A little prelude about my feelings toward the Modern Language Association
(which are somewhat critical)
You may be surprised that these feelings have little to do with the organization’s executives, such as Rosemary Feal, who has, believe it or not, offered me quite a bit of back-channel support in the past year.
What defines the MLA for me is twofold: first, the general Stimmung of the convention, which for anyone other than the luckiest academics is one of scathing exclusion, sheer terror, and—at the panels—academic self-caricature (“I don’t have a question so much as a comment. Your research fails to be exactly like my research”).
And second, the MLA is defined to me (and other marginalized academics, as well as those few tenureds, such as Mark Bousquet, who speak up for us) by its membership’s total hand-wringing ineffectuality, which frets about “adjunctification” in general terms, but simultaneously insists that it’s most effective to make “change from the inside” and yet refuses to do a single goddamned thing to change the fate of adjuncts in their own departments across the country.
So as I talk about this report, please keep in mind that my issue isn’t with the MLA’s leadership—it’s with the MLA’s membership, which consists almost entirely of people who can both afford to pay the dues, and haven’t been so traumatized by the convention that they drop out for their psychological health (I am in the second group).
The MLA’s membership consists largely—not wholly, but largely—of people who have had more good luck than bad in the modern-language-humanities subset of academia. Some are lifeboaty about it; others are not; almost all have little to no direct experience of what it is like to be in academia’s not-so-silent majority, and thus little to no incentive to help us.
Therefore, I do not believe the active voting membership of the MLA represents the state of affairs of the modern languages as a whole, nor do I—despite my personal affection for Rosemary—believe it represents our interests.
Therefore, I find it largely unsurprising that the recent Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature offers “fixes” that are at best highly contradictory and unworkable, and at worst invested primarily—indeed, almost wholly—in the preservation of PhD programs and their faculty, rather than (to speak, for a moment, in academic jargon) giving two flying fucks about what actually happens to the human beings these PhD programs foist, largely unemployable, upon the world.
The Report in General
The Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature was compiled by sending
eight seven tenured professors (over half of whom hold some sort of fancy endowed title) and one “alt-ac” museum executive to talk to “directors of graduate studies, department chairs, and other administrators; graduate students; employers outside the academy; and the membership at large.” The first thing to note about the Task Force’s methodology is that the group largely avoided talking to the very people most affected by the abject cratering in humanities jobs in the past decade: adjuncts. Why do I say this? Well, first of all they did not list “contingent faculty members” in that litany. But, you say, they list “the membership at large”! Well, as I mentioned before, many modern-language-teaching adjuncts in the US (such as me) are not MLA members, because they either cannot afford it, or they do not think the organization represents their interests.
At any rate, the task force worked very hard on this, so I would like to work similarly hard to address their findings and recommendations, which range from “admirable” to “100% completely asinine.” I am joined at the end by the inimitable Adjunct Nate Silver, who has been kind enough to provide me with some actual numbers to append a few of the MLA’s more perplexing claims (such as the much-head-scratched-about 60% chance of TT employ in English).
So, let’s look at the report’s recommendations one by one. And let’s see where they’re coming from, take what good we can—and then as gently as possible, explain why this report, in large measure, will not help jack squat, and may indeed make things worse.
“Redesign the Doctoral Program”
The first recommendation comes from a good place: It seeks to solve the adjunct problem by using doctoral education to do something other than prepare graduate students to be professors (that is, adjuncts). This recommendation calls for the heavy professionalization of doctoral study; a tilt away from coursework and toward professionalizing “workshops.”
Sure. But on what? Teaching? I thought the “new” doctoral programs were supposed to be preparing grad students for “alt-ac” now, so why spend so much time training for teaching, something graduates will likely only do whilst adjuncting? Isn’t the whole point of this to avoid adjuncting?
All right, so these “workshops” are instead about public engagement, digital humanities, and being a “public scholar.” That’s great, except nobody can make a living as a “public scholar,” and nobody is given the platform to even BE a “public scholar” without some sort of highfalutin Stanley-Fish-style triple-endowed Professorship in Prestige.
And, finally, how on God’s green earth are a bunch of people whose professional expertise is pushed to its own limits in the act of college professing supposed to mentor people who don’t want to be college professors?
And, finally, and most importantly: WHAT THE FUCK IS THE POINT OF GETTING A DOCTORATE IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE A PROFESSOR? The idea of getting a doctorate with the sole or primary purpose of going “alt-ac” is bananas. Do you think that museums and nonprofits and archives are all crying themselves to sleep at night wondering where the unrelated humanities PhDs are to fill the reams and reams of open positions they have?
