education, the tenure-track “haves” versus the non-tenure-track “have nots.” I get that. As I mentioned before, I have had survivor’s guilt in the past and I think it’s always a shame when anyone doesn’t get what they want/think they’ve earned/think they deserve. In my experience, a lot of people start PhD programs with wildly rosy world views about love of the field but by the end, after all the work and jumping through all the hoops, they want a freakin’ job. I understand that.  And I’m certainly not going to defend “the system” overall, in part because a lot of it is obviously not defensible, but also because there is no one “the system,” as I am attempting to detail here. Anyway, that’s what is motivating this addendum on my take on the job market– that and some procrastination from other things.

I think there’s reasonably clear evidence that there has been a decline in the number of tenure-track jobs in universities, especially in some areas like Literature, foreign languages, Classics, Philosophy, usually lumped together in the media as “the Humanities.”  This trend has been going on in U.S. higher education for at least 30 years and, on a macro-level, it is depressing and distressing. I think it’s become increasingly depressing/distressing in the last couple of years because of the attention higher ed has received about student loan debt, about things like MOOCs, about decreases in state funding, about “assessment,” etc., etc.

That said, I think there are a lot of subtle things about the world of non-tenure-track work in universities that complicate the narrative of “winners” and “losers,” of the “haves” and have nots.” All of what I’m saying here is anecdotal or based on my observations, so your results may vary of course. More or less in chronological order:

