5 Things Faculty Can Actually Do About the Academy, Part 1: Celebrate Good Times, C’Mon!

Author: | Posted in General, The Discipline 1 Comment

Often when humanities PhDs are talking about the academic job market or the labor conditions of the academy, there is such a sense of general despair or helplessness that we just become a little snarky.


But in a market where people are told that there were 500 other stellar applicants to a single tenure-track position, snark can be a survival mechanism; we can acknowledge that things are horrible, but at least we still have our quick wit! At worst, we hear tenure-track faculty openly sneering at their un- or under-employed counterparts for not being able to cut it or for having the audacity to suggest employment was a goal of the 7-10 extra years they spent getting a degree. In other, more frequent circumstances, we hear a genuine concern for and acknowledgement of the problem, but also general lack of concrete solutions that do not burden the very people—graduate students and people off the tenure-track—who are affected the most by the dearth of tenure-track humanities jobs. Floated solutions that ask graduate students to carry the weight of resisting or combating bad federal, state, institutional, and departmental policy (Don’t go! You should have known! Find a way to get an alt-ac job! Make your own job!) are, quite frankly, not good enough.

With the crushing hopelessness of changing state and federal politics, the jerks on Twitter, and the comment trolls of the Chronicle of Higher Ed online in mind, my partner (an adjunct) and I (a full-time professor) tried to think of five ways that tenure-track, tenured, and full-time faculty might actually be able to make a difference in this struggle. We first floated these on Twitter, and while we got the usual mean nonsense and subtweeting we expected, we also got some really good feedback that helped to clarify some of these points. On this front, thanks to Ted Underwood (@Ted_Underwood), Alan Jacobs (@ayjay), and James Schirmer (@betajames) for engaging. The most important thing to take away from these five suggestions is that they are not the only ways to combat or ameliorate job market misery or poor academic labor conditions, and, as Ted Underwood put it, our problems are going to take a comprehensive and collective set of solutions. In this post, the first of five, however, I want to offer some suggestions for how tenure-track and full-time faculty (we lucky few!), including myself, might start becoming part of that collective solution by holding ourselves accountable.

5. Openly, loudly, and with great vigor, we should celebrate every faculty job.

Here’s a reality: Most institutions of higher learning in the United States are primarily teaching institutions.

Most of us who earned PhDs in the humanities probably know that, but it is not something I can recall anyone every saying out loud while I was on the market or on the road to the degree. According to the 2010 update to the Basic Classification system by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, there are 108 universities with the designation RU/VH, which stands for Research University/Very High Research Activity, that grant doctoral degrees. There are 99 doctoral-granting research institutions with high research activity (RU/H), and 90 doctoral granting research institutions without a “high” research classification (DRU). All total, there are 297 doctoral granting institutions (the RUs) in the country. Compare that to 1201 non-profit institutions with the designation of “Associate’s College”, schools where at least 90% of degrees awarded are the Associate’s degree, or the 957 “Baccalaureate’s Colleges” where “baccalaureate degrees represent at least 10 percent of all undergraduate degrees and where fewer than 50 master’s degrees or 20 doctoral degrees were awarded.” There are 724 “Master’s Colleges and Universities”, where institutions awarded “at least 50 master’s degrees and fewer than 20 doctoral degrees.” Looked at another way, there are 297 primarily research institutions, but there are 2882 institutions where teaching makes up a significant majority of the faculty member’s institutional role. Or, for every one research institution, there are approximately ten teaching institutions. Or, for those who like visuals:

FacultyWork (1)

Of course many teaching institutions expect their faculty members to maintain an active research agenda and working at a teaching institution does not mean you are not a researcher, whether that means publishing in peer reviewed journals, presenting at conferences, or continuing education in the field. My own teaching institution, for instance, allows me to dedicate up to 20% of my faculty evaluation to professional development, which for me often includes working on publications, doing other professional writing, or going to conferences. However, and this is the case for most teaching institutions, at least 50% of my evaluation must be based on my teaching. Faculty at teaching colleges can certainly be excellent researchers, and faculty at research institutions can certainly be great teachers.

