Germanists, Stop Rearranging the Deck Chairs

Last week I attended the Modern Language Association’s Annual Convention in Seattle. As in previous years, there were many sessions and much talk about the dismal state of the job market for language and literature Ph.D.’s. A rather pithy tweet summed up most of the discussion:

Summary of #MLA12: Rearranging deck chairs on Titanic no longer enough. But if we pull together, we can maybe shift this boat.
Writing Life

Unfortunately, this is a message that many of my colleagues in German Studies did not get (and possibly other fields, but I didn’t attend their sessions). I attended the session on the Future of German Graduate Education, which was described as follows:

Roundtable on the place of German in tomorrow’s university. How are we training graduate students in German programs to adjust to a changed landscape and secure a place for German in the new pared-down humanities curricula? Panelists will discuss how their departments have adapted to the crisis in German, how graduate training incorporates cross- and interdisciplinary tracks, and what the place of literature is in the new “practical” curricula.

I had hoped that the session would address changes in the job market for Ph.D.’s in German Studies beyond a superficial tweaking of the curriculum (i.e., rearranging the deck chairs), and further, that the discussion would include conversation about nonteaching jobs, given that many current graduate students will NOT become members of the faculty (whether on the tenure track or as adjuncts). Unfortunately, the panelists did not address such concerns. Rather, they talked about how they’ve tweaked their curricula to be more interdisciplinary and how their students also teach subjects other than German. There was no talk of “altac” (as in alternative academic positions, e.g. nonteaching staff or administrative jobs within the academy. For definitions, see here, here, and here) jobs. In fact, one panelist stated that they do not train graduate students for those types of jobs because the students prefer to receive a “traditional” graduate education. And you know, that may be true, but as someone who focused on Modern German Studies, I didn’t particularly want to learn Middle High German, Old Norse, or take a medieval literature course, but I did because those were the things my department deemed important enough to be required (and truth be told, at the end of the day, I was glad I took them. But I would not have if they hadn’t been requirements). Departments could, if they wanted, require some kind of admin internship or other training. My point here being that faculty and graduate program directors determine all the time that things that graduate students are not clamoring for should nonetheless be in their curricula. To me, then, saying “we don’t offer it because it’s not what graduate students want” is a false argument. Another panelist admitted to not knowing anything about alternative careers:

With 5 min left they admit that they don't actually know what these jobs are bc they have never been outside academia. #mla12 #s545
Elizabeth Byers

An audience member referred to the continuing acceptance of graduate students into programs designed to train folks for jobs that exist only in very low numbers “morally reprehensible.” I would add that it is also morally suspect to continue to ignore the fact that humanities Ph.D.’s can and do have careers outside of the tenure track — and that their faculty and programs should know what those careers are and how to advise them. The MLA and its former President, German professor Russel Berman, are proposing changes that will help holders of Ph.D.’s in German Studies (and other languages) be prepared for the job market that exists, not the one we wish existed. I invite the rest of my colleagues in German Studies to join us.

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