In my overlapping social, social media, and professional networks, there are a couple of “economics of higher education” stories rattling around: the abysmal but utterly unsurprising job market report from the AHA, and the House-approved (but not yet Senate-approved) Federal budgetary plan to treat graduate tuition stipends as actual income and tax them accordingly.
Obviously, taxing graduate stipends as income would put a graduate education even further out of reach for all but the most affluent students or the students with the most robust and extensive external support networks. It would make a graduate education for first-generation students and working-class students impossibly unaffordable, except perhaps by taking on impossible levels of debt.
Please understand: this isn’t some inadvertent side-effect of the budget bill; it’s a goal. I have been harping and carping at this blog about the neoliberal assault on higher education for years. It’s not simple anti-intellectualism on the part of our duly-elected representatives, though anti-intellectualism has certainly been strategically packaged and sold to our electorate for decades. No, this budget is a perfect example of “rent-seeking” behavior: levying higher taxes on those who are less financially secure in order to help pay for lowering taxes for the wealthiest citizens.
It’s not enough for these moochers to shift more and more of the cost burden for higher education – something once considered a public good, a strategic benefit to the United States, and an obvious engine of economic growth and rising prosperity – to individual students and their families. Now they want graduate students to pay an income tax on financial aid that comes not in the form of income, but in the form of reduced or forgiven tuition. Instead of making the pursuit of knowledge available to people from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and income levels, this plan deliberately narrows access to the opportunity to pursue intellectual inquiry in a formal educational setting to a terminal degree. I guess that’s one way to keep out the riffraff.
Still, some of the riffraff sneak through and manage to get PhDs anyhow. Some students from disadvantaged backgrounds land full funding at top tier PhD programs straight out of college. Some PhD students go back to school later in life, after years in a different line of work, and are able to cover their house payments or their healthcare payments through early retirement or a pension plan or severance pay. Some of them have spousal support, or parental support. Some of them have to moonlight while they go to school. Some of them just take on incredible amounts of debt.
Of all those scenarios, only the last two are problematic, because that suggests that the university is not providing adequate support for its graduate students, whatever their destiny is to be after they graduate. So at the very least, universities should provide support all current graduate students with a living wage and full benefits, and should expect to continue that approach with any future graduate students admitted to their programs.
Meanwhile, some people are talking about cutting or closing “unnecessary” Phd programs. To those people, I would like to say: unnecessary to whom? Unnecessary for what? And who will make that judgment?
Are Stanford, Harvard, Penn, Cal, Wisconsin, and, I dunno, The Johns Hopkins University supposed to be the only places where someone seeking to reach their full intellectual potential can study for a PhD? Or is it okay if places like The University of Texas at Dallas, a regional R1-aspirational research university, have PhD programs? Shall “we” just dial back the spread and accessibility of higher education to pre-GI-bill, pre-Cold-War levels, because there are just too many people running around with PhDs and “they” are creating an oversupply in the job market that “we” are trying to navigate? Because obviously “the market” should decide how many historians or scholars of literature or mathematicians should exist in society! Yet what “the market” has somehow already decided, per those who make this argument, is that this number of PhDs should be roughly equal to the number of people who can expect to find jobs afterwards teaching in universities or community colleges.
Let me put it in really clear terms for those who are concerned about the “surplus population”: is it a good thing or a bad thing that I was able to obtain a PhD? Am I part of the surplus population? Or am I “one of the deserving ones”?
When you start talking in the abstract about restricting others’ access to a benefit or an attainment that you have already acquired, you are on some pretty shaky ethical ground. I mean it: watch yourselves. If you have a PhD and you believe that the problem here is too many people with PhDs seeking too few available jobs, then you should feel free to step out of the job market or leave your current position so that someone else who is seeking it can have it.
And if you want to start talking about reducing the number of PhDs, why don’t you start with Stanford, Harvard, Penn, Cal, Wisconsin, and, I dunno, The Johns Hopkins University? Maybe the top 25 programs that place historians in something like 85% of the tenure-track jobs should go a decade without admitting any new students. Would that have any kind of salutary effect on the job market, or on the discipline of history? Maybe.
And if you have foregone the academic job market because it is not financially necessary for you to have an academic job in order to participate fully in intellectual life – you have a great job already, or you are not the primary wage-earner in your family, or you have an annuity to live off of, or whatever – that’s fine. But if you’re financially secure, if landing a full-time job in or out of academe is not something you must do if you want any hope of continuing your scholarly work, you have no business telling those with less financial security that they ought to give up and try something else – unless, that is, you want to restrict participation in scholarly discourse, in or out of the academy, to only such people as can afford to make it a hobby.
It is certainly true that many people persist in the pursuit of a full-time academic job even after it becomes clear that they might be better off financially if they look for some other kind of work. It is likely that some people may persist in that pursuit because they have been conditioned by “the meritocracy” to believe that those who have merit will find full-time tenure-track jobs, and those who do not have merit will not find such jobs.
That persistence to avoid feeling a sense of failure is not the fault of the people who persist in that search. That is the fault of “the meritocracy” that has decided that landing a tenure-track job is the only measure of success for PhDs.
That bullshit needs to stop.
If you’re reading this, and you’re responsible for training graduate students, and your attitude is that the “worthy” ones will always find work in academe, and any other goal is less desirable, I guarantee you that you are passing that attitude along to your students whether you ever say as much to them or not, and they are internalizing it, and it is hurting them. So if that’s you, here are two options for you to consider: change your tune or quit your job. That might clear a tenure line or two.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize that people have other reasons for persisting in the search for an academic job even after years of unsuccessful searching, and those reasons are worth our consideration. I know plenty of people who adjunct not just to pay the bills, not just to get or keep a “foot in the door,” but to pay forward their own education. There are people who find a way to survive in this current, awful system, making less money and enjoying less stability than they could elsewhere. And sometimes it’s not because they devalue their own labor – that’s what their employers do – but they highly value the work they are able to do and the population they are able to serve.
