5 Things Faculty Can Actually Do About the Academy, Part 3: The Humanities Resembles a Pyramid Scheme, and We Should Be Bothered By That

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This is the third part in a five part series about what full-time and tenure-track faculty can do about the “crisis” in the humanities.

Earlier this fall semester, Dr. Anne-Marie Womack (Tulane), a colleague from my graduate institution, and I had a piece about the academic job market in English published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the piece, we make the argument that departments should strive to make the first round of job applications free of cost for candidates. The idea for this piece arose when we were on a flight together to campus visits and we got into a discussion about how much money we had spent on Interfolio during the job search “season”. Both of us had applied to more than 100 jobs, and for myself the Interfolio cost alone was north of $600. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Interfolio, it is a dossier service that allows a candidate to put his or her materials together, including confidential letters of recommendation, and send them as one package to the hiring committee responsible for the job search. The minimum cost for sending a dossier through Interfolio is $6, and in the case of print materials, the price increases as the page count goes up. For most jobs I applied to, the committee required at minimum a CV, three confidential letters of recommendation, a teaching philosophy, a writing sample, and a job letter in the first round of application. Due to the volume of this type of application, the cost for a single Interfolio dossier could go as high as $20. Given such a high cost to applicants, most often graduate students, adjuncts, and postdoctoral fellows, and the fact that many jobs in English had as many as 500 applicants in the first round, we argued that departments and schools should work to make the process free to applicants by requiring only an electronic submission of a CV and job letter in the first round. We further argued that this system would also provide feedback and reassurance to applicants advanced to the next round of the search by contacting them for materials like the writing sample and confidential letters of recommendation. Requesting more materials from a short list, we claimed, “would also alert us of our success and would mark a significant personal accomplishment in what can be a very anonymous process.”

Unfortunately, however, Interfolio is only one portion of the cost incurred by candidates in the humanities. Traveling to the major national conference for the field in the hope of having an interview is another major cost to applicants. Paying up front to go on a campus visit is yet another. (Dr. Womack, in fact, waited months for a school at which she was invited to interview on campus to reimburse her for her travel costs, including airfare.) All told, candidates for jobs in the humanities can spend more than $3,000 on the job market in a single year. For candidates who are on the market for three or more years, this cost quickly becomes untenable. Given that the majority of people usually applying for jobs in the humanities are graduate students, adjuncts, and postdoctoral fellows making less than $20,000 per year, the money spent searching for employment during the hiring “season” can be up to 1/6th of a candidate’s total income for the year.

Dr. Womack and I received an overwhelmingly positive response to our piece, but having read some of the negative comments we received on the Chronicle site and elsewhere, as well as those received by other folks attempting to write about the high cost of the market, I can anticipate the reaction of some of you to the claims I’m making in this post. (Why didn’t I think of using the Post Office? How could I have possibly missed such an obvious solution? Eye. Roll.) The reality is frankly this: The job market in the humanities costs a whole lot of money for applicants, most of whom aren’t making very much money in the first place, and because they want to eventually be paid a liveable salary, they are applying to any and every job for which they are qualified. As full-time and tenure-track faculty members, this should be something that bothers us and that we work to change. In another post about dossiers, where she also cites the one Dr. Womack and I wrote, Rebecca Schuman writes:

I can see the twitchy fingers of search-committee members ready to let me have it in the comments: “But we don’t want a candidate who wants any job! We want a candidate who is willing to put in the time and effort for this one.”

Reality check, committees: Literally any full-time job anywhere is preferable to destitution, or a 5/5 adjuncting load during which a professor schleps between three different campuses, teaching someone else’s ancient Freshman Comp syllabus, holding classes in a chemistry lab and office hours from her 1990 Volvo. It is elitist twaddle to assume that an applicant must have some sort of transcendent calling to your job—because there is absolutely no way for her to know what you’re actually looking for.

The structures of the market outlined above-Interfolio, conference cost, fronting money for campus visits, all in the promise of future employment and the moderate “riches” of a full-time or tenure track faculty job-closely resemble a pyramid scheme. Applicants “invest” money to a larger and more powerful group (the institution of potential employment or one of its proxies) in the hope of a future payoff. In order to work, the pyramid scheme requires a substantial number of people to “invest” at the bottom levels to meet the demands of those at the top. Similarities to this structure can be seen not just in the cost applicants pay to “get in the door”, but also in the structures of graduate school, postdoctoral fellowships, and the adjunctification of teaching labor in the humanities—there is a vast group of “investors” at the bottom, spending 5-10 years being paid very little in order to subsidize the work of those at the top, full-time and tenure-track faculty and administrators, hoping to one day reach the top of the pyramid. Like corporate pyramid schemes that are most likely to negatively affect women, particularly single mothers and women of color, the academic pyramid scheme also affects those in the structure with the least amount of power.

