A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

One out of Nine

Yesterday I attended a conference titled Neoliberalism and Public Higher Education at Michigan State University. I presented on a panel titled "Uncertain Career Paths for Graduate Students in a Neoliberal Context." What follows is a lightly edited version of my paper.

One out of Nine

I began pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Michigan in the Fall of 2006. My incoming cohort had nine students--seven in English Language and Literature, two in English and Women’s Studies. When we entered the program, all of us aspired to the tenure track. The last of us just defended her dissertation this January, making ours the first cohort in several years with a 100% completion rate. Nine years out, only one of us has a tenure track professorship. Interestingly, he was the first of us to finish, having completed his degree in only five years, and he was hired by California State University the same year he defended. Another one of us has a full professorship at a small university that does not offer tenure, where he teaches a 4-1-4 load--that’s four courses in both the Fall and Spring terms, and one intensive course during their “J-Term” in January. While his position is roughly the equivalent of a tenure-track job, the teaching load makes it barely possible for him to keep his head above water, and the university’s precarious economic situation places him at some risk (It says a lot when the guy working for the California university system has the most stable job). Another one of us earned a prestigious postdoc at the University of Chicago, which she left to join a nonprofit. Another, who had left a job as a lawyer in order to pursue her Ph.D., now has an administrative staff position at U-T Austin. Another now teaches high school. Another is a stay-at-home parent. And three of us now work as contingent faculty.

That’s the camp to which I belong. I defended my dissertation in the Summer of 2013. In the Fall of 2013, Michigan’s English department hired me as a lecturer. It was from this vantage point where the vagaries of the corporatized university became apparent. Now, at this point, it’s important to note that Freshman writing courses are the lifeblood of English departments. They contribute massively to the department’s enrollment numbers, and they provide graduate students with employment as instructors. This is despite the fact that there is no real reason why writing courses should be housed in an English department as opposed to a separate Composition department--those who study literature are no better qualified to teach writing than those in any other humanistic discipline, and are significantly less qualified than those who study Rhetoric and Composition or English Education. Nonetheless, the fact that every student is required to take Freshman Writing is essential to the health of the department.

When I joined the program in 2006, the tacit understanding was that students would go on the job market in their last year of dissertation work, and if they had not gotten a job by the time they defended, they would be hired as a lecturer, which would provide a buffer year and a second opportunity to secure a tenure track position. By the time I became a lecturer, that understanding had changed. While my cohort boasted only nine students, the cohorts below me averaged at 16 students apiece, meaning that more writing classes were going to graduate students, leaving less for lecturers. Also, most undergraduates want to get their writing course out of the way in their first semester, meaning that far more sections of that course are offered in the Fall than in the Winter. Now, departments could offer fewer sections of Freshman writing in the Fall and more in the Winter, forcing undergraduates to rearrange their first year course schedules but offering more lecturers employment for the full academic year, but instead they acquiesce to consumer demand, and consequently, many lecturers now only enjoy employment in the Fall.

This is the position I found myself in in December of 2013, when the pink slip showed up in my mailbox. In the Winter of 2014 I took a temp position at the library editing digitized texts. But I was fortunate--in the Fall Michigan rehired me as a lecturer, with a joint appointment in the English Department and the on-campus writing center. And this time around I was lucky enough to be rehired for the Winter semester--though I was operating under the assumption that I wouldn’t be until I got word of the reappointment in December.

I recognize that I’m relatively privileged. Lecturers at the University of Michigan make a living wage with generous health benefits, and the workload is manageable--most lecturers teach only three courses per semester, and because I’m jointly appointed in the writing center, I only teach two courses per semester and work ten hours per week as a writing consultant. And I’m privileged in a hell of a lot of other ways--I’m a straight cisgendered white dude who speaks English as his first language. I don’t have kids, or a disability, or debt. I went to college on a scholarship and started graduate school at 22. I’m physically and financially healthy enough to make the sacrifices that academia asks, and don’t have to put up with institutional biases about my race or sex. I’m the bearded, bespectacled, tweed-blazer-wearing nerd that most people picture when they close their eyes and imagine a graduate student, and even I think the system is not working. And I can assure you that my degree of privilege is by no means the norm.

