Jacqui Shine

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Alt-Ac Isn’t Always the Answer

(Read on, and the video will start to make sense.)

Last month Elizabeth Segran suggested in The Chronicle that humanities Ph.D.’s stop bemoaning the state of the academic labor market and instead learn to “adequately market themselves to the private sector,” where they will find a host of appropriate, challenging jobs waiting for them. “There is no reason that Ph.D.’s trained in writing, research, and public speaking,” she wrote, “are not sweeping the best jobs in journalism, publishing, public relations, NGOs and think tanks.” That we’re not, said Segran—now a public relations account executive and freelance writer—must be due to a failure to “reveal that our skills our transferable.”

It’s a variation on a theme that has developed alongside “quit lit”—the notion that the humanities Ph.D. is a multitool, and it will serve its holder well in any number of nonacademic jobs. The idea that frustrated humanities Ph.D.’s should abandon the broken adjunctification of higher education in favor of the alt-ac path is even picking up institutional steam: The American Historical Association recently received a $1.6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support its efforts to expand career tracks for history Ph.D.’s.

Encouraging people to think creatively about their career paths is, of course, just fine. And humanities Ph.D.’s can and do find jobs outside of the academy all the time. But we shouldn’t start pretending that that’s what we’ve been training them for all along. Turning a solution that may work for some individuals into a systemic fix isn’t easy—and it’s not necessarily appropriate.

Let’s not mistake the alt-ac option for an answer to academia’s labor woes. To do so is to obscure the problems of the academic labor market. It is to displace those problems onto other labor markets, many of which are equally troubled, with real costs for other workers in those fields. It is to perpetuate a powerful (and class-inflected) myth—that academic training in the humanities is not fundamentally vocational, but is, instead, some sort of updated gentleman’s education.

First off, it’s essential to point out that the academic job market doesn’t exist in some sort of vacuum. In reality, labor markets are intimately connected to one another, and the privatization and casualization that have soured the academic job market are being felt across industries and professions. (Maybe I’m misreading the Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook, but I was not aware that journalism, publishing, public relations, culture industries, and the larger nonprofit sector were so healthy!)

So when we attempt to push significant numbers of humanities Ph.D.s into other, already-taxed fields, there are real consequences. Yasmin Nair, who earned a Ph.D. in English at Purdue University but now makes her living as a freelance writer and reporter, has written extensively about these consequences over the last six months. From what she’s seen, doctoral candidates and adjuncts who attempt to move into professional writing tend to charge below-market rates, if they charge at all. That’s depressing the (already low) rates she and others receive. She put it bluntly: "Those who write for free or very little simply because they can afford to do so are scabs."

Nair argues that writing for free creates a "caste system," topped by those who have both "economic privilege and access.” “I don't just mean rich people,” she says, but also “academics with tenured or tenure-track positions” and adjuncts—those same adjuncts Segran is urging to sweep up the best jobs in journalism.

Curiously, Nair—like Segran—vilifies individuals for their roles in systemic problems. I don't disagree with the broad strokes of her argument, but I think she’s assigning blame in the wrong place. Adjuncts who write for free are not necessarily part of the "neoliberal machinery of affective exploitation," those workers who cling to the idea that their vocation is a labor of love. Instead—and this is a much bigger problem—they're doing it because they’re being told by a labor system that’s failing them that writing for publication is one of the many lateral occupations their training has prepared them for.

It’s not love. It’s desperation, and a calculated hope that writing for free will help them build their résumés and allow them to transition into paid work. The problem isn’t “scabs,” but one broken labor market pushing its workers into another, without first giving those workers the necessary qualifications to compete, much less succeed. The result is depressed wages and, in all likelihood, a credential escalation: Once you have Ph.D.’s working for your NGO, why would you hire someone with only a master’s degree, much less a bachelor’s?

Which brings us to the second problem. It’s this perception that a humanities Ph.D. is a multivalent credential, one that instills inherently transferrable skills and offers entrance into a variety of career paths. This is an increasingly common notion, and I do not agree. The Ph.D. is a degree that signifies a particular kind of vocational training, and pretending otherwise is profoundly presumptuous. The skills we acquire are specific to the academic job market: how to teach in college classrooms, how to write for academic journals, how to think, write, and work in specific contexts that aren’t always so easy to move out of.

In the meantime, all the fields that Ph.D.’s can purportedly break into have their own standards, credentials, and training, not to mention legions of qualified professionals already seeking employment. I hate to break the news here, but museums have not been desperately waiting for some humanities Ph.D.’s to come save them from themselves. This smacks of the academic chauvinism that has helped us get into this bind in the first place—the implicit belief that a Ph.D. is a sufficient replacement for the specialized training and experience that curators or writers or preservationists or archivists or high-school teachers receive. This is a fantasy.

And besides, applicants aren’t clamoring to enroll in Ph.D. programs because of the diverse range of marketable skills they will acquire or because they want to work for nonprofits. (Many, in fact, are actively fleeing the nonprofit sector.) Very few enrolled because they wanted to do something other than eventually secure a tenure-track job. And why would they? That is what the work prepares us for.

To shift the goalposts and tell students that they just didn’t try hard enough to prepare themselves for multiple professions strikes me as a “haul yourself up by your doctoral hood”-type argument. It only contributes to confusion about the labor market—the same confusion that graduate programs rely on in order to keep their departments in TA’s. Leaving aside the complicated reasons that students ignore dire warnings against graduate school in the first place, I can understand, in a way that Segran seems unable to, why so many adjuncts are so angry that the training they invested in cannot support them.

So let’s be real. If programs won’t reduce the size of their entering cohorts or make other structural changes that could ease the academic labor market—if this multiple-career-path thing is actually supposed to be a viable solution to the problem—then we need to rethink the nature of doctoral education in the humanities. By this, I don’t mean a capstone seminar, a series of workshops, or an institutional subscription to Versatile Ph.D., but a different kind of training, one that allows students to actually develop additional skills. If we want “experience in the digital humanities” to mean something other than “knows how to use Zotero,” for example, we need to allow students the same kind of time and space they are expected to devote to their comprehensive exam preparation so that they can receive meaningful training.

Whenever I hear this argument that the Ph.D. can be put to all of these other fabulous uses if we just try hard enough, my mind flashes on a hypnotic YouTube video I once saw, an advertisement for a dress that could purportedly be worn in 27 different ways. Watching a coquettish model tie and untie the straps of her dress to make what we’re supposed to imagine is 27 different dresses is, frankly, seductive. Maybe I need all those options!

But away from the warming glow of the YouTube fire, it occurred to me that a good 25 of those styles looked pretty stupid. And I’d never wanted that many dresses in the first place.

Trying to rebrand the Ph.D. as some sort of multitool or novelty garment doesn’t actually solve the problems of the academic labor market. Neither does shaming people for not being able to use it “correctly.” We have to cut the whole thing from new cloth to get a different result.

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