Who Is “Us”? Thoughts on the MLA

I’ll start with two observations about the MLA, since so many have asked for my impressions as an anthropologist attending for the first time.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  Because I have no years of psychic wounds connected to the MLA, I felt free as a bird. I could go to a panel and enjoy it. I could talk to someone and enjoy it. I could not talk to someone and enjoy it. I could do whatever I damn well pleased and enjoy it, because it was Not. My. Conference.  The contrast to the AAA was quite extraordinary.  The AAA is my place of pain and anxiety and the agony of inclusion/exclusion.  The MLA was entertainment.

One interesting point of contrast with the AAA.  (Well, aside from the clothes, and the haircuts, and the shoes, which were, quite simply, better.  Really amazingly, devastatingly, better).

That is, from its repute, I expected it to be electric with a kind of concentrated intellectual intensity, but it was not.  Compared to the Anthro meetings, the energy was oddly dissipated.  There was, in a way, no “there” there.  Undoubtedly it’s because it’s spread out over a bunch of hotels, and there was no one central lobby, where everyone’s energy and angst is focused.  More interestingly, I could not help but notice that the MLA folks are a far less gregarious bunch than the anthropologists.  It’s not that people didn’t talk and laugh.  They did.  But they also sat alone with their phones and ipads and laptops to a really extraordinary degree, at least in the public spaces that I could see.  At the AAA, the public spaces always feel a bit like a giant grad school party, with scores of people bunched in groups chatting, sitting at tables chatting, sitting on any available steps chatting, and even sprawled on the floor chatting.  I needed to meet up with some Interview Intervention clients, and knowing what I know of the AAA, I assumed that we’d never find a quiet, empty spot in the lobby to do our work. I was wrong. There were endless quiet empty spots.  I don’t mean to make a disciplinary caricature here.  But the contrast was striking to me.  There is definitely a different ethos of sociality at play in these disciplinary gatherings.

As I was leaving the conference, the very last person I ran into, as I wheeled my luggage out the hotel door, was Ken Wissoker, Editorial Director of Duke University Press.  Ken goes to all the conferences.  When he asked how I liked my first MLA, I mentioned this oddly subdued feel. “Oh definitely,” he exclaimed, “it’s nothing like that intense AAA energy, because of the way it’s spread out over all the hotels.”    “But you know,” he added, “it’s also because of the job seekers.”  “Oh?” I asked, “How so?”   “At the AAA, it’s still just November, and it’s early enough that people don’t really know yet how the job market chips are going to fall. They still have hope.  But here, it’s already almost over. If the interviews you get here don’t work out….  So the concentrated strain and anxiety of all the job seekers really shape the feel of the conference.”

Yes.  Of course.  There was a ‘buzz” to the MLA, but it was a pervasive emotional buzz of desperation. It took me a couple days to pick up on it.  Bit by bit, piece by piece, conversation by conversation, it took shape.  Everyone I talked to, it seemed (and of course the kind of people I end up talking to will certainly represent a particular population) was an adjunct or NTT in some form.  They had at most 1 or 2 interviews.  The interviews that they did have, half the time, were for short-term positions, 1 year here, 3 years there. The fabulous young scholars giving cutting edge papers were often not, as it turned out, assistant professors. No, they were on temporary contracts, with no security at all.  “I don’t really know what I’m going to do….” was the refrain of the meetings.

As Roger Whitson wrote on Facebook today, after listing his best experiences of the MLA, “My least fav MLA moment? Feeling hopelessness at the growing tide of adjunct suffering and resentment, my sense of smallness in the wake of its scale, and the apparent apathy of some of my tenured and t/t colleagues.”

This sums up my feelings exactly. The growing tide of adjunct suffering and resentment, and the degree to which the tenured–the seniors of the field–didn’t get it. Jesse Stommel’s conference talk itself, “Vulnerability, Contingency, and Advocacy in Higher Education,” went to the heart of adjunct suffering.

Which brings me to my title:  who is “us”?

I went to a panel called “Who Benefits?  Competing Agendas and Ethics in Graduate Reform.”  I came late, and only heard about half. What I heard were talks by 2 tenured profs and the Managing Editor of the MLA Commons,* that basically said versions of:  “the market is bad so we have to train our Ph.D.s to pursue other kinds of careers.  We have to encourage them to consider these careers, and we have to create an environment in which they can make that choice.  But under no circumstances should we consider cutting the size or scale of Ph.D. programs in the humanities.”

Now, I’m sure to the tenured articulating these ideas, this sounds radical indeed.  ACKNOWLEDGE that the market is bad, publicly? And ADMIT that your Ph.D.s might have to take a non-academic job?  And SUPPORT them in doing so?  Wow—very au courant!

However, the pointed agenda of the panel to refute the call to cut Ph.D. programs was strange, to say the least.  Indeed, apparently one presenter, speaking before I arrived, recommended expanding them. Scott Jaschik, Editor in Chief of Inside Higher Ed, leapt to his feet as the first questioner in the Q and A, to point this out (and then today wrote his own column about this event).  He told them that in a meeting of graduate students he hosted under the auspices of IHE, the students themselves spoke as one that it was a “no-brainer” that reducing the size of Ph.D. programs is one of the most urgent responses needed to the decimation of the academic job market.

