Schuman’s Report on the MLA Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature

 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.


and now…

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.”


57 thoughts on “Schuman’s Report on the MLA Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature

    1. Totally agree. The AHA has identical problems. It just plunked down 1.6 million for 4 schools to somehow figure it out. ( As a freelancing PhD from one of the four schools, and someone who recently complained to the director of professional development in the department about my former adviser, I’m not exactly sure what the money is going to do. If it could go into brainwashing tenured professors into having better attitudes toward their doctoral students on the market or producing PhDs, that might actually work.


  1. This is the best summary of the “task force of nothingness / wait…what?” I’ve seen. I’ve attempted to read it once but, especially since I’m on vacation (I’m supposed to prepare for exams, but I’ve discovered stuff like sleeping, feeling healthy, and having a life, and I’m reading a lot…for fun, so whatever), I didn’t bother reading it, which entails translating the bs into understandable language. I’m glad you did it. I’ve also stopped paying the MLA membership and I’ve used the money for other stuff (like buying lactose-free organic milk). Love your writing. I’m a secret-super fan.


  2. The more I interact with faculty and grad students outside of my own field (chemistry), the more this whole system baffles and angers me. I wish you the best of luck.

    BTW, it’s tempting (for me, at least) to joke that the 60% figure is the result of English majors not learning any math. That’s not really the case. Nor is it due to inappropriately using statistics. I do a lot of calculations like this for research (and I make my share of mistakes when I do) so I know what those results look like. This is a calculation for which the authors didn’t bother to obscure its absurdity because they probably don’t give a shit about the people it affects.


  3. Well done. It’s too bad that this kind of honest analysis hasn’t been done yet (as far as I know) in STEM fields, probably because they haven’t suffered the kind of collapse there that the humanities have, so people aren’t as pissed off. But seeing what’s happening in the humanities is a lot like reading about glaciers melting in Antarctica. It’s just a matter of time before we’re all underwater.


      1. The root cause is different in STEM vs. humanities, although the results (adjunctification) will be the same.

        In STEM, for decades, the paradigm of “one professor trains 40 PhDs over his career” was sustainable because industry or national labs would happily absorb the students.

        Nowadays, with industrial research curtailed or offshored in order to improve the next quarter’s stock price (all MBAs should be shot!!!), industry can’t absorb the excess doctorates, yet the old tenure and grant renewal metrics of number of students graduated haven’t adjusted to the times.

        The most important inventions of the 20th century, the transistor and the integrated circuit, came out of industrial labs (Bell Telephone and Texas Instruments, respectively). Both of whom laid off their entire R&D orgs in the 1990s.


  4. What a pile of non-sequiturs (the MLA report, not the post).

    The big problem is that the R1s and schools desperately struggling to become R1s have a vested interest in keeping the system as is. The only way that you can have a 2/2 or 2/1 or whatever absurdly low teaching load an R1 has is by have a clutch of grad students to do your grading. And everyone wants to teach and supervise grad students because it’s more fun than teaching yet another section of Comp 101 or Individual Author Course.

    You need to just slash every graduate cohort drastically and then have the tenured faculty at the R1s just accept that they might have to do some of their own grading and maybe (shock! horror!) teach a 3/3.

    You could probably also try and get the state legislatures to FUND THEIR GODDAMN UNIVERSITY SYSTEMS, but you’d need mind-control lasers for that.


  5. Schuman and AdjunctNS strike again (thank god!!!), this time to correct the MLA’s fantasy-land math (to say nothing of the other points…). I remember glancing at the 60% figure on the report and laughing out loud–in what galaxy does that placement rate stand true? I also second WC’s mention of the AHA and it’s own, ahem, “efforts at assessment.”


  6. If they think the museum sector is even the broken up remains of a lifeboat for people thrown overboard from the humanities ship, they’re either terrifyingly deluded or shamefully disingenuous. At least in the UK, the entry level of the profession is being voluntarised (and there’s a minimum wage exemption for charities, which legalises their unpaid intern workforce), the school-leaver apprenticeships are flooded with postgraduate-qualified and experienced cultural heritage professionals (and even they only have a 1 in 100 or 1 in 300 chance of getting the apprenticeships)…


    1. It’s about as dumb as saying that well, they should all turn around and get MLS degrees after expending all of that effort for a job that doesn’t exist.


