I've only heard from like 4 people re: an MLA meet-up on the 27th (which is indeed when it shall happen). If you don't email me at reassignedtime at gmail then you will not get to know where said meet-up is, for I don't believe in publicizing that shit for all of teh internets to see. And I won't be doing any twittering sort of meet-up because I don't do the twittering - which is what I think makes more sense to call it than "tweeting" (even though I did sign up for an account once and like a gajillion people apparently follow my feed, to which I've never posted a substantive update after that first signing up day). So the point here is, if you're into the MLA meeting up with Crazy and other bloggy peeps, you should totally send me an email so that we can make actual plans. I'll be sending a mass email out re: time/location just before MLA, so why not say Christmas Eve is your deadline. Indeed, email me by the 24th or you're out of the loop. (To those of you who've emailed already, I've got you on my list, and in the worst case we will have an intimate meet-up in which we all drink lots of whiskey, or whatever your drink of choice is :) )
And now, for the actual real post that I want to write. I suspect that you've all seen this news from the MLA about the status of the job market. Because I am the bearer of bad tidings at Christmastime, I sent the article to which I linked along to BES, and of course totally made her anxious and unhappy, only then to try to cheer her up. As I said to her, though, it's better to know. But so anyway, Roxie also posted about this, and Historiann linked to Roxie and had a few comments of her own. So I've been thinking a lot about this report about the state of the English job market, especially as I was grading seminar papers for my first ever grad class in our brand-spanking-new MA program.
Let me note this: yes, I'm teaching what are technically "graduate students." But I teach a 4/4 load, and all we've got is an MA program. If I had my druthers, I'd probably not teach in the grad program at all. I enjoy teaching my undergrad students more, and on the whole I think that my undergrad students are stronger students than the grad students in our program. I teach in our grad program as a service to my department, to my institution, and to my region. It is not tremendously rewarding, nor does it really enhance my prestige or my research.
This might surprise you, that I'm saying that. You might think, as is the common wisdom, that all professors are dying to teach grad students. This is often one of the arguments that is asserted when people talk about the "over-supply" of English MAs and PhDs. The "fat-cat" tenured folks just "want to teach graduate students" and so this accounts for the fact that too many people are admitted to graduate programs in a glutted discipline, and this accounts for the adjunct track that currently exists in English.*
Most importantly, let me also note, there is "teaching grad students" in the sense of teaching students who will go on to become part of one's profession and then there is "teaching grad students" who are the cash cow of an underfunded regional university. These two things are not the same thing. The grad students in my department's MA program are not the grad student that I was, nor are they the grad students who would have attended my MA or PhD programs. We started our program not because we had ambitions of sending students on to the professoriate (even the community college professoriate). We started our program a) because we have a lot of high school teachers who need an MA in order to get a pay bump, and having an MA program would allow us to serve those teachers; b) because another audience for our program is people who need an MA to advance in their non-academic jobs, and we can serve them by offering such a program; c) because, in terms of the administration of our own curriculum, we were already offering a graduate curriculum, over which we had no control, to serve other graduate programs at our university, and it was important to us to maintain control over the curriculum that we offer. In other words, in starting our program, we had no ambitions to produce college teachers.
The bulk of the students in our program are unfunded (and I advise all of my undergrads that they shouldn't go to grad school in English without full funding) and even those who get funding are only partially funded. In other words, I would never advise an undergrad student of mine to enroll in our grad program. So the fact that I teach in it hurts my feelings at least and compromises my integrity at worst. But here I am.
The best I can say for myself is that many of my students have their current employers paying for their MA.
But so. I teach graduate students. Most of them have no ambitions toward the professoriate. Those who do, I do my best to dissuade. At the end of the day, this is probably the best I can do.
What does all of this have to do with the MLA report? Well, the thing that pissed me off most was not the news about the dearth of t-t jobs. It was the comments of Rosemary Feal and the president of the MLA grad caucus, Alysia E. Garrison, that indicated that the problem was not the number of grad students that programs admit.
According to Inside Higher Ed,
"But Feal cautioned against trying to solve the job market problem by shrinking graduate programs. Many programs are turning out great new professors, whose teaching and research should be advanced. "It would be a shame for academic programs to calibrate the number of students they admit exclusively on short-turn fluctuations. That would be short-sighted and rather sad," she said.
and, for Garrison,
"Still, she said she would oppose any shrinking of programs. "The declining presence on campus of humanities programs would signal a decline in their importance to the university community," she said. "Admitting fewer graduate students may also justify decisions to cut writing programs and to move toward online delivery models of student instruction, particularly for lower-division writing and literature courses that graduate students have traditionally taught."Look, I agree that individual programs are not to blame for the adjunctification of higher ed generally or of English specifically. But seriously: a field in which 75% of people with the required degree and qualifications have no fucking hope of getting a job is not going to increase the number of tenure-track positions. Nor will a continuation of that increase the status of the humanities in the wider culture and nor will it increase the capital of programs or departments that produce humanities degrees. I do not blame people who end up on the adjunct track for ending up there. I do not blame people for pursuing this degree and this passion, if they can get into a program. I do blame programs for admitting people when they have no reasonable expectation of them getting a full-time job with benefits. This is not a matter of a "short-term fluctuation." This is reality, and it's the reality we can expect into the future.
