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The History of the Job Crisis in the Modern Languages

"The academic professions that serve higher education in the United States seem today to be edging into serious economic trouble. Should present trends continue, life in the professions, particularly in the humanities, could turn grim indeed, and, as a result, few future college students could expect an education of a quality comparable to that which is presently thought to be their inalienable right." This "melancholy conclusion" was reached in 1970 by the MLA's Commission to Study the Job Market, whose chair, David Orr, added grimly, "[W]ord from throughout academe is that other disciplines, including the sciences, are in similar situations" (1185).

Although many MLA members, looking at the bleak dynamics of the current job market and the increasingly inequitable job system, believe that we confront unprecedented circumstances today, the forces that helped shape the crises we face have been in play for some time. As Orr declared almost three decades ago, "[A] desire to increase the number of Ph.D.'s to fill what was thought to be an endless need and a desire on the part of a disproportionately large number of persons to become Ph.D.'s have combined to cause an oversupply," while another reason for "the great increase in number of graduate students ... is the universities' discovery [that] B.A. graduate students or M.A.'s working toward the Ph.D. can be had at lower cost per class than established professors," and a "further reason ... was a desire for prestige on the part of developing institutions" (1190). Thus, observed Orr, in what seems like an almost uncanny anticipation of comments made by members of our committee, "[e]conomic factors in Ph.D.-granting institutions have caused them to rely more heavily than before on Ph.D. candidates, i.e., teaching assistants, to handle their lower-level courses" (1191).

The pool of cheap (adjunct and TA) labor provided by the growth of the graduate system and the overproduction of PhDs has, then, a long history. Indeed, the roots of the problem can be traced back more than a third of a century, to the period between 1958 and 1972, when the number of PhDs granted grew at an extraordinary rate, apparently in acknowledgment of the "endless need" generated by a system of higher education that seemed to be expanding without limit. Specifically, in these years the number of PhDs earned in English escalated from 333 (awarded in 1958) to 1,365 (awarded in 1972), an increase of 310%, while the number earned in foreign languages increased from 157 (in 1958) to 812 (in 1972), an increase of 417% (Natl. Acad. of Sciences; Natl. Research Council). What, if any, are the factors that may have combined with what Orr defined as "a desire for prestige"--a sort of institutional vanity--and with what rather quickly became the misperception of "an endless need" to spawn a professional supply soon to be so out of phase with marketplace demand? In comments prepared for our committee, David Laurence (director of the Association of Departments of English) and John Guillory have offered a cogent account of the historical context in which the conditions addressed by Orr's report as well as the even more disastrous current situation took shape.

Over the half century since World War II, argue Laurence and Guillory, two broad imperatives have governed American public policy toward (and especially public funding of) higher education: an imperative to enlarge the college-going segment of the population and an imperative to expand institutional capacities for basic research. In their interaction, these two imperatives largely determined the shape of higher education, its employment opportunities, and its conditions of employment, and although the two imperatives in some ways conflicted with each other, both were tied to the cold war. Thus two great cold war federal programs exemplify the social and financial compact that evolved among institutions of higher education, government, and citizens: the student-loan program and the National Science Foundation. Both have annually channeled millions of dollars into higher education--the first through undergraduate tuition, the second through grants and contracts to faculty members--and both have become integral to institutional budgets locally as well as to the fiscal integrity of higher education as a national system. (Parallel to the NSF in concept and to a certain extent in impact, though much smaller in scale, are the national endowments for the humanities and the arts, legislation for which was implemented in 1963.)

According to Laurence and Guillory, the policy compact just described provided subvention for a substantial portion of the costs of educating undergraduate and graduate students, while also underwriting advanced scientific research and sustaining the institutional infrastructure necessary for students and researchers alike. But with the end of the cold war, Laurence and Guillory observe, this compact has been destabilized. To be sure, government support for higher education has for so long been so substantial that our society cannot do without a significant amount of it. Nonetheless, the compact has been unsettled enough to cause financial pressure now and, perhaps more important, growing worries about whether prospective revenue streams will meet projected institutional costs. For this reason, most current policy discussions about the future of higher education focus on questions related to costs--in particular, on why tuition and especially institutional costs have for a considerable period been increasing at a rate greater than inflation, on what cost-containment measures are appropriate, given that such a rate of increase cannot be sustained indefinitely, and on how our society's historical commitment to student access can possibly be preserved in the face of a gap between institutional costs and available revenues that is expected to grow to $38 billion in the year 2015 if appropriations continue to follow current trends (Franklin, "Debate" 5).

Even while student access to (and public expectations for) higher education were reshaped by cold war federal funding initiatives, the new emphasis on research that arose after World War II revised labor conditions for the professoriat. As the biologist R. C. Lewontin has pointed out, the structure of federal research funding meant that each faculty member, on the basis of his or her unique capacity to create new knowledge, might become an entrepreneur on whose success a sponsoring college or university depended for reputation and funding, including especially the recovery of overhead costs, for libraries, laboratories, classrooms, heat, and electricity. As the successful researcher's link to his or her broad (extramural and intramural) disciplinary field as well as to outside funders grew stronger, the local institution's ability to set the conditions of the researcher's work became correspondingly weaker. Prestigious faculty members gained new power to negotiate work conditions--for example, the time apportioned to research activities and teaching activities, especially undergraduate teaching, and the nature of the work that would carry most weight in performance evaluations leading to promotion and tenure. Moreover, these academics gained their power on the basis of technical knowledge and skills unique to them as individuals practicing in specialized intellectual disciplines.

