In a recent blog post for Inside Higher Ed, Lee Skallerup Bessette chronicles her bleak job search over the past few years. She writes:
I’m still receiving rejection letters in the mail (and emails) … The letter I received today (Monday) outlined that they had received over 500 applicants and conducted dozens of interviews.*
Dr. Skallerup notes the scanty job market in her field that grows increasingly smaller every year. Everyone (administrators, job seekers, search committees) agrees that we’re in a tough spot. But recent attempts in Higher Ed blogs and commentaries to dismiss the problem by comparing the job search to a lottery or a game (as their recent “Play the Role of the Search Committee” feature illustrates) belittle job seekers, of which there are too many qualified individuals to collectively patronize them as overly ambitious or ill-suited to academia.
But why should we care? Certainly there are other, more pressing, issues such as the growing amount of student debt that need to be addressed. Yes—but the conversation about academia and money shouldn’t be an either/or questions. We need teachers to train students, to give them the best quality education the university can offer them; but we can’t do this effectively if our instructors are spending 3 to 5 years on the job market hoping that eventually they will “beat the odds.”
What type of work are we looking for when we seek these positions—that is to say, professorships in the humanities? One simple definition could be an opportunity to teach college students at a competitive salary and to conduct our research in a supportive environment. By “supportive,” I mean institutional access to libraries and other facilities, and a university that provides basic care such as health insurance and retirement plans for its employees (for that’s what faculty are, even if they refuse to accept this label).
Whether this happens on the tenure track or no, there are things we need to set in place to make sure we are providing the best support for teachers. Livable wages and some measure of job security are a good place to start.
We need to work with our administrations to put these changes in place. We need to hold our administrations accountable when they change minimum degree requirements, or raise tuition so that students are forced to turn to MOOCs or community colleges in order to afford their degree. These proposals are not my own, and there are already people with bigger microphones than mine working on these issues.
Still, it troubles me that there is an entire generation of academics who are growing so dissatisfied with the system that they are abandoning it to the lowest bidder. We hear shouts of rage from every corner—so why aren’t we making meaningful proposals? Ones from which all constituents of the university—students, faculty, and administrators—can benefit?