The Third Rail

Speakers at MLA meeting endorse many reforms of graduate education, but object to the idea that Ph.D. programs should shrink.

January 13, 2014

CHICAGO -- With many new Ph.D. recipients in the humanities struggling to find good jobs, some for years after they earned their doctorates, reform of graduate education was a hot topic here at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. Sessions discussed the need to train graduate students for non-academic careers, ideas for shrinking time to degree (which averages 9.5 years in English), the possibility of creating different tracks for doctorates for those seeking teaching careers, the need for better mentoring, the push for better data on job placement, and more.

But one session, "Who Benefits? Competing Agendas and Ethics in Graduate Education," touched on issues much discussed by graduate students (and adjuncts), but not regularly given much attention here: whether graduate programs in literature and languages should continue to admit the same number of students. While many of those urging talk about the issue want to see programs shrink, the speakers here rejected that approach, with one even calling for programs to expand.

David Downing, professor of English and director of graduate studies in literature and criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, opened the session by saying that "the ethical situation seems simple.... How could we make our graduates more vulnerable than necessary" by admitting more than can be assured of good jobs. But Downing said that despite "smug" assurances that this was the only answer, he favors an expansion of programs.

He noted that the demand for instruction in English and related fields has gone up over time, and said that the real reason for a shortage of good jobs was that states have not provided enough money for higher education, and that colleges have come to rely on non-tenure-track labor to teach. While he said that graduate programs should reduce time to degree, he said that the emphasis of professors must be on "the broad struggle" to fund higher education at appropriate levels, and to create jobs on the tenure track.

Faculty members have been too quick to accept a system of relying on adjuncts, he said, and should push back. He said, for example, that faculty unions or other groups can negotiate contract provisions that limit the percentage of teaching by adjuncts, thus forcing the creation of more tenure-track positions.

Daniel Purdy, professor of German studies at Pennsylvania State University, said that it would be "professionally suicidal" for graduate programs to shrink. Doing so, he said, would inevitably lead to the termination of some programs and fields of study.

Purdy said that there are ethical issues with graduate program size that play out in different ways. There are ethical questions in "preparing people for jobs that don't exist," he said. But so too there is "an ethical obligation not to let a program disappear." He said that in discussions of fellowship awards, for example, he has reviewed applications from people who study topics that are only studied "by one old man in Heidelberg," and that this suggests that humanities scholars need to be sure fields don't die out.

At the same time, Purdy said that ethical issues are raised by the current tight job market. He said, for example, that in the current job market, it is wrong for departments to automatically exclude adjuncts from grant funding or competitions. "There are so many fine candidates available," he said, that "a moment of subjectivity can assert itself" in discussions. "People [on search committees] will say “that person isn’t a good fit. That person talks too fast, talks too slow,” he said. This isn't fair to all the candidates, he said.

But while faculty members have an ethical obligation to think about their actions in light of the job market, that doesn't mean graduate enrollments should be reduced, he said.

Katina Rogers of the MLA also questioned the view that the growth of part-time positions suggests that doctoral programs should shrink. She noted that many adjuncts have M.A.s, not Ph.D.s, so she said she views the growth in adjunct positions as not necessarily related to graduate enrollments. She also said it was important for departments to promote alternative careers -- beyond becoming a faculty member.

And several speakers similarly endorsed the idea that "alt-act" career paths need to be valued, and that graduate programs need to offer training so that humanities Ph.D.s are prepared to run nonprofit groups or work in government or the business world.

While people at several sessions here praised the development of alt-ac career paths, others raised concerns.

Shane Peterson, a postdoc at Lawrence University, said that he endorsed the idea that graduate programs should train students for a variety of careers. But he asked what programs are taking away -- and how training for alt-ac careers could be added at a time that many agree there is a need to shorten the time to degree. "I worry that asking graduate students to do more in less time is itself an unethical request unless we offer resources" to graduate students.

Others noted that while it is great for new Ph.D.s to have a range of career options, the vast majority of people entering humanities Ph.D. programs aren't seeking alt-ac jobs, but faculty jobs.

Indeed, at another session here, Gregory Brennen, a graduate student at Duke University, presented the results of a national survey of humanities Ph.D. students (about half in MLA disciplines and half in history). In that survey, 83 percent indicated that they started their programs planning to be tenure-track professors.

The issue of funding for doctoral students came up in several ways in the discussion here. Rogers of the MLA said that she did believe it was problematic for graduate programs to admit "more students than they can support."

Peterson said that he wanted to see graduate students supported, but that he fears that the fellowships that are awarded may leave new graduate students with the sense that they are headed toward a decent career as a professor. A good stipend, he said "comes across as an affirmation that you will make it. If they are going to pay me more like this, it will work out." These days, he said, that's not true.

Reactions in the audience, when the panelists were questioned about their hesitance to shrink graduate programs, varied. One recent Ph.D. said she opposed the idea of shrinking graduate programs. She said she hated the possibility that someone would deny her or others the right to enroll "at 24 because of fear over whether we can get a job when we are 30." People have the right to make the choice to enroll, she said.

But Karen Kelsky, a former professor who know is a blogger who advises academics on career issues, said she thought the panelists were trying to preserve an academe that no longer exists. She said that the comments about keeping programs the same size were coming from "people already employed who don’t want to see their world destroyed. It’s already destroyed."

Kelsky said that it was "not very legitimate logic" to spend a decade getting a Ph.D. to do something other than become a professor. Of graduate programs in the humanities, she said that "it should be hard to get in."

Kelsky, who works with many people struggling to find decent jobs in academe, said that the current system is broken. "It's a system that is already destroying lives," she said.

Between 2010 and 2012, the number of Ph.D.s awarded in the humanities increased from 4,971 to 5,503.

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