The Hybrid Imperative: Managing Post-Graduation Employment in the Humanities

Michelle Villanueva
MFA candidate, Creative Writing—Poetry
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Reading recent articles and online blog posts in The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications gives one a sense that the humanities are in crisis and that something fundamental must change with graduate study of the humanities in this country. Writers charge that graduate programs in the humanities are no longer what they once could be assumed to be: the means by which a person can gain a full-time, tenure-track academic career upon completion of a course of study. Now, all too often, they are the means to a career of cobbling together part-time work with no time for, and no reward for, study in one’s chosen field. These career-related issues have reached crisis levels in the minds of many who work and study in the humanities, and there is a sense that graduate programs have done students wrong, both in the promises they make to prospective students regarding post-graduation employment and what they are actually able to deliver on those promises. Analysis of this issue and similar considerations having to do with law schools has focused on the importance of students setting them apart from their peers in order to gain one of the few available meaningful, full-time positions available upon graduation. Analyzing this problem through Homi Bhabha’s theory of hybridity offers some promising insights into possible solutions, both in terms of changing graduate student expectations and in terms of offering students more opportunity for meaningful employment after graduation.

Graduate programs in the humanities have long considered students’ post-graduation employment an important aspect of those students’ educational experience, and rightly so. It would be wrong for a graduate program to enroll students with no consideration for whether or not those students will be able to support themselves in some fashion after earning their graduate degree. However, to some extent, this is exactly what graduate programs in the humanities are doing, or at least, they have changed their definition of what constitutes supportable employment while not adequately preparing their current and would-be students for the likely careers those students will face when and if they graduate. While students still expect that they will complete graduate programs in the humanities and gain full-time, tenure-track academic positions, the fact is that most students completing graduate programs in the humanities will spend at least a significant period of time in part-time, temporary, or other non-tenure-track positions.

Several statistics are relevant to this shift in employment possibilities for humanities Ph.D.s. Graduate programs in the humanities are graduating increasing numbers of Ph.Ds. The number of students awarded doctoral degrees in this country increased from 2,991 students in 1987 to 4,366 students in 2007 (Conn). Additionally, graduate programs in the humanities are admitting vast numbers of students who never complete their Ph.D. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences states that a median of 42 percent of students admitted to graduate programs in the humanities in this country actually earn their Ph.D., while the majority of such students do not actually complete their degree requirements. In other words, the number of people who complete their Ph.D. in humanities in this country increased by nearly 50% in 20 years, and the number who finish pale in comparison to the number of people admitted to these programs in the first place.

In addition, the number of tenure-track academic positions available in the humanities in this country has decreased. Between the 2007-2008 and 2009-2010 academic years, there was a more than 50 percent drop in the number of tenure-track job openings listed with the Modern Language Association (Allen). To some extent, this statistic can be attributed to the recession that our country is in some ways still trying to find its way out of, but other statistics point to a longer-standing shift from tenure-track to non-tenure-track positions in the humanities. The American Association of University Professors’ “Contingent Faculty Index” states that from 1975 to 2003, the percentage of total faculty members who were tenured or tenure-track in all degree-granting institutions in the United States fell from 56.8% to 35.1%. During this same period of time, the percentage of faculty members in all degree-granting institutions in the United States who are part-time instructors rose from 30.2% to 46.3% (AAUP 5). Not only are there fewer tenure-track positions available, but the positions that are available are increasingly for part-time, non-tenure-track work.

At the same time, students enter humanities Ph.D. programs expecting that they will earn a degree that will lead them to a full-time, tenure-track academic position. Michael Bérubé, former head of the Modern Language Association, wrote a commentary in the online Chronicle of Higher Education in 2013 where he stated as much, asking, “For what are we training Ph.D.’s in the humanities to do, other than to take academic positions? Graduate programs in the humanities have been designed precisely to replenish the ranks of the professoriate.” Bérubé says that a movement in the late-1990s encouraging Ph.D. students to consider non-academic careers met with the most vehement opposition by the Ph.D. students themselves. He said he had expected that traditional-minded deans or faculty would object to an alternative career movement, but in fact the greatest opposition came from ABDs and almost-Ph.D. students who “spent their 20s and their early-mid-30s in graduate programs hoping for tenure-track jobs” (Bérubé).