The actual ratio of teaching to research for faculty members, though I think instructive, is not really my point in this post. My point is that if most institutions of higher learning in this country are primarily teaching institutions, and if there are ten teaching institutions for every one research institution, and if there are 2,882 teaching institutions in this country, and only 297 research institutions, it stands to reason that most graduates of humanities PhD programs who want to be professors will end up working at teaching institutions. You probably wouldn’t know this, however, if you were at any time a humanities PhD student at a research institution, especially if you were a PhD student at an RU with the “Very High Research Activity” designation. Most research institutions are made up of faculty who spend a significant portion of their time doing research, and so perhaps do not think to mention to their students that most of them will end up at schools where they spend at least 50% of their time and efforts teaching. The disjuncture between earning a degree at a research institution and being offered a job at a teaching institution has many unintended consequences that lead to sometimes serious personal and professional issues for graduate students. I will cover the professional issues related to job preparation in a later post, so I’ll focus here on the personal issues that can arise from not acknowledging that most humanities PhDs who want to be professors, even those from top-tier programs, especially in recent years, will end up at teaching institutions, and how faculty who are advisers and mentors can make it better.

There is a culture, intentional or unintentional, of misinformation about where graduates have placed. In an effort to attract more and better graduate students, departments are sometimes not very forthright about how many of their graduate students are placed, and where those placements are institutionally speaking. Many humanities departments, rather than posting placement data, have a sentence on their “Prospective Students” webpage that reads something like “Recent graduates of our program have placed at…[Insert Best Schools Anyone Has Every Placed At],” with very little context to accompany such a statement. For instance, such a statement is rarely as transparent as “Recent graduates (one, ten years ago) have placed at Harvard (where his mother was chair of the department for thirty years).”

When people say to humanities graduate students “Well, you should have known the market is horrible!”, they do not always acknowledge that departments don’t necessarily make their most recent job market placement record readily available. Not only that, but not being forthright about just how many students get jobs, but also where they get jobs, and what kind of work can be expected, can make graduate students feel like the only “good” job is a job at a doctoral-granting research institution. (This is especially true of the “community college” job, often bandied about in casual conversation as the very last resort. A significant disservice to students and to those jobs, since associate’s colleges make up by far the largest group of institutions of higher learning.) Graduate students often want to emulate their advisers and mentors, so when the research job fails to materialize, students can feel like they themselves have failed on the market. In reality, however, the probability that the student would work at a teaching institution was high from the very beginning. Our approach to the market should reflect our commitments to teaching as well as research. In order to ameliorate the sense of failure many graduate students feel when they do not secure a tenure-track job at a “Very High Research” institution, departments and individual faculty should be forthcoming with their placement record (post it on the website), and should acknowledge that most graduates will end up at teaching institutions. Instead of seeing it as a disappointment, a clear understanding of where graduate students will end up working from the beginning will create a culture where all jobs are treated as equally important.

If we treat all faculty jobs like they are equally important, we might begin to erode the economy of prestige that leads to a host of other problems that make graduate school in the humanities a potentially toxic place. We should acknowledge and celebrate that though different institutions value teaching and research to varying degrees in terms of how faculty are evaluated, all jobs in higher education should involve continuing to improve as a teacher and a learner. All jobs are good jobs, and all jobs are worthwhile and important. Graduate students and their mentors should celebrate every job, because every job is a win. By shifting from a culture that values, explicitly or implicitly, a handful of jobs at research institutions over a much larger percentage of work at teaching institutions, to a culture where we openly acknowledge and value all types of jobs for the teaching, research, and development they contribute to the profession, we as faculty will prepare graduate students who want to be professors for a more rewarding experience as a job candidate and as a faculty member.


Stay  for Part 2, “But I Don’t Want To!” on service and administrative duties.

  1. Posted by Marina Trninic

Add Your Comment