Engage the world

December 18, 1998

US humanities PhDs can't get academic jobs. Elaine Showalter suggests they look elsewhere

At the end of 1998 it would be tempting to accept the gloomy voices in academia that tell us that the declining job market, the increasing use of part-time faculty, cutbacks in PhD programmes, widespread cynicism and angry confrontations between students, faculty and administrators mean the end of the humanities as we have known them.

After all, when a disgruntled ex-academic markets a successful board game called Survival of the Witless based on the premise that "Knowledge is nothing. Tenure is everything", in which the "most desirable card is represented by a kiss planted on the rear end of a donkey", (Peter Applebome, "Down and dirty in the ivory tower," New York Times, October 17) you don't have to be a weatherman to see which way the wind blows. Ejner Jensen, in the journal Change, describes "feelings of regret, envy, frustration, betrayal, and isolation" in an article titled "The bitter groves of academe".

And even if all the graduate students on the job market this year got tenure-track jobs, as I devoutly wish, and even if all the assistant professors got tenure, we would still be facing major problems as we approach the millennium. When The New York Times reports that liberal arts education, and indeed higher education in general, is losing popularity with American men and "increasingly being reserved for one sex", all of us who teach the liberal arts must be concerned about the future. When Catherine Stimpson, the dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences at New York University suggests "there may be aI feeling that real men don't speak French" (not even Gerard Depardieu?), and American English is so dominant internationally that Europeans are speaking Franglais and Denglisch, those who teach foreign languages have to wonder how their programmes will survive.

When we think about the fin de si cle, we think of degeneration, decadence and decline - what Alvin Kernan and other apocalyptic critics of the 1990s call the death of literature. Rutgers English professor Richard E. Miller sums up this view in his book As Though Learning Mattered. "There is the lament that we are in the twilight of the profession as we have known it, as may be seen in the steady decline of tenure-track positions and the simultaneous expansion of a large, migratory teaching force, together with the increased demand for accountability and oversight at every stage of the credentialing process I In short, everybody seems to agree that the academy is undergoing a radical reformation, but to what end and in response to what forces remains unclear."

But turns of centuries are also significant moments of regeneration and rebirth. Alongside the dystopian polemics of the 1990s there are also some practical ideas for renewal and change. I share with Robert Weisbuch, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and former professor of English, the belief that the humanities "might enjoy a renaissance", and that doctoral education not only needs to be "preparing the next generation of scholars", but also "preparing people to unleash the humanities upon the world". I agree with Louis Menand when he writes that "the nonacademic world would be enriched if more people in it had exposure to academic research and teaching". And I concur with Robert and Jon Solomon, in their book Up the University: Recreating Higher Education in America, that the recreation of the university should also be un-utopian and realistic:

"'Re-creating the university' means working with what we've got, not imagining politically impossible arrangements, kvetching and daydreaming."

Meaningful change, change within our grasp as faculty in American colleges and universities, and as an association of teachers and scholars in the modern languages, requires attention to at least three areas. First, we need to address the crisis in graduate education and employment, including the situation of teaching assistants and adjuncts, who deserve fair compensation and benefits. We need to reduce part-time positions and set guidelines for the use of teaching assistants.

Second, we need to think about defining what we teach in ways that respond to the needs of the higher education students of the 21st century, who should come from many age groups and who will have diverse life and career plans.

Third, we need to look inward, to attend to the spiritual malaise in the academic workplace, and take practical steps to improve the ways we work together. Jane Tompkins, who gave up a tenured position at Duke and now writes and lectures about holistic teaching, writes in A Life in School that "scholars are fed up with the competition, the hierarchy, the professional vanity, the anomie eating away at academe" and "hungry for some emotional or spiritual fulfilment that it doesn't seem to afford". John S. Bennett of the American Council on Education reports that the academic "workplace contributes to a malaise and alienation expressed in incivility and aggression".

The millennium offers us a real and urgent opportunity to rethink a form of graduate education that has gone too long unexamined, and to decide whether we want to cut back on doctorates in a desperate act of literary Malthusianism or make postgraduate training in the humanities more widely relevant, a preparation for a number of careers. Most important, we need to insist that every PhD-granting department offer serious and careful training in teaching and its psychological, technical and dramatic skills to all students. I have worked during my three-year term as an officer of the MLA to familiarise individuals inside and outside the academy with the idea that advanced training in language and literature could be sound preparation for work in fields such as the media, government and business.

This is also the moment to commit ourselves to expanding higher education and making it more accessible to people at any stage in their lives. We need to move beyond the boundaries of the campus and think about our teaching programmes less in terms of cloning more research professors and more in terms of giving students intellectual tools for their lives.

Finally, we have to abandon some treasured stereotypes about the harsh corporate world versus the pure ivory tower, and realise that business is way beyond the academy in its respect for "emotional intelligence," "interpersonal skills", "team building" and principled negotiation. The American academy needs to go beyond the tradition of accidental administrators, reluctant managers and learn-on-the-job chairmen, and develop the talents of the academic leaders who will model the human values and practices of the workplace.

The college or university department seems to be the last organisation in the world in which the unspoken motto is that of Jerry Seinfeld: "No hugging, no learning." Yet, as John Bennett points out, "chairpersons I are the 'custodians of academic standards' I to whom others look for assurance of the adequacy of teaching, research and service. Running through these multiple responsibilities is the opportunity to display and reinforce hospitality and thoughtfulness I The concrete life of the department displays and teaches its values far better than abstract statements."

Constraints in higher education are paralysing only if we allow them to be. If we face this moment united in energy and determination then, as Richard Miller shows, "the twilight of the profession I can be seen as the slow dawning of a new profession, one that may well be more committed to meeting the needs of students on the margins of the academy, more responsive to the concerns of the local community." Our graduate students represent the future of our profession; they are our legacy to the future. We must act for them.

Elaine Showalter is the 1998 president, Modern Language Association of America, and Avalon professor of the humanities, Princeton University.

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