Thursday, January 15, 2009

On Jobs and the Jobless: Listening To The Underemployed

Sterling Fluharty, who blogs at PhDinHistory, writes (in response to this post where I urged job-seekers to stop attending panels that seemed to be only increasing their anxiety about ever being employed): "Do you really feel it is pointless for the AHA to have panels on the job market? What if ideas for reforming the market and fixing its problems emerged from these sessions?"

Well, OK, if you put it that way. And anyway, saying that those panels are pointless would be doing a disservice to those who put them together, as well as to those who benefit from them. This advice -- like my advice to stay off the wikis -- was only for those of you who use sessions organized by the Professional Division as concrete venues for self-destructive obsessing about your powerlessness. I hope it didn't cause the intended audiences to run to the over-priced hotel bar instead, or prompt any of you who were interviewing to spend what remains of your latest student loan on Yodels and Ho-Hos rather than on getting your shoes shined.

Oh Sterling, I'm just pulling your leg. Because I now know that you participated in such a panel, and that you posted your contribution on your blog. For those Readers of the Radical with too little time to click on the link, I have pasted in Sterling's summary of the situation currently facing historians who are, who are soon to be, or who have been, looking for a teaching job:

It should go without saying that the vast majority want to become tenure-track history faculty. Let me describe how difficult this process is before I tell you why the overall goal is impossible. Did you know that only half of the students who entered humanities doctoral programs between 1992-3 and 1994-5 completed their degree within ten years? By comparison, the dropout rate is 10 to 15 percent in business, law, and medicine professional programs. Now let's focus on those who survive their history doctoral program. According to the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF), nearly half of the assistant professors who were hired between 1999 and 2003 had earned their PhD in history five to nine years previous. The average time between graduation and the time they landed their current tenure-track position was 3.3 years. Academic job seekers in history now have to prove themselves worthy to job search committees by spending several years after graduation teaching and publishing. Furthermore, my analysis of NSOPF data shows that only 31 percent of all the individuals who earned a PhD in history between 1966 and 1992 were tenured faculty as of 2003. Some of these doctoral recipients may have left academia by that time, but even the AHA agrees that only about one third of history PhDs will ever achieve tenure. One reason why this is happening is that the overall proportion of college faculty who work without any chance of tenure is now at 65 percent and keeps rising. The academic system is rigged against PhDs in history, and the rest of the humanities for that matter.

The essay, which I do recommend you read in full when you have a chance, concludes with a series of excellent questions:

How long will we continue to blame students in and graduates of history graduate programs if they don't succeed? Are we denial about the structural changes that have happened in higher education over the last several decades? How long will be persist in doing history that brings us prestige rather creating history that has value in the eyes of undergraduates and the public? Are we content to teach an ever decreasing proportion of college undergraduates? Do we believe that we can expand our associates and masters programs? Are we willing to let tenure-track positions disappear? Will we fight back against the for-profit colleges that started this trend of hiring the cheapest teachers they could find? What will it take to learn the skills of public and digital history? Can we make our type of history relevant to the American public once again?

To focus on perhaps the least significant of these questions: I don't know who the "we" is who "blame" the unemployed -- although the stream of advice that emanates from blogs like mine, and the invective towards candidates who do risible or weird things during interviews that has appeared elsewhere, certainly implies that one's success (or lack thereof) on the conventional academic job market is determined by doing the "right" things. And for all I know graduate advisers emanate displeasure towards and begin to avoid the unsuccessful. But certainly those of us who have jobs know perfectly well how many good candidates never even get a chance to strut their stuff; how many of those who do end up unemployed failed to get a job for reasons entirely out of their control; and how, when departments are ranking lists in post-interview mode, many people vote to hire in complete ignorance, or disregard, of the scholarship and credentials the candidates have worked so hard to display. It is often said that one of the great, ghastly, come-downs in academic life is observing the chaos and insane, internal power struggles attendant to the first hire after you yourself have been hired: "How in God's name," you think, "did this department ever get it together to hire me? What awful things were said? What worthy people were sent packing as if they were so much trash? Who here smiles to my face but really hates me??!!"

