The Job Crisis and Graduate Studies

At the heart of our committee's deliberations has been, of course, the complex and often painful relation between the job crisis and graduate studies. To what extent can the poor job market, along with the multitier job system associated with it, be improved by changing (1) the size of the graduate student population in our disciplines and (2) the nature of the training students receive in most graduate programs whose fields the MLA represents?

To begin with the question of size, we should note that data from recent MLA surveys of doctorate-granting departments in English and foreign languages reveal that, despite widespread and much-publicized concern over the poor job market, the number of PhD students in our fields grew fairly strongly throughout the first half of the 1990s.10 In this regard, Phyllis Franklin has asked a set of telling questions:

Should anyone who meets minimal qualifications and wants to enter a PhD program in language and literature be allowed to make the effort? What kinds of information should institutions provide prospective students about future employment opportunities? Under what circumstances should these students turn back? What do universities owe prospective graduate students when these institutions benefit in various ways both from the presence of students and from the existence of a pool of PhDs from which universities can draw inexpensive part-time teachers? What do faculty members who may also benefit from the presence of graduate students owe these students? And what are the obligations of an organization like the MLA to its members and to the field in a depressed job market? ("Climbing")

An obvious way of dealing with the relation between the poor market and the growing number of graduate student job seekers—a strategy often advised with passion and moral urgency by concerned commentators—would adjust supply to demand through radical cutbacks of graduate enrollments. Our committee debated this solution to the problem of academic underemployment at length and intensely, but while, with important reservations, we agreed that some cutbacks will almost certainly be necessary, we were convinced that across-the-board enrollment reductions would not adequately address the issues at stake here. To be sure, as our recommendations will make clear, we feel strongly that if departmental self-studies reveal that a program's PhDs aren't obtaining appropriate, tenure-track positions, judicious cutbacks of graduate student numbers may be necessary. At the same time, as committee member April Knutson puts it, we very much want to "encourage departments to take concrete measures to maintain and strengthen the diversity of their faculty and graduate student employees"; indeed, Patricia Carter, another member, felt so strongly about the need to strengthen diversity that she abstained from voting on the committee's recommendations because she feared they might seem to imply enrollment cutbacks.11 In any case, we all agree that any cutbacks would have to be made locally, and only widescale local actions could accumulate so as to have national impact. Thus we also agree that each department has to decide questions about graduate enrollments in relation to its own conditions, its own placement records, and its own intellectual objectives.

With regard to the issue of intellectual objectives, moreover, we should note that the perceived intensity of the job crisis may have much to do with what Guillory and Laurence call the "pronounced ambiguity associated with graduate study in our fields"—with, that is, the disparity between the expectations and assumptions about college teaching that most graduate programs inculcate in their PhD candidates and the actual work most of those candidates will do once they leave the research-oriented PhD-granting institutions where most of them have studied. As Cheryl Glenn observes in a brief entitled Graduate Education: Education? Vocation? Profession?, which she prepared for our committee, "In the United States over 90% of English programs and most likely between one-half and two-thirds of the total number of professorial-rank appointments are located outside doctorate-granting research institutions.12 Given these percentages, the message seems clear: the primary goal of graduate education should not be to replicate the graduate faculty." Yet many doctoral students have been acculturated to define themselves as failures if they do not land jobs exactly like those of their professors.

To underscore her point, Glenn quotes from a 1996 report in Change, which comments that while "102 universities produce 80 percent of all U.S. doctoral degrees awarded annually," the "majority of 'hiring' institutions—liberal arts colleges of varying selectivity, comprehensive universities of different sizes, technical and community colleges, and other special colleges— ... have missions, values, cultures, and conceptions of faculty roles and responsibilities far different from those of doctorate-granting research universities" (Gaff and Lambert 38). That this information is widely available and obvious is evidently irrelevant, given what both John Guillory and the former MLA president Patricia Meyer Spacks have seen as an increasing tendency for graduate programs across the country to foster in their students a sort of precocious professionalism based on research-oriented institutional models.

Indeed, even though the MLA's own handbook for job seekers offers cautionary advice—in the words of English Showalter, "The diversity of the higher education system and the very small proportion of PhD-granting departments within that system mean that impressions about the profession and the work of being a professor formed solely on the basis of personal experience in a PhD-granting department are unfortunately liable to be misleading" (55)—most graduate programs fail to convey this message to their students. Thus, as committee member George Levine also observes,

most students graduate from research universities with models of critical study (and pedagogy) derived from the most successful scholar-critics they have encountered. They see their careers as following out lines of research consistent with (even if occasionally in polemic against) the work of their professors. Their careers are therefore, for the most part, aimed at a return to the major research institution rather than at a future in the community colleges, junior colleges, and small sectarian schools that now provide our profession with so large a proportion of its work. And therefore most of graduate education might be misleading to students as they enter the job market.

Even more specifically, as Herbert Lindenberger noted to the committee, "graduate students at elite institutions have a hard time imagining themselves teaching at other types of schools—the very schools at which the vast majority of them are likely to be offered positions. Their role models throughout graduate work have been their professors, people whom they have observed devoting themselves to research and teaching mainly advanced courses. These professors, in turn, often have the effect of making their students feel like failures if the students don't find jobs replicating the professors' careers." In this regard, a comment from Norris J. Lacy, another committee member, is especially telling: "if student attitudes are to change, those of faculty members must do so first. An offer from a two-year institution or a high school should not elicit the response (as it recently did from a prominent academic), 'Oh, well, it'll put food on the table while you're looking for a job.'"

To resolve this "continuing radical disparity inside the profession between the contractual obligation to teach and the reward system geared to scholarship and research," George Levine comments that "colloquia, seminars, and conferences emphasizing developments in higher education, some of which will not seem immediately related to students aiming at their degrees, are going to be important." In addition, he notes, graduate programs will have to incorporate into their training "the sorts of material that will serve students finding jobs at teaching-heavy colleges," perhaps by establishing "exchange programs or cooperative programs with smaller, teaching-heavy colleges in their areas so as to provide graduate students with experience of what teaching in such institutions is like and to encourage an understanding of these institutions that might be useful in job searches." Furthermore, Levine observes, some graduate programs may—without repudiating intellectual innovation or advanced theory—have to consider "the more traditional curricula likely to be in place at nonelite institutions."

In a similar vein, committee member Jane Harper, expressing puzzlement "about the perception that community colleges do not hire PhD recipients" when many of "the position descriptions posted by these institutions specify a preference for the PhD," confesses equal concern about "the attitude acquired by graduate students that teaching in a community college is undesirable, a job of last resort." Asks Harper, "Since 50% to 60% of first- and second-year college students in the United States attend community colleges and since much, perhaps most, of the instruction in college English and foreign languages is offered at the first- and second-year levels, is it not reasonable to consider the possibility of engaging in dialogue with the community colleges concerning their needs in faculty skills and expertise?" After all, she adds, the "two-year college may be the site of the most job opportunities in English and foreign languages."

Index | Continue >