In a recent opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed, George Justice and Carolyn Dever encourage mid-career and senior faculty members to become active university citizens through institutional leadership. The authors—former administrators recently returned to full-time faculty roles—maintain that their administrative backgrounds have redefined and reinvigorated their identities as researchers and educators, influencing how they approach their roles as faculty members.
I share their opinion. Based on my own experiences as well as consideration of the broader humanities landscape, I am persuaded that nonacademic or alternative-academic jobs are central to the survival of the humanities in the twenty-first century. There are many reasons this is the case, including that most PhDs will not be able to secure full-time teaching positions at colleges and universities.1 As someone who left the academic track for several years only to return to it, my biggest takeaway is that humanities departments need a professoriat composed of faculty members with diverse professional experiences who can actively mentor and train students for a range of careers. This work cannot be sidelined or relegated as service—it needs to occupy a central place in the curriculum and in the intellectual life of humanities departments.
Coming to terms with this reality requires the restructuring of humanities programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, specifically with regard to the need for diversifying the professoriat across the board. The profession must consider hiring faculty members with broader professional experience than what has been typically valued in academic hiring and promotion or—at the very least—training, supporting, and incentivizing faculty members’ professional development in this area through formalized positions and evaluative systems.
Lessons Learned from Going Off-Track
I defended my dissertation in September 2008. Within a week, the economy had tanked, and roughly half the academic jobs posted that cycle were pulled. Like many doctoral students, I had spent most of graduate school preparing exclusively for a career that lacked enough jobs for the number of qualified candidates. My experience on the academic job market that year, as well as the next, was disastrous.
I was unwilling to accept that this was the end of the professional road for me, however. This perspective was informed equally by stubbornness and necessity, as well as by as my working-class, first-generation immigrant background and a healthy dose of anger at a system failing its students on several fronts. While a full-time lecturer at my graduate institution, I furiously applied for jobs in academic administration, as well as in other nonacademic fields. I finally landed one at my graduate institution working in a central administrative office for global programs in a position that incorporated multiple roles, from speech writing to strategic planning and much else in between. None of these roles explicitly required advanced training in the humanities (at least not in the traditional sense), yet all of these responsibilities benefitted from flexible and dynamic skills cultivated by years of extensive reading, writing, teaching, public speaking, and research.
I also approached my job as an opportunity to further the humanities’ core values. In meetings about new global initiatives and campus inclusion strategies, I raised points that seem obvious to humanists but are often overlooked by colleagues with different academic and professional backgrounds. We want to build programs in Peru? Let’s make sure that we adequately staff Spanish language programs and build serious study of Peruvian history and culture into the curriculum, especially for programs aimed at STEM majors with little training in these areas of knowledge. Similar opportunities to enhance diversity and inclusion using humanities perspectives existed in on-campus support programs for students and faculty members. Do faculty members across disciplines need to be more globally aware in the case studies, readings, and examples they use in class? Let’s create resources to help facilitate more diverse content and perspectives that will help math majors, engineers, and economists become better global citizens. Despite taking a break from teaching, I felt satisfied that I was doing my part to support structural changes at the university that made a difference inside and outside the classroom.
One of the questions I hear most about nonteaching careers is whether they will be as intellectually challenging as traditional academic positions. I won’t lie and say that I was always happy with my job during this time (a persistent woe no matter one’s employment situation), but I was never bored. Stepping outside the classroom and the library, for the first time I found myself actively experiencing a university as a university instead of as a discipline. I learned how to see the university as an aggregation of its many parts—academic, administrative, support services, outreach—and this was intellectually invigorating.
Three years later I reentered the job market transformed, applying to both nonacademic and academic positions. I was interested in using my unconventional experience to guide my way through an academic career if I was lucky enough to get back onto the academic track. And despite most people saying that it could not be done—that I was likely no longer legible as an academic because of my time away from a traditional position—I landed a research-intensive job and began my tenure clock in 2013.
Strategies for Departments and Faculty Members
Despite small gains in specific areas of specialization, the professoriat has never recovered from the economic crash a decade ago, and the most recent numbers indicate a historic low for tenure-track jobs in the humanities. The volatile future for tenure-track jobs continues to put pressure on PhD programs to prepare doctoral students for a range of careers and to support dissertations and theses produced in new forms and media. However, despite this range of commendable efforts, relatively few traditional academics are sufficiently prepared to train and mentor humanities majors in a way that reframes the conversation around career diversity. Ethically and fiscally effective answers to the employment realities faced by our graduates will require us to restructure programs to meet the career needs of humanities students as well as the institutional demands of twenty-first-century colleges and universities.
Such change needs to happen on multiple fronts, but here I want to focus on retooling course objectives and assignments to make them more explicitly connected to the full range of professional skills developed by humanities degrees from BAs to PhDs (see Katopodis and Davidson). Professionalization is a crucial aspect of restructuring humanities education that nonetheless remains undervalued precisely because there are few faculty members with related experience to help advance this conversation theoretically and practically. Humanities departments must build strong connections both inside and outside the academy, particularly remaining in contact and learning from graduates who have built successful careers in a range of professions. Many of our alumni are eager to mentor current students and recent graduates with regard to professional development, and we need to see these individuals as intellectual resources that are also able to help faculty members adapt courses, assignments, and learning goals to better prepare students for a range of careers.