    2. YES THIS. I’ve been watching job listings in the museum field for a long time, and since 2008 the hollowing out of the middle has been really visible. Now the opportunities are either unpaid internships or volunteer positions, on the one hand, or director-level appointments, on the other (and many of the director positions are part time!). This sucks for people trying to enter the field, because unpaid internships don’t give you the budget management and staff/volunteer/intern supervision experience the director positions require. Yeah, there are still more entry- and mid-level opportunities in museum development, but a even lot of the entry-level paid work is part-time, barely above minimum wage, and without benefits. In a blue moon a dream curator position opens up, but those are just as competitive as academic jobs.

      At this point, when people say, “you could always be a museum curator!” I laugh and say, “yeah, that’s another dream.”


      1. Yup. Museums are also full of “adjunctification.” Want to be a part time, 15 hour a week educator for $10? That’s the only position I qualify for–I’ve been eyeballing and applying to museum employment for two years and NOTHING has come out of it. And, as for the plump museum internships, i.e. learning curve options, those taken by fresh BA’s with art history backgrounds. And even if one would land one…what to live on???The living wage positions in the museum world require the administrative, executive and/or tech experience curve that all of us in the post phd academic desert are lacking.


  7. There are a lot of cogent points here; I agree that the framing of alt-ac suggestions in the report is vague and thus kind of unhelpful, but the overall desire to have preparation for other kinds of work is not wrong, I think.

    I want to stress that I’m in agreement with you overall, and agree with the sentiments expressed here in the comments (esp. about putting more of the onus on the rank-and-file profs and actually acknowledging other parts of campus), but take issue with a few of your points.

    I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that grad programs become factories for generic “alt-ac” blah blah blah, but your point about grad school only being about research + dissertation seems to assume that all people who begin graduate school know exactly that they want, and that this does not change at any point while still in graduate school–yes, we know what grad school is *supposed* to prepare us for before we come, in theory, but not everyone that comes has a firm grasp on what that actually entails, and not everyone still feels enthusiastic about it after 4 years. There’s kind of an implied efficient markets hypothesis here. But graduate students who decide at the end that they don’t want to pursue a TT job have needs, too, and making other options available can’t hurt–it’s certainly better than finding out way too late that you’re burnt out on teaching & research and no one has the slightest clue how to help you. (I’ve been there–not very fun. Research also suggests declining interest in field as time in grad school goes on.)

    And with ¼ to 1/5 of PhDs in some humanities fields getting work outside academia (, I don’t think a little extra prep is tangential.

    #2, you seem to think additional experience is much more difficult and time-intensive to acquire than it really is–even tenure-track faculty manage to balance research, writing, and teaching with other roles (e.g. service). You don’t need an entire full-time job or extended internship; just a little occasional work on the side or during summers can be a tremendous resume booster.

    In the source data for the Scholarly Communication Institute’s survey of humanities PhDs in alt-ac careers, for example, you can see that nearly half of first-time alt-ac respondents had “little” or “no” experience in their job prior to getting it (

    #3, you seem to think that people acquiring skills on the side will be directly competing against other people who are already experts–i.e. if you’re learning code on the side, then you’ll be competing against professional software engineers. At least in my experience on a few hiring committees for non-academic jobs which attract a decent-size pool of grad student candidates, and as someone who has gotten interviews (and obtained) jobs based on a reframing of select prior experience gained during grad school, this just seems false. Position requirements and hiring needs can be eclectic, and unique skills can help quickly help differentiate your resume from a stack of identical-seeming ones; they can also be enormously useful when in short supply. (Again, the SCI survey data is telling here, I think.) For example, I can, in fact, say that the coding skills I *do* have, while not nearly on par with those of a software engineer, have been tremendously helpful at my current job.

    So, yes, it’s probably true that museum isn’t going to hire you to be a director or whatever if you’ve just written a small chunk of museum copy, and there is definitely no “sure thing” to make humanities PhDs employable. But they can be made more employable with less effort than folks typically think, I believe.

    Just throwing that out there; I don’t want to undermine the important intervention you’re undertaking here with respect to putting more of the load on the shoulders of the MLA membership as opposed to the leadership, but I also believe firmly that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater in terms of alt-ac prep.


    1. A Berube sockpuppet means something is up. It’s amusing when he has two or three on the same string. Keep that as something to shoot for, Rebecca. Michael Berube is a troll of the first order, right up there with Claire Potter.


