Monday, October 06, 2014

Clap your hands if you believe

I'm not writing here much lately because, in looking at CHE and IHE and ChronicleVitae, I feel as though I've seen these issues before, some of them a lot of times, and written about many of them (ditto).

But one that I'd like to see more specific data about is a trend whereby the PhD and inventive variants are promoted as good bets for working in various unnamed industries or libraries. Aren't librarians having trouble finding work? What kinds of industries? What kinds of foundation work?  The articles I've seen tout 3 or so success stories as the wave of the future, but what are the facts?

Sometimes the Ph.D. is promoted as an enrichment degree so valuable even if you don't get a job, you'll be glad you spent 10 years doing it, which might be true if you are independently wealthy or retired.

Sometimes they even propose expanding or creating new degrees that don't have the expectation of university teaching at the end of it, as in the recent kerfuffle at Cornell.  The descriptions of what exactly graduates would do are both uplifting and stunningly vague, as though even those proposing the degree don't have much of a concept beyond mad critical thinking and research skilz--good in themselves, but how about specifics?

Sometimes, it's not only an enrichment but something you owe it to the world to treat as a calling:
To sustain scholarly inquiry, we need scholars around the country and world engaged in research and capable of critically assessing each other’s work. We need to ensure that humanities graduates at all levels — in K-12 schools, museums, local societies, media, universities, and government — have the space and time to engage in scholarship and be part of the conversation.
Well, yes. Yes, we do need scholars.  Let me add the important corollary that scholars need to eat, and have health insurance, and maybe a place to live and a car to drive, even if you're not counting expensive, frivolous extras like having children.

The article goes on to say we need to address supply and demand:
On the demand side, we must expand the number of tenure-line positions in the humanities across the nation and resist the deprofessionalization of teachers and professors.
Well, done and done, then!

I should not be so cynical about this, but it is crazymaking to read something like this--"we must expand"--when none of this, none, zip, nada is in the power of ordinary academics to do.  We can try, but we do not control the money. Let me repeat: We do not control the money. We have little say over how it is spent, how salaries or research funds are allocated, and did I mention having no control whatever over allocations from the state or Board of Regents or whoever determines the university's budget?  For most of us, simply retaining a line when someone retires instead of having it snatched back by central administration is cause for feasting and dancing around a sacred idol.

When I was little and saw Peter Pan, there was a scene where Tinkerbell was dying and we all had to clap our hands and believe if we wanted to make her well.  Without more facts, these articles seem to me to be saying "clap your hands if you believe, and you will make it so."  I wish these confident assertions were true, but I want some investigative reporting rather than opinion pieces to tell me how they might be.


Contingent Cassandra said...

I hate to say it, but I really think a lot of the within-academia, professional-association bloviating on these subjects boils down to tenured faculty wanting to keep teaching (and/or teach more) graduate courses, rather than finding themselves back in the undergraduate trenches as grad enrollments shrivel. I'm not entirely unsympathetic; I'd love to teach a grad (or even advanced undergrad) class now and then, and I'd sure love to have research as an official part of my job description, and be able to make closer connections between that research and the classes I teach. I believe that humanities research is both rewarding and important (heck, I do it basically as a hobby these days), and I support it.

But here's the problem: in the current state of things, my tenure-track colleagues have 2/2 loads of most advanced-undergrad and grad classes, and have the time to do research (well, at least when they're not being overwhelmed with service, which is another key aspect of the current state of things) precisely because I'm teaching a 4/4 load of service classes, and my adjunct colleagues are doing even more. I've more than once suggested to someone (usually not in my own department, for obvious reasons) who was making one of the various arguments for maintaining/expanding grad programs that you describe above that there's already a several-decades backlog of people with Ph.D.s (and M.A.s, and M.F.A.s, and A.B.D.s) eager and willing to fill the sorts of jobs, both inside and outside the academy, that they describe, and that maybe we should work on creating the jobs first, and then, if and when there seems to be an undersupply of applicants, work on creating the programs to supply them. This does not go over well.

And no, none of this is in the least way new; the conversation is depressing similar to the one that was taking place when I was in (and even entering) grad school, 25 years ago.

sophylou said...

Yes, librarians and archivists are dealing with a bad job market, too.

Also, the library profession has an at best ambivalent reaction to PhDs. When I was in library school I was told by a librarian to take my PhD off signatures, cv heading, business cards, etc. (i.e., just present myself as SophyLou, not Sophylou, PhD) because drawing attention to it would cause resentment. Some institutions are more open to PhD librarians than others.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

We do not control the money. Smaller private schools that do not have large endowments are in trouble, faced with amalgamating or closing. State universities get less money from the states every year, and sometimes we even have to give back money in the middle of the year. Salaries are a contractual obligation, and are by far the largest part of our budget. Most states are in a demographic trough right now---some worse than others---so "better" schools are skimming off the students who might once have gone to their regional universities, and the regionals are scrambling for students, because if we're not getting money from the state, it needs to come from tuition. Maybe what we need is another Cold War.

Anonymous said...

Most foundation jobs pay like adjuncting from what I can gather. If people want work you have to drop the dreamy humanities model. Think: translation, interpretation, negotiation, localization; research for corporations like oil and gas entities; market research. I am not joking and no you do not need a PhD for these things, but they are things PhDs can do. Tech writing, you can make 6 figures. And there is more I do not know about, I am sure.

Same problem in science; you need MD, health professions are doing well. PhD leads to endless deadend postdocs, like adjuncting really.

The actual reason to keep your PhD program, though, is that it helps the department not be canceled. Losing it is beginning of end. We have one and we teach 3/3, including lower division courses.

Z said...

Oh and yes -- the people who write those articles have never actually looked for a nonacademic job, I am sure.

undine said...

Contingent Cassandra, it is indeed the same conversation. It always starts with "someone ought to do something to limit programs. How about you limit yours?"

sophylou, that's good to know. Work in libraries is always touted as the new hot spot for PhD grads, but on the evidence, I would say it's not a solution.

Dame Eleanor, good to hear from you! Everything you say is depressingly true. If Putin has his way, we'll even have the new Cold War.

Profacero, you've given some good ideas there. If tech writers can make $100k, then why would someone want to be a university professor?