Why—really, honestly, why in the everloving fuck—would you spend five to eight years in the intensive and protracted study of a very difficult subject just to tangentially use your “research skills”? Is the re-imagined doctoral program just supposed to teach tangentially useful “research skills” now? If so, then all PhDs should just be “skills-based” Doctors of Researchology and have no substantive content whatsoever. Sort of like this recommendation.
“Engage More Deeply With Technology”
Yes, everyone, Learn To Code. Learning To Code will Fix It All. Digital Humanities! It’s all about DH, which if you didn’t know is the white-steeded savior of us all! All you have to do to be a successful humanist is learn to code and blog. Two things you by no stretch of the imagination need a doctorate to do.
“Reimagine the Dissertation”
One of my readers pointed out that this one reminded him of the “female” dissertations of the few brave lady doctoral students of the 50s and 60s—since you weren’t expected to get a real job anyway, you produced a small compendium of everything you read, instead of a proper dissertation that offered original research. I see the good intentions on this one, I do, but it also comes across like this: Since you are not as good as we, the senior professors on the Task Force; and since you will likely not get tenure-track jobs, and since this is entirely because, unlike us, you are not good enough: You should not be expected to write a Real Dissertation either. Why don’t you just do an interpretive dance? That sounds neat.
“Reduce the Time to Degree”
This is one of the recommendations that really gets der Hölle Rache koching in meinem Herzen (you can tell when I’m really pissed when I dip into Denglish). Noch einmal, I understand the good intentions here: Reduce “sunk time,” so that when the hapless Doktor is foisted upon the jobless hellscape, his or her childbearing years are not fully vorbei. Sure. However, the real result will be the following:
- Scores of people losing funding and getting kicked out after five years, leaving them in the sole condition worse than having a PhD: Having an unfinished PhD. This destroys lives. I have seen it.
- People with a true and real adoration for college teaching losing the only time they will ever get “belonging” in academia. Yes, for many academics, TAing and teaching in grad school will be the only experience as a college instructor they will ever get—or, at any rate, the best, as even grad students are usually treated like they “belong” more than adjuncts are. People go into humanities PhDs because they desperately want to be professors. Since most will not get to be, why take away the only time they even get to play at it?
- PhDs being cranked out at a faster rate, which means MOAR PHDS, which is exactly 100% of the opposite of what any of us want or need, with the exception of faculty in PhD programs, who want to preserve “accessibility” and “excellence.”
“Strengthen Teaching Preparation”
Wait, what? I thought we were all going to be Silicon Valley Codebros and museum archivists and Public Engagmentists now. Spending more time and money creating “better” teachers (when many of us are already stellar teachers, by the way) seems rather pointless when there are no teaching jobs. Making my hair look EVEN MORE AWESOME before I go outside is not going to effectively discourage that cloud from pissing down rain on it. The market of candidates is already unbelievably strong. You should have been teaching pedagogy and caring about it this whole time; this shit should be obvious; it should not be a revolution, and it will not in any way fix the jobs crisis or even chip away at it. Unglaublich.
“Expand Professionalization Opportunities”
As in, non-academic professionalization opportunities. AT THE SAME TIME we’re supposed to be bolstering teaching bona fides? How the fuck many directions are today’s “improved” graduate students supposed to be yanked in, before it stops being “innovative” and turns into “drawing and quartering”? Are we supposed to concentrate on making better teachers (and destigmatize the “teaching school,” which never should have had a stigma in the first place)? Or on encouraging students to train for five years to obtain a credential for which their “expanded” new professional opportunity is not even necessary? I feel like I’m on the world’s least interesting see-saw.
“Use the Whole University Community”
Stop thinking you’re above the librarian! This should be obvious! That it has to even be written out is shameful.
“Redefine the Roles of the Director of Graduate Studies and the Placement Officer”
Sure. In the words of Bad Willow from Buffy: Bored now.
“Validate Diverse Career Outcomes”
I agree with this one, which simply suggests that when a PhD chooses to leave academia, she should not be cut off, to echo and obscenify what Bill Pannapacker has already said, as if her dissertation adviser were a Victorian father and she a woman of ill repute. So yes, I agree with this, but I also find it pathetic that it has to be said out loud—and, largely, impossible to follow, as just telling bullies to stop bullying has never worked in the history of bullydom.
“Rethink Admissions Practices”
Unless you’re putting your PhD program “on hold” for five years while you wait for the market to thin back out to pre-2008 levels, you’re not re-thinking shit.
