PhDs derailed on the tenure track

December 18, 1998

US humanities PhDs can't get academic jobs. Mark Kelley says this is just a ploy to fob graduates off

By the end of the year, in addition to completing my PhD coursework and taking written and oral exams, I will have taught seven introductory English courses at three campuses. My income from teaching, before taxes, will be about $16,500, a wage somewhere between a half and an eighth of a full-time faculty salary.

The MLA recently reported that placement to tenure-track positions declined between 1994 and 1997 from 45.6 per cent to 33.7 per cent, while placement to non-tenure-track part-time posts increased by 18 per cent to 38.7 per cent. At the same time, the number of PhDs awarded to job-seekers rose by 31 per cent. Facing a progressively grim job "system" and the probability of continued economic privation and physical exhaustion, I began to wonder what is going on behind the walls of our "profession".

In the humanities, the job "system" is in large measure controlled, not by a free-market dynamic independent of outside forces, but by interlocking social and political forces. These forces have produced a two-tiered employment structure run on an artificially increased number of exploitable PhDs and graduate students and an artificially restricted number of full-time jobs for PhD holders. Graduate students and adjunct faculty teaching lower-level courses at grossly exploitative wages are part of that job system, as are the shrinking percentage of tenure-track faculty. The MLA argument that there is an "oversupply" of PhDs is spurious; if all college and university teaching were performed by degreed full-time faculty, we would be facing an undersupply of PhDs.

To suggest that an ethical challenge confronts the profession is to understate the matter. Those tenured professors who enjoy the privilege of specialised teaching at the graduate level and who pretend that abuse does not exist sustain a parasitic relationship to the underpaid, marginalised part-time faculty members and graduate students. It is deeply discouraging to read all the latest criticism in the field while realising that the authors and teachers of this criticism, these arbiters of intellectual freedom and equal opportunity, participate in exploitation.

One of the seven courses I taught this year was on "business communication", which no full-time English faculty member wished to teach. I recall the deflating sense, as I prepared for the two-hour discussion on how to write a non-offensive memo that might also sell something, that I was never further away from my reason for being in English. In its present weak, balkanised configuration, the humanities are primed for corporate takeover. We can expect an even more rapid decline from an arena of critical engagement to one of rote learning in preparation for the capital world.

Moreover, the president of the MLA has repeatedly advised that graduate students prepare for "alternative careers" such as screen-writing as a way of resolving the issue of the proclaimed oversupply of PhDs. Even at its best, such a conversion of the academy will take many years to achieve. The MLA's focus on "alternative careers" at the expense of transforming academe's exploitative employment structure leaves this generation of graduate students nowhere. We need active leadership now because we cannot wait until the new millennium.

Yet there is a bright side to this. If we begin to understand ourselves as participants in a job "system", we can change that system. We can modify the nearly 50 per cent part-time employment in the humanities by working together to create a more ethical, humane employment system, under which graduate students and part-time academic workers obtain a share in the future of the profession. To this end, we should push to a university's ratio of full-time to part-time staff a fundamental part of the professional and public discourse about the quality of a university, just as important as students' median SAT scores and faculty publications. An annual publication presenting departments' levels of and compensation for part-time teaching, along with a list of departments that fail to respond (tantamount to admission of poor performance), would be a key step in bringing this crucial issue into the public discussion of what constitutes academic quality and integrity.

Mark Kelley is president of the Graduate Student Caucus and a PhD candidate at the City University of New York.

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