The murderous academic job market of the 1990s prompts a common refrain among members of hiring committees. "There but for the grace of God go I," we mutter to each other. "How could I ever have survived in this market?"
That mixture of anxiety and relief results from exposure to the most highly professionalized and accomplished graduate students and incoming faculty members that anyone has ever seen. Every hiring season sets a record. Scores of applicants for entry-level jobs in the humanities, for example, already have a book contract in hand. Many can produce the actual book. Though I'm not yet 40, my recent experience on hiring committees has shown me that my own career path is now a relic of the past: I didn't enter the publication mill until after I was hired as an assistant professor.
Most faculty members deplore this professionalization of the graduate-school years. The contraction of the academic job market over the past several years has led young would-be faculty members to present themselves at hiring time not as apprentice scholars, but rather as fully formed professors equipped with clearly delineated specialties and subspecialties. There are plenty of good intellectual reasons for opposing such professionalization. Specializing too early, for example, deprives students of a chance to explore and experiment widely with the topics and methodologies of their disciplines. It also leads them to resort to professional codes and conventions in their speech and writing that, as a colleague in English recently lamented, make them "sound awfully like each other."
But the cost to our graduate students is just part of the problem. Professionalizing our youngest scholars also has wide-ranging consequences for disciplines, institutions, and other faculty members. The pressure to publish causes a student's curiosity to conform early on to what the market will reward. Despite the need for generalists in all fields at the college level, specialization reigns. I know the humanities best, but much of what I have witnessed there applies to many other fields as well. By steadily raising the research qualifications for entry-level jobs, we have profoundly affected the entire job market.
The rush of graduate students to become professional scholars is no accident. The first link in the chain of responsibility for this shift is what I call "the graying of the graduate student body and the rise of the covert postdoc." It takes more time to write a camera-ready dissertation than it does to write one that might be published after future revisions. This round of revisions used to be the main occupation of untenured faculty members, but the timer starts earlier now. If students are to publish their dissertations as articles and books while still in graduate school, they need to stay in graduate school longer to write and polish them. Much more attention is now given in graduate school to teaching students how to write for publication, a skill that an older generation was expected to develop only after getting jobs.
Scholars in the humanities recently have been debating whether or not the invention of an official postdoctoral category would simply create another requirement for beleaguered would-be scholars to fulfill. In fact, the early emphasis on publication and the consequent lengthening of graduate study has quietly settled the debate over whether the humanities should create a new class of postdoctoral fellows. Thanks to market forces, we essentially have them already. Just as the sciences have turned the postdoc into a way station on a long and uncertain path to academic security, so the humanities and social sciences have devised their own financial oases for would-be scholars who need longer and longer to prepare their professional credentials for the job market.
Recognizing that doctoral students need time to build up their publication records before they apply for a full-time academic job, departments have found creative ways to extend them a financial lifeline for a couple of extra years. Some institutions give teaching assistantships to advanced graduate students, while others award them degrees and give them limited terms as "lecturers." Others shunt students into research assistantships or other low-paying jobs on campus. (The least fortunate wind up in the hell of the adjunct world.) Whatever they're called, these aging graduate students are low-rent postdocs, a category that has become so common that it scarcely rates a glance these days.
Another link in the chain is the rise of undergraduates red in tooth and claw. To survive in the job market, graduate students need to professionalize early. Very early. Which means they need to enter graduate school fully tuned up and ready to accelerate down their chosen career path. Which means that directors of graduate studies are drawn to accept the most professionalized undergrads. Which then means, amazingly, that the most talented undergraduates try to publish some research to help them get into graduate school. It's already possible to see a few undergraduates on the conference circuit. Why shouldn't they seek to get some of their writing published? Some succeed. I recently saw on display at a scholarly meeting a literature anthology coedited by an undergraduate and a professor. If "publish or perish" has already become a graduate-school mantra, why should we be surprised if the message is trickling down to undergraduates?
But wait a minute. Shouldn't we prefer that undergraduates with good ideas wait a bit before rushing to journals with them? Wouldn't the work get better if the author had, say, a few years of graduate school? And wouldn't the author be better off focusing on learning rather than publication while in college? We claim to value a rounded liberal-arts education. How can we abide an academic professionalism that corrupts that ideal?
The chain goes on. In an evolution of what might be called "academic stars and bars," today's junior hires often begin their new jobs with more publications to their credit than many of their senior colleagues. Not surprisingly, the tenure requirements at many colleges haven't caught up with this level of achievement. The discrepancy frequently translates into overfulfillment of tenure requirements in many fields by new assistant professors. How can "tenure track" have any meaning if job applicants cover many of the requirements while in graduate school?
"Junior faculty members need some kind of goal for tenure," one professor of politics told me, "and we have to provide one." If assistant professors routinely come in with a book, they may soon have to write another one for tenure. What will the result of the inflated demands for publication actually be? If many assistant professors have to write one book to get a job (we've moved in that direction), and another to keep it (a very real possibility), then it's not hard to predict how they'll be spending their time as assistant professors. Look for them not in classrooms learning to be effective teachers, but in libraries and archives.
The situation is inherently unstable. Tenure demands can't rise indefinitely. Something has to give, and it may be the length of time it takes an already-accomplished group of young scholars to achieve tenure. Guidelines from the American Association of University Professors notwithstanding, departments will have to extend the probationary period if current trends continue.
