The Question of the Opportunities: A Postscript to ASLE 2015

After two years on the job market I found myself thinking about whether I would find (or whether I really wanted) a job in the academic world. I had spent a decade outside of school. And so it was not difficult to imagine myself a PhD outside of a college or a university. Years of experience in challenging and interesting work helped me to see quite clearly the downsides and tradeoffs of an academic job.

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ASLE in Downtown Moscow, Idaho

A few months ago I came across a sentence written by Deborah Satz, in an MLA Task Force Report on Graduate Education that brought back this precarious moment in my professional life, now over twenty years ago. “Not all PhD students can find or ultimately want a career in higher education,” she writes. The sentence was also useful for thinking about academic work: it aligned the systemic (economics of the market) with the personal (the life, the career); it addressed a longstanding problem with graduate education (fewer tenure-stream jobs); and it questions the presumably universal desires that circulate in the professional bloodstreams of most graduate students and faculty.

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Near the highest point in Bonner County, Idaho

Early on in our planning for the session at ASLE 2015 Stephen mentioned Michael Berube’s commentary about graduate education and the state of the profession, “Abandon All Hope,” recently published in the English studies journal Pedagogy. The commentary helped focus our session on hope not as a corrective to the oddly persistent “crisis thinking” that circulates in conversations about academia and the job market in the humanities, but rather as the ground on which attendees might embrace their own strengths and passions and chart a career (and life) pathway based on those.

We wanted to talk about graduate study in the environmental humanities differently. What has stayed with me is the vocabulary Stephen generated for the challenges of self-fashioning in the academic bureaucracy we call graduate school. Instead of “alternatives,” or answering the question, “what else can I do?” we envisioned a session organized around a different set of questions: “what do I love to do,” “what do I want to do,” and “how can I do those things?”

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Looking West from the Summit of Scotchman’s Peak over the waters of Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille

Our conversation in Idaho was especially gratifying for me: someone whose first academic publication was a critique of the apprenticeship model of graduate school, and who has been organizing conversations about life and work over two decades of mentoring and academic conferencing. It is also delightful to watch this conversation come alive in our professional discourse. For those fortunate enough to be traveling to Austin next January for MLA 2016, to take one example, the Connected Academics Project will coordinate a range of useful sessions and activities. I also recommend an October 2011 column by the then President of the American Historical Association, Anthony Grafton, and the Executive Director of the AHA, James Grossman, “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History.” The view from the graduate school has proved, in their modest proposal for reform, “achingly reluctant to see the world as it is.”

The center/periphery thinking of the professional graduate school has been remarkably resilient for reasons I spent years elaborating in the annual sessions at the annual Modern Language Association (MLA) conference on the small college department, and in a Special Issue of Pedagogy I guest edited that is dedicated to reshaping the discourse about the intellectual work in the small college department. Grafton and Grossman describe well the resiliency of this pernicious discourse:

For all the innovation in the subjects and methods of history, the goal of the training remains the same: to produce more professors; the unchanged language of supervisors and students reflects this. We tell students that there are “alternatives” to academic careers. We warn them to develop a “plan B” in case they do not find a teaching post. And the very words in which we couch this useful advice make clear how much we hope they will not have to follow it—and suggest, to many of them, that if they do have to settle for employment outside the academy, they should crawl off home and gnaw their arms off.

One of the primary points I wanted to make in my remarks in Idaho was that it is difficult not to internalize the limited horizon of the graduate school. For all of us who spend years in a graduate program can’t help but absorb expectations for intellectual specialization, a parochial view of professional life, a particular hierarchy of values, including a bias in favor of individual research over teaching and collaboration. Too often the intellectual values of the graduate school quietly diminish the intellectual work of teaching undergraduate students and the range of institutions dedicated to this work.

Grafton and Grossman point out that these attitudes and values diminish the idea that anything less than a tenure-track job is a failure at best. Grafton and Grossman put it this way:

We should not be surprised when students internalize our attitudes (implicit or explicit) and assume that the “best” students will be professors and that for everyone else… well, “there’s always public history.” Even those who happily accept jobs at secondary schools, for example, describe themselves as “leaving the academy” or “leaving the historical profession.” Even worse, many of our students who actually do leave the historical profession, and take what they’ve learned in graduate school to the business world, are seen as having crossed the line from the light of humanistic inquiry into the darkness of grubby capitalism—as if the life of scholarship were somehow exempt from impure motives and bitter competition.

