A Field and Its Forms
Like many people facing a tough humanities job market, I started to draft my dissertation with an anxious eye to my field’s generic expectations. Indeed, for years, this compulsion to write in the most traditional academic forms felt like a life-or-death issue.
And when I say “felt like a life or death issue,” I mean this somewhat literally. I had spent my formative professional years yearning to teach, imagining a life in which I provided structure and support for students who were learning to recognize the power of their own voices. As a PhD candidate, I made financial, physical, and emotional sacrifices toward this goal on a daily basis. All the while, I struggled to tamp down growing concerns about my future chances in higher education. As Eric Hayot points out in his 2018 article in Profession, it is becoming more difficult to find teaching jobs in the humanities, and budget cuts, as well as declining trends in enrollments since 2010, are worsening the situation exponentially. Increasingly, higher education in the United States runs on the fumes of contingent faculty members. As of 2016, 70% of instructors were part-time faculty members, a group of people who often lack assurance that they will hold teaching positions in the following semester or year.
Here are some of the things that weighed on me each time I sat down to write:
- I feared that even if I were lucky enough to find a position that allowed me to teach, I would be working with such a heavy courseload that I would not be able to teach well. Echoing this concern on a broader scale, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reports:
In an effort to piece together enough low-wage courses to make a living, many “part-time” faculty members, paradoxically, teach more courses each semester than full-time faculty. Moreover, faculty in part-time positions tend to be less integrated into their institutions and have fewer resources available. The nature of their work sometimes requires commuting between several campuses, and they often are assigned to crowded group offices—or have no office at all. As a result, part-time faculty may be less accessible to students. (15)
Beyond concerns about being accessible to my students, I worried that the precarity of a contingent position might affect the way I approached course design and discussion. Again, the AAUP report provides data to support this concern, noting that compared to part-time faculty, full-time faculty in a 2016 study were significantly more willing to experiment in their classrooms as well as “to teach content that might challenge students’ understanding of their social world” (16). As someone drawn to teach writing and nineteenth-century studies because of the way that these subjects can allow students to rethink their assumptions about the world around them, I knew that the pressure to concede in these respects would be a source of constant strain and shame in my life.
- I suspected that these same pressures might reduce my willingness to explore and experiment with my research, as is the case for many contingent faculty members. Larger trends back up this possibility as well: the full-time faculty interviewed in the 2016 AAUP study were significantly more willing to take risks with their scholarly work than were the contingent faculty members interviewed (16).
- In a job market where any stable employment counts as a victory, beggars can’t be choosers where location is concerned. And yet, as a queer person, the places where I believed I would feel most accepted and physically safe—that is, cities and towns with an active queer community—were not guaranteed to be places where 19th-century literature positions would open up. Every time I picked up a pen, I felt the need to be competitive enough in the field to have a shot at landing not only a long-term position, but also some of the most highly sought-after jobs in a tight market.
- I feared that I would struggle for years as an adjunct without employer-provided healthcare. Indeed, I feared for my future solvency even with health insurance. We live in a world where, in 2018, an established and insured English professor at Humboldt State University was hit with a $48,329 bill for an allergy test. This fee represents more than twice my yearly take-home pay during several years of my life as a graduate teaching assistant. It also represents an unconscionable sum in a world where, in 2014, the median pay adjuncts received for a semester-long course was $2,700 (Birmingham). And then, of course, there were the stories of adjunct life that circulated in the wake of Margaret Mary Vojtko’s death in 2013, accounts that highlighted the long-term precarity contingent faculty face. Accounts like these keep me up at night.
As someone who studies nineteenth-century print culture and digital forms, my research focuses on the social, material, and institutional conditions that shape the way people write. And yet, the more I explored theories of composition and textual interaction, the better able I was to see how my own writing reflected the worst parts of my institutional reality.
I now think of the drafts I struggled to write during this period as “tenure-eyed texts”—documents distorted to fit into the most common generic conventions in our field. I wrote these tenure-eyed texts not because those conventions were the most appropriate for the work I wanted to do, but because I feared what would happen if they did not fit the mold of a professional dossier. For me—and I believe, for most people—these fears were not a recipe for good writing or good teaching.
