Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

No teaching jobs in the humanities because teaching is frowned upon

with 9 comments

Wiz is worried. Academics like Peter Conn have identified the problem in the humanities, but doesn’t have any good solutions.  Complaints like these are nothing new. This guy has been writing about this for years. Even Louis Menand has gotten in on the action. To sum it up, there are lots of people entering grad school in the humanities, about half of them finish and get their PhDs, but there aren’t nearly enough jobs out there waiting for them.

So what’s the solution?

I don’t know.

Wiz wants unions for grad students, adjuncts, and, where possible, professors,” he wants “a vigorous student movement that holds the administration accountable.” I’m sympathetic to his goals here, though I think unions should always be treated as means to an end, not ends in themselves. Wiz sees university unions accomplishing radical and positive things:

Besides raising the wages and improving the condition for teachers, they provide a very concrete political voice for the interests of educators at state capitals. In other words, they lobby for us. At the university level, they comprise an alternative power structure that the university administrators have to deal with, thus re-distrubiting at least some of the decision making power in a university to a democratic organization. Student rallies and occupations can help bring attention to a wider public, of the powerlessness of students, and the defunding of public education– both essential first steps towards our broader citizenry stepping up its commitment to public education.

I’m not sure this will solve the problem. We still need more jobs, or fewer students. And Another problem with a TA union (which, for the record, I would join if one existed at NYU), is that it would protect shitty TAs. And we all know they’re out there. People who have no interest in teaching at all. Or people who are simply not good at it. Yes there should be more training for it.  But some people are just not good at it or don’t want to do it or both.

That’s why the key word in the Wiz graph above is “educators.” That’s sometimes lost in all this. That’s what people with humanities PhDs are supposed to do, or at least that’s what they’re told they’re supposed to do. Sort of. Actually, they’re told the old cliche, “publish or perish.” Which is why, much as I desperately want a tenure-track job, it strikes me that the only viable solution is to get rid of tenure. But also, change the cliche. Make it “publish and teach or perish.”

If teaching became a more important part of the job, it might make it less desirable to some. That might reduce the number of applicants. But it might also increase the number of people who are really committed to educating, along with researching and writing. Heavier teaching loads might also make some academics retire earlier, also freeing up those jobs.

This might be completely fanciful, but it strikes me that teaching should be more important to the world of academia and the humanities more specifically. If this job crisis makes that happen, I suppose that will be a good thing.


Written by David Weinfeld

April 8, 2010 at 20:33

Posted in Academia, unions

9 Responses

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  1. i’m not sure getting rid of tenure is the solution – perhaps changing the expectations to acquire it. in my field, one gets tenure based on one’s record of publishing. this inherently leads to professors with little-to-no teaching ability (of which my department is chock-full) who are considered wonderful “academics” because they publish like fiends.

    ultimately, a focus on teaching is only part of a shift of mentality that is necessary – the number of congratulatory emails that are sent out when a professor in my department gets something published is embarrassing. you don’t see the same excitement on the rare occasion that a TA (or, even more rarely, a professor) receives a teaching award. yet the articles being published are in journals that are read solely by hispanists and have no repercussion in the wider academic world, let alone the world outside the ivory tower.

    academia, in general, needs to stop thinking so highly of itself, and realize that our primary brief should be to help others, instead of glorifying ourselves. perhaps that would lead to more jobs, or at least better teachers.


    April 8, 2010 at 21:04

  2. I’m actually quite sympathetic to arguments about getting rid of tenure. I think it either should be radically extended so that nearly everyone has it, and thus no one had to worry themselves sick about getting it, or eliminating it entirely. But the current system in which it is held out as a tantalizing reward- so that people drive themselves crazy trying to get it, and ignoring their teaching duties in the process- is not a good one.

    I also thoroughly agree about the need for a renewed emphasis on education. I think we’d still need more structural and political changes as well. But certainly it would be good if education was valued more at Universities.

    But how do we make that happen?


