‘Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work’

Author discusses her new book on a topic that has become more difficult but no less important during the pandemic.

July 8, 2020
 

Katina Rogers earned her Ph.D. in comparative literature in 2010 from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Since then she has had a variety of positions that take advantage of her scholarly training but are not the standard career for an academic. She was managing editor of the MLA Commons, a website for members of the Modern Language Association. She is currently co-director of the Futures Initiative, a City University of New York project that promotes equity and innovation in higher education through student-centered teaching and learning. She is also co-director of the CUNY Humanities Alliance and an adjunct faculty member in the CUNY Graduate Center's master’s program in digital humanities.

From that background -- and research -- she has written a book, Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work: Thriving in and Beyond the Classroom (Duke University Press). In the book, she argues for training humanities Ph.D.s broadly, and for more investment in all kinds of humanities jobs. She answered questions via email.

Q: How do you view the academic job market in the humanities, pre-pandemic?

A: Any discussion of the academic job market must be embedded in a broader consideration of labor structures, resource distribution, values and power. The increasing reliance on adjunct faculty nationwide has reached a crisis point, with the majority of highly skilled instructors underpaid and unprotected by job security or benefits. Meanwhile, the work of governance and service falls to the dwindling proportion of tenure-line faculty, leaving them overworked and burned out. Addressing the issue requires a radical reinvestment in higher education at the city, state and federal level.

The proportion of public revenue supporting higher education has been shrinking dramatically for decades. Public institutions -- which serve over 70 percent of postsecondary students in the U.S. -- are constantly pushed to do more with less. The fact that so many of these cuts are made to teaching, though, reveals that teaching is undervalued even within the institutions themselves. One reason that teaching, mentorship and service may be undervalued is that they tend to be feminized forms of labor. Improving the health of the academic job market requires recognizing and valuing this work.

Moreover, the racism and sexism ingrained in higher education are especially visible in hiring and promotion processes. Faculty of color are more likely to be overburdened by service work and yet denied tenure, something that Patricia Matthew examines in depth in Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure. It's not just about representation, though that matters. It's about building more structural support and dismantling the implicit bias and double standards that serve to uphold the status quo. Without addressing these fundamental concerns that threaten the core of higher education, deep and lasting change in other areas will be extremely difficult.

Q: And in the pandemic?

A: Again, it's not only about the job market, though it is a terrible time to be looking for a job, academic or otherwise. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected students of color and their families and is as much an issue of racial justice as the global protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality.

At the very least, now is a time to re-examine funding priorities. With the calls to defund the police come parallel calls to support social and educational structures, like community colleges. This is a moment to leverage that collective will, invest in these institutions and train the next generation of community college faculty. The reality, though, is that many access-oriented institutions have been subject to severe budget cuts and have implemented hiring freezes, furloughs and layoffs -- often starting with the most vulnerable workers.

Education has long been a place where cuts happen first when budgets are tight, something that my institution, the City University of New York, is facing right now. Even though CUNY’s summer enrollment is up 17 percent as more students look to affordable online learning options in the midst of COVID-19, CUNY has just laid off nearly 3,000 workers -- many of whom will now lose health insurance -- and is bracing for budget cuts of 10 to 25 percent. Students from marginalized racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds will likely be hurt most significantly by these cuts. Larger class sizes, fewer course options and the loss of crucial supports like advising may make it harder for first-generation students to succeed. Many students in marginalized groups are already in precarious positions -- not only with respect to their education, but also with respect to their health, safety and financial well-being. They've been hit by COVID, by unemployment, by police brutality. Now their educational goals are at risk, too.

Because colleges and universities are in a state of upheaval right now, with upcoming semesters highly uncertain, people at the decision-making level have a unique opportunity to reinvest while also fundamentally reimagining how educational structures function. But to prioritize such a significant change, public advocacy and a firm commitment to antiracist practices are urgently needed.

Q: For those who want to work in academe, what are the keys to preparing themselves?

