The Modern Language Association report on the Ph.D. in languages and literatures has already succeeded in sparking a lively debate. Some commentators have welcomed the report’s general findings, while others have taken issue with its specific recommendations. Beyond these differences, a broad consensus has emerged that the current situation is unsustainable, and this recognition is key to moving forward. The relationship of doctoral education to the deteriorating conditions of the academic workforce demands transformative changes. If doctoral study is to thrive in more than a handful of elite institutions, the profession as a whole and at multiple levels must adopt a reform agenda. The urgency of change was the premise of the task force report, and change is what the critics of the report also demand.
The agreement goes even further. Like its critics, the members of the MLA task force that produced the report point to the persistently weak job market and the importance of advocating an increase in tenure-track positions. The report similarly criticizes the casualization of academic labor and the poor working conditions of most contingent faculty members. This advocacy stands explicitly in the tradition of the MLA, which in recent decades has analyzed and criticized these developments while providing resources such as the Committee on Contingent Labor’s two recent projects: “Professional Employment Practices for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members” and a 2013 special issue of the ADE and ADFL Bulletin on contingent labor. I know my colleagues on the MLA Executive Council are committed to pursuing activism in this area and leading the scholarly association network toward collective action .
Yet the report does more than call for advocacy. It also calls for change within graduate programs, and this is where the consensus breaks down. Some critics of the report have staked out the position that the MLA should focus primarily on job market and working conditions issues and not on the academic programs in which our members teach and study. While the task force report underscores the importance of the labor question, it also recommends that the MLA engage the profession in considering internal reforms to serve graduate students more effectively. The difference between what the report says and what its critics argue is particularly clear on three points.
First, some complain that the report does not call for deep cuts in admissions to doctoral programs. Only such cuts, they argue, could address the weak job market in which there are more qualified candidates than tenure-track positions. In contrast, the task force report insists on maintaining accessibility to doctoral programs: Qualified students with an intellectual dedication to the fields of language and literature should have the opportunity to pursue advanced study. Access to higher education is a hallmark of a democratic society, and it is the precondition of diversity in our fields Still, if critics want to call for the closing of programs, which programs, one might ask, should be eliminated? How will closings not end up disadvantaging public institutions, where the majority of first-generation college students study? Calls to shutter departments rather than reform them most likely will play into the hands of university budget-cutters. The scope of the humanities in higher education in the United States already faces significant reduction. We should be fighting for the humanities rather than closing off advanced study, the key to their sustained presence in colleges and universities.
The labor market critics are proposing what amounts to a guild protectionism: by reducing access to doctorate education, the limited pool of degree holders will be guaranteed abundant and better jobs. This strikes me as a gross miscalculation that will only end with diminished opportunities for all students. In contrast, the MLA report envisions humanities education with a potential for growth in response to the expanded intellectual scope of our fields as well as to society’s changing needs in classrooms and beyond.
A second flashpoint of dispute is time to degree. The report recommends that departments design programs that can be completed in five years and provide sufficient financial support for students to do so. Some commentators have viewed this time frame as an assault on quality. The point, however, is that currently around half of doctoral students take more than a decade to complete the Ph.D., which represents an enormous investment in time with limited prospects for return on the academic job market. Furthermore, there are no legitimate grounds for median time to degree in humanities fields to be significantly longer than in doctoral programs in the natural and social sciences. There would be nothing wrong for humanities scholars to adopt potentially more effective educational practices from these other fields. We language and literature faculty members need to develop and share new ideas for mentoring students, and departments need to ask how programs might be designed more effectively. As the appendix of the report demonstrates, some departments are already leading the way through reform initiatives that integrate the intellectual demands of humanistic study with a prudent rethinking of program structure.
