This is a think piece about a “third rail” issue in academia. It is about Alt-Ac training in doctoral programs. My hope is that this brief survey advances however slightly the already deep and broad discussions taking place about the issue. I call it a “third rail” issue because the idea of Alt-Ac is hotly contested and the prospect of “re-imagining” humanities PhDs can seem downright scurrilous.
But this blog is a place to think through these issues, as clearly my colleagues, especially Ben Alpers and L.D. Burnett, have done in posts here and in other areas of social media. Our colleague Andrew Hartman has contributed mightily to the history of debates over the meaning and purpose of the humanities in recent American history; L.D. promises to do so with a substantial contribution in the not-too-distant future.
My thinking bounces around the various issues. And I am currently attempting to design a program that links doctoral training in the liberal arts to careers outside of academic teaching. In that effort, I have found Michael Berube’s work to be very helpful in framing ideas central to the administration of doctoral programs. I read through the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation report, The Responsive Ph.D.: Innovations in U.S. Doctoral Education which appeared in 2005 and influenced the creation of various programs at many elite universities in the United States. I have also read the critiques of this report, some quite devastating. I found interesting trends in studies run by Scholarly Communications Institute at the University of Virginia that attempted to assess how well traditional humanities programs prepare their students for careers outside of academic teaching. And I have benefited from speaking to people that administer the Public Fellows Program for the American Council of Learned Societies as well as some of the Ph.D.s who won spots in that program. I know that this stuff is just the tip of a very complex iceberg.
However, it seems to me there are three options that emerge out of the various streams of thought and action on the Alt-Ac front. The first option is to throw money at some part of the problem. That seemed to be the main suggestion of the Wilson Foundation report: more money for graduate school deans and careers services advisors. A corollary of this approach is the Mellon Foundation’s initiative to give money to four universities–Columbia University, UCLA, University of Chicago, and University of New Mexico–to set up ways for doctoral students in history to explore careers outside the professoriate. While there are differences between the initiatives advocated by the Wilson Foundation and the Mellon Foundation these cases share the same sensibility, that students need proscriptive remedies for the bleak job market. I wonder, though, if graduate students who enter strong and quite elite programs would do so imagining any other career than the one their mentors have.
A second option is to change the job market. One suggestion that has some legs, though I don’t know how strong, is to consider reforming the academy with New Deal-like strategies, or, in other words, providing a WPA for Ph.D.s. Kevin Mattson at Ohio University wrote what I think is the first proposition of this kind back in 2001. Much more recently, Berube and his co-author Jennifer Ruth have a new book out that proposes restructuring the employment of teachers at colleges and universities by creating a tenure-track, teaching-intesnive category that would provide job security and academic freedom for the legions of part-time, limited contract teaching faculty. Click the hyper-link above to see the heated debated over this idea at Inside Higher Ed.
The third option is also from Berube but it is the one that might be least developed. In an essay published by the Chronicle of Higher Education in February 2013, Berube reviewed the depressing and bracing state of a system that produces woefully underpaid classroom teachers while seeming to promise a life of financial security and intellectual satisfaction. His point echoed Marc Bousquet’s lament that the apprentice system for young professors that might have existed in some hazy past is long gone. Academia has become something like a nightmarish amusement park with administrators pushing more flashy rides (in the form of fitness centers, student centers, and buildings for entrepreneurial inspiration–see Freddie deBoer’s post on this) while “carnies” keep the customers happy.
Yet, I think Berube raised an interesting point: after surveying the dire state of affairs he concluded:
We need to remake our programs from the ground up to produce teachers and researchers and something elses, but since it is not clear what those something elses might be, we haven’t begun to rethink the graduate curriculum accordingly. (Anyway, we’re not trained to do that! All we know how to do is to be professors!) (emphasis added)
My questions start with those “something elses.”
1. What kind of students can we imagine recruiting and producing if we promise to offer training for worlds outside of the professoriate?
2. Do the add-on programs such as those funded by the Mellon foundation at the ACLS and through the AHA and MLA already offer a way toward producing and empowering the “something elses”?
3. Are there examples either in other disciplines or perhaps abroad that might serve as points of comparison or cautionary tales when considering how to produce alternative models?
4. Does consideration of producing “something elses” corrupt the integrity of getting a doctorate? In a terrific essay critiquing the Wilson Foundation report, David Huysen argued in Academe:
Almost every graduate student I know came to graduate school to pursue a field outside the corporate environment with the hope of adding to the store of human knowledge and one day becoming a professor. What will graduate school look like when students arrive in their first year expecting to craft intellectual work that will buttress their vitae for private employment?
Huysen’s critique reveals the problem with some of the Alt-Ac discussion: as a fix for a broken system, it cannot work. Miriam Posner made this point quite well in 2013 by pointing out that Alt-Ac jobs will not take the pressure off of the academic job market because there are just not enough of those jobs either. But as Michael Berube suggests, we would do well to consider how doctoral programs in the liberal arts and humanities might create new kinds of graduates who see their training not as an alternative to what they should be doing but as the fulfillment of precisely what they want to do. If what they want to do can be done outside of academic teaching then there must be a way to be a “something else” with a Ph.D. without betraying the integrity of the disciplines they embrace.