By VERY POPULAR DEMAND, here’s the second part of my Q&A with Michael Bérubé. “Enjoy!”
Again, this has (unbelievably) been edited for length.
The current academic labor model makes people do some bananas stuff. For example, you and I got into a minor disagreement a few years ago about the MLA’s recommendations for updates to doctoral study. Irate emails and Facebook statuses were exchanged, some grad students got involved, and I was jacked up on hormones and morning sickness from being nine weeks pregnant (but, because of my history with pregnancy loss, didn’t want to tell anyone about said pregnancy), and the whole thing ended up being somewhat bizarrely adjudicated on various Wikis, I guess? I only found out about this recently, and it came as a bit of a surprise to me that apparently, according to these folks, you went on some sort of cyber-mission against me? With sockpuppets and such? And there I was, shaking your hand at Penn State and having a perfectly good conversation.
Ah, the great cyber-mission of 2014! Which consisted of a blog post (yours) and an FB comment (mine) in which we parodied each other. There was snark and there was shade, and then we met and shook hands (it was great to meet you). But apparently some people wanted it to be much more than that. To this day I don’t understand why.
I remember very well what we were arguing about, and it’s totally relevant to this conversation. The MLA had released a task force report on graduate education. You posted a scathing critique of it. I was genuinely surprised about one aspect of that critique (only one!), and wrote you an email. The topic: nonacademic careers for humanities Ph.D.s, or “alt-ac” employment. The very subject of the Penn State symposium.
Now, I had 99 problems with that MLA report, but its endorsement of alt-ac careers wasn’t one. (Weirdly, some people thought I was involved with writing that report– probably the people who thought I was still president of the MLA in 2014.) I thought you were coming to Penn State to talk about your work at Slate, and I was seriously gobsmacked that you were arguing that there is no reason to pursue a Ph.D. in the humanities unless you want an academic job.
It’s just so many years, and so much hard work, and I think that most people who enter into that world really, truly love it and want to devote their lives to it. Telling them they should be happy to take an entry-level editorial assistant position somewhere when they’re 35—that they should get a doctorate so that they can apply for those entry-level positions against a bunch of 22-year-olds—just kind of breaks my heart. But now I’m old and wizened and maternal, and I see that there are FINE PEOPLE ON BOTH SIDES here (ha ha sob).
Oh god, fine people on both sides. Yes, well. Sometimes there are. But I would never tell people who really want academic jobs that they should be “happy” doing editorial assistant work. For me, it all depends on what the actual people actually want.
And on that note, in looking over our correspondence, the really objectionable thing I see is my telling you, in response to your question about why anyone would get a Ph.D. if they didn’t want to be a professor, that it helps to imagine subjectivities other than your own. That sounds much more scoldy than I meant it to be, so I can see why you would take exception to it. Actually, I meant it as a general principle, one that applies to me as well: for example, I believed axiomatically that all adjuncts wanted tenure-track jobs until some of them (a minority, I imagine, but still real actually existing people) told me otherwise.
This is an important thing to realize. Not everyone wants to be on the tenure track. Some people just want a fair wage and a bit of worker stability. Plenty of folks, myself included, would also be happy with a permanently-renewable teaching-only position. Some of the folks who’ve entered into “dialogue” with me (i.e. scolded me in public) over the years have said, “It’s UNFEASIBLE to to convert ALL ADJUNCT POSITIONS to tenure track, so stop asking!” I’m not asking.
Neither am I—anymore. I learned this after I got barraged with emails during my MLA presidential year from NTT faculty who assured me they wanted no part of the tenure review process, and that they deliberately chose their NTT jobs in order to have some control over where they lived (and whether they could live with their partners). They didn’t want tenure; they wanted multi-year contracts, good working conditions, professional-level salaries, and the respect of their tenured peers. Likewise, I was initially skeptical of alt-ac initiatives until I spoke at length to the real actual people who have benefited from them. But rereading that letter today, it sounds snippy, and for that I apologize.
I literally don’t remember this even a little bit. I can tell you the precise location of every stuffed animal in my house right now, though.