These issues around career considerations for humanities graduate students are transferable to Bhabha’s theory of hybridity. Bhabha is a postcolonial scholar born in India who is a Professor of English at Harvard. He developed his theory of hybridity in a postcolonial context, and central to his notion of hybridity is that there is a third space “in-between the designations of identity,” and this space “entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy” (Bhabha 4). Basically, hybridity is possible with the creation of a third space between identities which itself defies the categorization of identity. When people come together in a third space, they by definition exist in a space apart from dual categories. In a postcolonial context, Bhabha looks favorably on this notion of hybridity as challenging “the historical identity of culture as a homogenizing, unifying force” (37). Bhabha goes farther, in fact, stating that culture itself is reinscribed in this hybrid third space on the margins of the dominant culture, what he calls “the ‘beyond’ of culture” (7).

The presentation of the dominant culture as a “homogenizing, unifying force” is related in Bhabha’s thought to the idea of “fixity,” which is the idea that the symbols of culture and the value attached to those symbols is defined in an inalterable way by the dominant culture. In other words, as Bhabha describes it, the dominant culture has an interest in defining identity and in having those who have been so defined accept that definition as absolute. Placed in the context of graduate study in the humanities, the dominant academic model is one that identifies a student as a scholar studying a discrete area of knowledge in preparation for a prestigious, tenure-track academic career that allows the student to live a “life of the mind” while having some measure of economic and employment security. As Bérubé points out, students have been reluctant to question the dominant academic model and generally enter graduate programs in the humanities with the same expectation that these programs will lead them to a fruitful career in an academic discipline. The problem is that these fixed ideas about post-graduation employment for students in the humanities are simply not accurate, and the students who enter graduate programs unwilling to question the validity or unchangeability of these ideas are only doing themselves a disservice.

Students’ unrealistic expectation of gaining full-time, tenure-track employment after graduation is enabled by a lack of reliable information about what happens to graduate students after they receive their Ph.Ds. In a 2010 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, William Pannapacker, writing under the pen name Thomas H. Benton, charged graduate programs in the humanities with perpetrating what he calls “the big lie,” which is that graduate students’ degrees will lead to a rewarding career with a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. One of the main ways he claims graduate programs perpetuate this lie is by either refusing to divulge their post-graduate hiring statistics or not differentiating between tenure-track, non-tenure-track, part-time, full-time, and non-academic positions in those statistics. He comments on graduate programs’ practice of claiming “that graduates who are working as adjuncts or visiting faculty members are successfully placed in the profession” (Benton). Clearly, students are not entering these Ph.D. programs expecting to build a career of such positions, and Benton/Pannapacker implies that the programs are misleading students by using hiring statistics that give students unrealistic expectations of the sort of employment they might receive after graduation.

Recently, Mary Ann Mason, a faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley, praised UC Santa Barbara for embarking on a “multiyear project to gather information on the post-Ph.D. employment of its graduates, and to make it available on departmental Web sites.” However, in this same article, Mason clearly implies that the hiring statistics are likely to show that the bulk of graduates are not employed in full-time, tenure-track academic positions. Add to that the possibility that those statistics will include part-time instructors that are employed at the very institution that granted their graduate degree, and it becomes clear that students’ expectation when seeking a Ph.D. are drastically different than the realistic post-graduation employment possibilities. Granted, statistics show that the unemployment rate for Ph.D.s generally in this country is usually lower than the unemployment rate for Americans who did not have a Ph.D. (see e.g., BLS). However, those statistics would also clearly include all types of employment for Ph.D.s, whether tenure-track, non-tenure-track, full-time, part-time, academic, or even non-academic.

In the past few years, law schools have come under fire for their use of misleading post-graduation employment statistics. An article in the online New Republic states, “Many law schools all but explicitly promise that, within a few months of graduation, practically all their graduates will obtain jobs as lawyers, by trumpeting employment figures of 95 percent, 97 percent, and even 99.8 percent. The truth is that less than half will” (Campos). The main source for post-graduation employment rates for individual law schools is the U.S. News and World Report (Campos). Before 2011, the U.S. News and World Report did not require law schools to break down their post-graduation employment statistics by “how many graduates had jobs that are full time or part time, short term or long term, [or] that actually require the J.D. degree” (Morse). Thus, although the expectation of students and the general public was that students attend law school in order to get a job practicing law, the post-graduation hiring statistics law schools used to attract prospective students did not reflect the percentage of law school graduates that were actually employed in the practice of law. Once the statistics were adjusted to more accurately reflect that expectation, the post-graduation employment rates of these law schools dwindled, to the point where law schools previously touting rates of 95% were now posting rates around 60% (Campos).

