This Picture Tells a Story

Those of us working in the humanities must accept that our golden age lasted just one generation, argues Leonard Cassuto, and was not the norm.

June 6, 2016

When Oscar Wilde celebrated color that was “unspoiled by meaning,” he wasn’t looking at the graph of advertised job openings in the humanities over the past 15 years. That graph contains meaning that we can’t afford to turn away from. It shows the colors of difficult truths.

Humanists are taught to tease out ambiguity and respect it where it appears. Rather than force an interpretation on an image or text, we try to generate multiple possibilities. We’ve been especially true to that training in our efforts to understand the academic job market over the years. Rather than settle for more obvious narratives of decline, we’ve sought equivocal alternatives to them. We’ve been doing that for generations.

The 2016 graph, which reflects a recent analysis by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is a fragment of a much larger narrative of those generations. When the academic job market abruptly collapsed in the early 1970s after years of unprecedented postwar abundance, professors didn’t rush to judgment. Instead, we showed our patience: the downturn would be succeeded by an upturn. We would wait for the good times to come again.

We waited for two generations, but the academic job market didn’t recover. Nevertheless, we planned as though it would. We added new programs. And we assured our Ph.D.s that they could get academic jobs if they were just willing to wait outside the walls of the Emerald City. So they waited, and they got impatient -- and many of them felt betrayed.

Things got worse in 2008. The Great Recession drove the numbers of academic jobs even farther down -- you can see that dip on the graph. Now the economy has considerably recovered, and university endowments along with it. But the jobs lately lost have not come back.

Where have they gone? Let’s use the humanistic skill set to closely read that question. The assumption behind it is that the lost positions are “our” jobs, and that once circumstances permitted, we would reclaim them. We made a similar assumption in the 1970s that full professorial employment was our normal, and that we would inevitably return to it. During the postwar hiring boom, anyone who finished a doctorate could become a professor. That golden age lasted for one generation. History -- not just after the boom but also before it, before World War II -- shows that one generation to be an anomaly, and not the norm.

Any university administrator will tell you that no department or program “owns” a professorial job line -- they’re allotted according to a web of priorities and perceived needs. Some of the lost humanities positions have presumably been reassigned to other parts of the university, to programs that promise immediate financial return: think physical therapy or audiology.

Administrators are looking outside the liberal arts because they feel financial pressure. The numbers show that liberal arts graduates actually do very well after graduation, but there is no denying that prospective college students -- and their tuition-paying parents -- do not believe that. The percentage of liberal arts majors is trending downward, and shrinking enrollments result in college teaching jobs that don’t get replaced.

Some professorial openings are also being converted to non-tenure-track positions. Those jobs carry higher teaching loads, reduced job security and less influence on institutional governance -- and they’re usually advertised later in the year, after disciplinary societies collect their employment data.

But whatever the reasons behind downturns, we have to accept what the picture tells us. Our numbers are shrinking. The problem points to no obvious solution, except one: we have to stop snowing ourselves. If we’re going to save the humanistic enterprise, we’re going to have to manage it differently than we do now.

The case for more humanities professors begins with more undergraduate majors. That means that we need to pay more attention to our undergraduate teaching, especially of gateway courses, the introductory classes that often inspire students to choose a major. And it also means that we need to do better outreach to high school students. Most academics treat K-12 education with indifference. It’s hard to think of an industry that pays less attention to its main supplier.

In this case, the rest of the humanities could learn a thing or two from the classics. Classics professors recognize that their slender lifeline depends on committed high school teaching. Undergraduate classics majors come mainly from the small group of high school students who fell under the spell of a committed teacher while in high school and who enter college wanting to continue their Latin (or, more rarely, their Greek).

Classics professors know this. They respect those high school teachers -- one need only look at the mutual esteem between the two groups when they get together at classics conferences. And if you look at the job graph, you can see that classics has suffered less than other humanities disciplines during the recent downturn. A coincidence? Perhaps -- or perhaps not.

Many of those high school classics teachers have Ph.D.s. Classicists have long understood that their Ph.D. students would work outside the academy as well as inside it. That’s a truth that the rest of the humanities is only starting to catch up to.

The humanities job graph thus illustrates a teaching problem. We have to adjust our graduate education to prepare our graduate students for the jobs that they will actually seek. In the words of the great humanist Pete Seeger, “We’re waist-deep in the Big Muddy.” We professors may identify as researchers, but we have to rescue our profession in the same way that each of us entered it: by teaching.


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


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