I’m in my office this afternoon, listening to Frijid Pink’s psychedelicized version of “House of the Rising Sun,” which manages to owe a lot to Cream while edging into what we would eventually recognize as heavy metal. In the meantime…
Historical note: On this date in 1942, my paternal grandfather/ultimate namesake and grandmother were married — his second, her only. Dad was born 50 weeks later. Shortly after the wedding, Grandaddy Moore had other pressing concerns, which eventually peaked at Dead Man’s Ridge. My grandparents actually met not far from here, at Ft. Jackson, on the other side of Real City.
I never met my grandfather; he died four years before I was born. Dad said he didn’t talk much about the war, and was a remarkably gentle man. Once, Dad told me, he had done something moderately heinous, and the norms of that era required my grandfather to spank him. At some point during the punishment, he missed and hit himself. “Shit, that hurts,” he said, and at that point the punishment concluded and he never hit my dad again.
The daughter of a friend of mine graduated from high school recently. I offered the deserved congratulations, but then my friend told me that the daughter harbors ambitions of becoming an English professor.
When I hear anyone express that career goal, I immediately become quite conflicted. I love what I do, and I imagine anyone who has read this blog for a while realizes that. I get considerable joy from my career, and mourn on some level for the people who don’t. (I know what that’s like, after all — I walked away from an editorial career to get my Ph.D.) But at the same time, I’ve known for years that I can’t recommend seeking a career like mine, at least not in good conscience.
I’ve said before that I think I may be in the final (or at best, the penultimate) generation of the traditional professoriate. The corporatization of higher ed continues apace — or perhaps even faster — and from what I see, the humanities are bearing the brunt of that. We know the numbers: Three-fourths of college faculty are ineligible for tenure. About half of those folks are what we call “adjunct”, paid by the class in the academic equivalent of piece-work (or in the gen-ed courses such folks typically teach, perhaps stoop labor.) As public institutions receive smaller allotments from state governments, and as tuition-driven schools like Mondoville continue to scramble for students and resources, this situation will not improve. Fewer tenure-track positions in the humanities open up every year. While the pandemic blew up many hiring plans last year, thereby skewing some numbers, consider the simple fact that during last year’s hiring season there were three tenure-track jobs in my field. (As it happens, more than a few of us can function as utility infielders/generalists, but even if you include those positions, the pickings are quite slim.) At the same time, each year typically sees up to a couple dozen brand new Ph.Ds with Chaucer dissertations alone. And the pile grows.
In 2003 — the year I began here at Mondoville — William Pannapacker produced stats indicating that only one in five Ph.D. students in the humanities will find a tenure-track position over the course of their careers. Again, if anything, those numbers are now wildly optimistic. (You also know this stuff if you’ve read my story “Alt-AC”, but as they say about the betting lines in the newspaper, that’s “for entertainment purposes only.”)
I hate being one of the chorus of specters at this particular banquet, but I can’t encourage anyone — and especially kids — to take this particular sucker bet. At this point, wanting to be an English professor offers only somewhat better odds than wanting to be a rock star or major-league athlete. And even if you win, the payoff is much lower. Eighteen years into my career here at Mondoville, after adjusting for inflation, my real buying power has risen by about 2% over what it was in 2003.
A proverb I’ve always liked is “Take what you want, and pay for it.” I’ve done so, and as I said, I love what I do. But now we’re at a point where even if you pay for it, you’ll likely get less of a glimpse of what you want than Bors got of the Grail. If you or yours choose the quest anyway, God speed you. But I don’t recommend it.
On a much lighter note, I spent part of this week reading all nine books in the Maggie Sullivan P.I. series by M. Ruth Myers. The books cover the adventures of the titular heroine, a private detective in Dayton, OH in the late 1930s and WW2 years. The third book in the series, Don’t Dare a Dame, won a Shamus Award when it came out, but all nine books are good reads. The mysteries are solidly crafted, sometimes gritty without turning grim, and entertaining throughout. Like the Irish stew Maggie enjoys at her favorite watering hole, the books are warm, familiar, and satisfying. Furthermore, books 1-4 and 5-7 are available in collected form at a reduced price for Kindle. You might want to check them out.
Speaking of writing, I have some to do, so I’ll wrap this up as I began it — with some music. The Ferrets (not to be confused with the Australian band of the same name) were a jangly band from Rochester, NY in the late 80s. They released an album, Angry Young Ferrets, in 1987. This track leads off side 2 of the album, and it has a couplet that has entered my list of favorite lyrics: “She got inside my head; she got inside my heart./ She got into the front seat of my best friend’s car.” Enjoy!
See you soon!