Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

February 9, 2009


Thomas H. Benton, Chronicle of Higher Education - Most undergraduates don't realize that there is a shrinking percentage of positions in the humanities that offer job security, benefits, and a livable salary (though it is generally much lower than salaries in other fields requiring as many years of training). They don't know that you probably will have to accept living almost anywhere, and that you must also go through a six-year probationary period at the end of which you may be fired for any number of reasons and find yourself exiled from the profession. They seem to think becoming a humanities professor is a reliable prospect - a more responsible and secure choice than, say, attempting to make it as a freelance writer, or an actor, or a professional athlete - and, as a result, they don't make any fallback plans until it is too late.

I have found that most prospective graduate students have given little thought to what will happen to them after they complete their doctorates. They assume that everyone finds a decent position somewhere, even if it's "only" at a community college (expressed with a shudder). Besides, the completion of graduate school seems impossibly far away, so their concerns are mostly focused on the present. . .

What almost no prospective graduate students can understand is the extent to which doctoral education in the humanities socializes idealistic, naïve, and psychologically vulnerable people into a profession with a very clear set of values. It teaches them that life outside of academe means failure, which explains the large numbers of graduates who labor for decades as adjuncts, just so they can stay on the periphery of academe. . .

There is work for humanities doctorates (though perhaps not as many as are currently being produced), but there are fewer and fewer real jobs because of conscious policy decisions by colleges and universities. As a result, the handful of real jobs that remain are being pursued by thousands of qualified people - so many that the minority of candidates who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery.

Universities (even those with enormous endowments) have historically taken advantage of recessions to bring austerity to teaching. There will be hiring freezes and early retirements. Rather than replacements, more adjuncts will be hired, and more graduate students will be recruited, eventually flooding the market with even more fully qualified teacher-scholars who will work for almost nothing. When the recession ends, the hiring freezes will become permanent, since departments will have demonstrated that they can function with fewer tenured faculty members.

Nearly every humanities field was already desperately competitive, with hundreds of applications from qualified candidates for every tenure-track position. Now the situation is becoming even worse. For example, the American Historical Association's job listings are down 15 percent and the Modern Language's listings are down 21 percent, the steepest annual decline ever recorded. Apparently, many already-launched candidate searches are being called off; some responsible observers expect that hiring may be down 40 percent this year. . .

It's hard to tell young people that universities recognize that their idealism and energy - and lack of information - are an exploitable resource. For universities, the impact of graduate programs on the lives of those students is an acceptable externality, like dumping toxins into a river. If you cannot find a tenure-track position, your university will no longer court you; it will pretend you do not exist and will act as if your unemployability is entirely your fault. It will make you feel ashamed, and you will probably just disappear, convinced it's right rather than that the game was rigged from the beginning.


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