  8. I love everything here, especially the stuff about alt-ac, which is noxious for another reason you don’t quite mention (but which isn’t that relevant to the MLA report): it has the paradoxical and awful effect of suggesting that the credentials for non-professorial jobs should be increased. That is one part of the alt-ac argument that bothers me the most. it is one thing for Merck to say that it wants PhD chemists to work in its labs. It is quite another for a PhD to go to a library or DH lab and suggest that a PhD might be a good thing for a job candidate to have–so that others with whatever the standard credential for that job is, now look less attractive. The alt-ac proposition defuses and exacerbates the problem in different modes; it does not solve it. Examining the history, accreditation, and even the name of PhD (where the “doctor” means “teacher,” thank you Latin) indicate that PhDs have one primary function–to train the next generation of professors. That the degree may be useful in some disciplines for other reasons is great, but the impetus for that usage has got to come from the discipline, not from the students, or else you are endorsing and creating a kind of credential creep that is really socially noxious.

    My one area of slight disagreement with, or maybe elaboration of, your argument is that adjunctification is absolutely not limited to the MLA fields, or even the humanities–it is a university-wide problem (in fact, a nation-wide problem). I don’t know enough about placement records in other fields to know if they have the same oversupply problem we do, but they certainly employ as many or even more adjuncts and have the same (or even worse) percentages of classes not taught by full-time faculty. What this means is that the origin of the problem is not in the departments, but in a nationwide assault on the universities using business analysis that has convinced Presidents and Provosts to radically reduce the number of full-time faculty on their campuses, to reduce the per-credit-hour cost, and to reduce the number of full-time employees. These edicts are ordered at that level, with very little input from faculty (and often even Deans) in any department. Somehow, if we want to take back the university, we have got to get into those offices and start taking back power at that level. Not only is it not possible for MLA departments to resist adjunctification only for themselves, because the decisions are made at much higher levels (read: budgeting at a school-wide level and even, as for example in my state of Virginia, at state-wide levels), but it wouldn’t be that great for us to solve this problem only for ourselves, while other university units continue the same practices. Adjunctification and PhD overproduction–whether they are the same problem or not remains unclear to me–must stop across the board, not just in MLA fields. That requires a level of analysis and determination that is very difficult to generate, but hopefully gives us reason to work more closely with people from other fields who face very similar problems to us. This is not to let MLA members off the hook (in fact I’ve let my membership lapse, in part over lazy & self-interested thinking like this report), but to suggest that the solution to the problem must occur higher up in the university food chain–not in “insisting” to your Chair that they open another TT line this year, which probably isn’t going to happen anyway, and even if it does, likely means that another Department in your local community will have lost one.


    1. Thank you for this, David!

      My placing of responsibility at the feet of departments isn’t about “insisting” on more TT lines–it’s about making the decision as a group to take on more teaching for the full-time faculty rather than hire adjuncts to “cover” classes. It’s about deciding that looking at yourself in the mirror and sleeping at night are more important than getting all of your department’s classes “covered” while still taking sabbatical. My husband, when he was still trying to play the game, wrote multiple papers a year and presented at conferences while teaching 4/4. The least–the literally very least–that members of MLA R-1 departments can do is admit that a 3/3 load or 3/2 load even is not going to kill them. I know the pressure to publish is immense. And yet I cranked out two articles and part of a book while adjuncting 3/3 and making $21,000. So when departments, MLA or otherwise, are like, “The institution decides what courses we need to cover, sorry there’s nothing we can do!” my sympathy only goes so far. You can take on more teaching, just like 90% of your brethren do. You can teach the intro classes you’re “above.” You can. (not YOU personally, but the fancypantses of the world).


  9. Intrigued by your idea that a solution would be to have TTF teach more. If a department has a 2/2 load for 50 TTF, then adds two courses to each prof, that’s 100 more courses it will be able to offer, with no increase in its teaching budget. It will in fact save the cost of PTF it would have had otherwise to incur. I see the savings to the department and college by not having to hire more PTF, but I don’t see how this helps adjuncts, who will have reduced opportunities for employment in that department. Please clarify, and thanks for your post.


