Benton’s “Dodging the Anvil” and Reinventing What You Can Do With an English PhD

Thomas H. Benton (pen name for William Pannapacker) wrote a real gem on The Chronicle’s website on January 4, 2010 titled, “Dodging the Anvil” (i.e., the anvil of doom already and always falling on the poor head of Wily E. Coyote). The article is about the continuing horror of humanities graduate students to find gainful employment within the academy. He writes:

Even with some cyclic ups and downs, following the U.S. economy, the academic job market has been in a depression since the early 1970s, and—just as we were beginning to accept that things were not going to improve—we are now confronted with an even more desperate situation for the humanities job seeker. If we regard the Modern Language Associations Job Information List as representative of the humanities, then we are seeing the most rapid decline in advertised positions since the MLA started keeping records, 34 years ago “MLA Newsletter,” Winter 2009. Last year, at the beginning of the recession, the number of positions advertised in English declined by 24.4 percent; this year it is down by an additional 40 percent. Last year foreign-language positions were down 27 percent; this year they are down by an additional 52 percent.

via Dodging the Anvil – Advice – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This was a year and a half ago, and I suspect that things are as bad or worse now. Benton works through the difficulties of getting a job, and he also offers a few suggestions about how to obtain a job despite the mess that things are in now. However, the suggestions that he makes are obvious–be the best from the best school and have the best luck–something that he readily admits. Things are just that bad right now.

Benton does wonder at the end of the piece about the possibilities of finding employment outside of the academy. He thinks that it might be high-time for humanities PhDs to re-invent themselves for a variety of jobs. This is something that I have already had some experience with a graduate of Georgia Tech with the mystifying, “B.S. in Science, Technology, in Culture.” It was certainly a rigorous and preparatory program, but I had to devise my own ways to tell others about what I did there and how it prepared me for the programs that I applied for afterwards.

Now, it might be necessary for many of us to consider how we might do a similar thing with English Literature PhDs in order to work at many different kinds of jobs. I believe that this will be extremely difficult in its own right, because many employers will be afraid of hiring someone with such a high terminal degree for a job that on the surface does not need someone with that kind of training. It might come down to other work that PhD holders have done (e.g., blogging, non-academic writing, internships, tangible self-employment that demonstrates other skills, etc.).

Personally, I am still in this game for the long haul to be a professor, but the terrible job reports are keeping me painfully aware of the necessity of having a plan b, c, d, . . . etc.

Mike Rowe Senate Testimony, Some Ideas for Building a Strong America and an Ecology of Jobs

Mike Rowe, creator, executive producer, and host of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs, gave testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on May 11, 2011. I like Mr. Rowe and his show. He goes places and does things that most of us might not want to do. He also goes places and does things that most of us might not even have imagined! Furthermore, he does things on his show with men and women with unique and necessary skill sets that American society in general puts down or disregards. As Mr. Rowe outlines in his testimony before the Senate committee, we are placing our country at a disadvantage by promoting some kinds of training (i.e., university education) over others (i.e., vocational and trade skills). Furthermore, we owe it to those people who make our modern technologically driven world possible to recognize what they do, make an effort at understanding what they do, and support the furthering development of those lines of work in order to further develop our country. Dreams are not small when someone chooses a trade or skill that will provide them a happy and healthy life. However, our society seems to promote the idea that skilled and unskilled labor are small dreams. This is an artificial diminishing of the reality of what our country needs and how those needs can be met by people who need to have a productive life. To put it another way, America, like any forward thinking country, needs a robust ecology of workers and jobs to support growth, development, and enrichment. Growth and development have to do with growing what our country is capable of as well as the continuing development of our infrastructure to support a growing population. What I mean by enrichment is the enrichment of American citizens’ lives. This can be accomplished through a variety of vectors, but I think one of the most fulfilling is the self-satisfication derived from doing good work that one is proud to own and that supports a robust life. McDonald’s recent 62,000 job additions may help the recently unemployed who need to pay the bills, but the further development of part-time, minimum wage service economy jobs will not help America in the longterm. Certainly, some folks may like and thoroughly enjoy having a lifelong career at a service-type job and there is surely nothing wrong with that. However, these cannot be the only kinds of jobs available for folks. Those jobs do not build jet engines. Those jobs do not build bridges. Those jobs do not build houses. Like I said before, a robust ecology of jobs will take American into the future, but it will require a shift in opinions of the American people as well as the foresight of entrepreneurs to support the training and hiring of people who realize that they can find their way in life without or in conjunction with some university education. Much more needs to be done to make these things possible. The federal and state governments need to commit to these realities and provide funding to help make it happen for people. Something that I believe comes up again and again in other contexts is the reevaluation of contemporary high school education. As it now stands, high school education is geared towards evaluation and testing. If we do not put back an emphasis on independent reasoning and a broad approach to instruction rather than the narrow tunnel vision of test preparation, then we will have already lost any possibility of putting into effect the things that we need to do for a continuing and strong nation.