  • After I finished my MFA in 1990, I was an adjunct until I started my PhD program in 1993. But I was always a part-time adjunct, just teaching a section or two of first year writing at night while I had a “real job” as a temp and then as a PR Rep/Tech Writer for a now defunct state agency in Richmond, Virginia. I knew people who did the full-time/part-time/”road scholar” thing back then, but I always thought that was a bad idea for all kinds of reasons. It’s still a bad way to approach the world of part-time teaching,  I advise anyone I can to not do that, and I think anyone who does do this in the hopes of cobbling together work that will somehow lead to a tenure-track position is kidding themselves.
  • When I was in my PhD program between 1993 and 1996, I saw firsthand the strange irony of Comp/Rhet as a field. I knew plenty of PhD students in literature and American Culture Studies who thought it was foolish to study Comp/Rhet because all you’d end up doing is teaching freshman composition. But PhD students in Comp/Rhet were getting tenure-track jobs teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in writing and doing quasi-administrative work, and while most of us went into the field because we actually liked FYComp, we didn’t get much of a chance to teach it because we were assigned to other things. On the other hand, a lot of those folks who really wanted nothing to do with FYComp ended up teaching part-time or in non-tenure-track positions where a lot of the teaching load was/is– you guessed it!– FYComp. Like I said, it’s a strange and ironic field.
  • I started my first tenure-track job at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon in 1996. Ashland is a stunningly beautiful town about 14 miles from the California border. People used to come through town and stop in the English department office to drop off a CV and to plead for any kind of part-time teaching because they would do anything to be in Ashland. There were folks who had been teaching part-time at SOU for decades because they just could not fathom living anywhere else. When Annette and Will and I moved from there to southeast Michigan because of much better future job prospects (Annette was never going to get anything but part-time work there and I wasn’t exactly thrilled with my position), people thought we were insane.  Anyway, my point here is a lot of people end up as part-timers/non-tenure-track faculty because they decide to put other “lifestyle” changes ahead of an academic career. So be it.
  • I’ve been at Eastern Michigan University since 1998. EMU comes out of the “Normal School” tradition and still has an enormous number of students who want to be K-12 teachers and administrators. It’s an “opportunity-granting” institution that has always had a bit of an identity problem because it’s less than 10 miles away from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. My department– English Language and Literature– has had between 45 and 50 faculty for at least 45 years, which is to say that I don’t think we’ve really seen much of a decline of faculty lines in the department. But I have seen two trends that might make it seem that the department has gotten smaller. First, up until about 30 years ago, 30 or more of the faculty in the department were specialists in literature; nowadays, that number is about 17 (depending on how you count it). This is because there are now more faculty who are specialists in other fields within English Studies– Comp/Rhet, Children’s Lit, Linguistics, and Creative Writing– and also because our department has the unusual arrangement of including journalism and public relations.  Second, the nature of tenure-track work has really changed at EMU (and I think everywhere else) in that a lot of faculty are also quasi-administrators. This has always been the case in Comp/Rhet with WPA work, but I think it has become even more wide-spread.
  • The definition of “part-timer,” “adjunct,” “non-tenure-track faculty,” “lecturer,” (etc., etc., etc.) is a lot more complicated than the discussion I’ve read from some of these critiques from Schuman and others. Twitter “discussions” can be pretty ham-handed because of the 140 characters thing, but I haven’t read things a lot more subtle on Schuman’s blog either.
  • As the very useful Adjunct Project makes clear, there are of course part-time teaching positions (aka “adjunct”) where people get paid per course. According to the site, EMU pays “English” part-timers (that’s almost exclusively FYComp) $3375 per class, Washtenaw Community College pays around $2500, and U of M pays between $5500-$7985 for “English” (I’m not sure, but this might actually be in Literature) and $7500 for the Sweetland Center for Writing (tutoring and probably also FYComp– again, that’s just a guess). So even what it means in terms of money (and presumably qualifications) to be part-time at 3 institutions less than 10 miles apart from each other varies tremendously.
  • Then there are also full-time/lecturer/non-tenure-track positions at all of these places. We have them at EMU, and they’re unionized (as are the part-timers at EMU, actually), the pay is so-so, they get benefits, and they are more or less permanent jobs. I know there are similar positions at Wayne State because we have some recent MA graduates working in them. As I understand it, the University of Michigan has several layers of non-tenure-track positions. I know a couple of people reasonably well who have positions there that might as well be on the tenure-track. My point is simply this: it’s much more complicated than “either/or,” it’s much more complicated than “haves/have nots.”
  • So, to sum up and to respond to Schuman’s tweets above there in reverse order:
    • If you never assumed you were going to “beat the odds,” then why all the rage now that you have indeed not “beat the odds?”
    • The Comp/Rhet “bubble” isn’t a bubble; it’s simply about supply and demand. I think the market is tighter now than it was a few years ago because of the “Great Recession” and because there are perhaps too many PhD programs in the field, but it is still a field where people find jobs.
    • The reason why “the Humanities” thing bothers me so is because it just simplifies a more complex problem. I expect MSM to do that, but I find it depressing when people who I would assume know better do that. But no need to bow to Comp/Rhet; just acknowledge that there is no field called “the Humanities” and speak in more specific terms like German, like American Literature, etc.
    • No doubt you have to be devoted to the field to study it, to dissertate about it, to continue to engage in scholarship about it, and to teach it. I’m not arguing that people ought get into Comp/Rhet just for “the job.” But what I am saying is that anyone pursuing graduate work in a field which they love but also a field in which there are no jobs is setting themselves up for the rage and disappointment you have. This is one of the main reasons why I didn’t get into a creative writing PhD after my MFA: I knew the job(s) wouldn’t be there and I doubted my abilities and my talent.
    • And by the way, it seems to me that PhD programs in fields like German are perpetuating a sick and inhumane system by taking on students even as foreign language departments are closing down. If you want to address people who really could do something to “change the system,” talk to them.
    • It’s hard to pin down exactly the “systematic problems that made the field bad” and I’m not trying to ignore them. But short of a paradigm shift regarding funding for higher ed in the U.S. and an equally huge shift in what higher education is for– education/democracy rather than training/”a job”– I don’t see a solution.  Other than closing down some PhD programs in fields that are no longer in demand.
    • I find it strange that someone who so often takes on such an aggressive and angry voice in her writing about all kinds of things and in all kinds of places thinks I’ve been smug, full of scorn, and conducting a personal attack. Sorry you feel that way.
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