I recently shared some statistics on the current state of the humanities job market with my colleagues.The number of tenure-track jobs in language and literature is down, this year, 50 percent from where it was in 2007. At the same time, humanities enrollments are declinining dramatically nationwide; maybe not in every program, and not always for the same reasons (English enrollments at Maryland are for instance down 40 percent in three years, probably as a result of a change in the General Education program). Nonetheless the situation certainly seems to have changed.
The question is, what are we going to do about it? To be fair, we can be forgiven, I think, for doing little in 2008 and 2009 and even 2010; the scope of the situation is only now becoming clear. Nonetheless I wonder what I will say a few decades from now when a colleague looks at this historical change and says, "Wow, that must have been a really big deal. I bet you guys really made a lot of changes in response to it!" Right now, the answer seems to be -- especially at the graduate level -- "mostly nothing."
That's not good enough, at least for me. The situation (I refuse to call it a "crisis") usefully directs us towards the most important basic question for faculty and departments that have PhD programs: under what conditions is it ethical to admit people to our graduate program?
Good answers to that question will consider a number of factors:
- the quality of the faculty (including its capacity to meet an individual students intellectual needs; for instance no point in bringing in a person to study Latin American literature if no one on your faculty does so, even if someone applies to your program in that field);
- the quality of financial support (including, for instance, length of support, provisions for post-PhD support, salary levels, health benefits, summer funding, amount of teaching)
- the quality of the pedagogical program (has it been well designed? Or do you just do the same thing you always did, with minor variations? Have you taught students how to teach? Have you taught them how to write? How to get ready for the market?)
- the quality of "extracurricular" support (including psychological services, support for students from underrepresented groups, those with disabilities, and so on)
- the affective life of the department (if your departmental is deeply divided, so that students must fall into camps, or so that some faculty don't talk to students who work with other faculty, why is it still ok, during the graduate recruitment process, to pretend everything is ok?)
- the current state of the academic job market (including the relation between the strengths of your program and the submarkets in those fields, but also, your program's history of placement)
- the transparency with which you communicate these things to current and prospective students (do you list your placement data on your website, for instance?)
The slides above address only one aspect of the question, namely levels of salary and teaching support. But of course that's why I learned so much from the other presentations in South Carolina.