Absolutely not, was the response of the panel.  To paraphrase: “any move that we would make to cut our graduate programs would be professional suicide for us.”

At which point I raised my hand and asked, “who is this ‘us’?”

“Any move that we would make to cut our graduate programs would be professional suicide for us.”

Professional suicide is what graduate students are already committing on a daily basis as they confront the reality of a Ph.D. that cannot be turned into meaningful work, and the looming default on what are often hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans.

Professional suicide is what adjuncts are committing each year that they spill out their time, energy, and spirit in an endless, pointless and ultimately fruitless quest for security.

Professional suicide is what Ph.D.s contemplate when they have to painfully and laboriously attempt to reinvent themselves for a non-academic position, for which the Ph.D. is appallingly expensive, slow, and imprecise training, when they are already often in their mid-40s or beyond.

Professional suicide is what Ph.D.s face when they discover ten or more years of their peak earning years have been lost in the black hole of a graduate program that yields nothing in the end but devastating opportunity costs.

This panel set out to ask “who benefits” from graduate training.  They could not have answered the question more clearly.  The tenured benefit.  It is for them.  They are the “us” that cannot contemplate or countenance a change in their cherished way of life. I get that the tenured love their world and its rituals of admissions, training, defense, and graduation. Not to mention of course the labor that allows faculty to avoid teaching various types of classes. It was a nice world at one time, when the economy supported it. But let there be no mistake.  Who benefits from these practices at this point in history?  The tenured.  At least, could you be honest about it?


*This is incorrect.  Note my correction in the comments below.


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Who Is “Us”? Thoughts on the MLA — 72 Comments

  1. Folks following this issue are probably bored with hearing me suggest that we submit third-party comments to accreditation agencies about adjunctification, but for anyone who thinks it’s worth pursuing I have compiled links to the relevant US agencies, their accreditation criteria (with notes about which criteria are relevant), and their third-party comment systems and accreditation schedules. Folks can find it at my blog, http://raosyth.com/blog/?p=1056.

  2. Thank you for laying out who “us” really is for language departments. This attitude, that graduate programs exist to prop up the kind of academic lifestyle and prestige that tenured faculty feel entitled to, is rampant in my English department. At the last department holiday party, faculty made a toast to the fact that our grad admissions continue to grow. Because heaven forbid they don’t have enough bodies filling their graduate seminars. I know that’s what keeps this Ph.D. candidate from sleeping at night: class enrollments.

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        • I’ve heard of EXTREMELY rare cases of this in med school or law school, but the average debt for public law school is in the tens of thousands. I can’t believe anyone would go into this much debt *because of* grad school. There might be extenuating circumstances such as a medical bills, but not because of grad school.

          • Perhaps you are being too literal. Consider the debt someone can rack up after four years of college followed by however many years of graduate school. If I’d been less fortunate about funding, I would be almost $300K in debt.

          • Not really. When stipends are $15,000 a year and you’re a grad student with kids, and your program is in an expensive city like NYC or San Francisco, it’s quite common to end up in deep debt just to meet basic expenses.

          • I know this is a blog/site about academic grad school (and I have to say after reading it and reflecting on friend’s experiences I’m a fan) but I just had to comment on JUL’s law school debt comment. Law school debt of $100k+ is a very real thing that I would venture to say most law students face. With the exception of the top schools, most law schools have essentially been reduced to schemes to launder government money (loans) through unsuspecting students into university funds. Also, public schools are often just as expensive as private schools (for example, UC Berkeley Law costs $48k for IN-STATE students, while Yale and Harvard cost $52k, not a huge discount, considering the difference in employment outcomes). There are scholarships, but they are rare and the cost of attending a lesser school in terms of employment outcomes are almost always worse than paying full freight.

            As bad as law school is, I have to say after reading this website, I’m not sure it’s the worst scam in graduate education anymore. At least with law school, if you can get into one of the top 14 or so schools and you do reasonably well (although even still someone from Cornell/Georgetown is going to have to do a lot better than someone at Yale) you can get a legal job that gives you the security to pay back your loans. Sure, that job is miserable and life-consuming and could be taken away at a moment’s notice (and legal academia is almost completely out of the question if you go anywhere but Harvard, Yale, or Stanford) but at least it comes with a high salary and benefits while you are there and you have at least a 40-50% chance of getting one depending on where in the top 14 your school is.

            Anyways point is, grad school is crazy expensive and I know no one, obviously no one in law school, but more importantly not one of my many friends in completely 100% funded PhD programs that aren’t racking up major debt right now. To blame the students for being in debt is completely out of touch.

          • I know $100,000 in law school debt is a very real thing. Average law school debt at private law schools is $125,000. Average law school debt at public law schools is $75,000. I went to a tier one public law school at graduated with $60,000 in debt and it is now being paid off.

