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What Should We Do About Undergrads Who Want to Pursue a Humanities Doctorate?

Reflections on the end of history … and the academic study of the arts, literature and philosophy.

December 15, 2022

The December 2022 issue of Jacobin, which bills itself as “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics and culture,” contains a provocative article entitled “I Love Higher Education. It Isn’t Loving Me Back.”

It’s a tough read. It conveys many unsettling truths about the academy that you might find hard to stomach.

The article’s author, Hannah Leffingwell, A.B.D. in New York University’s joint Ph.D. program in French and history, tells a story that resembles that of many humanities graduate students: that “the transformative experience I had in the classroom led me to dedicate my whole life to academia. But austerity and precarity have made it impossible for me to give those same experiences to my undergraduate students.”

The academy, in the author’s views, embodies one of the traits of an abusive corporation: bait and switch. All too many early-career humanists find themselves within “a system that demanded her full and unwavering commitment to ‘the profession’ while offering only temporary, part-time work in return—or, if she was lucky, a grueling tenure-track position in a state where she had no family or friends and probably didn’t want to live.”

Leffingwell is slated to teach at New York City’s New School in the spring—an institution comprised of the Parsons School of Design, a liberal arts college, a performing arts college, the Mannes conservatory and several graduate schools.

The institution has a storied history. It was founded in 1919 as the New School for Social Research, as it was originally called, by leading progressive intellectuals including Charles Beard, John Dewey, Horace Kallen and Thorstein Veblen, and its first courses were taught by luminaries that included Harold Laskie, Elsie Clews Parsons and Roscoe Pound. The New School’s University in Exile, founded in 1933, served as a haven for such European émigré scholars as Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm and Leo Strauss. Its dramatic workshop, established in 1940, boasted Stella Adler and Elia Kazan among its instructors.

As you no doubt know, the New School’s part-time adjuncts, who make up 87 percent of the institution’s faculty, recently ended a bitterly hard-fought three-week strike over wages, benefits and compensation for outside-the-classroom responsibilities. Under the new contract, wages for a three-credit course will rise to $6,520 for new adjuncts, which will increase to $7,820 after five years of service. In New York City? Ugh.

The total cost of a New School education was $78,744 in 2021–22—and, after financial aid, the average annual cost is $44,430, according to the College Scorecard. After eight years, the graduation rate is 71 percent. Median earnings of graduates who received financial aid 10 years after graduation is $53,981. International students comprise 30 percent of the student body.

I find it hard not to wonder how institutions like the New School—that are very expensive, rely heavily on low-paid adjunct labor and charge very high tuition for training in fields that often fail to provide solid jobs—sustain themselves. I make no claims of understanding the school’s finances or the quality of its offerings, but I do find it hard to imagine how anyone (even Elon Musk) could run a business this way, especially in light of the New School’s leftward-leaning orientation.

I also find it difficult to understand how the faculty in humanities departments can, in good faith, encourage undergraduates to pursue doctoral studies given the job market’s bleak realities except in the most exceptional circumstances—and how their institutions can continue to admit Ph.D. candidates that have only the most limited prospects of a tenure-track job, whether at a two- or four-year school.

It strikes me as patently unethical to prepare someone for a job that doesn’t exist. There’s something deeply immoral when we “perpetuate an ‘illusion of hope,’” in Leffingwell’s wrenching words.

But what about dedicated students like Leffingwell, who aspire to an academic career and who were admitted into a prestigious doctoral program and earned an impressive array of fellowships and grants and teaching awards, yet face “the very real prospect that I will soon be making poverty wages as a part-time faculty member at whatever college or university will hire me, a position with no job security, meager benefits and minimal or nonexistent paid family leave”?

What should we do, rather than throw up our hands and vent about life’s unfairness?

I wish I had answers beyond the usual bromides:

  • That even the most talented undergraduates in the humanities must be confronted with a series of bitter truths: that their chances of teaching at an R-1 are minuscule; that, indeed, it’s unlikely that they’ll get a tenure-track job anywhere; and that they must prepare themselves for an alternate career track.
  • That humanities departments absolutely must require their doctoral students to prepare for alternative employment by ensuring that they acquire marketable skills, for example, in the public humanities, the digital humanities, documentary filmmaking or something else.

In the most recent issue of the Middle West Review, Jon K. Lauck, the journal’s editor in chief, discusses the ongoing employment crisis in my field, history. The statistics he cites are stunning

“The University of Iowa’s full time history faculty has declined from 26 to 16 in about ten years. University of Missouri: 30 down to 21 (over the past decade); University of Kansas: 35 down to 24 (since 2017); The Ohio State University (system): 79 down to 62 (since 2008); University of Minnesota: 46 down to 40 (in ten years); University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: 46 down to 36 (since 2012); University of Illinois Chicago: 32 down to 20 (from 2005–2020). Smaller universities are also seeing the loss of history faculty: Emporia State University: 7 down to 4 (over a decade); University of North Dakota: 10 down to 5 (in five years); Grand Valley State University: 31 down to 27 (in ten years); University of South Dakota: 10 down to 7 (in five years); South Dakota State University: 7 down to 4 (in five years); University of Nebraska-Omaha: 15 down to 11 (in ten years); St. Cloud State University: 10 down to 6 (in 6 years); St. Olaf College: 12 down to 7 (in ten years); Central Michigan University: 22 down to 15 (in seven years); Miami University of Ohio: 29 down to 22 (since 2015); Ohio University: 31 down to 25 (since 2017); University of Cincinnati: 30 down to 21 (in ten years); Kent State University: 15 down to 12 (since 2008); University of Missouri-Kansas City: 17 down to 8 (in 6 years); Minnesota State University, Mankato: 11 down to 9 (since 2010); University of Missouri–St. Louis: 14 down to 8 (since 2016); Truman State University: 15 down to 4 (since 2013); Indiana State University: 16 down to 13 (since 2015); Marquette University: 21 down to 16 (since 2017); University of Toledo: 12 down to 5 (in a decade).”

Among the most heartbreaking facts that Lauck cites is this one: “Between 2019 and 2020 1,799 historians earned their Ph.D.s, and only 175 of them are now employed as full-time faculty members.”

As bad as I thought the situation was, it’s worse—and it’s likely to worsen as high school students acquire more transferrable credits in early-college/dual-degree programs.

At my university, the provost has put in place a prerecorded self-paced, self-directed asynchronous U.S. history survey course to be delivered in the summer. It seems likely that these classes will be offered in “accelerated” (three-week) format during the new “mini-mesters” the campus is launching during various midyear breaks.

No one seems to be objecting—even though these courses will apparently have no regular substantive interaction with a faculty member or classmates. No one is placing any pressure on the institution to rethink its spending priorities and make it clear that teaching in that format is an abomination, undercutting any claims we make to academic quality.

I never imagined that I held a professorship during history’s golden age. But I did, even if it was at the tail end of that golden era.

We are, I fear, witnessing “the end of history,” not as Francis Fukuyama conceived of this—as the global triumph of liberal capitalism—but as the downsizing of history and other humanities as disciplines. I’m not one for pessimism, but it’s hard for me to envision how we sustain a dynamic profession in a context like this.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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