David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
A History Lesson

October 3, 2011:  A History Lesson

Forgive me for re-visiting a side rant from a Feb 4, 2011 blog, but I found the career "services" part of my PhD program to be incredibly lacking and discouraging.  I was part of the Big Ten tendency to flood their English programs with hundreds of PhD candidates, only hearing later in the program the often unstated message that graduates should be on the job market for only tenure-track positions at "research" institutions (I put "research" in quotation marks, because that kind of distinction will be exactly my point).

Admittedly, I wasn't exactly sure what kind of position I wanted.  Mostly, I just wanted a teaching position.  I enjoyed teaching and was pretty good at it, and I really didn't know of an alternative to teaching for PhD graduates in English.  No one at Indiana University at the time (the early 1990's) presented me (and I'm assuming my classmates) with other options.  Instead, we were herded through mock MLA style interviews, and then sent to the annual winter meeting to try it out for real.  My mock interview was horrible, probably one of the worst moments of my life, as I was constantly interrupted by an English Department faculty member who kept telling me that she was trying to make sure I didn't end up with a dead-end job where I taught 5 sections of composition.

As good fortune would have it (and I could write a separate blog on the importance of trusting fate and luck), I ended up with a job at a place where I taught 5 sections of composition, although the truth of the matter was that I taught maybe 2 to 3 sections of composition a semester, with a mix of technical writing, introduction to literature, introduction to western civilizations, and fundamentals of speech courses to round out my--egads!--6 course a semester load at Detroit College of Business.  That began my almost 20-year career of teaching and administration in institutions where "research" is secondary to student learning.

Certainly, not all English PhD's should get--or even want--the kind of position I got out of graduate school.  Many of my colleagues would be devastated not to be able to teach in their research and scholarly areas (for me, it was enough that American literature and studies could at least be touched upon in general survey classes), and that's understandable.  Importantly, though, I, like others, had no clue of any other kind of position except tenure-track (DCB's position was not tenure-track, and I have now been at two institutions where faculty gladly take a pass on tenure politics to instead be good teachers and college role models with great job security) when I was working on my doctorate.

It appears that almost 20 years later my frustration is being trumpted by a significant organization within humanities and liberal arts.  The American Historical Association, through its President Anthony Grafton, and Executive Director James Grossman, is now arguing for a new vision of career services for graduates in their field.  At least in history, graduates are told about "alternative" paths, which is a step up from what I got (or didn't get); as Grafton and Grossman argue, that language of "alternative," though, still holds up--perhaps unrealistically--the tenure-track job as the ideal and everything else as second rate.

Grafton and Grossman know their history (what a surprise, eh?).  As they show, for the last 40 years the gap between PhD graduates in history and new teaching jobs has ranged between 400 and 600.  In other words, almost twice as many men and women graduated with PhD's in history as there were openings for history faculty.  And there is no reason to expect a change assert Grafton and Grossman:  "As public contributions to higher education shrink, state budgets contract, and a lagging economy takes its toll on endowments and family incomes, there is little reason to expect the demand for tenure-track faculty to expand."

Grafton and Grossman advocate that academic historians remember that "we teach our students to question received ideas and to criticize inherited terminologies and obsolete assumptions. It's past time that we began applying these lessons ourselves."  Such observations land them on the "People Who Get It" list (which frankly hasn't been growing much recently).