Theses on Professionalization Series: Tara Baldrick-Morrone

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In this new feature with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here

by Tara Baldrick-Morrone

Thesis 6. Although it is necessary, the doctoral degree alone is hardly a sufficient credential for being admitted to academia as a full-time employee because most of the other applicants also possess this credential (i.e., it is the level playing field onto which ABDs have yet to be admitted). There was a time, prior to the early 1970s, when the job market was such that merely possessing a Ph.D. would lead to multiple tenure-track job offers; in the Humanities that time has long passed.

After reading this thesis again, I had three reactions, two of which can be defined as “knee-jerk” and perhaps not as insightful as the last one. Each is defined by a key phrase from the thesis:

1) The doctoral degree “is the level playing field …”

Although I will not say too much about this because Drew Durdin will no doubt address this in his comments on thesis #7, this playing field is frequently uneven, as an institution that has awarded one applicant’s degree can certainly carry more social capital than the institution of another applicant (e.g., someone applying for a tenure-track position in early Christianity who has received their doctoral degree from the University of Notre Dame may, in many cases, outweigh the applicant who has received their degree from a state school such as, say, Florida State University). Though, to be sure, there are many factors at play besides the award-granting institution when considering an applicant for a particular position (the institution’s need, letters of recommendation, maybe even teaching experience, etc.).

2) “There was a time … when the job market was such that merely possessing a Ph.D. would lead to multiple tenure-track job offers …”

Although the narrative that we have been told is that tenure-track jobs are going the way of the Cabbage Patch Kids Snacktime Kids Doll, Table 27 in the 2013-2014 jobs report from the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature that Caleb Simmons referred to in his comments on thesis #4 makes it seem as if the tides have actually been turning:

But we cannot look at 80.3% and deduce that the “crisis” is over, or that we should stop attempting to address the contingent faculty issue, which I would argue is of the utmost importance (see the PBS NewsHour’s stories on adjuncts, as well as Kelly J. Baker’s “Contingency and Gender” and “What Can Learned Societies Do About Adjuncts?”). The implications of Table 29 from the report indicate as much:

As Mike Altman has pointed out in his comments on the report, “[O]nly about a third of the jobs went to people fresh out of grad school. The others all spent at least a year doing something else — either outside the academy or in some sort of ‘contingent’ position. This is the new normal … Success isn’t a tenure-track job, success is a job period.”

3) “[T]he doctoral degree alone is hardly a sufficient credential …”

On my reading, this is the crux of the thesis. If we take the playing field as level, then it stands to reason that there are actions that we can/ought/must/are forced to do to set ourselves apart from one another [1] . Thinking about this reminded me of a line in Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. Donoghue writes,

We in the humanities have adapted to the conditions of our profession by developing a culture as steeped in the ethos of productivity and salesmanship as anyone might encounter in the business world (2008:26).

This hyperprofessionalization, as Donoghue and others have termed it, has crept into the halls of the academy, especially for those of us in the trenches, that is, those of us who have not yet been legitimated by the academy that many of us so desperately wish to be a part of. These things that we can engage in that work to legitimate our existence in the field of the study of religion (e.g., being the Instructor of Record for eight courses [so far], writing an essay for an edited volume, presenting at the annual SBL/AAR meeting, perhaps even writing a blog post or two, etc.) help us to make a name for ourselves, to network with more established scholars, to gain experience that we can use when we obtain that piece of the Aggro Crag that is a tenure-track job (or a job outside of academia, depending on your definition of achievement [2]).

And yet this constant ratcheting-up of expectations does not guarantee us a thing, not even an interview with a third-tier institution. Performing any combination of the aforementioned tasks (or all of them, for that matter) does not equate to a job. Donoghue makes a discomforting point in saying that such developments as hyperprofessionalization “seem to have caught professors by surprise, leaving them unprepared to deal with the very phenomena that directly affect their jobs” (2008:134). It is for this reason that my outlook cannot be as optimistic as Matt Dougherty’s when he says that his “hope is that reflection on McCutcheon’s thes[e]s will encourage mentors of graduate students to make choices that foster the growth of specific professional skills without assuming that work on professionalization must happen in addition to, or even in competition with, the normal demands of a graduate program.” Sure, perhaps steps have been made to rein in the lofty expectations of graduate students, but until there is a sustained conversation of such expectations that are demanded of us (especially in terms of what hiring committees may expect), not much will change.

[1] What I refer to here is that some of us have to sing for our supper (i.e., teaching or assisting a professor in research while we are in coursework, preparing for comprehensive exams, and writing our dissertations in exchange for a stipend). There are many graduate students who do not share this burden.

[2] Commenting on Altman’s response to the jobs report, one of his friends critiqued his definition of success by saying: “You continue to maintain the very unhelpful status quo idea of ‘success’ as a teaching position. You revise expectations ‘downward,’ I suppose, but you don’t look outside of teaching at the college level as any form of ‘success.’ I think this expected outcome, and the way that graduate programs indoctrinate students into this form of reproduction, is one of the most myopic and harmful aspects of PhD programs in our discipline. We need an entirely different kind of subject formation that has a wider vision of ‘successful’ outcomes. I agree that we have to broaden outcomes beyond just teaching positions. However, this report has nothing to say about that. One takeaway, then, is that a report like this is too narrow to address the larger question of what counts as success for a Ph.D. graduate.”

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