I have the privilege of teaching a Masters-level graduate class in this semester, ENG 502: Introduction to English Studies. The purposes of this course are plural, but one is to discuss the relationship between their graduate educations and the labor market. What might they do with this degree, both in and out of academia? How can they strategically plan their coursework and theses to fit their career goals?
With all the talk, policy debate, and scandal surrounding student debt in the U.S., I feel it is an ethical imperative that I address the complicated relationship between education and employment. Yes, those with college degrees still make more over a lifetime than those without. Graduate degrees, however, are coming under increasing scrutiny, especially for those who want to teach in higher education.
Today I read "Labor Pains: From Adjunct to Organizer" by Jessica Lawless, over on Miranda Merklein's blog Fugitive Faculty. Lawless's story is one of a person who did everything professionally right, and yet, she shares, "I was in critical debt from investing in my academic career. I was paid less than almost every other job I worked before I had graduate degrees." She ultimately left academia for work unrelated to her expensive degree. This is the ugly truth I must share with my graduate students who dream of becoming professors: you are likely to find adjunct employment with little pay and no benefits. You may have real difficulty paying off your student loans. You might not be able to afford working in your chosen field.
Students in this course will read Lawless's story, and they will also read MArc Bousquet's How the University Works. They need to know.
While I know this is the right thing to do, I also know that I may be shooting myself in the professional foot. Enrollments are down in graduate English programs nationwide. Will I add to the ranks of those who change their minds, leave the program, once they read about the state of labor in higher ed? Very possibly. The grad program my colleagues and I are building with care may be damaged by this truth telling. Most immediately, if enrollments continue to drop, my grad classes may not continue to roster. I may not get to teach them often or at all. In the bigger picture, I think grad programs like ours have a lot to offer students intellectually. I value education beyond its role in job training.
Yet I can't put a program or my class schedule over truths that will affect students not just intellectually, but materially. I can't not tell students that the odds of making a living wage as a prof in the current climate are very small. I can't rationalize by thinking, they have to work 60 hours a week at three adjunct gigs to make ends meet, but check out those critical thinking skills!
Simply put: if a graduate program is not teaching about the labor market's connection to the degree, it is unethical.
Should be an interesting semester.