E Pluribus Unum Complaint

When my group and I conducted our research about job prospects for Humanities students, we found that there was a roiling, fractious debate about this subject. Some parties prophesy certain doom, others herald a veritable golden age for Humanities degree-holders just over the horizon and other parties try to identify more sober, stoic pathways out of the academic jobs crisis. That being said, there is a number of similarities that run through all of the articles, from the giddiest optimist to the bleakest defeatist; everybody concurs that there is a dearth of the academic jobs that were the traditional employment of Humanities degree-holders. There was also a good deal of agreement about the roots of the problem: that current Ph.D. programs take too long and are too specialized and that academic labor has been devalued. Furthermore, the proposed solutions had a lot in common, calling for a drastic restructuring of Ph.D. programs, more transparency about (and less stigma attached to) non-academic, or “alt-ac” careers, particularly, the “digital humanities,” for current and prospective doctoral students.

As I was tasked with cataloguing those prophets of doom (and indeed, am trying to leave their gloom behind; see my last post below, “A Welcome Ambivalence,” to gauge just how disheartening I found those articles) I shall endeavor to present a comprehensive cross-section of the debate, beginning in the depths of despair and rising, like a phoenix, to the zenith of optimism. Whilst doing so, I will highlight the aforementioned concepts and elements common to many of the disparate articles.

“The Just-in-Time Professor” is a chilling document, made all the more credible and imposing because of who authored it: the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The report has all the trappings of a really persuasive document: their survey “. . . received 845 responses,” the “Participants hailed from 41 of 50 states” and were “. . . employed by private and public two- and four-year institutions” (House Committee on Education and the Workforce 1). This is a very representative sample of the academic contingent labor force. The report goes on to explicate, via cringe-worthy anecdotes that are corroborated by equally unnerving graphs and data, the travails of being an adjunct professor. While it is not really discussed in the report, the question of “What would compel people to subject themselves to these working conditions?” does arise.

The answer being that, professorships are often “The Jobs We Want?” This is true for a number of reasons, foremost among them and common in many articles, is that students are inculcated with the belief that anything less amounts to failure (and are not made aware of other possible careers.) This is the stigma and inertia that the “alt-ac” (alternate academic jobs) movement is up against. This article is quite gloomy, stating forthrightly: “We should celebrate the possibilities, excitement, and challenges of this work . . . But a solution to the academic jobs crisis? I’m afraid we need to look elsewhere for that” (Posner n.p.). Furthermore, the specter of the “adjunct crisis” is raised, which is bitterly ironic because this is the very thing alt-ac was supposed to represent a potential deliverance from; Posner describes alt-ac employees in general  as “. . . flexible employees, carrying out a great deal of administrative work, whose time is managed by someone else, who do research when they can carve out the time, whose work belongs to someone else, and who have no voice in faculty governance;” this sounds eerily familiar from “The Just-in-Time Professor” (Posner n.p.).

Despite this article’s nascent pessimism, there is a lot of cause for celebration: it introduces hitherto undiscussed options for Humanities degree-holders: “Alt-acs can do non-digital work in university administration, the nonprofit world, private industry, and many other sectors” (Posner n.p.). Posner focuses a lot of enthusiasm in particular on the digital humanities, insofar as one can say so, given how nebulous the catch-all term “digital humanities” is, in this and other articles. While this vagueness about alt-ac and digital humanities is a bit alarming, there is a “silver lining,” in that other options for humanities degree-holders are discussed. Besides the prestige attached to professorships, the other primary reason so many Ph.D.’s find themselves shunted into contingent labor is that they have not been exposed to other possible career paths.

Which is precisely what Larsen advocates for in “For the Persistent Ph.D. Impulse, Gentle Dissuasion.” He opens by explaining how the institution at which he teaches “. . . would parade before the students some graduates who had rested content with an M.A. as their terminal degree and were now living rich and full lives as librarians, archivists, journalists, and editors, or who were working for nonprofits, community colleges, or elite secondary schools” (Larsen n.p.). It is worthy of note that Larsen is an oddity in that he does not propose the digital humanities, whatever it is (maybe he will not endorse something so ill-defined?) as a viable alternative career.

Larsen takes his argument against doctoral programs even further. He takes umbrage with what he refers to as “. . . the free-to-dream model” in which droves of students are allowed to become indebted chasing a degree that will qualify them for a more-or-less vanished occupation (Larsen n.p.). He finds “. . . certain Ph.D. programs’ blithely churning out debt-laden graduates who will probably not find the sort of jobs that enticed them to pursue the degree in the first place” to be very exploitative and disingenuous, a ploy I observed in Schwarz’s article, “What to Do With a B.A. in English?”  (Larsen n.p.).

How Not to Think about the Humanities” may reek of defensive equivocation but it does offer another solution to the problem: diversification. Palumbo-Liu says “First, do not think of the humanities as an “either/or” proposition. Diversify your resume” in one of “Stanford’s new, pioneering Joint Major programs with Computer Science plus Humanities departments . . .” (n.p.).

However, I cannot help but find the admonition to diversify as just the kind of “back-handed compliment” and/or advice endemic to the most optimistic articles. As has been discussed previously, one optimistic article is outright duplicitous (“What to Do With a B.A. in English?”) and as I shall address later, another one, “Why English Majors are the Hot New Hires,” which very underhandedly and implicitly champions diversification, is insulting and patronizing all at once.

