Two Big Problems With Graduate Education in the Humanities

Graduate School in the Humanities

“Graduate education in the humanities is in crisis.”

Departing MLA President Michael Bérubé and I apparently agree on many things.1 Of course, he’s been in the academy a lot longer than I have, but you don’t have to be an industry veteran to recognize the precarity of graduate education in the humanities. Sure, humanities departments have been saying this for years. The “sky is falling” rhetoric blisters the landscape of critical humanities journals past. Graduate education in the humanities has always been hypersensitive to its marginal status in the American university, but this time, it’s for real.

In his February 18th2 article “The Humanities, Unraveled” Bérubé develops a speech he gave at this year’s annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools, during which he discusses this prognostication of crisis for graduate education in the humanities. Like I said, we’ve all heard this too many times, but I like Bérubé because he suggests some real reasons why. Outlining reasons helps us discuss solutions to these self-inflicted problems of humanities departments.

In this article, I’ll share my Two Big Problems with graduate education in the humanities, and I’ll begin to formulate some possible solutions.

Problem 1: Too Many People Want to be Professors

The current structure of graduate education in the humanities is flooding the job market. Everyone wants to be a professor, but only a fraction of those who begin a graduate education will achieve that goal. It could be a game show hosted by Regis Philbin: Who Wants to be a Professor? The odds of getting a tenure track professorship these days approximates the odds that someone would win a million dollars on that ubiquitous nineties game show.

Not quite the same thing maybe, but the barrier to success is the same: too many people want to win. Not everyone can win. Not everyone can become a tenured professor. I wish that weren’t true, but it is. There are a limited number of jobs and an unlimited number of applicants. If we keep graduating far more humanities PhDs than we have jobs for, we will continue to exacerbate the problem. Duh.3

Bérubé points out that “of the 1.5 million people now employed in the profession of college teaching, more than one million are teaching off the tenure track, with no hope or expectation of ever winding up on the tenure track.” How do you like those odds? Not so much.

Problem: Graduate education in the humanities is overproducing, which floods the market with supply, thereby reducing demand and devaluing the “product.”

Solution: Stop accepting so many students into PhD programs. Or, at the very least, start preparing PhDs for jobs other than college professor.

Problem 2: Graduate Education Has Learned How to Exploit This Market Dynamic

Uh oh. Now we have a real quandary. The very people who are in a position to solve these problems actually benefit from perpetuating them. Oops. Somebody effed up.

Before returning to graduate school, I worked in middle management for a few years in the retail world. For about a year of this time, I had an operations director who was a complete ass. He was incredibly rude to everyone and he made asinine decisions on behalf of our store when he knew nothing about our day to day operations. Like the time he forced out about 10 times as much inventory as our store could hold because it would “increase sales.” The only thing it increased was waste when we had to toss all the perishables. But, I digress.

At some point during his year at the top, our HR manager left the company (probably due to the jerk OD), and this guy decides that he’s going to appoint himself director of HR while still maintaining his operations role. In other words, he was the source of our problems and also the “solution” to them. If we wanted to file a complaint about his abusive behavior, guess who we had to talk to. Yep.

Thank god this egomaniacal prick got canned not long after that when the president of the company and his VP’s got word of this injustice.4

When you think about it, though, this dynamic exists also in graduate education today. As the heading of this section informed you, departments (and administrators) have learned how to exploit this market dynamic which is overproducing PhDs. It’s called adjunct and graduate student labor. The very people who are creating the problem are the ones who benefit from it. So why change? Just keep talking about how bad it is, make it look like you care, and then sign acceptance letters with your other hand. Presto! You’ve got yourself your very own cheap labor force that will never be exhausted.

Bérubé references Marc Bousquet and William Pannapacker who, he argues, have both suggested that graduate education in the humanities is a “shell game.” Bérubé goes on to cite Bousquet’s “argument that the Ph.D. is actually the ‘waste product’ of a system designed to produce cheap teaching labor” and he himself writes that “the system has been redesigned in such a way as to call into question the function of the doctorate as a credential for employment in higher education.”