            But it’s just not a good comparison to grad school in the humanities or social sciences. Average time to degree in law school (full time) is 3 years. At my law school (even graduating during the recession) job placement was ~70% in six months with an average starting salary of $68,000 (I went into public interest law, so that’s a different story). There’s just no comparison to taking out $100,000 in debt to go to law school and taking out $100,00 in debt to go grad school in English.

          • But $100,000 in debt is not HUNDREDS of thousands, as people on the googledoc say. Which is still insane.

            Look, I don’t think it’s out of touch to say that going into debt to this much debt to go to grad school with no job prospects is insane. The blame falls on graduate schools, not the students. The higher education industry should be ashamed of itself and universities have created an absolutely toxic pyramid scheme and predatory lenders take advantage. That much is so entirely clear. But I’m still shocked, SHOCKED, that people would willingly take on more than $100,000 in debt to do a phd in the humanities or social sciences. WHY. Why would you do that. I understand debt in the tens of thousands. I have that, I feel that pressure. But I know I can pay that off.

            What I miss from the GoogleDoc is what people are spending the money on. Several people have made notes about family or illness, but I don’t understand where this money is going.

          • Fair enough, except for the folks who are at $200K+. And I count a number of those among my clients.

        • Many of my clients are over $100,000 in debt. The stories that they tell are of gradual accumulation. In other words, $10,000 a year to just “top off” the stipend, so that after 5 years, with interest, they’re well above $50K, and then things happen, like illness or losing funding suddenly, etc. etc., and suddenly they are quickly at $100K. I have a former student in Anthro who is $250K in debt. I am no longer startled at all to hear from Humanities Ph.D.s whose debt is over $150K.

          • I can understand how it is possible for someone to spend that much money in a year (I never have, and I don’t live in an inexpensive city, but I understand how it is possible), but I don’t understand why anyone would willingly take on that much debt except in the case of circumstances beyond someone’s control. For anything. Undergrad, grad school, professional school. Why would anyone take on that much debt willingly?

          • And what are these English PhD programs in NYC and SF with 15K stipends?

            Please, also, let me be clear that I know that predatory lending is real and it is dangerous and I know that the cost of education is too high and universities can and should be doing more to provide support for affordable housing, health insurance, and childcare. So I’m not blaming the students for taking on debt. Instead, I’m saying we as educators should be doing everything in our power to advise students at any level of education not to take on this much debt. The best investment you’ll ever make is to take on as little debt as possible.

          • I’ve decided that these anti-debtor moralists are not just run-of-the-mill cogs in the working class competition machine, but trolls.

            This is enough! Do the math! In no (0) university town in the US can a person live on the few $ grand per year that is most Arts grad funding. That’s why Arts grad students find themselves taking out $10K loans every year to make up the difference.

            Their information deficit? That the state legislature upped grad student tuition *to make money for the state*. Stop moralizing! Start enjoying the low taxes you pay because people who are scholarly have to take out debt for you to keep the illusion discretionary income. They’re your own personal Jesus. Enjoy the SUV and big screen teevee and illusion that your crappy, otherwise-unprofitable dog grooming franchise is a real business. You’re welcome.

            Their other information deficit? That their profs and the university are dependent upon the grad students’ nearly-slave labor. Shhhh! It’s a dirty secret that won’t be broached, kind of like an uncle’s predilection for taking the nieces out to the back shed. Everybody just say grace and pass the turkey.

            A mere $10K/year adds up when no one around will admit that your profs are under job-degrading pressure from admin mgmt, and can’t find time to mentor you or get together for committee meetings, and don’t have much incentive to let you stop teaching in place of them, and ultimately fall back into conveniently, *moralistically* explaining your little ensuing ‘inefficiencies’ as your lack of merit.

            If you don’t have the networks to protect yourself, it must be because you deserve to be exploited! Nothing explains proneness to exploitation like lack of merit!

            And all the moralization on student debt is just predatory BS.

            Like many grad students: I had ‘funding’ — TAships, and a couple fellowships. I had great GREs. I had roommates. I lived like a student. There was no profligacy. I was not undeserving. I am not an idiot.

            It’s not about making a bad decision to go to grad school when you don’t have the right stuff. The right stuff today, when the American state has had its back turned on working class people, is strictly *money* — Either you’re studying engineering, *currently making someone else lucrative nanotechnology patents, AKA money*, and therefore not being put into debt (How generous of your masters!), or you’re in Arts, where–just like with the housing debt–you’ll go from no debt (First one’s always free!) to debt, institutionally normalized. You’re working like a dog, hoping to put together a committee of bitter, disdainful former hippies who dismiss your efforts to staunch the money bleeding as merely ‘First World Problems’, a committee that with all your strenuous efforts, will meet 2-3 times over 3 years to demand new drafts. They are sure that since you are not getting your degree where they did, you need to be disciplined a lot, lot longer.

          • Well, Bearcubus, you’d be wrong. I’m a fourth year phd student at a public R1 and I live in a mid-atlantic city. I have a roommate and I had savings from working before going to graduate school. I’ve had to take out small loans here and there to cover expenses, but I basically survive on my $19k a year. I’m fortunate enough to have no children and no health problems. But to say that students can’t afford grad school without taking out $10,000 a year is just plain wrong.

