U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Producing “Something Elses”

third-railThis 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.

16 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I feel like this discussion is going too quickly, probably because I’m an historian and we think that way. Or maybe I’m just not in the mood to be radically reformed this weekend. There’s so much unproductive change happening as it is…

    But seriously, we’ve only just reached the point where a reasonable number of Ph.D. programs admit that their students are going to be teaching more than researching, or at least that teaching is an important and separate skill for which advanced training is appropriate. So we’re finally actually training professors, in some numbers.

    And there are even programs now with public history tracks, suggesting that PhD programs are starting to recognize that museums, exhibits, monuments, are places where good history needs to be done, after generations of moaning and groaning about them. Not enough, but even some MA programs like ours are looking to broaden our students’ employability with greater options.

    So while this needed, long-overdue, positive broadening of our minds is finally taking hold…

    It’s not enough.

    And I agree that it’s not enough, but by the time that we figure out what we need to be doing to respond to this crisis, it will have morphed into a whole other crisis, and what we do won’t be enough, or it will be misdirected, or the crisis will have passed and there’ll be a shortage of traditionally-trained book-and-lecture faculty (No, I don’t think so, really, but with out luck…).

    There are, as noted, programs developing. Research and consideration are being taken. These conversations are worthwhile because we have to be more honest about the economics and structure of the field with our students, with our colleagues, with ourselves. But I’m not ready to jump on another bandwagon of change just yet.

    • Jonathan, I too have the sense that we court danger when we try to make changes under duress to a large complicated system. If the sky is indeed falling no amount of cosmetic changes will save us. My take on this debate in some ways reaches a conclusion similar to yours. I don’t think the answer is to reform programs as is but build new ones with people that what to work on them from disciplines outside of professional schools. That idea will not create new schools or departments but might suggest new models for using our disciplines.

      • I like the idea of building new programs rather than tearing down old ones. My only reservation is that I’ve seen hiring committees get really narrow-minded about anything other than a very traditional program…

        oh, wait. We’re not talking about training people who’d be applying to traditional hiring committees anyway. I’m all in, then.

  2. No offense to the expertise of this blog, but I posted this on facebook on May 16, 2012:

    Can someone explain why universities don’t restructure themselves this way?

    The Problems:
    1. Students complain about professors being too busy or preoccupied with research.
    2. Professors complain about having to meet teaching obligations and publishing obligations.
    3. We have professors who prefer researching and writing.
    4. We have professors who prefer teaching undergraduates.
    5. Obviously, we also have professors who enjoy both.

    A Way of Addressing Them:

    What if instead of a department that has 10 professors that are both teaching and doing research, we do 5 research positions and 5 teaching positions. The research positions come with the opportunity to qualify to teach if you really want to (semester by semester basis, done by proposal and peer review). The people holding teaching positions can write in their free time if they want to, but aren’t obligated by the department to publish, and publication does not factor into their compensation.

    The research professors are evaluated by their publications; the teaching professors are evaluated by their teaching (as reviewed by students still, but also and more importantly by other faculty who are disinterested).

    The teaching professors specialize in instructing undergraduates. Colleges then become marketable to prospective undergraduates according to how well undergraduate instruction is rated and ranked. Smaller classes, more attention paid, for instance, or if the new system can’t improve those things, then at least it provides teachers who are more devoted to teaching undergraduates and give better lectures and lessons. Job security is gained by proving one’s skill and impact as an instructor. If one loves to write and research, then she can do so in her free time. Awards or bonuses might be offered for publications, but in amounts that don’t incentivize such pursuits over teaching.

    The research professors specialize in research, obviously, and contribute to the reputation of their department and their college by producing scholarship. Job security is gained by producing published articles and books. Research professors still will have opportunities to teach graduate students. If one loves to teach undergraduates, she can lobby to be awarded a class. Awards or bonuses might be offered for teaching undergrads, but in amounts that don’t incentivize such pursuits over research.

    Graduate students. Graduate students are taught by both research professors and teaching professors. Graduate students still assist in undergraduate courses.

    Each type of faculty member is compensated relatively equally, with room for variation according to skill, accomplishment, experience, and so on.

    Professors who enjoy both teaching undergraduates and doing research are the ones who are forced to adjust here. Of course, a teaching professor can always write in her free time, and a research professor can probably find opportunities to teach or tutor. But when it comes to job descriptions, it’s strictly one or the other. People like this have a slight advantage, too, when it comes to applying for jobs, because if the teaching sector is full, they can apply in the research sector, and vice versa.

    Same amount of money spent on faculty, better research, better teaching, better undergraduate instruction and satisfaction…Why don’t schools do it this way?

    • This experience already exisits for students if they do their undergraduate work at a small liberal arts college where the faculty are required to put teaching first, then go to graduate school at a university where research comes first. A major problem in our profession is the attitude in our profession towards people who teach. Too many people at research universities or institutions that award grants and fellowships look down on people who put teaching first or who work at schools with a 4/4 load as if they do this because they failed in some way.

    • I think that the main point that you make Jesse is what Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth address in their new book. If you haven’t checked out the link to the debate about their book, it is here: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/05/15/new-book-proposes-teaching-intensive-tenure-track-model-address-real-crisis

      I think your point is a good one, as anonymous suggests above. Campus governance, though, is typically so weak that to change the structure of tenure or job security can seem like a mirage.

  3. I’m an AltAc going on 12 years of soft-money AltAc-hood. It is exhausting and often demoralizing, but does give one a good healthy sense of gallows humor.