I have called this outlook the standard model of the profession: the idea that you go to graduate school, find a job, get tenure and live, you know, more or less happily ever after. The corollary to this standard model for success is that anything else is a compromise, even a failure. And this indeed is a genuine problem if in fact we are committed to the idea that training in the environmental humanities might create positive changes in our endangered world.

The problem is that this organizing fiction makes it difficult to talk about the layered stories and complex career trajectories people actually live. Again, Grafton and Grossman:

This narrow perspective does our students a disservice. Why not tell our students, from the beginning, that a PhD in history opens a broad range of doors? As historians, let’s begin with some facts. Holders of doctorates in history occupy, or have recently occupied, a dizzying array of positions outside the academy: historical adviser to the Chief of Staff of the Army, Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Chief of Staff to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, museum curators, archivists, historians in national parks, investment bankers, international business consultants, high school teachers, community college teachers, foundation officers, editors, journalists, policy analysts at think tanks (yes, an entry-level position). The skills that these historians mastered as graduate students—doing research; conceptualizing relationships between structure, agency, and culture; combining research and analysis to present arguments with clarity and economy; knowing how to plan and carry out long-term projects—remain vital in their daily work. In many organizations outside the academy, a doctorate is a vital asset for those who want to rise above the entry level.

The problem (and the irony in this case) is that this kind of plain and sensible talk is lost in the ahistorical ways institutions, and the people who inhabit them, lose sight of the everpresent question of the opportunities:

The idea that a doctorate in history prepares one only, or primarily, to teach in a college or university is as contingent as any other, not only historically but also geographically. In Germany—the country that gave us the research university—doctorates in history and similar fields have traditionally been considered appropriate preparation for jobs in publishing, media, business, and politics. A first step towards adjusting graduate education to occupational realities would be to change our attitudes and our language, to make clear to students entering programs in history that we are offering them education that we believe in, not just as reproductions of ourselves, but also as contributors to public culture and even the private sector.

Making clear the question of the opportunities is work that all of us, as educators, are obligated to do. Happily, there are many first steps being taken as the traditions and values of academic institutions change in response to the way the world actually is. In addition to the MLA project, there are exciting initiatives and projects underway, such as McGill University’s Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI) that hosted a Future Humanities conference in Montreal this summer featuring a talk by the career consultant Anne Krook that is well worth reading, “From Being to Doing: Mobilizing the Humanities.”

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Right of Way

I am grateful to have been involved in planning and participating in the session at ASLE “Building a Career and Life in the Environmental Humanities.” I am especially grateful to Stephen and Clare for carrying this discussion forward in the ASLE community.

Continuing the Conversation

The Staying Alive Project is an ongoing conversation about the difficult work of sustaining an emotionally, ethically, and spiritually healthy life in academia. We are interested in stories that explore the challenges, betrayals, resignations, and disillusionments of our professional lives. Our vision is to sustain a life practice guided by the virtues of centeredness, wholeness, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, imagination and collaboration—no matter what happens.

We have been inspired by the stories and experiences of friends and colleagues—their thoughtful reflections and commitment to exploring the complications of the academic world. We are  interested in sharing these stories, broadening our conversation, by drawing on particular institutional perspectives; as well as the experiences of graduate students, temporary and tenure-track faculty, full professors, deans and provosts and presidents, and those who have retired from the profession.

How can we deepen our understanding of the narratives that structure our professional lives and that we use to make sense of our worlds? Last year, our friend Mike Branch contributed his thoughts on expectations for publication and the reward system in his post “Counting What Counts.” In the coming months, we will feature new voices, and visions, for a life practice to sustain ourselves, the institutions that support our work and the students who are rewarded with faculty whose lives are defined by the virtues we believe should remain at the center of our common enterprise. If you are interested in writing for the blog, we welcome your interest and look forward to hearing from you.