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SCS Newsletter - May, 2017 ("Ne Plus Ultra" by Jason Pedicone)

"Ne Plus Ultra: Classics Beyond the Tenure Track" by Jason Pedicone

(This article was cross-published in Eidolon, and can be viewed here)

On April 16th, 2016, I published an article in Eidolon announcing the Legion Project, an initiative to track down and feature people with advanced degrees in Classics who were working outside of academia. Now, approximately one year later, the Legion Project has identified hundreds of people with advanced degrees in Classics who are finding success in a number of careers, and the Paideia Institute is in the process of contacting each one of them and encouraging them to tell their story on the project’s website. These individuals’ stories are interesting and inspiring. The data that the project has produced are suggestive of ways our discipline could adapt in order to survive in the academic economy of the future. They also raise important questions about the nature and consequences of transparency in graduate education in the humanities in general, and the fate of advanced humanistic study in america.

THE PROBLEM

Our initial plan was to track down everyone who had entered graduate school in Classics since 1980. The name “Legion” originated in a metaphor from the Roman army: if we could round up all the entering cohorts of graduate students, we thought, we could identify a legion of interest in Classics. And maybe they could help us solve some of our current problems. But they weren’t easy to track down.

At first, we tried contacting graduate programs directly. But when we wrote with a request for a list of all students who had entered graduate school in Classics from 1980 - 2015, we were directed to curated lists on department websites of recent Ph.D.s, almost all of whom had found jobs in academia. When we wrote back to clarify the intent of our initial inquiry, we were told the requested information about students who had not finished the program, even if they had received an M.A., could not be provided, “due to confidentiality.”

We suspected that these “confidentiality” claims and curated lists belied cultural problems in graduate education in Classics, and an overly narrow definition of success for Classics graduate students. As if the only real “successful” outcome of graduate school were a tenure-track job in academia. Even the current term of art for humanists who follow non-academic career paths after spending time in graduate school, whether they finish or not, is exclusionary: “alt-ac”. As if they are “deviating” from the norm, and pursuing some kind of “alternative” lifestyle.

The problem with this definition of normal is that the chances of that outcome are becoming smaller and smaller, to the point where it now seems that luck plays as large a role as merit in getting a tenure-track job. The data collected and published by the Professional Matters Committee of the Society for Classical Studies on their placement service from 2003-2004 to 2014-2015 highlight this disturbing trend. Over this period, more and more people (58% more) are seeking fewer and fewer tenure-track jobs (44% fewer). The data for 2015 and 2016 have not been published yet because they are still preliminary, but the Society for Classical Studies was kind enough to share them with me for this article. It’s not reassuring.

Total

Tenure

or Tenure- Track

Percentage that Was tenure track

AIA Members

SCS Members

Joint Members

Non-

Members

Total

Candidates / Tenure-Track Jobs

2015-2016

140

38

27.10%

546

14.37

2016-2017*

131

41

31.20%%

639

15.59

*SCS Note: This data is not yet finalized, as this academic year is not yet over. It is unlikely, however, that the number of tenure-track jobs and total candidates will change dramatically before late June.

The final column, which I have added to the SCS’s table, is the most telling. Last year, the ratio of job-seekers to available tenure track jobs was more than 15:1. In such a market, to continue to regard grad school in Classics as pre-professional training for the professoriate is to set graduate students up for professional failure and emotional disappointment.

These data, like the lists of “successful” academics on department websites, all suggest that the tenure track is the measure of success for graduate students and the health of the field. But they don’t tell the whole story. This brings us back to those “confidential” individuals who are inconspicuously absent from these charts and lists.

THE MISSING DATA

How many people find success in other fields and what fields are they? What are placement trends like over a longer period of time? How many people who start graduate programs finish them? All of these questions point to a larger, more complex story about the fate of many classicists in America, but so far, they have gone unanswered. The goal of the Legion Project is to tell that story, and in doing so proffer a broader definition of what Classics is, and how it can continue to thrive.

When we realized that graduate programs would not give us the data we wanted about entering cohorts directly, we decided to start from the other end by tracking Ph.D. outcomes. Knowing that ProQuest makes all dissertations public record, we searched their database for dissertations published under the heading “Classical Studies” for every school identified as having a Ph.D. program on the SCS’s list of graduate programs in Classics.