          • So I’m not being moralistic about this. I just don’t understand what you’re spending the money on. How much was your funding package and how much were your expenses? This entire conversation that Karen has brought to bear would be so much more productive if people could stop talking past each other and actually put some facts together about the real cost of going to grad school.

          • I’d also like to point out that my TA line comes with tuition remission and I meet with my committee (who I love dearly and have been completely upfront with me about job prospects right from the admitted students day) every month. If that were not the case, if I didn’t enjoy working on my dissertation and with my committee, I’d see even less reason to take out large loans. So, again, your generalization doesn’t apply.

            I’d love to see data, too, on how often doctoral students meet with their advisors and average turn-around time on drafts.

          • In my case: when i started my program there was money. Not a lot of money, but enough money to pay tuition and allow me to scrape by. Every year, the money got less and less. Do I throw all this work down the drain and quit and walk away from this without a PhD to show for it? Or do I take out loans JUST so i can finish my dissertation and get my PhD?

            What would you do: quit when you’re ABD? And have NOTHING to show for all that work?

            Or take out loans?

      • I have known people with $50k – $100k in student loans just from undergrad. I guess, hundreds of thousands could happen but I hope it’s not the norm.

        As for the high cost of living while in grad school, I recommend looking into ‘extreme early retirement’ (Google it). There are people in the US, one in San Francisco, living on less than $10k per year and driving their remaining income into savings. These people achieve financial independence within 5 – 10 years while earning as little as $20k/year.

        Before taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, it would be a good idea to learn to live on a budget like this. Cutting back on the PhD programs means that more people would be turned away. Instead, I think more people should learn to live with the realities of a difficult job market and tight budget.

        Here’s how one person lives on $7,000/year in San Francisco: http://earlyretirementextreme.com/how-i-live-on-7000-per-year.html

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  5. Thanks, Karen, for this piece. Your support and that of Rebecca Schuman has meant the world to me. Over the past year I’ve gone from “trying to deal with the fact I’m never getting a TT job” to “I’m delighted to NOT be in the academy anymore.” Wrapping work up and, uh oh, still adjuncting through June but not after that. I’m still outraged at the abuse I was subjected to and want to encourage others leaving/forced to leave to embrace the relief of doing so (it’s the ‘trade of’ to the financial and existential ‘what’s next’).

  6. Hello, Yes.

    You write: “But let there be no mistake. Who benefits from these practices at this point in history? The tenured. At least, could you be honest about it?”

    And may say: I can say “at least.” I can say at least I have been honest about this. For years. See my “Superserviceable Subordinates, Universal Access, and Prestige-Driven Research,” for instance; and I said it before, too.

    Thank you for this strong statement.

    It seems to me the tenured research faculty are circling the wagons when they should, “at least,” be honest about the lovely lifestyle they enjoy from “these practices.”


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  8. My first MLA too. I only went for a few sessions on Friday but had the experience of being utterly ignored, except for a nod, when a friend and I joining their table at the reception. We both thought it was strange. Now, reading this post, and remembering what we overheard, I believe they were too busy worrying/one-upping one another to acknowledge us. And as for the HUNDREDS of thousands “debate”-is that really the point? Wish I’d known you were there Karen, would’ve been nice to say hi.

  9. Thank you for this piece, Karen. Just two quick points of clarification: if you arrived late, then I am likely one of the speakers you heard deliver a paper. (I was the last speaker on the panel.) I do not have tenure, and I did not advocate the following during my talk or during the Q&A: “But under no circumstances should we consider cutting the size or scale of Ph.D. programs in the humanities.”

    All that said, I appreciate your response to the panel and thank you for your time. I hope our paths cross again soon.

    • Jentery, you are absolutely right. I was relying on my poor memory, always a bad idea. What I heard was one tenured prof and Katina Rogers and you. Then I heard the other tenured prof (Purdy from Indiana U of Pennsylvania, i believe) speak at some length in his position as moderator of questions. I mis-remembered him as a paper-giver.

      I very much remember your comment that the full-funding model has an unintended consequence of giving fuel to grad student dreams that “it’s all going to work out in the end.” A very interesting point that helps explain some of the resistance to change that we see from grad students sometimes.

      thanks for folliwng up. What is your opinion about reducing size of phd programs?

  10. I was in the “Who Benefits” session, and the conversation was a lot more nuanced than “under no circumstances should we consider cutting the size or scale of Ph.D. programs in the humanities.” I specifically heard the managing editor of MLA Commons (who, by the way, was there representing her prior work at UVa’s scholar’s lab, and not the MLA, a point that I think we should be careful about) that in fact we should consider ‘rightsizing programs’ alongside these other options like #altac. I heard people say that many programs have already adjusted the # of incoming students. And I heard one person argue the ‘professional suicide’ defense against overly downsizing departments, with others wondering about the ratio we should aim for (was it 1-to-1 ratio of TT job to student?). What was clear was that some in the room heard exactly what they wanted to hear, and little of the nuance. (I’ll note that I’m an #altac outside of the university, and my wife is contingent faculty, so it’s not like we’re not well aware of the issues and limitations of the market).