    April 8, 2010 at 23:41

  3. Chiming in again: there isn’t really tenure as such over here either. There are ‘temporary contracts’ and ‘permanent contracts’ and ‘part-time’ and ‘full-time’ positions. Jobs seem to be protected by the unions, I guess? Professorships are exceedingly rare (and usually attached to some kind of endowed chair) so most people are sort of permanently ‘lecturer’ or ‘senior lecturer’ or ‘university lecturer’ or whatever the university calls it; pay is judged on a different (time-based) scale. I’m still not totally clear how one advances from lecturer to senior lecturer though. There is definitely a growing ‘publish or perish’ mentality (the nationwide Research Assessment Exercise grades the output of each department every X years). This has been aided by a shift to seminars/TAs away from one-on-one tutorials with faculty. In general it seems to work. Exceptions: this year, with the supposed budget crises, many are being asked to ‘re-apply’ for their current jobs…no real tenure to protect them.


    April 9, 2010 at 03:25

  4. I don’t think you can change the system without a good understanding for why it exists (you guys are the history PhDs :P) Are the current norms in higher education inevitable without further intervention (different govt. regulation, more grad student / prof unions), or are they just some bad equilibrium where students and donors expect too little from universities, and those expectations become self-fulfilling?

    From an economic perspective, it’s hard for me to understand universities. Stating the obvious, they’re institutions that mainly produce research and provide education services. They hire faculty and give them contracts where all the incentives are towards putting effort into research and not education, and this happens everywhere (maybe to a lesser extent at liberal arts colleges). Universities implicitly collude to provide mediocre education everywhere. Yet students still get enough benefits from college (some signalling benefit of college degree, peer effects) to go there. Donors still seem happy to give universities money in the current arrangement. Whoever hires the “star” faculty must benefit in some fashion.

    It seems to me it’s hard to break this system. It’s been like this for a while. But it also seems like things didn’t have to be this way from the outset, and that this is far from the only higher education system that could’ve have arisen from a state of nature.


    April 9, 2010 at 08:24

  5. Weiner,

    Your off the cuff comment that graduate student unions would protect “shitty” teachers perpetuates some of the most unfair and sterotypical notions about unions and demonstrates that you really don’t know very much about the topic. Most graduate student union contracts (and certainly the contract of the Graduate Employee Organization at the University of Michigan, the contract with which I am most familiar) has many formalized points of review. Students and faculty review teaching assistants (and lecturers) and if TAs consistently underperform, they are penalized.

    What a union contract does is make sure that this review process is not arbitrary or unfair. A union guarantees that employees are removed only for cause, and that they have representation and advocacy during any review process. Maybe you are one of those people who think that people accused of crimes don’t deserve defense attorneys, but basically that’s the role unions, both grad students and otherwise, play in disciplinary procedures. And yes, infrequently the guilty and, as you so articulately state, the “shitty” do go free or retain their jobs. But much more frequently good teachers are protected from arbitrary discipline or bullying faculty.

    Any by the way, I teach at a teaching university (University of Michigan—Flint) so I value teaching and think quite a lot about it.
    Jason Kosnoski

    Jason Kosnoski

    April 9, 2010 at 11:03

  6. DGM: I agree that teaching needs to be celebrated. I’m not sure the way to do it. Higher salaries and more prestige for good teachers would be nice, but I’m not sure if there’s money for that or if there would be support for it.

    Wiz: Don’t know how to do it, except as grad students we have an obligation to do our best as TAs, despite shitty labour conditions. While I support some union activity, tension between grad student/TAs and the administration often hurts the undergraduates most of all.

    BinEngland: I can’t comment much on the situation across the pond, though it’s useful to know how other countries’ universities operate. It sounds like the system you described might be somewhat preferable to the system used in the US, though it also may have it’s flaws. I appreciate your comments greatly.

    DRDR: I should know more about the history of universities. Nems81 knows a good bit more about this. The existence of tenure has a lot to do with issues of academic freedom. Without it, professors worried they could be fired for political reasons. But I certainly agree with you that it doesn’t have to be this way.

    Jason: I apologize if my comments offended. I know there are many in academia who care about teaching, my point is at research universities, there are many who don’t, TAs included. And while in principle I think unions are supposed to function in the way you described, I think in practice they often do not.


    April 9, 2010 at 21:58

  7. […] this blog, weiner, has mentioned the need for a greater emphasis on teaching during grad education, a position I agree with. But, I […]

  8. […] and Weiner have both addressed the crisis of the humanities and I broadly agree with their proposals. Given […]

  9. […] what’s wrong with many of the well-known critiques. We’ve been through some of these arguments before at PhD Octopus, so I won’t rehash them here now. Instead, I’d like to point to […]

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