ProQuest lists in hand, Yung In Chae, then a Research Fellow at Paideia and now the Associate Editor of Eidolon, compiled the names of Classics Ph.D. holders going back to 1980, ran Google searches to find their whereabouts and contact information, sent out emails, and wrote profiles of "Legionnaires" for the website. In the summer of 2016, five interns in Paideia’s Summer Humanities Internship--Lacey Dikkers, Stephanie Dinsae, Amelia O'Donahue, Eleanor Reich, and Kate Topham--finished the remaining searches, drafted more emails, and analyzed the data.

Here, then, is what we found:

Although graduate education in Classics is somewhat clustered in certain schools, it is still fair to say that it is a wide-ranging, national industry taking place at a diverse array of institutions.

Of the 57 Ph.D.-granting institutions on the SCS’s list, we were able to find Ph.D.s from 51 institutions. 21 of the 51 were private institutions (41%), and 30 were public (50%) (N.B. 6 of the public institutions were in Canada). 35 of the schools surveyed had produced an average of at least one Ph.D./year during the period studied and 12 had produced more than two/year.

As in other humanistic disciplines, about half of people who have completed Ph.D.s in Classics over the past 30 years got a tenure-track job.

Our numbers line up with the trends found in other demographic studies of Ph.D. outcomes in the humanities like the ones conducted by the American Historical Association. 76% (1956/2553) of people tracked down as part of the Legion Project are currently in Academia; 24% (597) are not. For the purposes of the study, being in academia means having a profile on a university or college website in June-July of 2016. Of those 1956 academics, 1387, or 70%, either have tenure or are on the tenure track (professor, associate professor, assistant professor); 569, or 30% do not. This means that 1387 of the 2553 Ph.D.s found by the Legion Project researchers have tenure-track jobs, about 54%.

Male classicists enter Academia at a slightly greater rate than women, but more women receive tenure than men.

59% percent of the people found to be in academia were men, 41% were women. 54% of the people tenured or tenure-track were women, 46% were men.

The number of Classics Ph.D.s we found with tenure shows a steady decline over time.

1980 - 1985

1986 - 1990

1991 - 1995

1996 - 2000

2001 - 2005

2006 - 2010

2011 - 2015

TENURED

117 (62%)

186 (69%)

226 (61%)

237 (58%)

235 (59%)

221 (55%)

148 (30%)

NOT

72 (38%)

83 (31%)

142 (39%)

173 (42%)

165 (41%)

184 (45%)

352 (70%)

TOTAL

189

269

368

410

400

405

500

Until rather recently (2011), the field has steadily produced more and more Ph.D.s per year.

Clearly, we are currently sitting in in the midst of a perfect storm: more and more Ph.D.s and fewer and fewer jobs annually, which means an ever growing number of candidates returning each year and a growing number of contingent faculty. This situation incentivizes the adjunctification of Classics in America. Universities, like most businesses, obey the laws of supply and demand, and naturally prefer cheap and temporary over expensive and permanent when given the option, especially in fields that aren’t in high demand among undergraduates.

None of this should surprise anyone currently in graduate school, or on the job market. And these sad statistics conceal still sadder stories of itinerant scholars, dragging themselves and their families around the country from one contingent position to the next, forever chasing hopes of a tenure-track job that will probably never materialize. The situation isn’t good, hasn’t been good, and is getting worse. It probably doesn’t make you feel good to read about it, and wringing our hands about it won’t change it. But we can admit reality and ask ourselves what we can do about it.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

One thing we can do is consider the outcomes of non-academic Ph.D.s, or “Ultra-Ac” success stories, as I propose we call them. (With more than 600 people seeking 41 tenure-track jobs, is it really fair to call looking beyond academia an “alternative” outcome?) These data suggest changes we can make right now to embrace a wider definition of success in Classics and build a culture of hope for Classics. Here’s what people with Ph.D.s in Classics have done beyond academia for the past thirty years.

