Continuing the Conversation on the Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study

Since its release, the report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature has generated useful discussions about the challenges faced by our fields and potential strategies for responding. As we continue these discussions, it’s important to keep in mind what this report aims to do—and what it does not aim to do. The report analyzes the current situation and offers a series of recommendations that graduate programs in language and literature might consider as they seek to serve their doctoral students better. The report includes thirteen examples of programs that have already made some of the kinds of changes the task force discusses.

The task force was formed in the light of the recognition that there are far fewer tenure-track jobs than PhDs to fill them; the MLA has documented this trend, has developed guidelines for what percentage of the faculty should be tenure-track, and has also provided extensive guidance on the employment conditions of non-tenure-track, part-time, and adjunct faculty members. There’s justified anger on the part of graduate students and contingent faculty members about these conditions, and there’s certainly fear about the consequences of directing that anger toward the universities that teach students and employ adjuncts. Yet, when it comes down to it, only the institutions themselves can change their practices. That’s why tenured faculty members and administrators must show leadership on this issue.

The MLA has always recommended that departments should use multiple criteria to determine the right size for their graduate programs, contrary to those who argue that tenure-track placements should be the sole determinant of graduate admissions. I don’t think denying graduate students the opportunity to engage in advanced study of the humanities will move us forward. That’s why our report on graduate education stresses ideas for improving graduate education so that students emerge as better-prepared teachers who also have wider connections to the world beyond the classroom. This approach offers the best chance for students to study what they love and to expand their career horizons.

Some members have asked me what the MLA will offer for those who have already gone through graduate programs but have not found satisfactory employment. The resources that we develop and the programming that we support will not be limited to current graduate students. The MLA will support its members at all stages of their professional lives. Likewise, departments should give their former graduate students access to institutional assistance.

Basic change always gets pushback, and the MLA expects the report to be widely discussed, well into the autumn. Some departments have already discussed the report and planned changes as a result. Others have reached out to the MLA for help with implementing some of the recommendations, and the association hopes to support several pilot projects starting in the next academic year. By developing resources and providing direct assistance to institutions as they undertake new directions, the MLA intends to show that positive changes are indeed possible.

One final word. I, too, am angry that institutions use budgetary rationales to justify the systematic exploitation of adjuncts. It’s an unacceptable and degraded predicament that often denies members of the profession job security, a living wage, benefits, and recognition of their important contributions to student learning. The MLA’s work on this aspect of the profession has been consistent with our interventions on similar issues, such as appropriate treatment of candidates on the job market, evaluating scholarship for tenure and promotion, and ensuring members’ academic freedom. Yet the time has come for the MLA to try new strategies. We owe all MLA members a renewed effort to promote change on campus and to support those who have the fewest resources. And we also owe our members a clearer statement of what we can—and cannot—do as a scholarly association.  It’s time to lay aside generalized blame of the MLA for institutions’ failure to treat their employees appropriately and lamentations of what the MLA could or should have done in the past. It’s time for us to craft a realistic new agenda, together. The Delegate Assembly has formulated recommendations, and the council has been at work to determine which ones can be implemented in the near and long term.

I invite all members, including and especially the tenure-track faculty members who want to work on this issue, to help the MLA shape its next steps. In the comment section, please add your ideas. Let’s focus on what each of us can do, and let’s look to a better future.

3 Comments

Laura Runge

At the University of South Florida, where the English department offers an MA in literature and rhetoric and composition, an MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD in literature and rhetoric and composition, we are piloting a graduate level internship building from our successful undergraduate internship in Professional and Technical writing. The proposal has been supported throughout the department and it now moves on to the college and university approval process. I have also organized some alt-ac career workshops for our graduate students, but the idea is still new among the professors and the PhD students. We need to persuade them that alternative careers are viable and a good use of their degree. I was surprised to see the MLA recommendation against shrinking the size of the PhD programs, but I understand its point. We need the PhD in order for the study of English to survive as a discipline (and I am working from the context of English, but this also applied to World Languages). Today I’ve been considering what the skills are that the PhD in literature provides for a non-academic worker. The skill and knowledge base of a PhD in literature certainly includes higher level research and communication experience, but these are attained at the MA level as well. Can we articulate the abilities of a PhD that are unique? The PhD holder should have the ability to identify patterns in language or text and connect these to a broad historical network of linguistic or artistic conventions, the ability to hold in thought contradictory or incompatible conclusions during a complex process of recursive reading and weighing of evidence, the ability to attribute significance to patterns or events that provides insight into human behavior. I’d like to hear what others think and also some ideas on how we can create programs that guide students toward public humanities projects in which to demonstrate these skills for the community.

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Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

I applaud the MLA and the Task Force on Doctoral Study for confronting the present realities of labor and the most unknowable future of the academic job market. It crucial to have a permanent dialogue with employers (domestic, international, non-traditional, non-academic and academic) to deal with a real crisis that is beyond the disabling comfort of theories.

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Joanne Kantrowitz

Publishing a list of the number of adjuncts employed by each university (yes, I know there are 3,000 of them) or a source of the listing, if such exists. That way, tuition-paying parents and students will also know what they’re “buying” with their tuition payments, and can join the pressure. I’m long retired but public pressure is just about the only thing that will move the Boards of Trustees to back off taking advantage of surplus “labor.”

Support unionization of adjuncts. Reduce the number of Ph.D. students. You are taking advantage of the students’ naivete by continue to encourage such study. And your own naivete in thinking that alternative jobs will make up the difference. Of course, many of you will also have to teach undergraduates again, as full professors did in the 1950’s when I went to Michigan.

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