Today's topic is the whole "well why do people go to grad school in the humanities and what can we do about it?" I actually find Dean Dad's theory persuasive --- that on the one hand, with the 90s and 00s the cultural narrative was that "you must love your job; it must be exhilarating and fulfilling" and at the same time there was a "loss of legibility" on how to get a solid middle class job that would support you comfortably. That is, all of the clearly understandable pathways that seemed to "guarantee" a job disappeared, as did the notion that you could stay at one company for your whole career without being downsized or having it vanish, Enronlike, right out from under you.
With humanities undergrad students having no clue how to do the basic steps of applying for jobs that weren't explicitly labeled with their majors or how to "sell" their major and skills to a wide range of employers, they tended to look to "the professions," which are still very hierarchical and strictly defined --- law school to lawyer, med school to doctor, and then, grad school to professor, the only one that applies directly to humanities majors and even has programs labeled with your own undergrad major program.
Now Tenured Radical and Historiann weighed in on this by talking about what schools and grad programs should be doing about the job crisis and really got a lot of shit for it in their comments. It reminded me of the famous NWSA conference where white feminist scholars were up at the front speaking and then there was a shouting match and the feminist scholars of color walked out ---- why would protesters attack the people who were trying to understand and help them, instead of, say, the Republicans or the religious right? I think part of it is that they can, that they feel the need to speak and will take an opening where they can vent their grievances, and that the "other side" --- whether university presidents and regents or Republican senators --- will not even give them that much of an opening. And I think there is something profoundly infuriating about being half listened to or only partly understood, that brings out the vitriol.
(As a further example I recently watched a black homeless guy randomly really get in the face of my friend, shouting and yelling profanities. My friend's personal history as a really solid anti-racist feminist who does a lot of good activist work didn't matter, as we were in a structural moment where this guy was responding to her race and class position, her place in the whole big structure. Yes, I understand that it's kind of ridiculous to compare unemployed grad students and homeless people.)
But what I really want to untangle are some threads here about retraining. Tenured Radical makes some suggestions about making sure grad students work before entering grad school (at my school it's trending the other way because our Cal State MA students generally had worked before the MA, and now we are able to pull undergrads directly from the Seven Sisters and places like Zenith, which our dept. thinks is somehow better or at least classier) and expanding the sorts of history training PhD students do to while in the program, and also makes this suggestion:
Ph.D. programs should consider devoting at least one year of graduate support to administrative labor.it's an interesting suggestion, and I can see that having a working knowledge of the university and committee-type work would only be a benefit, but a commenter responds:
Positions in student affairs and enrollment services are not fall back jobs for those who could not fulfill their dreams elsewhere. These days people are choosing careers in higher education administration and assuming that our jobs can be performed in one year by a graduate student on his or her way to other things is offensive.(In fairness, I was picturing something like a GA administship, if I can make up the term --- a permanent position that rotates a grad student in every year to work under a career administrator and do some grunt work while learning the ropes and getting the same pay as a TA. But then again, our grads do pretty much the same thing for free when we help our profs run our centers and journals and annual conferences, so that wouldn't really be adding anything to our program.)
But I really want to think about this idea of retraining and retooling for a new career after you've missed out on getting a tenure-track job.
Tenured Radical: And yes, to some extent, jobless academics need to do what jobless auto workers, telephone operators and bankers do: retrain and move on.A while back Marc Bousquet made a comment about the then-president of MLA getting a lot of flack for suggesting that unemployed English PhDs get jobs as journalists, without realizing that there were already departments and degrees that trained people for exactly that. Adding this to the comment that it is "offensive" to treat administration as a fallback option when there are people who choose it as a career, I want to ask: what is retraining exactly? does it work? Do we have any evidence or statistics that these retrained/re-credentialed PhDs actually land jobs in the new field? After all, it's my understanding that in the Midwest, the middle-aged auto workers who are retraining aren't getting any jobs; they are just unemployed for so long that they fall out of the Bureau of Labor's records as no longer "really" looking.
Excuse me while I bring in Foucault. He claims that there is an ever-increasing proliferation of discourses that envelop and map the subject ever more closely. That is, when there is only one definition of subject, you are more likely to not identify with it and just waltz on your merry way. If we have twenty definitions of it, however, no matter what demographic group you are in, you spend the time and effort of matching yourself to all these definitions, scrutinizing where you fit, and will probably find something you do identify with pretty closely that binds you to the state. (Ok, terrible summary, and I should bring in Althusser and interpellation too. Moving on.)
My point? Just as there has been an explosion in the grad populations, there has been an explosion in the kinds of grad degrees and certificates. Having bought the 90s mantra of "more degrees = more success," tons of people have flocked to grad school and universities have happily capitalized on that, offering tons of unfunded master's and even PhDs in every topic you can possibly imagine. Interested in administration? Did you want a degree in educational leadership or administrative management? Want to write things? Do you want the MA in publishing, writing, technical writing, grant writing, or comp/rhet? (to say nothing of the MFA juggernaut.) There are tons more, for everything from librarianship and information management to all the public history stuff Tenured Radical talks about. Plus, all the other majors and areas of the humanities have also been busy proliferating, so there are a variety of journalism and linguistics and communications type programs out there that I am less familiar with.
I see most of these as ads on my facebook page, in case you're wondering. No need to be savvy enough to check out the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed websites to have the idea of these programs put in your mind.
So I see two important developments here: 1) this growth of specialized degree names contributes to the idea of "credentialing" at both the undergrad and the grad level; As students see programs in Social Work and Technical Writing and Hospitality Management, that claim good job placement in careers with the same name as the degree, they are going to be even more confused about why they should get a job in something like "history" or "English" or "philosophy," in terms of how it will translate into a career or how one goes about getting a job afterwards. And no, to disagree with TR, I see tons of credentials and majors and fields touting their great earning potential and placement rates, so those of us who do go on to grad school in a PhD program start to wonder why these programs are falling down on the job. (It may be that the other programs are doing a massive snow job, but we can't exactly assess this. Which is why it works as a marketing strategy.)
2) All this does have a credentialling effect. Or does it --- here is where I turn it around and ask for research. What is our data on retraining PhDs into other fields? If there are PhDs trying to spin their resumes as apt for administration and grant writing, and then there are also a lot of programs in these fields producing brand new graduates who have been expressly trained for them, do the "retraining" PhDs lose out to the "credentialed" grads? And all this brings up the question, if you can't get any jobs with a history or English degree and will have to "retrain" into one of these other fields, why even bother going? Why not matriculate directly into the administration PhD or Comp/Rhet or whatever instead?
Which brings me to my last point, that in all this hand-wringing about undergrads who didn't take our sage advice and who went to grad school anyway, we are forgetting about the people who did. They haven't disappeared. They are off in these alternate programs or breaking into these "fallback," "retraining" fields working away, to later show up as competition for those aforementioned bitter, poor, and deluded PhD adjuncts who finally decide to retrain.
What I want to know is, when the retraining PhDs go up against the credentialed PhDs and MAs and new graduates from these other fields, what happens? And do we have any data that would let us know?