Dodging the Anvil

Brian Taylor

January 04, 2010

The job market in the humanities this year reminds me of those old Road Runner cartoons. Wile E. Coyote, a self-proclaimed "super genius," is devising some elaborate plan to catch his dinner, usually involving the creative use of Acme products, but instead of dining on Road Runner, he falls off a 1,000-foot cliff, suspended in midair just long enough to realize his fate. As he lies on the desert floor, flattened like a pancake, Coyote looks up and sees that a large anvil is about to fall on his head. The Road Runner makes his "beep beep" noise, and the cartoon ends.

Even with some cyclic ups and downs, following the U.S. economy, the academic job market has been in a depression since the early 1970s, and—just as we were beginning to accept that things were not going to improve—we are now confronted with an even more desperate situation for the humanities job seeker. If we regard the Modern Language Association's Job Information List as representative of the humanities, then we are seeing the most rapid decline in advertised positions since the MLA started keeping records, 34 years ago ("MLA Newsletter," Winter 2009). Last year, at the beginning of the recession, the number of positions advertised in English declined by 24.4 percent; this year it is down by an additional 40 percent. Last year foreign-language positions were down 27 percent; this year they are down by an additional 52 percent.

I complained about the lack of tenure-track jobs back in 1998 in an essay I wrote for The Chronicle, "A Graduate Student's Life," but I had it easy in comparison with this year's graduates. Of course, my cohort had been encouraged to go to graduate school by two factors: the recession of the early 1990s and the prediction that a wave of retirements and growth in the undergraduate population would produce a hiring boom at the end of the decade. That boom never materialized. What did was an overabundance of graduate students and adjuncts willing to work part time for peanuts in the hope of earning a real, tenure-track job.

I don't think the current crop of humanities graduates can claim that they were not warned about the weak job market, but the situation is actually much worse now, if you are finishing a Ph.D., than you had any reason to expect when you started. If you once thought that a 40-percent chance of finding a tenure-track position was a risk worth taking (after maybe eight years of graduate school), then how do you feel about a 20-percent chance? Those odds made me feel like protesting for reforms at the MLA convention; the odds suggest either resignation ("What's the use?") or revolution ("Nothing left to lose; let's go out in blaze of glory").

I am sure there will be plenty of soothing talk about the coming rebound in the academic job market. As the economy recovers, institutions gradually may resume their normal hiring plans. If so, by that time, the market will be even more crowded, with a backlog of underemployed Ph.D.'s from previous years and lots of shiny new graduates, along with plenty of more experienced people applying for the more appealing positions. The job search is probably not going to be easier for you in a few years, even if there are more jobs available.

But that's an optimistic scenario. It seems likely that this is not a temporary setback in academic employment. I think we are seeing a structural transformation of higher education that makes the current situation—bad as it seems—the beginning of the new status quo. Traditionally trained academics are like Scottish hand-loom weavers in 1848 and German carriage-makers in 1910. We may look back on this time as a wake-up call after more than a generation of slumbering and inaction on a variety of interconnected issues, such as unsustainable levels of tuition and undergraduate debt, a shift toward practical degrees, a perception of the humanities as out of touch and overly politicized, an increasing split between elite and nonelite institutions, the need for just-in-time adult education rather than lengthy degree programs, the competition from for-profit education, and, perhaps most seriously, doubts about whether colleges are actually educating students effectively. And that's just the beginning.

While some elite liberal-arts colleges, and major universities with huge endowments, may weather this storm without big changes, most institutions are going to reduce student services and demand more teaching productivity, while requiring more-rigorous measures of assessment and accountability. Less emphasis will be placed on scholarly monographs—favoring quality over quantity—than in the comparatively flush past two decades, and more emphasis will be placed on fund raising, technological innovation, and partnerships with foundations and corporations.

Tenure-track faculty lines will not be retained, particularly in the humanities, as service-teaching loads increase, major and elective courses are trimmed, and efficiencies are gained by the creative use of new technologies, outsourcing, and automation of nonadministrative functions such as grading and advising. Full-time faculty members—as they become relatively few compared with adjuncts and other contingent instructors—are going to shoulder more and more of the administrative load, and will need to be qualified and willing to do so.

I am not saying those are good things, but changes are coming whether we like them or not. The next decade is going to be a rough time for traditional humanists, but it will also present opportunities for those who are prepared to adapt—or, better yet—already have adapted before they've arrived on the job market.

