Notes from Rage-istan: A Response to Steven Krause

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.

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17 Responses to Notes from Rage-istan: A Response to Steven Krause

  1. Steve Krause says:

    There are a lot of strange things about this and related conversations about the problems of jobs in academia. On the one hand, there seems to be a lot of anger at people like me who have tenure-track jobs. On the other hands, I’m not seeing much being suggested in the way of solutions– the first rule of complaining about something is to express some kind remedy– and I also think it’s a little strange that I think the ultimate solution for most folks making these complaints is to get a tenure-track job. In other words, it seems like a lot of the people most upset with the likes of me– like it’s my fault and the fault of other tenured faculty that you don’t have a tenure-track job– really think being like me would be the best solution. I think that’s strange.

    Anyway, do with that what you will the reason why I decided to comment here is I’m curious about your background. What exactly do you mean when you write “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.” Where did you get your PhD? Who was your advisor? What was your PhD about? What sort of scholarship did you do as a PhD student? What sort of teaching did you do as a PhD student? Where did you apply for jobs?

    I don’t mean to pry, but I’m just sort of curious. You can email me instead of commenting if you want, of course. I’ll just say this about my own experience in this regard: I earned my PhD in Rhetoric and Writing (in an English department) at Bowling Green State University in 1996. As far as I know, everyone who finished the program, who had a graduate assistantship, and who did a national search for employment landed a tenure-track or otherwise (more or less) permanent teaching position.

    Now, there are a lot of important qualifiers in that last sentence. Lots of people don’t finish. PhD students absolutely must have experience both as a teacher and a scholar to be competitive on the job market; at BGSU, I believe all students they took on as PhD students had assistantships, and I suspect that’s still true. There are some people who don’t conduct a national search for some reason– family keeps them someplace, they are not willing to move further than 30 miles from Chicago, whatever– and there are any number of people who decide that they don’t want a teaching position after all. And there are some folks who get good though not tenure-track positions– running writing centers, being a WPA at a place where it’s not on the tenure-track, working at a community college, etc. But with all of those caveats, I stand by my claim.

    One last thing: I should point out that that special issue of College English you mention is about the many part-timers/adjuncts/otherwise not tenure-track faculty who are teaching first year composition. This has been the state of affairs in “freshmen comp” for decades– you surly know this already. Most people teaching these classes are not tenure-track faculty with PhDs in composition and rhetoric; most are folks who hold MAs or are ABD and most are not comp/rhet specialists.

    Sometimes I wonder if part of the problem is in the expectations. I mean, I have what I think of as a good job, but it is at a regional, opportunity-granting, far from the R1 world kind of university, not the kind of place that would be the first (or second or fifth) choice of someone intent on work in the Ivy League. But like I said, I don’t know what the circumstances are for you. Share if you want; either way, I wish you the best of luck.

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  3. post-ac says:

    Hi Steve,

    Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your perspective. But surely you can understand that job “market” conditions as you found them in 1996 are not relevant now. That was almost 20 years ago.

    I am not angry at tt faculty for who they are as people who occupy positions of relative privilege in the academy. In fact, I say quite clearly in this post that, as full-time faculty, you are “no more responsible for the state of affairs than the adjunct teaching in the classroom next to you.”

    I believe tt faculty must take some responsibility for what they do and say, or more accurately for what they don’t do and don’t say, in relation to the crisis. Colleges and universities are part of an economic system characterized by growing inequality and by disinvestment in higher education.
    We will not remedy that problem by trying to understand how individuals can make better choices. There’s a class war going on. In such a war, everyone picks a side. Though tenured colleagues did not create the system, they can’t be allowed to spread misinformation or to live in a state of incomprehension of what goes on around them.

    In answer to your questions about my personal situation, I will say this: I earned a PhD from a well-known department and was mentored by nationally-known scholars. You have heard of my advisor who is a star in the field of Comp/Rhet. I certainly had no expectations of teaching in an R1 institution. I applied at various kinds of colleges across the U.S. over a 3-yr period and was not hired.