One place to find unambiguous, readily available post-graduation employment statistics easily is on the websites of for-profit universities. Of course, criticism has come from several fronts to the effect that the post-graduation statistics used by for-profit universities are oftentimes misleading at best and fabrications at worst. In 2013, the Attorney General for the State of Kentucky sued Spencerian College, alleging that it fabricated post-graduation hiring statistics in marketing materials to potential students (Crotty). Spencerian College is a for-profit college based in Kentucky, which states on its website that it “prepare[s] today’s students for tomorrow’s careers.” For-profit universities generally make explicit the connection between the education they are offering and their students’ post-graduation career prospects, assuming that students have enrolled at their institutions specifically for career-driven considerations. To what extent is it necessary for not-for-profit universities, even graduate programs in the humanities, to connect their own educational opportunities to career-driven considerations in order not to lose potential applicants to for-profit universities?

Clearly, there is a tension between admitting more and more students to graduate programs while the traditional career option for those graduate students, a full-time, tenure-track position, is becoming less and less available. One way graduate programs have addressed that problem is by encouraging students to distinguish themselves and thereby gain one of the few tenure-track positions available. Benton/Pannapacker more cynically states that graduate programs are “structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon ‘the life of the mind’.” In other words, all too often, graduate programs term post-graduation employment issues as issues of student unmotivation and lack of dedication to the field of study. In 1977, Albert Bandura put forth the theory that behavioral change can be predicted based on individual self-efficacy, or as he states it, “cognitive processes play a prominent role in the acquisition and retention of new behavior patterns” (“Self-efficacy” 192). The extent to which an individual can envision himself or herself performing change-based activities successfully can determine the individual’s ability to perform those activities successfully. Applied to this situation, the self-efficacy theory would suggest that the extent to which students can envision themselves in successful academic careers can impact their ability to secure meaningful post-graduation employment.

An important aspect of self-efficacy is “taught by observation of social exemplars,” which is to say that receiving guidance and advice from leaders in a field, as well as simply watching those leaders perform their work teaches an individual to perform a task successfully (Rosenthal 203). Mentorship by those who have successful academic careers in a field of study is an important aspect of graduate study in the humanities. Self-efficacy theory would suggest that this close guidance by those mentors would allow students to themselves gain successful academic careers in that field of study. However, Benton/Pannapacker charges that graduate school faculty is not always in the best position to provide meaningful mentorship to students on the issue of post-graduation employment. In fact, he implies that professors sometimes mislead students as a result of being too heavily invested in the system that unrealistically raises their hopes for meaningful academic employment, stating that “[t]here should be a special place in hell for the professors who—at the end of an advisee’s 10-year graduate program with no job in sight—say, ‘well, academe is not for everyone’” (Benton). At the very least, students are not able to receive effective mentorship from such advisors sufficient to allow for meaningful self-efficacy.

Bandura himself states that self-efficacy is less effective in situations where an individual is given incomplete or misleading information. According to Bandura, “[t]here is little basis for judging one’s self-efficacy for activities shrouded in ambiguity” (“Functional” 10). A graduate student envisioning himself or herself in a successful tenure-track academic career after graduation would not be acting with full information if his or her graduate program had supplied incomplete or misleading post-graduation employment statistics. If the more cynical reality that Benson/Pannapacker proposes is true, that “[m]ost departments will never willingly provide that information because it is radically against their interest to do so,” then it is not only impossible for students to envision their way into tenure-track employment, but also unlikely that graduate departments will supply students with the tools needed to make it possible. Even if students could through self-efficacy theory propel themselves into meaningful post-graduation employment, the graduate schools they attend would need to provide them with the unambiguous information that would make self-efficacy effective.

As such, the main issue that arises with using the self-efficacy theory as a solution to the problem with graduate programs in the humanities is that it implies the problem is one that can be solved through student action alone. Within this framework, a student visualizing him or herself as successful in a tenure-track academic career is the element that can make it so. Certainly, self-efficacy is important, and indeed, many studies have shown that Bandura’s theory is an accurate predictor of success for everything from college graduation rates for non-traditional students (Spitzer) to academic achievement for high school students (Motlagh). However, self-efficacy is not a valuable approach if it is merely understood in terms of student motivation and activity. Self-efficacy is not possible without a change in the approach on the part of students and graduate programs. Generally speaking, the problem of using career-related considerations as a measure of success for graduate programs in the humanities is a systemic problem, and to solve it would requires a systemic approach that encompasses all participants in the process.

