Sharon O’Dair and the “Hypocrisy” of the MLA!

Dear Commons Community,

Sharon O’Dair, professor emerita at the University of Alabama, has an op-ed in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “Shamelessness and Hypocrisy of the MLA.”  She focuses on the MLA’s efforts to assist young Ph.D.s in English to consider careers in areas outside of academia.  She bases much of her commentary on her attendance at the recent MLA annual meeting.  Here is an excerpt:

“Twelve percent of this year’s program was devoted to sessions about “The Profession.” In 1987, the first year I was on the program, it was about 8 percent, and few sessions, if any, offered this by-now-predictable range of topics: “A Tool Kit for Doctoral Student Career Planning”; “Academic Writing in Graduate School”; “Administering Feminism”; “Careers Beyond the Professoriate for Humanities Ph.D.s: The Employer Perspective” (which is what counts); “The Circuitous Path Into Higher Administration”; “Getting Funded in the Humanities: An NEH Workshop”; “How to Get Published”; “Humanists in Tech”; and one of my favorites, “What Tenured Professors Can Do About Adjunctification” (could do, but won’t).

I sat on a round table about possible futures for graduate students. My colleagues offered tips on how to make oneself marketable by getting out of the academic job market; how to reconfigure one’s ideas about employment since professorships are gone. The apparent lesson was that whatever you do (spreadsheets, certificate design, networking, squeezing stress balls), in no way expect to emulate your professors, who read a lot of books, think about them, write about them, and talk about them. You will not be able to read a lot of books, think about them, write about them, and talk about them, the logic went, and it’s better to get with the program sooner rather than later.

Instead of assuring the 30 or so graduate students and young Ph.D.s in the audience that it’s best to become bureaucrats or tech workers rather than critics, scholars, and teachers, I tried to direct their gaze to a central fact: Graduate programs continue to produce too many Ph.D.s.

According to the MLA’s report on the federal Survey of Earned Doctorates, the number of earned doctorates in English and literature peaked at 1,414 in 1973 and then began a consistent decline, to a nadir of 668 in 1987. That number then steadily increased, reaching a consistent level of around 1,000 per year, which is just about midway between the figures in 1973 and 1987. This is a rough count, however, and the data are difficult to parse: In its annual reports, the MLA separates doctorates in literature from those in rhetoric and composition, creative writing, and speech and rhetorical studies; if you total all of those, the current numbers are closer to 1,200 per year — closer to the apex than to the nadir. That fact is significant: What would job prospects look like if each year we graduated 500 fewer Ph.D.s?

Put another way, we’re either invested in training academics for academic work, or we aren’t. But the rhetoric of the MLA and of universities is shamefully and shamelessly aimed at getting Ph.D. students out of the professoriate.

Whose interests does that rhetoric serve? Not the students’: If the way to a career with a Ph.D. in English is to take one-third of an M.B.A. program, why not take the M.B.A., a mere two years, rather than the six or eight years for a Ph.D. in English? Why spend all those years studying slave narratives, if your digital-humanities work is going to get you a career in an IT department? #OpportunityCost, if you want to get businesslike about it.”

O’Dair provides a brutally honest analysis of the situation for many new Ph.D. in the humanities.



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