Blog Post

Chapter 1 – The Academic Workforce: Expectations and Realities

Book title: Putting the Humanities PhD to Work

Toward the end of my first year as a PhD student, I unexpectedly had the opportunity to step in as the lecturer for a course partway into the semester. The week that my role switched from TA to instructor, several students stopped beginning their emails to me with “Hi Andy” and switched to “Dear Professor.” These newly cordial lines took me aback; I thought these undergrads and I had already settled into a comfortable mode of address, and they knew I was still a student. The strangeness reminded me that they were interacting with one inscrutable face of a system that not long ago had been just as baffling to me, full of unexplained nuances in title and status that in many ways seemed to articulate the whole arcane structure of university teaching and research. Even after a few years of immersion in graduate study, many of the material consequences that such differentiations produce remained hidden from me at this point, even in my home department and field–concealed not just from undergrads’ but from grad students’ view by the contours of the prescribed PhD to faculty track.

For her first chapter, Katina Rogers steps back from that immersed and naturalizing perspective to describe the real labor conditions that today characterize humanities departments in American universities. Like the book as a whole, the chapter balances that distance with a clear sense of its primary audience; Rogers spends less time explaining terminology or practices that will already be familiar to most grad students than a comprehensive analysis of the academic industry would, but she manages to deliver a broad-scale and sobering assessment of workforce casualization and the warping effects it renders upon the present academic landscape. The problem is more complex, she makes clear, than a simple deception on the part of doctoral programs about job market realities. Rogers depicts the short-term hiring practices that have torn into higher education almost like one claw of a much larger gig economy monster, fixated with contingency and risk-reduction. Casualization’s effects extend deep into “academic labor structures,” a more diffuse and impactful target than just the number of “job opportunities” over a given time (p. 16). Whether or not such structures remain hidden to students, their experiences and the broader climate in which they learn depend upon them.

Though Rogers weaves statistical evidence into this chapter—how “non-tenure-track appointments now constitute 70 percent of the instructional workforce” and how most adjuncts earn less than a third of the MLA's recommended per-course pay, for instance (p. 25)—she deliberately resists the language of supply and demand. It is a politically consequential framing: Rogers clearly insists on staving off the lazy conclusion that systemically underpaid teaching posts should warrant narrowing the graduate study pipeline. She explains that “reducing the number of PhDs entering the job market will not balance the system, but rather will contribute to a cycle that devalues humanities education by reinforcing the idea that the only valuable career path is as a faculty member” (p. 32-33). Thinking in terms of cycles and feedback loops, Rogers charts a way out of the cynical bind in which market-oriented reasoning can hold us—a bind that negative sentiments toward non-faculty careers help enforce from within the academy. “More varied employment and public engagement,” she proposes, can “create a positive feedback loop back into the academy, increasing the importance of publicly relevant research, writing, and teaching” (p. 34). Hidden dependence on adjunct labor and paucities of formalized professional training for (even tenure-track seeking) grad students, Rogers indicates, form two axes in a worsening image for the humanities at large. At their crosshairs sits the profession and experience of teaching; and as such, Rogers’s call for “reinvesting in the importance and value of teaching” takes center stage in an activist stance that looks beyond traditional institutions and career pathways but whose work in any case “begins with labor practices” (p. 21).

The pragmatic orientation of Rogers’s book makes use of a somewhat consumerist frame around undergraduate education, as when she paraphrases an “important refrain of the adjunct activism movement... that faculty working conditions are student learning conditions” (p. 27). A different project more oriented toward theory and radical traditions—such as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney's The Undercommons, which Rogers cites in decrying a “rhetoric of vocation and even love” that helps entrench academic work inequities (p. 21)—would perhaps try more to dissolve the consumer-product-provider diagram that clings to American education. Yet for the grad student reader, Rogers’s description of today’s academic workforce provides an insightful lens onto the roles we might play (while we wait for university administrators and other empowered actors who might heed her direct call for “reinvestment”) in loosening the conventions that conceal both the career options ahead of us and the labor structures that already surround us. Graduate students occupy a “liminal position” amid a bifurcated system of prestigious versus materially disparaged teaching roles, and by “pulling back the curtain” on career realities through professional development and other measures, we can gain a chance to integrate labor and intellectual concerns around our “deeply embedded” vantage point (p. 31). I would further argue that this embeddedness should call us to explore new forms of solidarity with more contingently employed teachers and to articulate our demands for better training together with their demands for better pay, support, and recognition. Ultimately the task at hand for all of us who want to see a better future for humanities research and teaching is to nullify the appeal that adjunctification currently wields for university departments, without demonizing or further degrading the people who work as adjuncts. Rogers’s opening chapter starkly yet enthusiastically sets out the conditions and initial demands that such a project must eventually take into account, but also that students and advisors will benefit right now from recognizing.


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