The Tasks Moving Forward

Originally published in the Spring 2020 MLA Newsletter

The crisis of the humanities is all around us, proclaimed by the popular press and suffered perhaps most acutely by our graduate students in their bones. On the one hand, we are tempted to emphasize just how bad it all is in order to wake up those colleagues and administrators who are going about their daily business without addressing the defunding and downsizing of the humanities, the rise in contingent labor, and the dim prospects of employment in humanities fields for our graduate students. On the other hand, we are now tasked with thinking about both our own teaching and research and our obligations to graduate students in new ways, developing an ethics of mentorship responsive to precarious times. Graduate programs now have to reckon with their obligations to students during a very bad job market, and it is all the more important that graduate students be mentored not only on how best to do research and write but also on how to think about and plot their futures. During a time of intense anxiety about the market for graduate students, it is all the more important to develop and abide by an ethical code of conduct that prohibits exploitation, including harassment. Such a code would also emphasize the support we owe graduate students, the attention we must give to their work, and the practical mentoring we should offer that is focused on how to find employment when the degree is finished.

One obligation of faculty members in these times is to attend to the various institutional and public conditions that make work possible not just for tenured faculty members but also for graduate students and contingent faculty members who seek the secure employment and living wage they surely deserve. This means securing a livable wage for graduate students and fighting for more secure, full-time positions. We all have now to take on a new commitment fighting for the humanities, for the teaching of languages and literatures across the globe, and making clear in public terms why what we do is indispensable to culture, society, and even the public good and why tenured positions are crucial to keeping the humanities alive.

One strategy is to convince deans and provosts that investing in the humanities is a key way for the university to survive, so we need to be prepared to show how important the humanities is for attracting students and preserving the public value of universities as sites for open critical inquiry unimpeded by external authorities. Another is to enter into public debate about the value of the humanities, especially the teaching of languages and literature, in order to show precisely how and why the world would be radically impoverished without humanities courses and fields of research. Against the current tide of anti-intellectualism, we have to make the case again for reading, writing, critical and creative work that empowers students to renew their consideration of how the world is structured and how it means A third strategy, equally important, is to develop collaboratively a wide range of pathways to employment for graduate students. The humanities can and should be valued for its economic contributions, but market values will never capture the value of the humanities. Further, while we make the public case for the humanities, we must not lose the grain and texture of the academic work we do. Making that public case, however, is indispensable, especially if it shows how the liberal arts, including language and literature programs, substantially contribute to the university and our ability to act as informed, critical, and thoughtful faculty members and to cultivate those capacities in our students.

The immediate task for mentors is to revise our practices in both an ethical and a practical direction. It is imperative to develop a new practice of mentorship for graduate students in the light of today’s alarming economic horizon. It now becomes our responsibility as well to think knowledgeably and creatively with our students about how they can find positions that pay a livable wage and offer opportunities for them to pursue their talents and to flourish. (You can read more about the MLA’s efforts on these fronts in “Improving Graduate Education,” on page 1 in this issue.) Otherwise, we train them in academic fields only to abandon them to a market for which they are unprepared. That practice is intolerable. It is as important to support their efforts to secure a livable wage within graduate school as it is to help them find pathways to employment with a PhD in hand. To do that, we have to become smarter about the economic world, even if it means stretching beyond our own formation in the humanities and learning about the economic and financial conditions of universities. We must study the trends that affect employment possibilities in our fields, especially in the humanities, and engage the public debate on the enduring and urgent value of what we do.