The first distinguished speaker at the recent forum on "Justifying the Humanities" followed a recent trend by asserting that the humanities were invented in the American university of the 1930s as an organizational convenience. The second distinguished speaker explained that in their current "somewhat dated" form the humanities are a product of the Cold War, developed in the 1950s through courses in the Great Books and Western Civilization. By the time the final distinguished speaker began his remarks I feared that we would be told the humanities were invented yesterday in sudden meta-post-Postmodernist fabrication.
First, the good news. It is true that the familiar triadic American curricular structure of liberal education (natural science, social science and the humanities) is relatively recent. Hence, the form of humanistic studies is not chiseled in ancient marble, but has changed and can and should continue to change in response to new circumstances.
The bad news is that recent history is only a small part of the story. The foreshortening perspective on the humanities comes at a price. It’s not just that it overlooks a tradition that reaches back to the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece, Cicero in ancient Rome, Petrarch and Boccaccio in Italy and the amazing scholars of the Renaissance. Nor is it just that we deprive ourselves of the benefits of breakthroughs in contemporary scholarship. It’s that we risk losing sight of what motivated the great era of humanism.
Renaissance humanists, such as Joseph Justus Scaliger, Marsilio Ficino and Lorenzo Valla, applied immense energy and learning to establishing reliable texts of ancient authors, commenting on them, making them accessible through translations, and teaching them in a way that created an understanding of human beings and moral agency not restricted by the dictates of medieval theology. Philosophy, literature, history and the visual arts were transformed by such humanism. Soon universities were transformed as well.
When I asked Paul Grendler, a professor of history emeritus at the University of Toronto and an expert on education in the Renaissance, about this transition, he reminded me that this change was revolutionary. "A group of 15th-century Italian scholars decided that the best way to train men (and a few women) to be learned, eloquent, and morally responsible leaders of society was to introduce them to the great authors and texts of ancient Greece and Rome.… They coined the phrase studia humanitatis (humanistic studies) for this new, revolutionary school curriculum." This transformative sense of purpose accounts, I believe, for the energy and enduring excitement of their work.
At the university level great changes began around 1425 when humanists began teaching in Italian universities such as Bologna, Florence and Padua. They taught rhetoric, poetry and what they sometimes called humanitas, meaning more or less what Cicero had meant by it, "the knowledge of how to live as a cultivated, educated member of society," as Grendler phrase it. In general these humanists connected this goal to the stadium humanitatis – we would say classical studies broadly conceived. That terminology spread from Italy to the British Isles where, for example, the Scotstarvit chair of humanity was established at the University of St. Andrews in 1620. By 1800 literae humaniores were part of examinations at Oxford. The pattern was revised in the mid-19th century into the famous "Greats" program, which later provided the model for "Modern Greats," that is, Oxford’s degree program Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Humanism, it turns out, is not only adaptable to modern circumstances; it can be infectious.
The term "humanities" did not, then, drop out of the sky into the unknowing laps of American academic bureaucrats. Leaders of colleges and universities in the early 20th century consciously and deliberately evoked the tradition of Renaissance humanism in an effort to develop some equivalent amid mass education in the modern world. We may argue about how successful they were, but they saw the challenge.
It's still the challenge today, almost a century later. In responding to it, we can still learn from those Renaissance scholars. If we neglect them, we overlook an important part of the background to contemporary humanistic studies, but we also we risk replicating, validating, and promulgating one of the gravest failings of the humanities as currently practiced – "presentism," that is, an exclusionary focus on the most highly modernized societies of the contemporary world, and the uncritical judging of the past by today’s interests and standards. In so doing one severs contact with what so motivated and energized these great humanist scholars and with the perspective on human life and conduct that they opened up.
If this root of the humanities is severed by ignorance, neglect or hostility, it will not be surprising if humane learning begins to look a little withered, and if students find what they have learned soon wilts and leaves them without the perspective and depth of understanding that a rigorous and wide-ranging education in the humanities should provide.
