Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hum PhDs Drink FREE!

But the glass is half empty.

And there might be a couple of holes in the bottom.

Oh, and possibly some chips on the rim that will cut your lip as you take that first highly anticipated sip.

Plus, the beverage may be just a little bit, um, toxic.

But, still, you know, it's free, and if you're one of the beloved humanities grad students who hangs out here, you will probably appreciate that today, what with all the papers you still have to grade, and the truly terrible, awful, horrible report just out from the Modern Language Association on the utterly sucktastic job picture for PhDs in English language and literature.

Go on -- Take a sip. Even if it's toxic, if you keep reading this, you won't care. (Sorry, Julie. I know you hate it when we go gloomy, but Eeyore is in the house today.)

Here is the opening to Inside Higher Ed's report on the MLA's job forecast, which we might shorten to, "Cloudy with a chance of mass suicide":

The job picture in the humanities is going from bad to worse.

The Modern Language Association's annual forecast on job listings, being released today, predicts that positions in English language and literature will drop 35 percent from last year, while positions in languages other than English are expected to fall 39 percent this year. Given that both categories saw decreases last year, the two-year decline in available positions is 51 percent in English and 55 percent in foreign languages.

The declines in each of the last two years are the largest ever recorded by the MLA, since it started tracking the trends in the association's Job Information List 35 years ago. The list has also never had fewer notices of openings. The MLA's job list does not include all jobs in English and the humanities, but over time, the ups and downs in openings on the MLA list have been an excellent proxy for judging the overall state of the job market.

"This is a historic low," said Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA. "We've never seen a recession like this." (Emphasis added, because Eeyore is a sadist and doesn't want you to miss a single depressing detail.)

Oh, boy, Julie is going to be mad at us.

Feal comments later in the story that the decreasing share of jobs that are on the tenure track now threatens the integrity of programs. "We've passed that tipping point where you cannot sustain a high quality overall educational experience when you've got 70 percent or more of the teaching done off the tenure track." Feal argues against the downsizing of graduate programs as a response to what she sees as "short-term fluctuations." The solution, she says, is "to increase the number of viable academic positions."

Which for some reason made my typist think, yet again, of the wisdom of Mr. Bruce Springsteen, who crooned, apropos of job losses a few years ago in the manufacturing sector of the economy:
They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back to your hometown
Oh, and if you lit critters were thinking of changing fields to improve your chances of finding gainful employment, think again. Inside Higher Ed reports that the situation seems similarly grim in other humanities fields, including history and philosophy.

Go read the whole story. Then go to bed. Dream pretty dreams about your fellow citizens coming to their senses one day and realizing that high-quality, affordable higher education is in everybody's interest. Imagine that we will have leaders, both on campus and off, who will have the courage and will to raise the kind of revenue it will take to fund such a system, in which the humanities would be valued, neither as the grammar police nor the entertainment wing of the campus, but as the bastion of critical analysis, creativity, reflection, and historicization it has always been. Then get up tomorrow, caffeinate yourself, and sit your a$$ down at the desk and finish that dissertation that you think is going to save the world, because the world sure as hell needs saving, so why shouldn't you be the one to do it?

Pretty to think so, isn't it, darling? Go to bed. You've got work to do.


  1. depressing. An entire generation of young Ph.D.s with crushed dreams... who entered the field because of love. Love for the literature, love for the work, love of teaching, love for their professors... reduced to adjunct status if if lucky. Between the shrinking job market and the downsizing of graduate programs, it looks like we will see a return to the days where only those who are well-off will be able to pursue a Ph.D. in the Humanities. Maybe President Obama will bail us out too. We are going to need some way to pay off all of these student loans, since adjunct pay won't cover it and doesn't come with health care.

    mmmm. that water was nice Eeyore... um... Roxie. Refreshing and only a few cuts on the lip. :)

    Hopefully I will find a teaching job in a glamorous high school setting. It is either that or I will be a very well-read waiter. Who knew this job market would be like the job market for actors?