That commitment to college teaching even when the pay is poor is costly – it is financially costly, emotionally costly, it takes a toll on people. But there are people who both count that cost and willingly bear that cost. They may be choosing a tough row to hoe for themselves, but those people are absolutely not “ruining it for the rest of us.” You can’t talk about them and treat them as if they were scabs, when there is no unity, no union, and no picket line to cross. When I see the tenured on a general strike coast to coast, then I’ll start listening to talk about how the underpaid adjuncts ought to give up on the job market or quit en masse.
Let’s focus instead on validating the ideals for which some are willing to sacrifice by calling loudly and publicly for better working conditions for teaching faculty, but let’s frame that call in a way that makes clear how adjunctification harms students. Professors’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions; professors’ work environment is students’ learning environment.
So academics must clearly make the case to students and parents and, yes, “the taxpayer” that adjunctification and the casualization of academic labor is shortchanging students, parents, and taxpayers. Those who want to halt and reverse the casualization of academic labor need allies, political weight, some everyday citizens up in arms about the fact that students are being taught by part-timers. Call out your own institutions, critique your own practices – if you’ve got tenure, use it for something. Hell, if you’re afraid to call out your own institutions, write editorials calling out each other’s institutions and state education systems: “Oh my lord, look at how terrible things are in fill-in-the-blank-rival-state, where college students take seventy percent of their classes from temp workers. What a shame that fill-in-the-blank-rival-state is shortchanging its students by not prioritizing instruction. If your kid goes to fill-in-the-blank-State-University, you had better get in touch with that university’s president, because your kid is being treated like a second-class citizen.”
I mean, what if the AHA sponsored a competition — $1,000 to the student production team that could come up with the most viral, tweet-worthy, shareable, compelling 30-second or 1-minute web ad about the problem of adjunctification? That’s a lot of money for four or five undergraduates to split, and every single contest entry could be used to draw attention to this problem: not an “oversupply” of PhDs, but a complete abandonment of the pedagogical mission that lies at the very heart of a college education. The modern research university is about 125 years old; but the first and oldest mission of the University – antedating “knowledge creation” by a millennium – was teaching. And to the general public, that remains the university’s mission. Academics must leverage that public expectation if there is to be any hope for meaningful change.
Students and parents should be pissed the hell off that there are deanlets and administrative aides-de-camp sprouting up in the universities like mushrooms, while tuition is rising and students are taught by temp workers who don’t even have an office. People who go to college expect to be taught by professors – and rightly so. It should be a front-page scandal that state legislatures are reducing public support for higher education and state institutions are raising tuition while the number of course hours taught by tenured or tenure-track professors continues to plummet. (Yes, I know there are lots of front-page scandals to choose from these days — but we can do our best to make this one go viral.)
Meanwhile, what shall be done for those who got their PhD but who haven’t landed a full-time job in academe and still want one? Here’s a list:
Stop judging them for sticking it out.
Stop talking about people as constituting a “glut.” They are not commodities. They are not an oil slick. They are not a clog of hair and grease in a pipeline. They are your colleagues and friends. Quit speaking in the dehumanizing language of the market.
Stop judging them for getting a PhD “in this market” – as if you knew fuck-all about the academic job market before you got your PhD. Don’t mistake your accidental good timing for some inherent virtue. There are many things to consider when deciding whether to get a PhD that should have absolutely no connection to thoughts of a “market” of any kind. Quit valorizing “the market” – that’s Stockholm Syndrome.
When your colleagues and friends express doubts about whether or not they should persist in the job search, listen before you speak.
When you speak, call out the bullshit of the meritocracy for what it is and affirm the evident and marvelous worth of your discouraged interlocutor. People who are brilliant and creative and kind and giving and smart and knowledgeable are walking around feeling like failures as human beings because somebody convinced them that the only measure of worth for them as scholars, the only point of even getting a PhD, is to land a tenure-track job – and that anything else is necessarily less. And so they are feeling like they are less.
And that’s not true, and it’s not right. But when you talk about people as a “glut” or an “oversupply,” you just reinforce that lie and do an injustice to your fellow. Stop it.
And to those who are facing the prospect of finding a job this year or next year or the year after that, in academe or elsewhere, what shall I say?
I will say that it’s not for me or anyone else to say what you should do. But whatever decision you make in that regard, whatever path you follow, you will always have an intellectual community here. You belong among us here in this virtual space and in our real-world community of scholars when we meet at our own conference or meet up at conferences all around the country. There is room here for your writing, and room among us for your ideas and your presence and your voice.
One thing we as a professional society might consider doing is to set up a mechanism or message board to help people connect regionally or locally with other members of our organization and readers of our blog. We do that informally already, but we could be more intentional about encouraging local meetups or reading groups that will help those of us outside the academy and those of us inside the academy remember that we are all part of one larger community of intellectual inquiry.
And now when I say “we,” this means you, certainly, but it means me too.
So let me say “we.”
We are not a glut. We are not an oversupply. The academic job market is not our fault, and it’s not our problem to fix. We are not an accounting problem. We are colleagues and co-laborers and scholars and writers and thinkers who have developed and are using the gifts and talents and skills we have, to the best of our ability, for the good of all, and we will continue to do so whether we land a job in academe or not.