W. Robert Connor is senior advisor at the Teagle Foundation.
Academics ask all kinds of questions and make all kinds of judgments about parts of colleagues' or potential colleagues' lives that are irrelevant to their jobs, writes Nate Kreuter. He says it's time to stop.
A scholar committed to the digital humanities once summed up his long-term strategy for winning their acceptance with a terse, sardonic comment. “We will advance,” he said, “funeral by funeral.” It's the kind of sentiment that's often felt, but seldom so well expressed -- or so brutally.
But assuming that time is on digital culture’s side also tempts fate. The humanities include bodies of knowledge that have developed over periods ranging from a decade to a couple of millennia and more. Digital technologies can emerge and eclipse one another in the time it takes to write a single monograph. The wisdom of reorganizing one around the other is at least questionable.
A paper in the December issue of Literary & Linguistic Computing called “Toward Modeling the Social Edition: An Approach to Understanding the Electronic Scholarly Edition in the Context of New and Emerging Social Media” manages to be forward-looking but not triumphalistic. It also poses the interesting question of whether the turnover in the stock of digital tools might actually have a productive relationship with long-established ways that scholarly communities engage with their primary sources.
The list of its authors is headed up by Ray Siemens and Meagan Timney, both of the Electronic Textual Cultures Laboratory at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia. It includes, as appendices, a couple of substantial bibliographical essays that were posted online a couple of months before the paper itself was published. Siemens et al. have been venturing the concept of the “social edition” for at least a couple of years. At this point, it still refers to something potential or emergent, rather than fully realized: a speculation more than a blueprint.
But the paper offers a logical extrapolation from existing trends -- a plausible glimpse of the shape of things to come. Siemens and his colleagues point out that there is a gap between how electronic editions of texts are prepared, on the one hand, and how scholars use the available technology, on the other. “The types of electronic scholarly editions we see prominently today,” they write, “were largely developed before the ubiquity of the web that we now enjoy and do not accurately reflect the full range of useful possibilities present for academic engagement and interaction around the textual materials that are our focus.”
At the same time, gaining legitimacy for electronic editions has for a long time meant adhering fairly closely to established formats for definitive editions of texts. Siemens and his coauthors sketch a typology that begins with material prepared more or less along the lines of a scholarly edition in print, with its features made available in slightly different form. The reader of such a “dynamic text” could click around to find annotations, variant readings, cross-references, and so on.
Subsequent formats for scholarly e-texts incorporated links to pertinent primary and secondary sources -- whether as part of the edition itself or elsewhere online. This meant, in effect, grafting a good research library onto the text. The edition would reflect the state of the existing scholarship – or the state of the editors’ scholarship while preparing it, in any event.
Just when the later species of “hypertextual” and “dynamic” scholarly e-editions arrived on the scene is not indicated, but probably not much later than the early ’00s, to go by the authors’ descriptions. In the meantime we’ve had the arrival, for good and for ill, of social media, which have insinuated themselves into academic communication so extensively that it’s easy to overlook their ubiquity.
Hence the emerging potential for the “social edition” -- which, if I’m following the argument correctly, is not some newfangled travesty of established protocols for preparing important texts. It doesn’t mean tweeting Being and Time, though someone is bound to do so, sooner or later.
Rather, the social edition would offer the same features available from earlier scholarly editions of e-texts (glosses, links to appropriate material, etc.) while also acknowledging the ongoing nature of serious engagement with the material so preserved and annotated. The participants in preparing a social edition would generate commentary and analysis; help compile and update the bibliography; and create “folksonomic” tags (as when you use Delicious to store and categorize the link for an article you want to cite later).
“The initial, primary editor,” Siemens and company write, would serve “as facilitator, rather than progenitor, of textual knowledge creation…. Relying on dynamic knowledge building and privileging process over end result, [the social edition’s] expansive structure offers new scholarly workflows and hermeneutical methods that build, well, on what we already do.”
That last point is particularly significant. For one thing, scholars are already using social media – group bookmarks, blogs, etc. -- to share references and ideas. (The paper and its appendices identify an enormous array of them.) But more importantly, such tools are increasingly experienced by those using them “as natural extensions of the way in which they had always carried out their work.”