    While I understand some anger toward TT faculty & understand the ways in which they can be found complicit, what’s really puzzling to me is that more of that anger isn’t directed toward the university administrations and boards that more directly are responsible for the financial decisions that drive increased reliance on contingent faculty. To address Karen’s argument directly: sure, faculty benefit (but probably less than she thinks)–who really benefits? The corporate structure of the university. Perhaps it’s time to aim the anger a tad higher?

    • Katina Rogers was quite clear in her talk to take up the issue that “some believe we should cut program size,” only to instantly reject it. She advocated strongly the “train students for alt-ac careers line,” which as I write here, is really problematic, since the Ph.D. is, as I said in my comment at the event, “a really crappy and inefficient form of training for almost any job other than a professorship.”

      Administrators deserve critique too. But it’s not a zero-sum game–in other words, let’s hold everyone’s feet to the fire for the respective roles they play.

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  12. Is the option of insisting on more tenure track jobs really off the table? I am not backing down on this. We already don’t have adjuncts, only FTEs with benefits, and I am going for tenure track conversion next. 3 done so far, several yet to go.

    • It definitely is not off the table. The faculty/union in my system has successfully moved many temporary positions into tenure-track hires.

  13. The problem is that the hiring system is not connected to the new business models. Student credit hours are the ways in which departments make money (in general) and so every department wants to increase undergrad enrollment numbers. This requires more TAs and so, independent of the realities of the job market and sometimes the actual talent of grad students, departments focus on increasing or maintaining high grad numbers simply because they are cheap labor for extremely profitable activities. This business model drives departments to take on TAs to meet their undergrad class loads and forces them to keep mediocre PhD students for 4-5 years. Of course, I use the terms “force” and “drive” lightly because departments do have a choice and should consider the ways in which they are simply compounding the problem. The final irony of course is that a job candidate is much more likely to be hired if she has been published – which is almost impossible when you are a full-time TA for 5 years. Even more ironic is that tenure is based on publications instead of teaching, when it is the undergrad enrollment that pays the bills and not the ever-dwindling grant money and unpaid journal articles. It would seem that the system is out of whack in many ways. Thank you for generating this conversation – it is the most important and least talked about issue in academia today!

    • Great post Karen. A friend calls this ‘we’ thing “repressive collegiality.” Faculty are often willing to pull rank when it suits them, and willing to act like we’re all in this together as equals when it suits them.

      My experience is like that of Grad Student. I’m a public R1. Across the humanities and social sciences my institution is lowering mandatory completion time while teaching workload rises and funding sources other than TAships dry up and become more competitive. The result is predictable: people finish with worse projects than before these changes took place. Faculty at my institution largely have their heads in the sand. At a department meeting a graduate student suggested admitting less graduate students to my program and faculty implied she was anti-intellectual. Another suggested that departments should get rewarded by the university for placing PhDs in tenure track jobs or jobs of equivalent quality, and penalized for not doing so, in order to encourage departments to prioritize graduate student success, which got no response at all.

  14. I’m sure you’re correct in that the “us” group includes, and is perhaps anchored by, the tenured faculty who run the programs that are facing the choice between shrinking and not shrinking. But from the perspective of a prospective graduate student, I would like to point out that many of us (us-PhD-seekers) want to be in the collective “us” group as well.

    I see a lot of tenured or TT faculty today talking about how academic programs need to shrink their graduate admissions, how they need to start discouraging rather than encouraging emulation from undergraduate students, but that seems to serve not the undergraduates and PhD seekers who, if you told us a dozen times that there would be only one job left at the end of the road for us would still apply over and over again to the handful of available programs with openings we could find, but the NTT and adjuncting faculty who don’t want any more competition in the job market. If the pool of job applicants shrinks dramatically, those left in it will have more opportunities than if it does not.

    But that is not what we, the undergraduates and recent graduate PhD seekers, want. We don’t want the departments to shrink. We don’t want our chances of getting a PhD to go down. We don’t want to accept that the dire state of the job market is the new reality now. Those of us who are listening to the academic grown-up talk hear all the time about the fact that there are no jobs waiting for us beyond the PhD, that we’re wasting tens of thousands of dollars on a miserable pipe dream existence. That we’d be better off in almost any other career. We’re not listening.

    Why? Because we want to commit career suicide? No. Some of us have actually changed our careers once already to pursue this. We do this because we don’t WANT the alternatives. We don’t want the corporate or administrative jobs that make money. We may not even want most of the money that those jobs come with. We don’t want well-intentioned but misinformed faculty to direct us to some other, more financially prosperous field. What we want is to get a PhD and then to get an academic job of SOME SORT. We’d prefer it come with some job security (ala tenure, or some other sort of contract). We’d prefer it come with some level of academic freedom. We’d all prefer it pay more than poverty wages. Some of us would prefer that such positions focus on teaching, some of us would prefer positions which leave substantial time for research.

