The Crisis in the Humanities: Solutions and Non-solutions

I have found myself struggling these days with the ethics of recruiting graduate students to our PhD program. Given the terrible academic job market in the humanities, how can I justify convincing a smart young person to give over years of his or her life to the PhD when I know that half the students who start don’t finish, and half who don’t finish don’t get tenure-track jobs?

(These are not our local statistics; they are generalizations of averages; go elsewhere if you want the specifics… the point is: the odds are bad.)

I wonder whether we should just cancel the PhD program. Or whether places with lower-ranked PhD programs than ours should cancel theirs. I wonder how many PhD programs it would take to simply meet the existing demand for tenure-line faculty in Comparative Literature.

And then I realize that if I had been in charge of the world in 1993, I would never have ended up as a professor, because the relatively low-ranked (but wonderful) graduate program I attended would have been shut down.

Now, n=1, and anecdotes don’t equal data, and so on: but I feel like I owe it to thoughtfulness to think about why I think about creating a world that I wouldn’t survive in, or in which people like me (and the large number of other happy, tenured PhD graduates my program) would never have the chance to make it as professors, because we would have been unlucky (or lazy) somewhere along the path from grade school to college. (After a highly privileged primary, secondary, and college education, my derailment–at least according to rankings–occurred at the graduate school stage of things.)

I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks; in fact in the new Printculture one of my self-assigned “beats” is going to be the various ideas about remaking graduate education today. One of the most prominent has recently come out of Stanford: a suggestion (which you can read about in this recent Leonard Cassuto essay in the Chronicle) to “track” PhD students in the humanities after the second year, allowing them to choose an emphasis on a research career, teaching career, or career outside the professoriate, with appropriate changes to the degree requirements as necessary. Students wanting to get a PhD and go into high school teaching, or publishing, for instance, might not have to write a dissertation.

Some commenters on the piece compare this “lite” version of the PhD to already existing alternate degrees–the Ed.D. (according to some), or the mythical Doctor of the Arts, a sort of super-Master’s degree.

The other thing Stanford is thinking about–though I doubt they’ll do it–is mitigating the ethics of having PhD programs by seriously cutting down time to degree, ideally to 4 years. (I do think I would feel less conflicted about graduate education if it only used four years of someone’s life.) But of course after 4 years it’s hard to imagine anyone, especially a student in Comp Lit, where most students need at least another extra language, doing enough work to put themselves in a position to get a professorial job (of any type). So… you’re back to 5 or 6 years.

Are there ways out of this dilemma? Why are grad programs in the humanities structured the way they are? How much of the master narrative of the “crisis in the humanities” should we try to be responsible to–especially once we recognize its manufactured, abusive qualities? To what degree is the fundamental hope and idealism¬†required to begin a PhD program in the humanities something that should be nurtured and praised, regardless of the job situation?

I’ll be dealing with all these questions and more over the next months. I invite the other PC writers to take up these topics and begin a longer dialogue with me and others on them.

2 thoughts on “The Crisis in the Humanities: Solutions and Non-solutions

  1. Very important discussion, and I look forward to your take on these questions. I’ve got a few opinions on this myself (which, admittedly, have been pickled in venom for some time now).

  2. I am really grateful that you’ve brought up these issues, and I hope, like you, that we can have a conversation about them in the upcoming weeks and months.

    From my perspective at a community college, the result of the structural inequalities inherent in the production and deployment of PhDs is a colossal waste of time and talent. The pipeline of talent is so backed up that, at my rather small establishment, we are getting adjuncts from R1 PhD programs — very smart people who would, in a better world, be gracing places like Madison and Chapel Hill. They are not doing what they went to graduate school to do, and the longer they’re teaching five or six sections of composition, the further out of touch they will be with research and their field and the less employable they will be at research institutions. The ones I know are, on the whole, too tired to think about the hope and idealism they came in with.

    I think you’ve pinpointed some of the problems with cutting off supply; you foreclose study to interested people, and you never know which ones will succeed and make a contribution. At the same time, we may be talking, sooner rather than later, about lottery/sweepstakes odds, and there is an ethical problem with asking people to take them. I know from experience that, even if you are told the odds are steep — a version of that Xtranormal animated cartoon with the synthesized voices, “So, You Want To Get a PhD in the Humanities,” that was so popular two years ago — you will always believe that you are good and smart enough to be the lucky one. And in the academic lottery, you’re not just dropping down a dollar, but years of your life and possibly some student loans.

    At the same time, I haven’t heard any ideas about increasing demand. I suppose that it is too much to think that anyone can roll the clock back and tell schools that they have to start paying a lot more for their labor because it’s the right thing to do. Doing something like that would probably require across-the-board unionization, and the campaign to get that happening would require enormous amounts of coordination and funding at a time when the traditional union forces that would help are embattled and having a hard time sustaining themselves. Unionization at my previous institution has been little short of disastrous. That university system has had the unions outsmarted from the beginning, and negotiations have been going around in circles for a long time, to the point where no one in a represented job classification has seen an actual raise in years.

    So, no real solutions on my part, but I hope that this forum will bring some to light.

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