The New Blackboard Jungle

Although the Dow Jones industrial average took a 247-point drop in recent weeks, money managers, investors and employers still insist on one thing: the economy is booming.The national unemployment rate, at 4.8 percent, is the lowest it's been in 23 years. There are now more jobs in America than ever before, more than 121.8 million.In Wisconsin, those numbers translate into a confident, optimistic business environment. They mean more profits, more economy security, and they mean more jobs. According to a recently released survey by the Bank of America's Midwest Business Monitor, 65 percent of state executives expect to maintain current staffing levels, and 32 percent plan to hire new employes. Only three percent expected to cut their existing workforce. But while the news is good for MBAs, computer programmers, software designers, engineers and technology-driven professions, it's not so upbeat elsewhere. For those toiling in certain groves of academia, it's absolutely abysmal.The number of job openings listed in the Modern Language Association's 1996-97 Job Information List, for example, dropped 46 percent from the 1988 peak. At the same time, graduate programs in English have been turning out 50 percent more Ph.D.'s.How bad is the job market for teachers of language and literature? It's a real blackboard jungle out there. It is not uncommon, for example, to have 400 applicants for one opening. and that's as true at small, Catholic liberal arts colleges as it is at large state schools and Ivy League universities. Part of the problem is that the much-anticipated "greying of the academy," which predicted that large numbers of elderly professors would retire in the 1990s, creating job openings for new faculty, never materialized. And part of the problem is declining enrollments. With fewer students, universities were able to get along with fewer instructors. Even when a retirement occurred, departments didn't fill the vacancy. Often, when they did fill it, with supply greater than demand, colleges officials found they saved money by hiring part-time adjuncts instead of full-time professors. The English Department at Marquette University, for example, is down three full-time positions from 10 years ago.With the average cost of attending a public university having increased in the last decade by 25 percent, and by 30 percent at a private college, recent Ph.D.'s not only have difficulty landing tenure-track positions, they find themselves deeply in debt. Upon graduation, student loans. It's not unusual to face bills of more than $25,000.Having to face only part-time prospects in her field is the reason Pat Batchelor is feeling grumpy today. She earned her Ph.D. in medieval literature from Marquette University in 1996, and with a curriculum vitae that showcased presentations of scholarly papers at academic conferences, a fellowship for foreign study, and anthologized essay, and five years of college-level teaching experience, she entered the job market with what seemed to be realistic expectations.Batchelor sent out her vitae, went to the MLA conference in Washington, D.C., and landed an interview with a university in the south. She became a finalist, was invited to the campus for a visit, but didn't get the offer. Back home in Milwaukee, rent and loan payments due, she's readying herself for next year's MLA meeting and another round of interviews. In the meantime, to keep body and soul together, and to keep her resume current, she'll be working as a adjunct, teaching six courses at three different schools, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Marquette and the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.It's heavy lifting. Adjuncts are at the bottom of the teaching ladder. They often have no office, and if they do they have to share it. Sometimes they even have to share their desks.Adjuncts also receive no benefits, and earn far less than full-time professors. The salary range in the Milwaukee area is about $1,800 to $2,400 per section. Junior tenure track professors, on the other hand, earn upwards of $32,000 annually, with full benefits, and their teaching load never goes higher than four courses a semester, sometimes dropping as low as two. Working as a adjunct takes its toll."I won't do it again," Batchelor said of her fall schedule. "You can't live like this. I won't have any fun, and I won't be able to have any kind of life." Batchelor is seriously committed to the academy. She spent six years and thousands of dollars pursuing a Ph.D. because she considers her work important. Even so, the circumstances of her situation present real concerns. "To teach under these conditions and to still love your job is a real challenge," she said.On the positive side, working as an adjunct is a way to increase professional experience and to make one more attractive to possible employers. Batchelor hopes that by teaching a wide range of courses this fall, she will broaden the scope of her vitae. There are no guarantees. "Something might come of it, but because of the job market, I'm not convinced of it," she said.Whatever happens, she's sure of one thing. "I won't do this forever." Batchelor doesn't blame graduate programs for the dilemma adjuncts face. Nor does she want to see graduate schools become more like career service centers. "I went to graduate school