    We’re not willing to accept the notion that the college professor career path is closing. Perhaps it will change, perhaps it will be different going forwards, perhaps a new form of high education institution will need to replace the tradition 4 year liberal arts college or university while those institutions turn into technical and financial job training programs instead. But this isn’t like farms closing and farmers moving to the city to find new jobs, or automobile plant workers in Detroit being told they need to learn a new set of skills because their jobs no longer exist anymore: the job still exists. We see it all the time. You current faculty are, for many of us, our heroes. You’re what we want to be. We read your books, we examine your research, we listen to your lectures and we say ‘THAT! That is what I want to do with my life.’

    No one fails to understand that the college educational profession is in danger. We all get that. (Well, any of us who are listening.) But we also almost all agree that this is not a good thing. None of the professors I know, from my home institution to across the academic world, agree with the new, proposed, commercialized and corporatist models of education that are bloated with mid-level administrative redundancies and red-tape and inflated salaries which are constantly working to downsize their academic faculties in terms of numbers, institutional clout, and salaries. The MOOC model and the job-skills-oriented model will not provide the same level of liberal-arts education that a fully funded, diversified, and well-staffed liberal arts program does: that is the consensus among everyone I’ve read, talked to, or gone to see speak.

    So why, then, does it seem (from the perspective of PhD seekers and undergraduates being discouraged from following their heroes and mentors into the profession they want to join) that the existing educators, NTT and TT alike, have conceded that the fight is over? That the corporatist, austerity-driven model of education has won and that we all need to tighten our belts and accept whatever drivel the administrative complexes are willing to dish out? Why aren’t the professional college educators as a united whole fighting back? Where are the nationwide professional associations or unions agitating for better wages, fewer students per class, expanded consideration of why the liberal arts ‘matter’ in today’s society (or any society), more tenured positions (or some other form of job security)? Why, instead of trying to warn people away from the profession, aren’t the TT and NTT existing faculty trying to organize us new comers: PhD-seekers and job-seekers alike, for a good old fashioned labor dispute with the bloated administrative complex?
    That’s what we want. That’s what I want. I don’t want to be told that there are no jobs, or that the jobs which do exist are so terrible and underpaid and overworked that even if I get one I will wish I had not. That’s not going to turn me off from this profession or this career path. I’ve tasted life in the corporate, money-driven world, and like many of my classmates and fellow PhD seekers I’ve come to the conclusion that I want nothing to do with it. I want the life and career of a scholarly academic: teaching, writing, publishing. I want it so badly that even if I did not get a job in academia I would continue to write, and to teach (as well as I could) from outside (it’s remarkable what you can accomplish with a podcast, a Youtube account, and a webpage these days). Maybe I’ll even go the route of Antioch University and try to found my own program with likeminded colleagues.

    But first I need the training and the skills that the PhD program provides! Don’t deny that to me, to us (the PhD-seeking-‘us’) just because you think you know better than we what’s best for us.

    It is very confusing, from a PhD seeking perspective, to have so many academics trying to warn us off of following them into academe. Most of the TT faculty I know believe that they are underpaid, overworked, and that their academic freedom is being taken away from them one scrap at a time. Many of them live in fear that the administrative ax may fall on their whole department one day. Most of the NTT faculty or job-seeking PhD holders are desperately trying to worm their way into the system, not transitioning away from it. If money and a successful career are so important that you keep warning us newcomers away from it, we PhD seekers wonder, what are you all still doing in academe? WHY are you all doing it?

    What we want from you is for you to fight for us. For yourselves. For the betterment of your jobs. Our future jobs. “Us” doesn’t have to exclude one side of the PhD holders and PhD seekers from the other. The currently ascendant, corporatist model of higher education has us all divided, fighting amongst ourselves over the scraps that fall from our masters’ tables when we should be working together to get what we all want: decent, well-paying positions in which we can exercise the professional skills we’ve spent a decade or more acquiring.

    • This is very eloquent, and heartfelt. But from my perspective, it is also profound denial. Just because you don’t want something to be true does not mean it is not true.

      I do know that your perspective is one held by many. It was the claim made by one of the tenured profs on the panel: “we should be fighting for more lines.” I have no objection to fighting for more tenure track lines. But the damage done in the meantime to individual Ph.D.s, while waiting for those lines to appear, is devastating. Please see the Ph.D. Debt Survey that I initiated yesterday after reading a few of the comments on this thread. It is illuminating. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0An-UdyZNOVCQdGVJN3hWU0EtbjRwR2t1R1JLR19Hd0E&usp=drive_web#gid=0

      In any case, there will certainly be spaces for you in Ph.D. programs for many years to come. Ph.D. admissions are in no danger of imminently shutting down. When you do enter, please make sure that any full funding package that you accept actually reflects the real life living expenses of the area. Otherwise you too will accrue devastating debt, even with a full funding package.

      • No line of work is shielded from the basic law of supply and demand. Part of the reason wages are being driven so low is that so many people are willing to work for next to nothing, just so they can remain in academia in some capacity and dream of winning the job lottery at some point. Many mistake the life of the mind as some kind of religion, believing that market forces should not play any part in how they are compensated. They believe so firmly in their “cause” that they are willing to sacrifice themselves to it, playing right into the hands of those who deny them a living wage. If you are willing to give it away for next-to-nothing, then nobody will be willing to pay you for it once they get used to the freebies. Teaching is not charity work: It’s supposed to be your livelihood. If fewer people were willing to fill the adjunct teaching slots, the administrators would be forced to raise the pay scale to entice people to do the work, and tenure-track people would be forced to teach more of the classes they disdain. Nobody outside of academia believes that only people in academia create knowledge. Nobody outside of academia believe that only jobs inside academia are worth having.

