Another humanities PhD candidate put forward a finger-wagging argument that the charlatans who bill our PhDs as multitools for the non-academic job market are indulging us in fantasy. (Playing pretend? In academia? No…) Just kidding, Jacqui Shine, you know I love you. (Well you didn’t, but now you do.)
In her pointed article, “Alt-Ac Isn’t Always the Answer”, Shine makes a strong case against the Alt-Ac movement. Taking Alt-Ac jobs is not a cure-all for the academic job market. Calling them a cure-all is like saying “Here, try hitting your thumb with this hammer. It’ll make your headache go away.” For Shine, taking Alt-Ac or adjunct jobs is like taking that hammer to your thumb: they offer an anesthetic (in the form of extra pain) from the initial pain of not being able to find an academic job, but they are not a panacea. In the end, she suggests correctly, they’re only a temporary fix to a permanent problem–our broken liberal arts academy.
Shine’s solution is to make the PhD more practical. But is this to say we need to provide PhD candidates with vocational training, just as we train undergraduates to write emails for the future bosses they want to work for? What’s next? Training PhDs to write reports, memos, post-it notes? (Let’s be real though, who really knows how to read a post-it note other than the person who wrote the post-it note? Answer: No one. Not even a PhD in office supplies with an MD in prescription writing could decipher that cramped hand. Perhaps there is a market for the art of post-it noting more clearly. I feel a class idea coming on…)
But Shine is asking all the right questions. How do we even begin to reassemble the crumbling higher education system? Where do we turn while we plan the Ivory Tower’s renovations? What would those renovations look like?
Her tentative answer is framed in the language of sewing: “We have to cut the whole thing from a new cloth to get a different result.” And I think she is right. But where do we get the new cloth? Is it just out there (dare I say at Hobby Lobby?) waiting to be found and cut out neatly and fashioned to clothe the broken system? If the system is broken, would not clothing it only disguise the injury without healing it? Perhaps the language of medicine is better suited (pardon the clothing pun) for describing (prescribing?) a method of treating and ultimately healing the system. Let’s see.
If the liberal arts education system is broken – let’s say in the backbone since educators are the proverbial backbone of the institution – then how do we mend it? With a back brace? Perhaps surgery? Assuming the break does not affect the spinal cord (our educators’ purpose for existence – the inspiration to teach!), then maybe there is hope for a better diagnosis than structural paralysis. But if the injury is mendable with a back brace, then perhaps it will just take time. Time and change. Perhaps generational change, if the injury is the result of a congenital (read: inherited) structural defect, which it very well may be.
So then, how might we fix the problem of the non-versatile PhD? Let go of restrictive conventions such as the dissertation, funding only for teaching and research, and perhaps even funding in general. Breed out the structural defects that have led to so much pain. Adapt to a new educational environment and adopt a new educational economy. Embrace Alt-Ac as a mainstream and perhaps even the more viable career option. Evolve.
Alt-Ac isn’t always the answer. But given the multiple choice options we have right now, it may be the best answer we can choose.
So, after all that medical analysis, who wants to apply to Med School with me? I’m looking at you, James Franco.