    Though I own a Red Shirt (ala Star Trek), I really hate the lack of security and the lack of any real prospect for security that does not sacrifice autonomy. I can get a more permanent job, but then I’d be working for someone else’s agenda. There’s just no where to go to advance your own independent work and tackle issues that require years or decades of dedicated effort. I suspect my own research interests in humanistic data and code just happens to coincide with a short-term corporate-academic hype-cycle (see: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/01/27/its-the-neoliberalism-stupid-kansa/).

    I’m only doing this because I love my work and every moment I get to do what I love is a precious gift. I keep hoping something will change institutionally and that universities will recognize the need for sustained intellectual commitment in disciplinary data and code (Alt-Ac topics). But when change does come, it’s usually just more grim Neoliberalism.

    I guess I just have to go out and raise my own endowment and completely bypass the university system altogether. Weirdly, that seems more realistic than finding a humane and intellectually supportive place in today’s Academy.

    • Eric, you make an important point, it seems to me, about time and the value that is produced in different ways of thinking about time. Each time a Nobel Prize is awarded in some field of science or economics I am often struck by how long the idea germinated before becoming either revolutionary or accepted wisdom. Of course, that is the story of academic work–we don’t produce on short-term schedules except when we teach. Our research is rarely punctual on a quarterly basis, though some of it can be. I think the Berube-Ruth argument proposes a beginning, rather than the end, of a discussion about how to create more job security for people whose work cannot be measured by metrics used by production industries or financial institutions.

  4. To me the driving force behind the “alt-ac” discussion is a desire to preserve programs rather than ask the hard questions as to whether there are perhaps too many of them. The notion of “something elses” suggests that the relevant question is, “Since we have these programs and students, what can we train graduates to do?” To me, that’s allowing the tail to wag the dog. What are the odds that the “something elses” that they decide to produce will be things that the economy needs or, even more relevant, things that humanities professors are qualified to teach? In my opinion, not very good. We’re far better off limiting the supply of Ph.D.s so that employers will be forced to pay them professional wages. That will take a long time and be ugly for everyone, but everything else just seems like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

    • Fair enough, Mike. Will a seminar or new track in a traditional program make a difference? The point of these programs–the heart of them–is to serve a tradition, so would moving the target for training do much? You and Leo Ribuffo agree about the number of students and perhaps programs–we need fewer if the target jobs for these people remains the same. I do think that the UK Arts and Humanities Council do a pretty good job of lining up funding and practical experience for humanities PhDs. But the funding model in the UK is different than it is in the US–which might be something for at least a few programs to consider.

  5. Great conversation going here, so let’s expand it. Coming from 7 years’ of FT work in public history, may I turn around the q here: how can Ph.D’s/staff operating in historical societies/museums/libraries do a better job of addressing this situation in concert with our colleagues at universities and other institutions?

  6. Ray, as always, this is a great piece. I am coming in here late, I realize, and with too much anxiety about my own looming career prospects to think clearly, but I did want to throw one argument into the mix (if it has not already been mentioned): Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s powerful claim in their book The Undercommons that, increasingly, the act of study is discouraged in grad programs by those who wish to be radicals themselves. For Moten and Harney, the imperative is to figure out ways to delve deeper into the discussions, close readings, genealogical reconstruction, the long impassioned conversations over coffee, the intense attempts to forge counter-knowledges. Of course, there is also all sorts of crucial organizing to be done that is not, in the first instance, intellectual–for some, that is grad student unionization, for others, outreach to young folks, for others, marching against war. I don’t think Moten and Harney are saying: don’t do that stuff. But they are asking: is there something insidious about the way even politicized grad students are finding reasons to read less, learn less, argue less, critique each others’ work less, challenge the existing orthodoxies less, etc.

    In this light, the diversion of resources away from academic teaching and research seems part of a pattern about which we should be highly suspicious. I wonder if this makes sense, and what your thoughts might be?

    • You state the counter argument to my Alt-Ac idealism quite well, Kurt. Is there an inherent contradiction between the training in the humanities, but more particularly philosophy or history or theology (for that matter) and building an academic program that will lead to a career where intellectual integrity (not even ideological commitments) remain intact? I think the Berube-Ruth plan provides a way for contingent faculty to find security necessary to maintain intellectual integrity. My pitch to produce non-teaching humanists is more problematic if administrators see it as a way to drive wedges between programs, students, and faculty. But I don’t think it has to be so. In some ideal version, I’d like to see us create two kinds of scholars–perhaps the two kinds of someone such as Tom Sugrue who can teach at the highest levels in academy and who could lead critical projects that investigate the degradation of urban life and the rebuilding of urban communities. While some individuals might be able to do both I’d like to see what we could do if we created programs that fostered collaboration and development between these two sides.

  7. Education is not my field, so I am drawing from my own experience. Shouldn’t we be questioning the entire premise of the modern university and thinking about radically (revolutionary) new ways to educate and continue to build knowledge? Wasn’t the modern university, like so many other modern institutions, built for a time that has passed? It just doesn’t seem like the reformist route is going to get us very far. All that the profession is doing is bargaining with the devil. You always lose.

    As for myself I care about building knowledge and keeping it alive and I am concern about where that is going to happen. Looking at job ads one sees, that most full time faculty jobs (except for elite schools) allow very little time to read, think, and write – invisible work that is easy to attack from those who want their money’s worth. Teaching toward jobs appears to be the only way to sell one’s self in the market and humanistic research appears as an add on, a luxury for the connected. I fear we are living in the new dark ages and there is a struggle to keep the light of humanistic knowledge alive.

    Rather than sounding like one who yearns for some golden past or despairs for the future, I do believe humanistic knowledge will continue but not at the modern university. How do we build alternative places for knowledge building? How do we unleash the knowledge and economic resources that are monopolized by the modern university? Call me utopian, but I believe it can be done.

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