Tag Archives: unemployment

Dumpster Diving and other career moves: remembering the job market with Roger Whitson

It would be hard to say I enjoyed reading Roger Whitson’s very fine recent meditation in the Chronicle on the quest for a tenure-track job, his ambivalent feelings on finding one, the mixed feelings of exaltation and guilt at getting what so many of his peers would never find, and of leaving behind an #Altac existence where he had begun to make a home.

Hard to enjoy reading both because the story seems to typify what our academic life has actually become, and, frankly, because it reminded me too much of my own wandering years as a new academic a couple of decades ago.  I spent seven years full-time on the job market back in the day (if you count the last two years of graduate school).  I have estimated in the past that I must have applied for at least 700-800 jobs during those years–the idea of being targeted and selective a joke for a new father.  Fortunately I was actually only totally unemployed for four months during those years, though that was enough to plunge me thousands of dollars in to debt paying for health insurance.  For five of those seven years I had full-time work in various visiting assistant positions, and for two of  those visiting years I was paid so little I qualified for food stamps, though I never applied for the program.  I worked as many extra courses as I could to pay the bills–probably foolish for my career since publishing slowed to a crawl, but it saved my pride.  I remember asking, naively, during an interview for one such visiting position whether it was actually possible to live in that area of the country on what I was going to be paid.  The chair interviewing me at the time hesitated, then responded, “Well, of course, your wife can work.”

Only one of those years did I not get an interview, and only two of those years did I not get a campus interview, but even then this seemed like a very peculiar and unhelpful way to claim success for a beginning academic career.  We did not have anything called #altac in those days, and my plan B–which on my worst days I sometimes still wonder whether I should have followed–was to go back to cooking school and become a chef (I know, I know.  Another growth industry).  I never felt bad about pursuing a PhD in English, and I don’t think I would have even if I had gone on to become a chef.  The learning was worth it, to me, at least.

But I did grow distant from college friends who became vice-presidents of companies or doctors in growing practices , all of whom talked about their mortgages and vacations in the Caribbean or Colorado, while I was living in the cheapest 2 bedroom apartment in Fairfax Virginia that I could find and fishing furniture, including my daughter’s first bed, out of a dumpster.  (The furniture was held together, literally, by duct tape; I had to pay for conferences). And I spent a lot of evenings walking off my anxiety through the park next to our apartment complex, reminding myself of how much I had to be thankful for.  After all, I had a job and could pay my bills through the creative juggling of credit card balances. A lot of my friends had found no jobs at all.  A low rent comparison, I realize, but I would take what solace I could get.

I do not resent those days now, but that depends a lot on my having come out the other side.  The sobering thought in all of this is in realizing that in the world of academics today I should count myself one of the lucky ones.  Reading Roger’s essay, and the many like it that have been published in the last twenty years, I always get a sick hollow feeling in the gut, remembering what it was like to wonder what would happen if….

Reading Roger’s essay I was struck again with the fact that this is now the permanent condition of academic life in the humanities.  My own job story began more than 20 years ago at Duke, and even then we were told that the job market had been miserable for 15 years (but was sure to get better by and by).  30 years is not a temporary downturn or academic recession.  It is a way of being.

The advent of MOOC’s, all-online education, and for-profit universities, are responses to the economics of higher education that are unlikely to make things any better for the freshly minted PhD.  While there are some exciting innovations here that have a lot of promise for increasing learning to the many, it’s also the case that they are attractive and draw interest because they promise to do it more cheaply, which in the world of higher education means teaching more students with fewer faculty hours.  Roger’s most powerful line came toward the end:  “Until we realize that we are all contingent, we are all #altac, we all need to be flexible, and we are all in this together, we won’t be able to effectively deal with the crisis in the humanities with anything other than guilt.”

