Regilding the Ivory Tower
David Mihalyfy considers the role of wealth in determining who can pursue an academic career in the humanities.
Money has always given people better options, but for humanities Ph.D. students, money’s now necessary just to get acceptable ones. Just now becoming noticeable, this “re-gilded ivory tower” looms over a landscape that everyone should consider.
As one fellow graduate student recently observed, "You have to have a spouse nowadays; that’s how more and more people seem to be doing it." As is well-known, the economic crash hastened the decline of tenure-track jobs and increased competition for them. Once standard, these stable jobs with adequate salary and benefits have become rarer, displaced by short-term, one- to two-year positions at best, and by piecemeal adjuncting at worst. In turn, entry-level qualifications also rose at some institutions to include a secondary research specialization, at least one article, and attention to pedagogy resulting in the creation of one or more substantive classes, ideally taught at outside institutions.
Thus, some form of outside support has become essential for wading through longer Ph.D. programs, and very often an indefinite period of unstable and unremunerative post-graduation employment while waiting for a good job that may never come. Spousal income, a parent-owned condo, a trust fund – no matter which, these necessities increasingly make a humanities Ph.D. less of a career path and more of a leisure pursuit for those with financial stability from elsewhere, even for students at top institutions.
Recent cohorts at my home institution of the University of Chicago show how money has effectively formed two tracks of Ph.D. students. One student, a self-supporting single person, graduated several years ago and entered a one-year position with a heavy teaching load because he "had to." He’s been able to renew his position – but he also hasn’t published, and was passed over for a tenure-track job where he teaches because his teaching load made it impossible to write articles.
Another, a married person who leans on her non-academic spouse for income and benefits, adjuncts one or two classes per semester and uses the rest of her time for research as she awaits and creates better possibilities. "There’s no way in hell I’m doing a one-year," she confided. "But then again, I can afford to do that."
As if this anecdotal evidence isn’t enough, panelists at a recent academic careers conference at the same university openly averred that money is necessary to achieve the recommended level of professionalization – or at least as much of it as a student can get.
Since many institutions don’t track job placement for doctoral students, let alone gather comprehensive student financial profiles, experiences like these give the first glimpses into an academic world where finances determine fate. Given the steady loss of good jobs and devaluation of the humanities in favor of fields like science and engineering, class stratification in academia is set to grow and raises several crucial issues:
Who will become our professors? Despite rare exceptions, our humanities professors will come from wealthier backgrounds. To the extent that the academy can draw from wealthier members of different racial and national demographics, however, overall diversity may suffer less than one might think. Nevertheless, the academy will recede as a symbol of general social mobility.
What will our intellectual life be? As poorer students fall by the wayside, students with money – but not necessarily as much merit – will take their place in Ph.D. programs and professorships. Thus, scholarly standards and intellectual vibrancy should drop somewhat. Gone too will be questions stemming from the underrepresented socioeconomic backgrounds. Accordingly, the social utility of university research may decline – at least in disciplines where these questions are more common. Will the effects be the same in literature as in history or sociology, for example?
How to conceptualize the humanities? Students from poorer backgrounds will still encounter the humanities in general education requirements – but how do professors convey their enriching potential in a way that makes sense, when deep and sustained engagement is the province of the privileged? Descriptions of the humanities as a common cultural inheritance will need revision, if not outright replacement.
How to balance student and institutional well-being? Self-supporting students are already at a disadvantage for professionalization and survival in the humanities. Since student exploration into other careers almost unavoidably involves volunteering and then facing off against candidates with more appropriate degrees and job histories, the most humane advice may be warning poorer prospective students away from the risky bet of a Ph.D. Some professors do this, but institutions depend on students’ loan money and teaching. In the best-case scenario, poorer students self-select out. When they don’t, however, they foist a complicated set of ethical decisions upon faculty and administrators, with whom institutional inertia and pressures often hold sway.
Overall, a re-gilded ivory tower currently seems inevitable. Yet, how much will change? At the end of the day, professors will teach, students will study, and academic conversations will continue. For those who think, however, tainting everything will be a simple but ugly truth: money, not mind, makes a colleague. Perhaps, then, the single most pressing task of all for those in the humanities is our current national challenge, how to cultivate sensitivity across class lines.
David Mihalyfy is a seventh-year Ph.D. candidate in the history of Christianity program at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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