A third point involves career outcomes for graduate students. It should be obvious to all faculty members that, as the MLA's 14 studies of Ph.D. placement make evident, at best only about half of new modern language doctorate recipients find tenure-track positions in the same year that they complete their degrees, and under 40 percent when academic job opportunities contract, as they did in the 1990s and have again since 2008. (Figure 2 in "Our PhD Employment Problem, Part 1" shows the summary findings for all 14 surveys, 1978 to 2010.)
Departments have an obligation to make this clear to applicants, yet such candor alone does not absolve departments of the responsibility of providing students with opportunities for professional development that can serve them well on multiple career paths. That is why the report points to possibilities such as curriculums designed to develop transferable skills, enhanced engagement with technology, and more effective use of other resources found throughout the university. The report also underscores the importance of pointing students to diverse career possibilities, not by singling out students for job-market tracking, but instead by engaging the graduate student community in exploring a widened career arc.
Doctoral recipients have a rich set of skills — in communication, research, and leadership — and those who do not find a tenure line should not have to settle for poorly compensated contingent positions. Those who view a job as a college professor as the only legitimate outcome of doctoral education fall into that labor market trap. That’s why the report emphasizes the importance of discussing the broad range of career paths and providing students with the resources they need to expand their employment horizons.
Nonetheless, doctoral study should not be viewed exclusively as the pursuit of a career-oriented credential. It must also involve an intellectual passion for languages and literatures, as defined by our evolving disciplines. This is the foundation of successful graduate study. The qualities cultivated through intensive, long-term research and thoughtful, extended writing are not just transferable to other careers; they are valuable in their own right, just as it would be valuable to our culture as a whole — and particularly to the future of the academy — to have highly educated professionals who appreciate scholarly thoughtfulness and humanistic perspectives working throughout society. It has been pointed out in the public discussion of the report that many of its recommendations are not new. The academic community has been talking about these issues for a long time, and change is already under way. Time to degree is coming down, and some departments are initiating salutary program modifications. The profession has reached a tipping point, and the time has come for broad-based change. Doctoral study in the humanities fields contributes to the quality of society, it answers individual students’ desire for intellectual depth, and it is a vital piece in the intellectual diversity of universities. If we want to preserve it, we need to reform it.
Russell A. Berman is professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University. He led the task force that produced the MLA report.
We write as a group of concerned scholars in response to the recent Modern Language Association report on doctoral study in modern languages and literatures. We appreciate the efforts of the committee that produced the document and understand the reasoning behind several of its individual recommendations. At the same time, we feel strongly that this document misses two crucial opportunities: (1) To articulate the underlying structural conditions of the crisis it describes (including but not limited to dramatic cuts in education funding, the deep and ongoing reductions of tenure and tenure-track jobs, the systematic exploitation of adjunct and graduate student labor, and the expansion of senior administrative ranks); and (2) To campaign actively for the value of the scholarly practices, individual and collective, of its members. We are not opposed in principle to the ideals of innovation, expansion, diversification and transformation advocated in the report, but we are concerned that these ideals may operate as buzzwords that detract attention from a more fundamental problem: the devaluation of academic labor and the marginalization of humanities scholarship and expertise. We call upon the MLA to advocate rather than capitulate.
Of the numerous responses to the MLA report, many have been critical of its call for doctoral programs to take into account the bleak realities of the academic job market; other responses have congratulated the MLA for its virtual admission of defeat. We take issue with the sense of capitulation that hangs over the report. Whereas we share the committee’s “concern about the future of humanistic study” and its recognition of “structural problems” in higher education, we worry that the report accepts “doubts about the legitimacy of doctoral study” as its starting point.
The report incorporates rather than disputes the frequent and often ad hominem attacks on the legitimacy of the humanities, suggesting that we should change to meet those criticisms rather than challenge them. Its conclusion that doctoral training must be reformed “to bring degree requirements in line with the ever evolving character of our fields” remains unsettlingly passive toward the realities of such an “evolution.” Yet without a more active response from the largest professional humanities organization, the casualization of academic labor and devaluation of humanities scholarship will only increase. Instead of “responding” to these conditions with unrealistic recommendations for change, the MLA should work to combat and change them.
