Monday, September 08, 2008

Why Are the Humanities Oversupplied?

So I found my way to a thread over at the Chronicle of Higher Education forums in which the above title is the starting point for what is an ok discussion I suppose. Reading through it, though, I don't know. I suppose I feel compelled to weigh in, since so many readers here are from the Oversupplied Humanities, as am I.

I suppose the question is a fair enough one - if one is thinking only in terms of market forces and supply and demand and all that - except that there are two things that bother me:

1. The question assumes that people make all decisions a) with all possible information and b) rationally. (Here's a tip: getting a PhD in any field isn't a highly rational decision.)
2. The subtext of the question, I think, is that if there aren't jobs in a field that advanced study in that field - or even the field itself - is without value.

Now, I'm going to leave a discussion of other humanities disciplines by the wayside here and instead just focus on English as a discipline, as it's the one I know best. So. Why the oversupply in English?

First, "oversupply" is in fact just a "supply," i.e., universities (particularly large ones with intensifying demands to increase enrollment/retention to graduation) cannot run mandatory freshmen composition or a general studies curriculum with English requirements without a large pool of people to teach those courses. This is why to compare the state of English with, say, accounting (or nursing, or other similarly "undersupplied" fields), doesn't make much sense. Let's put to the side for the moment that there are more real-world opportunities with a BA in accounting, and just focus on how accounting fits into the broader curriculum. As things are set up at most universities, "accounting" doesn't play a role in the broader curriculum. It serves its majors and minors, and perhaps students may take a course or two as electives, but the bottom line is that accounting as a field does not play a role that serves the entire university in the way that a field like English does.

Now, you might say, but we don't need everybody who teaches gen. ed. courses to have an advanced degree! This is crazy! Ah, but. According to the accreditation standards of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (to give an example of just one accrediting body in higher ed), in order for a university to keep its accreditation, it cannot run courses with faculty who do not demonstrate their qualifications by having a certain number of graduate courses (or the equivalent) under their belts. In other words, if a school said, "We don't believe it's right to have all of these underemployed PhDs and MAs teaching comp, so we're just going to run a one-semester course about how to teach comp for anybody who's interested and that's how we'll staff those courses," they would lose their accreditation. In other words, the accreditation system pretty much demands that universities hire people with advanced degrees run all of its English courses. With that being the case, universities need a supply of labor that can fulfill that need, and it's just impossible in terms of cost to fulfill that massive general education need with only full-time and/or tenure-track faculty.

So, what is the solution to this? Either the lowering of accreditation standards (a) or the entire revamping of American education, which would also involve changing accreditation standards (b). Probably neither are likely.

With all of this being the case, the discussion over at the Chronicle turns, as you might expect, to a question that is actually not identical to "Why are the humanities oversupplied?" The question becomes, instead, "Why do people choose to enter fields that are oversupplied? What's wrong with these fools?" So let's think about this. Why would someone, an otherwise bright and normal person, choose to pursue years of advanced study in a humanities field, or more specifically, English? First, let's remember that there isn't an oversupply. There's just a supply, with some people compensated adequately and other people who are exploited. In other words, when a student looks at his university, what he will often see is that the English department is one of the biggest on campus, that they offer more courses more frequently than other departments, and that they "do what they love." This student, based on practical experience, sees only "supply."

Now, good mentors should tell the student about the realities of how this supply of labor is organized, but let's think about who is most likely mentoring students toward grad school: it's typically going to be tenured or tenure-track professors doing that work. So are students who don't internalize that advice just filled with delusions of their own grandeur? I'd say no. I'd say part of the problem is where their advice is coming from. If I tell a student the facts of the market, what they see is a person who in spite of those odds ended up with a "dream job." (Note: even if you teach at a place that doesn't count as a "dream job" to academics, your students think that your life is the most awesome ever, or, as a clueless student put it to BFF last year, that "the life of a professor is lucrative and rewarding.") In other words, again based on what they see, it's not so wrong for them to assume that with hard work and perseverence that they, too, will beat the odds and end up just fine.

Another factor in choosing to go on to advanced study in English (and I'm talking about literature specifically here) is that students who are attracted to doing so typically a) really like reading literature, b) really like writing research papers, and c) really excel at both of those things. It is not true that you can't get a real-world job with a BA in English - the skills are translatable to the real world - but it is true that whatever job you might get with that BA probably won't allow you to write research papers or to read and study literature. In other words, students who get BAs in English and who don't go on to grad school don't just end up homeless and unemployed - they do get jobs, and they are comfortable with having a job to pay the bills while they read in their spare time. But what if you really want to do something with your degree that allows you to develop those skills that you've excelled at even further? What if you are passionate about the subject and you want to think about it more deeply? Dude, that's kind of the point of grad school in non-applied disciplines. (It can be the point in applied disciplines as well, but I would argue that in applied fields the point may also be a lifestyle point, one in which they weigh the benefits of a more flexible schedule, of the rewards of teaching, etc. But at least as far as I know, most people who choose advanced studies in English don't begin with those concerns. Or those who do typically don't finish.)

