Steven Krause, a Professor at Eastern Michigan, has entered the debate started by Rebecca Schuman who called out the UC Riverside English department for giving job candidates a scant 5 days notice for MLA conference interviews.
Krause is pretty sure the rage expressed by losers of the academic job lottery is unwarranted because we should have known better. In all-too-familiar fashion, Krause writes:
“I have to wonder what it was they thought they were getting themselves into when they started down the PhD in literature path in the first place.”
Then he argues that if those of us living in Rage-istan had just followed our passions into a more marketable field, such as Composition and Rhetoric, than we would have had more luck, like he did, and wouldn’t be so angry.
Here’s a factoid for you: I am a Compositionist. My PhD is in English but my field is Composition and Rhetoric. I wrote a C/R dissertation with a well-known advisor. I played job market roulette for three years. I had several interviews (and am quite familiar with the general stink of the MLA convention). I was unsuccessful, obvs.
By the time I graduated, I was getting wise to the horrendous employment situation I was facing. But all my advisors told me I would get a job, that I would be “snapped up in no time” (exact words from one mentor). It took me some time to realize that people who have had jobs for years might just be a tad out of touch.
But my experience is anecdotal. So I want to more directly address this oft-told tale that “Comp/Rhet PhDs have it easier,” one of the most enduring myths in academe.
Let’s turn to one of the major journals in the field for some evidence! A special issue of College English devoted to labor highlighted some statistics that should embarrass and shame us all. “[A]lmost three-quarters of all faculty members in higher education are now working in part-time, non-tenure-line appointments,” explained Mike Palmquist and Susan Doe.
Palmquist and Doe don’t think C/R folks are better off either. “[F]aculty teaching courses in composition,” they wrote, “have been affected most by this growing reliance on contingent faculty. Nearly 70 percent of all composition courses . . . are now taught by faculty in contingent positions.”
It is patently ridiculous to assert that the vast armies of part-time writing teachers at American colleges and universities do not affect the number and quality of full-time jobs. Perhaps Composition PhDs were better positioned once upon a time, but this is not an argument that can be made today with any credibility. It’s time to put the myth of Composition’s exceptional status within English Studies to rest, once and for all.
The important thing that more fortunate faculty (especially those with tenure) need to know is that you don’t have to feel guilty. Guilt doesn’t help anyone. You’re no more responsible for the state of affairs than the adjunct teaching in the classroom next to you. To fix what ails higher education does not require you to give up your job or anything else, except your illusions.
Maybe you got your job because of an institutional connection. Maybe you really were better qualified than other candidates. Maybe you just got lucky. Simply put, it does not matter now. Speaking up in solidarity with the growing numbers of qualified, talented, passionate people who are being flushed out as a waste product of the academic labor system is what is important.
I want to make a final point about the myth that C/R graduates are in an exceptional situation with regard to their chances of finding full-time employment. It has to do with the kind of world we’re implying exists when we make such assertions, whether they’re true or not.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that C/R grads are having an easier time finding full-time positions. Should that really give anyone comfort? Should C/R scholars be relieved that a crisis that relegates many of their colleagues to low-paid invisibility and leaves many PhDs in the broader Humanities underemployed has not yet landed at their door?
“Those other people should have been smart like us,” is not a program for institutional change that I want to get behind.
The Humanities are important. They are part of getting an education, at all levels, and should be viable career choices to those who are passionate about them.
The well-meaning advice that part-time faculty should have made different decisions implies a universe where the only choice we have is to take a cold, hard look around us and make “rational” decisions based on what we see. In that scenario, someone who loves poetry (the horror!) and wants to study and teach verse for the rest of her days has to accept a life of penury and marginality as the price of following that dream.
I don’t want to live in that world, and I don’t think a lot of other people do either. Maybe, instead of adapting ourselves to the world as we find it, we might find the resolve to finally change it.