And as far as writing programs go, if institutions believe in the teaching of writing as a discipline, then they should hire people who are qualified to teach writing, or at the very least offer faculty development opportunities for people across the university to qualify them to teach those courses. Allowing for an entire field of study to be covered by grad students and adjuncts who don't necessarily specialize in that field is irresponsible at best. Look, I have my own issues with the field of composition, and probably because I'm not a specialist in that field, but if we really believe that every student who graduates from college should have a semester or a year of courses in composition, we should probably fund tenure-track lines to support that belief. If we relegate the majority of the teaching of composition to part-timers and grad students, how important is it really? Teaching composition well requires skill and dedication. It requires a fuck of a lot more than the one-semester of grad school I had before I first taught comp, and I'm saying that as a person who actually had a full-semester course in teaching comp before I entered the comp classroom.
Also, I feel like the "online delivery model" vs. face to face is a false dichotomy. Look, I'll be the first person to say that I think teaching online sucks - both for me and for my students - but if you have a dedicated t-t faculty member teaching online vs. an inexperienced grad student or an overtaxed adjunct teaching f2f, I'd say that the online course might actually be superior. Not because the adjunct or grad student was in some way personally inferior, but rather because good teaching happens when you've got resources. Look, I'm a shitty online teacher, and I've got tenure. I'm looking forward to that moment in May when my online teaching duties are done, mainly because I know I've been a bad online teacher. But the fact that I've done it poorly doesn't mean that I don't see the potential for that delivery method. The fact of the matter is, if I had ever had any instruction in teaching online, or if I taught more online courses, I do believe that my online courses would be superior to an adjunct phoning it in (by necessity) or a grad student teaching for the first time.
So, anyway. Enough with that rant. The point is, why shouldn't there be a mandate for English programs to admit only those students that they can fully fund? Why shouldn't we reduce PhDs through that sort of a method? Why shouldn't we say that professors themselves should have heavier teaching loads to support such an initiative?
I realize I'm in weird position, in that I teach 4/4 and I'm saying that. My load won't likely rise, while people on a 2/2 or similar would likely see their loads rise. And we might see a change in curriculum: maybe we wouldn't require those writing courses that are now the norm, and maybe that would mean that all faculty - across disciplines - would be responsible for making sure that their students could write. Maybe there wouldn't be so many TAs to grade, at institutions where people have TAs to grade. Or maybe we'd need to limit enrollments in such a way that more and more Americans couldn't attend college. Maybe a college education isn't something that every American "deserves." The point is, the current state of higher ed funding doesn't support every student going to college, plus college profs having 2/2 loads, plus plus plus. Something's got to give. What's it gonna be?
With all of that being said, and with all of the good reasons that we had for starting our MA program, I'd be in favor of entirely getting rid of it, even though it isn't directed at students who seek an academic career, necessarily. Sure, we serve particular needs in our community, but I hate that some students really believe that they will ever become English professors through pursuing a degree at my institution. I'd rather, in some ways, that we totally got rid of our program, even though it serves so many. Let's note that our enrollments since starting have been through the roof, as entirely stupid as that is.
I believe in the necessity of people doing research in my field. I believe that it is necessary for students to read literature. I believe that the humanities are central to a well-rounded education. But should departments continue to admit people to grad programs when they can't fund them, selling them the lie of the t-t job? No. Should programs continue to support lower teaching loads when their general education courses are being taught by adjuncts and grad students? No.
Either we believe in the humanities (in English, in literature) enough to pay for people to teach them with a reasonable salary and with benefits, or we don't. If we don't, then fine. Then change the general education requirements of every university, and let's just state it outright.
Or let's realize that we probably need to think about the enrollments in our grad programs in light of what the hiring conditions are, whether or not sections of comp or intro to lit have instructors. And let's commit to the fact that adjuncts or grad students shouldn't be teaching the majority of our core courses, even if refusing to hire adjuncts for those courses pisses our institutions off, and even if faculty members are pissed off that they're not teaching only courses in their specializations.
The point is, the current market isn't a "short-term fluctuation." Our responsibility is to respond to it in a way that has long-term gains, both for our discipline and for higher education generally. That may or may not mean more jobs for PhDs. But the point is, we need to wake up and realize that we can't afford to wait for a turn-around.
*Note: it is true that the vast number of grad programs in English does produce people who can (and most likely will) serve as adjuncts. I just don't think that there's a causal relationship between the existence of an adjunct track and the number of programs, at least not a simple causal relationship. The buck stops, in my estimation, with funding, and that's not about the number of grad students admitted in any one program or across programs. This is not to say that I think that so many students should be admitted to or receive degrees from graduate programs in English. It is to say, however, that the adjunct track exists not because of individual departments and programs but because of the way that institutions choose to fund the humanities, and the ways in which institutions regard the humanities in relation to the value of a college degree.