Diversifying and exploring other non-academic careers is the main thrust of “The Repurposed Ph.D. Finding Life After Academia — and Not Feeling Bad About It.” The title of the article already alludes to the pervasive stigma attached to anything besides a professorship. What makes this article relatively cheerier than its predecessors is that it tells of people who translated the much ballyhooed skills of a humanist-critical thinking, writing- into other fields. The article also discusses Stanford’s attempt to rework their once potentially pernicious doctoral programs: “A handful of professors at Stanford, sensitive to the exploitative potential of graduate school but convinced of its value, are trying to instigate meaningful change” (Tuhus-Dubrow n.p.). Stanford, in light of “How Not to Think about the Humanities,” seems to be the most progressive school on tackling these questions about humanities degrees.

This article too, had a lot to say in favor of the “digital humanities.” One of the promising movements catalogued in the article was “The Praxis Network . . .” which “consists of ‘digital humanities’ initiatives at eight universities, focusing primarily on graduate education. They aim to prepare students for roles outside the professoriate, stressing skills like collaboration, technology and project management” (Tuhus-Dubrow n.p.).

Quite in keeping with the other articles, “Seven Rules for Public Humanists” concerns itself with the anxiety about “If we want the humanities to be more than academic—if we want them to make a difference in the world—we need to change the way we work” (Lubar n.p.). Lubar asserts that the obsession with academic work has “put all of our eggs in one basket” and contributed to the perception that the humanities are trivial and well, “academic,” as in “of no immediate importance.” Lubar, as a “public humanist,” deviates a little from Posner, who as an “alt-ac” adherent asserts that “These alt-ac gigs can be great jobs, but they differ in some fundamental ways from faculty jobs as they have been traditionally understood — and not because we’re doing different work, but because we’re doing that work on very different terms” (Posner n.p.). Posner says that she works more or less within the traditional academic paradigm, whereas Lubar asserts that the “Ivory Tower” must be abandoned entirely, in favor of a new, more “boots on the ground,” very public paradigm.

Naturally, the optimists do not subscribe to any such theories. Schwartz, the author of “What to Do With a B.A. in English?” asserts that the system works; everything is “hunky-dory” in the “Ivory Tower.” And he does so cogently and comprehensively. Schwartz explains that in order to study and work within the system and emerge successful, one must diversify one’s portfolio, recommending, “Double majoring in economics is a good idea if you want to go into the business world. . .” (Schwartz n.p.).

Of course, the examples of humanistic success he presents as relatively “low-hanging fruit” are guilty of the sin Larsen accuses doctoral programs of. Schwartz clearly cites his top ten most successful students and blithely passes them off as a representative sample of all of the students he has ever taught (compare this to the actually representative sample of the contingent labor force in “The Just-in-Time Professor”) and it really strains credulity. The disingenuous manner in which he does so would certainly raise Larsen’s hackles (and mine: I am a humanities student, trained to think critically and “read between the lines;” I can smell duplicity a mile away.)

While there was nothing calculatedly untoward in “Why English Majors are the Hot New Hires,” Martinuzzi’s celebration of English majors is touched with a degree of ambiguity. On the one hand, it is certainly encouraging to read of an employer enthusiastic about hiring Humanities degree-holders, on the other hand, Martinuzzi would do well to learn when to “leave well enough alone.” Admonitions and qualifications are couched within her seemingly complimentary statements, for example: “The trend of employers looking for both field-specific skills and broad skills indicates that employees who combine a liberal arts major—especially an English major—with another major degree, such as business, science or technology, will have a competitive advantage” implies that having a Humanities degree is tantamount to “bringing a knife to a gunfight” (Martinuzzi n.p.).

If the demographic you are actually courting is people who have combined a humanities degree with another prestigious degree, just say so! Martinuzzi’s imprecise (imprecision appears to be another running theme in the articles I had not noticed when I began composing) title gets negated by a patronizing clarification halfway through the article. Therefore, the article is just as apt to induce the kind of retroactive shock and chagrin that characterize “The Just-in-Time Professor” in another “one-trick pony” (this is the implicit perception of a Humanities degree-holder many of the ostensibly positive articles.)

The similarities oddly enough outweigh the differences in these articles that arise from such variegated inspirations. Of course, where there is agreement it is hardly consensus. For example, the idea of diversifying one’s resume: in the “alt-ac” community, the sentiment is present but it is not so much a question of diversifying resumes but putting a new spin on the existing skills on the resume. Whereas the optimists, who champion diversification, implicitly cast their lot with those who do not see a Humanities degree as intrinsically valuable (or at least not so financially viable at the moment.) Remarkably, the disparate factions more or less agree that the problems, and their corollary solutions, lie with doctoral programs and the administrative culture of devaluing labor.

My goal of shaking off the disillusionment I grappled with in my last post did not come to fruition. The “negative Nancies” I had been reading previously are simply more compelling. The articles that champion the digital humanities and alt-ac are too vague to be very encouraging. The optimists had to be “taken with a grain of salt;” for Schwarz to so thoroughly vindicate Larsen was disheartening.

DISCLAIMER: I am well aware that my research on “the optimists” ironically enough hardly constitutes a representative sample. Unfortunately, as my intent was to offer a comprehensive look at the entire debate about the academic jobs crisis and that this is a blog, not a dissertation-I am caught between genres-some sacrifices had to be made.


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