Some of you may be thinking that the structure of the academy more closely resembles an apprenticeship model than a pyramid scheme. In the past, that may have been the case, but it certainly isn’t in the present. The difference between an apprenticeship model and a pyramid scheme is the tenability of future employment that allows the “apprentice” to make a viable living. As we are constantly being told in the humanities, that payoff is a false promise. Pyramid schemes, like the current model of the humanities, are unsustainable. Since there is in reality a finite number of potential investors, the pyramid will eventually collapse. Unfortunately, as we are already seeing, this collapse-in the humanities and in the pyramid scheme-is most likely to negatively affect the “investors” at the bottom. As I argued in my first post in this series, it is not good enough to ask those with proportionately less privilege—graduate students, adjuncts, and postdocs—to bear the burden of changing and resisting the system. As I have argued elsewhere, and as Jesse Stommel intimates in his moving post, “The Collective Weight of Contingency“, we as full-time and tenure-track faculty have to take the lead.

Here are some concrete ways we as FT and TT faculty can resist the pyramid scheme model and ameliorate the high financial, emotional, and professional cost of “investment” in the humanities:

  • As Dr. Womack and I argued in our Chronicle piece, if you are on a search committee, work as hard as you can to make the first round free to applicants.
  • Instead of interviewing at national conferences, often held in an expensive city in an expensive hotel at an expensive time of year for travel, hold interviews with your shortlist of candidates via Skype, Google Hangout, or another free web conferencing service.
  • Make sure that your institution will cover the entire cost of campus visit up front for shortlisted candidates. If your institution cannot do this, consider finding other means of interviewing.
  • Lobby the national conference in your specific discipline where interviews take place to waive the registration and membership fees for job seekers.
  • Establish a set of standard practices for the hiring process that shifts the disproportionate financial, professional, and emotional burdens off of applicants.
  • Pool resources with other full-time and tenure-track faculty members to subsidize conference travel for job applicants at your institution. This can range from setting up scholarships or grants to simply agreeing to take candidates from your institution out to dinner while they at the conference. (Often we look for institutional solutions, which is good, but we shouldn’t underestimate how far something informally agreed upon, like a group of faculty agreeing to pick up the dinner tab each night of the conference, can go in relieving financial and emotional stress.)
  • Work with your departments to streamline time to degree in order to minimize the time and money students spend as “apprentices”. (I’m not arguing that we “lower standards”, but rather that we acknowledge the reality of the job market and where students will be employed, changing the way we operate in order to meet this reality.)
  • Develop career and professionalization programs at your institution that recognize the realities of your current market. This means that FT and TT faculty do research and educate themselves about the market in order to be effective mentors instead of relying on graduate students, postdocs, and adjuncts to bear the full weight of discovering avenues for successful employment. (My first post in this series about where faculty actually work addresses this topic to a degree.)

This list of suggestions is just that, a list of suggestions. It is by no means exhaustive and making the changes suggested here will not be easy and like all change will require collective action. Some of these suggestions may not be possible, but I believe it is our responsibility as faculty members always to try. Some of these suggestions require administrative and institutional change, which as I argued in my second post in this series, means we as FT and TT faculty must engage in that dreaded “thankless” service work. This blog series is focused on the ways that TT and FT faculty can actually ameliorate the conditions of work in the humanities, and so I do not take seriously the ludicrous notion that people going into our fields should not expect a payoff of some kind after years of financial and emotional investment in our system—that ludicrous notion means not only do we resemble a pyramid scheme, but we have no problem with accepting the inequitable labor conditions of actually being one.

I welcome the addition of other concrete suggestions from all of you that have the potential to ameliorate the high cost of financial, professional, and emotional “investment” in a structure that currently resembles a pyramid scheme rather than an educational and professional experience. Most of us go into this line of work because we love it and we want to share it with others. As TT and FT faculty, we should work as hard as we can to ensure that those who come after us can love it as well.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this series after the Winter Break, which will address teaching preparation in graduate programs.

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