On scapegoats, opportunities, and MLA occupation

This post is a little different from my usual book chatter, and it’s on a topic that matters a lot to me: the choices that humanities PhDs face once grad school is over. When I started writing the post, Occupy Wall Street was at its peak in New York, #mla12 chatter was revving up on Twitter, and a group of people tweeting under the @OccupyMLA handle and using the #omla hashtag had just begun causing a stir over the lack of tenure track jobs available to humanities PhD grads. As I’ve been mulling over my thoughts on the matter, the circumstances have shifted a bit, but I still want to post a few thoughts.

While the @OccupyMLA group generated a good deal of attention (even eliciting articles in the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed), ultimately they badly misplayed what could have been a great opportunity to open up a productive dialogue about the state of the profession. Instead of thoughtful critique, the feed was full of scathing posts illogically directed at people in alternative academic professions (famously, “Stick your alt-ac advice squarely in your variorum”), weirdly personal revelations by and about members of the group, and toxic infighting as the members tried to determine the future of the account and the movement it was trying to launch. (Here’s a glimpse into the dialogue; see also this thoughtful rant from Bethany Nowviskie, which includes additional tweets and links to other resources.)

By now the @OccupyMLA account has crashed and burned in such spectacular ways that a number of people in the MLA community on Twitter became convinced that the account was fake (not unlike Rachel Maddow’s insistance that the only logical explanation for Herman Cain’s antics is that he must be a work of performance art). Legitimacy of the account aside, the problem with the @OccupyMLA storm wasn’t the premise; many, many people in the humanities community (myself included) recognize the fundamental problem that PhDs are trained almost exclusively for jobs as professors, but there aren’t enough of those jobs to go around. The problem, rather, was that the @OccupyMLA people were perpetuating the same narrow-minded focus that contributes to the problem in the first place, and they seemed to be looking for scapegoats instead of opportunities. (How else to explain the bizarre stance of seeing the alt-ac community as an enemy?)

Part of the problem with the @OccupyMLA group is the continued tunnel vision that sees only two options: either a PhD lands a tenure-track job (and therefore succeeds), or a PhD does not get a tenure track job and is relegated to the world of contingent labor as an adjunct (and therefore fails). They may allow for a long purgatory between the two, but as far as I can tell, that’s the gist of their worldview. They seem to think the only problem is a lack of tenure track jobs; they think they deserve a tenure track job by merit of having completed a PhD; and they think anyone who has a PhD and does not have a tenure track job is miserable.

They’re forgetting something hugely important: many PhDs who pursue careers outside of academia are happily earning good salaries and benefits in stable positions that provide all kinds of satisfaction, challenge, and growth. The discourse around @OccupyMLA continues a tired conversation that needs to change. As long as PhDs continue to buy into the notion that there is no measure of success for us outside of academia, the mentality will continue to feed back through departments and graduate students, who will continue preparing for tenure track jobs that they may not get and who will become bitter when they don’t know how to do anything else.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the fates of humanities PhDs who, for whatever reason, do not become a part of the academic machine of the tenure track. The most important thing to keep in mind, I think, is the widely varied nature of this group: there are many, many reasons people end up outside of the tenure track, and many, many other paths that they (we) pursue. Too often, however, people who leave the traditional path feel isolated, and have no real means of connecting to a true network of peers who have made similar professional decisions. There are so many people in this position–however, to my knowledge no good network exists to help us connect in a useful way. (I would *love* to see such a network develop, and I’d love to be a part of it!)

While certain individuals and organizations do provide useful and thoughtful perspectives on these issues (including many who will present at MLA this year), the overall tone of the conversation hasn’t changed, and it should. It could be incredibly useful to connect the @OccupyMLA folks (and the large, silent body of embittered PhDs that they represent) with the happy post/alt-academic crowd so that they can start hearing a voice that differs from the one from within the walls of the university.

Happily, in the wake of the @OccupyMLA thread I’m hearing much more constructive conversation on the same topic from a variety of voices (such as this one), and if nothing else, I’m relieved that the community recognized the problems with the @OccupyMLA and sought more reasonable counterparts to direct people towards. It’s going to take a big push to shift the momentum of the dialogue, but maybe the time is right for it to start changing. I know that many people have been working hard on this issue for a long time (Anthony Grafton at the AHA being one great example), but it’s far from enough.

I’ll be heading to the MLA convention in a couple days, and I’m curious to see how the dissatisfaction of the @OccupyMLA group manifests itself. I’m also excited to see the ways in which the MLA and individuals within the organization are working to improve the situation in various ways–whether by advocating for better and different training for grad students to prepare them for much more than the tenure track, or by presenting on other types of job searches and career options, or simply through informal conversations that validate alternative academic work rather than marginalize it. Not because the work needs external validation, but because grad students need to know that there’s so much else out there, and they need to know how to become a part of it.


*Addendum: For an excellent set of #alt-ac perspectives and resources, make sure to check out the #alt-academy project on MediaCommons, edited by Bethany Nowviskie.