APPENDIX on “60%”
by Adjunct Nate Silver
SchumEditor’s Note: The part of the Report that infuriated a lot of its readers came when the task force, in an effort to show how badly the market in English has weakened, pointed out that there were only 600 TT jobs advertised in English, but 1000 new PhDs. This assumed that new PhDs would be the only, or even primary, pool for those jobs, which many of us found absurd. With more on just HOW absurd, here’s ANS:
The question is: How many people hired into those 600 advertised MLA tenure-track jobs are not included in those 1000 MLA Ph.D.s?
Looking at German, we’ve already seen that 20% of tenure-track searches were canceled or failed in 2008-12 (36 out of 183). Another 12 hires went to people who would not be included in a count of MLA Ph.D.s (degree from a German university or in a non-MLA discipline), which drops the number of jobs available by another 6.5%. So if we apply the German percentage to the whole MLA (which is kind of a dubious extrapolation, but you have to start somewhere), that leaves 1000 PhDs applying for 443 jobs.
But wait, there’s still more! Of the 183 positions advertised, there were 13 hires who were already in a tenure-track position, which drops the number of jobs that MLA Ph.D.s are competing for by another 7.1%. So for 183 advertised positions, exactly one third (61) were canceled, hired a non-MLA Ph.D., or hired someone already on the tenure track. If we’re pretending to only look at what those 1000 Ph.D.s are competing for, that leaves us with 400 positions and a 40% “placement rate.”
What should be clear by now is that “new Ph.D.s per advertised position” is an absolutely fraudulent way to think of TT placement rates. That advertised positions are not equals to hires is already problematic enough. But the pool of qualified applicants is absolutely not restricted to new MLA Ph.D.s. People get hired from other fields, from outside the U.S. (hello English, remember Oxbridge?), and from previous years.
The only legitimate ways to figure out placement involve tracking what happens to the graduates. Take the classes of 2009-11 in German, who missed the last good year (2007) as ABDs and have had several cracks at the market by now. Of those 245 Ph.D.s in German from MLA programs, 54 have been hired into TT jobs by now, or 22%.
I’ve looked at the sources for the MLA report’s numbers to see how they ended up with that 60% number. Here’s the key paragraph from the MLA report. I’ve bolded the sentence that gives them their 60% figure.
The best measure of opportunities for tenure-track academic employment for holders of language and literature PhDs is the MLA’s annual count of jobs advertised in the MLA Job Information List (JIL). Before 2008, the number of tenure-track positions departments advertised appeared to be aligned with the number of new PhD recipients (see Report). Between 2004–05 and 2007–08, for example, an average of just over 1,000 ads in the JIL’s English edition were tagged for tenure-track assistant professor, while each year from 2005 to 2008 the SED reported an average of just under 1,000 new PhDs in English. But the apparent alignment fails to take subfields into account and ignores graduates from previous years who also competed for tenure-track openings. The problem of a weak job market became only too visible after 2008, when the number of tenure-track listings fell rapidly. Since 2008–09, the English edition of the JIL has contained about 600 ads tagged tenure-track assistant professor, on average, while the SED has continued to report close to 1,000 or more new PhD recipients in English each year. Similar discrepancies developed for the other languages. This drop represents a dramatic contraction of the academic job market.
Let’s see what credit we can give them. At least they acknowledge that things were better before 2008. Comparing the number of TT job ads over time is OK, too, and good on them for noticing that the numbers nosedived in 2008 and haven’t recovered. They at least know to only look at TT ads and not all posted job ads. They have a sense that things might be different for different subfields. And they have a vague sense that people from previous years might just be applying for TT positions. (Those unlucky few who didn’t get a TT job right off the bat their first year out, apparently.)
I’ve checked the numbers, and they’re using decent ballpark figures, both for TT job ads and PhDs granted. One problem is that the MLA isn’t collecting their own data about degrees but is instead relying on the Survey of Earned Doctorates, whose coverage isn’t perfect. For German, “Personalia” and my own numbers don’t track the SED from year to year, but the averages over 4-5 years are pretty close. The numbers of TT and open-rank searches look more or less OK, too.
So the big problem here is what I already mentioned: dividing the number of TT job ads by the number of new PhDs is the completely wrong way to estimate TT job placement. Dividing 600 jobs by 1000 PhDs to get “opportunities for tenure-track employment” for 60% of your new PhDs is completely bogus. Comparing how that ratio changes over time is fine; using the ratio to estimate the chances for TT employment is not. It’s not necessarily malicious, but these people seem really out of touch with how the job market actually works. There’s a huge difference between “there are jobs for 60% of our Ph.D.s (and since we’re an elite program, I’m sure our grads will be fine; let’s let all those state schools bear the brunt of ‘reform’)” and “only 25% of new Ph.D.s from any program will find tenure-track employment.”