Ethical Conundrums: Institutional Pressure and Graduate Student Needs in the Era of Contingency

The ethical situation seems simple: The market has fewer tenure-track jobs; therefore, graduate programs should supply fewer graduates to meet the diminished demand. The obviousness of this position often triggers disdain for any alternative other than cutting the size of our graduate programs. The problem is that merely shrinking the body count is exactly the wrong thing to do.1 Playing the downsizing game might appear to be the ethical route, but it causes increasing damage. How, then, can we ethically meet the needs of our graduate students in these difficult times? My answers to this question hark back to the remarks Andrew Ross made in a 1995 interview with Jeffrey Williams. As Ross argued, “it is imperative not to accept the shrinkage injunction that has been presented as a response . . . to the job crunch. Graduate education must continue to be an expansionary project” (282). Twenty years later, with austerity all around us, Ross’s position may seem the height of denial. But we should still be careful about embracing austerity. Graduate English programs in the United States may have shrunk by about thirty percent in the past four decades, but graduate education in the humanities remains one of the few places still left for training people to shrewdly read, write, and interpret our complex cultures.2 Even more important is that we must get the big picture right rather than respond to short-term pressures and out of short-term fears.3 As Barry Glassner and Martin Schapiro argue, “Unfounded predictions of [higher education’s] doom can become self-fulfilling prophecies if taken seriously and acted upon” (B5). In the face of the relentless neoliberal squeeze, it is in our ethical and practical interests to devote our energies to invigorating the study of literature, language, and writing instead of cooperating in their imagined demise.We should be very careful about what we call a market: we commonly lament the horrors of the job market for recently minted PhDs in English, but it is certainly not a free market.4 It is a system we are caught in, and one partially orchestrated by our own institutional structures, which have now been fine-tuned to serve the advocates of privatization, defunding, and austerity. All markets are socially produced, a result of policies, laws, and national and international power relations operating at all levels, from global financial accords to local institutional procedures. In the field of English studies, our own disciplinary stratifications systemically justify the existence of an elite cadre of graduate instructors in literature surrounded by a sea of non-tenure-track faculty members who teach writing and other lower-division general humanities service courses. In this system, traditional academic hierarchies have been easily converted into a laboratory for the production of a precarious, contingent, low-wage faculty. The economic inequality in the profession mirrors the economic inequality in society. We’re not really dealing with a scarcity market for college teaching; we’re coping with a system that has increasing work demands but wants to pay less for it. Most teachers experience a painful sense of reduced opportunity all around, even as the general student population expands.The data show that over the last thirty years there has been a fairly steady increase in the overall number of faculty members in higher education. There are now more than 1.4 million. True, this growth has been much slower than the expansion of administrative and support staff: the ranks of management swelled by 240 percent from 1976 to 2001 (Miller 25). Some fields, like health science, business, and STEM, have grown more than others. The number of English professors, more than 85,000, has remained relatively stable. Among all departments in higher education, English is always ranked among the top three in size. But if there’s no decline in overall numbers, there has been a dramatic shift from tenure-track to non-tenure-track faculty members.5 The question is not the quantity of work but the quality of the positions designed to meet the workload.I turn now to the data on the front line of hiring and firing in the modern languages. First, on the demand side, we see not a steady decline but a history of three troughs and two peaks (Report on the MLA Job Information List). The overall number of jobs advertised in the English edition of the JIL since its inception in 1975 has gone from a high of 2,075 in 1988–1989 to lows of 1,075 in 1993–94 and 1,046 in 2013–14. As might be expected, the number of jobs ebbs and flows with economic conditions. For example, the sharpest drop corresponded to the economic crisis of 2008; between 2007–08 and 2009–10, the number of jobs advertised in the English edition went from 1,826 to 1,100 (6 [fig. 1]). For the last five years, demand has stayed at about 1,100, although it dipped below that level this past year, thus “matching the trough of the mid-1990s in both depth and duration” (Report on the MLA Job Information List 1). Will there soon be another swing back up toward the 2,000 peak? Some people will read these historical graphs as a reason to hope, but given the projection of an increase of only a modest four and a half percent in the number of high school graduates between 2014 and 2021 (Projections), it might be a long wait.

