“The story is old, I know, but it goes on…”

With its mix of sunshine and harmless bluster, September brings back-to-school nostalgia—ivy-covered professors, that first fall riot, scoldings for being insufficiently euphoric over sports—and perhaps that’s why the past two weeks have swirled with stories about the woes of humanities types in academia. I’ve watched would-be scholars expire en route to the ferne hawle of full professorhood for 20 years, so I’m guessing that many grad students and adjuncts have newly discerned, with the sort of creeping, pitiless dread otherwise confined to Robert E. Howard stories, that they won’t find long-term employment.

First, at the Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann asked why the number of grad students in the humanities is growing. Then, Slate ran a piece about the awkwardness that still hangs about people with doctorates in the humanities who land “alt-ac” careers—that is, jobs where they don’t teach college. Apparently, though, there aren’t enough such lucky people, because a few days later, Salon covered adjunct professors on food stamps.

With all the attention this subject now gets in the press, I can only hope that fewer souls will fling themselves into the hellmouth—but maybe academia shouldn’t have undone quite so many in the first place. While reading about medievalism in recent days, I found two historians who sensed where things were headed long ago.

The first was Karl F. Morrison, who wrote “Fragmentation and Unity in ‘American Medievalism,'” a chapter in The Past Before Us, a 1980 report commissioned by the American Historical Association to explain the work of American historians to their colleagues in other countries. Morrison writes candidly about his field, but he also makes an especially prescient extrapolation, which I’ve bolded:

There was also an expectation in the “guild” that investment in professional training would, in due course, fetch a return in professional opportunity.

By 1970, these benefits could no longer be taken for granted. By 1974, even the president of Harvard University was constrained to deliver a budget of marked austerity, reducing “the number of Assistant Professors substantially while cutting the size of the graduate student body below the minimum desirable levels.” The aggregate result of many such budgets across the country was a sharp reduction in the number of professional openings for medievalists, and an impairment of library acquisitions and other facilities in aid of research. Awareness of this changed climate impelled a large number of advanced students to complete their doctoral dissertations quickly, producing a bulge that is noticeable around 1972-1974 in our tables. For many reasons, including the deliberate reduction or suspension of programs in some universities, it also resulted in a decline in the number of graduate students proceeding to the doctorate.

In effect, the historians who became qualified during this period without being able to secure professional employment constitute a generation of scholars that may be in the process of being lost, casualties of abrupt transition. There is no reason to expect that the demographic and economic trends that so sharply reversed their professional expectations will alter before the end of the century, and this projection raises certain quite obvious possibilities regarding the diversity and renewal of the profession.

Fast forward to 1994. Norman Cantor was gearing up for his fourth year of professional besiegement after the release of Inventing the Middle Ages, a book for non-academic readers in which he sought to show how the formative experiences of certain 20th-century medievalists explained the ways they interpreted history. Fellow historians didn’t like his blunt biographical approach—and so in “Medievalism and the Middle Ages,” a little-read article in The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Cantor hammered back at “establishment dust-grinders” and noted, in passing, the crummy academic job market and the prevalence of certain “alt-ac” career paths even then:

Within academia a fearful conservative conformity prevails. The marginal employment situation has a twofold negative impact. First, it discourages innovative minds and rebellious personalities from entering doctoral programs in the humanities. People in their late twenties and thirties today with the highest potential to be great medievalists and bridge academic medieval studies and popular medievalism are a phantom army, a lost generation. Instead, for the most part, of climbing the ladder at leading universities they are pursuing careers (often regretfully and unhappily if well-paid) in major law firms.

Second, even if imaginative people take Ph.D.’s in medieval disciplines, they face the job market and particularly once they get a prized tenure track post they encounter a chilling intellectual conservatism that frustrates expressions of their best thoughts and deepest feelings.

I like Cantor’s claim that academia is literally conservative. After all, people are still fretting over problems that he and Morrison noticed decades ago. It’s September 2014, yet Rebecca Schuman at Slate can still write: “The academic job market works on a fixed cycle, and according to a set of conventions so rigid that you’d think these people were applying for top-secret security clearances, not to teach Physics 101 to some pimply bros in Sheboygan.”