Look to the Future for Solutions Rather than the Past: Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. calls out iPad as a job-killer

Kelly Hodgkins reports on a story from MacDailyNews that Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., who once thought iPads and ebook readers should be a guaranteed right of all American school children, is now attacking the iPad and lesser devices as the engines of American job destruction. He wrongly accuses the iPad and other easily portable computing devices as killing American publishing and bookselling jobs. This is an incredibly shortsighted way of seeing technological development and its effect on jobs and the economy. Furthermore, his way of thinking is anti-progress and anti-innovative. Instead of lamenting the shifts in the economy as a result of technological innovation, he should be part of the solution to figure out new economic models that supports jobs and economic growth rather than decrying the on-going shift to new economic models that support these new technologies. We cannot look backwards nostalgically if we intend to weather the current economic storms. However, we can look backwards for inspirations on how to handle shifts in jobs. We know from history that there have been massive displacements of workers as a result of new technology, and humanity by and large handled those shifts in innovative and creative ways. This is not to say that these shifts are always for the better, but the innovations that lead to their taking place were necessary and inevitable for various reasons. Demonizing technology is not going to solve our current job crisis. Doing away with the iPad (obviously, not something that will happen), will not magically resurrect the lethargic mega-bookseller Borders or the other nosediving brick and mortar booksellers. Looking into the past, there were not always book sellers as we knew them, and looking into the future, there will not always be book sellers as they were in the past. Businesses have to adapt to the market and the influence that new technologies have on the marketplace. Likewise, jobs will have to be changed and the education necessary for job holders will need to adapt to the new needs of the market. Rep. Jackson and other congressional leaders need to look to the future and employ their extrapolative imaginations rather than their nostalgic memories of a bygone era. Some businesses are already doing this while other businesses that refuse to adapt are going the way of dinosaurs. Some of these resistant businesses are taking longer than others to die out, but it is likely that new Tyrannosaurus and Brachiosaurus will arise on the marketplace savannas. Hopefully, political and business leaders will adopt a more inventive strategy to shape these future Goliaths.

Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. calls out iPad as a job-killer.

A Means to an End, the PhD and Professional Emergence

Andrew Pilsch posted a link to Matt Feeney’s article about the PhD doldrums that adds another perspective to the ongoing discussion here about finding work in the promised land, or at least having fun strolling through the desert even if you don’t make it there.

I agree with many of the things that Feeney has to say about what to do as a PhD student in the here-and-now such as connecting with folks outside the department, focus on what you’re doing right now–reading and working with the things that you’ve read, develop an engaging dissertation topic that will take you places (give the means to get to where you need to go do research), and getting done as soon as possible.

However, I don’t buy into Feeney’s first major point, “View the Ph.D. as an end in itself.” This sounds too much like spending precious time, money, and creative effort without some sense of where I am going. It reminded me of the picture above of Miao Miao playing in her catship. She’s having an awful lot of fun doing her cat thing, and she revels in the process of being-cat. However, she doesn’t, as far as I can tell, have a end goal in mind for her being-cat. For Miao, it is an on-going process of being-cat, or cat-emergence.

Unlike Miao, we, PhD students, have to have a means for providing for our being-professional, being-teaching, being-professor. Our emergence as an intellectual worker and teacher depends on our securing a job that enables our becoming. Miao, through the grace of the maker and Yufang’s and my good will, has the support and patronage that allows her cat-emergence as it configured within the confines of our house (her emergence outside the safety of our home would be very different than it is now). It is with this need of financial, institutional, and community support in mind that I consider an end goal, the PhD as a means to an end, the degree as a means to make my work possible.

