Sunday, April 7, 2013

Should I Go To Grad School In The Humanities?

I have a great job.  But it's not one I encourage others to pursue.

While I'm not getting rich (humanities jobs at small liberal arts colleges are like that) I've got pretty good job security, and a great work environment.  My job offers:
  • Stimulating work.  I'm paid to teach smart young people to think on their toes, and I'm expected to think, read, and write about cutting-edge ideas in philosophy;
  • Flexible hours. Some of my work, like grading and preparing lectures, I can do wherever I want;
  • Great co-workers. I'm surrounded by brilliant people, most of whom love teaching, and nearly all of whom love learning.  Sitting around a coffee-shop with just a handful of my colleagues is like going back to graduate school.  I learn from them all the time;
  • Opportunities for self-improvement.  In fact, if I'm not constantly learning, I'm falling behind.  I get to take students abroad, to learn new languages, to read new books, to listen to lectures - it's a great way to stay sharp;
  • Considerable autonomy.  For instance, I write my own lectures, and I design my own syllabi; and
  • The joy of seeing students grow.  
That last one is huge, by the way.  My job can be stressful, but it's also full of joy.

Even so, I'm reluctant to encourage anyone to follow in my footsteps.  While I enjoy a great work environment, the road here was long and the rewards are largely immaterial. Consider this:
  • Grad school is not a simple matter.  It's hard to get in, and while it is often fun, it can be both difficult and stressful. I was in grad school for seven years, most of the time earning minimum wage.
  • Similarly, Getting hired after grad school is also not simple. The academic hiring cycle can be quite long.  Academics tend to take a long time to vet our colleagues, so the time between applying for a job and getting your first paycheck is commonly close to a year.  If you're not hired right away, it can be multiple years.
  • This is because there aren't that many jobs in the humanities.  The number of tenure-track jobs is diminishing in many fields.  The humanities seem especially susceptible to being cut when budgets are tight.  I suppose this is in part because the benefits of the humanities are communal, not just individual.  The individual poet or bassoonist may not get rich by making her art, but the culture is enriched by her presence.  We're all better off for having good storytellers, teachers, and artists, and they usually love their work. Which makes it easy to underpay them, or to fire them when things get tight.   
  • The tenure track is stressful.  Satisfying a tenure and promotion committee can feel like shooting at a moving target - in dense fog.  When the standards for publication, service, and teaching are clear, they can inhibit high-quality work by focusing your attention on the letter of the law rather than the spirit.  If promotion guidelines call for four thirty-page articles in top journals, then that's what you need to write, even if you haven't got a hundred and twenty pages of things to say.  On the other hand, if promotion guidelines only call for evidence of or a habit of scholarship, you can be left wondering if you've provided enough evidence, or sufficiently habituated yourself. 
  • The pay is so-so, and the hours can be long. Every time I hear stories about overpaid university professors, I wonder how I can get one of those jobs. Teaching isn't just what we do in the classroom.  Grading is an important part of teaching, and when you're trying to teach people to reason and read and write well, grading becomes a continuation of the conversation you had in class.  Multiply that conversation by the number of students you have (I have ninety or more in a typical semester) and you've got a lot of important conversations you're trying to carry on.  Which can translate into a lot of hours at work.  
I've been through all that, and I now have tenure at a great institution.  I have excellent students and brilliant colleagues, and we're led by someone I think of as America's best college president.  Even still, I worry sometimes that I'm one of the last of a dying breed.  As American institutions fixate more and more on teaching what they see as profitable rather than on what is good to learn, more on preparing for careers and less on preparing for life, more on jobs and less on vocation -- in short, as colleges favor dollars rather than scholars, I worry that the age of tenure-track jobs in the humanities is coming to a close.

So here's what I tell my students who are thinking of grad school in the humanities: if you can get into a program that pays you to go to school, it's a great way to spend a few years.  Learn what you can, enjoy teaching, and graduate without debt.  Then go on to whatever work you can find.  But if you insist that the only work you'll allow yourself to look for after grad school is a job like mine, you may be in for a great disappointment. But you may be able to find, or to create for yourself, a job that is as fulfilling in some other field.  I hope so.

Because my hope is not that a few of my students will be able to find jobs like mine.  My hope is that all of them will, that all of them will find meaningful work with good colleagues, where they can use their gifts for the flourishing of their communities.  My hope is that all of them will find jobs where they have the joy of helping others to live well, and to grow.

Which is what makes me keep doing what I do.


Update: An interesting article in The Atlantic entitled "The Ever-Shrinking Role of Tenured College Professors (In One Chart.)

1 comment:

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