Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Humanities Blues

The Cornell Daily Sun ran a story today about the sad state of the job market for  graduate students in the humanities.  I heard this  long ago, when I was a graduate student at Boston University in philosophy in the early 90s.  The lament goes something like this:

There are too many students for too few jobs.  The pay is bad.  The teaching load heavy.  The colleges and universities where students get jobs are low ranked.  This goes on.  It was really quite a depressing business.  Yet every year we had a class of some dozen or more philosophy students, eager to get into the program, believing, somehow, that they were made from a different cut of intellectual cloth than the rest; that the conditions would not apply to them.

One day The Boston Globe ran an article about the extremely low rate of job placement for  graduate students in the humanities, particularly in philosophy.  The number was somewhere around a 50% failure rate.  Very grim odds indeed.  If you had a cancer with this kind of morbidity, best to get one’s papers in order.

I photocopied the article, and secretly (I did most things in secret in those days as a grad student, for ruffling professorial feathers is so unwise it is not even spoken about privately) put it in the mailboxes of every student and professor.  It caused a stir.  In a month, a committee was formed to deal with placement (for amazingly, in this difficult employment field, there was no system in place to help students get jobs!)

I suppose, nearly twenty years later, the story is much the same at the Department of Philosophy at Boston University.  More and more people fight for less and less reward; professors put on a brave face, may very well be complicit in this sad deceit, and hope no one looks behind the curtain.  

And there is an urgent question that begs to be answered.  Why go through it?  I got out, and have never had serious reservations about this decision.  The idea to jump off the sinking ship and into the waters of a lesser form of chaos seemed eminently rational.  I took my humanities elsewhere.  To my surprise (and probably to the surprise of many of the professors at BU, if they care to look) it has flourished by my rubric.  And I did not have to enter into their lottery.  And I did not have to beg.

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