Month: September 2014

Changing the Conversation

I love Rebecca Schuman.

I love her honest, irreverent take on academia. I love how she calls out the bullshit of higher education for what it is. And I love how she tells doctoral candidates and recent PhDs to get a grip.

I wish I had found Rebecca Schuman years ago, back in my first year of graduate school, when I still held on to those silly romantic dreams that a tenured professorship was possible for me – the kind of gig we all dream of, at some bucolic campus nestled deep in the woods, where students are respectful and eager to learn and I can spend all day in my bookshelf-lined office, drinking tea, taking questions from those eager students, and generally living the glorified life of the mind.

Current Me would have loved someone like Rebecca to come along and tell Old Me the truth: that those jobs have never existed, and they most certainly don’t exist now. And, even if they do, they’re not going to be given to someone like me, who is graduating with a nontraditional degree from a second-tier institution and is thus unprepared to teach World History and unwilling to live some miserable life as an adjunct, which is the only way I could inhabit the Ivory Tower for long.

This is why I love Rebecca Schuman. For those of us who have Seen The Light and who have fled academia like we’d flee a sinking ship, we need more voices like hers.

But, despite all my love, Schuman was criticized this morning on Inside Higher Ed. She’s bitter, the writer says, and neglects to mention the perks of academic existence. She’s not taking the process of peer review seriously. And, horror of horrors, she “asserts vague commonalities without evidence.” (Good thing no one on the internet does that.)

In other words, she’s not worthy.

The author of the article, Charles Green (who is working as a lecturer – no tenure there either – at Cornell), claims that Schuman is trafficking in stereotypes, and that her unbridled, “Mean Girl” voice “treats individual perspective as universal truth.” The state of higher education is too precarious, Green says, to allow people like Schuman to point out its flaws.

(To his credit, Green also says that Schuman “could represent a useful, important resistance to the limits of the academic world” – though I would disagree that she “could” represent such a thing and argue instead that she already does.)

I find this article absurd, in the same way that I find most conversations about higher education absurd. I especially find it absurd after spending the past few days in Philadelphia at a conference for the current cohort of ACLS Public Fellows, of which I am one. We spent most of last week discussing the value of humanities PhDs in the workforce, the important roles that we can play, and how to negotiate the non-academic world. (We also got to tour the new building of the Barnes Foundation, which I can’t recommend highly enough.)

I am incredibly proud to be an ACLS Public Fellow. I believe strongly in the need for humanities PhDs to play a role in the outside world, and for us to take our skills and strengths and critical thinking into the open and apply them to numerous realms. I believe this is necessary not only because, in my belief, having a PhD in your workforce makes your office a better place, but also because there are too many PhDs and there will never be enough tenure-track teaching jobs. Ever. So stop thinking it will happen, magically, just for you.

Schuman is a voice for this. A reasonable, funny, sometimes-hyperbolic (but who cares? She’s writing for the internet. If you’re not hyperbolic no one pays attention) voice that tells the ugly truth that no one seems to want to hear.

While I love Schuman, what I also can’t understand is why this conversation gets paraded out all the time, almost never varying from the same two tracks. It’s “I want a tenure-track job so I’ll go to grad school” versus “You’ll never get a tenure-track job so avoid grad school like the plague,” and never the twain shall meet.

Jesus, people, there are a few other options out there. You don’t only have to be a professor when you get a PhD, and you don’t only have to get a PhD to become a teacher.

I hate to make this all about myself, but look at me: I have a PhD. I wrote a dissertation. I’m going to publish a book. And now I’m an engagement analyst at the Center for Public Integrity, using all those finely honed research and analysis skills I developed in grad school to make the Center a better place. Oh yeah, and I’m getting paid bank, people respect me, and I really, really like my job. (Too bad my own department won’t recognize me as a success.)

There were only 300 applicants for the 20 public fellowships the ACLS offered this year. I find this number staggeringly abysmal. Not every engineering major gets an engineering job, and lord knows not every psychology major becomes a psychologist. (This may be a good thing.) So why do we expect every humanities PhD to be guaranteed the holy grail – a tenure-track position at some excellent school where students are dedicated and committee work a joy?

This is impossible. It’s always been impossible. PhDs – whether you’re ABD or you’ve already been hooded – must recognize where else we can use our skills. We must make moves into other realms. And we must be proud of what we’re doing, where we’re going, and how we’re doing it. Academia can’t keep denying us like bastard children. We’re proud Doctors, and we’re using our degrees to succeed in the world of late capitalism. And many of us are educating just as many people as we would if we had stayed in the Ivory Tower. In fact some of us, Schuman included, are reaching even wider audiences than that.

I love Rebecca Schuman because she tells the truth, and I love the ACLS because they gave me a fellowship. Now I’d love it if the conversation could change and – finally – move away from the useless dichotomy of “to teach or not to teach.” How glad I’d be if we could focus instead on the real, necessary and practical discussions of how we can fit the several thousand PhDs who graduate every year into a workforce that can utilize and appreciate them.

Why? Because that sure ain’t happening in academia. Not anymore. And because that’s the future, and it’s not going to change. People won’t stop going to grad school, and tenure-track teaching is dying a slow death. But programs like the ACLS Public Fellows allow PhDs to move into the traditional workforce, and it gives us the platform and the skills necessary for this transition. I only wish more people would take advantage of it – and that more organizations would offer something similar. What can I say? I, like the rest of humanity, want a job where I’m respected, where my thoughts appreciated and my bank account adequately compensated. After six years of grad school stipends, it only seems fair. But widespread resistance to these ideas is mind-boggling at best, and staggeringly ill-advised at worst. If higher education keeps following its suicidal path (and it leaves few clues that it’s changing course any time soon), new jobs for PhDs will primarily come from the private sector. I am eternally grateful to have landed my fellowship at all.

But yet the conversation remains the same. For people who have spent years developing critical thinking skills and the ability to do reasoned analysis, you’d think we would have shifted the topic faster than this. In order to avoid treading the same water, hopefully we can soon.