But it is true more generally, and not just in academia, that people who are unemployed do, in the end, blame themselves even when they know it isn't their fault, or that the odds are heavily stacked against them. Acknowledging this latter point is where, despite the ways Fluherty's essay will be controversial, I think he makes a particularly useful intervention. Using a couple of excellent graphics, Fluharty argues that according to his data, fewer than half of history Ph.D.'s can expect to either be on a tenure-track or to have full-time work teaching history over the next decade. Is this a question of overproduction of Ph.D.s by doctoral programs? Not necessarily. It is also the effects of history itself: the increasing disregard of "history" as an influential force in national politics (hell, for the past eight years the White House couldn't even cope with the present); the marginalization of the humanities in higher education more generally, and particularly in the two-year colleges attended by most post-secondary students; and what Fluherty suggests is a close link between widespread, or narrowed, interest in history among undergraduates and the condition of our democracy more generally. I find this last point particularly intriguing and wish he, or someone, would write more about it.

The point is, however, that given the actual numbers -- Ph.D.'s versus full-time teaching jobs -- it isn't possible for everyone with a PH.D. in history to have full time work, it never was, and it won't be any time soon. The profession needs to deal with this reality, as opposed to putting all its energy into workshops on interviewing, grooming, and putting together the best dossier. Fluherty has two concrete proposals in the attempt to turn the conversation away from the question of what is fair, to the the question of what is possible. One is that the AHA create a searchable data base into which graduate students could upload their materials and a new personality test which measures the " non-cognitive qualities that make a historian successful in the world of work," and which could be used colleges and universities to fill available jobs; the other is that historians need to be trained for and imagine themselves working in sectors of the intellectual market that are actually growing, specifically the digital industries.

The data base idea is not a horrible one, and god knows, searches as they are currently structured are possibly one of the most inefficient activities of an inefficient profession. They are huge time-wasters for everyone involved, and cost vast amounts of money that could be better spent actually educating students. But right now most full-time faculty can't even wrap their heads around why you would hire in fields that actually represent the cutting edge of the historical profession, much less altering the arcane, prejudicial processes of the traditional search, through which "the best" historian out of a pool of several hundred well-educated candidates is seen as deserving of a job. So good luck with that one. And actually, I don't believe in testing, or that what it takes to be a good teacher and colleague can be quantified, much less in any non-biased way. So I would scrap this one.

However, that the historical profession has not responded adequately to real changes in how what we do can be packaged and sold (sorry to be so crude, but that's the actual trend in education, not just a way of talking about it); that, as a profession, we in the humanities continue to sell the romance of careers in classroom teaching to graduate and undergraduate students, despite the fact that we live in a world where other forms of learning, formal and informal, are increasingly dominant; and that as educators, we haven't responded in a proactive way to new forms of digital democracy that might make the liberal arts usable of accessible to a broader group of consumers than those currently enrolled in four-year colleges, is spot on.

What we continue to do, according to Fluharty, is react to shrinking possibilities in a college and university world we thought we once knew, a world that we keep imagining will return some day. Fluharty not only argues that this world isn't coming back, but that it never existed in the first place, and that endless tinkering will not make that so. These ideas will be contentious ones, but they are well worth putting on the table. And if I don't entirely agree with his solutions (which revert to a kind of pragmatism that the essay itself undermines), I think the critique is a sound one. In fact, I think he should be nominated to the professional division on the basis of this essay alone.

And by the way Sterling, good for you for dropping your anonymity, thus allowing others who will find these positions contentious to argue openly with a real person. I don't know whether you did this on principle or not, but one way for young scholars to get some credit for the academic blog world that they are the principle contributors to and innovators in is to start telling us who they are so we can start including in professional and institutional conversations that cross the boundaries between conventional and unconventional career paths.

Photo Credit.

9 comments:

PhDinHistory said...

Thanks for the gracious and in-depth review of my AHA paper. You were right in thinking that I deliberately made this paper controversial. I was really hoping for a debate at my session, and maybe there still is a chance. Rob Townsend and I are planning to co-author an essay (presumably in Perspectives) that will draw from both of our panel papers. I have to admit, though, that I am quite pessimistic about mobilizing historians to tackle these issues. A few days ago I asked my colleagues these questions on H-Grad:

"Do we feel powerless before the forces that are changing our academic job market? Or do we believe that we have a fighting chance to reform or revolutionize our profession and the job market?"