But then something wonderful happened.
I stopped wanting to go on the tenure-track job market.
Of course, it wasn’t a simple shift. Like many who part ways with their ivory tower aspirations, I cycled through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief before I made peace with my decision.*
What finally cemented my shift away from this path, was, somewhat paradoxically, the renewed enthusiasm I felt for research as soon as I began to take ‘leaving’ the field seriously. I began to remember what had motivated me to spend a life researching nineteenth-century print culture in the first place. I felt a rekindled enthusiasm for theory. I rediscovered the joy I had once taken in my dissertation project, which examined the intersections between 19th-century audience practices and today’s digital communities.
However, the academic genres I had been working so hard to emulate no longer seemed appropriate to the primary audiences I wanted to connect with. I found myself regularly replaying a conference conversation I’d had with a scholar who’d wryly noted that a dissertation is the longest job application a person will ever write. Each time I thought back to this discussion, it became clearer to me that I was no longer applying for the kinds of jobs that needed me to practice this kind of writing. The positions I was applying for revolved around open pedagogy practices, faculty development, and the public humanities. They were positions that require research skills, writing proficiency, and familiarity with higher education’s institutional labyrinths—and indeed, committees for these positions typically list PhD credentials as a requirement in their job descriptions. However, they were more interested in my educational training than my contributions to literary theory as such.
So, here was a second crux. I had written three dissertation chapter drafts that—while admittedly rough—reflected years of study and extremely painstaking archival research. But viewed either as a job application or as an expression of passion for the discipline, something about these drafts felt like it was missing its mark. Continuing to try to reshape the oldest versions of this work appeared to be a classic example of the sunk costs fallacy in action. What I most wanted was to contribute to nineteenth-century literary studies and higher education in a way that centered pedagogy and community. Yet because the four-chapter format didn’t feel like it fit, it seemed inappropriate to devote more time and energy to a draft that no longer reflected my voice. Better to remix that past work in a way that tapped into my motivating drives than to shore up these past chapters into something that didn’t.
Oh, but that’s such a horrific waste of work!—a panicked inner voice still sometimes cries. And perhaps this is exactly what you are thinking as you read this. I can only say to this that I believe that work and the conversations that surrounded it have played a significant role in this current project and the skills I will take out of my Ph.D. study. Maha Bali and Suzan Koseoglu encourage us to embrace a “different, a broader understanding” of our work, one that “includes the processes and products of open scholarship as valuable, and viable, resources,” and in this sense, my research process has helped me to achieve content mastery in exactly the way it was intended to do. Someday, I even hope to revisit what I have written in these past drafts and reshape it into a piece of open, multimedia scholarship. Yet in this moment, for the purposes of this dissertation project, I want to devote my remaining time to a different kind of intervention in the field.
A Situating Pause:
Here, it is important to highlight the fact that my while the fears that sparked my decisions were both viscerally real and based on real trends in academic employment, I am a person who benefits from multiple intersecting forms of privilege that insulate me from the worst inequalities of our profession. True, I am someone who presents as a woman in a world where the gender wage gap still persists and where women are overrepresented in the adjunct faculty pool, (making up 61% of adjuncts as of 2016), so I do face some disadvantages in a competitive field (Birmingham).
However, I materially benefit from other identity categories and experiences. Just to scratch the surface of these, I am a white person. I have no visible disabilities. I come from a privileged financial and educational background. All of these factors are concrete advantages on the academic job market, and they would also serve as protective factors were I to leave educational contexts entirely. Often unrecognized in discussions of academic disillusionment are the ways that the fall-from-grace narrative that is so common in ‘quit-lit’ is itself a product of privilege. Manu Samriti Chander raised this point powerfully in a May 2019 Twitter discussion about the genre, noting:
Lots of folks—most folks actually—were excluded from literary studies, the humanities, and academia more generally long before the jobs disappeared. Seems to me we talk disproportionately more about those forced to “quit” than about those already excluded.
I bring up these points to highlight one of the ways in which academia exacerbates the worst kinds of stratification in our culture. As Eric Hayot and many others remind us, the academy is one among many sites of structural violence within the education system.
