Friday, October 2, 2015

Nor am I out of it.

It’s been an odd few weeks in my strange little Post-Ac world. I was asked again to give a talk to another university about some of my recent scholarship (after talks this spring at NYU and Mississippi), and I was also asked to fill in at a 2016 Kalamazoo/Medieval Congress "round table" on “The Business of Old English.” Rosemary and I (and another Morgantown friend) chatted with a former student about PhD applications and schools where he might apply, and at some close friends’ recent wedding, Rosemary and I talked with a current PhD student as well.

And this is why, in some ways, I don’t find that the “Post-Academic” label is one that fits me very well at all. Though I may not be employed in a traditional academic institution, I remain active in the world of academia, and indeed, I eagerly embrace these opportunities to meet and speak with both students and colleagues. With apologies to Christopher Marlowe, “Why this is [academia], nor am I out of it!”
But talking with current and prospective PhD candidates, one cannot help thinking about the desire (or lack of it) to take an academic position. As I told one of these folks, “An academic job is not necessarily a recipe for happiness,” and one of my close friends also pointed out to me in the last week or so that the whole academic enterprise these days might be reasonably described as a “toxic environment.”

But I also told the PhD candidate I was speaking with that she was in a great position, because she’d had another job and another career: she could judge for herself what sort of academic work she’d want, and whether a teaching line or a tenure-track line would suit her best, or whether a job away from a university might be even better. And it’s true, I think: perhaps the best advice we can offer to those on the academic job market is that they should judge the positions they are being offered, or even the ones they are considering, in comparison to other jobs they’ve had.

This would only make sense, I suppose, if doctoral candidates on the job market actually had experience of some other jobs or careers. So this week’s modest proposal is that doctoral-granting institutions, or at least their departments of English, where we think there’s an employment crisis happening, should only admit graduate students who have spent at least five years in a non-academic career.

Who can doubt that these students would come equipped to graduate school with a set of life experiences and work experience that would benefit their studies? I’d guess that they’d probably have quicker times to graduation as a result. Perhaps they would have less bright and innocent enthusiasm for the grunt work of teaching first year composition, but they’d probably understand more about the value of work, including their own work. They might also want, or need, a somewhat higher stipend to live on.

But I wonder, indeed, whether doctoral students in English who’ve never been out of school, who’ve never worked a full-time, forty-hour-a-week job for a paycheck, might not be the very kind of people most likely to be preyed upon by a system that offers adjunct teaching jobs to folks so often and so widely. 

I told one of these students last week, “Of course, if you end up adjuncting and you find that you love it, embrace that, too!”—and I think we owe that advice to adjuncts and prospective PhD students as much as we owe them the advice not to continue adjuncting if they find it soul-killing. But maybe all teachers, adjuncts and tenure-track faculty alike, will be better able to tell where on that spectrum their own job lies, if they have actually worked at other work for a time.

I recognize, of course, that this proposal can only be described as a modest proposal: it may seem reasonable on the surface, but of course it has little if any likelihood of actually being put into practice. 

And it's especially unlikely that a proposal from someone outside of academia like me will be taken seriously, anyway. 


  1. I think we have to get rid of sexism related to graduate school and pre-tenure childbearing within academia first.

    1. I certainly won't disagree with that as a priority.