The pressures are most apparent at research universities -- but research universities are where most graduate students are trained. The students at those institutions set a professional standard that ripples through graduate programs at different types of institutions. In a report recently released by the Modern Language Association, George L. Levine, a professor of English at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, observes that students imagine that their careers will follow the pattern of the professors at research universities. But most of the jobs available are at smaller colleges that emphasize teaching. The result, Levine says, is that "most graduate education might be misleading to students." That is an amazing admission.
Some departments have tried to avoid the publication arms race. Professors in those programs have consciously avoided identifying themselves and their students as fast-track runners. The English faculty at the University of Iowa, for example, prepares its graduate students to apply for jobs at smaller colleges and universities, where teaching writing is more important than publishing research. Make no mistake: These lower-profile graduate students also publish. But there's a difference. You might call it a difference of degree that becomes a difference in kind -- and the difference points to a gap between the publish-or-perish graduate students who equip themselves to go after the most prestigious positions and the others who compete for the larger number of less-glamorous jobs.
The two groups prepare themselves very differently for the job market, cultivating contacts among different cadres of professors, and gathering letters of recommendation whose contents add up to very different professional portraits. The gap between the two groups of students has become a deep valley. That valley hasn't received much notice, but it's changed the map of the profession. That may be the most serious consequence of graduate-student professionalization.
A division between the "teachers" and the "scholars" has always existed, but the current market forces have injected a new determinism into the profession. The division has never been strict in real life (academics have always balanced teaching and research in differing ways), but we are increasingly entering a brave new world in which one's graduate school determines one's future prospects as never before. The game is being decided sooner than ever.
Why? First, graduates of less-prestigious programs obviously have difficulty competing for jobs at the most research-oriented institutions. But there's an opposite bias as well. Many institutions that emphasize teaching have become afraid to hire graduates from elite research universities. "The thoroughbreds don't want to teach three or four courses a term. They always try to write themselves out of here as fast as they can," a faculty member at a branch campus of a state university once complained to me. The result: Like hires like, and everyone stays with his or her own kind.
That is more than segregation. It's a self-perpetuating professorial caste system that is guided by how much teaching one does. And it leads us ever closer to a wacky world in which undergraduates will have to publish or perish to enter a professional system where, ironically, most workers are primarily responsible for teaching, not publishing.
It is here -- at the nexus between teaching and research -- that I believe we can best break the chain of professionalization that is constricting us and our graduate students. It's unlikely that we'll be able to change the realities of the market for academic employment. Fierce competition for a small number of full-time jobs seems inevitable. But we can dictate the terms of the competition. We can change the professional model that we ask our graduate students to emulate.
To begin with, while many graduate students are emphasizing their research and publications, most professors have long pointed out that research and teaching aren't really separate at all. They will tell you that if they didn't teach, they would have less to write about; most scholars insist that teaching and research inform each other in some way. But we assume that we can measure and evaluate research better than we can teaching. Desperate to find ways to quantify productivity, some large universities produce results that can be comical. One California institution, for example, has a point system for promotion and tenure: Article length and a numerical "quality" rating of the journal are entered into a formula to produce a score that helps determine tenure, promotion, and merit raises. Ridiculous as that may be, is it really so different from the credo of so many humanities and social-sciences departments: A published book equals tenure?
How to measure teaching is even harder to agree on. Student evaluations are rightly seen as one tool, but they're a tool that faculty readers can't decide how to use. And there's no real consensus on what else to employ. The result is that teaching gets swept under many departmental rugs, in spite of a lot of pneumatic rhetoric about how much it matters. Graduate students know that, so the circle goes unbroken, and they seek to demonstrate their attractiveness by publishing as much as they possibly can -- even when they are seeking jobs that emphasize teaching.
So why not honor teaching in a concrete way? Doing so might provide a counterweight to the insistent pressure on students to become professional researchers if they want to achieve elite status in their fields. Anyone who's ever served on a hiring committee knows that job applicants already enter the fray equipped with rafts of letters praising their teaching in numbingly similar terms. Second to a list of publications, such letters are an expected part of the professional package. But that is not enough to shift students' priorities.
We professors need to start with ourselves and model a different kind of professionalism. I suggest an initial policy: We should create some valid tools to rate our own teaching for the purpose of granting merit pay and promotions. Let's stop complaining about how hard it is to measure such things and do the best we can. I'm no assessment expert, but I know that if we can count books, we can also count teaching innovations -- such as new courses developed or new resources created for professors to use in their courses.
The effort is bound to be crude at first, but we'll surely get better at it as we go along. Let's institute annual teaching portfolios of the sort that exist at a few colleges, which bring together syllabi, assignments, and self-assessments. And if we are to get away from relying too heavily on the pageantry of student evaluations, we might start observing each other at work. If we do, maybe we can also start talking about other common concerns.
Those of us who teach graduate students need to set an example. We know that our students will value what we value. So let's start reshaping their educational course by thinking more rigorously about our own.
-- LEONARD CASSUTO
Leonard Cassuto is an associate professor of English at Fordham University. He is the author of The Inhuman Race: The Racial Grotesque in American Literature and Culture (Columbia University Press, 1997).
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