“No More Plan B”—Apocalypse or Opportunity?

Dan Allosso

Graduate students in the humanities are well aware that, in the words of Inside Higher Ed this week, many of our disciplines have promoted alternate career paths outside the academy while at the same time encouraging us to hold onto the hope that although others might need them, we won’t. Now, however, the president of the American Historical Association (AHA) has apparently committed his organization to admitting to history grad students that there are not enough jobs to go around, and the situation is not getting better.

These sentiments appear in a statement issued by Anthony Grafton, president of the AHA, and James Grossman, its executive director. The essay, titled “No More Plan B” and posted on the AHA website on September 26th, criticizes the traditional department’s approach to grad students on the grounds that it “ignores the facts of academic employment . . . it pushes talented scholars into narrow channels, and makes it less likely that they will take schooled historical thinking with them into a wide range of employment sectors.”

Now it would be easy to blame faculty for candy-coating both the overall change in the academy (or at least, in the humanities), and for making their program seem like one where these issues need not concern grad students. Would we be angry to find how few people our department has placed into significant, tenure-track positions in the last five years? But we’re all adults: why didn’t we know this going in?

Or—and this is where it gets interesting—if we really did suspect that the old center would not hold, why did we come anyway? Forgetting about the traditional academy and its appointment with oblivion, and remembering what we each, individually love about our discipline and subjects might be the key to personal solutions that will change not only our own outcomes, but the academy itself.

Yes, departments that can’t place PhDs should probably stop producing them. But what if this apocalypse for the academy liberates us, the grad students, and forces us to refocus? What do we hope to achieve by our work? What difference do we want to make in the world? Do we see ourselves teaching undergraduates in ten years, opening young people’s minds to creative, critical thinking; sharpening their analytical and interpretive skills; helping them learn to read, write, and speak effectively? If this is our core mission, does it matter whether the students are sitting in front of us in a lecture hall or convening in an online forum? On the other hand, if our main interest is research, or writing—either for expert audiences or for the general public—then perhaps the breakdown of the traditional professional model offers us a chance to focus on what we are really good at, and leave the rest behind.

The scary part is, we’ll have to really be good at it. The authors of “No More Plan B” hint that there’s something wrong with the idea that “the life of scholarship” protects us from “impure motives and bitter competition.” We shouldn’t see non-tenure track employment, they tell us, as a fall from “the light of humanistic inquiry into the darkness of grubby capitalism.” But it goes beyond simply embracing the market or awakening from a dream of the idealized, highly compensated academic life. The academy, after all, exists within society and the market, and responds—albeit slowly—to the needs and desires of students.

The rest of society has been struggling for a generation with many of the issues now facing the academy. Technology has been replacing humans on assembly lines, in service professions, and even in “Knowledge” work for decades. Globalization, outsourcing, and new media have changed or obsoleted entire industries. Along the way, the two questions that have been continually asked of each individual are, “what are your specific responsibilities?” and “what is your value-add?”

Steve Jobs was famous for promoting a corporate culture at Apple centered on the idea of the “DRI,” or directly responsible individual. Unlike many people at other companies (especially in Silicon Valley!) who rarely achieved anything from one staff meeting to the next, Apple workers got used to seeing a DRI name next to every task and action item. Individual responsibility helped the bottom line, of course; but it also gave people a way to say “I did that,” and know what they had contributed.

I’m not arguing that the academy should adopt direct individual responsibility—there are too many interests arrayed against it. I’m suggesting that each of us grad students can find a way out of the “Plan B” trap, by deciding what we do that benefits society (or the discipline, or the advance of useful knowledge, etc.), and then articulating it and doing it. What is our personal value-add? Regardless of whether we’re given an opportunity to do it in the institutional format we expected. After all, whose “Plan B” was it, anyway?