    Do you want fries with that?

  2. Gathering rocks. I won't even be able to afford the Thames. Watch for me by the banks of the Anacostia.

  3. Julie, honey, if you are gathering rocks, I hope you will take them to Annapolis and throw them at Martin O'Malley rather than doing anything so pointless as taking a walk in the Anacostia. It's much too cold for that anyway. Hunker down for a snowy weekend with books, dogs, your girl, and your computer. As I said, you've got work to do.

    You, too, qta. Mama loves her some fries, but she'd like a little dissertation on the side. You are right to worry about the prospect of graduate study in the humanities again becoming the province of the economic elites. I don't foresee a federal bailout, but maybe it would happen if students and faculty really started pushing back in an organized way. We've got some thinking and working to do on that score, for sure.

    Back to your desks, boy(s) and girl(s) and gender-queer(s).

  4. This makes me more determined than ever to fight on campus and in our state. And Obama? What has he said about postsecondary education lately? We need to be noisy and quote Roxie widely on the value of the humanities: the humanities are the "bastion of critical analysis, creativity, reflection, and historicization."

    Thanks for this sober post, Rox. We have lots of work to do.

    In solidarity!

  5. Roxie, old girl, it is sometimes a blessing to know we elders will not live to see the worst of it.

    Know any young people reading Moby Dick these days, or Shakespeare? How 'bout all those talented classical musicians graduating from college just as more and more symphony orchestras disappear like another species going extinct?

    Universities are becoming dedicated to producing robots for a high-tech digitized world in a global economy on the verge of collapse. Liberal arts (unfortunate term, given how the society views the word "liberal" these days) are being replaced with first-class research institutions to better compete in the aforesaid soon-to-collapse global economy.

    In such state, reading good novels or poetry, expanding one's mind, deepening the capacity for critical thought, sharing conversation about art and culture, are simply unwanted, unneeded excess - and these days we are all about cutting excess!!

    Like humanities students, much less their professors.

    At Marquette University here, Ph.Ds are being hired as adjunct professors at $16,000-$18,000 per year - like those pilots into whose hands we put our lives every time we get on an airplane.

    What most folks are missing, Roxie, but which you and I know, is that the culture of Western civilization has reached its end, and it will go down with a bang, not a whimper.

    Meanwhile, there are still good books to read and red wine to sip with your friends. Just don't need to much, and you'll be okay.

    BTW, start with Alicia Ostriker's new volume of poetry. Now there's some brutal truth for you.

  6. Jaime Harker7:31 AM EST

    Does it ever give you pause to realize that all the privileges we enjoy as tenured professors depend on the grossly underpaid work of graduate students and adjuncts? Even before the economic downturn, we all admitted many more grad students than the market could support, because we like to teach grad students. Then there is a desperate pol of adjuncts to continue to support our privilege. It's not just those capitalsts out there who are the problem; tenured faculty are fat cats, too.
    I've experienced this from both sides, now-- the long, bitter years when I looked for a tenure-track job, and now, with tenure, at the extraordinary privilege I enjoy to do my own research. I am at a loss. I really wonder about any activism that doesn't require us to give up some of our privilege, in terms of teaching loads and size of graduate students. Yet none of us want to make our own jobs worse, nor give up what little leverage we have. I'm interested in your thoughts on this. As for me, I can't come up with a structural solution. I just try to mentor my own grad students and keep writing. But that won't save the humanities.

  7. Extremely courageous of you to write this. This concentration of privilege and lifetime security among smaller and smaller numbers of people is now a real cultural, social and economic crisis. Here in Milwaukee, the public school system has an unfunded mandate to provide more than $5 billion in pension benefits for teachers, a rising number of whom are approaching retirement years. Meanwhile, the schools and their students are beyond the precipice. I also ponder the mindboggling salary packages it now takes to hire university presidents and other administrative leaders - like CEOs in financial institutions, or professional athletes.

