A Plea to Graduate Advisors and Programs

Posted by Roger Whitson on November 14th, 2011

Larry Cebula is yet another academic bemoaning the state of our discipline and telling his students to realize that they won’t be professors. Here’s one line that caught my attention:

Your professors are the last generation of tenure track faculty. Every long-term educational trend points towards the end of the professoriate. States continue to slash funding for higher education. Retiring professors are not replaced, or replaced with part-time faculty. Technology promise to make provide education with far fewer teachers–and whether you believe this vision of the future or not, state legislators and university administrators believe. The few faculty that remain will see increased service responsibilities (someone has to oversee those adjuncts!), deteriorating resources and facilities, and stagnant wages. After ten years of grad school you could make as much as the manager of a Hooters! But you won’t be that lucky.

To be sure, academia has a lot to figure out in terms of adjunct instruction, the emergence of digital technology and its role in academic labor. And I am one of the first to agree that administrators tend to want to do things for the least amount of money, and currently adjunct teaching seems like the best way to do that.

Having said that, I’m making a plea for Professor Cebula and the rest of his colleagues to stop writing posts like this. Let me give you the reasons why.

  1. You aren’t helping your students by telling them that the odds are against them and that the situation is grim. Many of them will simply look at you like Captain Kirk in Star Trek Generations and reply “Sounds like fun!”
  2. It almost seems like you take pleasure in crushing your students’ dreams. “After ten years of grad school you could make as much as the manager of a Hooters! But you won’t be that lucky.” Is there a reason to add that little rhetorical flourish at the end? I also remember this video that circulated about a year ago:

I can’t help but feel that there is a sadistic and nihlistic tone in this video and in many of the blog posts telling students not to go to graduate school. They are nihilistic because they highlight a complete lack of faith in the future of the humanities. Just because tenure might not be tenable in the future, does this automatically mean that the humanities will collapse and everyone with a Ph.D. will be forced into a life of adjuncting? They are sadistic because, like I said above, the authors seem to enjoy taking out their anxieties on students who want to go to graduate school. I have to agree with Karen Kelsky, when she says that “many professors have used the abysmal job market as an alibi to entirely neglect career advising for their doctoral students.”

So, I’d like to list a few bits of advice for both graduate programs and graduate students on how to deal with the job market in a more positive, and dare I say it, optimistic way.

Graduate Students

  1. The job market for tenure-track professors is not only horrible, it is currently collapsing. This does not mean that you shouldn’t go into a graduate program, but that you need to cultivate transferrable skills above and beyond what’s taught in your graduate classes. And you need to have a plan for getting a job before you start your Master’s degree. Do not expect your program or your advisor to give you the complete picture about your job prospects because many either don’t know or do not care to spend time researching them.
  2. What are some of these skills?
    • Grant Writing: Completing a few grants during your graduate school tenure shows hiring committees that you have the ability to find and bring external funding to their program. Considering that many humanities departments are hurting for funding, this skill will give you an edge.
    • Administrative Experience: Many jobs are combinations of teaching and academic administration (scheduling, administering a program, fund-raising, etc.). Gain experience with these programs, and you will be able to apply for a broader swath of jobs. 
    • Coding and Project Management: More programs in the future will rely upon digital skills that are not formally taught in the majority of graduate programs. Learn HTML, CSS, and Python. Figure out what a SPARQL-query is, and why RDF and linked data are important to the future of the web. Further, learn how to manage and work on group and collaborative projects. Research Bethanie Nowviskie’s Praxis Program and learn how it is trying to change the culture of higher ed humanities instruction.  
    • Other transferrable skills: I know people with Ph.D.s who work as information design consultants, public relations professionals, and program administrators. Spend a good portion of your graduate program outside of the ivory tower learning what non-academic skills you have and figure out how you can communicate those skills to potential hirers. This blog post on non academic jobs is a good place to start.

Graduate Programs

  1. The job crisis in higher education requires that all of us change how we do things. In the long term, this might mean hiring a specialist in job training or academic labor. It might also mean restructuring the entire department to focus on the relationship between academic disciplines and practical skills. But the bigger question is what we can do for graduate students who are currently in the many humanities programs across the country.
  2. What are some short term solutions?
    • Form partnerships with businesses, cultural heritage societies, and public research institutions. Curriculum should be created with an eye to how it connects with issues that are important to the community outside of the academy. This doesn’t, by the way, mean that we should cater to those interests. Simply put, we should learn how to take theoretical and historical interests and engage the community around us. This may mean forming a partnership with a business that is related to your discipline and creating internship opportunities for your students. It may also mean working with a public research center on digitizing their collections and presenting them to the public.
    • Start writing, encouraging, and valuing research that is publicly accessible. Encourage your students to publish research that appears in public forums. Invite professional and academic bloggers to campus and talk about how to create and manage an online community around your research.
    • Create forums for non-academic and #alt-ac professionals to talk about their work. Too many students are taught that the tenure-track equates to “the life of the mind.” They need to realize that meaningful and rewarding work can, and often does, happen outside of academia. Get professionals who have learned how to apply their research to their current non-academic job to give talks. The #alt-academy collection recently published by MediaCommons and Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works should be required reading for any class introducing students to graduate school in the humanities.
    • Create committees where students, professors and administrators can brainstorm on ways to change the archaic infrastructure of graduate education. How, for example, can administrators show support for #alt-ac initiatives in departments and find a space for such professionals on college campuses? How should tenure and promotion change to reflect the current economic realities of higher education? These kinds of conversations need to be happening – the sooner the better.
    • And, on a related note, stop relying on adjunct labor and start hiring more non-tenured lecturers who actually have benefits. Adjunct labor might be cheap in the short-run, but it is clearly not sustainable in the long-term. It also gives no incentive for workers to care about either the campus they work at or the surrounding community. Replacing adjunct labor with non-tenured lecturers can both help retention rates and enrich the campus.

Clearly there is a lot of energy out there for humanistic inquiry: the soaring number of students who apply for graduate school is evidence of this energy. Instead of lamenting the changes that are occurring in the academy, let’s start talking about how to channel that energy in a more beneficial direction. Telling students that they are stupid for wanting to go to graduate school is not the answer. For these students aren’t stupid about wanting to study Nietzsche, factory work in the nineteenth century, or the culture of video games. Advisors and administrators are being stupid for not making their graduates hirable.

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