      1. Admire the purity but a) your commenter above is right in suggesting the aristocracy will not permit it (tenured or tenure-track faculty), as it will ruin “spell the end of the research university as we know it,” er, ruin the gig; b) if the only jobs are tenure-track then you cut out folks who legitimately would like some teaching but not all the trappings and traps that come with being on the tenure track. Some people, with PhDs but also MFAs, would like to teach a little on the side. Your proposal would make that impossible.


    1. The answer is complicated, but I would frame it in this way: the 2/2 load (itself a bit of a misnomer since most R1 research faculty also enjoy copious leave time) represents the research privileges of a faculty still operating to a degree under ancient guild privileges and ancient guild expectations. The rest of us are subject to the increasingly cruel vagaries of the market. The ways in which the TT R1 barons control access to their guild privileges via the job search for “fit”, on the one hand, and insulate themselves from the pressures of the market via their connivance in contingent labor, on the other, contributes mightily to the current derangements. Asking the TT barons to shoulder a greater teaching load is simply to ask them to recognize, at long last, the teaching, labor, tuition, and other realities of the contemporary university.


      1. @Busy Prof, all due respect, denial is a river in Egypt. We are talking STRUCTURAL terms here–yes, there’s a handful of people who “like to teach on the side” (read: spouse earns). Adjuncts teach because they are hoping for full time work. Period. Please stop, just stop, the country club analysis. Again: Just. Stop.


  10. This is response to Busy Prof and Our Gracious Host. Modestly increasing the teaching load of R1 faculty (and maybe even making them–gasp!–do some of their own grading) would have all sorts of knock-ons. Lots of R1s actually make “not using adjuncts” a point of pride–but they then turn around and have PhD programs with more students than the market will be able to absorb so that their grad students can teach those Not Taught by Adjuncts courses. You bump up the teaching load of the faculty, you take in fewer grad students who won’t find work and thus do something about the backlog. And don’t just do it in University of X, also do it a X State University. If you cut the grad cohort at University of X and X State University in half (times 50), you’d go a long way towards reducing the number of PhDs getting dumped onto the market.

    But asking R1 (and R1-aspiring) faculty to give up their 2/2 would be like asking them to get mauled to death by weasels or something.


    1. Thank you for this response. I agree that your ideas would reduce the number of PhDs getting dumped on the market, which would be a good thing. You are thinking about the upstream problem. But unless I’m missing something your proposal would not address the current stream of adjuncts now teaching a vast number of courses at all kinds of universities, elite and not so elite. If TTF, either by their own volition (unlikely) or by administrative directive, increase teaching loads, this effectively decimates the opportunities for adjuncts now teaching those courses. The postings for those courses vanish. And if administrators demand higher teaching loads, you will hear the cries of neo-liberal conspiracy louder than you ever thought possible. TTF will go to the barricades to defend their 2-2 loads, especially when that mix includes a grad seminar, an upper division majors course, and little or no “service” courses–gen ed, writing, etc.


  11. Alt-ac is a reasonable way for individuals to solve their need of a job that makes use of their skills, but as a disciplinary response, it’s a complete abdication. It would be great if grad departments were supportive of students who decided on other career paths, but the faculty rarely have any useful non-academic expertise to offer. Acknowledging that students can get jobs elsewhere does nothing about the job crisis.

    What could a department do? They could decide to drop their Ph.D. or grad program. They could limit their grad student enrollments strictly to the number that they can support with assistantships/fellowships. They could reduce enrollment even further and hire full-time continuing teaching faculty. They could elect to teach more, like they did in the 1970s, when a lot of R1 faculty taught 3-3 or 4-4. Teaching more has the added benefit that the gulf between TT and contingent faculty is lessened, and certain R1 faculty might even stop looking down on the research done by their colleagues at teaching schools. It’s absolutely possible to be research active while teaching 3-3 or more, but it might not leave you with enough time to keep up the “academic rockstar” act that you perform for your colleagues.