Such a renegotiation of faculty authority was bound to have implications for the other imperative shaping higher education: extending undergraduate education to a greatly enlarged segment of the population. Questions of merit along with issues of opportunity became more important than they had traditionally been in a system where college attendance had long (with comparatively few exceptions) been based on social class. In principle and apart from "open admission" policies, a political agenda emphasizing broader access to higher education offered college attendance to a student population not just (as before) of varying intellectual accomplishment but also massively larger and more diverse in economic and social origin than earlier groups. Eventually, this policy brought to higher education an undergraduate student body that confronted faculty members with significant social and pedagogical challenges, even in the elite institutions that in the 1950s developed their current competitive, highly selective, merit-based admissions systems.

Over half a century, then, higher education deliberately and as a matter of public policy gathered a student body that, from one point of view, would be described as "increasingly ill-prepared." Over the same half century, however, the institutions of higher education cultivated with equal deliberateness a particular kind of faculty ambition for which the best working conditions and salaries and the highest professional reputation were ever more closely linked to intellectual capacities expressed through specialized research. How could the student body's escalating need for "basics" be reconciled with institutional demands for faculty members to engage in "advanced" research?

Laurence and Guillory note that the tensions between the imperatives to extend access to undergraduate education and to expand higher education's research mission could be managed fairly readily while resources were expanding. Under conditions of structural expansion such as prevailed briefly in the 1960s, more undergraduates meant a need for more campuses and more career faculty lines. The expansion of undergraduate education thus propelled the expansion of graduate education and led in the fifteen years between 1958 and 1973 to the extraordinary increase in the number of PhDs noted above. At some point, however, a limit on the capacity to fund new positions for faculty members was inevitably reached and the market for new PhDs saturated. In the modern languages, as the Orr committee's report indicates, structural expansion was displaced by institutional equilibrium in 1969. Over the quarter century since, those awarded PhDs in our fields have faced an academic marketplace where (with one brief, modest exception in the late 1980s) qualified candidates seeking academic careers in tenure-track positions have far outnumbered available positions.8

The imperatives of access and research remain firmly in place, observe Guillory and Laurence, and have entailed practical consequences for English and foreign language departments that reach beyond those affecting higher education generally. As we have already observed here, it has fallen largely to English and foreign language departments to shoulder the burden of basic and remedial education in the humanities that follows from the university's implementation of a policy of increasingly broad student access. And in an institutional context that emphasizes research, a department's commitment to basic courses required of many undergraduates provides both the department and the institution with strong incentives and justifications for maintaining a large graduate program. The system is circular. A graduate program makes available to the institution a corps of instructors who can assume the burden of basic education, and the presence of large numbers of graduate students obliges professorial-rank faculty members in the department to provide graduate courses for those students. Thus, tenure-track faculty can be unified institutionally across the humanities, sciences, and social sciences--brought together by the overarching goal of enriching knowledge and subject to a single set of rules for their own professional advancement. At the same time, the institution can honor its commitment to provide baccalaureate education to the widest possible range of prospective students.

In a further twist, conclude Guillory and Laurence, the dual imperatives of access and research potentially propel a distinction between, on the one hand, knowledge work based on intellectual capacities uniquely vested in individuals and, on the other hand, undergraduate teaching perceived as routine service work seeking to transmit and develop "basic skills." The emergence of adjunct faculty members, whether full- or part-time, as a significant segment of those teaching introductory undergraduate courses suggests that higher education has institutionalized just such a distinction. Hence the ambiguity of graduate education in our fields: Is such education induction into the specialized role of intellectual knowledge worker--a role cultivated by advanced seminars, research papers, and conferences? Or is it training for the more "basic" job of educational service worker--a job implied by the tasks most graduate students actually perform as TAs? The current multitier employment system, which divides the faculty into a decently remunerated tenured portion and a poorly remunerated non-tenure-track portion, can usefully be understood as the university's intentional or unintentional resolution of the dilemmas associated with its conflicting commitments to broad student access and faculty research in a context where resources have for some time been growing more slowly than costs.

Some commentators on the state of higher education have applauded this system, recommending further top-down corporate-style management to streamline rising costs that threaten to make college degrees increasingly inaccessible to lower-income Americans.9 Yet, as Anne Warner, a committee member, has commented, "concern with increasing income disparities should not be directed only toward those outside the job system in higher education." In fact, although--in the words of another member, Cheryl Glenn--"efficiency and accountability are crucial to any educational system, institutions of higher education cannot make economic, capitalist, and corporate considerations their primary concerns. Instead, these institutions should be committed to the highest-possible quality of education while reaching an ever-broadening spectrum of the American population," and high-quality education can be better delivered by appropriately compensated professionals than by poorly paid "service workers."


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© 2014 Modern Language Association. Last updated 10/29/00.