Some thoughts on the recent article by the AHA’s president and executive director (reported by Inside Higher Ed here):
Things Grafton and Grossman get right:
- The dearth of tenure-track jobs can not be blamed on the current economy. Instead, there are two villains: state legislators who defund higher education, and deans and administrators who hire cheap temporary workers (aka adjuncts like me) instead of tenure track workers.
- Graduate programs don’t consistently train students for careers outside of academia. The best you’ll get is a couple of brown-bag lunch meetings on the subject.
Things Grafton and Grossman get wrong:
- They try to let administrators off the hook for hiring cheap temps because “university budgets…lead administrators to opt for flexible, contingent positions,” and there’s some truth to that. But it doesn’t account for the decisions that lead to ballooning administrative budgets at the expense of faculty budgets. In other words: stop hiring managers and building fancy computer labs, and you’ll have more money for teachers. It’s about priorities.
- The problem with getting a job outside the academy isn’t that there is some sort of negative stigma attached to such positions. It’s that these jobs do not exist in the quantity that Grafton and Grossman would lead us to believe. They mention “Chief of Staff of the Army, Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Chief of Staff to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, museum curators, archivists, historians in national parks, investment bankers, international business consultants, high school teachers, community college teachers, foundation officers, editors, journalists, policy analysts at think tanks.” Two sub-thoughts about that list. First: investment bankers and international business consultants? Yeah, I’m sure some of these types have history PhDs, but they probably have MBAs, too; the history PhD is incidental. Which brings me to sub-thought number two: you don’t need a history PhD for any of these other jobs. They say a “doctorate is a vital asset” — asset, yes, vital, no. For most of those positions, you’d probably be better served with some other degree: politics, for instance, or archival studies. If you have a history PhD, it’s not just you and your mentor who expect you to get a teaching job; it’s pretty much every other potential employer.
- If graduate programs are going to train students for non-teaching jobs, they also need to push for those other jobs to appear. It’s all well and good to train me how “conceptualizing relationships between structure, agency, and culture” will get me a job as an investment banker (ha!), but if investment banks aren’t looking for people to do such things and aren’t thinking of history PhDs as top candidates for these jobs, all that extra training won’t help.
- They cop out on one of the things departments can do right away: stop admitting so many damn graduate students. Or, more specifically, don’t admit any graduate students that you can’t pay for. This is one of the greatest crimes in the academy, and it must stop. Plenty of schools do it; I, for instance, was admitted to USC without any funding. The lovely acceptance letter proposed that I pay more than $20,000 a year for the privilege of working my ass off for a few years, after which I would have found few job opportunities and massive debt. This is so transparently greedy — sure, kid, come on in; we’d love your tuition dollars! — that it would be hilarious if it weren’t so dangerous to these students (burdened with debt) and to the job market (now a massive pool of reserve labor, including some souls desperate to do anything — like take a series of adjunct positions for which there should actually be a tenure track job — to pay back their debt).