While I have told one story of how I recognized aspects of this structural violence shaping my own life and writing, my goal is not to center this story as representative but to register where this work is coming from. Many aspects of this project draw from others’ explorations of the ways that privilege operates in scholarly and educational contexts, but as someone who benefits from many forms of privilege, I recognize that my own lens is flawed. Working against the distortions of this privilege is the work of a lifetime, not just a single project, but what I can promise is that I am taking this work seriously.
Undissertating: A Reassessment
To put a fine point on the story I have been telling: the institutional structures and material conditions associated with the humanities are causing many of us to uncritically double down on traditional modes of writing and teaching.
The issues that shape this outcome are not going away.
- As long as institutions of higher education view increasing the proportions of contingent labor as a solution to budget cuts, this dynamic will continue.
- As long as these same institutions fail to listen to minoritized scholars and students who are disproportionately excluded from the academy, this dynamic will continue.
- As long as departments, reliant on TAs’ labor, continue to produce far more professoriate-oriented PhD candidates than there are teaching positions, this dynamic will continue.
- As long as tenure committees and R1 graduate programs elevate demonstration of mastery in research over teaching, this dynamic will continue. And this dynamic not only limits scholars’ confidence to devote as much attention to pedagogy as their students need, but it also limits scholars’ confidence to research in creative, risky, or experimental ways (“Higher Education at a Crossroads” 16).
Confronting these same disheartening trends, Eric Hayot provides us with a word of encouragement. “How to change things?” he asks, “That is a task for the institutional and moral imagination. The good news is that humanists are specialists of the imagination” (Hayot). So let’s reimagine what is within our power, and let’s do so using the tools that literary studies provides. There’s space in our field to experiment with different ways of interacting with our students and our peers—academic and nonacademic alike. There’s space for wider participation in academic communities than is reflected by our elevated gatekeeping documents. So let’s change our approach to these documents.
To be clear: I am not saying that there is no longer any place for the modes of writing we have refined in the past fifty years. Many traditional dissertations, scholarly monographs, and critical editions can and do reflect important perspectives and promote needed change in our disciplines. Yet these forms aren’t one-size-fits-all, and in many contexts, conventional genres and educational strategies don’t actually reflect our goals as instructors, scholars, colleagues, or advocates of social justice and inclusion.
What, then, might it look like to compose a dissertation that begins by outlining these goals and works from there? In the following pages, I use critical information studies and constructivist pedagogical perspectives to explore the media ecosystem of nineteenth-century literary studies as a field. From there, I think about what I want to do with my writing—(teach and connect through Victorian Studies research)—rather than using what this writing might do for me—(appeal to future tenure-track gatekeepers)—as the principles that shape this dissertation’s form.
Ardam, Jacquelyn. “Real Toads at the International Cryptozoology Museum.” Los Angeles Review of Books Blog, 17 July 2017, https://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/essays/real-toads-international-cryptozoology-museum/. Permalink https://perma.cc/K8K8-N2CR.
Bali, Maha, and Suzan Koseoglu. “Self as OER.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 26 Aug 2016, https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/self-as-oer-selfoer/62679. Accessed 2 February 2018.
Barreira P, Basilico M, Bolotnyy V. Graduate Student Mental Health: Lessons from American Economics Departments. Working Paper. 4 November 2018. Accessed 2 December 2018.
Bartram, Erin. “Why Everyone Loses When Someone Leaves Academe.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 Feb 2018, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-Everybody-Loses-When/242560. Accessed 12 Nov. 2018.
Betensky, Carolyn, Seth Kahn, Maria Maisto, and Talia Schaffer. “Common Good, Not Common Despair.” Profession, Modern Language Association, Fall 2018, https://profession.mla.org/common-good-not-common-despair/. Accessed 10 December 2018. Permalink: https://perma.cc/Q73J-UC67.
Birmingham, Kevin. “‘The Great Shame of Our Profession’: How the Humanities Survive on Exploitation.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 Feb. 2017, www.chronicle.com/article/The-Great-Shame-of-Our/239148.
Cassuto, Leonard. “The Grief of the Ex-Academic.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 64, No. 25, 2 March 2018, p. 11. https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Grief-of-the-Ex-Academic/242612. Accessed 12 Nov. 2018.