The few responses I got were mostly about historians pulling themselves up by their boot straps. None of my graduate student peers seem to grasp (or at least feel like we can do anything about) the structural problems facing our field.

Oh, and the credit goes to Dan Cohen for helping me realize the wisdom of blogging with my own name.

AndrewMc said...

I had the good fortune of working for the AHA while I was getting my MA. That gave me the opportunity to see the warts of the profession and the job market for a few years before I actually committed to getting a doctorate.

I saw the bad numbers, had the chance to work at the job register for a few years before I was in a PhD program, talked to employers and job seekers, etc.

I went on for my PhD anyway, even though I knew my chances. Why. I love studying history. And that's the flip side of the "overproduction" coin.

As you both allude to, the problem isn't so much an overproduction of PhDs. It's bad training--telling grad students that the only and best job they should look for is one in academe. There are plenty of jobs out there for PhDs in history that don't involve teaching at a university. But they are universally looked down upon by PhD-producing programs. We're taught that if we don't land a tenure-track job somewhere that we've failed. That's one thing that's got to change.

Shane in Utah said...

The MLA seems to be a little bit ahead of the AHA in terms of being aware of these issues. At the Delegate Assembly meeting in December, we spent half of our discussion time on the topic of adjunct labor. All that came out of it was the recommendation to the Executive Council to form a committee or task force to address the systemic issues in academic employment. But it's a start, and I was encouraged by how many people were fired up about the issue. But of course these are people who were politically and professionally aware enough to run for the DA in the first place.

What needs to happen is for the MLA, the AHA, the American Mathematical Society, and the other disciplines that rely heavily on adjunct/contingent/part time labor to band together and start a massive lobbying effort/PR campaign to convince the public and legislators that instructors and students are both getting screwed by the current situation. And we need to work with the AAUP. I'm wondering whether PhDinHistory and others upset about this issue are AAUP members. They're our best allies in this fight, especially now with Cary Nelson as President. Join now!

Jonathan said...

Agreed with Shane, but there are several other issues to consider:

1. Academic administrators have their own professional associations. It's not departments or chairs that mostly make decisions about academic labor, it's provosts and presidents and the people who work for them (and sometimes deans) when they calculate budgets. Any change is going to have to at some point go through those offices that set budgets for colleges and universities.

2. Nelson also is infamous in MLA circles for saying maybe some of those PhD programs who are producing students who can't get jobs ought to be shut down. And he was right. It's worth considering that not everyone who thinks they want a PhD in history should get one and not everyone who wants graduate students should have them. Again, change is going to have to run through some offices that are currently occupied by people who aren't going to be hip to the idea.

Anonymous said...

Dear Tenured Radical,
Could you please post some advice on how to handle campus visits and the job talk? The season has come for those of us who are extraordinarily fortunate enough to have gotten this far and don't want to blow it!
Thanks so much,
A Fan....

Townsend Harris said...

If I correctly understand Marc Bousquet's analysis at his blog "How the University Works," academic hiring is working *exactly* the way it is designed to work: PhD programs are *supposed* to recruit many, many more doctoral students than will ever finish, if only in order to teach credit-bearing courses to undergraduates. Hard to believe, but keeping the graduate faculty employed is often secondary to the need for BA holders (barely matriculated in doctoral programs) to teach undergrads.

This is a good system for administrators and for a diminishing group of tenured full-timers.

Anonymous said...

What Townsend Harris said.

This system will not change, and calls for reform seem highly implausible, because faculty with tenure and administrators PROFIT from the overproduction of history PhDs. They not only rely upon cheap their labor, but in the cases of unfunded students even their tuition (which in some cases might even be used to pay for their more respected peers' fellowships).

I think the problem is compounded by a bias among many tenured faculty, and thus in hiring committees, in favor of Ivy league and a few other schools in pruning applications down to a reasonable size.

I don't want to play naive about this. The economic exploitation of graduate students and the patronage politics of the academy cannot be surprising to people trained to be critical of liberal idealism. But I I think TA and the unionization of adjunct and part-time faculty will challenge this picture far more than other strategies discussed so far.

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