The Mundane

humanities doctorates and part-time pros

Thomas H Benton takes a pretty cynical look at humanities doctorates, strategizing the university hiring strategy in the coming current recession:

Just to be clear: There is work for humanities doctorates (though perhaps not as many as are currently being produced), but there are fewer and fewer real jobs because of conscious policy decisions by colleges and universities. As a result, the handful of real jobs that remain are being pursued by thousands of qualified people — so many that the minority of candidates who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery.

Universities (even those with enormous endowments) have historically taken advantage of recessions to bring austerity to teaching. There will be hiring freezes and early retirements. Rather than replacements, more adjuncts will be hired, and more graduate students will be recruited, eventually flooding the market with even more fully qualified teacher-scholars who will work for almost nothing. When the recession ends, the hiring freezes will become permanent, since departments will have demonstrated that they can function with fewer tenured faculty members.

Nearly every humanities field was already desperately competitive, with hundreds of applications from qualified candidates for every tenure-track position. Now the situation is becoming even worse. For example, the American Historical Association’s job listings are down 15 percent and the Modern Languae’s listings are down 21 percent, the steepest annual decline ever recorded. Apparently, many already-launched candidate searches are being called off; some responsible observers expect that hiring may be down 40 percent this year.

[From Print: Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go –]

But even more to the point for current grad students is this:

What almost no prospective graduate students can understand is the extent to which doctoral education in the humanities socializes idealistic, naïve, and psychologically vulnerable people into a profession with a very clear set of values. It teaches them that life outside of academe means failure, which explains the large numbers of graduates who labor for decades as adjuncts, just so they can stay on the periphery of academe. (That’s another topic I’ve written about before; see “Is Graduate School a Cult?” (The Chronicle, July 2, 2004.)

That’s unnecessarily condescending – the scolding is better placed on the grad schools that socialize rather than the grad student – but it’s a peek at how the humanities operates.

Add to the mix this observation: More and more professionals want a stint at university teaching. For those outside the university, teaching inside the university is a sign of professional and ideological success, as well as a chance to bring their version of Real Life to the classroom – to use the classroom as a bully pulpit. What makes the part-time pros attractive to administration is their flexibility: as part-timers, they can be hired or let go as enrollment waxes and wanes, and as programs become popular and lose popularity.

The humanities doctorate is competing with this group, too.