Ellis, Lindsay. “An Adjunct’s Death Becomes a Rallying Cry for Many in Academe.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 September 2018, www.chronicle.com/article/An-Adjuncts-Death-Becomes-a/141709/. Accessed 10 November 2018.
Evans, Teresa M., et al. “Evidence for a Mental Health Crisis in Graduate Education.” Nature Biotechnology, vol. 36, Mar. 2018, pp. 282–84. doi: 10.1038/nbt.4089.
Feder Ostrov, Barbara. “Bill of the Month: A $48,329 Allergy Test Is a Lot of Scratch,” National Public Radio, 29 October 2018, www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/10/29/660330047/bill-of-the-month-a-48-329-allergy-test-is-a-lot-of-scratch. Accessed 29 October 2018. Permalink: perma.cc/JBD7-RZBR.
Flaherty, Colleen. “More Faculty Diversity, Not on Tenure Track.” Inside Higher Ed, 22 Aug. 2016, www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/08/22/study-finds-gains-faculty-diversity-not-tenure-track. Permalink: perma.cc/LML2-CF5T.
“Higher Education at a Crossroads: The Economic Value of Tenure and the Security of the Profession.” Academe, AAUP, March-April 2016. www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/2015-16EconomicStatusReport.pdf. Accessed 6 November 2018. Permalink: perma.cc/82RC-JNVH.
Kay, Andrew. “Writing After Academe.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 July 2017, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Writing-After-Academe/240577.
Kezar, Adrianna. “Examining Non-Tenure Track Faculty Perceptions of How Departmental Policies and Practices Shape Their Performance and Ability to Create Student Learning at Four-Year Institutions,”Research in Higher Education, Vol. 54, Issue 5, pp. 571-598. DOI: 10.1007/s11162-013-9288-5. Accessed 5 September 2019. [Paywalled.]
Patton, Stacey. “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 May 2012. www.chronicle.com/article/From-Graduate-School-to/131795/. Accessed 11 November 2018.
@profchander (Manu Samriti Chander). “lots of folks–most folks actually–were excluded from literary studies, the humanities, and academia more generally long before the jobs disappeared. seems to me we talk disproportionately more about those forced to “quit” than about those already excluded.” Twitter, 11 May 2019, 3:31 p.m., https://twitter.com/profchander/status/1127310390516494339.
Pryal, Katie Rose Guest. “Quit Lit Is About Labor Conditions,” Women in Higher Education, Vol. 27, No. 6, June 2018, pp. 1-2. DOI: 10.1002/whe.20578. Accessed 12 November 2018. [Paywalled.]
Schubert-Irastorza, Cynthia, and Dee L. Fabry. “Job Satisfaction, Burnout, and Work Engagement in Higher Education: A Survey of Research and Best Practices,” Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching, Vol. 7, No. 1, March 2014. https://www.nu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/journal-of-research-in-innovative-teaching-volume-7.pdf#page=46. [Link auto-downloads pdf file.]
Seltzer, Beth. “One Hundred Job Ads From the Humanities Ecosystem.” Profession, Modern Language Association, Fall 2018, https://profession.mla.org/one-hundred-job-ads-from-the-humanities-ecosystem/. Accesssed 18 November 2018. Permalink: perma.cc/55MJ-RYB8.
Simonton, Teghan. “What Happens When an Adjunct Instructor Wants to Retire?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 11 June 2018, www.chronicle.com/article/What-Happens-When-an-Adjunct/243635/. Accessed 11 November 2018.
