For some years, an English professor named William Pannapacker, writing under the pen name “Thomas H. Benton,” has been writing provocative columns for the Chronicle of Higher Education, basically about the career of being a college professor. Given the current grim job realities (discussed here recently), his view has been especially bleak lately. In his most recent column, “Dodging the Anvil,” he likens the current job market in the humanities to a Road Runner cartoon, where Wile E. Coyote falls of a cliff and then realizes he is about to be flattened by a falling anvil.
He writes that the current horrible job situation for PhDs seeking teaching jobs
is not a temporary setback in academic employment. I think we are seeing a structural transformation of higher education that makes the current situation—bad as it seems—the beginning of the new status quo. Traditionally trained academics are like Scottish hand-loom weavers in 1848 and German carriage-makers in 1910. We may look back on this time as a wake-up call after more than a generation of slumbering and inaction on a variety of interconnected issues, such as unsustainable levels of tuition and undergraduate debt, a shift toward practical degrees, a perception of the humanities as out of touch and overly politicized, an increasing split between elite and nonelite institutions, the need for just-in-time adult education rather than lengthy degree programs, the competition from for-profit education, and, perhaps most seriously, doubts about whether colleges are actually educating students effectively. And that’s just the beginning….
Tenure-track faculty lines will not be retained, particularly in the humanities, as service-teaching loads increase, major and elective courses are trimmed, and efficiencies are gained by the creative use of new technologies, outsourcing, and automation of nonadministrative functions such as grading and advising. Full-time faculty members—as they become relatively few compared with adjuncts and other contingent instructors—are going to shoulder more and more of the administrative load, and will need to be qualified and willing to do so.
But Pannapacker says that even if you (as a job-seeking PhD) are up for such a “diminished” position, the chances of getting one are extremely low. I.e., in addition to being really realistic, you have to be really good and really lucky. Furthermore, he goes on,
If you have been unlucky on the job market with your doctorate in hand (ABD’s shouldn’t expect much success) for more than two years, and are currently in an unsatisfactory teaching position (not a visiting professorship or a postdoc at a well-regarded institution), then I suggest you cut your losses and look for options outside of academe—unless you really are on the verge of some breakthrough that will renew your career. Don’t waste years that could have been spent building another career, possibly using your humanities skills and values, in the hope of beating odds that are increasingly stacked against you. Accept that your hope of being a tenured professor has reached a dead end.
OK, Bill, but what do you really think?
As you (readers) may know, I am an untraditional academic; I don’t have a PhD, having started out in another profession (journalism) before becoming a professor in my late 30s. Furthermore, though my employer, the U. of Delaware, is a full-fledged research program, with a good-sized graduate program, in my dept. of English, I teach only undergraduate classes.
Therefore, I don’t have a strong perspective on these issues. But for many reasons, most of them obvious, I’m very interested in them. So I decided to seek out reactions to the column from some smart friends who are humanities professors in a more traditional mold. Here they are; and I’d be delighted if others weighed in, via the Comments section.
Rob Watson, professor of English, UCLA: I agree that job-hunting is even tougher now than when we were warned off doctoral programs in English by the leading doctoral programs in English in the mid-1970s.
And if Humanities faculty don’t start insisting on the value of what we do – the broad value to society, of course, which a technological era will not erase, but also the much underrated financial value of our teaching to our institutions – then it may get worse.
So maybe “Professor Benton” is right that people should pursue Ph.D.s without assuming they are a step toward traditional academic employment. This does not change my standard warning to undergrads who imagine graduate work as a way of extending, only in time, their engagement with the literature they love: doctoral programs are essentially pre-professional training, even if academia will no longer be the presumptive profession.
I also agree that the economy of arcane monographs has fallen into recession, partly because of technological changes, but also because so much work in my field was sent down dead ends that claimed to be higher ground during the last quarter of the last century.
Martha Hodes, professor of history, NYU: I sign off on a brilliant PhD dissertation every year or so. Two short years ago, a student of mine earned herself ten convention interviews and three campus interviews to land a tenure-track job at a flagship public university. Last year, an advisee faced several canceled job listings, but still landed an impressive number of interviews and a tenure-track job at a University of California campus — albeit with genuine pressure to accept the job before it disappeared into the maw of sudden budget cuts.
Now we’re coming up on prospective students’ weekend at NYU, where we try to lure the best candidates to enroll in our PhD program. I’ve always told prospectives that they had better love the process of getting the degree (the reading, the research, the writing, the teaching). What new wisdom shall I add this year? “You’d better be thinking about your future, because there may no be attainable goal in sight”? Or maybe, “You’d better *not* be thinking about your future if you plan to enroll in a PhD program in the humanities.”
Beyond luring students into our comfy, fully funded program, Benton offers the novel vision of grad students who have no aspiration to become professors. Now that really changes the game! — right inside our seminar rooms, where we pride ourselves on teaching to those who wish to replicate our own professional lives.
One more response: As for schools “requiring more-rigorous measures of assessment and accountability,” I’m already seeing this, in the cumbersome, unwieldy, and often incomprehensible forms that our administration asks us to create, generate, fill out, and file away.
Andrea Goulet, associate professor of French, University of Pennsylvania: It turns out that my son Jonah, in his 9-year-old wisdom, has articulated a perfect response to this article: a few weeks ago, he woke up one morning and announced, “I finally figured out why Wile E. Coyote dies so much and keeps coming back to life: he’s the Immortal God of Unluckiness!” Not too helpful, but somehow resonant.