Friday, March 26, 2010

Benton, Thomas H. "Dodging the Anvil." CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION January 4, 2010.

The job market in the humanities this year reminds me of those old Road Runner cartoons. Wile E. Coyote, a self-proclaimed "super genius," is devising some elaborate plan to catch his dinner, usually involving the creative use of Acme products, but instead of dining on Road Runner, he falls off a 1,000-foot cliff, suspended in midair just long enough to realize his fate. As he lies on the desert floor, flattened like a pancake, Coyote looks up and sees that a large anvil is about to fall on his head. The Road Runner makes his "beep beep" noise, and the cartoon ends. Even with some cyclic ups and downs, following the U.S. economy, the academic job market has been in a depression since the early 1970s, and—just as we were beginning to accept that things were not going to improve—we are now confronted with an even more desperate situation for the humanities job seeker. If we regard the Modern Language Association's Job Information List as representative of the humanities, then we are seeing the most rapid decline in advertised positions since the MLA started keeping records, 34 years ago ("MLA Newsletter," Winter 2009). Last year, at the beginning of the recession, the number of positions advertised in English declined by 24.4 percent; this year it is down by an additional 40 percent. Last year foreign-language positions were down 27 percent; this year they are down by an additional 52 percent. I complained about the lack of tenure-track jobs back in 1998 in an essay I wrote for The Chronicle, "A Graduate Student's Life," but I had it easy in comparison with this year's graduates. Of course, my cohort had been encouraged to go to graduate school by two factors: the recession of the early 1990s and the prediction that a wave of retirements and growth in the undergraduate population would produce a hiring boom at the end of the decade. That boom never materialized. What did was an overabundance of graduate students and adjuncts willing to work part time for peanuts in the hope of earning a real, tenure-track job. I don't think the current crop of humanities graduates can claim that they were not warned about the weak job market, but the situation is actually much worse now, if you are finishing a Ph.D., than you had any reason to expect when you started. If you once thought that a 40-percent chance of finding a tenure-track position was a risk worth taking (after maybe eight years of graduate school), then how do you feel about a 20-percent chance? Those odds made me feel like protesting for reforms at the MLA convention; the odds suggest either resignation ("What's the use?") or revolution ("Nothing left to lose; let's go out in blaze of glory"). I am sure there will be plenty of soothing talk about the coming rebound in the academic job market. As the economy recovers, institutions gradually may resume their normal hiring plans. If so, by that time, the market will be even more crowded, with a backlog of underemployed Ph.D.'s from previous years and lots of shiny new graduates, along with plenty of more experienced people applying for the more appealing positions. The job search is probably not going to be easier for you in a few years, even if there are more jobs available. But that's an optimistic scenario. It seems likely that this is not a temporary setback in academic employment. I think we are seeing a structural transformation of higher education that makes the current situation—bad as it seems—the beginning of the new status quo. . . . Read the rest here:

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