22 July 2014

The Wrong Problem

Nothing jolts me out of the midsummer shallows like lots of smart people linking to the same misguided solution to the wrong problem.   Did you think the MLA report on reforming graduate education was done and dusted?  No: prepare for another round of handwringing.  Once again, those who resist the call to cut down graduate humanities education find consolation in the hope that it can be retooled as a sort of vocational philosopher's stone, a magical Ph.D. that allows anyone who touches it to both embark on an exciting career in a nonacademic field AND to eschew narrow careerism.
Doctoral recipients have a rich set of skills — in communication, research, and leadership....Nonetheless, doctoral study should not be viewed exclusively as the pursuit of a career-oriented credential. It must also involve an intellectual passion for languages and literatures, as defined by our evolving disciplines....The qualities cultivated through intensive, long-term research and thoughtful, extended writing are not just transferable to other careers; they are valuable in their own right, just as it would be valuable to our culture as a whole — and particularly to the future of the academy — to have highly educated professionals who appreciate scholarly thoughtfulness and humanistic perspectives working throughout society.
One would think that, without such stirring words, prospective graduate students might slink off to MBA programs, entry-level digital marketing jobs, and whatever other tedious fates awaits those who have failed to develop "intellectual passion."   They might enter graduate programs warily, with one foot already in the alt-ac/post-ac camp of their choosing, sacrificing hours in the library to opportunities to build their network or gain a marketable skill.

Cheer up!  There's no shortage of young people willing to fall on the sword of "intensive, long-term research and thoughtful, extended writing."  Despite ample evidence that academic careers are dwindling, enough continue to apply to graduate programs to sustain the exploitative academic labor market.  And so long as R1 faculty are willing to fight tenaciously to preserve their graduate student funding and research support (and so long as faculty at other kinds of institutions are encouraged to emulate the research model and productivity of the R1s), the economy of prestige will sustain the Ph.D. pipeline and keep graduate programs in business.

What there IS a shortage of, the problem that we need to solve, is the declining number of people who see "an intellectual passion for languages and literatures" as "valuable in their own right" and "valuable for our culture as a whole."  The long-term survival of the academic humanities doesn't need retooled programs; it needs more undergraduates who are drawn to humanities majors, more parents willing to pay tuition for a nonprofessional degree, more taxpayers willing to fight cuts to higher education, and a broader recognition of the public value of all of the liberal arts.

The proposed solution to the oversupply problem will only make the demand problem worse. Broadening the scope of Ph.D programs in order to prepare students for careers outside academia may make graduate faculty feel better about accepting more students for whom there are fewer academic jobs, but it will do little to draw undergraduates to study their fields.  What does a BA in literature or language equip a college grad for, other than (a) grad school of whatever flavor or (b) alt-ac/post-ac work minus the additional debt and time for the "ac" part?

We promise incoming majors that they are not limited (as they often assume) to high school teaching or low-paid writing/editing drone work.  Instead we point to the same kinds of possibilities now being dangled in front of contingent malcontents and worried ABD's by those who would preserve graduate education at all costs: grantwriting! museum work! nonprofit arts organizations! management consulting! internet journalism! entrepreneurship!

We're not wrong to do so. Grappling with centuries of literature, negotiating between close reading and broader contextual understanding, writing arguments involving complex ideas, chewing over dense and unfamiliar texts--all these are practices that give literature and languages majors the creativity, broadmindedness, and intellectual agility that are both a public good and a career asset.   We as a profession, though, have done a piss-poor job of convincing anyone but ourselves and the already-converted of that truth.  Obviously, we owe it to the Ph.D's already in the pipeline to give them the support they need to be paid what they're worth, in whatever line of fulfilling work will make that possible.  But changing the shape and focus of the literature and language Ph.D. will not save the academic humanities.  Changing the shape and focus of the BA (and concentrating our energies there) just might.

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