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Olivia Fine / Columbia Daily Spectator

As departments slowly shift away from a historic aim of preparing students to enter academia, they confront a tension of the near future.

As the world of academia has suffered a steady decline in humanities teaching opportunities nationwide, the English department’s struggle to provide students with the resources needed in their job search has become increasingly apparent.

This May, 84 current and former graduate students in the department of English and Comparative Literature penned a letter reflecting a number of questions that had “given rise to some alarm.” No one in that cohort, the letter detailed, had been placed into a tenure-track job, and next year would still see 18 new doctoral students step foot onto campus.

The issues reflected in the letter did not point to groundbreaking data; rather, they came amidst a heightening national debate sparked by a decline in humanities’ enrollment and a striking decrease in tenure-track humanities positions across the nation in the past decade. But citing these numbers, graduate students raised a number of concerns with the department itself: It kept attracting large student cohorts, held insufficient teaching opportunities, and emphasized resources that deprioritized non-academic work.

A week after the letter’s release, the English department swiftly hosted a town hall and announced the creation of a placement seminar to launch in 2021 in which graduate students will be formally introduced to “alternative humanities careers,” or jobs outside of academia. Additionally, the department committed to bringing in alumni to discuss their careers and encouraging students to apply for summer internships outside academia, such as in art galleries or museums.

Since then, the Policy Planning Committee has also proposed a subcommittee on graduate education aimed at answering questions around the number and nature of graduate students in each cohort for the sake of better preparing them for future careers.

“We want to have something early in the program, if [students] are aware of these issues early in their doctoral career, they can do more during that six, seven year period they’re here to prepare themselves for the idea [that they may not get a job in academia],” English department chair Alan Stewart said.

But as departments slowly shift away from a historic aim of preparing students to enter academia, they confront a tension of the near future: whether to continue maintaining the size of cohorts and risk taking on graduate students for jobs that may not exist, or to accept fewer graduate students and risk losing resources for their departments.

And while alternative careers for many graduate students within the humanities may exist in the form of high school teaching positions and museum curators, students and faculty also point to the fact that these jobs may not align with the resources and mentorship historically provided by departments, or the reasons why students choose to attend these programs in the first place. Citing the academia-centric history of their own graduate experiences, faculty mentors within the English department note that they cannot relate to the concerns of their current students.

For graduate students, the promise of long-term solutions to an immediate fear remains a point of significant contention.

“It’s really, really urgent, and even the faculty members who mean well still fail to recognize the urgency that’s felt for a graduate student who needs to pay rent,” Benjamin Van Wagener, GSAS ’18, said.

In an interview with Spectator, University President Lee Bollinger acknowledged the difficulty present for young Ph.D. students just entering the job market.

“There is a national problem. And it's a very, very serious one. I am very concerned for the finite, limited opportunities for young faculty to find jobs on the market following their degree,” Bollinger said.

Even in light of national trends, however, faculty have noted that Columbia has historically been able to weather the storm due to the strength of the Core Curriculum and the pipeline of teaching opportunities it creates for graduate students. But the Core was never meant to be a long-term placeholder, according to Chair of Literature Humanities Joanna Stalnaker.

“We hire postdoctoral lecturers who are among our most dedicated and talented instructors, and currently that's limited to three years, that's the maximum time that, no matter how good an instructor would be, that's just the way the position is set up,” she said.

In line with many faculty, she proposed two solutions: pointing students towards other jobs that are expanding, or take in fewer students for each cohort.

The English department has consistently enrolled an average of 14.3 students annually over the past decade—including 18 this year and 48 over the last three years—despite the decreasing number of placements and tenure track positions available nationally. Meanwhile, Yale’s graduating cohort for its English department currently has seven students; last year’s cohort had six.

Where Columbia University English Ph.D.’s have gone

The University’s English Ph.D. program has seen an increase in enrollment

despite the national decline in tenure track academic positions.

Initial

cohort size

20 Ph.D.

students

15

students who

left academia for

non-academic

positions

10

Tenure track

 

5

positions

in academia

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

Graduation year

Source: Internal survey of Columbia University’s Department of English and Comparative Literature

Note: Survey was unable to identify the placement of two Ph.D. students graduating in 2019.

Where Columbia University English Ph.D.s have gone

The University’s English Ph.D. program has seen an increase in enrollment

despite the national decline in tenure-track academic positions.

Initial

cohort size

20 Ph.D. candidates

15

ph.d. recipients who

left academia for

10

non-academic

positions

Tenure-track

positions

5

in academia

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

Graduation year

Source: Internal survey of Columbia University’s department of English and comparative literature

Note: Survey was unable to identify the placement of two Ph.D. candidates graduating in 2019.

Where Columbia University English Ph.D.s have gone

The University’s English Ph.D. program has seen an increase in enrollment

despite the national decline in tenure-track academic positions.

Where Columbia University English Ph.D.s have gone

The University’s English Ph.D. program has seen an increase in enrollment

despite the national decline in tenure-track academic positions.

Initial

cohort size

20 Ph.D. candidates

15

ph.d. recipients who

left academia for

non-academic

10

positions

Tenure-track

positions

5

in academia

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

Graduation year

Source: Internal survey of Columbia University’s department of English and comparative literature

Note: Survey was unable to identify the placement of two Ph.D. candidates graduating in 2019.

Where Columbia University English Ph.D.s have gone

The University’s English Ph.D. program has seen an increase in enrollment

despite the national decline in tenure-track academic positions.

Where Columbia University English

Ph.D.s have gone

The University’s English Ph.D. program has seen increased

enrollment despite the decline in tenure-track positions.