    It takes great courage to recognize one is on the privileged end of a rapidly fragmenting society where more and more are being left out of the economy altogether. It takes great courage to realize that this growing gap is not sustainable. It takes even more courage to recognize the injustice of it in one's own life.

    Thank you.

  8. Jamie -- Do you work only a few hours per week? Do you make so much money that you are in the top tier of our society? Do you ignore your classes and not care passionately about your students? If so, then you are indeed a "fat cat." I, however, absolutely refuse to accept that judgmental label.

    I chose to work at a public university when I could have gone to a very prestigious private. More than 20 years later, I have yet to regret that decision. I care passionately about public education. I care passionately about working to cultivate the public good.

    I chose to devote myself to education when I could have been making two, three, four or more times as much money in advertising or as a lawyer. Is that "fat cat" mentality?

    I have chosen a profession that requires *at least* 60 hrs per week ALL YEAR LONG in order to do it well (when I am only paid for 10 months of that labor). Is that "fat cat" mentality?

    I have chosen to teach more and more students (undergraduates) per semester, even as I continue to work with graduate students. And I have chosen to work with students of ALL stripes, not just the Honors students. Is that "fat cat" mentality?

    What you write makes me think that you advocate changing the teaching faculty entirely to under-supported adjuncts with no or minimal healthcare and no job security, so that anyone teaching anything powers don't like can be fired on a whim. Those who want to turn higher education into a machine "dedicated to producing robots for a high-tech digitized world" want exactly this: those of us devoted to education turning on one another, blaming one another. They want to divide and conquer us. Don't capitulate, don't let them succeed.

    And YES, I work with undergrads who love Shakespeare, who love poetry, who are dedicated to the performing arts. I refuse to let their work as teachers (yes, I mean teachers) and my work with them as their student and their teacher be trivialized as undesirable "privilege." Privilege of this sort is the kind we should curry, foster, continue to work hard in order to insure that it's available. If it is to be civil and is to improve the lot of the meekest among us, our society depends on this.

    Poverty of mind and poverty of education is violence, and it's a poverty we cannot afford. I work hard every day all day long to fight the impoverishing grind of a machine that would have us sell ourselves short and in turn turn away from working for the public good. I refuse, therefore, your indictment.

    In solidarity,

  9. Jamie -- not in my world. I don't teach at a research uni. I teach at a SLAC, and before that at community colleges. I teach a 4-4 load with one release because I'm on the "research" faculty (so 4-3), no release for being chair, publications and excellent teaching evals required, not to mention some heavy service.

    And my promotion to Associate took me just over the $50k a year mark. So ... I get that I'm privileged to have a job I love, with benefits and some security. And I think it sucks for people on the market (which sometimes means me, too), and I feel horrible that people I know who are good at this job can't get FT, T-T jobs. But I work 50-60 hours most weeks, and I kind of think I pay my dues.

  10. A hearty welcome to first-time commenters Jaime and Another Damned Medievalist. Great to have you here in Roxie's World.

    As ADM's example suggests, privilege in academia is a relative thing. I would add that when you consider what most faculty earn, even at R-1 schools, given their level of professional training, they are not hugely privileged. Compare their salaries to those of doctors and lawyers, for example.

    And I think it's an oversimplification to say that schools admit too many grad students because faculty "like to teach them." In a PhD-granting department, teaching grad students isn't just a privilege -- It's a responsibility. How else is the next generation of scholars and teachers to get trained? In Moose and Goose's department, there has been enormous concern about that next generation and genuine effort to improve the conditions of their work life -- by raising stipends, reducing course loads, and trying to keep class sizes reasonable.

    Further, it's been encouraging to see the solidarity between and among faculty, students (grad & undergrad), and staff in the activism that's gone on on various campuses this fall: faculty walking the picket lines with grad students at Illinois, students standing up at a town-hall meeting at QTU the other day to say, "We are with you. This is our fight, too."

