Good Chronicle of Higher Ed article on a PhD in lit becoming a freelance writer

See this article, “Square Peg, Round Hole,” by Charles A. Goldthwaite, Jr. (actually his real name. Basically, Goldthwaite (I wonder if he’s any relation to “Bobcat”– remember him?) tells the story of how he was a freelance science and medical writer while in graduate school and how he “ramped up” his business after he couldn’t find a job with his new PhD in American Lit.

I think he’s giving some good advice here to folks who find themselves in similar situations– PhD in some form of lit in hand and no place to go. But, wearing the hat of a happy academic, I have to make two observations:

* Given all the science and medical writing that Goldthwaite has done as a freelancer, both as a grad student and since then, I kind of wonder why he didn’t try to “re-package” himself as a technical writing scholar? It might take a bit, but I don’t see it as much of a stretch. I might be totally wrong about this, but it’s such a “seller’s market” for folks who study and teach technical writing nowadays that my impression is a lit PhD who “does tech writing” would be able to get a tenure-track job in tech writing. One of my tech writing colleagues here at EMU essentially has that background (though he has very much left his literary studies behind), and I know a guy who was working on a PhD in literature at about the same time I was working on my PhD in comp/rhet who now teaches tech writing stuff in the business school at Western Michigan U.

Maybe Goldthwaite doesn’t realize that this is a possible route back into academia, or maybe the last thing he wants to do is teach tech writing. I don’t know. But I do think it’s something for him to think about.

* I have to take issue with what Goldthwaite is implying is the “curse” of his “whiteness” and how it hurt his chances on the academic job market. To quote at length from the article:

At my first mock job interview with a faculty member from my home institution, I was informed that I would appear “too white.” (My dissertation examined the uses of rock music and culture in American prose literature of the last 50 years, and white men have created the lion’s share of the source material.)

Having been white my entire life, however, I was unsure how to amend this shortcoming in the three weeks that remained before the real interviews at the Modern Language Association convention. Am I efficient? Yes. Able to fill a niche? I think so. White? Without a doubt.

Again, I can only speculate on the whole story, but I suspect the fact that his scholarly project focused on late 20th century American lit hurt his job prospects a hell of a lot more than his whiteness. The academic job market is simply saturated with folks who study and teach this kind of thing nowadays, and the result is an extreme “buyer’s” market. I wasn’t on any of the comittees, but we’ve hired recently in American lit, and the folks we’ve been able to hire are pretty impressive.

Second, I don’t think “being white” is a disadvantage because I don’t think the implication of reverse discrimination is accurate. Let me put it this way: there is no question that qualified job candidates who are members of some minority group (African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, etc., etc.) have a certain advantage on the academic job market. As they should– I’m a firm believer in the value of diversity in higher education. On the other hand, I don’t think academic hiring committees make choices against white candidates in the way that I think Goldthwaite is implying here; that is, I don’t think hiring committees say “we can’t hire another white guy.”

Beyond that quibble though, I think Goldthwaite’s article is a “must read” for the many folks in a similar “PhD in hand and no academic job” position.

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