The early blogosphere was rife with humanities grad students and adjuncts wavering between disgruntlement and despair; the much-praised Invisible Adjunct rose up to unite them in discussions so civil that I can scarcely believe I saw them on the Internet.

As someone who writes about people who use the imagined past to carve out identities, argue from authority, resist mainstream culture, or seek respite from the real world, I think I understand why the number of new students in arts and humanities doctoral programs grew by 7.7 percent in 2012, but I can’t claim a moment’s nostalgia for the geeky excitement they surely must feel. Morrison and Cantor both imagined a lost generation, but their jobless contemporaries were merely wandering. For this next generation, that luxury is long gone—as is the prospect of claiming that nobody warned them.

5 thoughts on ““The story is old, I know, but it goes on…”

  1. To all this — yes. For me the diminishing allure of nostalgia means that solace is to be found in imagining what lies beyond the present generation, and the next one. Because the humanities cannot go on as they are, and the hunger for what they might offer, but usually don’t, grows ever more insistent. Cantor seems to me to be right: the present order is petrified, and therefore doomed. What comes next?

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  2. That’s a good question, especially since academic programs appear to be embittering (and impoverishing) a sizable portion of each new generation of unemployed grad students—people who should have been the next waves of young and middle-aged citizens to support art centers, theaters, museums, small presses, historical sites, and similar institutions outside the academy.

    When I was teaching adult undergrads and promoting my Charlemagne book, I was impressed by the strength of the public’s lingering interest in the humanities. People sense that there’s something worthwhile in history, literature, and the arts, but often their educations have failed to provide them with ways in. They also belong to generations that remember when participating in this stuff was a middle-class aspiration. When we go to readings at the Shakespeare Theatre, we’re 20 years younger than everyone else. Are there even new audiences coming up behind us?

    Then again, knitting, formal dancing, and other supposedly “old-fashioned” pastimes have made solid comebacks during my lifetime, so maybe I won’t be unpleasantly surprised by whatever happens next.

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  3. “People sense that there’s something worthwhile in history, literature, and the arts, but often their educations have failed to provide them with ways in.”

    I guess that’s probably the core of the problem. As far as I can tell, many schools, from kindergarten through college, are increasingly (a) failing to equip students to appreciate the Western tradition — or any tradition — and (b) encouraging them to think that those grapes must be sour anyway. And a shocking number of failed academics (among whom I count myself, though I loathe the term) do seem to become hostile to the whole enterprise of the humanities — though I still hope this isn’t a culturally significant phenomenon.

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  4. The academy of the great post-war expansion worked something like a pyramid scheme. If the nth percentile of Tier m universities’ Ph.D.s ended up teaching at Tier m+1 schools, that was OK, those schools were expanding, too. But by the end of the 1970s, the boomers were pretty much out of school, and the expansion stopped. That, I suspect, is when things got tough.

    Some of the graduate students in the humanities may be trying to wait out the recession, and that might work now and then. Some of them may get into the work force and discover that no matter how arcane the thesis, an M.A. can be be billed at a higher rate than a B.A. to the government or other contracting party. Some may be in it for the love of the field, with no expectation of going on to a Ph.D., and may have figured out how to pay for the degree. Certainly fewer are thinking of law school than thought of it forty years ago, for there is now a surplus of lawyers, too.

    I don’t know what to say about “the whole enterprise of the humanities”. That may be a story for another day.

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  5. George, in a blog post from yesterday about why English departments got so silly, Jake Seliger agrees with your sense of when and why hiring peaked when it did. The stuff I dug up from Cantor and Morrison shows that some people in the humanities did look around and see what was going on, but most were uninterested or willfully ignorant. In the mid-1990s, I heard professors repeat the rumor that there was going to be a faculty shortage in the humanities, apparently based on a 1989 report they’re unlikely to have read for themselves.

    Alpheus: Yeah, it’s schools, it’s technocrats who write educational curricula, it’s a relentlessly dumb pop culture, it’s parents leery of “snobbery”—the whole culture, really. I don’t blame academic humanities programs for shaky public support of the arts outside American campuses, but they certainly haven’t helped. (And many recent attempts by scholars to engage with popular culture have been clumsy and self-serving—a topic, perhaps, for another post.)

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