          • Well… supply and demand is not a “law” like the law of gravity; different social policies would result in a very different situation in higher ed. I agree with Rebecca that tenured faculty members, in particular, have a responsibility to push for those changes. Undergraduate enrolments have far outpaced growth in TT faculty numbers — if we matched ratios to those in the 1960s and 1970s, pretty much everyone who is currently contingent would be TT. That would require public investment in higher ed to look proportionally they way it did then, which it doesn’t. So I agree with Rebecca in principle.

            However, thinking in terms of the actual lives that actually existing graduate students are likely to live, *even* if a huge political movement to push for these changes emerges (and current indicators are not promising), the pace of social and legislative change is slow. That’s the best-case scenario: that these changes will come, and things will begin to look better in, perhaps, a couple of decades. The worst-case scenario is that things will continue along as they have, and the proportion of educators in higher ed with tenure, full benefits, etc. will continue to shrink as the proportion of unsuccessful to successful aspirants to those positions will rise and rise and rise.

            So in terms of any present-day graduate student’s actual life course, *even* if the angels rather than the bastards win in the end, things won’t change soon enough for hir not to be at terrible risk.

  15. I absolutely agree with this! However, thinking more generously about TT faculty, I might read “professional suicide” differently. If tenured faculty had to cover the courseloads that are currently covered by grad students, they would indeed be unable to meet the requirements of the tenure track. At least in English and literary disciplines, adjuncts and grad students do all the high-labor courses: intro courses with heavy grading and lightweight lecturing. The courses that build skills rather than knowledge. Courses where you have to learn the undergrads’ names.

    In the current tenure system, such labor-intensive teaching would rob TT faculty of the research time and energy they need to climb the tenure ladder.

    The obvious solution would be to create tenure lines for intro/GE teaching faculty. That may mitigate the overproduction problem. But higher level administrators and regents etc aren’t making decisions according to what’s best for either students or faculty.

    I can only read the tone of the panelists through your and Jaschik’s reports of it. So I don’t know what kinds of self-interest the panelists (or like-minded faculty elsewhere) are showing.

    But I think that the academic labor crisis is one that TT faculty feel as deeply as post-acs and desperate job searchers. Those that I’ve met, at least, have been more than sympathetic. And I”m not sure what kinds of power they have to change the system. I agree that there are TT that are brutally indifferent and ignorant of the plight of current generation PhDs. But I’d hesitate to blame them for the crisis, which is more systemic.

  16. Who Is “Us”? Thoughts on the MLA, is very important because it illuminates the issue (and lacunae) of folks who have tenure. While I don’t swim in the waters of AAA or MLA,the post resonated with me. The image you painted of the lone folks dotting hotel hallways is so sad and dispiriting.

    I have been protected from many of the issues that you identify in your work and writing (I am generously funded, I have a supportive, employed partner, and I have a great supervisor and committee). But I know graduate students who have been terribly mistreated by senior faculty, and who have little recourse. My petty resistance is to ask the bad-behaving faculty uncomfortable questions as often as possible, and to warn folks away every chance I get. I have economic and institutional support not afforded many of my colleagues, which affords me a “I don’t give a fuck” position. What this tells me is that the inequality does not start with tenure, it starts far earlier. It is easy for me to slip into a back-slapping-strut down those awful conference centre beige halls and ignore the bracing precarity that surrounds me. This means that we all need (graduate students, tenured faculty or not) to keep asking who are we excluding and who are we including, in other words “who is us?”.

  17. fully funded, $0 debt here. decided to leave academia afterwards and get better money. of course i’m in math so there was never any worry about prospects. had i been in medieval german nursery rhymes or something, that might not be the case. but we all make choices about our fields, and how far to pursue them.

    it actually never occurred to me that a person would go to a school where they weren’t funded. (shrug) choices.

    there’s a bit of “oh but i’m a special snowflake and should be paid well no matter what i do” going around. sorry, reality doesn’t work that way. it would be awesome if it did, though.

    • You STEM people don’t see what’s coming. Math is math is math–it is the same the world over and there is no reason why an American has to be doing it.

      You can comfort yourself by thinking that you are SO MUCH SMARTER than those of us in Humanities Social Sciences but guess what? Your day will come. You think you’re immune from insourcing? Outsourcing? Automation? And when it does, some asshole will wave all of your suffering away by saying, “(shrug) choices.”

  18. I like you sherifffruitfly.

    You troll well.

    Too well really, to be in maths or industry. And too hard to be all the way out of academia and the knockout lab culture.