Initial

22

cohort

size

17 Ph.D.

candidates

ph.d. recipients

who left

academia

8

Tenure-track

positions

in academia

1

2018

2015

2016

2017

2019

Graduation year

Data collected from an internal survey of Columbia University’s

department of English and comparative literature. Survey was

unable to identify the placement of two Ph.D. candidates

graduating in 2019.

At the last Arts and Sciences faculty meeting, a number of faculty raised concerns as to whether those numbers should decrease—and whether such a decrease would impact the resources dedicated to humanities departments, whose instructional and research opportunities are largely geared toward graduate populations.

Stewart, along with others at the meeting and the department’s current Director of Graduate Studies James Adams, said the department was considering what a reduction would mean, but challenged the idea that the number of students within a cohort should directly correlate to the availability of jobs on the market. He noted that a cohort size of 18 students was not outside the norm.

“We are actively looking at what it means to keep the program at its present size or reduce its numbers, and it's a complicated set of issues because reducing the number of graduate students does not increase the number of jobs, but we need to be aware of where the jobs are and how graduate student constituencies line up against that,” Stewart said.

But Jenny Davidson, the lead faculty behind the proposed English department seminar, attributed this perspective to a misunderstanding of the pressures faced by Ph.D. candidates.

“I’m sorry to say it but I just think that a lot of faculty, even well intentioned ones, are genuinely out of touch with the reality of the academic job market and probably pretty out of touch as well with how hard it is to get a job that will pay the bills and give you benefits,” Davidson said.

She emphasized that there is merit in reducing cohort sizes while considering the concern of placement within positions of academia.

“I think we should have halve the size of the cohorts, I just don’t see how it can be otherwise,” she added.

Ben Van Wagoner, GSAS ’18, added that the number of students admitted to the program reveals a dissonance with the department’s acknowledgement of the issue.

“For Columbia to continue accepting twice as many students as many of their peer institutions, or matriculate twice as many seems like it is to the benefit of the University rather than the benefit of the students, and that’s the basic ethical quandary that I still see. I don’t have an answer to that other than to say its a problem we really should acknowledge,” he said.

In regards to how national trends and enrollment numbers could potentially impact resources dedicated to humanities departments, Bollinger said that these were important considerations, and emphasized the need for Arts and Sciences to internally consider how those decisions are made.

“I don’t have a fixed view or final view about this point,” Bollinger said. “But I do know it is a very serious question ...This is where the internal self-governance of Arts and Sciences is in my view crucial,” he said.

In lieu of a clear path forward, the department has elected to push initiatives centered around preparing students for jobs outside tenure track positions and academia as a whole. Divisional dean of humanities and former English department chair Sarah Cole emphasized that it is now the responsibility of the University to both prepare students for tenure tracks or other positions students may be pushed to find—though the answer of available alternative jobs still remains a long-term question.

“There is a tension between the mission of Columbia to produce new scholars and to produce PhDs, and the job market, which, you know, is a period of contraction,” Cole said. “And so it becomes really important for us to be sensitive to that and to try to think carefully about it, but not only reactive to one given year.”

Diana Newby, GSAS ’22 and a member of the Graduate Student Council, said that administrators and faculty have been helpful in encouraging open discussions around student needs.

“We have continued to be in touch with department heads, we know there are both short and long term structural changes that need to be met,” she said. “We see these changes as only the beginning of a lengthy process of structural change, not only in our department but across the humanities as a discipline.”

But others who originally came into these programs with the hopes of securing permanent academic position also note that alternative prospects can be a less appealing outcome after seven years of research.

“I think the problem is that the whole academic labor market has shifted severely. So, it means that regardless of what people want, people are going to have to seek out an alternative career,” Alexander Lash, GSAS ’18 and a graduate of the program, said.

On top of the changing job market, faculty have cited uncertainty as to how to approach a non-academia focused department culture.

Matthew Hart, English professor and chair of the Junior Faculty Advisory Board, stated that due to his experience as a graduate student, when his primary focus was to obtain a job in academia, mentoring students through separate career trajectories and separate job markets may pose a more difficult question.

“I came to graduate school at a time when the job market wasn’t wonderful, but was quantitatively and qualitatively different from the one that my students are experiencing now,” Hart said. “So both in terms of my experience with the job market and my experience as a professional, I don’t know what it is they’re going through.”

Stewart noted that a number of faculty members do hold public facing roles outside of academia, such as appearing on radio and television. He added that part of the future for the programming of the department will also involve outreach to external resources.

But despite active efforts to address mentoring, students and faculty have also voiced concerns on how a contraction of the job market could pose a threat to diversity within academia by adding apparent barriers to job security.

“There's no part of the job that isn’t made easier if you have money in the bank. We all know that in the country and the world in which we live in that that has predictable effects at the level of gender, race, social class, ethnicity. I think the shift of the academic labor force from tenure track positions which are relatively well paid, to contingent adjunct position absolute is going to have an effect in terms of the diversity,” Hart said.

Charlene Adhiambo, CC ’21 and an undergraduate English major, discussed her hesitation to applying to an English masters program given how current barriers for people of color will be further compounded.

“Already you’re thinking of your race in the program and thinking about how you are disadvantaged in the market place and job market … It’s kind of like another strike and another thing to overcome,” Adhiambo said.

For Adams, these questions lie at the crux of the future of resources and mentorship for faculty.

“It's one of the things that’s bittersweet about this job. It’s so nice to think that so many bright young people are attracted by the prospect of this kind of career. But we know, we cannot give all of them that opportunity. And that's, that's an ongoing challenge—how much disappointment can the system cope?” he said.

Shubham Saharan and Karen Xia contributed reporting.

Graphic by Jun Yi Zhang, Raeedah Wahid.

Staff writer Serena White can be contacted at serena.white@columbiaspectator.com. Follow Spectator on Twitter at @ColumbiaSpec.

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