Humanities PhDs, Civility, and Twitter Wars

The recent blog and Twitter tempest between Rebecca Schuman and Claire Potter hurled rage at the indignities of the higher education faculty job market (specfically, UC Riverside giving its finalists for a TT job in English Lit short notice for their interviews) at calls for civility from the post-academic and non-tenured hoi polloi. The curious can channel Benjamin's angel of history and survey the damage:

  • Schuman's "Naming and Shaming" post.
  • Claire Potter's (aka Tenured Radical) oblique reply.
  • Schuman's reply to Potter
  • Potter's abstraction of the specific incident into a warning about the professional pitfalls of social media. The fact that posts on social media have scuttled (or at least complicated) careers seems, however, painfully obvious these days.
  • Ann M. Little (aka Historiann) seconds Potter's call for civility, which Schuman and others interpret as a veiled attempt at silencing and shaming them.
  • Schuman posts a counter guide to academic professionalism for the post-academic traveler.
  • Between all these are too many tweets (civil or not, who knows) to link to.

An interesting new phase of the debate is brewing in comments and tweets. Some grad students and faculty of rhetoric and composition (rhet/comp)—the latter may still be irked by Schuman's essay on getting rid of the college essay (at least in literature classes)—are accusing Schuman of insult and/or unwarranted generalization. Graduate students, like Fredrik deBoer, seem offended by the implication they are naïve, gullible, etc.; and Steven Krause, a rhet/comp scholar asserts Schuman has unfairly generalized the dire job market in literature departments to the Humanities, particularly rhet/comp where the market may, in fact, not be so abysmal. Such criticisms surprised me for apparently ignoring that the rage flaring online over the academic job market isn't directed at supposedly naïve graduate students or contingent faculty but at the new paradigms of academic employment that underpay and undervalue those students and other contingent workers.

Graduate students whose pride Schuman has injured often counter that they knew about the dearth of job prospects but decided to embark on the PhD for various reasons—most of which lead back to a so-called love of their field.1 They are offended that Schuman has obliquely questioned their intellect, their research skills, and their ability to make rational decisions. Yet, deciding to pursue a PhD is never a rational choice, especially given what is so widely known about the academic job market. But the PhD teaches you to think rationally and evaluate evidence logically. So, we have a split consciousness that operates in grad students, like this one, angry with Schuman for pointing out the irrationality of their choices: a call to value the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake regardless of the costs or personal toll that journey will exact on us, which is effectively the ascetic call of many religious vocations; and a post hoc rationalization of the PhD that declares employment prospects aren't actually that bad, that we have a chance, that some fields have more openings than others. On the one hand, knowledge for its own sake; and on the other, a reminder that jobs, money, careers, and security are possible after all.

In the case of deBoer and Krause, the counter push against Schumanian rage derives its force from the sirens' song of post hoc rationalization. Rhet/comp has better TT job prospects than literature disciplines and therefore scholars pursuing that path indeed made a rational decision (at least in retrospect). As for whether job placement in rhet/comp is any better than in literary fields, I have no idea. I'd need to see historical data on the job postings compared with other humanities fields (and sub-fields), while also looking at that number of PhDs granted in each field. Unfortunately, finding such data has been difficult, and compiling it should be a major priority going forward. Anyone with links to reports beyond the MLA's, please send them to me.

Even if the situation in rhet/comp is better than in literature, that hardly says much for the rhet/comp job market. Let's assume that at present 40% of rhet/comp PhDs get TT jobs after filing while only 30% percent of English PhDs do. Is that 10% difference worth investing 6 to 9 years of your life? Is it rational to hope that hiring trends will remain stable over the next decade? We need only remember how quickly the academic job market changed after the Great Recession to understand that such long term forecasting is indeed risky business when deciding to enter a PhD program.

The market for lawyers is considered brutal when only 56.1% of 2012 graduates have full-time employment in legal jobs. Despite this brutality, the top 10 law schools boast 90+% employment rates for their graduating JDs. I suspect most PhD program directors would stamped over the elderly if doing so would guarantee them a placement rate anywhere near 56% for each class of students, and not simply the fraction that actually finish. PhD completion rates are, however, another topic.

  1. William Pannapacker has some thoughts on the ideology of love and graduate studies.
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7 comments

  1. Hi James: thanks for the link, but if you read my post I very clearly say “Please note: this is not a blog post calling for civility, which I agree can be cover for preserving the power relations of the status quo.” I’m groping towards more nuance than I think “civility” captures. “Civility” seems to be kind of a bludgeon online and in RL, in my opinion. (And TR doesn’t use that word either.)

    1. Hi Ann,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Your clarification is welcome, though I’m happy to leave the debate about professionalism/civility/politeness/tone/etc. to you, Claire, and Rebecca. I’ll agree that so-called civility can be a tactic for shutting down debate, but I strive to be polite whenever possible—perhaps I’m old-fashioned despite being a Millennial (by some definitions).

      I didn’t really see a material difference between your guidelines for professionalism in social media (or any content created and disseminated via a CMS like WordPress, Twitter, etc.) and basic etiquette/politeness for face-to-face or email communications. Indeed, I’ve read many a scholarly article or monograph that violates the spirit of many of your guidelines.

      If you read the rest of my post, you’ll see my main interest is the “I knew about the job market when I applied” line I often hear from graduate students (usually people who have yet to go on the market). To me, it’s a case of cognitive dissonance in which we know one fact but act as if we didn’t know.

  2. Steve Krause · · Reply

    Just to be clear: while the market in comp/rhet is clearly better than it is in literature, I’m not trying to suggest that the comp/rhet market is all hunky-dory. What I was trying to get at is I grow very VERY weary of how both the mainstream and the education media speak in general terms about “the Humanities” because a) there is no one universally agreed upon definition of “the humanities” and b) almost ALL of these articles don’t mean “the humanities” at all but rather mean “Literature.” It’s just not that simple.

    1. A fair point Steve. Even within English Lit, various sub-fields see more jobs than others, and that cycles from year to year. The need for more nuanced analysis is one reason I’ve been mulling over a digital humanities project to create (or find) a database of “humanities” jobs (Lit/Rhet/Comp, History, Philosophy, etc.) that we could analyze. Right now, the data seems pretty scattered or gathered only for one off projects with no standard format (i.e., how the entries would track field, sub-field, job type, etc.).

  3. Steve Krause · · Reply

    Well, along the lines of what you’re talking about here, check out http://rhetmap.org/

    1. Yes, someone else sent me a link to that project. I think it’s important to have an accurate dataset of hiring trends, because the conversation now seems dominated by anecdotal evidence.

  4. […] the many posts and tweets about the late-December dust-up between Rebecca (pan kisses kafka) Schuman and Claire […]

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