  19. in addition to the exorbitant cost of living in a lot of big university cities, a number of hidden costs can lead grad students to quickly rack up overwhelming debt, the reality of which is not apparent until it’s too late.

    i was fully funded in my anthropology program with a meager stipend in an expensive city, but took out $8,000 per year to cover additional costs such as attending conferences (both as a presenter with partial funding and attendee, entirely on my own dime). i also used some of these funds to cover the costs of preliminary fieldwork before landing an NSF grant for my extended fieldwork.

    the way the financial aid system is constructed and presented to students facilitates insurmountable debt. in the final terms of my program, my options were:
    – remain enrolled as a full-time student under PhD-writing credits, unemployed, dissertating full-time, accepting financial aid to pay my course fees and other bills, and deferring loan repayment OR
    – enroll as a part-time student, either unemployed and dissertating full-time with no income or employed and taking longer to finish, and starting the clock on loan repayment

    for their part, lending institutions do a stellar job of hiding your accumulated debt until your payments are scheduled to begin. trying to find out exactly how much you owe and to whom is a challenge – lenders have sold and traded my debt so many times that i currently owe to three different institutions. i cannot consolidate any further due to the terms of their agreements.

    and at no point along the way do lenders offer any information regarding how much you have borrowed to date (including interest) or your estimated repayment rate. i truly believe that if i had such information… well, i still might not have had much of a choice. but it would have come as less a shock that my loan payments rival my rent payment. add to that the fact that my husband also is a recent PhD, we’ve got that shock x2 and payments nearly double our rent back in the Midwest, still not quite exceeding the outrageous rent in this East Coast city where we were finally able to find jobs.

  20. Pingback: My Thoughts on MLA 2014 « W. Scott Cheney

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  22. I felt free as a bird. I could go to a panel and enjoy it. I could talk to someone and enjoy it. I could not talk to someone and enjoy it. I could do whatever I damn well pleased and enjoy it, because it was Not. My. Conference. The contrast to the AAA was quite extraordinary. The AAA is my place of pain and anxiety and the agony of inclusion/exclusion. The MLA was entertainment.

    Interesting. I would normally think of “a community of researchers” as being more productive than lone researchers. But you make it sound so political. Maybe this means group research is more vulnerable to groupthink, back-patting, or follow-the-leader than I supposed….

  23. I know a student with $200K in debt, who also took out loans to rent a very expensive apartment, buy a new car and travel extensively on vacations around the world—while she was in grad school. She missed a week of a class to take a cruise. If these are the people who have that debt, then they ought to take ownership of their choices and not blame it on their grad student status.

    • This is totally anomalous. The far more common story is that people take out about $15K a year –a sum that seems modest, just enough to augment a $12,000 year stipend — for, say, 7 years, and at the end end up with 6 figure debt. I’m not saying that people couldn’t make better financial choices. I am saying that most everyone I know or have heard of does it just to keep their and their families’ heads above water in terms of food, gas, healthcare, childcare.

  24. Pingback: The Cost of a Ph.D.: Students Report Hefty Debt Across Many Fields | Professor Van Ry

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  26. Two comments: one, childless people often underestimate the cost of child care. When you’re teaching, and trying to write a dissertation, it’s difficult to do without, and I have friends in grad school who pay between $800-1000 per week for care. In a 16 week semester that alone can be what some of you are proposing people live on for a year.

    The other point is that I got my degree at a R1 in the Midwest. During my last three years, ten tenured and TT professors left the department for various reasons, and only one of them was replaced by a TT position. In my last year, 25 new graduate students were admitted (the previous year they had only admitted 7). This was a significant issue for the full-time faculty as well, as they had to advise all the new graduate students in addition to shouldering the administrative workload divided among many fewer people. And it is difficult to maintain strong numbers of majors and minors when undergrads are virtually never exposed to full-time faculty, because the faculty must teach more graduate classes. At this particular institution, the department petitioned again and again for tenure lines, and the administration explicitly told them that humanities wasn’t the priority for funding tenure lines, even though our department was a core subject. The faculty were also in an impossible situation and I think they felt pretty helpless when they were needing resources and staffing and the administration refused.

  27. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Because I have no years of psychic wounds connected to the MLA, I felt free as a bird. I could go to a panel and enjoy it. I could talk to someone and enjoy it. I could not talk to someone and enjoy it. I could do whatever I damn well pleased and enjoy it, because it was Not. My. Conference.

    Love this comment.

    I went to the AHA this year. I was a history major in college who considered graduate school for about half a second, but in the end I decided not to go and have ended up, three years later, in a pretty good job, with generous benefits, on track for a career completely unrelated to history but really interesting to me. But I’d always wanted to go to the AHA. I met up with a favorite former professor of mine while there, and the first thing I said when she asked how I was enjoying my weekend was, “It feels so good to be surrounded by people trying to impress each other when I don’t have to worry about what any of them think of me.”

  28. I think your comparison of the MLA and the AAA is apples to oranges. The AAA is a disciplinary meeting; the MLA is a gigantic multidisciplinary meeting. (“Discipline” here refers not to traditional departmental divisions, not methodologies—of course anthropology, like English or comp. lit., is multi/interdisciplinary at its best.) The MLA public spaces are not alive with conversation mostly because the average MLA goer knows <1% of the other attendees. A better comparison would be the AAA and the AHA, for example.

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