Yes, Alt-Ac and Activism Can Coexist

When it comes to ensuring good jobs for graduate students, they both play a role, argues Leonard Cassuto.

November 30, 2015

I had just finished teaching my freshman composition class one day not long ago when I learned that I was an enemy of my own work. In a recent article for Inside Higher Ed, Marc Bousquet accuses me of dismissing teaching-intensive positions, or “low-caste teaching,” as something that no graduate student really wants. As for full professors like me, well, our contempt should go without saying.

Bousquet, a well-known academic labor activist and a professor of film and media studies at Emory University, was addressing my position on alternative academic (alt-ac) careers for Ph.D.s. That position is laid out in detail in my new book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It. I call on graduate school professors to teach career diversity in graduate school along with academic specialization. Bousquet says, in essence, that when we promote nonprofessorial jobs for graduate students, we divert attention from the exploitation that’s built into the graduate school system.

Bousquet imagines me as an adversary, but in fact we agree more than we differ. To begin with, we both see the academic workplace as deeply and structurally irrational. Attrition rates are unacceptably high -- 50 percent -- from doctoral programs, and few Ph.D.s find the professor jobs that they have been specifically trained to do.

Too many graduate students and Ph.D.s find cold comfort in the harsh world of contingent labor. They work belowdecks in introductory courses for low wages that sustain the bottom line at many public universities. Public and private university administrators alike opt for the flexibility of adjunct and off-ladder term labor to staff their classes.

For some reason Bousquet seems to believe that I disdain those laborers and the work that they do. But readers of The Graduate School Mess will know that I value introductory teaching -- and I do it myself. (Freshman teaching, including freshman comp, is a regular part of the teaching load at my campus.) In fact, I argue in the book that only through renewed respect for our teaching mission can we begin to reform our workplace.

Bousquet has long advocated for collective action to challenge these conditions -- and I agree with him. We need to push for tenure-track jobs over contingent labor. When labor and management can’t recognize their shared interest in stable, well-supported intellectual work, it’s time to organize.

But -- and here’s where we disagree -- I don’t think collective action is the only answer to the problems we face. As I tell my graduate student audiences around the country, individual action is important also. That means realism.

If you decide to go to graduate school in the arts and sciences, first make sure you get a fellowship that guarantees a full ride. Once you’re there, don’t imagine that a professor’s job is waiting for you when you graduate. Join the union, by all means. But also prepare for the full range of possible outcomes that await you. Isn’t that just common sense?

Bousquet has staged this as an either/or proposition: to contemplate alt-ac careers would compromise the struggle against injustice in the academic workplace. I don’t think these two alternatives need to be pitted against each other. After all, the union hall used to be a place for job training and skills acquisition along with agitating.

But there’s more to it. The idea that Ph.D.s should all wind up as professors distorts historical reality. Yes, full employment for any graduate student who could finish the doctorate once existed in the academy. That was true for just one generation, during the 1950s and ’60s. Burgeoning baby-boom populations and Cold War investment swelled higher education to sizes never before seen on American academic earth.

Before and after that brief period, Ph.D.s worked both inside and outside the university walls. Partly because that fully employed generation was the biggest in the history of American academe, it gave the whole profession a case of nostalgic amnesia: we thought that time of plenty was normal when, in fact, it was a historical anomaly.

There are lots of reasons -- political, social, administrative -- that higher education fell from that postwar paradise, but fall we did. The beneficiaries of that one generation of unprecedented academic prosperity are now in their seventies and eighties. It seems high time that we changed our assumptions to reflect the realities of our students and not their grandparents.

We therefore need to prepare our graduate students for the actual jobs that are waiting for them: not only professors’ jobs but also a whole diverse range of opportunities. Our graduate students know this. They want their graduate education to prepare them for the real world of experience that they -- and we -- live in. We have to do this for them, because they’ve trusted us with helping them to shape their professional lives.

So let’s change graduate school as well as the conditions of labor within it. The space between activism and pragmatic reform doesn’t have to be a chasm. We waste time when reformers fight each other instead of trying to change a workplace that they agree needs changing.


Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English and American studies at Fordham University, is the author of The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It (Harvard University Press, 2015).


Back to Top