A Chronic Condition

Jonathan Sperber, May 2002

Is someone of roughly your generation (AB, Cornell 1973; PhD, Chicago 1980), I found your observations apt and compelling. On reflection, I can think of four general areas about which some expansions and perhaps modifications of your considerations might be possible.

(1) You begin by contrasting your own undergraduate experiences of exciting, dynamic, and charismatic professors, at least implicitly, with a different experience today. I, too, remember undergraduate teachers who excited me and moved me to undertake graduate study in history. Such observations are common ones among professors, and for that reason need to be judged more skeptically. After all, they are made by academics, people who liked going to college so much, that they decided to stay there all their lives. It's not so clear that their fellow students, who were less enthusiastic about academia, had the same experience.

When I try to think more analytically about my undergraduate experiences, I am struck by the contrast between what was accepted and praised as good teaching then, and what is now. Thirty years ago, as I remember it, professors got up in front of a room and just talked for 50 minutes, expecting their student listeners to follow them very closely. Today's undergraduates would not accept such a lecture, no matter how brilliantly or dynamically it was given. They insist on lecture outlines, and, increasingly, as you note, visual illustrations, music, film, computer presentations, and the like to keep their easily diverted attention and to guide them through the ideas expressed in the lecture. Lecturing today is considerably more work than it was a generation ago, and it is correspondingly more difficult to be an inspiring teacher. In this respect as well, one might want to qualify your contrasts between past and present.

(2) You make some very apt observations about the process of premature professionalization among today's graduate students. Here, the comparison with your own experiences in graduate school is explicit. You assert that you, and other graduate students of your cohort, were much more taken with the life of the mind, and emphasized more profoundly the intellectual content of their graduate study than is the case today. This may be true, but there is also something about that past cohort of graduate students—those who were in graduate school, say c. 1970–c. 1985. They were willing to accept a very low standard of living, to spend years at about the economic level of welfare recipients: eat soybeans; own, at best, a beat-up old VW Bug, or no car at all; live with Salvation Army furniture or in furnished rooms. They were also willing to renounce having a family, at the very least while they were in graduate school, and often for years afterwards.

Today's graduate students are not prepared to spend their youth living at the poverty level, not consuming. They don't want to walk or bicycle, or even drive an old used car; they want a nice new one. Far from living in furnished rooms, they want to own a house—at least in the Midwest, where real estate prices are less cosmic than in bi-coastal America. Many also wish to start a family while still students, a development only helped along by the greater number of women in graduate study today, whose reproductive lifetimes are significantly shorter than those of men.

All these wishes—and, I might note, these are normal wishes of most inhabitants of advanced (post) industrial societies, even of their poorest members—take time, money, and interest away from the pure contemplation of the intellect. Graduate students need to borrow money, to work second jobs, to spend time with their families, all of which makes it much more difficult to have intellectual adventures in graduate school, and encourages them to understand their studies primarily as career preparation.

(3) Your observations about premature professionalization are very apt, but leave out many aspects of contemporary graduate student life that demonstrate such a premature or pseudo-professionalization. One such area is the way that graduate students become increasingly involved with their work as TAs, neglecting their preparation for comprehensive exams or work on their theses to concentrate their attention on their teaching, even, on occasion, challenging professors for control of the survey courses.

Another area in which this premature professionalization can be observed is in the arena of graduate student activism. Particularly at public institutions, financial assistance, especially the all-important waiver of tuition, comes primarily in the form of teaching assistantships. TAs are generally overworked and underpaid, so students become involved in union organization. They demand higher wages, health benefits, control over the process of TA appointments, perhaps influence over course content, and, no doubt, one day soon, retirement benefits. This activism, strongly encouraged by the AHA staff, as even a cursory reading of Perspectives will make clear, for all its many virtues, also serves to divert graduate students' attention away from their studies. There is a strong interaction between these examples of premature professionalization and the wish of graduate students to consume and set up families. All these require more money, not easily forthcoming at the university, unless one agitates for them. Of course, between consumption, family, activism, and being a TA, there is no time at all left for the intellectual experience of graduate education, and even less prospect of actually concluding it. Graduate study ceases being a stage in a scholar's life and becomes a career in itself.

(4) Your piece concludes with recommendations for action, or, more precisely, with rejections of recommendations for action. The two alternatives you mention—shortened PhD programs and a further degree, after the PhD, along the European lines of a Habilitationsschrift or thèse d'état—are, I quite agree with you, entirely inappropriate. However, you might also wish to consider the underlying motive that connects these two, seemingly so disparate proposals. Both involve trying to reduce the numbers of graduate students. The first would do so by creating a mass of unqualified, unprepared PhDs, who would quickly be rejected by the job market and so could, at a relatively young age, look for a new career, or go to law school. The second, by setting up yet another hurdle to be jumped in the course of pursuing a university position, and spinning out the process of getting a job still further, might serve to scare away students from graduate study. (It would certainly help drive many women out of academia, since preparation for an academic position would take up their entire reproductive lives.)

If both these are dubious ideas, they nonetheless reflect a basic fact of academic life. There are far too many PhDs trained for jobs available to them. The January 2002 Perspectives noted that there are about 15,000 full-time college and university teachers of history in the United States. Assuming, as seems reasonable, that in the future there will be net no new positions created (that is, that any new positions created will be balanced out by other positions canceled, or turned over to adjuncts), so that job openings will be all replacements and also assuming that the typical university historian has a career of about 30 years, there would be, on the average, over a period of years, about 500 positions open each year. We turn out, however, 1,000-1,100 history PhDs per year. PhDs have been produced at or close to this figure for decades; consequently, we have created a substantial backlog of history PhDs who will never find employment in their chosen profession.

This state of affairs, having lasted for almost 30 years now, cannot be referred to as a crisis. Rather, it is a chronic condition. Ultimately, the only way such a condition can be improved is to cut in half the number of new PhDs, which would imply cutting in half the number of new graduate students. There are many obstacles to such a course of action: the need to teach lower-level and survey classes; the pressure of academic administrators for impressive numbers of PhDs (no matter if they can't find jobs); the personal vanity of professors, who want their own graduate students and find teaching them more rewarding than dealing with today's quite demanding undergraduates. Unless these obstacles are openly and honestly discussed, and ways of dealing with them proposed and taken up, the current state of the academic employment market will continue into the indefinite future. Regrettably, up to now the AHA has not yet substantially addressed these issues in its various discussions of graduate study and problems in the academic job market.

Jonathan Sperber
University of Missouri, Columbia