There was a certain Rip Van Winkle feeling to stepping into my office on campus for the first time in eighteen months. Or perhaps it was more like emerging from the Cave of Montesinos to see the world in a different light. I am clearly among the fortunate: not required to return to the classroom until I was vaccinated and now reassured by boosters and masking requirements in a state that has largely followed scientific recommendations (not to mention that I have an office, and one with a functioning window). Yet as I looked around at piles of photocopies, old course packets, and accumulated mail from another era, I had a distinct feeling of caesura—a strong break between then and now, a rupture that could not and should not be papered over, even as we attempt to put the world back together.
Who will write the chronicle of our return, our ambivalence and sadness, our feeling of walking through molasses as often as walking on air? Whatever the complex psychic baggage of our predicament, there is also a collective political load to shoulder. We agreed amid protests for racial justice and in the wake of the attack on the Capitol that we could not go back to business as usual. What, then, does this new world look like? Where is the change?
The pandemic and the protests made clear the need to recommit to access for all students and to redouble our advocacy for the humanities as a key pillar of democracy. Critical thinking about representation, agency, and the public good has never seemed more urgent. How will we take on these commitments in the university and beyond when the pandemic has taken a significant toll on so many of us?
There is greater clarity in some corners. Paradoxically, the further erosion of the tenure-track job market amid the convulsions of 2020 offers an opportunity to deepen our commitment to the ethical training and support of graduate students. Returning to the way things were seems unimaginable, and it is heartening to read the work of colleagues who, in the middle of the pandemic, published powerful calls for diversifying graduate training and promoting a broad range of career options for humanities PhDs within and beyond higher education. While the MLA has been a leader in this space and has long advocated for these changes, especially in the wake of the Great Recession, the pandemic (and the appearance of these ideas in book form) feels like a turning point. Certainly we must continue to advocate for tenure-track positions, as we did in the context of the College for All Act, yet we must also continue to expand how we think of our professions (“Statement”).
As Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch state in The New PhD, “We need a PhD that looks outside the walls of the university, not one that turns inward” (13). Katina Rogers forcefully counters the idea that the solution to ever fewer tenure-track positions might be to further shrink our programs. In Putting the Humanities PhD to Work, she notes, “The cost-cutting measure of using more and more contingent faculty members can and does operate entirely independently of the number of PhDs on the market” (33). Both books recommend a turn to diverse careers, in which humanities PhDs might find not only economic security but also a sense of purpose in society. The alternative to precarity, these scholars argue, is a willingness to imagine a broader range of career outcomes as the prerogative of the extraordinarily talented and capable people in PhD programs. The right question is not “So what are you going to do with that?” (borrowing the title of Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius’s popular guide) but, as Cassuto and Weisbuch ask, “Is there anything you can’t do with this?” (120). If students and faculty members together can take this imaginative leap, what has for so long seemed like a dire landscape of scarcity suddenly appears in a much different light. A key part of our impact, in this view, lies in the role that PhDs trained in critique can play when seededacross a range of nonprofit institutions and for-profit companies.
These insights and recommendations formalize conversations long underway and involve many MLA members beyond those who train doctoral students. They may reassure mentors who hesitate to encourage undergraduates to pursue graduate study, instructors who wonder how much longer to tolerate impossible work conditions, and current graduates who have feared disappointing their mentors by seeking opportunities beyond academia.
Could this rethinking be one of the strange affordances of the pandemic? Will we recognize in this changed world what was harder to see before? The visionary words of Heather Christian, who wrote one of my favorite pieces of lockdown theater, seem apposite here: “Let yourself get unused to how it was. The night will wipe your memory if you let it. Let it. We will not be going back.
Basalla, Susan, and Maggie Debelius. “So What Are You Going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers outside Academia. U of Chicago P, 2014.
Cassuto, Leonard, and Robert Weisbuch. The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education. Johns Hopkins UP, 2021.
Christian, Heather. I Am Sending You the Sacred Face. Directed and performed by Joshua William Gelb, Theater in Quarantine with Theater Mitu’s Expansion Works, YouTube, 18 Dec. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4T9bSyYDGA.
Rogers, Katina. Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving in and beyond the Classroom. Duke UP, 2020.