Are Humanities Grad Students Exploited?

Not on purpose, says the "Marketplace of Ideas" author. But the system is starting to hurt them nonetheless.
  • Transcript


Question: Are humanities degrees high-risk?

Louis Menand:  Yeah.  Well, I think the time to degree is right now the big obstacle to entry into the professions.  Now, the median time to degree, to PhD in the humanities is nine years, and that’s time as a registered student.  The time between Bachelor’s degree and a PhD, the median time is over 11 years.  So then you’re still only on a tenure ladder, you’re not tenured.  So it generally takes 6 to 8 years after that to get tenure.  So that’s a very long period of what’s essentially apprenticeship, of insecurity.  I don’t think that’s very healthy for any business, certainly not for a business where you want people to be original and creative and take risks.  So I think that’s a big problem, and the humanities seems to be doing worse than the other disciplines, though the other disciplines also have increased time to degrees.

Now, part of the reason for that is that it’s difficult to get a job and people stay in school longer because they’re employed as teaching assistants or instructors by their schools, by their schools where they’re graduate students, and that does become exploitative eventually because they’re very cheap labor and there’s a way in which in it’s not in the institution’s interest to give them a degree if they can continue to employ them, I don’t think anybody thinks that way, but effectively that’s the way the system is starting to work.  That’s a bad morale problem and it’s something that gets into the mentality of the ABD’s, who do a lot of this teaching, and it’s not good for, again, not good for collegiality, and not good for intellectual culture.

So I think everybody recognizes at this point that we’ve gotten ourselves into a really weird situation where the supply curve and the demand curve are just not, you know, where they should be and it would be very good for the profession generally, and the humanities in particular, because we have a lot of other things that we’re struggling with, if we could get the professional training part of it a little more rational and efficient.