A: First, learn as much as you can about the structures around you so that you can make informed decisions about your possible futures. Most students do not have a window into the inner workings of academic administration, budgeting, service work or the myriad other elements that are part of a faculty or administrative career. Understanding how decisions are made demystifies much about higher education, while also making someone a stronger job candidate. It can't all be on the backs of students to decipher these structures, though. Equipping students to understand the academic ecosystem is a systemic issue that must be built into the kind of training that graduate programs offer, as much as any other part of the curriculum.

Beyond that, there isn't one way to prepare yourself to work in academe and another way to prepare yourself to work anywhere else. Start by focusing on the skills you have and making them more legible, rather than trying to accumulate new skills (unless they serve a real need for your research or another project). In many ways this is the work of translation -- learning how to help others see the ways that your strengths fit with their needs.

That said, at the individual job-seeker level, this is a time to be extremely gentle with yourself and to be really clear about your goals -- not only intellectual, but also material. What do you need to do to get or retain health insurance? How important is it for you to be geographically close to loved ones, especially if travel is difficult or impossible? The concept of "the life of the mind" is a misnomer that makes it too easy to dismiss concrete needs.

Q: Do most graduate programs prepare students well … for jobs?

A: Earning a Ph.D. means that someone has incredible research, writing and analytical skills, not to mention a great deal of tenacity. But programs could do a much better job of fostering a sense of the value of that work -- in higher education, but not only there.

Doctoral education in its current state could be described as reproductive: faculty members train students to do the specific thing that they are doing, and once today’s grad students become tomorrow’s professors, the cycle repeats. However, even by this narrow measure, most institutions are not particularly successful; the professional development that students receive is often mediocre at best. With minimal preparation and a limited view of the systems and structures that affect academic employment, more and more Ph.D.s find themselves shut out of the next steps within that linear professional trajectory. The fact that the story of getting stuck on the adjunct track is so common is a sign that it is rooted in structural failings rather than individual factors.

My book includes recommendations for faculty members and administrators to improve career preparation efforts in their programs; while some suggestions are concrete and relatively easy to implement, like tracking alumni and celebrating their career pathways, other recommendations require a deeper shift in mind-set and values. Embracing a wider range of career outcomes and measures of success would mean changing the default institutional mind-set to one in which graduate education is generative rather than reproductive. This reframing situates reform efforts around career preparation within the much larger project of working toward a more just and equitable system of higher education.

Q: You have a chapter on "expanding" the definitions of scholarly success. What does that look like?

A: As public funding for the humanities continues to shrink, the need to share relevant academic thinking outside the university has grown more important than ever. Expanding the definitions of scholarly success means reimagining what counts in formal moments of evaluation of scholarly work -- the dissertation, tenure, promotion and so on. Right now, scholars who work creatively and outside the norms of their field often find that they have to do double work in order for it to be considered valid and still sometimes face more serious repercussions like tenure denials.

Discouraging public-oriented scholarship does a disservice not only to individual scholars, but to higher education as a whole. The perceived isolation of the university has contributed to a nationwide mistrust of knowledge and expertise -- which is painfully apparent right now in the antiscientific rhetoric surrounding the COVID pandemic.

Rewarding innovative and public-oriented scholarship has the potential to spark renewed public interest in research and higher education. What if public engagement was actively rewarded, rather than seen as a distraction? In many cases, this would require rethinking the ways the university measures and describes success to incorporate a broader and more holistic understanding of the value of research and teaching to society.

In addition to fostering vibrant, forward-thinking scholarship, a shift of this nature may also support greater equity and inclusion by opening the door to research that is deeply grounded in issues that matter to first-generation students and students of color. By broadening the range of what kinds of scholarship are formally rewarded and celebrated, and by expanding the kinds of career preparation students receive, programs may become more appealing to brilliant and creative scholars who don't necessarily see a future for themselves in the professoriate as it currently exists -- and who can help the academy to imagine differently.

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