For your interviews, particularly the second-round, on-campus ones, make sure that you understand the stresses faced by the institutions to which you are applying, and that you have some vision of how you—and your scholarly work—might contribute effectively to the changes that are coming.

Graduate students should be reading publications on the profession as assiduously as they read the leading journals in their disciplines.

We are all more than a little nervous (even those of us who somehow managed to get tenure), and the demonstration of some confidence about the future—and the skills and strategies for meeting it—from the rising generation is more compelling than yet another scholarly project ("redrawing the boundaries," check) and teaching philosophy ("student-centered," check) that fits nicely into an institutional culture that is not likely to exist much longer. With so much uncertainty about the future, would-be academics need to be potential entrepreneurs and administrators, in addition to being able scholars and teachers from the time they are hired.

Beyond that, I do not have much advice for you—at least none that you probably have not heard already. And I am certainly not posing as some kind of role model for a successful job search.

Essentially, if you want an academic job, you'd better be really good at what you do. You should be at a top university (although sometimes less-famous institutions can be effective at local placements); have at least a few high-quality publications, preferably in top-tier journals; have a dissertation that's nearly a publishable book, preferably under contract with a university press; be a charismatic and challenging teacher; be socially energetic without being threatening; have well-known and well-connected advisers who will support you without any reservations; be willing to live anywhere; be prepared to work as a visiting professor and move a few times in the first decade of your career; and be willing to live with the possibility that you will always have an itinerant, insecure, poorly compensated existence.

But you knew all that already.

And let's face it, if you are someone with any chance at all of finding a job, then you've already done everything anyone could reasonably expect, and probably much more. I remember feeling insulted by people hired in the 1960s lecturing on how "a cover letter should address the responsibilities of the position." Well, "duh," as we used to say. You don't need me to tell you to spell-check your statement of teaching philosophy or whatever.

Given how much talent is concentrated in academe, being really good is not good enough. You also have to be really lucky—and that's something maddeningly beyond your control. I didn't possess all of the qualities and achievements I mentioned—I am certainly not charismatic; I was often quite nervous; my publications were second-tier; and my dissertation was not yet under contract—but I was also very flexible about location and willing to adapt to a wide range of institutional settings. And I got lucky. I know plenty of people more talented than me in every way who held out for the "perfect fit" for so long that nothing short of a prize-winning book could have revived their viability on the market.

The last bit of advice is something you do not want to hear, not after possibly a decade in preparation for the life of a traditional professor: If you have been unlucky on the job market with your doctorate in hand (ABD's shouldn't expect much success) for more than two years, and are currently in an unsatisfactory teaching position (not a visiting professorship or a postdoc at a well-regarded institution), then I suggest you cut your losses and look for options outside of academe—unless you really are on the verge of some breakthrough that will renew your career. Don't waste years that could have been spent building another career, possibly using your humanities skills and values, in the hope of beating odds that are increasingly stacked against you.

Accept that your hope of being a tenured professor has reached a dead end. Overcome academe's indoctrination process, which tells you that leaving academe means failure. There are other rewarding things you can do with your life, and you've got to get started somewhere. Don't rush into another graduate program or law school. Let go of your desire for prestigious affiliations. Find a job and let the status come later. Better yet, start thinking like a free agent or an entrepreneur, since you can't rely on any employer to survive long or to care about your prospects.

One final thought, which probably comes too late for the current crop of desperate job-seekers: What would graduate school have been like if you had never seriously considered the idea of becoming a professor?

What if, instead, you had pursued a Ph.D. simply out of a desire to learn, and with the expectation that you would have to develop an independent career path—instead of twisting yourself into some version of what the ever-changing academic job market seems to want? What if graduate students were not entirely dependent on a system of hierarchical publications, institutions, and professorial sponsors? How would things change if students were suddenly empowered to demand support for opportunities that really exist and for ideas that are currently not offered a space in the established academic system?

A generation of graduate students with no aspirations to become professors might finally bring about changes that have been needed since the profession ran off the cliff at full speed back in the early 70s.

It's certainly better than hanging suspended in midair, awaiting the fall, or, worse, watching helplessly as the anvil descends.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. He writes a monthly column for The Chronicle called An Academic in America that focuses on faculty life and culture. He welcomes questions and comments from readers directed to his attention at