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Thoughts on ‘Fixing the Humanities Ph.D. Job Crisis’

A rebuttal and a reframing.

September 16, 2021
 
 

My fellow Inside Higher Ed blogger Steven Mintz posted a long piece earlier this week about the ongoing (and worsening) job market for new Ph.D.s in the humanities. It got me thinking.

First, though, a rebuttal. In discussing options available to new humanities doctoral degree holders, Mintz offers this:

The path for those totally committed to an academic career might involve a postdoc, a succession of one-year visiting appointments or a position at a community college or a public or private high school, driven by the hope that this will lead, eventually, to a full-time tenure-track job, somewhere, anywhere.

Really?

A full-time community college teaching job is a fine gig, not to be sneered at. It is not a stepping-stone. It is an end in itself. We have folks with doctorates on our faculty who have worked here for decades and who intend to continue to work here until they retire. It’s not “driven by the hope that this will lead, eventually, to a full-time tenure-track job, somewhere, anywhere.” It’s a full-time tenured job here, now. And I’ll warn any prospective candidates for these jobs that if they give the impression of settling for working here, they’ll lose to candidates who seem to want to be here.

So there’s that.

The larger issue, though, is the agency problem. It’s one thing to say, “There’s a problem, and someone should do something.” It’s another to identify exactly who should do something and why they would want to do that. That’s why the market remains as brutal as it does.

Graduate programs that use graduate students as cheap labor don’t want to (or can’t afford to) give up that cheap labor. Graduate faculty generally prefer to remain graduate faculty rather than shifting to teaching undergraduates. On the supply side, the incentive to keep putting out more graduates is strong. Add to that the unlimited student loans available to grad students, and the utter lack of meaningful transparency in placement numbers, and any sort of self-correction looks unlikely.

The demand side is even worse. Even before COVID, the number of 18-year-olds had been declining in much of the country for a decade. Public appropriations for community and state colleges have not kept up with costs. In the four-year sector, student demand has shifted away from humanities broadly. (That’s much less true among community colleges, given the role of general education in transfer.) Many of the emerging high-demand fields are much more expensive to run. Add those factors up, and the argument that it’s a good time for a significant and permanent increase in labor costs in a field with declining enrollment is hard to sustain.

Right now, many colleges are getting by through the timely and significant financial boost of federal stimulus packages. But that money is temporary. A college that takes on a decades-long financial obligation with one-year money is taking a tremendous risk.

If we want a more robust job market for humanities Ph.D.s -- a fine goal, honestly -- we have to look beyond individual departments or universities. They’re responding to the incentives on the ground. If you want to change behavior, change the incentives. But that would require finding enough people with enough clout and enough energy to push major structural changes on a national level, and then to defend those changes for the foreseeable future.

I don’t know whom that describes.

Yes, there are professional associations in the various disciplines. But compared to so many other claimants on federal dollars, they just aren’t terribly powerful. And they’d be up against people who are upset about college costs and student loans and who would quickly connect the dots between increased pay and increased cost.

Mintz is largely correct when he notes that the faculty job market in the humanities has been bad since the early ’70s, but he doesn’t take the next step. It has been bad for 50 years now. Before that, it was good for about 10. Before that, it was also bad. Maybe “crisis” is the wrong word. A crisis is supposed to be transitory. This doesn’t look transitory. If anything, it looks like regression to the long-term mean. The good market of the ’60s was the aberration.

To the extent that’s true, a political savior seems unlikely. But we can at least start to reframe the question. And maybe show community colleges some well-deserved respect.

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