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“Gallows enthusiasm” on and beyond the academic job market

This month’s column is adapted from a paper I gave at the invitation of the Graduate Student Issues Committee at the CAMWS meeting in Waco earlier this month.

The humanities are a field in crisis because the number of students pursuing liberal-arts degrees has plummeted over the past couple decades.  Classics is producing more Ph.D.s than the discipline can support.  Online education will be the death of us all.

Sound familiar?  Well, most of that’s bull.  The decrease in liberal-arts majors was caused by opening non-humanities fields like engineering to women: without formal gender discrimination, as Heidi Tworek explains, women’s humanities-degree rates have adjusted to match men’s, which have remained stable since the 1960s.  Online education has indeed opened opportunities to people otherwise lacking access — but isn’t close to usurping in-person teaching, as witnessed by abysmal completion rates of overhyped MOOCs.

Yet our discipline does face grim realities: almost nobody nowadays lands tenure-track positions when first on the market, and many classicists never will.  Adjunct faculty outnumber tenure-line faculty nationwide, and tenure-line employment has remained stagnant while the number of Ph.D.s awarded has blossomed.  White privilege, class privilege, male privilege, thin privilege, and abled privilege affect academic careers in big and small ways, from hiring to service workloads.  It’s not necessarily Sisyphean, though it is definitely a steep uphill path.  But it’s worth considering three interrelated ways of achieving a strong, satisfying career: the value of non-tenure-track faculty positions, possibilities for non-faculty employment, and mindful approaches to the academic market.

Dreams of landing tenure-track jobs straight from grad school — dreams from the ivory gate of false dreams, for most — overlook important advantages in a stint as a postdoctoral fellow, visiting assistant professor (VAP), or other non-tenure-line position.  Postdocs tend to have lower teaching loads and no service expectations: more time for research, pedagogy, and professional growth, and an easier entry into professional academic life.  VAPs teach as much as or more than tenure-track faculty, but being a VAP for a few years means building a portfolio of courses taught, proving teaching competence, and learning from mistakes before the teaching record formally becomes part of tenure review.  These positions provide time to get distance from your grad-student self, start work on research without the ruthless ticking of the tenure clock, and develop a network and profile.

While on a VAP or postdoc, demonstrate your value and build yourself by seeking out mentors, getting experience with the responsibilities of full-time academics, and learning the principles of good pedagogy from the university’s teaching center.  Contingent employment is also a great time to develop what I call “administrative maturity”: a body of knowledge and ability to speak fluently about program development, departmental growth, navigating institutional procedures, etc.

Relatedly, it’s important always to be a generous colleague by, e.g., spending time with fellow faculty outside formal university functions, helping out around the department, or reviewing colleagues’ research — without, of course, overcommitting.  Being a generous colleague intra- and extramurally is virtuous.  It’s also expedient, because it cultivates friends and allies who’ll help with professional objectives, inside or outside academia.

Outside academia, yes: you should think seriously about non-faculty positions.  Faculty life is much different from grad school.  Jacqui Shine asks important questions that might clarify whether professional academia is even right for you: “[w]ill you be able to work alone, without receiving much affirmation or feedback?…How badly will you chafe against the academy’s particular pecking order?…What if you never use your body when you work?”  The Ph.D. prepares for a broader range of careers than the narrow scope of higher-ed faculty, as Allison Schrager asserts: “self-direction, an ability to translate complicated ideas, communicat[ion]…and creative approaches to problems…are also traits the new economy values.”  Common “alt-ac” options include high-school teacher, higher-education administrator, editor, corporate researcher or historian, consultant, entrepreneur.

A doctorate in Classics comprises a desirable skill set; the trick is to become an eloquent advocate for those skills and add in some non-humanities skills.  Learn to code: programming isn’t difficult for experts in synthetic languages like Latin and Greek, and programming know-how is valuable on the non-academic market and in digital-humanities research.  Learn from others’ experiences by reading some former-faculty “quit lit.”  And learn what’s out there — look around for appealing alt-ac opportunities to spark a career-path brainstorm, volunteer, and tap personal networks.

When/if approaching the academic market, keep in mind that it’s extremely rough, but commit yourself to the value of your chosen path.  It’s irrational to take on the stress and grief of the market unless you’re passionate about a more-than-40-hours-per-week life of teaching, research, and service—even if you’ve spent six, eight, twelve years on the degree.  Nonprofit experts talk about the “sunk-cost fallacy,” the phenomenon of humans’ pursuing something no longer matching their true interests just because they’ve already invested resources in it.  Don’t do this with something as central to life as your profession.

Do a cost-benefit analysis, and embrace your decision with both realism and optimism — what I term “gallows enthusiasm.”  Be mindful of the uphill path, but don’t do job-market things halfway: instead, do them enthusiastically.  Cultivate an enthusiastic rather than jaded persona around students and colleagues.  Use advice like Joy Connolly’s to guide realism and bolster optimism.  Know yourself — respect where you are emotionally and in life — and present the most mature and enthusiastic version of yourself at conferences, during searches, on the job, and in public discourse.

It’s crucial that we sharpen not only our rhetoric about the value of a Classics Ph.D. but also our own perceptions of the degree and what it qualifies someone to do.  There are countless reasons why we chose to devote ourselves to Classics.  Many of those reasons are unique.  But something we all share is a belief that we are studying and teaching transformative literature and artifacts, ones that interrogate us as we interrogate them.  Encounters with Graeco-Roman civilization have had a profound effect on us, and we believe it will on our students and successors.  So it’s incumbent upon us to be enthusiastic advocates for Classics — interventionists, even — in the public forum, whether as professional academics and teachers or as participants in careers beyond the borders of the college campus.

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T. H. M. Gellar-Goad's picture

T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is Assistant Professor of Classical Languages at Wake Forest University. He specializes in Latin poetry, especially the funny stuff: Roman comedy, Roman erotic elegy, Roman satire, and — if you believe him — the allegedly philosophical poet Lucretius. He's also one of "those gaming people" in Classics pedagogy. He can be contacted at thmgg@wfu.edu.

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