There are also structural impediments to this important work, both at the level of individual institutions and in the profession at large. Career education and professional mentoring are often treated as service work in the humanities, which is to say that collectively the disciplines do not see it as a core function of advancing academic profiles. In the face of mounting market pressures, it should come as no surprise that our colleagues in more professionally focused fields are increasing their share of undergraduate majors (if not overall course enrollments), and their graduate programs are stable and growing. Career education is structurally embedded into most of these programs, and faculty members see professional training and mentoring as a core part of the intellectual work that they do. Although humanities and art departments aren’t vocational training centers, the future of our collective disciplines depends on faculty members and students being able to articulate the value of the arts and humanities to the public and in professional life beyond the academy. Humanities and arts majors need faculty members to help them translate the value of their coursework and demonstrate the skills they develop as liberal arts majors as they seek jobs and transition from the classroom into the professional world. This work cannot be accomplished by seeing career education and professional mentoring as add-ons or extraneous (if not prohibitive) to the work that we do in the humanities—it needs to be infused into the curriculum at all stages, as well as into the intellectual life of academic departments.
One way to do this is to offer (perhaps even require) career education courses as part of the regular for-credit curriculum. At the University of Arkansas, where I currently teach, I’ve offered two different versions of credit-bearing courses focused on how to get a job with an English degree since 2014, one designed for undergraduates and master’s students, the other focused on navigating job markets with a PhD. I teach these courses as the department’s schedule permits alongside my usual courses in nineteenth-century literature and culture. These courses are designed to allow students the space and time to discuss, reflect, and take inventory of the skills they’ve learned in their humanities courses and to explore a range of viable career options that they find meaningful. This is no small undertaking. Students spend hours reading career guides and articles, conducting informational interviews, crafting job documents, and honing their storytelling skills to become more effective at interviews and networking.
Incorporating career education and mentoring into the intellectual life of the humanities requires institutions to rethink faculty evaluation—particularly teaching and research—because this work necessitates reading (and perhaps publishing) career guides, working collaboratively with career centers, populating professional networks with people outside the academy, and building professional pipelines that include ethical internships and co-op programs for our students. For several years, both the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association have signaled to faculty members that these are important endeavors. However, as someone who has attended many Connected Academics sessions over the last few years, it’s clear that the attendees are primarily department chairs and directors of graduate studies. It’s time for humanities faculty members at large to see this work as an essential part of our professional responsibilities and as central to the work that the humanities must accomplish over the next generation.
Moving forward, the skills, experiences, and professional interests of faculty members must adapt to these disciplinary needs. New scholars hired on the tenure track should be selected in part for their ability to advance these conversations and dedicate to them the energy that they deserve. Existing faculty members should either seriously consider administrative appointments or publicly engaged work that builds their professional areas of expertise to include career diversity. Structural change must support faculty development in these areas through a combination of time allotted for curriculum development, funding for travel to conferences specifically geared toward addressing career diversity and education, and assessment systems that value these professional issues in annual evaluations, as well as in building cases for promotion and tenure.
Until we collectively start seeing career education as part of the central intellectual work we do as humanists, we will continue to hemorrhage undergraduate majors, watch graduate enrollments dwindle, and experience the ongoing erasure of the professoriat as a profession. We owe this work to our students—undergraduate and graduate alike—as well as to the future of our collective disciplines. At all levels, professional precarity is poised to be the death of humanities unless we agree that career opportunities and financial stability are humanistic values insofar as they are necessary for creativity expression and self-actualization. We need humanists in all types of professional positions both inside and outside the academy to restore and reinvent the already proven value of the humanities in professional, political, and personal arenas.
1 Although there has been a recent turn of replacing the alternative academic, or alt-ac, terminology, I use the term here at times not only because it was the most commonly used term to describe careers off the tenure-track during the years I worked in this role but also because it remains a useful way of understanding the many types of careers in higher education in which PhDs may very well continue to identify as academics even if traditional humanities-focused teaching and research are not their central job responsibilities. Career diversity is a useful term that I believe includes alt-ac, covering a much wider range of career options for humanities graduates.
Justice, George, and Carolyn Dever. “The Intellectual Joys of University Administration—No, Really!” Inside Higher Ed, 19 Sept. 2019, www.insidehighered.com/advice/2019/09/19/how-jobs-institutional-level-administration-can-strongly-benefit-faculty-members.
Katapodis, Christina, and Cathy N. Davidson. “Changing Our Classrooms to Prepare Students for a Challenging World.” Profession, Fall 2019, profession.mla.org/changing-our-classrooms-to-prepare-students-for-a-challenging-world/.
Lissette Lopez Szwydky (@LissetteSz) is associate professor of English at the University of Arkansas and associate director of the Arkansas Humanities Center. She also codirects an NEH-funded Summer Institute for K–12 Educators, Remaking Monsters and Heroines: Adapting Classic Literature for Contemporary Audiences, to be offered again in June 2021. Her recent book is Transmedia Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century (Ohio State UP, 2020).