  12. Yesterday I talked to a non-academic friend (no idea how I still have them), and told them about the imaginary 60% placement rate. When I said that there is no way it can’t be that high, they were shocked that 60% is considered high! In business speak, you can’t justify a forty percent loss rate. I did not mention the actual numbers after this conversation…


  13. ANS says it like it is. And I cannot believe the MLA had the cojones to make this fatuous assertion at this late stage of capitalism, I mean, of the profession. THAT said, I wrote about this situation in the *Michigan Quarterly Review* in ’97: “Stars, Tenure, and the Death of Ambition.” When the then-current generation of pissed-off grad students complained about the fall-off in advertised jobs from the early 90s to the late 90s. I wanted to tell them that previous generations had it bad, too, and I provided my own ANS stats. (Though NS wasn’t a meme then.) Which included sub-categories like Rhet/Comp and African-American Lit. Think about the %s when you subtract R/C and ethnic literatures! I am with you all the way on this stuff, but can we please acknowledge that the employment situation for PhDs has been terrible since, I think, 1969? That there have been lost generations before? Think of those Lit PhDs in the late 70s and early 80s who had to go into Comp? Can you imagine the indignity? The shame? I think you can. I agree that the employment situation has become worse since 2008–Stanford is partnering with SJSU to prepare its fabulously fabulous grad students for the jobs they will get for pete’s sake–but the fact is this: not all current tenured faculty are those who taught you at UCI, or me at Berkeley. In fact, those are the mere minority in the profession. Unfortunately, as the report shows (and as all prior reports have shown), they run the MLA. And the profession. Because they have voice. Great bit of snark and keep up forcing your voice upon them!


    1. Sharon, if you’re in English, then you’re right – the 90’s were abominable. In R. Schuman’s field (and mine), though, the late 80’s and 90’s were actually a great time to get hired, relative to today. We have to be aware of differences between MLA fields and changes in their job markets over time in order to see how yesterday’s job crisis (caused by massive overproduction of PhDs in the late 60s and early 70s) is not like today’s (caused by adjunctification and, for us, the elimination of foreign languages from the university curriculum).

      Otherwise, full agreement.


  14. I’ve always admired your passion, Rebecca, but I wish you would at some point address the differentials in job openings across fields. There are some subfields where the market is not nearly as dire as in German–Spanish/Latin American, US Latino/a, African-American lit. I’m sorry that departments across the country have drastically cut their German programs. But that doesn’t mean your experience in this subfield extrapolates everywhere.


    1. And I am 100% fine with Spanish departments continuing apace if they can hire people out. If anything, you should be extra-insulted that they want you to water down your Spanish PhDs when they get hired out without a problem.


      1. Great reply to the MLA “report,” and thanks for keeping the dialogue going. Despite the fact that faculty in a few disciplines seem to be doing much better than faculty in other disciplines, the problem is really a labor problem across all of higher education, and not limited to any one discipline. The MLA and other disciplinary organizations are all but helpless in the face of corporate university systems. I don’t have much of a solution to offer, except to suggest that unions like the union branch of the AAUP offer more viable means to resist than isolated disciplinary organizations. Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty explains cogently how ever-growing academic administrations deprofessionalize and deracinate the faculties they manage. In my view, if the process is left unchecked it will make university faculty work increasingly resemble the work of high-school teachers. The best we can hope for out of the MLA is some PR work, which would be more effective if it were coordinated with unionizing work.


  15. Yes, and yes! Thank you for stating the truth as regards to “Reimagining the Dissertation,” which is a slap in the face, and “Reducing Time to Degree.” Reducing Time to Degree at my grad school (which does not fund its students) basically consists of threatening students who are taking too long (because they are working, dealing with family, etc.). No help with the process is offered.


  16. This is a reposne to the blog post, not the MLA Report. I know of many excellent artists and scholars I. Dance. Why is dance the “go to” field when one wants to sneer at something? There’s no such thing as “interpretative dance,” but there is a lot excellent work in that field. It might be better to ally yourselves with those of us in the arts, instead of using us to make a disdainful point.


    1. My great-aunt is Anna Halprin, actually. And as groundbreaking and important as the work she does is, it would not–and should not–qualify as a dissertation in English Literature, because it is NOT THE RIGHT FIELD. Which was the point of the joke. Anyway, if you want an intro to my great-aunt, I can probably swing it…


  17. I am a fan too. Please keep up the good writing and analysis!

    In a lot of US universities, PhD programs are kept large to provide a stable of teaching fellows who will work for cheap. My university has many adjuncts (so many, they turn them away) and would not suffer with a loss of teaching fellows. However, allowing the faculty the privilege of teaching PhD students regularly is another reason too many students are accepted to PhD programs.

    My (English) grad dept. is completely upfront with students about the fact that they can’t reduce the size of our program, because a smaller PhD student body would not allow each of the large number of faculty members get to teach a grad seminar once a year.

    How’s that for putting the cart before the horse?


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