The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

2 May 2004

Piled higher and deeper

Erin O'Connor sees too many people with the same ideas cluttering up Departments of Humanities:

It is agreed that there is a massive overproduction of Ph.D.'s, and that departments that are contributing to this massive overproduction of Ph.D.'s are grossly irresponsible toward grad students even as they serve their own needs very well (they get the cheap labor they need to get freshman comp taught, and they get a pool of smart, interesting students to whom faculty can administer narcissistically gratifying graduate courses). Usually, the solutions offered to this problem run along the lines of suggesting that fewer Ph.D.'s should be produced, that those that are produced should be better supported, and that "The Profession," as comprised of hundreds of discrete departments, should renew its commitment to the tenure track by, well, being very committed to it (this commitment in turn is organized around an ideal of hiring as many TT faculty as possible, cutting back on adjunct labor as much as possible, and placing as many newly minted Ph.D.'s as possible in TT jobs). It doesn't work, and it can't.

But one reason is that the problem of what to do with all these Ph.D.'s is too narrowly defined. It's true that a Ph.D. in English or history is not a terribly magnetic job qualification outside academe. Such degrees can, in fact, be positively detrimental to one's extra-academic job hunting, in large part because there exists beyond the academy a not entirely unwarranted belief that humanities Ph.D.-types are the prospective employees from hell — incapable of meeting deadlines, incapable of communicating clearly, contemptuous of taskwork and pragmatic problem-solving, incapable of working well with others. It's a stereotype, and an often unfair one. But it doesn't come out of nowhere, either.

What to do with all these people? She has one possible solution:

There is one market, though, that is WIDE OPEN for humanities M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s, and that is the independent school market. "Independent" is mostly a contemporary code word for "private," though it can also mean "charter." Your Ph.D. — or, if you are ABD, your M.A. — is a very attractive qualification in this market. In contrast to the public school system, it counts as a teaching qualification (thus preventing you from going back to school to get a highly redundant ed school teaching certificate). Independent schools are eager to add people with advanced degrees to their faculty — in part, this raises the profile of the school and looks good to parents and donors, but far more importantly, these schools recognize that refugees from academe can make marvelous high school teachers. They know this to be true because their faculties are already full of them.

How do we know she's serious? She's taking this step herself, leaving the faculty of an Ivy League university to teach English at just such a school, emboldened by the experiences of those who have gone before her:

I've met a number of such refugees from a number of schools this year. The schools themselves have been as different from one another as people are — but at all of them, the refugees say, entirely independent of one another, that the work they have found in the world of independent school teaching far surpasses the academic life. All say they are able to do the sort of intensive, personalized teaching they dreamed of doing as college teachers, but could not do in a higher ed setting; all say they feel more intellectually alive than they did in academe; and all say, too, that they have a much greater sense of purpose and of professional satisfaction than they did in academe. They are palpably happy, and the differences they are making in kids' lives are real and meaningful. They also have summers off and, having jumped the assembly-line production schedule of the academic track, can follow the far more ethical and constructive course of pursuing their own research and writing projects when and as the spirit moves them.

Far be it from me to suggest that the turmoil just beyond the tenure track is breeding Bolsheviks or anything like that, but I've always believed that if you're doing something truly worthwhile with your life, you're just a tad less likely to veer off into the Land of the Moonbats. (This belief, of course, is wholly independent of my own experience, but then I've never felt I was doing anything particularly worthwhile; my days in the military impress me a lot more today than they did then, owing to a steady, if insufficiently steep, decline in my level of immaturity.)

And this suggests a path for the public schools as well, inasmuch as their current obsession with credentials is almost certainly keeping them from attracting the best people. They're meeting the needs of the teachers' unions, perhaps, but they're not necessarily meeting the needs of the students.

Posted at 11:13 AM to Almost Yogurt


Greetings, stopped by for a visit probably via somebody else--I have developed the habit of somebody else's blogroll as lending library.

The odds of a public high school taking on a PhD with no (or emergency) credential over an ed school mouthbreather are about 0%.

The public school system (in California anyway) ranges from about 80% broken to 130% broken.

Feh. I am in a grumpy mood. It is the kids who are paying the lifelong price for the brokenness, not the parents or the teachers or the administration.

Posted by: liz at 10:11 PM on 7 May 2004