    However, this is the point I want to make clear: just as it does not matter how any individual tt colleague got his or her job, my personal situation is not really important. One has to look at the structural situation and place individual experiences inside a larger dynamic. Higher education is being systematically defunded and privatized across the board. Most college profs, including most writing teachers, are precarious. As you yourself mention, most writing classes are not taught by C/R specialists. In other words, we don’t have a discipline; we have a labor system that flushes most people out when their services are no longer required. If you managed to escape that fate, I am happy for you. But, honestly, I don’t believe that I have any obligation to propose a remedy to the problem at this point, beyond the recommendation that tt faculty fight for more fair labor conditions for all.

    Before we talk remedies, we have to be able to understand the ways that system is rotten so we can resist effectively. There is an argument to be made for clearly understanding the problems before rushing to solutions that, if not carefully considered, may not help anyone.

    Al the best to you.

    • Steve Krause says:

      But your post was called “Notes from Rage-istan: A Response to Steven Krause.” So you can kind of understand why I interpreted that as meaning “I am mad at you, Steve Krause,” right? Anyway, two quick things for now:

      * I am not sure it’s a given (as many folks in “Rage-istan” seem to think) that the job market in academia generally and in comp/rhet specifically is worse now than it was 20 years ago. And I mean just that: I’m just not sure. I will say this though: when I was hired at EMU, there were about 90 other applicants. The last three searches I have chaired in the last 5 or so years all had fewer than 50, and I chaired one search twice (so I chaired two different searches, one that ran more than once) because we weren’t able to hire a solid candidate. So from my limited perspective at EMU, it seems like the market is favoring candidates right now. And I think if you were to track the MLA numbers on searches over the last 20 or so years, I think you’d see surprisingly consistent numbers in comp/rhet.

      * All stories of both success and failure on the job market are ultimately personal and individual. So while I agree that there are larger problems/challenges with higher education, the reasons why people do or don’t get tenure-track jobs are as varied as the number of applicants and the number of positions. I think one of the (many) problems I have had with this most recent job market rage is it is attempting to construct a larger narrative, one that frankly borders on conspiracy– not from you, but from the Schumans and the Karen “The Professor is In” Kelskys of the world. It’d be nice if there was a big systematic machine to blame here, but I think that’s probably a little too easy.

  4. Jojo says:

    Dear Steven:

    I so not agree with you. It is not a conspiracy, it is just the plain truth. The market was different in 1996, and nobody is mad at you, it is just that we don’t agree with your thoughts. It’s a shame that our opinion is just a conspiracy to you when all the Humanities thought me was to never take the easy path, never trust the systematic machine, etc.

    • Post-Ac says:

      Steve, you might want to read some of the comments on my other post about the profession, especially one by Michael Yates.

      • Steve Krause says:

        See, part of the reason why I disagree with this conversation is because I guess I have had a very different experiences in higher ed. I have been in tenure-track positions since 1996– for 2 years at Southern Oregon and at EMU since 1998– and I’ve always been in a faculty union. SOU’s was not especially strong, but it existed; EMU’s is quite strong and a major reason for the working conditions here– I’m actually writing a blog post about this all now. The full-time lecturers (more or less permanent teaching positions but not tenure-track) have been unionized for at least a dozen years; the part-timers have been unionized (or rather they have a contract as part of the full-time lecturers I believe) for 3 or 4 years. The lecturers/part-timers union isn’t as strong as the faculty union for a variety of different reasons, but it does make the conditions quite a bit better.

    • Steve Krause says:

      Look what “truth” are we referencing here? Take a look at which is a very interesting data project that simply “maps” the job listings in comp/rhet that were advertised in the MLAJL– which is in itself incomplete because not all comp/rhet jobs advertise there anymore. Last year, there were 282 listings (as of July 2013). This year (as of December 2013), there are 234– there will likely be a few more late announcements.

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  7. jz says:

    “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.”

    Why do you believe that people deserve to be paid for whatever they want to be paid for? A rational person would train as a nurse, accountant, or insurance agent, and enjoy poetry in their free time.

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