But a lot of ink has already been spilled discussing the various injustices of adjunctification. I don’t want to talk about the problems of underpayment or underemployment so much as the problems of unstable employment. What strikes me are the contradictions inherent in the way that humanities departments frame contingent faculty positions as a kind of way station--a transition job between graduate school and the tenure track. On the one hand, professors will often advise their graduate students to be wary of the adjunct route, as taking adjunct jobs requires a heavy teaching load that will deprive young scholars of the opportunity to write and publish. And on the other hand, with no viable alternative, newly minted Ph.D.s take these positions because they feel pressure to have continuity of employment on their CVs. This seemed at least somewhat viable back in 2006, when I was told that a year-long lectureship was the norm. But now, for the past two years, when the MLA job list has come out in the Fall, I’ve found myself in the position of needing to carry out a dual search: searching for tenure track positions that would start in the following Fall, while simultaneously searching for temporary positions that would start in January. And while a tenure track job is the ultimate goal, finding a job for the winter has been a lot more pressing.

All the while, concerns begin to emerge about the problem of a “stale” Ph.D. and of remaining tapped into your scholarly community. Here too, my university’s model of the lectureship as a way station on the way to a tenure track position is plagued by contradiction. For example, the writing center where I work offers lecturers up to $1,500 to attend one conference a year. But you have to apply for those funds in the same semester that the conference is taking place. So, if I had wanted to attend the American Culture Association’s conference on April 1, I would have had to register for the conference by December of last year, before knowing if I had the job that would pay for the registration fee and travel expenses. Consequently, keeping up with the scholarly conversation in your field becomes nearly impossible, let alone doing any actual writing. When teaching becomes your full time job, and the draconian job application process becomes your second full time job, your job as a scholar falls by the wayside. This is the central irony of the system as it is set up now--constantly having to apply for jobs makes you substantially worse at your job. This is all the more true if you move across the country for a one year visiting professorship, as many people I know have, and even more so if you have a partner, whom you either have to separate from or ask to upend their lives to move with you.

Contingent faculty also have difficulty finding a community within their home department, thanks to various microaggressions that mark their day-to-day working environment. I, for instance, have my own office--something I couldn't say last year--but it’s in a basement with no window. I have a phone, but it’s incapable of making outside calls. This can be particularly jarring when making the transition from graduate student to lecturer at the same university. Despite being both a contingent faculty member and an alumnus, when walking the halls of my department I feel less like a colleague and more like Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused, the guy who stuck around at his old high school a little too long. I remember the moment I realized I had been missing out on workshops and talks from visiting scholars because I was no longer on the graduate student listserv, and thus had been missing a large number of the departmental announcements. I missed out on a lot of good free meals that way. The uncanny feeling of being excluded from resources at your home institution is deeply unsettling.

If this is the life that a recent graduate from a top-tier R1 institution can expect two years after his dissertation defense, then what are we to do? The simple answer, proffered by many, is to opt out of the contingent faculty world altogether. But if we opt out of university teaching altogether, what are we going to opt into instead? As it is, I have no good answers. The two most common alternatives offered to those in my position are publishing and academic libraries--two fields that have depreciated almost as much as humanities professorships have.

The only advice that I could offer to any current graduate student facing this climate is, keep your eyes open for a “plan B” starting right now--don’t wait and see what happens after a year on the academic job market. Because as terrible as the job application process is, at the very least, the MLA Job List does provide a centralized clearinghouse of jobs that you can apply for. Other fields don’t have that. For an academic, perhaps the most perplexing thing about facing uncertain career paths is, where the heck do you find nonacademic jobs that you (a) are qualified for, (b) can sell yourself as qualified for, (c) can make a living at, and (d) wouldn’t be miserable doing? In the past two years, while plugging away as a contingent faculty member, I’ve been exploring my options, and I’ve heard the word “networking” more times than I did in the seven years I spent in graduate school. Having no actual networking skills, I’ve fallen back on that old chestnut, nepotism. I was invited to this conference by my mother, and at the moment my best career option is teaching at a prep school in Boston, a job I only found out about because it’s my fiancee’s old school and she’s Facebook friends with her former teachers. And people say the world isn’t a meritocracy!

As difficult as it is, however, if someone asked me if I think people should go to graduate school in the humanities, I wouldn’t say “no.” I would say no if it involved going into debt. But the stress and financial uncertainty aside, I am still a believer in the humanities. Two weeks ago I attended a symposium in honor of Patsy Yaeger, an immensely influential scholar in the field of American literature, who passed away recently from ovarian cancer. She worked closely with several of my friends, and her office was right across the hall from mine. I sat in this symposium and listened to renowned scholars who had come to Ann Arbor to remember Patsy’s legacy, and they did so not simply by eulogizing her, but by honoring the ways in which she creatively, thoughtfully, and joyfully made them think about the world differently and experience it more fully. Working alongside people united by a shared love of literature, and of applying a critical gaze to language and culture--that is a noble profession. Ultimately, we need to work towards a system where more than one out of nine people deemed qualified for that profession can obtain it.