Graduate school in the humanities is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon “the life of the mind.” That’s why most graduate programs resist reducing the numbers of admitted students or providing them with skills and networks that could enable them to do anything but join the ever-growing ranks of impoverished, demoralized, and damaged graduate students and adjuncts for whom most of academe denies any responsibility.
Those of you who were following the dust-up over this post by Marc Bousquet from about a month ago probably remember the division that me and others were making between supply-side and demand-side changes to this broken employment system. What I like about that paragraph (as opposed to the whole column) is that you can see both elements there.
Changing an entire exploitive system is hard. I’ll write about the problem, sign whatever petition that comes my way and even join the marches if they ever come around, but there is no guarantee that change will ever happen no matter how many people join the movement. In other words, I will support the cause of restructuring academic employment in the humanities with all my heart, but there still has to be a Plan “B.”
Limiting supply, on the other hand, is something that tenured professors can do rather easily. Take this example from the comments to the article quoted above:
I was a doctoral student in history when I stumbled into the realization that I would never have a “real” job in academics. One, exactly one, professor in my department refused to take doctoral students unless they could prove independent means. He was honest. After working as a clerk in the same library I had almost lived in for years, I finally decided on another job path: I became a registered nurse and was intoxicated with the multiple job offers. And I found the work more honest, more rewarding, and more diverse than anything in the academic world. I loved my academic life (although it wrecked my first marriage as it did to most of the others), but nursing, medicine, hospitals and caring for the seriously ill has been a real blessing.
Unless you work somewhere where you know your graduates will automatically get moved to the top of some very large stacks of CVs on the basis of your program’s sterling reputation (and there aren’t many grad programs like that around), we should all do our best to limit the supply of Ph.D.s because it’s the right thing to do for the likely adjuncts of tomorrow as our fellow human beings; unless, of course, the revolution actually comes (but I don’t plan on holding my breath ’til that happens).