This is right, it seems to me.  In a world that is changing as rapidly and as radically as higher education, we are all as contingent the reporters and editors in the newsrooms of proud daily newspapers.  It is easy to say that the person who “made it” was talented enough or smart enough or savvy enough, but mostly they, I, we were just lucky enough to come out the other side.  But we would be misguided to imagine that because we made it in to a world that at least resembled the world we imagined, that that world will always be there.  We are an older institution and industry than music or radio or newspapers, but we are an industry and an institution nonetheless, and it seems to me that the change is upon us.  We are all contingent now.

Unemployed Philosophers Abounding; Or, It’s Much Less Fun to Talk About Unemployed Business Majors

Philosophers are in the news these days.  By what I can tell from the media, un-and-underemployed philosophy majors are sprouting from the sidewalks, infesting Occupy America movements, and crowding the lines for openings in the barista business.  I am reminded of the line in T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland where he witnesses the hordes of urbanites crossing London Bridge and imagines them as an original infestation of the walking dead:

Philosophers, so many, I had not realized unemployment had undone so many.

The proliferation is further astonishing since my own Department of Philosophy begs borrows and steals students from other departments to make a living.  From what I can gauge in the news media they are not looking the right places because every news reporter living seems to find them easy pickin’s right at hand at every street corner.

A few days ago I posted on a peculiar opinion piece from Frank Bruni at the New York Times, wherein philosophers and anthropologists were given as examples of what’s wrong with the American educational system, graduating as it does hordes of unemployable thinkers with their heads too far in the clouds to realize the damage they are doing to themselves by reading Immanuel Kant.  This morning in my local newspaper I was treated to Nate Beeler’s editorial cartoon, featuring an unkempt and bewildered looking philosophy major on a street corner begging for food, his sign suggesting that he will “epistemologize for food.”  Finally, my day was topped off by an NPR story on the grim prospects for this year’s college grads.  The story finished with an interview with the ever omnipresent philosophy major, and noted, mockingly, that the student intended to pursue medical school after finishing his philosophy degree.  Good to see at least some philosophy major has some sense. I was actually thinking about how wonderful it was to find a student who was so accomplished in both the sciences and the humanities.  More fool I.

How philosophers came to represent the ills of recent college graduates is beyond reckoning.  Though I did do some reckoning.  According to Stats from the Department of Education    between 2006 and 2011, American colleges and Universities graduated approximately 117,891 philosophy majors.  In the same time period these same colleges and universities graduated 1,687,105 business majors.  Give or Take.

According to a Georgetown University study, recent humanities majors unemployment rate is about 9.4%, which means that we probably have about 11,081 unemployed philosophy majors running around loose and unattended.

By comparison, according to the Georgetown study 7.4% of recent business majors are unemployed.  Which means that 126,532 business majors are running around loose and unattended.  Give or Take.

I think the outcome of this entirely off the cuff analysis is that the average person crowding into line for barista openings at Starbucks is probably not a philosopher.  I’m wondering why there are no interviews with business majors on how they feel about the fact that their educational choices did not prepare them for the job market.

We shouldn’t laugh off the difficulties of these figures in general.  Recent college graduates are desperately hurting, whether they majored in philosophy or business;  they are loaded with debt and many are not finding jobs.  And while philosophers are struggling marginally more than some others, the point is that philosophy majors are not hurting in some extraordinary fashion because they have chosen to major in philosophy.  This is a generational problem visited on this generation of student through political, economic, and cultural decisions that were not of their doing or making.  To trash philosophy students as if they were witless is a snide form of victimizing victims of  a system and culture these students did not create.  It relieves us of responsibility to the many who are struggling and enables us to imagine that it is all their fault because of the poor educational choices they’ve happened to make.  Ironically, it enables us to ignore the plight of 128,000 unemployed business students as well, since they have all come to be represented by unkempt and irresponsible philosophers.

I don’t buy it.  A student thoughtful enough to read and think through Kant is thoughtful enough to be aware of what she might be getting herself in to as a philosophy major.  Such students deserve better than mockery and contempt.  They deserve our gratitude in reminding us that an education is about more than just the bottom line.  That we do not give them this is to our discredit, not to theirs.