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Winter for Higher-Ed
Winter Is Coming, and Humanities Profs Can't Wish It Away

There are too many PhDs and not enough jobs to go around, especially in humanities departments. That’s the problem a panel at the MLA convention tackled last weekend. The panel came up with some sensible suggestions (tailoring PhD programs to the needs of the non-academic workforce, and streamlining them to allow students to finish faster), but there was an elephant sitting in the conference room that all of the participants seemed determined to ignore. Inside Higher Ed reports:

David Downing, professor of English and director of graduate studies in literature and criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, opened the session by saying that “the ethical situation seems simple…. How could we make our graduates more vulnerable than necessary” by admitting more than can be assured of good jobs. But Downing said that despite “smug” assurances that this was the only answer, he favors an expansion of programs.

He noted that the demand for instruction in English and related fields has gone up over time, and said that the real reason for a shortage of good jobs was that states have not provided enough money for higher education, and that colleges have come to rely on non-tenure-track labor to teach. While he said that graduate programs should reduce time to degree, he said that the emphasis of professors must be on “the broad struggle” to fund higher education at appropriate levels, and to create jobs on the tenure track.

No one seems to want to confront the obvious: that there are far more PhD students than there are tenure-track positions, and that that ratio is likely to get larger rather than smaller. No amount of eloquently worded op-eds, no convention of concerned professors picketing on the steps of state capitols, is going to convince struggling legislatures to dramatically boost spending for humanities and social science programs.

Meanwhile, if the professors at the MLA don’t want to think about how they might cut their programs back, their schools will be happy enough to do it for them. Indeed some already are. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a group of schools, including Columbia, CUNY and Johns Hopkins, have begun admitting fewer students to their PhD programs:

At Hopkins, current graduate students in the humanities and social sciences get $8,000 to $10,000 less than students at peer institutions do, Ms. Newman says.

Students now have nine-month stipends of $22,000. Under the university’s new strategic plan, incoming students would get a 12-month stipend of $30,000, guaranteed for five years. They could compete to receive a sixth year of financial support. Full tuition, health care, and $1,000 per year for travel related to fieldwork or conferences would also be part of the deal. And students would teach for only six of the 10 semesters covered by the fellowship.

To pay for the higher stipends, the Krieger school wants the 14 affected humanities and social-science departments to cut enrollment by an average of 19 percent over five years. For most departments, that would mean accepting about one student fewer each year as the plan is phased in over five years.

In most cases, the schools are selling this as an attempt to give the remaining students more support, both financially and academically. This may be true, yet it’s difficult to imagine that they weren’t making these changes with an eye to the changing job market for PhDs.

Given the size of the problem, these changes seem small, but they may be a sign of bigger changes to come.

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  • Andrew Allison

    The discussion in this post overlooks the point made in its first sentence, namely that there are far too many PhDs being graduated, especially in the humanities. Rather than self-interested attempts to waste more money on churning out PhDs, the vast majority of which are not required for the available jobs, should we not be redirecting our efforts toward growing the economy and filling the jobs thus generated.
    Incidentally, the statement that, “demand for instruction in English and related fields has gone up over time” is disingenuous. Like that for mathematics, demand gone up because 40% of those entering college require remedial courses which could, and should, be taught by high school teachers.

    • Kavanna

      And a PhD is not needed to teach in the humanities, at least in many cases. Even now, unlike in the sciences, it’s not universal. A masters degree is enough.

  • Kevin

    The big problem English PhDs face is that they want to teach and research about critical theory and various other abstractions yet what students and employers want from English departments is students who can read and write clearly.

    • Andrew Allison

      “Those that can, do . . .” Should high school graduates be able to read and write clearly? Have we reached the point at which literacy requires a post-secondary education?

      • Kevin

        They should but they can’t. It’s easy for colleges to fall back on the “That’s not my job” excuse as in an ideal world students would arrive at college knowing these things, but in the world we live in students do not. So if they care about preparing their students they will make sure they teach them how to write well.

        • Andrew Allison

          At exorbitant cost, to both the student and society. The problem is that the schools are not falling back on “not my job” but eagerly expanding to take on the job for which high school teachers are still being paid. The logical end to this is simply abolish high school and send junior high grads straight to college (not that I’m suggesting that). What I am suggesting is that competency in the three Rs should be a college entrance requirement.

  • Tom

    What’s slightly disappointing here is that the staff misses the possible connection between this story and a previous one on the site, that of the MLA’s decision to consider boycotting Israel (link here:, which, given the makeup of the panel recorded, will probably end in an “aye” vote.
    Perhaps if the professoriate spent more time on matters actually involved in teaching (that is, doing what they were hired to do) as opposed to dabbling in politics, they wouldn’t be in this fix.

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