Obviously, we all may not end up where we want to be at the end of the PhD process, but I intend to marshall every resource I have available to achieve my own pedagogical, research, and professional goals, all of which are made possible by my work in and beyond the PhD program.

I, like many of my friends in English PhD programs, began this arduous journey of learning and preparation in order to get some where, namely teaching and research. The latter augments the former through expertise and cultivating an ever-refreshing approach to teaching in the university environment.

Perhaps some folks begin PhD programs as a kind of holding pattern, not knowing what they want to do or where they want to go, but I, and many others, realized that we had a goal in our sights that was made possible only by the successful completion of our program with ancillary work augmenting our CV.

Furthermore, I and my compatriots joined this particular wagon train because we enjoy the journey as much as our arrival in the promised land–the frontier’s edge. Our journey doesn’t end there, at least not for all, because we should continue venturing further into unexplored territories of research, ideas, and pedagogy. We are, like Miao, in a continuing emergence of self as professor, researcher, and professional, but the PhD makes those things possible. Holding the degree as an end unto itself may erode the possibilities that the degree and one’s other work make possible.

Considering the PhD as an end unto itself is a step backwards. It reinstitutes the holding pattern, the wandering without a focus. We, as PhD students preparing for jobs in whatever way suits our individual goals, need to revel in the joys of our work and the professional preparation that we are daily engaged in.

Perhaps PhD programs do not instill enough plasticity into our selves that we can draw on if our goals do not work out as well as we would like. Finding new ways to employ our skills if we don’t land the job we desire is necessary. However, the PhD program is only one aspect of our lives, and the many other places in which we learn and those we learn from should augment our skills to roll with the punches, to seize success despite the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Enjoy the process, prepare for the punches, but most importantly, keep your eye on the prize.

Where Have All the Tenure Track Jobs Gone?

Andrew Pilsch, pictured above on the right circa 2005 at Georgia Tech, recently wrote a very cogent and important post titled “Luck, Hard Work, Blame: How (and Why) Older Generations Hate Us,” which is about the trouble our generation is having finding tenure track jobs and the blame that some entrenched academics mete out on us poor saps for listening to them in the first place.

The problem with finding good jobs in academia now is a revisiting of ghosts from the past. The bad economy keeps folks at work who otherwise might retire, and even when professors retire, administrators convert those positions into non-tenure track, part-time posts–the Wal-Mart-ification of higher education workers.

Andrew’s beef is with people of authority who told him that things would be okay as long as you do well, publish, and give it a good effort. Unfortunately, things are so bad now that even knocking it out of the park might just be a foul ball. I haven’t been to MLA, but I heard from friends who went last year and this year that the available job interviews decreased from about 1,200 to 900. It’s not just that there are fewer jobs available, but it’s also a tremendous number of folks vying for those few jobs. I realize that these metrics of getting a job are affecting everyone right now, but I believe that Andrew does make a valid point that some authority figures in academia that we have each encountered separately have painted rosier pictures about our future job prospects. However, I can honestly say that at Kent State I have encountered more Simon Cowell’s than Kara DioGuardi’s. The early wakeup call that I got from some professors at KSU have put a lot more drive into my motor to build a terrific CV, but my own struggles getting published and meeting young folks who are equally, if not more so, bright with a hunger in their eyes that I recognize from my own have made me question to some extent where I am right now and what I plan on doing in the near future.

I love what I do, I want to do more of it in the future, and I want to excel in my field making lasting contributions. However, the way things are right now and the administrative changes that are taking place with long term implications are making me worry about there being a place for me to do the things that I set out to do several years ago before I earned a B.S. and M.A. and put in almost three additional years thus far on my Ph.D.

I agree with Andrew that we, as graduate students and fellow academics of this generation, have to stick together. I have told my friends here at Kent State the same thing–we are all in this together. These are good sentiments, but I do not know to what extent we can affect a change that will result in more jobs that will provide research and pedagogical fulfillment. Perhaps we are all just weathering a rather lengthy and terrible storm.

What would you say is the best way to survive the current academic job slump? How can we as graduate students pull together to make things better for ourselves?