Monday, January 13, 2014

Graduate Programs and Academia

The MLA kerfuffle is hot on Twitter (by which I do not mean it is not hot in real life, but rather you can get lots more context if you go onto Twitter) and is centered on a bigger debate about academia in general. This Inside Higher Ed story highlights a lot of what's wrong and right about the debate. The main question in the story is whether graduate schools should shrink because there are fewer permanent jobs.

First, what's right:

He noted that the demand for instruction in English and related fields has gone up over time, and said that the real reason for a shortage of good jobs was that states have not provided enough money for higher education, and that colleges have come to rely on non-tenure-track labor to teach. While he said that graduate programs should reduce time to degree, he said that the emphasis of professors must be on "the broad struggle" to fund higher education at appropriate levels, and to create jobs on the tenure track.

Yes, and the point about state budgets is too rarely examined despite the fact that they are central to the number of tenure track positions. Their allotments determine that number in a very real way. It's not a simple question, but it has to be front and center in reference to public schools.

Second, what's wrong:

Purdy said that there are ethical issues with graduate program size that play out in different ways. There are ethical questions in "preparing people for jobs that don't exist," he said. But so too there is "an ethical obligation not to let a program disappear." He said that in discussions of fellowship awards, for example, he has reviewed applications from people who study topics that are only studied "by one old man in Heidelberg," and that this suggests that humanities scholars need to be sure fields don't die out.
Oh man, this is all kinds of wrong, not to mention contradictory. If you encourage graduate students to study things few people are interested in, how in the world do you think they're going to get a job? Preserving such things should be sole domain of people with job security, not vulnerable graduate students. People looking for employment cannot afford to live in a bubble--they need to produce scholarship that ultimately will employ them. If they are asking to study in a bubble, then they need to be advised about how it will affect their ability to get a job.

That reminds me of the Inside Higher Ed report about History Ph.Ds. The headline was that the number of jobs had shrunk, but that obscured a much more important development, namely that interest in particular areas of History had shrunk relative to the number of graduate students.

Entry-Level History Positions vs. Specialties of New Ph.D.s
FieldNumber of OpeningsNumber of New Ph.D.s
North America199441
Latin America5164
Middle East4160

This means the job market is pretty darned good, even awesome, if you study a topic other than North America or Europe. That is something Ph.D. programs need to keep in mind constantly. What this tells me is that broad discussions about "History" or "Humanities" or "Academia" are going to suffer from severe lack of precision. Some areas of the Humanities--or other areas of academia--appear to be doing quite well, but no one seems to be making a case for exactly what they are.


RAJ 11:27 AM  

Agree entirely with your main points. Also in the "wrong": the assumption that the only jobs PhDs go on to are in academia. Programs need to acknowledge that a proportion of our grads have always gone on elsewhere-- often better paying elsewheres-- and that we, by definition, are not good sources of guidance in how to get to that elsewhere because we did not leave the academy.

Greg Weeks 4:55 PM  

Yes, the question of how to provide guidance for non-academic jobs is a good one. I am not in a Ph.D. granting dept, but I would think Ph.D. programs could make sure that they keep in touch with their graduates and use their various career paths as at least an initial guide.

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