Novelty, then, is not the issue. “The core of activities traditionally involved in humanities scholarship,” the authors say, “have altered very little since the professionalization of academic study during the nineteenth century.” And those basic activities (finding texts, comparing and analyzing them, circulating them, etc.) are finally collaborative, or at least dialogical. A social edition will presumably foreground that reality, assuming one wriggles up on shore sometime soon, breathing air and able to find funding.
The recent conversations on the future of the humanities degree -- most prominently at the Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association by its then-president, Russell Berman -- are encouraging steps in addressing the challenges. The position paper that Berman helped write outlines some meaningful first steps to address the time-to-degree issue, for example, that will need to be a driver for change. The recent article “The 5-Year Humanities Ph.D.” on Inside Higher Ed reiterates Stanford’s desire to continue fostering the debate with an emphasis on shortening time to degree for humanities Ph.D.s.
The current contribution seeks to expand the conversation and offer some concrete ideas for desirable changes beyond the time-to-degree issue. In particular, some funding changes -- coupled with restructuring programs so that the summers are utilized better and students have an expectation of an impactful year-around engagement -- need to take place. In addition, in order to open more avenues for employment, we may have to provide a similar co-curriculum as we do on the undergraduate level, one that produces T-shaped Ph.D.s aware and confident not only of their disciplinary depth, but also of their broader transferable skill set.
Given the public’s preoccupation with STEM disciplines and the less-than-stellar reputation of the humanities in the larger public, coupled with changes in student loan deferment during graduate school, and the challenging job market, these conversations are urgent.
What Is the Proper Size of Arts and Humanities Graduate Programs?
Although some universities including ours have addressed the issue of proper program size for a decade or so already, seen in context with the lingering overproduction issue, the choice seems fairly clear. In this national context, graduate programs in the humanities need to come to terms with the often painful lesson that bigger is not always better. Administrators and faculty need to have realistic views on what a “right-sized cohort” is for the given discipline, the institutional profile, and, in some instances, the geographic location.
What Is Meant by Right-Sized?
By right-sized, I mean a frame of reference based on quantitative and qualitative factors like the following:
the demand in the field
the placement rate of the unit
the number of applications to the program
their “fit” for the institutional mission
the level of active faculty engagement required by quality graduate education, including timely and targeted intervention when student progress is imperiled.
It is advantageous for graduate programs to focus on their distinctiveness within their larger institutional and national context -- and not strive to be everything to everybody.
With good planning and a lot of good will, the more technical aspects and issues surrounding graduate education can and should be addressed. The bigger and more contentious issue will be the disciplinary reframing that has to be part of this discussion:
How much coursework is enough?
What kind of coursework?
What should the comprehensive exam look like?
How does the coursework, the comprehensive exam, the dissertation prospectus integrate in the most efficient ways.
Will there be a distinctive niche for the program?
Faculty in every humanities department offering the Ph.D. should be discussing these questions.
Graduate Education in More Differentiated Higher Education Environments?
The distinction among institutions could offer some welcome differentiation in the higher education environment. Creating a particular focus as a distinctive niche in each program, where more resources go into certain subfields, is a productive move to avoid duplication and to carve out an attractive competitive position. Examples from our own institution, Michigan State University, include: a focus on biomedical and environmental ethics in our philosophy program; additional training in how to deliver first-rate general education courses in addition to disciplinary courses in our English department; a focus on digital humanities and educational technology in the German Ph.D. program and several other humanities programs; a focus on “Writing in Digital Environments” and cultural rhetorics in our writing program.
In our case, MSU’s strong science and engineering programs and its highly developed tradition as a global university allow the College of Arts and Letters to also integrate a strong sense of global awareness, and a focus on educational technology, digital humanities and media, and writing in digital environments for our graduate students. At other places, it might be a leading medical school that drives the campus climate that could provide many unique opportunities for humanities Ph.D.s. Yet others may have a strong policy and diplomacy focus or distinctive advanced institutes that may provide a compelling niche or added value dimension to humanities Ph.D.s.