Problem: The same people who have the power to change things are also the ones who benefit from keeping things the same.

Solution: Option #1: Stop accepting so many students into PhD programs. Oh, have you heard that one before?

Option #2: Incentivize graduate programs to do a better job of supporting their graduates. Here’s a thought: Only allow programs to accept as many students as they successfully place each year. How about that for an incentive?

Option #3: Cross-disciplinary hiring and graduate admissions committees that include equal voting rights for graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty. There needs to be some kind of system of checks and balances that regulates the influx of exploitable labor.


Is graduate education in the humanities in crisis mode? What do you think? Unfortunately, we’ve kind of created a “boy who cried wolf” situation. It seems to me though that, due to the massive oversupply of labor and also the unprecedented defunding of higher education, coupled with the political attack on anything that isn’t STEM-related, the answer is a definite yes.

What’s your take on all this? What other problems do you see and what should we do to fix them?

Notes: 1Not to mention our sharing of the stage at the 2013 MLA Presidential Forum2Which happened to be my birthday, in case anyone was wondering. 3Since we’re doing the nineties thing and all. 4Some middle manager sent them an email calling attention to it. Hmmm.

MLA 2013 Convention and the Year of the Adjunct

MLA Boston 2013

Did you feel it?

During the first weekend of 2013, Boston pulsed to the beat of the adjunct. At the MLA 2013 Convention, you couldn’t turn around without hearing about contingent faculty issues in one form or another.

It all began on Thursday evening when the convention kicked off with the historic, first-ever all-adjunct presidential forum. Outgoing MLA President Michael Bérubé presided over a panel that consisted of New Faculty Majority Executive Director Maria Maisto; Beth Landers, a French professor at the University of Missouri; and Bob Samuels, president of the California AFT University Council and a lecturer at UCLA. What an honor it was for me to speak in the company of these great leaders and teachers.

I had the privilege of opening the forum and beginning what will become one of the most important weekends in history for adjunct justice.

The massive ballroom contained the largest audience I’ve ever addressed, and I confess to being a little nervous. I knew, though, that I had to record the audio of my speech, even if it would be one more thing to worry about. After all, most of the people interested in hearing it couldn’t afford to fly to Boston and attend the conference.

The audio worked out pretty well. Better than I thought it would, in fact. I had my recorder right next to the pages, so you will hear them as they turn, but other than that, everything is pretty clear. In the first minute or so, you’ll hear Bérubé introducing us and then I start at about the 1:20 mark. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. Hope you agree. You’ll see the audio player at the end of the post or you can listen here now.

More on Adjuncts From MLA 2013

But my speech was just one of many during this MLA 2013 weekend. Maisto, Landers, and Samuels all gave excellent presentations, as well. Several panels also featured discussions and papers on adjunct labor. Then there was, of course, Bérubé’s presidential address, a rousing call to action and passionate defense of the humanities and those who teach them–all those who teach them, including and especially those who do it for next to nothing.

As soon as he finished speaking, the place erupted. Maria Maisto and I stood up and the rest of the ballroom followed. The speech was well-worthy of the standing O, as was Michael Bérubé for all the work he has done for adjuncts and for the future of university faculty. Audio of Bérubé’s address should be available soon on the MLA website.

As if all this wasn’t enough, The Chronicle of Higher Education and I released the new version of the Adjunct Project to much excitement and buzz. Editor Liz McMillen and I fielded questions and listened to stories during a reception on Saturday, while two marketing professionals from The Chronicle deftly conducted demonstrations of the new site. It was more than I ever could have imagined last February when we adjuncts built our spreadsheet. We’ve come a long way and our level of public exposure continues to grow.

Read more about the weekend and MLA 2013 from William Pannapacker in The End of MLAlienation and What if the Adjuncts Shrugged?

Also, more on the Adjunct Project at Adjunct Project Reveals Wide Range in Pay and MLA Sessions Keep the Focus on Adjuncts.

Were any of you at the conference or following it on Twitter? What were your high points?

My MLA 2013 Presidential Forum Speech:

MLA 2013 Speech