Although we are well aware that no single professional organization has the power to undertake structural changes throughout all of higher education, part of the MLA’s mission is to set the terms of public discourse about the study and teaching of languages and literatures. A language borrowed from the world of business administration — flexible, adaptable, deliver, evolving — pervades the report. Upon what economic realities are such demands based? Year after year there are more students enrolling in colleges and universities in the United States, which implies a greater demand for well-trained, full-time faculty.
And yet each year there are fewer and fewer full-time faculty positions. The MLA report inadvertently justifies this situation rather than redressing it. Where else beside the humanities and social sciences can we hope to find a longer-term vision for higher education? We applaud the MLA recommendations that seek more fully to recognize the public contribution of humanistic scholarship. We take issue with the implication that “nontraditional careers” would be located “outside the confines of the academy,” as those of us who work primarily within the academy do not necessarily feel “confined” by our positions. Moreover, such language itself contributes to the perception that the academy is irredeemably divided from the “real world” — precisely the division we should be working to efface, as it contributes to the devaluation of academic labor, as well as the difficulties that humanities Ph.D.s often face in finding alternative positions.
Two of the primary reforms outlined in the MLA report are a reduction of time to degree and a new, inter- and paradisciplinary approach to training. Both of these, jointly and individually, appear to us as sources of potential erosion of scholarly values.
The MLA is right to point to the financial burdens that an extended period of time to degree presents to graduate students, particularly given the precarity of the academic job market. The report calls on departments to “reimagine the dissertation” as a way to reduce time to degree. This raises several concerns for us about the function of a non-traditional dissertation. Along with the recommendation to “abandon expectation of comprehensive coverage,” it seems possible that a reimagined dissertation would be less than what is now expected — and less valued. For those who seek alt-ac careers, would a non-traditional dissertation be any more of an asset? As long as departments continue to be structured by literary-historical fields and tenure continues to be tied to monographs, a non-traditional dissertation seems likely to do a great disservice to students on the job market and the tenure track.
This concern is compounded by the increased burden placed on doctoral students in the calls for inter- and paradisciplinary training and more teaching. With the report’s recommendations for collaboration across disciplines, sustained work with professionals in libraries, museums, IT, and administration, as well as significant training in new digital methodologies, we cannot see how time to degree could be reduced without abandoning training in the study of literatures and languages themselves. Moreover, such new career training places increased burdens on graduate program faculty (directors, in particular). The report somehow expects faculty to provide training for students in areas where faculty themselves may not be adequately trained. Moreover, the MLA’s recommendation that Ph.D. programs “use the whole university” by seeking out non-faculty with diverse expertise to mentor graduate students does not address whether and how these individuals are to be compensated for this substantial additional demand on their labor time.
Furthermore, interdisciplinary scholarship, done well, requires mastering multiple disciplines, something for which most doctoral students do not have the time — or funding — even under current conditions. The report calls for “sufficient teaching opportunities…accompanied by course work, practical experience, and mentoring.” Again, leaving aside how graduate student teaching is bound up with the deterioration of full-time faculty employment, this stipulation also increases rather than decreases time to degree.
The national average of 9+ years to complete a humanities degree seems shocking and insupportable to many, and we are certainly not advocating that graduate students routinely remain in school for a decade or more. That said, the MLA report’s emphasis on reduction of time to degree would potentially homogenize the variety of intellectual pursuits essential to doctoral education, and would put pedagogical and research training into greater tension. There are a variety of factors that extend time in graduate school, from language acquisition to archival research to precisely the sort of pedagogical and alternative/extra-disciplinary training that the MLA report advocates. Moreover, the report’s lack of guidelines for how program administrators are supposed to balance an increase in areas of Ph.D. training with a sharp reduction in time to degree makes this into something of a hollow recommendation.