Time to Degree
Then there are practical issues of how to foster a more deliberate and rapid move through the program, and the composition of its various elements; the avoidance of drift by shifting the culture of the programs to provide more hands-on mentoring; the avoidance of “unproductive lines of inquiry” (as David Damrosch described it in this article); more targeted support (including summer support) suggested in the same article, all of which would be helpful measures to enhance most programs.
What is somewhat lacking in the national discussion is a level of specificity and concrete ideas, such as how to better-integrate coursework, comprehensive exams and dissertation research to avoid unproductive breaks between these various pieces in graduate education. One looks forward to a discussion on this issue at the Modern Language Association Meeting in January 2013. Our time to degree overall across the humanities at Michigan State is already around six years and even shorter where this integration has already happened, and nowhere near the nine-year Ph.D. assumed in the recent article coming out of Stanford with its call for proposals for a five-year degree. The five-year Ph.D. is certainly within reach with a few modifications and more targeted financial support.
Better Utilization of the Summer
The productive and funded use of the summers will be crucial to make significant progress in course work and dissertation writing. We should not kid ourselves and assume that this is a trivial task —if the level of funding remains the same with no significant increases, the cohort might very well have to shrink. Even more significant is the fact that the way faculty work during the summers has to undergo significant changes. There obviously will need to be a number of courses offered and hands-on mentoring, possibly in research groups or cohorts will have to be conducted, with possibly negative consequence for faculty research productivity. As an alternative, a robust and well-designed digital environment for student-student and student-faculty exchanges could be conceived of to keep students on task, on track and connected to faculty mentors. Faculty-led reading groups in preparation for the comprehensives could be part of summer offerings or be part of year-round workshops.
Beyond Shortening Time-to-Degree
To enhance preparation of our students for a variety of institutions, our programs at Michigan State University have added important features to assure realistic and defensible notions of quality graduate education. Most have integrated scholarship and pedagogy into the curriculum, and some provide job-shadowing opportunities at liberal arts colleges. We have added internships where possible and desirable. The philosophy program offers internships in a regional hospital for their bioethics students; language internships are available at MSU’s Community Language School (a language school for pre-K to middle school students from the greater Lansing area). Students from English and professional writing gain internship experience with journals and leadership experience working on co-curricular initiatives in project-based learning (leadership roles in our Creativity Exploratory, an interdisciplinary project-based space and concept to foster team work, design process thinking, and project management).
We consider advanced preparation in educational technology to be essential in today’s market regardless of field. In collaboration with our graduate school, we have created two distinct certificates that emphasize the pedagogy associated with humanities teaching and learning (one of a general nature, one with a focus on foreign language teaching). We are working on certificates in digital humanities and educational technology for graduate students to enhance their capacities as researchers and teachers. Furthermore, we encourage our graduate students to avail themselves of opportunities to learn what it takes to educate the whole student (informal shadowing in career services, study abroad, alumni relations, etc.) to further prepare themselves for a variety of institutions.
More Radical Solutions….
The voices that call for nonacademic career paths that would make students more suitable for the broader, nonacademic job market are becoming louder. This suggestion is often coupled with the time-to-degree issue. Making graduate education shorter and, thus, cheaper, might lead to the possibility of a larger and more diverse cohort (Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas, New York: W. W. Norton, 2010). With less time invested and less expense associated with the Ph.D., graduates might be more inclined to see the Ph.D. more like a professional degree and to pursue career paths outside of academia.
The elephant in the room is of course this “world outside of academia,” the “broader job market” that is alluded to in these kinds of discussions. It is generally less clear in the pertinent discussions what these “other career areas” are. It is not clear that a more narrow disciplinary preparation coupled with the shorter tighter time-to-degree timeline — although very laudable — is in itself ultimately successful in broadening job prospects beyond the academy.
As we know from our undergraduate placement in the humanities, humanities majors indeed find employment, but they have to be more proactive and more entrepreneurial in looking for and preparing for jobs. A lesson for the broader graduate market could be learned from that.
