More on Bad Times in the Academic Profession

There are not nearly enough jobs for people with new Ph.D. degrees. Two-thirds of those teaching English and foreign languages in colleges and universities (with or without the Ph.D.) are off the tenure track. The numbers are similar in most humanities and social science fields, and far from good in the sciences. I’m going to leave non-liberal arts fields out of this discussion, noting only that a lot of teaching in, say, law and business is done by adjuncts, too. In my last blog on this subject (March 12), I said I’d later discuss ways of fighting this change for the worse in academic labor. It is bad for thousands of contingent workers, and ruinous for our profession. In this installment I will focus on that last point, and speak of measures that might bring the supply of qualified professionals more in line with the demand for them. Sorry for the market language, but we are in a market–well, you are; I’m retired–and a profession tries to be a market haven for its members, including those newly certified.

So what might a profession do, if it were well-organized, and if it could single-mindedly pursue the self-interest of its members, to take back control of the market for their work? For a specific example, what might the Modern Language Association do, on the laughable assumption that it were as strong as the American Medical Association used to be? Most urgently, it would work through university departments that grant Ph.D.’s in English and foreign languages to cut back drastically on graduate admissions–say, by two-thirds. (Some programs should just be shut down, but even in this thought experiment, it strains credibility to imagine an MLA powerful enough and with enough solidarity to accomplish that.) While working to shrink Ph.D. programs, the MLA would also work to cut way back on their use of students as teaching assistants. Give all admitted students full tuition and benefits for their first three years, for instance; let them teach one course each in the fourth year; and put them back on full support for a dissertation-writing fifth year. Would university administrations howl and fight back? Yes they would, but remember, the MLA in this narrative is really tough. It would also persuade departments to phase out M.A. programs in the modern languages, many of whose graduates end up competing for non-tenure track jobs and jobs in community colleges. That points to another good strategy: recast the Ph.D. curriculum so that a sizable proportion of its graduates will be better qualified than they are now, for community college jobs. Another: find enticements for earlier retirement so that (say) a $150,000 professorship could be converted into two or three assistant professorships. Dismantle the star system. And of course continue pressing departments and universities to convert off-track jobs to tenure-track jobs. I’d add, continue supporting unionization of contingent workers, except that in this thought experiment, the other measures would have banished contingent work, except for Ph.D.’s who preferred part-time jobs, for good pay and in professionally determined working conditions.

Set aside, please, the hundreds of obstacles that stand in the way of a march to reclaim professional autonomy. Obviously, a project such as this would need to build an alliance of disciplinary leaders and organizations in all liberal arts fields, along with the AAUP and the various associations of universities and colleges. Is that kind of solidarity possible? Faculty members have not been good at working together. Mark Taylor (Religion, Columbia), in a Chronicle of Higher Education forum on April 5, said their resistance to reform, based on “protection of entrenched interests makes change virtually impossible.” But maybe in the hard times that stretch before us as far as the eye can see, the professoriat could unite to protect its historically won and now imperiled place in the economic and social system. About administrators, who knows? But I don’t rule out the enlistment of some in professional reconstruction, as their system of privileges collapses, too. The only university president represented in that April 5 forum (E. Gordon Gee, of Ohio State) went farther than any other participant in proposing a reduction in admission to Ph.D. programs, and perhaps the elimination of some “marginal” ones.

But my main purpose here has not been to recommend a campaign of professional renewal, just to say enough about how it might proceed to pose the question: should radicals like this idea? Should a restoration of professional power to the level it attained about 1960 be our goal, even if it were attainable? Or, in bad times, should we instead accept the proletarianization of academic workers that has such strong momentum now, and go with it toward a more deeply radical program? I’ll take a shot at that question in my next (= fourth and last) blog on this subject.

–Richard Ohmann

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