Mary K. Refling


Given the present job market crisis, most of us who are working toward a humanities Ph.D. in the late 1990s will not make it into the elite corps of the American professoriate. The Modern Language Association’s Committee on Professional Employment reports that out of the 7,598 Ph.D. candidates in the modern languages who emerged on the job market between the years 1990 and 1995, 4,188, or 55 percent, failed to find fulltime tenuretrack positions in the year that their degrees were awarded. When you add to this figure the number of candidates who have failed for several years to find suitable employment or those who have accepted renewable nontenuretrack positions in the interim which they wish to leave, as well as those who start their job search before the dissertation is finished—plus the growing number of international candidates who face an even more impossible job market in their home countries—I would guess that the number of unsuccessful candidacies each year is higher than 75 percent. Translated into practical terms, these statistics mean that those who refuse to pursue an alternative career should plan on spending three to five years in the adjunct mill before landing their first tenuretrack job. Most of my colleagues face this reality with courage and dignity, but I doubt anyone would fault us for indulging in a bit of rue. In the Italian department at Columbia University where I completed my Ph.D. studies, we tend to be pragmatic about our career prospects, refusing on the one hand to let the grim statistics detract from our belief in the importance of earning the degree, while on the other preparing ourselves psychologically for hard decisions down the line. Hardly anyone enters graduate school these days without carefully measuring the risks and making plans to pursue alternative careers if our job search is unsuccessful. My problem is, like most of my colleagues, I don’t want an alternative career.

On the day of my defense this spring, my sponsor and two other faculty members took me out to lunch at the faculty club. As I glanced at the deserted tables and the greying clientele upon entering, I thought of an article on the decline of the faculty club I’d read in the Chronicle of Higher Education last summer. As a graduate student I had always considered the faculty club offlimits, and this despite the fact that the university administration at Columbia had graciously extended membership to graduate students several years ago at reduced rates. None of us in the Italian department accepted the invitation, mostly because, on those rare occasions when we want to "soak up some ivy," we prefer to meet with our colleagues for (free) afternoon tea in the Graduate Student Lounge. Perhaps the dean was hoping that we might want to help liven the place up a bit. Unfortunately, for those of us living on a riceandbeans budget, an elegant lunch in the faculty club, even at reduced rates, would be likely to inspire melancholy silence rather than lively conversation. Did this meal on the day of my defense, I wondered, represent my initiation into a dying institution?

All of us were thinking on that occasion about the troubled future of our profession. During our meal we talked about the slow and inexorable replacement of tenured faculty lines with underpaid parttime and nontenured fulltime instructors. The rationalization of academic labor under the impact of rising costs and stiff competition among the various entitlement programs for dwindling state and federal resources has worsened the pressure to choose technical expertise as our goal rather than a liberal arts education. The administration’s adherence to corporate models of management has undermined the tenure system and poses a serious threat to the survival of academic freedom. The student is treated as a consumer and the education offered by the university as a product which must be priced competitively in order for the corporation to survive. Administrators openly admit that discussions about replacing direct classroom teacherstudent interaction with technologydriven distance learning are motivated by "marketplace" factors, not least of which is the promise of large profits for companies who design and install the software. Neither the corporate sponsors of such programs, nor university administrators who are viewing online instruction as an opportunity to reduce labor costs, seem concerned about the extra work involved in communicating with one’s students individually via email rather than as a group in the classroom. Friends who are participating in pilot distance learning programs report that designing such courses requires twice as many hours in course preparation as traditional classroom instruction. Laura Sullivan, current president of the MLA’s Graduate Student Caucus, told me that her online courses at the University of Florida bring an average of one hundred student messages into her electronic inbox each day. Robert F. Norden’s comments in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education also allude to the laborintensive nature of online instruction. A sign of times to come, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani recently demanded that CUNY reduce its laborintensive (and therefore, in his mind, wasteful) remedial education program, when in fact the remedial education courses taught by CUNY faculty are among the most costefficient in the entire system because they are taught by cheap, adjunct instructors. Remedial courses, according to a recent New York Times article,4 actually turn a profit. When Mayor Giuliani speaks vaguely about the possibility of "outsourcing" such courses, one wonders whether he simply intends to squeeze more concessions out of CUNY’s already demoralized and embattled faculty, whether he intends to reduce even further the opportunities that New York City’s urban poor have to get a decent education, or whether he wants to turn over those courses most typically taught by CUNY’s huge pool of adjuncts to the private sector where technological innovation passes for critical thinking. He probably intends all three. In any case, we need to raise questions about the relationship between such costcutting strategies and work load. From a purely pedagogical perspective, the pitiful bottomline logic which seems to be driving corporate enthusiasm for distance learning threatens to destroy the one remaining gentlemanly pleasure that university teaching still affords a dedicated faculty member—i.e., daily face-to-face contact with one’s students. This is to say nothing of its impact on remedial students whose history of failure in the system poses its own set of challenges to a caring teacher.


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