Oh, the Humanities!

Everyone is talking about Brian Croxall’s provocative MLA paper right now, so I might as well jump on the bandwagon.  Go read the paper, if you haven’t already, but here’s a quick summary: Brian couldn’t go to MLA because he had no job interviews there and couldn’t afford the cost of attending, so he had his panel chair read it for him and he posted it on his blog at the time the paper was being read. The paper itself is about the difficulties, financial and otherwise, of being a part-time instructor. He includes some stunning statistics, and the catchy parenthetical statement: “And yes, that means I do qualify for food stamps while working a full-time job as a professor!”

Both the content and the mode of communication are interesting to us here. First, the content.  It is no secret that universities are  relying more and more on contingent faculty (alternately called part-time or adjunct), and that many of these faculty hold advanced degrees, often a Ph.D.  It also comes as no surprise that many new Ph.D. candidates have trouble finding tenure-track jobs, although the numbers are stunning (Croxall claims that many rejection letters mention 400+ applicants). Discuss the relationship between these phenomena in the comments if you wish.While not surprising, it is quite depressing for humanities scholars, for whom the holy grail of jobs is usually the coveted tenure-track position at a research university. Many of us simply don’t know what else to do, and have spent so many precious years crafting a dissertation and teaching for peanuts that we have either forgotten how to do anything else or neglected to learn anything else. Or it could be that we just don’t want to give up the dream. Check out Bitch, Ph.D.’s blog entry, especially the comments, for a robust discussion about this.

If Croxall had simply read the paper as scheduled, I suspect he would have had a sympathetic audience and interesting discussion among the dozens of scholars attending, and then it would have been forgotten. Maybe someone would’ve tweeted or blogged about it, but I doubt the Chronicle of Higher Ed would have picked it up. Let’s recap. I did not attend MLA, but I follow @briancroxall (as well as reading his blog and perusing Prof Hacker as often as possible), who tweeted about the paper the morning of. I read it and retweeted it, as did many others. Those of us following #MLA09 on twitter noticed the shitstorm, which led to more readership , and are now blogging about it, which will likely lead to more (check out his tweet about spike in visitors after the Chronicle article). Instead of being quickly forgotten, this paper ends up being potentially the most-talked about aspect of MLA this year, and propels Brian Croxall into an academic-blogger-media celebrity, for whatever that’s worth.

The social media-twitter-blogosphere has moved the discussion quickly to a more public discussion. These two components — speed and breadth — are what have long been missing in the academy, and comprise some of the most exciting aspects of using new media in conjunction with old-fashioned face-to-face conferencing. In terms of longevity of the discussion, that is yet to be seen.

I hope that the mode of communication does not overshadow the message. Academics in digital humanities are finding innovative ways of communicating and understanding communication, and are working to revolutionize the ways in which we read, discuss, archive, and view texts, however we may define that ever-changing term. But the context in which we do that seems to be shrinking. Whether digital or not, humanities scholars are facing a glut of Ph.D. production and a scarcity of academic jobs. Like it or not, those of us with higher degrees are going to have to find new ways to work, and new venues in which to do this work. The problem is systemic, and many solutions have been proposed (e.g. unionization of contingent faculty and decrease in Ph.D. production), but for those of us at, near, or just beyond the finish line, the academic future looks more grim than ever before.

I am approaching that finish line, and I have come to realize that my Plan A (t-t job) is unrealistic. It is still Plan A, but I need to find a realistic Plan B (and C and D). Like many, I came to grad school because I love to write, and I am passionate about teaching. Earning a living doing both will be difficult. I realized this at at time when I felt I was too close to quit.  I have seen other graduate students quit the program, and many of them are quite happy in their new jobs. That said, I will be on the market next year. I will send out applications. I will (probably) go to MLA. In the meantime? I will continue to work as a part-time instructor. I will continue to do freelance tutoring. I will blog. I will tweet. I will keep my eyes open for opportunities to use my diverse skillset. I will keep you updated.

Happy New Year.

  • http://mollylaich.com Molly

    I’ve learned a lot about working in the academic field from you – the MFA I’m pursuing is in fact “terminal” – I know a lot of kids in my program are looking to go on for a PhD – I hope they have a clear picture of what they hope that will do for them besides make them “doctors.” I’m trying to keep my options open and think “creatively” (cliche) about what I can offer this world when I finally have to leave the safe clutches of school. That might have to include working to change the structure of education itself, eh? Perhaps long overdue.

    Anyway, great post.

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