We are also concerned that the report focuses upon the “professional” need for program redesign at the expense of programs’ intellectual needs — and at the expense of labor issues. While the MLA is clearly responding to the bleak outlook for full-time professorial employment, it suggests adjusting ourselves and graduate education to that “reality,” rather than calling for a broad-based critical and potentially transformative engagement with current conditions. This seems to stem from two issues: a focus on elite Ph.D. programs and a failure to link various issues of teaching to issues of academic labor.
Behind the question of whether Ph.D. programs can be said to “devalue” teaching is the link between graduate teaching and labor practices. While we agree that it is crucial for graduate students to be well-trained teachers, this aspect of graduate training cannot be severed from academic labor conditions. Too often the instrumental use of graduate students as teachers is pushed by (the ever-growing ranks of) senior administrators to justify expenditures in the form of stipends and tuition remission and to provide cheap labor in the place of full-time faculty. Graduate student teaching is a significant part of the contingent labor problem that plagues universities in the 21st century. While the report acknowledges the issue of contingent labor, it is too frequently bracketed from the rest of the salient points.
In an effort to engage positively with the report, we offer here a list of suggested steps faculty — and the MLA — can take to deal with the structural issues we face, rather than simply accommodating ourselves to the devaluation of our disciplines and of academic labor.
1. Public advocacy. This could include speaking about these issues in classes, in meetings, in public forums; writing op-eds; insisting that senior administrators consistently justify the hiring practices of the university, not only in terms of faculty hiring, but also of administrative and professional staff. Of particular importance would be to obtain and circulate the Adjunct/Tenure faculty ratio in departments and at universities.
2. Independent metrics. We propose that the MLA designate a task force to develop a more viable set of “outcomes assessment” guidelines and metrics for evaluating the success of humanities graduate programs. This was Gerald Graff's platform as MLA president in 2008, but remains under-implemented and relevant today.
3. Reduced program size. Short- and possibly long-term reductions in admissions so that cohorts are smaller and have summer funding. Propose alternative curricular strategies for sustaining smaller graduate cohorts: e.g., reduced teaching credit (rather than cancelation) for under-enrolled graduate seminars; team-taught graduate seminars, and so on. Here we expressly disagree with the MLA report’s refusal to consider recommending a reduction is cohort size; we find this impractical to the point of irresponsibility. To accomplish expanded training in fewer years, it is imperative that Ph.D. students be given additional support and funding. Already-strapped programs will simply be unable to find the resources to increase funding and support without reducing cohort size.
4. Organized labor. Actively support the unionization of part-time/adjunct faculty, support that should stretch across all ranks of faculty. We acknowledge that certain aspects of organization must come from contingent faculty, but we insist that for broad structural changes, institutions like the MLA as well as tenured and tenure-track faculty must be involved in the process to change the culture of higher education. For the MLA, this might include speaking out against anti-union colleges and universities.
5. Alt-ac integration. Reimagine alt-ac as a fundamental extension of the sphere of the humanities — rather than as an alternative to it — in sustaining intellectual environments. This means: advocacy in the classroom, the association, the department, the scholarly network, the publishing “market,” and the university itself. Extend the scope of humanities research throughout the education system, arts and cultural organizations, and such — occupying, rebuilding, and refitting existing ones as well as infusing public discourse. We affirm the report’s insistence on recognizing the broad diversity of career paths — not simply to provide Ph.D.s with more access to jobs but also as a means of infusing and transforming public discourse with the aim of revaluing an expanded vision of intellectual labor in the humanities.
6. Direct action. The academic labor situation is clearly at a breaking point which cannot be remedied by the MLA alone. Structural transformation will require action on many fronts — strikes, protests, and other creative forms of organizing and outreach, including work across universities as well as within individual institutions.
The MLA report offers as its motivation the “persistent criticism from within the academy and from a larger public” that doctoral study has received. If there is one thing that scholars in languages and literature are trained to receive, interpret, and produce, it is criticism. It is time for the MLA and its members to take a strong stand against the political and institutional forces that threaten the humanities’ growth, in order to maintain and reimagine the institutional and intellectual environments in which we all can thrive.
