Tag Archives: Ph.d students

Fewer Humanities Courses, More Ph.D.’s

A new report says that humanities departments in the United States produced 5,891 doctorates in 2015, the largest since the numbers were first tracked in 1987.

Meanwhile, the chief market for those grad school grads, a tenure-track position at a decent school, has steadily contracted. Things just keep getting worse. The Humanities Indicators press release notes that regular faculty jobs remain below pre-recession numbers for the seventh year in a row with English and Religion undergoing particular declines in the last year, respectively, seven and 11 percent. So, each year academia produces more and more people competing for fewer and fewer jobs. This increasing stream of new doctorates at a time of ever dimmer employment prospects makes no economic sense.

Many young Ph.D.’s are taking adjunct jobs, scrambling to pay rent and hoping for something better the following year. They linger on the edges of the profession trying to maintain a career that barely exists.

Seeking a ‘Rightful Place’

It is easy to tell them to face facts and move on, to find something else. One friend from graduate school took one-year positions at state universities for two or three years, then dropped the whole thing and went to law school. He graduated and made a successful 25-year career in public and private practice and retired last year in comfort. Why don’t adjuncts and lecturers whining about low pay, no respect, and job insecurity do the same? They have strong SAT skills and can do well in the Information Economy. Why remain in academia on the bottom rung?

One reason is clear, at least for humanities Ph.D.’s. They spent six or seven years — all of their twenties — training for it. They logged two years of dissertation research and writing and can’t imagine throwing it in the trash. Most humanities graduates end up in adjunct or lecturer positions, not tenure-track posts. To walk away from academia is to admit a wasted young adulthood, to accept a personal failure. “I didn’t take all those seminars, read 500 books and 600 essays, sit at the feet of 20 professors, and devise a project of original research just for my own edification,” they grumble. “I want my rightful place in the profession.”

Each year when they receive the wrong answer to their 25 job applications, they get the message that the profession doesn’t want them. The feeling of betrayal grows. They did everything right—passing qualifying exams, writing good seminar papers, meeting with professors, filing a dissertation—but no final reward followed. The graduate programs that took them in supported and encouraged them for years, but now they’re on their own. The departments that awarded them a doctorate can’t help them anymore.

How the Tenured Benefit

We can aim a simple accusation at the professors in these Ph.D.-overproducing programs. Why take in so many graduate students who won’t ever win tenure-track jobs? We know the answers, though the professors don’t like to voice them.

  • Prestige—It flatters professors to have a research profile, and graduate students contribute to it both for the faculty and for the department.
  • Teaching support—With graduate students available to handle freshman composition and language classes in literary fields and discussion sections (and grading) in large first-year lecture courses in history, art history, philosophy, classics, and religion, faculty members are free to teach advanced courses and graduate seminars.

Those are substantial benefits for a tenured professor. The only cost for them is the sight of graduate students doing the work and receiving little compensation in the form of monthly pay or a job at the end of their training. It’s easy for professors to overlook that cost.

But there is another culpability, one that stands apart from the direct relationship between professors and graduate students. It goes to the reasons why the job market is so poor for humanities Ph.D.’s in the first place. Why aren’t there more jobs? Because the humanities at the undergraduate level are not in a growth mode.

Enrollments are down, and so are majors. General education requirements that used to be met only by courses in the humanities can now be filled by social science courses as well (especially by the “Studies” departments). Or, those requirements have been dropped altogether.

Where have the professors been while all this has happened? Certainly not on the front lines in making sure that English and the rest remain at the center of the curriculum. They have proven wholly ineffectual in keeping the fields strong and impressive on campus.

This is a case of people in a discipline failing to maintain it. We have had two generations of humanities professors who have run the profession but produced only shrinking enrollments and majors, fewer jobs, and the ongoing conversion of regular faulty lines into adjunct positions. Sales of monographs are low, and most journal articles get published and are hardly ever looked at again. The professors have claimed numerous breakthroughs in theory and practice, and one must salute the way so many academic novelties have made their way into American culture with great success.

But the state of their own disciplines is materially abysmal. They are the stewards of the humanities, and they have compiled a record of flat incompetence when it comes to the institutional standing of the departments. They have all the confidence in the world when ruminating over intersectionality and sexual politics, but when it comes to attracting more freshmen to the major, keeping humanities courses in general-ed requirements, obtaining outside money for programs . . . they know little or nothing. It reminds me of the northern European bishops who have presided over the utter collapse of the Catholic Churches in their countries but still presume to press certain reforms that other bishops who have growing congregations reject.

Is Resentment an Answer?

This institutional failure is, we should realize, a sterner indictment of the humanities professoriate than are the ideological and intellectual erosions that the disciplines have suffered over the years. To charges of tenured radicalism and theory hype, they have numerous answers. When outside critics complain about how the professors have politicized the profession, they reply that the professional was always politicized, yet in a disguised way.

But when they are told that the jobs went down again this year, or that the number of majors in their own institutions have reached a new low, they have no answers except resentment. It’s the fault of the corporate university, of careerist students, of a Republican, anti-intellectual culture.

These reasons sound like excuses, not explanations. They are an implicit confession that the professors don’t know how to make their classes compelling and popular (if undergraduate enrollments went up, the dean couldn’t keep pushing adjunct lines at them).  Instead of looking closely in the mirror and deciding to change their ways to set about making themselves attractive to 19-year-olds and respectable to colleagues in the sciences, they take the easy route of teaching their classes and going home. The shrinking of the humanities doesn’t hit them in a practical way except to make their classes smaller.