The big story here is the percentage of Classics Ph.D.s who become high school teachers - almost one third of people who do not enter academia. This is a very big deal and needs to be celebrated. To put it in perspective, in a recent study of History Ph.D’s conducted by the AHA, only approximately 12% of History Ph.D.s who found employment outside of academia became high school teachers. This may be because there are a lot of jobs for Latin teachers out there. In fact, in 2015, the U.S. Department of Education identified a shortage of Latin teachers in America. But it also means that classicists love their discipline enough to teach it at the high school level. Some academics like Phil Walsh, who wrote about his situation in Eidolon, have even left frustrating permanent positions as professors, for better, more satisfying jobs teaching at the secondary level.

But what’s really extraordinary about this is that all these Classics Ph.D’s are becoming high school teachers even while some in the discipline still see that outcome as second rate. In his excellent book The Graduate School Mess, Leonard Cassuto has shown that although it was originally normal and expected for graduate programs to train teachers of the humanities, becoming a teacher has fallen from prestige. This is one of those absurdly unsustainable dynamics that the academic system produces. College Classics departments depend on excellent high school teachers to inspire the next generation of students to study Classics at the college level. Yet the the current system of graduate education does not validate or incentivize that outcome on a curricular or cultural level.

We should change this, immediately, by creating pedagogy tracks alongside philology, history, and philosophy tracks in Ph.D. programs in Classics to recognize secondary teaching as a valid outcome of graduate school. Graduate students who feel called to consider teaching at the high-school level could spend less time writing “marketable” dissertations, and use some of their time (and funding) in graduate school to take the educational psychology courses and other work required for state certification. And they could take these courses for free in the excellent Education and Psychology departments of their elite graduate institutions, instead of paying to take them at community colleges as many “grad school drop-outs” do now. Some top-tier research universities - like Princeton, Brown, and Harvard for instance - already have teacher training programs that accept graduate students. Certifying Ph.D.s to be high-school teachers would increase the number of high-quality teachers of Latin and Greek across the country, which would lead to more students studying Latin and Greek. It would also give Classics Ph.D.s the option of teaching in public schools, which are often better paid and offer better benefits. (Almost all of our Legionnaires teach at private schools). Most importantly, it would also promote unity and cross-pollination between the professoriate and the secondary teacher community, two groups who often tend to think of each other as different species, when in reality they do similar jobs for students of different ages.

Another action we should take is to change the way we think about tenure-track placement rates. The decision whether or not to publish the tenure-track placement rates of individual institutions we surveyed is fraught. On the one hand, releasing our data would allow potential graduate students to make better informed decisions and could help “cull” weaker graduate programs, reducing supply to meet demand. On the other hand, as Menenius Agrippa reminds the Romans in Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, these kinds of cuts can leave a body politic maimed and incapacitated. If Ph.D. production were cut back in this way, the vast majority of surviving departments would be at elite, private institutions. What effect would that have on our field?

Rather than thinking in these terms, I propose that we, as a field, abandon the outmoded practice of ranking programs by tenure track placement. This system reinforces traditional definitions of success that no longer reflect reality. It also divides programs into discrete competitive entities, when what the field needs now more than anything is to work together to survive. Let’s face it - the academic job market is a nearly impossible, zero-sum game. No matter who wins that tiny contest, Classics as a discipline is going to lose unless we all collaborate, now, to change the definition of what it means to succeed as a classicist.

One thing that we could all do is take university administrators to task on supporting the humanities in these troubled times. With the United States government considering cuts to the humanities, and other countries like Japan having already cut them, it is up to our universities to protect humanistic disciplines like Classics. Classics Departments should press their administrators to broaden the definition of success in the humanities and pledge to support doctoral programs regardless of tenure-track placement. They should urge university presidents and deans to state publicly that the humanities are a priority, and pledge to support (fund) their survival. It is up to our universities to protect ancient wisdom when no one else will. (By the way, this is a great reason for ultra-academic Classicists to pursue a career in higher ed administration, like 10% of your peers have done for the past 30 years. The battle for the future of the humanities will be fought in board rooms, not in classrooms.)

Finally, maybe this terrible job market has a silver lining.  Maybe it’s an opportunity to make graduate study in the humanities less professional and more humanistic.  No one likes the atmosphere that the hyper-professionalized culture of today’s academic society has produced. The big, important, human questions - the stuff the humanities are all about - are hard to write about in a way that is “marketable.”  So are dissertation projects that are more experimental, or entrepreneurial, like digital humanities, outreach projects, or translations and commentaries of unstudied texts. Graduate students in the humanities are becoming famous for being miserable and frustrated. But if we took ourselves off the professional hook - which is really a mirage, anyway - graduate school could be a much more enjoyable experience. 