    Faculty privilege is not the real threat to higher education right now. The real threat is the brutal economics of neoliberalism and the disappearance of anything even remotely resembling a politics of the public good.

  11. Amen to ADM, to Goose, and most especially to Roxie (who I'm so happy to see is still such a prolific and eloquent writer! And ALIVE, in spite of all of the negative prognostications.)

  12. Why, thank you, Dr. Crazy! I am delighted to be alive, however limited I may be in certain of my capacities. Upside: Since I can't walk, I don't even have to pretend to want to venture out into two feet of snow to relieve myself. The moms carry me out to the screened porch, and I discreetly relieve myself in relative warmth and comfort.

    But speaking of loss, and to return to the thread of this discussion, I would add that "fat cat" faculty have lost a number of their privileges in the last few years: Classes have gotten bigger, salaries have been frozen or cut (through furloughs at QTU in the past two years), and the bull$hit demand for "accountability" has cut significantly into the time available for research and writing. The image of faculty as spoiled and out of touch is a couple of decades out date, but shouldn't we all be working to expand the time/space available for research and creativity?

  13. Jaime Harker9:48 AM EST

    I had an earlier version of this that didn't appear to go through, so I'm trying again.
    It's so difficult to talk about this, because any discussion about faculty privilege tends to provoke defensiveness and alarm. Of course, privilege is relative, and compared to doctors, or lawyers, or administrators, professors aren't privileged. Privilege is relative in the university structure, too, in its elaborate hierarchy of public vs. private, research vs. teaching college, flagship vs. branch campus, and so on. Of course, professors are dedicated to their discipline, their students, and education, and could have chose more lucrative fields of work. We work long hours for relatively low pay, with fewer benefits. And we have all paid our dues, and sacrificed much to get where we are.
    None of this, however, changes the economic system of the university that I discussed in my original response. Compared to adjuncts, who work without health benefits for low wages, or instructors, who will be trapped at $30,000 a year with no possibility of promotion, we are privileged. More and more, the benefits we still have depend on the underpaid labor of these workers, who teach 70% of the courses. Our good intentions don't change the economic reality of this system, nor our own complicity in it. We keep producing PhDs to feed the underclass, even if that isn't our intention. Our faculty senates (and unions) rarely advocate for the untenured. We ask our students to interrogate heterosexual privlege, white privilege, class privilege, but we don't want to look at our own. And I do mean "we." I'll stack up my low wages and job search horror stories against anybody, but that doesn't change the fact that I, too, am part of the problem.
    I really don't know what we can do about it. We don't want to accept the loss of tenure track lines, but that means we don't advocate for the working conditions of instructors and adjuncts--and these positions aren't going away. We don't want to limit our graduate programs--and I don't know that we should, honestly--but so few of our students will ever get the positions for which they prepare. We automatically assume that bringing this up means abolishing tenure--which, you'll note, I never advocated, and don't. I don't know what the solution is--insisting on salaried positions instead of adjunct lines? Helping grad students find other work, and discouraging them from feeding the adjunct pipeline? Here's what I do know. We can never find any kind of solution to this problem until we acknowledge the problem, including our own culpability within a system that is inherently inequitable. What we need is actual solidarity. Simply claiming solidarity is a hollow gesture. Tenured professors are simply not in the same boat. No matter how disenfranchised we may be, we are still in an infinitely better position in the university than the untenured.

  14. Well put, Jaime. I think the only thing I disagree with here is the suggestion that t-t faculty don't acknowledge the problems you describe. Everyone is opposed to the adjunctification of the profession. It's just that nobody knows what to do about it. Yes, the tenured are in an infinitely better position than the untenured, which is why it's encouraging to see the sleeping giant of the tenured finally waking up and trying to figure out how to organize and how to respond to an economic crisis that now genuinely threatens all of us.

    Is unionization the answer? The moms have been talking a lot about that recently.