With respect to the supply side, the most noticeable fact is that each year graduate programs in English have produced fewer doctorate degrees than the number of jobs listed in the JIL (Report on the Survey). The peaks and valleys are more muted on this side, since the operating principles of graduate programs are too complex to respond quickly to market swings. There was a peak in 1973, with 1,412 doctoral recipients, but the number declined to 669 in 1987 (when there was a peak in job demand). Over the next decade, doctoral recipients in English climbed back to a high of 1,094. Since the late 1990s, the number hovered around 1,000, although in 2009 it dipped below 900 for the first time. The point here is that we already have shrunk PhD programs by more than a third since 1973. The data from the study Educating Scholars, although limited by its focus on ten prestigious universities, document that three years after doctoral graduation dates, about ninety-five percent found some kind of employment, in or out of academia (Ehrenberg, Zukerman, Groen, and Brucker). Moreover, the 2007 MLA study Education in the Balance points to a clear shortage: “[T]here are not enough tenured or tenure-track faculty members to cover upper-division undergraduate courses” (8). These numbers do not paint a simple picture of overproduction.

The real consumer market happens at the front end of the educational process when student applicants are perceived as consumers seeking to purchase the institutional product marketed for educational consumption. When we turn to the data on student enrollment, which ought to be the real indicator of demand, the increases are more dramatic. “The demand for higher education has increased relatively steadily over the past century—from about 238,000 enrolled students in 1900 to 598,000 in 1920, 1.49 million in 1940, 4.1 million in 1960, 12.1 million in 1980, and over 20 million now—so there is a palpable need for college teachers. Just as there is a need for health-care workers” (Williams B8). In short, there’s more work, not less, for our PhD graduates.6 The problem is the poor quality of those jobs, where highly qualified people are competing for outrageously exploitative adjunct positions. In graduate admissions, the number of graduate student applicants (the demand side) has not significantly diminished; at my institution, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and others I know of, it has actually increased. There are no clear data here on the national scale, but I know that many graduate programs in English are still receiving two hundred applicants or more and accepting four to five—that’s the downsized model we’re already working with. Students still seek graduate education in our field, and we should be careful not to patronize them as naive dupes blind to their own future job prospects. It is remarkable that the student population, graduate and undergraduate, grew not just before but also during the period 1975–2005, when public funding for higher education shrank in some states (such as mine, Pennsylvania) by about fifty percent of overall operating budgets.

The increase in faculty positions has come through the hiring of non-tenure-track, contingent faculty members to meet the demand. When you defund public higher education, someone is going to have to pay: our colleagues are forced to accept unethically precarious working conditions both during and after grad school, and students at all levels are now burdened with massive educational debt. These are circumstances we must protest with all the solidarity we can muster. If we do not resist the neoliberal logic, we play right into the hands of those managing the cost-effectiveness ratios.

In the often inflamed discussion about graduate school size, there has been little understanding of why market logic is not an accurate description of how English graduate programs work. If it were a simple case of supply and demand, it would make good sense and be ethical to bring the production of PhDs in line with the lower demand for tenured professors. This equalizing would clearly make it easier for graduates to get tenured jobs. But the system does not work that way, at least not at most public universities (which serve about 80% of all undergraduates). Instead, when you reduce supply by shrinking graduate programs (both MA and PhD), you also end up reducing demand: that one involves the other is the ethical and political conundrum.

When you shrink graduate student enrollments (the supply side), you inevitably also shrink the size of graduate programs and therefore decrease tenured faculty lines (the demand side), because tenured faculty members are the folks teaching in those programs. Most administrators are forced into using the market logic whereby having fewer graduate student cohorts means less need for tenured faculty members. Cost-effectiveness ratios dictate the hiring of cheaper, temporary instructors to teach the undergraduate lower-division classes that were taught before by tenured faculty members. Our devaluation of teaching undergraduates and the reduction of writing to a service function (an odd reduction, when you consider that writing is one of the most complex human activities) ratify this hierarchy. We then serve the wishes of those seeking more power to hire and fire us, and in a system that is gutted of tenure and that has diminished academic freedom, we become more vulnerable, less protected. Under the contraction model, reduced supply reduces demand, and reduced demand further reduces supply, in a vicious cycle. To believe that contracting graduate programs can, in and of itself, improve the situation is a misattribution of cause and effect. We cannot change the global economic system in an overnight revolution, but we can alter our disciplinary values so that they don’t feed so well into the austerity agendas for shrinking human resources.

Our system of having elite graduate faculty members surrounded by masses of non-tenure-track contingent teachers mostly fulfilling service functions of teaching lower-level humanities and writing courses fuels the cycle of devolution. Since we do have some control over that system, let us change it. This kind of slow-motion revolution will mitigate our academic hierarchies and internal class stratifications; it will reinvigorate our creative energies and social solidarity and make our profession stronger, more vibrant, and more responsive to graduate student needs.