- In Hayot's accounting: "Every year since 2013–14 has set a successive new low for the total number of jobs advertised; when you consider the proportion of tenure-track jobs listed (63.4% and 46.3% of the listings in the English and foreign language editions, respectively, in 2016–17, compared with 75.6% and 59.5% in 2007–08), the total number of tenure-track jobs advertised is less than half of what it was a decade ago (807 in 2016–17 versus 2,149 in 2007–08." Compounding this crisis, he observes, there has also been an increase in potential job market candidates: "the number of humanities PhDs produced between 2008 and 2014 increased by 12%" (Hayot n2). ↵
- In a 2016 report, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) notes: "IPEDS [Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System] data indicate that less than one-third of faculty members are now either tenured or on the tenure track. Tenured faculty (generally full or associate professors) make up approximately 21 percent of the academic labor force, while tenure-track faculty (assistant professors) make up just over 8 percent. . . The majority (70 percent) of academic positions today are not only off the tenure track but also part time, with part-time instructional staff positions making up nearly 41 percent of the academic labor force and graduate teaching assistants making up almost another 13 percent (part-time tenure-track positions make up about 1 percent of the academic labor force) ("Higher Education at a Crossroads" 13). ↵
- Recent studies published by Nature Biotechnology and Harvard University suggest that pressures such as these may be a contributing factor in what their authors describe as a mental health crisis in higher education (Evans et al., Barreira et al.). Evans et al. observe that graduate students are "more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population." Queer and transgender students were significantly more likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to heterosexual or cisgender peers (Barreira et al. 23, Evans et al.) ↵
- See Barbara Feder Ostrov's October 2018 NPR article, "Bill of the Month: A $48,329 Allergy Test Is a Lot of Scratch." ↵
- Pay transparency is a radical act, yes? In that spirit: in 2013, I made $13,560 for the year as a teaching assistant in spring and instructor of record in fall. I balanced these positions while taking three to four graduate seminar courses each semester in keeping with my PhD program requirements. By 2015, my pay had increased to $20,513 due to a combination of my ABD status and my eligibility for a spring-fall-summer TAship role at our Writing Center. This was alongside my role as a literary studies discussion section leader during spring and fall academic semesters. ↵
- See also the Chronicle of Higher Education articles "The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps" and "What Happens When an Adjunct Instructor Wants to Retire?" ↵
- This is not to suggest that contingent faculty members lack writing or teaching skills. However, working environments for a large percentage of non-tenure track faculty directly obstruct positive teaching, learning, and research outcomes. For more information on the factors that shape these outcomes, see Adrianna Kezar's 2012 literature overview and study about pre-tenure-track faculty working environments, "Examining Non-Tenure Track Faculty Perceptions of How Departmental Policies and Practices Shape Their Performance and Ability to Create Student Learning at Four-Year Institutions." Another angle on this: research on burnout in higher education calls attention to issues of concern for non-tenure-track faculty. The Maslach Burnout Inventory's Educator Scale (MBI-ES) posits that work-life balance, autonomy, intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, a feeling of community, a sense of fairness, and value-match all play a role in protecting against burnout (Schubert-Irastorzas and Fabry 41). And for the reasons I've mentioned above and more, the most common forms of contingent teaching appointments disrupt each of these six categories, increasing the risk of unhappiness and burnout. ↵
- For more information about quit-lit, see Erin Bartram's piece, “Why Everybody Loses When Someone Leaves Academe" and Leonard Cassuto's response, "The Grief of the Ex-Academic." For some examples of quit-lit, see Keguro Macharia's "On Quitting," Jacquelyn Ardam's" Real Toads at the International Cryptozoology Museum," and Andrew Kay's "Writing After Academe." ↵
- For a deeper look at the mismatch between the focus of PhD graduate training and the skillsets emphasized in academic as well as nonacademic positions, see Beth Seltzer's 2018 Profession article, "One Hundred Job Ads From the Humanities Ecosystem." ↵
- I think it important to add that I am extremely grateful for the years of painstaking work that my mentor, Susan Bernstein, has devoted to guiding my research process and providing feedback on many rounds of drafts. This feedback has been invaluable in helping me learn the motivating questions in our discipline. Susan, I hope—more than anything—that you do not feel that your own careful labors have gone to waste. ↵
- There are many examples of the kind of innovative and collaborative composition that does promote change. While this essay focuses on conventional documents such as the dissertation and the journal article, members of the academy are engaging in consciousness-raising and policy revision projects to advance these goals. As just one example, in their 2018 MLA Profession article "Common Good, Not Common Despair," Carolyn Betensky, Seth Kahn, Maria Maisto, and Talia Schaffer describe their efforts to reshape how rankings systems reflect institutions' dependence on contingent labor. This change has the potential to influence college and university budget allocations for instructional faculty and staff. ↵