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Caveat Venditor & Market Failure in the Academic Job Market

The Chronicle of Higher Education published the speech Kevin Birmingham delivered last October upon receiving the Truman Capote Award for his book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. In his speech, Birmingham decried the widespread employment of adjunct faculty members, particularly in the humanities, as “exploitation” and “injustice.”

The abysmal conditions of adjuncts are not the inevitable byproducts of an economy with limited space for literature. They are intentional. Universities rely upon a revolving door of new PhDs who work temporarily for unsustainable wages before giving up and being replaced by next year’s surplus doctorates. Adjuncts now do most university teaching and grading at a fraction of the price, so that the ladder faculty have the time and resources to write. We take the love that young people have for literature and use it to support the research of a tiny elite.

There’s enough blame to go around. But what Birmingham describes is better understood as the result of market failure, not the result (for the most part) of intentional harm.

More on market failure in a moment. A word though about the PhDs themselves. For all the people and institutions Birmingham blames for the oversupply of PhDs in the humanities – the massive oversupply of PhDs – the one set of persons he does not discuss is the PhDs themselves.

I expect that Birmingham would respond that any discussion of PhDs themselves is simply victim blaming. For most academics, one’s desired vocation is not just business, it’s personal. Still, if someone knows in advance he or she faces a gamble, but still chooses to roll the dice, it is neither exploitation nor injustice if what turns up are snake eyes.

Birmingham mentions that over one million people with PhDs work in non-tenure-track academic jobs. One million. These are generally smart people. Even if throughout the process of being an eager undergraduate considering graduate school, to laboring as a graduate student, to being a freshly-minted PhD looking for work, and even if the faculty members with whom one interacted with hid the truth about the dismal state of the job market in one’s discipline, it takes almost willful self-deception these days to hide one’s eyes from the massive oversupply in many areas of the academic job market.

To be sure, being self-deceived does not excuse those who help to deceive, or who take advantage of the self-deceived. But how far must universities go to help putative PhDs in the humanities and other fields understand that odds are they will not obtain a tenure-track job?

We like to convince ourselves that we’ll be the winner. And, to be sure, there are all those films that celebrate the person who made it despite all the odds (while ignoring the many identically-skilled, identically-motivated folks who failed to make it). Should departments not provide students who want to give it a shot despite the odds the opportunity to take that shot? Is it possible that what Birmingham ascribes to “exploitation” and “injustice” is little more than personal disappointment at having given it one’s best shot when one’s vocational roll-of-the-dice turned up snake eyes?

Like putative sports professionals who didn’t make it despite years of hard, disciplined training, or musicians who dreamt of the acclaim of a performance career but now labor in frustration as middle-school band directors, the starry-eyed expectation that one will make it despite the odds does not mean the game was rigged when one does not achieve one’s aspirations. People lose, sometimes painfully so, even when the game is fair.

I talk to undergraduates all the time about law school and graduate school. I tell them that it’s a lousy time to go into academics, and a lousy time to go into law. I’m unsure any student ever changed his or her mind after speaking with me. Usually they come looking for confirmation for what they’ve already decided. And that’s fine too, as long as after speaking with me they go to graduate school or law school recognizing the gamble. Talking about supply and demand may sound mundane when a student comes to me with romantic ideals of the life of the mind or being the next Atticus Finch. Better some realism early on. Caveat venditor is the byword.

None of this means departments and graduate programs do not share responsibility. And perhaps there are some faculty and some departments who intentionally mislead putative graduate students into thinking that there’s a wide-open job market awaiting them upon graduation. If so, that’s immoral.

My experience is that it doesn’t work that way. Contrary to Birmingham’s assertion that “professional humanists [are] indifferent” to adjuncts, my experience is that all – and I use that word advisedly –  departmental administrators and faculty in the humanities are aware of the oversupply to PhDs in their fields and think it is a problem that requires solving.

To Birmingham’s plaintive question, “Why?” the answer is not intentional exploitation (as Birmingham suggests) but plain-ole market failure.

The problem is that incentive structures departments face conduce against unilateral action to solve the problem: Unilaterally reducing the size of one’s own graduate program imposes direct costs on the department while at best generating diffuse benefits to the profession at large.

On the one hand, robust graduate programs generate positive goods for departments themselves: Good scholars often want to work with graduate students. As a result, departments with strong graduate programs – and numerous graduate students –often find it easier to attract strong scholars than departments with small or no graduate programs. Attracting stronger scholars means more and better publications, more national and international prestige (which scholars often value in its own right), and this can translate into bigger budgets and more resources.

If a department chooses consistently to shrink the size of its graduate program it becomes marginally less attractive to faculty relative to other programs that do not shrink their programs. Fewer graduate students to work with, fewer doctoral seminars, fewer TAs for introductory classes that professors must now teach. (Which isn’t a bad thing, but that’s another topic.) The costs to departments are direct.

On the other hand, no department by itself graduates so many PhDs that if it were to shrink the size of its graduate program, even if it were to shut down its program entirely, it would much affect the abysmal market for PhDs in its discipline.

Unilaterally reducing one’s graduate program or abolishing it is the equivalent of unilateral disarmament in international affairs. It’s surrender. It’s the sucker’s play if you do it unilaterally. So given the incentive structure, departments continue to host graduate programs and sustain the overproduction of PhDs. This, despite universal acknowledgement of the oversupply of PhDs as a serious problem.

What’s the solution? Each department would of course invite all the other departments to reduce the sizes of their graduate programs. Indeed, even if disciplinary associations would get together and try to form departments into a cartel, bargaining over PhD production quotas would prove almost insuperable. (And even if successful, any agreement might be a violation of antitrust laws.) State-level action presumably would not be coordinated enough to do much good. (Consider, for example, state-level efforts to curb tax competition for sports teams and other businesses has worked.) And it’s difficult to think that humanities’ faculties in universities, particularly in these days, would invite national-government intervention to set PhD production quotas.

It’s difficult to think of what will solve the problem other than letting low-wages and poor working conditions work their way out in the market by inducing PhDs to leave teaching, and by deterring putative PhDs from entering the market in the first place. That said, market disincentives created by oversupply have been in place already for at least several decades already and don’t seem be correcting the oversupply. This is not good news to those already in the market, or to those who are thinking of entering in the market. Caveat venditor is the byword. Caveat venditor.

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