The 2014 Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature emphasizes that modern language and literature study now engage a “wide range of intellectual paths through which we produce new knowledge” (1). That may be an understatement. Besides the remarkable proliferation of identifiable subdisciplines of literary criticism (see Leitch), everyone knows that we are now multimedia, multimodal, and global. This change poses curricular challenges for any graduate program. There’s nothing new about that: change is a normal part of disciplinary debate and how we constitute ourselves as a profession. But in contemporary circumstances, one key ethical imperative should be widely shared: students in our field should not be trained with their eyes closed to the realities of working conditions in higher education in a global economy. We must not ignore the material conditions of our profession and lead our students to mythical visions of tenured green pastures waiting for all who apply themselves.

We should build into our programs specific course work in the area of “critical university studies.”7 It would inform students about the restructuring of higher education under the pressures of privatization and also about such defining issues as academic freedom, shared governance, the establishment and gutting of the tenure system, and the academic labor movement. But none of this intellectual training will be of much practical use unless it can help us reduce the profession’s class stratification and gain more “cooperative control of the workplace” (Williams B9).

We should increase the emphasis on teaching. This recommendation may seem to hark back to Ernest Boyer’s 1990 Carnegie Foundation study Scholarship Reconsidered, but there’s been a tremendous output of innovative work in the scholarship of pedagogy since then. The Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature advocates that doctoral programs place “greater emphasis on the development of skills in teaching” (6). In this instance, we are responding appropriately to important market factors: demanding more tenure-line jobs and training our students for them. (That most tenure-track jobs in the profession involve more teaching than research has always been true, even though our doctoral programs have often operated as if PhD training were exclusively for R1 jobs.) The huge breadth of pedagogical and scholarly training combined with the depth of analysis we value is our strength, not our liability. We should therefore fortify rather than qualify our primary mission: doctoral education in most humanities fields is primarily for, even if it is not, as the MLA task force report notes, “exclusively for the production of future tenure-track faculty members” (Report 11; emphasis mine). In this fortifying, we must adapt our curricula to serve the huge spectrum of tenure lines in different institutions.8 In this form of market adaptability, what we have to offer and what our profession needs line up.

The ongoing tasks of curricular revision are clearly part of the expansionist project, but expansion should not be carried out in the exploitative sense of asking both students and faculty members to do more work with less resources. When I speak of expansion, I mean increasing tenured faculty lines (and reducing contingency), increasing resources, and lowering class sizes. Wherever and whenever we can, we have to speak out against management mantras to downsize or die.

We are often assailed by the rhetoric of crisis, as if we have reached a tipping point where immediate, draconian cuts are mandatory. This rhetoric mainly serves the neoliberal agenda for contraction and austerity. But we have felt ourselves in crisis for a long time. This rhetoric is a mistake even if you are a market wonk. The National Center for Education Statistics projects a different situation: even though the number of high school graduates will increase only slightly, the center projects that by 2021 there will be nearly 25 million undergraduate students in postsecondary education (currently there are just over 20 million), and graduate enrollments should follow that basic demographic increase (Projections).9 To carry out the expansionist project, we have to make these kinds of revisions and additions to our program while maintaining our highest standards—the ethical hierarchies of values that engage our widest conceptions of social justice. To accomplish both means making some hard choices, but the aim is clear: more secure, tenure-line jobs for faculty members and accessibility to higher education for a broader range of students. An intense engagement in hiring decisions, policy matters, institutional procedures, and curricular revision in our programs, departments, and universities is called for.

The struggle is not just intradepartmental but for the improvement of education in a democratic society. The struggle is difficult. We labor under the constant barrage of funding cuts and austerity agendas mandated by both state and federal legislators. These policies are fueled by the right-wing assessment that the general public clearly knows how useless the humanities really are when their children are trying to get jobs and how literary study doesn’t improve one whit our nation’s effort to maintain global supremacy. Education then gets converted to vocationalism. These wrongheaded but powerful ideologies dominate our congressional halls, so in our weaker moments we might think that most citizens share this template for a diminished future. The reality is that a broad segment of the public is willing to endorse some key features of a more progressive education. Toby Miller sites a 2011 poll indicating “that while Congress favors cutting public expenditure on higher education by 26 percent and the White House seeks to increase it by 9 percent, the general public wants to double it, along with massive cuts to the Pentagon budget” (121). Those figures suggest much more public support than we might otherwise imagine for what I have been describing as the slow-motion revolution.


