English Matters

Michael Bérubé ponders the turn to “alt-ac” graduate programs

Today, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Bérubé considers the structural disconnect between PhD training in the humanities and the academic job market.  “Graduate programs in the humanities,” he writes, “have been designed precisely to replenish the ranks of the professoriate; that is why they have such a strong research component, also known as the dissertation.” And yet, “of the 1.5 million people [in the United States] now employed in the profession of college teaching, more than one million are teaching off the tenure track, with no hope of expectation of ever winding up on the tenure track.”   The logical conclusion:  “The PhD is actually the ‘waste product’ (Marc Bousquet)  of a system designed to produce cheap teaching labor.”

Bérubé finds that even as corporate university advances its consolidation into instrumentality, the humanities remain stuck in that same programmatic aporia they stumbled into in the 1990s.  (1) We  understand a need to redirect humanities graduate programs towards something beyond training for a discipline-specific professoriate.  (2) We don’t know what that something actually is.  (3) We therefore throw up our hands and change nothing.

Bérubé’s article doesn’t offer a solution, but it does meditate on a couple of the most common suggestions for reforming graduate studies in the humanities.  Bérubé finds serious trouble with all of them.  One suggested fix is to streamline graduate programs so that whatever else happens, PhD students at least complete the degree faster and therefore get out of student poverty sooner.  This one makes a lot of sense, especially now:  average completion time in the U.S. has bloated, says Bérubé,  to “an astounding 9.5 years”.  But against this logic, Bérubé wonders:  wouldn’t this streamlining just create two doctoral tracks, one for “hard-core, old-school research with a traditional dissertation,” and the other “more like a rigorous four-year M.A.”?  Wouldn’t streamlining actually function as a mechanism for institutionalizing the already prevailing class division within our profession:  that vast,indeed growing, division between “a relatively small cadre of tenured faculty doing research and a much larger cohort of professors who are basically on a teaching track”?

A second suggested fix is to rationalize program content so that graduate studies across the humanities are directed in the first instance towards the non-academic labour force:  this is the “alt-ac” position, and it’s one that virtually every university senior administrator – not to mention SSHRC and the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences – now seems to promote with administrative passion.  Bérubé wonders, though, whether the turn to “alt-ac” training isn’t actually working to deracinate the humanities from their foundational critical thrust.  His argument here comprises a rift off Richard Rorty’s celebrated stand on how to manage the future of philosophy:  “take care of freedom, and truth will take care of itself.”  Bérubé argues that we cannot teach in the humanties – in that deepest sense of what they mean – unless we secure “freedom of inquiry and freedom of thought” within the institution itself.  This necessarily entails the freedom to advance intellectual inquiry in ways that accord with the highest protocols for rigour within humanities-based thinking. The exercise of that freedom — in structural independence from the demands of job training — comprises in itself  the organizing “value” of the humanities disciplines, and education towards the practice of independent critical thought is exactly what it is that the humanities, at their best, have to contribute to social and civic health.  Give away what you value most, Bérubé warns, and you weaken your capacity to resist corporate university rationalization.  You exchange critical rigour for the manufacture of human resources for exploitation by capital.  “The department that most emphatically and open-mindedly embraces the idea of graduate training for careers outside academe,” Bérubé concludes, “might just find itself the department whose graduate program is eliminated in the next strategic plan.”

A suggested fix that Bérubé just touches upon is actually one that sounds most often within the humanities themselves, and that is the position that maintains, as an ethical first principle, that intake into humanities PhD programs should match, not exceed, tenure-track hiring expectations in the future.  That suggestion is clearly going nowhere, except down.  It goes against the general trend within the corporate university to convert expensive research-and-teaching tenure-track positions into teaching-only positions – positions that may or may not in the future come packaged with something like tenure.  And goes against the current discourse of “major-research” university “repurposing,” away from undergraduate teaching into expanded (revenue-producing) graduate studies, away from curiosity-driven research into research that has immediate economic payoff, and proves itself to be “solutions-driven.”  The new organizing logic for humanities graduate programs within the corporate university is simply this:  grow or go. Ethics, rigour, the “value” of the humanities:  these are desirable things, but they aren’t the same as “deliverables” in the university of the future.

A number of initiatives are now in place for locating our best arguments for the continuance of our discipline against the rising tide of program instrumentalization, and for determining the  principles that might nevertheless guide our work towards self-generated disciplinary change.   In early April 2013, Smaro Kamboureli and Erin Wunker are running a TransCanada Institute think tank at Guelph University on “Sustainability, Mentorship, and Intellectual Production:  The Present and Future of Emerging Scholars in Canadian Literary Studies.”  Several ACCUTE members are involved in that discussion. And this May, at the Victoria Congress, ACCUTE will be hosting a roundtable discussion featuring members of the Canadian Association of Chairs of English on the topic (and the title is tentative) of:  “English @ the edge … of what?”  

We need to make allies as we proceed with this discussion.  And we need to find our own disciplinary specifics.  Both ventures require  strategic collaboration.  For even within itself, “English Studies” has never, simply, been just one thing.  It necessarily sprawls across a vast range of pure and applied sub-disciplines, across an extraordinary array of theoretical and methodological practices and protocols, around an entire world of linguistic, literary and political activity, then and now.  Something immediately begins to narrow and distort when we find ourselves forced to give single answers to single-minded questions, like “what do you teach in English Studies? Why does it really matter?” Regardless, our graduate programs might be our best front-line for pursuing progressive social change within and around our discipline, and as we proceed we will have to take control of the discussion around “alt-ac” training.  If you have thoughts on this, do consider posting them here on the ACCUTE website — and replies to this post, or as new posts sent to us by email.  And do  bring them with you to Congress this May.

Michael Bérubé’s “The Humanities, Unravelled”, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, can be found here:


Those who follow the arguments for converting Canada’s major research universities into graduate-studies-first institutions might also find the following article of interest:


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