THE JOB CRISIS IN HUMANITIES: WHAT HAVE WE WROUGHT?
J. Douglas Canfield
I am a Regents' Professor at the University of Arizona. The reason for the boasting self-identification will become evident as I discuss the job crisis in the humanities. But first and foremost, I want to say to graduate students that having a son on the market without interviews makes me empathize with your plight as I never have before. There has been a lot of talk about that plights being the result of corporate conspiracy. And such talk may be right. I want to call attention to the faculty's complicity in your exploitation.
As a Regents' Professor I am a member of the privileged class in academe. It is a class that, as David Shumway has recently argued, has its star system. This class, this system is the elegant elephant carried on the back of the tortoise of surplus labor. We created the tortoise. Because we all wanted to teach our stuff, we started Ph.D. programs nearly everywhere, and we actively recruit students, even though we know that only 45 percent have been getting tenure-track jobs in recent years.
John Guillory has recently made the same point, arguing that since we talk only to fellow professionals, we create captive audiences of professional graduate students (part of our growth industry). I should like add that there are other reasons for the proliferation and continuation of graduate programs. Most important, graduate students don't only take our classes, they teach our classes. That is, so that we might be freed to concentrate on senior and graduate classes, they teach what we used to teach, beginning with freshman composition, virtually the only university-wide requirement at American universities and a six-unit requirement at most. Now enrollments are so large that, whatever the size of English departments (foreign language departments have a more modest but analogous situation), it is logistically impossible for faculty to cover the several hundred sections of composition and teach anything else.
But we haven't stopped here. We have imported graduate student labor into sophomore- and even junior-level general education courses in literature and culture. Several of my colleagues argue that they "served their time" in such courses. They are now free from such "shit" work. Moreover, they seriously argue that research universities are not very good at teaching lower-division classes. Leave such work to community colleges and let us concentrate on our majors and our graduate students.
Curricula for those major and graduate programs exist for our professional convenience: again, so we can teach our stuff, our expertise. Because we want to produce our little us's, to replicate ourselves. The English major (the one I know best, though I believe I can safely say the same of at least Spanish and French majors) has hardly changed in sixty years: still the same survey courses, same requirements in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, same period courses. It is a preprofessional major, designed to produced graduate students in English. Yet the vast majority of our undergraduate majors will not go to graduate school in English.
By concentrating almost all our efforts in these preprofessional programs, we create a void in lower-division and general education classes and fill it with Graduate Assistants in Teaching (GATs), who do much more than assist: they teach whole courses with minimal supervision, at least after their first year. And despite warnings about the bleakness of the job market, graduate students rush to fill our classes in both senses of the term. Our responsibility seems to have extended to nothing more than caveat emptor. Why? It's more than just wanting to teach our stuff. It's prestige. We don't get those big grants the scientists and social scientists, engineers and computer scientists get. So how do we impress our colleagues on campus? How do we belly up to the bar with the big boys? Size. Look how big our graduate program is, how many dissertations we produce.
Does the emptor beware? Joe Aimone says graduate students want to teach more literature courses. We are only too happy to oblige, letting them teach our non-major upper-division courses so more of us can get released me. Recent statistics at the University of Arizona, gathered by the resident's Task Force on Undergraduate education in the early 1990s, revealed that virtually no language or creative writing classes in Spanish, French and English Departments of the Faculty of Humanities were taught regular members of the professoriate (that is, Ph.D.'s appointed to tenure-track positions). The literature faculty of English, which used to assist significantly in the Western Civilization courses of the Humanities Program, contributed only a half-dozen faculty to the dozens of such general education course now taught by graduate students and lecturers. Other statistics, gathered by the Interim Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Education in the mid- 1990s, revealed the shocking news (at least to us in humanities) that ere was absolutely no differentiation in course loads between faculties and colleges, that humanities faculty taught the same average of 1.5 courses per semester! We were being given released time not only to pursue research but for virtually every administrative position and even for committee work.
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