Doing a Ph.D. is a big financial and emotional investment.  It means delaying the start of your career, delaying starting a family, and in many cases, it means going into debt.  Instead of treating it like professional school for jobs that don’t exist, we could see it for what it actually is - an investment in one’s own humanity and in the preservation of an ancient, beautiful body of knowledge, for its own sake. Such an understanding needn’t reduce graduate school in the humanities to a preserve of those rich enough to make such an investment. It could be seen as an opportunity our society offers those who believe that profound humanistic formation will prepare them for happy successful lives as leaders in any number of fields. If we started to see graduate education in the humanities as a chance our society affords its deepest, most profound thinkers to hone their cultural sensibilities before moving on to contribute to the common good in myriad unpredictable ways, maybe graduate school would be a happier place.

A NEW HOPE

From its inception, the Legion Project was mindful not to reduce people to statistics, as these kinds of studies often do, but to celebrate individuals’ stories.  We wanted to show that there are as many versions of success with a Ph.D. in Classics as there are people who choose to dedicate some portion of their lives to its advanced study.  It’s one thing to repeat the same old clichés: a background in Classics confers broadly applicable analytical, communicative, and the famous and oft touted “critical thinking skills.”  It’s another to see those skills in action in one example after another in fields as diverse as law, tech, consulting, finance, travel, and wine-making.

Stories of hope are helpful, but they are not enough.  If our field is to reinvent itself for the “next generation” as the National Endowment for the Humanities envisions the Humanities Ph.D. of the future, we need action.  Things need to change. The Legion Project puts Classics at the vanguard of that change.  Many Legionnaires, when contacted for the project, report from beyond Academia a renewed interest and feeling of connection to Classics. Mike Zimm, a Yale Ph.D. who was hired as a creative strategist at Digital Surgeons, a design-driven innovation firm, and has written about life beyond academia in the Chronicle of Higher Education says:

since I left academia, I have a passion for Classics that I have not experienced for years. I attribute this in large part to working closely with my colleagues who are technologists, designers, writers, and creatives. They love asking me queries about ancient Greece and Rome much like I love asking them about coding and graphic design. I even gave a lecture to my company on ‘ancient rhetorical techniques’ and how they could use these ancient tricks to improve their writing and client engagement.

More programmatic changes in the discipline of Classics are being planned as well.  In 2018, the Paideia Institute will partner with the Society for Classical Studies to host the first ultra-ac networking session at its annual meeting in Boston. Legionnaires from a number of fields will attend the SCS annual meeting to talk with contingent faculty and graduate students about opportunities for classicists beyond academia.  In less than a year, the Legion Project has gone from an idea to an organization.  With the help and support of a dedicated and diverse group of Legionnaires, we are working to broaden the definition of “classicist” beyond “professor of Classics”, and that new inclusive group is mobilizing to help the classicists of tomorrow succeed, and to help keep our field vibrant, diverse, and sustainable.

Significant percentages of Ultra-Ac Classics Ph.D.s find careers as Lawyers, Librarians, Curators, Education Administrators, or have remained active as writers or independent scholars. These suggest possibilities that current job-seekers can consider right now, and proves that there is a community of people available to help them chart that path. The miscellaneous category also includes a diverse array of successful classicists telling their stories on the Legion project website. To contact a Legionnaire for career advice, simply send an email to legion@paideia-institute.org and we’ll ask if we can put you in touch. These doctors, tech execs, filmmakers, and entrepreneurs know how classicists currently facing the dismal job market feel, and they themselves dared to go beyond academia, and they know how to help. See? classicists helping classicists succeed. Take that, odium philologicum!

More May 2017 Newsletter Content

For jobs data and annual meeting updates from the SCS Office, see this write-up.

For Georgia's own words on this change and our new focus on jobs, read her piece in this same Newsletter.

For Joy Connolly's take on what a Classics Ph.D. can become, visit this page.

For a way to get this issue of academic jobs into the public eye, read about our social media campaign to John Oliver's Last Week Tonight.

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