The following are the authors of this essay:
Hester Blum, associate professor of English, Pennsylvania State University
Sarah Chinn, associate professor of English, Hunter College of the City University of New York
Brian Connolly, associate professor of history, University of South Florida
Jonathan P. Eburne, associate professor of Comparative Literature and English, and Director of Graduate Studies for Comparative Literature, Penn State University
Joseph Fruscione, editor of the “Adjuncts Interviewing Adjuncts” column at Inside Higher Ed (formerly of George Washington University)
Jennifer Greiman, associate professor of English and director of English graduate studies, State University of New York at Albany
Jeffrey Insko, associate professor of English, Oakland University
Dana Luciano, associate professor of English, Georgetown University
Justine S. Murison, associate professor of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Lisi M. Schoenbach, associate professor of English, University of Tennessee at Knoxville
To: Dean of College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences
Subject: Trigger Warnings
In order to anticipate potential liability issues rising from the teaching of humanities and social science courses, we have reviewed the syllabuses across your college’s departments, with particular attention given to the impacting of racial and ethnic themes on our clientele’s (aka students’) emotional well-being. We have provisionally concluded that the English department can continue to teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Merchant of Venice, while taking into careful consideration the sensibilities of African-American, Jewish and related niche audiences.
But in the course of our investigation, we found other reasons to anticipate future legal and public relations challenges for the university. With the support of the offices of student services and marketing and communications, which coordinated several focus groups, we found several books that could become the subject of class action suits. Please find below five examples from our full list that, if present campus trends continue, will raise red flags.
Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey
Students were disturbed by Homer’s “relentless” depiction of mayhem and gore: “Like the X-Men franchise, but Wolverine is definitely a more likable mutant than Achilles,” concluded one respondent. Several students objected to the treatment of women -- mostly relegated to domestic activities or war booty -- and demanded to know if there were other epic poems by blind Archaic Greek bards that offered examples of female empowerment.
Also, a small but vocal number of students wearing PETA t-shirts protested the “inhumane” treatment of the dog Argo, left to die on a dung heap. Given the youthful impressionability of our customer base, we find potential problems with the Lotus-eater episode, as well as the character Helen’s liberal use of pharmacological agents.
Anonymous' "The Book of Job"
“Are you sure this is part of the Bible?” asked many respondents, who also exhibited intense unease with God’s actions, as they did with Job’s questions. The mounting suspense in waiting for God to reply adversely impacted many students (as did the irritation factor supplied by Job’s friends).
While the groups’ expectations were raised when a voice came from the whirlwind, they were deflated by the voice’s answers -- which, according to one respondent, weren’t answers at all. (“Like my parents, only worse.”) At the end of the session, a palpable sense of dread, along with isolated cases of fear and trembling, were in evidence -- all matters of concern for our office.
Though we were informed this work combines the two “Homeric” poems in one, the focus groups concluded it was somehow longer. Respondents were disturbed by the negative depiction of the character Dido -- “If she, like, died ‘before her time,’ how fair is that?” -- while the character Juno also elicited negative comments: “Clearly the product of a harsh patriarchal society determined to depict independent women as hysterical and dangerous.”
More generally, respondents were disoriented by Virgil’s habit, in the words of one participant, “to undermine the Roman values he pretends to uphold.” We find sufficient grounds for concern that students might argue they cannot be expected to give clear answers on their final exam if Virgil could not give any in his final poem. Our staff also suggests that more litigious individuals will claim that if Virgil could leave his poem unfinished, they could do the same with their exam.
Machiavelli's The Prince
Several students spoke of their emotional distress after reading the author’s claim that if a ruler obeys “something resembling good it will lead to his ruin, while something resembling vice will lead to power.” Other students, however, announced their decision to run for president of their fraternity and sorority chapters.