The other insight from undergraduate placements is the criticism by employers that undergraduate professional students don’t display sufficient big-picture thinking, the ethical maturity, the global perspective, the critical and analytical skills, the written and verbal communication skills, and the overall goal orientation that employers seek and many jobs demand. Given the increasing complexity of tasks in certain areas of the not-for-profit and the for-profit sector, maybe it is not that undergraduates and professional majors are not as well-prepared as they should be, but that expectations are too high.
With mandates for social innovation, technology-enhanced work habits, global awareness, and a generally broad education as key assets, work environments such as academic administration, the editing and publishing industry, translation and international diplomacy opportunities, entrepreneurial contexts, cultural organizations, think tanks, private and public sectors, government and nongovernmental organizations, research foundations, and local and regional public policy centers, might well be better-served by hiring employees with advanced degrees with their much stronger research, critical thinking, and communication skills.
Ph.D.-holders already display, by the nature of their work, some advanced transferable skills. They are able to
define a research question or a problem
research the topic
identify what is relevant, and distinguish it from what is not
synthesize the work of others
Further, Ph.Ds. are able to
offer independent and critical analysis of data
self-manage an area of inquiry
bring a complex project to completion
display significant experience in writing with precision
offer creative reconstruction of information
formulate new approaches
deal with constantly changing fields.
While these skills were honed in field-specific contexts, they transfer well. Making these skills more visible to both graduate students themselves and potential employers can be fostered through additional leadership training in a series of linked activities. A significant informative public relations and advocacy effort will need to take place to get this message across.
T-Shaped Graduate Education?
Humanities Ph.D.s could be both broadly and narrowly trained in the ideal T-structure consisting of their disciplinary field for depth on the one hand; and leadership skills, time and project management abilities, technology skills, an ability to analyze data, and the pedagogical understanding to convey information in appropriate ways and the most useful medium for breadth on the other. This is a very attractive combination of skill sets for a variety of employment contexts. Furthermore, Ph.D.s embody the essence of innovation and creativity as they are used to formulating original research questions. A research degree coupled with excellent technology skills, leadership skills, a solid grasp of data analysis, and self-efficacy seems to be a promising combination of transferable skills.
Becoming a T-shaped professional is not only desirable for undergraduates, but will make graduate students more competitive as well. Even if students seek academic jobs, these skills will be extremely useful for future faculty because they will be able to adjust to the ever-changing landscape of higher education and understand and appreciate the bigger picture. They will be more nimble in whatever context they enter. Humanities Ph.D.s could and should make highly attractive job candidates for a range of sectors.
After all, before the wicked problems of our present and future can be solved, historically informed complex analyses of the underlying issues and questions will need to be framed, the ethical dimensions considered, collaborative relationships formed, and effective forms of multimodal communication for the issue at hand created. Without understanding the respective cultural underpinnings of global competitiveness or conflict, technological solutions may miss the mark.
Similarly, the ability to understand global forces and local diversity, ethical issues, and complex environments through interdisciplinary projects that combine creativity, research, critical analysis, and technology furthermore could make humanities Ph.D.s compelling employees.
These are but a few examples of how to add value to graduate education through more focus in the discipline while adding breadth to the experience beyond the discipline. If the conversation on the future of the humanities Ph.D. is to go beyond general statements of intent, it will be important to share best practices; to collect data and evidence; to work not only among humanities faculties but to involve graduate deans, deans and other relevant administrators; to engage national organizations like the MLA, the Humanities Centers, and the foundations that support humanities scholarship and education.
It is also clear that graduate students will need to receive additional training beyond their research focus, in a more thoughtful co-curriculum, and will need to be more creative and flexible in exploring options.
Additional Training and Who Should Provide It
The other lesson from undergraduate education is that, in general, university career-service professionals tend to be more helpful and knowledgeable than faculty advisers in assisting students to think about what transferable skills they have. Likewise, if we were to use the analogy for the graduate level, we may have similar issues in that faculty for the most part are not well-versed in the nonprofit, government, and business world. The other emergent area of entrepreneurship, that many undergraduates and potentially graduate students are interested in, is also not necessarily on the radar of faculty advisers.
