I posted this on facebook, but figured it would be worthwhile to post it here as well. The comments made by humanities academics in response to Rebecca Schuman’s Slate editorial on Literature Ph.D.’s made me see red. I’m now thinking that every graduate student in the humanities should be required to take a statistics course. Listen folks, the fact that your department hired one or two people is anecdote and doesn’t get at the job market reality that freshly minted Ph.D.’s are facing. You have to go by the ratio of candidates on the market to available positions to say something meaningful on these matters. Likewise, the fact that you can find an exception to a generalization does not undermine the statistical validity of that generalization because curves aren’t defined by their outliers. I can’t tell you how often I hear folks in the humanities reject a statistical generalization based on an outlier. We should know better.
The worst part about the responses to Rebecca Schuman’s editorial were those who suggested that her tone is the reason she hasn’t gotten a tenure track job. We’re talking about a woman who has been on the market for four years working as an adjunct and a visiting professor. Like so many who have earned their Ph.D., she’s been unable to start any sort of life, unable to put down any roots, unable to start a family (if that’s what she so desires), and very likely had great difficulty supporting herself. Meanwhile, her labor has been exploited by the academic system. Not only is she entitled to her tone– I thought it was humorous but others read it differently, I guess –but attacking her tone is attacking the victim. I don’t see how anyone in higher education can defend the trends over the last decade or so.
I’ll add that I’m not endorsing the advice not to pursue a Ph.D.. I’m aware that a number of struggles for more just working conditions in academia are unfolding. I think editorials like Schuman’s are valuable for two reasons. First, I think that they give the public important insight into just how awful things currently are in academia and especially the humanities. That’s an important contribution to these struggles. Second, I think it’s important for undergraduates contemplating pursuing a Ph.D. to know what they’re getting into and to be prepared for it.
Karen Gregory has a nice alternative take on the issue here. For the reasons above, I have mixed feelings about what she says. As Ranciere might put it, political change first requires enunciation of a wrong as an impetus for change. I see pieces such as Schuman’s as contributions to such declarations.