It’s Time We Tackle This Directly

On Facebook the other day I read a post by a doctoral student in the US who, near done the degree, is venturing into a possible career outside the university; the post repeated a theme we’ve long heard in the humanities: we generally conceive of learning and research too narrowly and, by extension, graduate training ought to be re-calibrated to take into account the many other futures for which we might be preparing students.

I admit that I found this post rather frustrating — not because of what the student wrote but because we still inhabit circumstances in which this needs to be said. For, speaking as someone whose own doctoral training spanned the late 1980s and early 1990s, these conditions are entirely familiar to me.

Sure, we can cite the 2008 economic collapse as ramping up these problems but, as significant as that was, that’s just a change in degree, not kind. For the humanities job market has been terrible for decades and, despite each new generation of doctoral students bemoaning their plight, as they look toward a highly competitive job market, I really don’t see much that any doctoral degree granting school has done to try to address this head on. Simply put, I was writing on these same problems 20 years ago or more (for example, here [from 1996] and here [from 1997]), and I was hardly the first to see the problem and thus not alone in discussing it — so what have we been doing about it all this time?

Now, I focus on structure enough in my own work to understand that no one is going to change this on their own — and by “change this” I mean federal or local budgetary conditions in your country, government priorities for higher education, taxpayer preferences for how their money is spent, private employers’ hiring practices, etc. But I also look at agency sufficiently to understand that actors can do all sorts of things within their setting — things that, sometimes, can change their situation in surprising ways.

So just what are graduate programs doing to address these problems?

I know that it gets tough to tackle this issue since the very existence of those units (aka the legitimacy and the teaching loads of the faculty who staff them) is premised on graduating a specific number of doctoral students (and thus having enough around to TA or possibly even teach their BA classes), so there’s a very real incentive not to decrease the number that you admit each year; thus, even if we’re adjusting that number we’re still graduating far too many people given the number of jobs that are available (let alone the more rare full-time tenure-track positions). Decades ago we should have changed that…

So if significantly decreasing the number of students admitted is not an option, it seems faculty have no choice but to rethink their graduate programs — or continue to sit on their hands, of course.

Now, I can become as nostalgic as anyone else for the day when working on a Ph.D. degree meant years learning languages, working on obscure texts, and spending days in the archives chasing down a detail for a footnote that might persuade your committee that you did your homework. But with poor job prospects, declining funding opportunities, and continually rising tuition costs (at least in the national setting where I live and do my work) it just strikes me as irresponsible for faculty supervising these students and those running these Departments to labor under the illusion that this what graduate education today ought to be.

Case in point: the Department in which I work decided, 5 years ago, that we needed to consider developing an M.A. degree (we’ve long been a small B.A.-granting unit which, although we were once on the ropes, we’ve worked hard to reinvent, starting back in 2001). But the conditions of modern higher ed and the wider economy were always on our minds during the 3 or 4 years of increasingly formal conversations on how to do this in a way that might position our grad students to leave here with credentials that they might creatively use in the next stage of their lives (whether applying to a Ph.D. or heading off in search of a career doing something entirely different). And so we arrived at a degree proposal that played to our strength and which would therefore allow all students to be trained widely in intellectual (i.e., social theory) and practical (i.e., digital) skills. The degree isn’t for everyone, of course, but we hope it’s appealing to students who wish to have more education but who aim to do so with an eye toward the practical conditions of the lives they one day hope to lead.

Like I said, it took us 3 years to discuss it, one year to develop the formal proposal and to get it passed, and we’re now approaching the end of our two year degree’s first year, with 4 or 5 more students coming into our second cohort this Fall. While I don’t know the future, I’m pretty optimistic for our chances of helping these students succeed beyond the University of Alabama.

So I’d like to know what other Departments with graduate programs — whether Ph.D.-granting or terminal M.A. units, like us — are actually doing.

And don’t say you’re holding C.V. writing workshops and observing grad student teaching or sending them to your career centers, for that’s hardly aiming to address the big issues that have plainly been in front of us, as a profession, for decades. So what structural changes are you making? What new degree and new required classes are you devising? What’s the point of doing your grad degrees? Is anyone on your faculty taking seriously that you’re training people for more than university jobs or is that left to the students to invent for themselves? While I don’t want to caricature faculty as disengaged, are they actively involved in these issues, on the local or maybe national level, or are they too busy writing their magnum opus?

I may be overly harsh, but faculty now in control of our Departments should be well acquainted with these problems — for unless we happened to fall into a position tailor made for our specialty, we suffered form them ourselves, while working to get careers going — so not seeing all grad programs in our field tackling this head-on just seems to me to be terribly irresponsible.

So, while our strategy doesn’t have to be your own, I’ll ask once again: what are you doing about this in your graduate program…?

I’ll happily post what you write on our Department blog, to keep
this conversation going. You know where to find me.