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.