Significant liability potential resides in the author’s use of Cesare Borgia as a role model: his praise of Borgia’s public “dicing and slicing” (in one participant’s phrase) of a subordinate does not reflect the “brand” values of our university.
Our office for students with special needs signaled its concern over the presence of two characters with disabilities -- they lost “their shanks in the Ardennes” -- who are confined to garbage pails. The office also worries that two other characters -- one who cannot sit down, the other who cannot stand up -- appear indifferent to this situation.
We cannot decide which is more problematic for the university: those respondents left despondent by the play’s existential desolation, epistemological doubts and ethical despair, and those respondents who kept giggling. In general, it remains to be seen whether, when it comes to the trigger warning controversy, we can’t go on or must go on.
Rob Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston's Honors College and author, most recently, of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.
Reporting on the Senate's confirmation of Theodore Mitchell as the U.S. Department of Education's chief higher education official, Inside Higher Ed quoted a statement from Secretary of Education: “He will lead us through this important time in higher education as we continue to work toward the President’s goal to produce the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020.” While this brief remark is hardly a major policy statement, its tone and focus are typical of the way Secretary Duncan, President Obama, and many others in politics these days talk about higher education.
This typical rhetoric, in Duncan’s statement and beyond, makes a good point, but it doesn't say enough. To explain why, I will take a leaf from Thucydides. In History of the Peloponnesian War, he explained that his apparent verbatim accounts of speeches by other figures really articulated what he thought they should have said. With due respect for Secretary Duncan and President Obama, here is what the Secretary of Education should have said, on behalf of the President's aims, on the confirmation of a new Under Secretary of Education in charge of higher education affairs:
He will lead us through this important time in higher education as we continue to work toward the president’s goals for higher education in making America a more productive economy, a more just society, a more flourishing democracy, and a richer environment for what the Founders called, in the Declaration of Independence, "the pursuit of happiness," and in the Preamble to the Constitution, "the general welfare."
A part of that economic goal is to produce the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020. Another part is to ensure that higher education extends broadly the opportunity to develop the ingenuity and creativity that will drive American innovation in the years ahead.
That means working to ensure that higher education regains its function as an engine of socioeconomic advancement, both for the individual and for society as a whole. This means resisting the increasing stratification of curriculums and opportunities, making sure that the advantages of arts and sciences education are extended as far throughout higher education as possible. This is both prudent, to cultivate the nation's human capital, and also just, to mitigate disadvantages of less-privileged starting points.
Everyone knows that democracy depends on America's capacity to maintain a deliberative electorate, capable of making well-informed choices in a political system they understand and in which they actively participate. It is a responsibility of higher education to enhance this investment in America by helping maintain that electorate. It is a responsibility of government to promote that role.
Finally, when the Founders embraced such goals as " the pursuit of happiness," and securing "the general welfare" of the people, they acknowledged that the well-being of individuals and of society as a whole -- difficult as these concepts are to define -- are legitimate objects of government interest. Higher education has crucial responsibilities of exploration and discovery in this broad field of human well-being. It is here that the perennial American question concerning the scope and limits of government itself is to be explored, and given for inquiry to succeeding generations of Americans.
"So on the appointment of a new Under Secretary with responsibilities toward higher education, we celebrate the many contributions of higher education to American flourishing: its role in contributing to a vibrant economy, certainly; and also its role in sustaining and advancing the broad aims of justice and improvement to which the country has always been committed."
That would have been good to hear from Secretary Duncan, and would be good to hear in any of the administration's speeches about higher education. None of us who are committed to this broader vision of higher education can ever, I emphasize, lose sight of its role in propelling the economy forward. But we cannot permit the purposes of higher education in America to be narrowed solely into the goal of workforce production. More is at stake: access to opportunity, cultivation of ingenuity and innovation, and broad contributions to the future of the country. Phi Beta Kappa joins many voices in advocacy of that vision. We invite Theodore Mitchell, Secretary Duncan, and President Obama to join, as well.
John Churchill is secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.