  1. David Laurence precisely spells out this divide in attitudes (“Job Market” 3).
  2. Our failure to make this case to the broader public now haunts us, as Christopher Newfield explains (11). See also the online journal 4Humanities: Advocating for the Humanities (
  3. The recent Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature clearly articulates that “[i]nstead of contraction, we argue for a more capacious understanding of our fields and their benefits to society.” Unfortunately the report focuses more on how to accommodate the economic circumstances than on how to resist them.
  4. See Bousquet, especially chapter 6, “The Rhetoric of ‘Job Market’ and the Reality of the Academic Labor System.”
  5. Laurence writes, “As student enrollments grow, the part of the faculty teaching off the tenure track grows a lot, while the tenured and tenure-track faculty ranks stay roughly the same size” (Demography 1).
  6. As Bousquet pointedly put it, “We are not ‘overproducing Ph.D.s’; we are underproducing jobs” (40–41). See also Michael Bérubé: “There’s only one problem with those insistent accounts of the decline of the humanities in undergraduate education: They are wrong. Factually, stubbornly, determinedly wrong” (B4). James F. English provides dramatic counterevidence to the story of the decline of English, especially when set in a global context.
  7. Jeffrey Williams and Christopher Newfield are now editing a new series from Johns Hopkins University Press called Critical University Studies.
  8. I am concerned about the MLA task force’s injunction to “broaden career paths” by “also preparing students for the range of career opportunities that may be available inside and outside the academy” (Report of the MLA Task Force ). We are not well equipped to provide professional guidance in alt-ac careers, and it would be disingenuous of us to believe that we could train our grad students to work in, say, a museum or library. No doubt some of our grads end up at a museum or library, which shows their ability to adapt their training in English to other fields. The modern languages are durable fields, especially when viewed from a global perspective (see English 108, 174), even under stress, and we should follow our strengths instead of trying to accommodate ourselves to a market in fields where we have insufficient knowledge and experience.
  9. English asks, “Is there any more shopworn, tedious, and plainly self-defeating story of our discipline than the crisis narrative?” (189).

Works Cited

Bérubé, Michael. “The Humanities, Declining? Not according to the Numbers.” Chronicle of Higher Education 1 July 2013: B4–B5. Print.

Bousquet, Marc. How the University Works. New York: New York UP, 2008. Print.

Boyer, Ernest. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. New York: Jossey-Bass, 1990. Print.

Education in the Balance: A Report on the Workforce in English: Report of the 2007 ADE Ad Hoc Committee on Staffing. Modern Language Association. MLA, 10 Dec. 2008. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.

Ehrenberg, Ronald G., Harriet Zukerman, Jeffrey A. Groen, and Sharon M. Brucker. Educating Scholars: Doctoral Education in the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010. Print.

English, James F. The Global Future of English Studies. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Print.

Glassner, Barry, and Martin Schapiro. “Beware Higher-Ed Doom Sayers.” Chronicle of Higher Education 10 Oct. 2014: B4–B5. Print.

Laurence, David. Demography of the Faculty: A Statistical Portrait of English and Foreign Languages. Modern Language Association. MLA, 10 Dec. 2008. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.

———. “The Job Market and Graduate Education.” ADE Bulletin 149 (2010): 3–7. Print.

Leitch, Vincent B. Literary Criticism in the Twenty-First Century: Theory Renaissance. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.

Miller, Toby. Blow Up the Humanities. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2012. Print.

Newfield, Christopher. “Humanities Creativity in the Age of Online.” Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities. Arcade, 1 Oct. 2013. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.

Projections for Education Statistics to 2021: Section 5: Enrollment in Postsecondary Degree-Granting Institutions: Enrollment by Selected Characteristics and Control of Institution. Natl. Center for Educ. Statistics, n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2015. <>.

Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature. Modern Language Association. MLA, May 2014. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.

Report on the MLA Job Information List, 2013–14. Modern Language Association. MLA, n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.

Report on the Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2009–10. Modern Language Association. MLA, Apr. 2012. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.

Ross, Andrew. “Undisciplined: An Interview with Andrew Ross.” Critics at Work: Interviews, 1993–2003. Ed. Jeffrey J. Williams. New York: New York UP, 2004. 275–94. Print.

Williams, Jeffrey J. “The Great Stratification.” Chronicle of Higher Education 6 Dec. 2013: B6–B9. Print.

David B. Downing is professor of English and director of Graduate Studies in Literature and Criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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