Talking with the Chronicle’s provocateur about the job market in the humanities and the growing importance of alternate career tracks
In the world of education journalism, there are few opinion voices as potent as that of William Pannapacker, PhD ’99, history of American civilization.
Writing under the pen name Thomas H. Benton in the Chronicle of Higher Education (and also under his own name, which he says he’ll use exclusively from now on) Pannapacker has caused sensations — and jammed up the online comment section — with articles like “Why Do They Hate Us” (September 26, 2010), about a certain kind of public disdain for academia, and “The Big Lie About ‘The Life of the Mind’” (February 8, 2010), about what he sees as an institutional failure to address the realities of graduate education. Perhaps his most notorious piece is “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” (January 30, 2009), which enjoyed a long shelf life among the most-read articles on the Chronicle’s website.
An associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Michigan, Pannapacker has a knack for illuminating the anxieties within contemporary academic culture. Reader reactions, ranging from virtual shouts of hallelujah to strong rebuttals, collectively testify to his skill at finding issues that resonate.
You have — pretty dramatically — advised people not to go to graduate school in the humanities. Why?
Pannapacker: The problem is the dramatic conversion of full-time, tenure-stream academic positions into part-time, non-tenurable, no-benefit positions. Institutions can exploit teachers when there are no regulations and so many graduates willing to work under those conditions. Since those practices are not likely to change out of good will towards academic workers, I focus my efforts on the supply side of the problem. If we could reduce the number of PhDs on the market — and expand their career options — we might see some improvement in the conditions of academic employment, particularly in humanities.
I regularly meet students who have been encouraged to enroll in programs that offer no funding and no reliable information about job placements after graduation. After all, we are trained to believe that more education always equals more opportunity and that educational debt is always “good debt.” And professors who deviate from that message are seen as undercutting higher education. But I am not saying anything that has not been said by the AAUP, and backed up by their data, for more than 30 years.
Do the emerging practices of digital humanities trigger hopes for alternate career paths or more academic jobs?
I wish I could provide a Horace Greeley moment: “Go into the digital humanities, young scholar.” But I do think the digital humanities offers new possibilities for intellectual collaboration and dissemination of work. It allows us to visualize data in new ways, and to see patterns that were previously obscured in the mass of archival information. And there are some good positions emerging as universities become aware of the value of this constellation of fields. But the number of positions is much smaller than the number of outstanding candidates.
One positive sign is that digital humanists tend to have an “alt-ac” sensibility: they see themselves as adaptable to variety of employment contexts: technology, information, education, administration, programming, and so on. I am seeing some success stories (in a traditional academic sense), but I am also seeing more people in the digital humanities having careers that look more like the norm for people in non-academic careers: multiple short-term and concurrent positions, freelance work, and a lot of moving around.
Have your opinions evolved since you first took on this issue in the late 1990s?
Yes, my concerns are less self-interested now. I am no longer reflecting on my own job search. Mainly, I care about what happens to my students at Hope College. I also identify, sympathetically, with what's happening to graduate students and all those faculty members who do not have reliable academic positions. And, of course, I also care about the future of higher education, particularly in the humanities. Contingent labor is a symptom of a much larger problem; namely, as Martha Nussbaum [PhD ’75, classical philology] has argued, the United States has become so focused on profits — and education has become so expensive — that few people can afford to study anything without direct, practical applications, unless they are already financially secure.
There are some points of light — including Harvard, I am sure — but nearly all trends point toward drastic funding cutbacks, program consolidation, for-profit education, and declining support for the liberal arts (largely caused by fears about employment). It doesn't help that we are living through another era of politically motivated hostility towards higher education. I wish I could say that things will get better, but, for most graduate students, the best advice seems to be to make alternate plans for the future. But I know that’s hard to do when just being a successful graduate student requires every bit of energy you can muster.
Speaking of Harvard, the Graduate School has amplified career services for students on nonacademic tracks and offered transition workgroups for students considering the switch. What other programs should institutions implement to help graduate students?
Harvard’s Office of Career Services provided a refuge for students like me who were wondering what they were going to do with their degrees. I am glad to know those efforts are expanding. Most of all, I would support creating alt-ac or non-ac internships, preferably paid ones, to allow graduate students to get relevant experience and build networks that might lead to job offers. I also hope that seeking alternate career paths is less stigmatized now than it was a decade ago.
At the same time, I think individual programs need to provide more detailed information about job placement after graduation, not just the success stories, traditionally understood as tenure-track positions at major research universities. They should also inform prospective students about acceptance rates, time to degree, attrition rates, and funding. If they do that, my hope is that competitive pressure for the best students will bring significant reforms.
If we were to see a substantial decline in PhDs, what would that mean for our country, its research landscape and agenda?
I do not think that most PhD programs in the humanities effectively use the talents and energies of the students who populate them. On the contrary, I think they tend to use their students’ labor, harvest their tuition payments, and send them into a marketplace that has no room for them, except as exploitable adjuncts with few viable career options. We need to re-envision satisfying and productive career paths for people with the humanistic values and intellectual capacities that led them into graduate programs in the first place. Our current system is a tragic waste of resources; it has been that way for generations now, and it must change.
Would you have listened to someone who gave you the advice you’ve given?
Yes. I went to graduate school in the humanities because all of my undergraduate advisors said that there would be more positions than available candidates by the time I completed my graduate program. Students can do their research, but they don’t have access to inside information, and their advisors should be careful, given the authority that they possess. I would have pursued other career paths 20 years ago, but, as an English major — and the first person in my family to graduate from college — I wasn't aware of any other options. I trusted my advisors, and I am determined to be an advisor that my students can trust, even if they don’t always listen to me.
Let’s talk about the rewards of a scholarly life. Why were you drawn to this life?
Because I like doing research. I enjoy literary studies, particularly 19th-century American literary culture in an interdisciplinary context. I like teaching — though I mostly teach out of my field — and I like working with students.
I was drawn to this life because I believed that I could continue the experiences I enjoyed as an undergraduate and make a living at it. I got lucky, and I do not believe for one second that I have a tenured position because I was more qualified than most of the PhDs of my generation who did not. Increasingly, I see my role as creating a context in which students — and faculty members — can cultivate their scholarly passions and find a way to make a living at that. One way I try do that is by directing the Andrew W. Mellon Scholars Program in the Arts and Humanities at Hope College. It’s designed to integrate traditional research methods with digital technologies and to encourage students to explore career directions that may not lead directly to graduate school.
What about your own scholarly interests?
I am considering writing a book on student-faculty collaborative research based on my recent experiences with the Mellon Scholars Program. I want to find ways to integrate the liberal arts with digital technology and to cultivate students who are prepared to explore options besides graduate school, or to at least select graduate programs with an eye toward their applicability for a range of options besides college teaching.
I have an ongoing interest in the relationship between literature and place, and I hope I’ll find time in the next five years to complete a project on Whitman and Philadelphia and Camden (my two hometowns) that integrates literary history with geographic information systems — if providence grants me, as Melville says, “time, strength, cash, and patience.”