Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle
The graduate students in Columbia University’s English and comparative-literature department hit a tipping point late this past spring. After not a single one of its job candidates got a tenure-track position during the 2018-19 hiring cycle, they decided to complain.
Smarting from that disappointment, and worried about their own prospects, the students were further catalyzed by news that their program had offered admission to 35 students for 2019-20. Nineteen of them accepted and enrolled this fall. In April, the department’s graduate student council held a students-only meeting. By May, a group of students had drafted and sent a protest letter to the department administration.
Students complained in the letter about inadequate faculty advising and too little professional development. They also cited an overly competitive department culture in which large student cohorts were forced to battle each other for limited faculty time and teaching opportunities.
The letter made news in The Chronicle, on social media, and elsewhere for two main reasons. Most obviously: It was written by students at an Ivy League university. Prestige always attracts inordinate attention in the higher-education business, especially when the news is that an elite pedigree doesn’t open the doors that people expect it would.
There’s a prevailing myth that Ph.D.s from elite programs like Columbia have been vacuuming up the few remaining professorships in today’s desiccated academic job market. That’s not the case — and Columbia’s recent student outcomes bear that out. (After the protest letter was sent, one of the department’s graduates did end up getting a professorship and a few more won postdoctoral fellowships. But that’s a tiny sprout, not even a fig leaf.)
It’s true that Ph.D.s from elite programs generally make strong candidates for jobs at other high-ranking departments, but: (1) Those jobs amount to a very small percentage of the tenure-track market, and (2) elite Ph.D.s may struggle when they contend for teaching-intensive positions. The inverse is true at less-wealthy universities, where doctoral students usually teach a lot in graduate school.
As I’ve noted before, academics inhabit a job ecosystem — not a pure hierarchy where the richest get their pick before anyone else can approach the table. That environment has grown harsher, but, as students at top-ranked programs like Columbia’s can attest, it’s harsher across all levels of higher education.
Another reason why the students’ letter made news was because it spotlighted an unusual level of cooperative resistance to authority. It’s not news that many graduate students are unhappy, but it becomes news when they organize to say so. For graduate students to protest, they have to be pretty damned unhappy — and we professors need to appreciate that fact.
That’s because graduate students, much like their faculty advisers, generally respect authority. School is a hierarchical system: The teacher gives the grades, and the students work to get them. We went into this business because we liked school and were good at it — so most would-be academics generally welcome the professional hierarchy they seek to enter.
It therefore takes a lot of discontent to make professional students want to buck that hierarchy. Eighty-four graduate students — an overwhelming majority of them in the department — signed the protest letter.
Consider what the students are complaining about. One student — let’s call him Rob — wrote in an email that he felt "a sense of futility" coupled with "a sense of outrage" that "the department was admitting more students than would possibly have a tenure-track job on the other side." At the same time, the students criticized the program for not preparing them for alternative careers.
The students’ letter offered some useful directives for the English department. First and foremost: Only admit the number of students that the program can support fully — that doesn’t just mean supporting them financially but professionally. The letter suggested the department offer a seminar on diverse career options for English Ph.D.s, and set aside a budget to support unpaid "internships outside of academia."
Some good news here is the department’s constructive response. Professors listened to the students and didn’t try to silence them. The faculty first met as a department, and then worked with the students to set up what Gloria called "by far the most well-attended town hall we ever had." Students moderated the meeting, which produced "an honest exchange of views" between people acting "in good faith," she said. Rather than debate whether the students’ grievances were real, she added, the "overall vibe was one of trying to figure out solutions."
"A solid contingent of faculty want to do extra work and make changes," said Gloria. Some changes were noticeable immediately. The department’s placement seminar "began in June this year," instead of the fall, "with meetings and workshops over the summer," she said.
A professional-development seminar is now in the works, according to the department chair, Alan Stewart, and internship possibilities are being discussed. Gloria says she’s "cautiously optimistic." But the students haven’t heard much through official channels yet, and Rob says that he "won’t be satisfied until I see evidence."
Columbia’s English department is off to a good start, then, but it’s a long course to run. Plenty of other departments at other institutions should follow the same path. The problems described by the Columbia students aren’t unusual or unique to its English department. They proliferate throughout the humanities — and many of the social sciences and sciences, too.
We should view the Columbia letter as a shot across our collective bow, not just an attack aimed at one department.
There’s a scene in The Who’s rock opera Tommy in which the title character — once a "deaf, dumb, and blind" pinball prodigy and now a cult figure — instructs his minions that "to follow me," they must wear ear plugs and eyeshades, and "You know where to put the cork." Not surprisingly, this arrogance doesn’t go over well. Tommy’s followers revolt against him and together announce, "We’re not gonna take it."
That’s basically what the Columbia students politely told their professors. "We do not believe that the current structure of the department is sustainable," they wrote in their letter. The same is true of doctoral programs at many other institutions.
The real question here: Why aren’t more doctoral students writing protest letters to their departments? Let’s not wait for them to do so before we act ourselves.