Musings on the "Profession" That Is Academic Labor in the United States Today: The View from La Farine LXXX: January 22, 2014
Looking at the Chronicle of Higher Education at the wave of rage directed against the UC Riverside English Department and then following links, I find worth noting:
Post-Academic in New York: There Is No Academic “Profession”: "Unless you’ve been buried under a draft of your unfinished dissertation for the last few days (or sleeping off your Christmas dinner and various related bouts of drunkenness), you’ve noted the blog/Twitter war that broke out between Rebecca Schuman (@pankisseskafka) and Claire Potter (@tenuredradical).... Schuman justifiably took the UC Riverside English department to task for announcing they would contact applicants to be interviewed for a position in American Literature on January 3, a mere five days before the MLA conference at which such interviews would take place. Potter no likey Schuman’s post. She thought it was too rage-y....
I can’t resist expressing exasperation in response to Potter’s latest post. She deflected the issue... treated her readers to a long-winded discussion... moving completely away from the subject matter... made the pronouncement that:
Social media is, indisputably, now a professional issue: it’s time to figure out how to weave conversation about its uses and abuses into our ongoing professional development, at all levels.
I have no issue with encouraging civil discourse.... But Potter’s idea that somehow there exists a thing called a “profession” and that people “at all levels” are part of it is laughably absurd. Simply put, there is no such thing as a higher education “job market” or “profession.” In an age when almost three quarters of faculty are teaching off the tenure track, it is beyond me how anyone can take seriously the idea that people who teach at colleges are part of anything, really. Even the word “profession” sounds pretentious.... There is a charade... wherein various people, most of whom already have jobs or attended Ivies or published a book with a prestigious press (probably all three), play musical chairs... each year some new faces are introduced into the mix, but hardly enough to justify calling the brutal conference interviewing season “a market.” If we’re going to call for an end to internet incivility... we should also demand an end to uncritical and empty uses of the terms “job market” and “profession”....
There are 1.5 million college teachers in the United States, and 1 million of them are contingent. How is the word “profession” a relevant or useful term in light of that reality? Why should any of us pay attention to “advice” from someone who nurtures such a fantasy? What is stoking the rage of adjuncts and graduate students is not the ability to lob 140 character rage bombs into the ether. Rather, it’s that people like Tenured Radical still get to frame the operative questions, even though they don’t know much about the reality on the ground because they don’t have to know....
So what do we have?... We have graduate programs in the Humanities whose business it is to lure in gullible graduate students, using them for cheap teaching labor before flushing them out as a waste product of a system that no longer needs them. That’s the point that Tenured Radical keeps evading (at least in this instance) for reasons that remain unclear, as I’m sure she knows the statistics as well as anyone.
I’m in favor of civility and general niceness as long as we can all agree to talk about things that exist.
People who got tenure in the Humanities in 1970 are now roughly 77--got tenure at roughly 34--graduated from college in roughly 1958. They got tenure at the end of the rapid expansion of American universities.
People who got tenure in the Humanities in 1980 are now roughly 68--got tenure at roughly 35--graduated from college in roughly 1969.
People who got tenure in the Humanities in 1990 are now roughly 60--got tenure at roughly 37--graduated from college in roughly 1975.
People who got tenure in the Humanities in 2000 are now roughly 53--got tenure at roughly 40--graduated from college in roughly 1982.
People who got tenure in the Humanities in 2010 are now roughly 44--got tenure at roughly 41--graduated from college in roughly 1991.
Even the second of these cohorts--those who got tenure in 1980--was already experiencing an unhealthy humanities job market. I remember my cohort doing our career-planning due-diligence at the start of our senior 1981-82 academic year, looking at people who had received Ph.D.'s in economics and in history from Harvard in 1965 and 1970. We found that the median Ph.D. recipient seemed to be having a good life from a material well-being perspective: tenured at a selective liberal-arts college, or at a Cal State or a SUNY, with a number of the economists being Vice Presidents for Economic Forecasting at various banks. But we also found that something seemed to be going wrong with the job market in history: that in 1981-2 the Harvard Economics Department was interviewing 26-year-olds who had a draft of one article for its assistant professor jobs, while the Harvard History Department was interviewing 35-year-olds who had one well-regarded book published and another one under contract. And we found that Economics Departments had roughly cut their entering Ph.D. classes by 1/3 over the 1970s, while History Departments had not.
Thus the last people in Humanities Departments who have experienced what I would regard as a "normal" academic job market--and let me hasten to assure you that the last five years in Economics have, from my perspective, definitely not been normal--are now Emereti/ae...
When we asked, the view from History Departments was that the 1980s were likely to be a rough market, but the 1990s a bonanza: American colleges and universities would start expanding again to cope with the expected continued increase in the share of the population going to college, and all those who got tenure in the 1960s would retire and their chairs would open up.
This prediction seems to me to have been roughly true for Economics Departments--with the proviso that the bulge of retirements came not in the 1990s but in the 2000s, but that was offset by the extraordinary growth of business schools eager to employ Ph.D. economists and the job-market safety valve from rapid globalization. (But the past five years have been a rude shock for us.)
But it does not seem to have come true for History and for other Humanities Departments. Part of this appears to have been the result of the fact that the Humanities Departments never shrank their class sizes sufficiently--thus the gap between the pool of qualified potential applicants and teaching slots continued to grow. Part of this appears to have been a remarkable appreciation of the logic of supply-and-demand by Humanities Departments: when the holder of the Elkins Chair retires, since the supply of labor is there, why not replace him with two cheaper adjuncts and reduce teaching loads as well as redistribute the research funds to the existing tenured faculty?
There thus seemed to be an odd paradox: Economics Department Ph.D. admissions committees seem, since at least 1970, to have had these questions in the forefront of their minds: if we were to admit this applicant to the Ph.D. program, what job will they be able to get in six and twelve years, and would we be doing them a favor? This other-directed pattern of thought is somewhat paradoxical for a discipline that elevates self-interest to a moral imperative and an art form. But these questions appeared to be nowheresville in the deliberations of History and other Humanities Departments--and if they were considered, the answer seemed to be: yes, the job market will be rough for them, but it was rough for us, and we made it, and those of them who deserve to will make it as well...
And now, of course, whatever wave the maturation of the internet does to higher education is about to hit as well...