I remember it because it was what led to our snarky parodies of each other (and somebody’s perception that I was your sworn enemy), and I began to worry that I had made the Penn State alt-ac symposium more contentious even before it happened. But here’s what I meant. (I said some of this at the symposium, as you know, and you did a great job of covering it, and my remarks, in your Slate writeup.)
The first alt-ac anything dates from 1998, when then-MLA president Elaine Showalter suggested that graduate students could seek nonacademic jobs, and invited a screenwriter to the MLA convention to meet with anyone who was interested. I thought this was bullshit. Everyone thought this was bullshit. Everyone was right. It felt like the profession was saying, “so sorry there are no jobs–here, think about working for Hollywood.”
But then, the next year, a funny thing happened. One of my doctoral students at Illinois got a job at a Big Ten university on her first year on the market. It seemed like a great job, and I knew her dissertation was publishable almost as is. It looked like she was embarking on a very promising career. The only problem was that she hated her life. She hated her job. After a year, she wrote to me and said she couldn’t stand academe. I said OK, I get that, but maybe give it another year or two to make sure? At least? She said no. She quit her tenure-track position and took a job in a public high school, where she teaches to this day.
Well, her dissertation committee was outraged. She was harming the department’s placement rate! She was harming their placement rate! I wrote back and said I couldn’t care less. What I cared about was whether this brilliant person was happy. It’s her life. It’s her call.
That was a watershed moment for me. And over the following ten or twelve years, I met so many people like that student—people who wanted to complete the Ph.D. but who had decided that academe was just too stultifying or hostile an environment for them. They wanted to keep pursuing their intellectual interests, but they didn’t want faculty positions.
And from them I learned two things. One: they know that “alt-ac” can be a gestural way of saying hey, humanities Ph.D.s are employable outside academe without doing anything about the deteriorating conditions of academic employment. (This is true.) Two: they are also anywhere from dismayed to full-on furious that anyone in academe would dismiss their jobs as unworthy of humanities Ph.D.s. They are way beyond “no more Plan B”– they say, listen, this was my Plan A. Every time someone dismisses their career path, as if they have given up or sold out, they think of it as the worst kind of academic hothouse elitism. And they are not wrong. They say, too, that strident anti-alt-ac arguments effectively encourage people to take shitty academic jobs and stay in them. (I am not sure this is entirely true, but I do not discount it.)
In 2013 I came up with a half-formed idea for predoctoral workshops. Thankfully, the Chicago Humanities Festival stepped up and made it fully formed. Three weeks, midsummer, a stipend of $5000, (really nice) lodging provided. Right now it’s available only to students in the fifteen-institution Humanities Without Walls consortium, but we are hoping that it could be a model for similar programs nationally. (And no increase in time to degree!) You can read the participants’ accounts of the workshop on the HWW blog. As one of the students said in a 2016 symposium, “it’s like two years worth of networking in three weeks.”
And that takes us to where we are now. You have done the alt-ac bit for four years, and I hope your trajectory winds up mirroring that of the Penn State Ph.D. I mentioned at the outset: alt-ac, then ac. You’re not anomalous, and I suspect that this trajectory will become increasingly common.
Is there any way a candidate can do something cool in his/her initial dossier that will distinguish him/her from everyone else? Asking for a friend.
Well, they could write a couple of books in different genres, and they could compile a series of essays for a national online magazine with a readership in the millions. That’s pretty distinctive. But if your friend has already done all that, then I guess my advice is moot.
Any other advice for an apostate looking to re-attempt to join the club?
Since this is the last question, let’s skip right to the happy ending: you have a job offer. You plan to accept. Now what?
Ha ha ha ha ha wait, you’re serious.
You already have an extensive publishing record. How much of it, if any, will be “counted” toward tenure? There are no generally accepted rules about this—it is totally ad hoc, department by department. You will need to get a statement in writing, so that if there are changes in administration and a new head or dean comes along, the goalposts don’t get moved on you. This is absolutely crucial; it is the source of so much anxiety and aggravation among tenure-track faculty who come into a new position (either from a previous academic job or after a few years in the wilderness) with a bunch of publications already on the cv. So before you formally accept the job, make sure you know precisely what the expectations for tenure will be, and whether any of your work to date will count.
And I wish you the very best in all this. Good luck!
Thanks, I’ll need it!