The Prospects of Precarity
If you happen to be a graduate student in the humanities today, the bad news is difficult to escape. There are no jobs, everyone tells us. An excess of PhDs has created a buyer’s market in which most of us will have trouble rising above the ranks of exploited adjunct instructors—if we’re lucky enough to reach that far. According to the furthest-seeing analysts, economic and political realities have conspired against us. Our prospects of finding gainful employment as tenure-track professors are considerably dimmer than they might have been for generations past, and this makes graduate school an increasingly fruitless endeavor.
That’s the story everyone knows, and many of us are depressed by it because we really wanted those jobs. We wanted all the perks our professors enjoy, the nice homes, cars, and families that tenure seems to promise, or at least make possible. Deep down, we wanted to secure comfortable positions within one of the upper regions of that great monolith, the American middle class, and now those positions appear to be vanishing. Consequently, we feel at a loss. The future, from our present vantage point, looks increasingly under-furnished, under-nourished, and underpaid.
But perhaps we’re looking at our prospects too narrowly. Perhaps what we really suffer from is a failure of imagination. If we no longer assume that graduate school ought to be about finding ways to replicate the lives our most successful professors live (including being part of the tenure system), then our depression over the current job market and our future job prospects becomes both a distraction and another instance of woe-is-me grad-student self-indulgence.
What we need is a different mental horizon—a more nuanced picture of who we are and what we’re good for. Then maybe we can start thinking constructively again. After all, the structural features of our academic era are not likely to change. We have no basis feeling entitled to the bounties of a different time and place, and when we act like we do we confirm the worst suspicions of those well-meaning people who are always asking us how much longer till we graduate. We’ve all suffered enough under the yoke of unrealistic expectations; remaining beholden to a broken, unworkable model of academic opportunity and reward can only result in more self-pity and depression. So, for the sake of what dignity we still have left, let’s all join hands and move on. Toward something else.
Given the current national climate of political and economic strife, it seems like good advice to remember what humanists have always done and construe our plight in broader terms than many of us are inclined to. We live at a fascinating juncture. Because we find ourselves inside one of this society’s formerly prized institutional footholds at a transitional moment, we have a novel opportunity to redefine our purpose and our prospects according to a new model and vision—perhaps ones more in keeping with whatever is happening all around us in this country and in the world. What this new model and vision are, and what they can be, should take time for us to figure out. But the first step is clear: by radically reconsidering our vantage point in a faltering American society, we can start seizing on the unique perspective our position as grad students affords us as sources of insight and agents of change.
This might well mean reevaluating our work, our interests, and our motivations for doing the kind of work we do. Every kind of reform should be on the table, and we should defer to no fear of lost prestige. If we’re willing to diagnose our present position accurately, and to follow it through to its conclusion, we should be willing to face the prospect of continued marginalization and to accept this prospect in solidarity with other contemporary marginalized groups, most of whom are in considerably worse shape than we are.
Of course none of this will come naturally or easily. The fact that it’s difficult for most of us (myself included) to imagine futures without the cushy academic jobs and lifestyles our professors enjoy speaks to our privileged backgrounds and our aspirations for a level of affluence that may no longer be within our reach. But maybe in letting this privilege and its accompanying aspirations go, we’ll relieve some of the pressure we’ve been under. Maybe then we’ll finally feel like we can breathe.
Given our personal histories and the historic circumstances we now find ourselves in, do we really need to resemble our affluent parents and professors twenty years from now? What new ideas and actual contributions might come from a class position of willed precarity? From the deliberate cultivation of habits of thought and action that promise anything but intellectual insulation and material complacency?
Against a shallow clinging to privilege, we owe it to ourselves to ask these questions and find out where they lead.