The notion that humanities faculty could directly train Ph.D.s for jobs outside the academy seems implausible as very few of them have extensive experience beyond higher education. Working with alumni who have made the successful transition into business or government, etc., is one important facet that can provide inspiration and contacts. However, it will not suffice to rely on this informal network.
In order to maximize impact, it will be important to offer internships with potential employers not only to learn whether the desired career path is suitable but to understand early on what kind of additional skills will be important. I see a similar move proposed by the BiblioTech concept at Stanford which “includes trying to change the mindset of academics and nonacademics alike… and garnering the trust of industry leaders.”
Furthermore, it seems clear that a discipline-based humanities program will have to offer additional training to make inroads into business and the technology fields with specific intervention and additional training in the technology area and in leadership skills. One would also expect a need for internship developers, career services professionals and other support professionals, just as there are on the undergraduate level, to assist with planning and organizing these additional features of graduate education for positions outside of the academy. This career segment — especially in the more supervisory functions -- could, incidentally, be a valuable career path in itself for Ph.D.s.
The recent initiatives to collect hard data on nonacademic placements conducted by the Scholarly Communications Institute and a database titled “Who We Are” by Katina Rogers is welcome news and long overdue. Efforts at further quantitative analysis will help us map the possibilities better than anecdotes can. Universities themselves need to keep fairly differentiated data on their graduate students to learn how in their particular environment their students move through their programs, what the hurdles and bottlenecks are, and how and where they place.
Given the complexity of issues in all sectors of our current environment, it seems that humanities Ph.D.s with additional training in technology, data analysis, and leadership skills are an underappreciated and underutilized resource. Some of our attention in graduate education needs to go into further serious exploration of the possibilities and whether or not they are attractive to employers and Ph.D.s.
I think there are exciting opportunities ahead. The big question is whether humanities Ph.D.s themselves will embrace these options as desirable, which, of course depends on what motivated them to select the humanities Ph.D. path in the first place. Their voice is conspicuously absent in these conversations and it is, after all, their future that is at stake. A more robust conversation with these most important stakeholders should be one of the first steps.
Early indications from conversations with our graduate students indicate that there is a mix of motivations; many are still very interested in academic positions, others are open to a broader set of possibilities. The most ambitious students are quite interested in leadership skills such as effective communication, time management, resilience, self-efficacy, conflict resolution, etc., which they see as broadly applicable for effective career advancement in any field. As our graduate students accept, and even embrace, a world of wider vocational choices, I am confident that enough of our faculty change leaders will rise to the occasion to reshape graduate education in the humanities in the ways suggested above, many possible ways not addressed here, and some that are yet to be imagined in the current social, cultural, political and economic environment.
Given the mounting complexity and accelerated change, our Ph.D.s need to have a new mindset fostered by additional skills that allows them to act with greater agility and creativity to changing environments. On the most fundamental level, Ph.D.s assemble and organize existing knowledge, create new knowledge, and are trained experts in how to convey knowledge in a variety of contexts.
Which sector could not use this kind of sophisticated expertise?
Karin A. Wurst is professor and dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University.
Should students considering a Ph.D. in the humanities have their heads examined? It’s a reasonable question to ask, what with all the mockery they have to endure. Take the cover of The New Yorker on May 24, 2010. It shows a certain Tim, hanging up his Ph.D. diploma in the bedroom where he grew up. He’s no scientist, as other headlines make clear: "The crisis of the humanities officially arrives," reads one (from October 2010), which was occasioned by the closure of some underenrolled undergraduate programs in the humanities at the State University of New York at Albany.
To answer the question, one might ask some questions of the data. The numbers tell a different story.
