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Two Articles, a million problems

Your Humble Blogger had connected an article by Michael Bérubé (Bérubé) on attending the New Faculty Majority summit and a note by Erik Loomis on a WPA for History over at LGM, but without actually coming up with anything useful to say. Certainly there seems to be an excess labor supply of rigorously trained social scientists and humanities scholars, thus the dire employment situation. On the other hand, there seems to be a huge demand for adjunct and contingency faculty, thus the dire workplace conditions, pay and benefits for those people. According to Prof. Bérubé, Adjunct, contingent faculty members now make up over 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges and universities; the article that Erik Loomis responds to (A WPA for History: Occupy the American Historical Association, by Jesse Lemisch, and a fun read it is) talks about a jobs crisis, even a depression. It seems to me that there is something odd about this.

I’m not sure exactly what, though. The problems—most people teaching college courses do not earn a decent living at it, and most (or at least many) people who have completed the training to earn a decent living teaching college courses can’t—seem to be somewhat reciprocal, but I don’t think they really are. For one thing, I think the two groups are not the same—there’s some overlap, surely, but I don’t know how much. If they were the same, then I would imagine the demand for teaching could be made to match the supply somehow. If they are not, then any solution of one will tend to exacerbate the other.

However, I did want to talk a little bit about the idea of a new Federal Writers’ Project, which of course YHB loves. But… the great thing about a Federal Writers’ Project is that (a) we temporarily employ a bunch of people, and (2) at the end of the day, we have a series of volumes that ably illustrate our national way of life. So. I’m for it. I’m for it as part of a massive new WPA that repairs the bridges and railways and ports, and I’m for it as a separate employment-for-academics program. Am I for it? Yes. I am for it.

On the other hand…are the unemployed and underemployed Ph.D. historians (and art historians and sociologists and anthropologists and scholars of comparative literature, religion, modern language, philosophy, rhetoric, or political science) really likely to produce a series of volumes that ably illustrate our national way of life? Are they trained to do so? Is that sort of work currently valued within the academy? A Federal Writers’ Project that produces monographs based on dissertations is hardly illustrating our national way of life; paying a fresh humanities Ph.D. to do anything else is hardly improving her career opportunities. Except, one supposes, as a member of that force of contingents and adjuncts, what Michael Bérubé calls los precarious. If it’s a problem that the majority of college instructors are untenured and (under current conditions) untenurable, then the addition of thousands of new untenurable Ph.D.s seems like it would exacerbate that problem enormously.

I don’t know what to do about it. It would help if the public universities of our nation were to be funded more generously—and if that funding went to increasing the percentage of instructors who are full-time employees with benefits and (at least reasonable) job security (if not actual tenure)—and if the tenure-decision process weren’t utterly insane—and if the funding were reliable—and if the process of preparing scholars for teaching posts didn’t largely unfit them for teaching, much less any other work—and if the production and distribution of a series of volumes ably illustrating our national way of life were produced through our universities rather than outside it—and if everything weren’t so damned expensive. Barring that, it does seem to me that the university concept is utterly and obviously unsustainable, and has been utterly and obviously unsustainable for centuries.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Thinking about a response, but just want to say -- I can't wait to hear what Chris has to say.

Way too much to respond to here, and a whole lot of Amens. On the question of whether it would be a problem to turn a large number of PhDs untenurable by employing them to produce written works for popular consumption: I believe that would actually reduce the tenure-track problem by restoring some balance between supply and demand.

I'd prefer that we restore that balance by reducing the number of PhDs granted and increasing the number of tenured faculty positions, for example by implementing standards for universities that require a much higher percentage of students be taught by tenured faculty (or at least faculty with full-time jobs, benefits, a decent salary, and a reasonable level of job security). We've set a good precedent with the notion that a health care insurer should spend a certain percentage of their revenue on paying for health care. The details could be improved, but it's far easier to achieve a good standard once we've moved past the debate about whether we should have a standard at all.

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