So the question is, is this a foolish reason to go on to graduate school? I'd say it's only a foolish reason if one believes that the deeper study of material in this field and through this disciplinary perspective is valueless.

And the idea that the discipline is valueless does come through in the discussion as well, as posters posit that people choose grad school in the humanities, with English as a prime example, because it's "easier" than other fields. Oh, they go on, too. They also say that the grade inflation in "text-based" fields makes them more attractive majors for students, which then leads them down the slippery slope to grad school. You know, I don't know how it's possible to refute this point, because clearly anybody who would claim that getting a freaking PhD is "easier" in one field than another can't be reasoned with, as far as I'm concerned. Dude, getting a PhD is hard no matter what the discipline. And people don't choose PhD fields based on the "ease" of the field, as far as I'm aware. Who would devote that much time to doing something based on its relative easiness? We're talking 8-10 years in grad school minimum for most humanities PhDs. Seriously? People would choose to put their lives on hold that long because it seemed easier? Come on. You know what, just because English is most people in this country's first language does not mean that the disciplinary study of English literature - or of composition and rhetoric - is something that people are born knowing how to do. Just because a person is literate it doesn't mean that they know how to critically engage with and analyze a work of literature, nor does it mean that they know how to structure and compose a stylistically nuanced piece of prose. I mean, I can balance my checkbook and do my own taxes - does that mean I know everything my colleagues in accounting know? That it's "easy"? I've got some Band-Aids and Neosporin in the house, so does that mean nursing would be a breeze? Heck, I'm even familiar with chemistry - I cook, you know - so that must mean that I could just run off and get a Ph.D. in chemistry.

As you see, this "easiness" argument really irritates me. I suspect it would also irritate my students, because if this is supposed to be easy, they sure should get higher grades than they do from me.

So maybe let's stop thinking about the humanities as oversupplied. Maybe that's just a distraction from the real issues in play here. Maybe what we need to think about is the inequalities in how labor in the humanities is organized, and maybe we need to think about why we as a culture are so comfortable in dismissing the significance of these disciplines that are - paradoxically - central to most universities' core curriculums. If the humanities are easy and valueless, perhaps they shouldn't be part of the general education curriculum. Perhaps all of the required classes should be in business, math, and science. And then I could teach classes that self-select based on interest level, I wouldn't be required to teach everybody across the university how to write, and that would be that. Now, I don't believe that is how it should go, but you know what? Instead of talking about how people who choose to do this are stupid, or talking about how easy the fields are, or talking even about how faculty in grad programs are unethical for supporting large graduate programs in these fields, we should talk about why the humanities are central to what it means to be an educated person, and we should talk about why we insist on devaluing them.

Ok, I'm done now :) I've wasted like an hour writing this, and I really have crap I should be accomplishing.


Flavia said...

Great post, Crazy. One thing:

It is not true that you can't get a real-world job with a BA in English. . . but it is true that whatever job you might get with that BA probably won't allow you to write research papers or to read and study literature. . . . [W]hat if you really want to do something with your degree that allows you to develop those skills that you've excelled at even further? What if you are passionate about the subject and you want to think about it more deeply?

I don't disagree with this, and I think that this is a perfectly reasonable reason to go to grad school (it's why I went!). But a problem I see is that many students who excel at these things don't understand how they could have a rich and meaningful life, one that still involves reading and writing in some way, OUTSIDE of academia (and alongside a "normal" job--one that isn't obviously tied to an English degree in the way that high school teaching, journalism, and publishing are). And their faculty advisors themselves often can't imagine such a course, unless they or their close friends have led it, and so some students wind up thinking that the ONLY thing they can do if they like reading and writing and textual analysis is go to grad school.

This concerns me.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for that clarification - I completely agree with you, but just didn't flesh that whole part of things out :)

Artemis said...

Wow, thx for reading the "debate" and responding to it for me. As one of those English grads getting one of those easy PhDs, I don't think I could have come across that thread without screaming.

Dr. Crazy said...

Always happy to help, Artemis :) Righteous indignation is one of my specialties :)

heu mihi said...

Great concluding bit--another post I wish I could print and copy and send out to (some of) our faculty and admin!

But, issues of your anonymity and intellectual property aside, I'm afraid of someone tracking me down via the blogroll. :)

Clio Bluestocking said...

I want to print this post out, require all of my students to read it, send it out with my holiday cards, post it on every flat surface, and mail it to the president. THANK YOU!

Laura said...

That whole devaluing the humanities thing drives me crazy. Even at my SLAC, that's apparent. There's a gap in money to departments, so that the humanities faculty can't buy simple things like computers.

Anyway, interestingly, what's really devalued here is writing. Almost all the classes are done by adjuncts. It's interesting because at many institutions, even though many comp classes are taught by grad students, the teaching of writing has become more valued and more professionalized.

I also wonder if we're not over supplied but way under demand.