To judge by the choices that undergraduates are making in selecting their majors, the humanities continue to have appeal. For the period between 1987 and 2009, there’s no sign of steep decline in interest; instead, it’s a story of a modest rise and an even more modest descent. Since data about majors fail to track total course enrollment, majors are an indirect proxy that may actually underestimate students’ interests and activities. If one looks at the behavioral and social sciences, one finds that they show a similar pattern. In part because students continue to choose humanities courses and majors at the undergraduate level, colleges and universities continue to hire for these departments. Again, the data tell the real story: there has been no significant decline in full- and part-time employment in the humanities between 1999 and 2006. As measured by advertised vacancies, employment prospects for humanities Ph.D.s trended upward between 2003-04 and 2007-08 and have begun to recover after a recession-related drop in 2008-09.
In fact, a reduction in enrollment in Ph.D. programs in the humanities, coupled with the evidence showing that undergraduate majors in the humanities have remained steady, can be taken to suggest that the longstanding oversupply of Ph.D.s is now being mitigated. The relative share of doctorates in education and the humanities has dropped considerably over the last decade, in part because the production of Ph.D.s in science and engineering, which accounted for 73 percent of all doctorates in 2010, has risen so steeply. According to results from the Survey of Earned Doctorates, the number of humanities Ph.D.s granted in the U.S. dropped from 5,404 in 2000 to 4,979 in 2010.
And what of the choices that graduate students in the humanities are currently making?
According to the most recent survey data that we have gathered at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, 86 percent of humanities Ph.D. students are satisfied with their programs, and 78 percent would recommend them to prospective students. Our figures are slightly higher than the most recent national satisfaction data, available on the website of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students. And these students are thinking not only about their Ph.D. departments, but also about their employment prospects.
The national data show that, when surveyed three years after finishing their degrees, about 94 percent of students with humanities Ph.D.s report being employed. Of these, 77 percent were employed in education, and 17 percent outside of it, in a wide variety of occupations — from artists and entertainers, to writers, public-relations specialists, broadcasters and administrators — and much more besides. In the past five years of our own alumni survey, between 89 and 100 percent of humanities students with full-time employment reported that their employment five years after graduation utilized their doctoral training. And employment outside of the academy is not necessarily or even mostly a fallback response to failure in the academic marketplace: when asked about their primary career goals, about 17 percent of first-year students in the humanities at our institution identify goals in activities other than research and teaching. Many of our students don’t end up with academic jobs because they are interested in pursuing other types of employment.
Now it almost goes without saying that a Ph.D. in the humanities, given opportunity costs and the long-term promise of modest salaries, hardly makes much sense for someone who wishes to maximize income. For one thing, the degree takes longer: the average Ph.D. recipient in the humanities spends almost nine and a half years enrolled in graduate school; the average student in the life and physical sciences under seven years. For another, securing a post-degree position takes more and more time. And, as is well-known, when they do secure their jobs, humanists are paid less than those in other fields. Like it or not, we live in a culture that rewards the production of applied knowledge far more than it does the preservation, analysis or critique of culture, the rare and exceptionally well-compensated philosopher or literary critic notwithstanding. Differential salaries, from this point of view, are merely the individuated results of market forces and sociopolitical values.
Perhaps we should mock students less and apply ourselves more to understanding the broader structural changes in the economy, including how these changes affect the academy. Numbers that show flat (or even slightly improving) job prospects for Ph.D.s in the humanities should not obscure a number of underlying patterns, the most important of which are increased "casualization" and job insecurity. One may justifiably lament that adjunct and full-time, non-tenure-track jobs now constitute about 70 percent of the academic labor force, and that the path to a tenure-track position increasingly takes a detour through short-term employment. But the problems are not unique to higher education, which is a microcosm of the globalizing workplace. The decline in tenure among faculty mirrors the loss of lifelong (or at least long-term) employment in other sectors of the labor force.
What makes higher education distinctive is not so much that labor practices are changing, much less that students have their heads in the sand. It’s that academic employees — the readers and writers who constitute a faculty — are such sharp-eyed observers of those practices and energetic advocates for their profession.
Chase F. Robinson is distinguished professor of history and provost of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.