I've been discreetly "waved off" trying to educate our grad students on just how much worse the academic job market in the humanities is now than it was two years ago (waved off via third-party back-channels: "Hey, Mister - can't you see you're scarin' the kids??").
So it is with great interest that I read James Mulholland's essay "Neither a Trap Nor a Lie," in the March 12 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (pp. A 38+). Mulholland is arguing against "Thomas H. Benton," whose relentlessly debunking articles I have (in the past) sent out or linked to. Mulholland writes that "I am arguing here for the life of the mind, or," as he is quick to add, "at least a version of it." As the article goes on, that life starts to look more and more pallid.
He's starting from the premise that, unlike us naive greenhorns of yore, "Most graduate students now understand how dire [the job market] is, while still attempting, perhaps with incomplete information, to weigh the risks" (?!? - italics mine)
Uh, now, I'm not a rational-choice theorist, but even I will insist upon the importance of information - lots of it - for assessing risk. And he's right, people who apply to - and stay in - graduate school need it. Boy do they. And they usually don't get it (sometimes through no fault of their own).
I do think that our grad students have a good sense of how dire the job market was when they entered graduate school - but not necessarily how much worse it has become since then. This is true even for those who entered last year.
I've been insisting that our graduate students consider a "Plan B" - that is, What will you do if you don't land a sweet tenure-track assistant professorship at a solvent institution of higher ed. - one that will allow you to begin a lifetime of paying off interest on debts? That Plan may be "go into administration" or "publishing" or "NGOs" - or maybe "be a penurious adjunct for the rest of my life" or "move from one temporary visiting position to another," but if you don't have a plan for the future, the future will plan you. And the future, left to its own devices, is nasty, brutish, and neoliberal. In any event, it seems to me that this kind of hard-headed contingency planning and facing up to the facts is what any rational individual should be doing - not least of all right now. [Indeed, those of us who are tenured faculty should also be thinking about a Plan B! - speaking of avoidance . . . (Mind you, I think one should also be prepared for success. This is at least as big a blind spot for grad students.)]
So, it's interesting to me that, in this high-minded and principled response to Benton, Mulholland ends up presenting the same gloomy assessment of the market that Benton does. And he ends on a somewhat utopian note - not unlike Benton's article "Dodging the Anvil":
“We – adjuncts, full-time professors, researchers, administrators, politicians, and parents – must retool how we talk about graduate school in the humanities. [When did a politician talk about graduate school in the humanities?] We can no longer present it as a professional school or as career training, with the assumption that more education and advanced degrees always lead to better lives, more income, increased happiness. Instead, we must think of graduate school as more like choosing to go to New York to become a painter or deciding to travel to Hollywood to become an actor. Those arts-based careers have always married hope and desperation into a tense relationship. We must admit that the humanities, now, is that way, too."
Of course, Benton has said as much, in as many words, on more than one occasion. So, whether you are championing humanities grad school as the life of the mind, or declaring it (like Benton) a "trap and a lie," you end up with the same rather desperate utopianism: that the only reason to pursue it is for its own sake. That conclusion seems entirely just. However, if you want to eat, you'd better have a separate source of income.
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