  15. Just to make some comparisons: with all that unemployment 'out there,' and graduates who can't get jobs, they are becoming some of the most exploited of exploited - working for free as 'interns.' This is how many companies, educational institutions, NGOs, etc. are avoiding actual hiring - by offering internships to this new enormous cheap/free labor pool, if lucky with some modest stipend.

    I want to point out that there is some greater collapse of the economic system happening here. Capitalism is not just in recession, it is in a period of adjustment, and among the biggest adjustments is this periodic shedding of excess. Productivity is way up right now in part because everyone, from universities to banks to manufacturing industries, etc. is getting more work out of their remaining employees (who don't dare complain with unemployment at 10-15%), and with far lower expenditures (things like lowering wages, eliminating a health insurance benefit, the end of the pension system, lower 401k contributions, temporary hires, etc.)

    This is a major and permanent transition. It impacts every institution I can think of. One result is the growing disappearance of 'privileges' such as job security and pensions. That we consider these things privileges shows how far our thinking has shifted in this culture. Unions once won good wages, the 40-hr work week, pensions, health insurance as RIGHTS.

    Feeling oneself shielded from this economic shift (shock, really) should make good-hearted people feel uncomfortable. It is not a personal offense or attack on anyone else to feel that. It is a recognition of something gone very wrong.

    The moms are right to start talking unions. But we have lost that sense of solidarity that finally made the labor movement so successful after decades of organizing and no small amount of bloodshed. It will take multisector solidarity - in this case, not just tenured professors protesting alongside students, but also parents and administrators and taxpayers and the communities affected, etc.

    We have become desensitized and incredibly ignorant as a culture to what makes social change happen, how power operates, what it takes to challenge power. This has made us vulnerable to losing some of our most basic rights. I watched the special on History Channel of readings from Howard Zinn's 'People's History...' Everyone should watch this, read this book again -- starting with our high school and college kids.

    Love you, Roxie! Your moms, too.

  16. Very wise, Margie -- we ARE going through a powerful economic shift and it is very telling that rights are being called privileges. Until we stop doing that, we will lose this fight (and that we're even talking in those terms indeed shows how much we've already lost). Everyone deserves a living wage, a pension, affordable healthcare.

    And that's one reason I increasingly support unionization. For one thing, unionization would help sort out the vast complexities of this situation. One can't simply make broad, sweeping statements about underprivileged, untenured adjuncts, for example. Many adjuncts never finished their PhDs and for a variety of reasons enjoy teaching a few courses. Those sorts of adjuncts are very different from PhDs who have been searching for a job for several years. Some adjuncts have job security and health benefits while others do not (often this depends on full-time vs. part-time, but sometimes not).

    I suggest that anyone who wants to point their fingers at privileged faculty point their fingers at the retired faculty who are offering to come back and work FOR FREE and thereby take jobs from newly minted PhDs in search of jobs, take up the slack in courses offered when full-time faculty are furloughed, and otherwise make it possible for the Machine to Grind Out Course Offerings while grinding up tenure-track jobs and the spirits of the tenured and non-tenured alike.

    Many of us who are tenured have been speaking up and against adjunctification for years, for well over a decade. I don't know anyone other than a gutless administrator who supports such a thing.

    We need to come together to smash this machine. As Margie says, we are watching a major realignment. We are living at the end of this empire. I'm committed to doing what little I can in the world of postsecondary education. We desperately need it for the common good and we must speak up for ourselves--our liberal well-spoken president has not said anything substantive on this matter, and we see little that is visionary from our new secretary of education. So we need to seize the opportunity created by that vacancy.

    We are all on the same side and need to resist those who want us tearing one another down. They have proceeded while we have done so, and now we need to come together and stop them.

    In solidarity (and that's no mere rhetoric with me; walk with me through one week of my work and then try to tell me that it is),

  17. Jaime Harker6:22 PM EST

    Did you see this article about California parents organizing against the tuition hikes?,0,1690272,full.story


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