because I wanted to learn," she said. "I don't advocate turning graduate school in the humanities into a training program. "I didn't go to graduate school to get a job," she said. "I didn't study medieval literature to get rich. I went to study literature, and I didn't expect my school to get me a job. I am, however, disappointed in the job market." Some critics argue that it's not only adjuncts who are being abused by the current employment picture. By hiring more part-timers and fewer full-timers -- tenure track professors -- universities might be saving money, but could be shortchanging their students."I think adjuncts do a very good job," said Jim McNamara, a full-time instructor in the Instructional Services Center at Alverno College. "Worries about them providing a sub-par education are unfounded. I think those worries are coming from traditional professors, who see their ivory tower being assaulted." McNamara studied English literature at the University of Louisville and Marquette. At Alverno, he works with under-prepared students who need better reading, writing and math skills. There are workshops and one-on-one tutoring sessions to improve study habits.It's not a traditional literature or English teaching position, but McNamara said he wasn't locked into teaching just one kind of student in one kind of program. He wanted to teach, and his graduate school education in English, he said, provided him with the skills necessary to succeed in the job market. "Literary skills are very easily translatable," he said. "The basis of most employment is your ability to communicate. English enhanced your ability to be an effective communicator."There are ways to better prepare graduate students for the competitive job market that awaits them, McNamara added. He's glad to see classes and programs added to college curricula."At Alverno, we stress self-assessment from the first, and graduate students should use that to identify their strengths and weaknesses," he said. "You might enjoy the scholarly aspect of literature, but not the teaching aspect. How do you feel about being in front of the classroom? If you don't know your own abilities, it's difficult to know what's valuable in your preparation and what isn't."University officials are exploring other avenues as well to prepare graduate students for the rigors of the job market. It's part of the new awareness that a practical component helps make education more valuable. Alverno, for instance, has formed a consortium with Marquette, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, UW-Parkside and Carthage College to develop what's called the "Preparing Future Faculty" program. McNamara, for one, says such programs have come not a moment too soon. "It's a really positive development," he said. "It would have helped me a lot."Running the Preparing Future Faculty program at Marquette is Frank Hubbard, assistant dean of the graduate school. Ensuring that graduate students are better prepared to enter the job market is one of his missions. "How do we enable our graduate students to become more employable? I was directed to make this one of my concerns," Hubbard said. "We need to make them more employable, or we need to stop bringing them in." The nationwide program, funded by the Lily Foundation, includes two years of work, and features workshops, conferences and seminars. To become familiar with a university's internal workings, graduate students are also encouraged to sit on campus committees.But it's not, as some critics suggest, mere vitae polishing and salesmanship, according to Hubbard, Preparing Future Faculty has targeted the classroom, too. "We've added a strong emphasis on teaching," Hubbard said. "This includes a mentoring program, which pairs faculty with graduate students." It's not all pie in the sky, rose-colored glass thinking, however. Hubbard offers a realistic appraisal of the job market. He knows it's murder out there, and that those about to conduct a job search must be ready to consider alternatives to traditional teaching positions. "We have to get them ready for the non-academic world, too," he said. "There is a need for lateral thinking."Hubbard offers as an example the story of the graduate student in physics. Unable to find an academic position in her discipline, she turned, with Ph.D. in hand, to private industry. She found success, Hubbard said, and was hired as a manager by convincing United Parcel Service that the flow of packages was not much different than the flow of electrons. In academia, such stories are becoming more common. A recent Marquette graduate school bulletin, for example, featured three Ph.D.'s who have made successful lateral moves. One works as an editor, and the others now manage their own growing business. With an over-supply of qualified candidates, the job market for Ph.D.'s in the humanities isn't likely to improve any time soon. The graying of the academy might never happen. And the much-rumored death of tenure is still just that. With enrollments still declining, departments will continue to downsize. Four hundred applicants for one opening could well be the norm for many years. When it comes to job prospects for graduate students, then, perhaps Hubbard said it best. "There's no reason," he said, "to expect it to get any better in academia."

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