Don’t mourn, organize!

6 04 2010

There are two Chronicle articles not behind the paywall that I first spotted last night. They’re both on graduate education so they must be published together in the paper issue of that periodical. The first I saw is a very earnest letter from a grad student in English. The last paragraph is enough for you to get the tone:

We, the humanities graduate students of the United States of America, do not want your pity, or your smug, self-congratulatory admonishments of our choices. What we want is your help formulating a path that will lead us into careers where we can be useful, not exploited.

The second, from an English Professor at my alma mater (U Penn), makes some suggestions that might help. As I’ve stated before, I’m fond of this one:

Graduate programs recruit students in the honorable hope that at least some of them will carry on the research and teaching that have served the nation so well over many years. While some minimum number of students is required to sustain a pipeline of new scholarship, we need to initiate a national conversation about the appropriate size of Ph.D. cohorts.

I also like 2 and 3:

2. Every graduate program in the humanities should include a truthful statement on its Web site about the realities of academic employment. Every program should also include a required (presumably noncredit) first-semester course aimed at introducing students to the professional facts of life. Such a course would review local and national information on attrition, time-to-degree, placement, prospects for tenure-accruing jobs, salaries, and the workings of professional organizations.

3. Every graduate program should also be required to maintain an accurate and current job-placement Web page. At a minimum, these pages would record the name of each student who has completed the doctorate, the year of completion, the date, type, and year of first placement and each subsequent placement, and the percentage of each cohort that has completed the degree within 10 years. At the moment, there is a troubling variability in the scope, accessibility, and accuracy of placement information from one program to another. In particular, a number of such pages do not distinguish clearly between tenure-track and non-tenure-track placements. And most do not include nonacademic employment.

These things are obviously designed to move supply more in line with demand. They also serve the added benefit of making sure that people who enter academia expecting wine and cheese parties every week have been adequately warned. The problem is that none of these things are going to help people who are already in the pipeline.

Here’s my advice for people who are in the pipeline and need help surviving. Join a union. If there’s no union for you to join (and there’s always the AAUP), then organize one yourself.

The problem is that all the forces that are proletarianizing* academic labor – shrinking state budgets, contingency, the lack of interest in the humanities – are too big for individuals to handle on their own. Like my favorite bumper sticker on my wife’s car says: “Everyone does better when EVERYONE does better.”

We in Academia are trained to think that there is an individual solution for all our problems. One more paper, one more interview, when my book (emphasis on MY) book gets done – then everything will get better. It will for a select few, but it might not for you and the reason is not necessarily your personal inadequacy but forces beyond your control.

That’s why everyone should organize. Professors aren’t that different than plumbers these days. We are skilled labor, which is a cost that most people don’t want to pay for. Come to think of it, plumbers probably make more than we do on average as you can live without college but a toilet that flushes is an absolute necessity.

* Did I really use that word twice in one day? Almost, different tense.




2 responses

6 04 2010
Caroline Roberts

I would like to suggest that, along with maintaining a job-placement page, the page also list what grad students who didn’t go into academia did. Helping grad students see potential alternatives to the tenure track can also help the situation.

PS–I want the bumper sticker that’s on your wife’s car!

Post Academic

15 04 2010
Steve Griffin

I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog. I came across it by googling “I hate teaching history.” I think it was your recent Civil War post that did it. I have an MA from San Diego State University, and have recently been rejected from every third rate PhD program I’ve applied to. I have a coauthored book coming out in the fall, and I’ve been teaching courses from 2007. I’m not sure what else I could have done to make myself palatable to the gate keepers out there who are directing the discipline into obscurity and oblivion. I don’t think its simply a matter of research goals or money. I think its academia’s myopia. Our discipline is too fragmented and petty. We as historians (and despite my academic rejection, I will continue to consider myself one) have allowed the discipline to be destroyed by outsiders. Economists teach economic history, gender studies programs teach women’s history, and all of it is ignored by the student population.

Your advice to organize is a good one, but I fear that even if we had a professional general strike, no one would care.

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