This is to say that market conditions mean nothing to the tenured professor. He is immune to downturns. The only way he can lose his job is through an administration that closes his department, and no administrator wants that to happen on his watch. The steady stream of bad news for the humanities is easy to ignore.

This institutional failure is more devastating than the intellectual failures of the recent humanities. We have had a leadership that has prosecuted Queer Theory, Political Criticism, and a host of other avant garde notions with a high measure of self-importance. But these putatively brilliant eggheads haven’t been able to preserve their own departments. They haven’t convinced undergraduates of their own value. They haven’t kept the administrators in their corner. At some point, one would think, they would acknowledge their failure and perhaps even question whether their whether their intellectual creations share some of the blame. But they’ll never have to. They have tenure.

A Pointless Glut of Ph.Ds

After years of decline, the number of PhDs is rising again—despite obvious signs that the job prospects for the holders of all these new doctorates are far from good. In 2009, the number of doctorates awarded in the humanities dropped significantly.  In 2005, the fields in total produced 5,210 of them, but four years later only 4,891.  That was the year the housing crisis hit academia and created an even worse job market for tenure-track aspirants than had been the case in preceding decades.  (The market for humanities PhDs has been weak ever since the mid-1970s.)  But while the job market has only gotten worse since 2009, the opposite has happened on the production side.  The number of doctorates award in the humanities last year jumped to 5,486, a gain of 12 percent since 2009.

The numbers come from the Survey of Earned Doctorates.  They raise an obvious question: why increase supply when demand falls?  Why do humanities departments take in more people, many more, than there are jobs?

It can’t be over-optimism.  For a long time, nobody has predicted that the market for humanities professors is going to improve.  The last prominent claim I know of happened in 1989, when a study headed by William Bowen forecast a shortage of professors in the humanities and social sciences unless the pipeline flows wider and faster.  A New York Times story on the report termed it “a major shortage.”  Bowen was quoted as saying, “We need to increase overall production of new Ph.D.’s by two-thirds.  In the humanities and social sciences, we need to double the current numbers.”  The main reason for the coming “serious staffing problem” was the expected retirement of all those professors hired in the late-60s and early-70s.  Upcoming job candidates with advanced degree in hand would be in the driver’s seat.  It would be a buyer’s market, with only 30,934 new candidates and 37,091 positions.

Well, many people did retire—and they were replaced with non-tenure-track teachers.  That led to a swelling population of adjuncts and one-year visitors and teaching post-docs, not regular professors.  And they’re bitter as hell.

We can’t blame them.  We should blame the departments that took them in and promised them a bright future, however implicitly.  The departments taught and trained them for seven or eight years.  They had students serve as teaching assistants in large survey courses and gave them their own freshman courses to run.  Then they pushed them out the door at age 30+, into the swirl of hiring, and forgot about them.

We can guess why the number of humanities PhDs jumped last year.  When the crash hit in 2008, college seniors faced a downsizing economy.  Why not go to graduate school?  You get a stipend, you’re good at reading and writing about books, and you can stay in the safe space of the campus.  Many of them, in fact, have spent little time working off-campus, and to continue in the academic realm when the real world is so competitive and unpredictable strikes them as a solution.

So applications went up in 2008, and now we have reached the time when many of them have finished.  The music they avoided facing eight years ago hits them today with the jolt of the opening chords of Schumann’s 4th.  Most of the people trying the job market in English this year, some for the 3rd, 4th, 5th time, walked away with nothing.

But the regular faculty couldn’t resist.  In 2008 and 2009, the applicant piles grew.  That thicker and stronger roster stroked their egos and met department needs.  “People want to come study with us!  We can have a few extra TAs to help with grading.  I can use a research assistant, too.”  More graduate seminars were needed, which allowed professors to shift from teaching a course with 35 more or less uninterested sophomores to a course with five graduate students who want to be in the teacher’s shoes.  When the thought of the job market crossed their minds, perhaps they rationalized it away by claiming to provide a superb humanities education that is sufficient justification for the graduate program.  Or, they believe that cream rises to the top and the rest must pay the price of inferior talents.

We would hear something different from the 32-year-old adjuncts and one-year lecturers who came to grad school with reasonable expectations of regular employment if they worked hard and did what they were told.  Any suggestion that their failure to get a tenure-track job was their own fault would be met with a huff.  “If I wasn’t good enough to join a college faculty, then why did you praise me in the seminars I took, pass me on the qualifying exams, approve of my teaching, sign off on my dissertation, and award me a doctorate?”

To the part-timers, the outcome feels like a betrayal or a dismissal.  It is especially annoying for them to see the number of PhDs rising at a time when they can’t get off the adjunct treadmill.  All those new ones are competitors!

But the fact remains: the numbers keep going up.  Or maybe not for long.  Perhaps fewer students enrolled in graduate humanities programs in 2012 and 2013, and we’ll see fewer completions in 2017 and ’18 and ’19.  But the problem of overproduction won’t be solved with but a tick of a few percentage points downward.  We have so many under-employed strivers piled up over the last ten years that it’s going to take years of large-scale retirements and a vastly shrinking pipeline for the market to even out.

Meanwhile, the craziness goes on.