It is for this reason that hybridity is indeed an imperative in the context of graduate study in the humanities. According to Bhabha, the third space allowed through hybridity not only provides somewhere for those on the margins to question the fixity of symbols and their meanings put forward by the dominant culture, it also gives marginalized people somewhere to incorporate those symbols and ascribe different meanings to them. In his book The Location of Culture, it is clear that Bhabha considers culture itself to be located along those margins. “[T]he intervening space ‘beyond’ . . . becomes a space of intervention in the here and now” (Bhabha 7). Through this intervention, the third space becomes an area in which real cultural change can occur. In the present context, hybridity for graduate students creates a third space from which they can question the assumptions that the dominant culture makes about their identity. While Bhabha says marginalized people in a postcolonial context may hear from the dominant culture, “‘You’re a doctor, a writer, a student’” (44), graduate students may instead hear, “You’re a history student” or even “you’re a humanities student,” but hybridity allows the same response in any case, that of reframing the designations of identity put forth by the dominant culture.

As Bhabha notes, the reframing of cultural designations within the hybrid third space is the mechanism allowing for true cultural change to occur. When those at the margins of culture deconstruct what seemed to be fixed cultural forms, a “discursive ambivalence” results, which effectively reduces the power of the dominant culture to ascribe identity through the use of those forms (174). In other words, as the designation “humanities student” is reframed by those students acting within a third space, the assumptions that accompany that designation are also able to be reframed. Inasmuch as the problems with post-graduation employment in the humanities are systemic problems, the onus for solving those problems does not lie upon students alone, but students are uniquely poised to inhabit the third space made possible through hybridity and thereby question the fixed cultural forms that allow those problems to continue. By questioning those forms, students can make long-term change possible.

Such long-term change, though, ultimately requires a shift in understanding across the board from graduate studies as preparation for a full-time tenure-track academic career to such graduate studies as worthwhile intellectual pursuits in their own right. As Stanley Fish states in a commentary titled “Will the Humanities Save Us?”: “It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. . . . The humanities are their own good.” The “lie” that Benton/Pannapacker points to in his work “The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind’” is not that the life of the mind is somehow less than a worthwhile life, or that the life of the mind is a waste of time and energy, but that if graduate institutions are leading their students to believe that the current model will allow them a meaningful life of the mind, those institutions are being dishonest.

A step away from the current model to a more authentic model would therefore include graduate institutions in the humanities giving their students an honest picture of what their reasonable career expectations after graduation are. This includes some discussion of the realities of post-graduation employment prospects for graduate students in the humanities. This could take the form of a required first-year experience course for entering graduate students geared toward letting them know early that they cannot embark on their field of study with the expectation that it will lead to a full-time, tenure-track academic position. Such a discussion would necessarily include complete and accurate post-graduation employment statistics for graduates of that particular institution’s humanities graduate programs. It would include the percentage of graduates who are employed as full-time tenure track faculty, the percentage of graduates who are employed in non-tenure-track academic positions, the percentage who are employed temporarily, the percentage who remain unemployed, and the percentage who work in non-academic positions. It would also include those percentages for one year after graduation, five years after graduation, and longer, in order to make clear to students very early in their graduate course of study that the likelihood that their degree will quickly lead to a full-time, tenure-track academic position is frankly not very high.

Beyond this, the most important long-term change that graduate programs in the humanities need to make is in reducing the number of graduate students they accept each year.   This one change would require a shift in the assumptions that exist in many different aspects of these graduate programs. As things exist now, there is generally a large pool of graduate students in the humanities, many of whom will not finish and earn their degree, but while they are there, they can fill up graduate seminars and teach introductory-level courses to undergraduates. This ensures that tenured and tenure-track faculty in these humanities programs will be able to teach graduate seminars, since there are enough students to ensure those seminars take. It also ensures that tenured and tenure-track faculty can avoid teaching introductory-level courses, since there are enough graduate students to take care of those teaching requirements. Taking away that large pool of graduate students would require tenured and tenure-track faculty to be prepared to teach those introductory-level courses themselves. To some extent, this also requires an adjustment in the expectations that come with a full-time, tenure-track academic position. Inasmuch as having that position means one no longer has to teach entering freshmen or introductory-level courses, the model of that position will have to change.

Until such time as these long-term, systemic changes are implemented, hybridity offers some opportunity for graduate students in the humanities to develop a mix of skills that allows them to fill many possible niches in a future university employment setting. There are several possible types of hybrid areas of expertise that are available for students. In some programs, students can develop a hybrid specialization across academic disciplines, such as psychology and fine arts, social work and technology, or even economics and educational leadership, but one that there seems to be a great deal of interest in lately is a hybrid specialization in digital pedagogy and a more traditional area of expertise, such as rhetoric and composition or literature. Digital pedagogies have slowly caught the interest of universities, and digital humanities courses are slowly beginning to appear in university course catalogs. Graduate students who are prepared and equipped to teach these courses, as well as the more traditional humanities courses, are poised to be more attractive and thereby more employable than those who pursue more traditional areas of study.

However, pursuing a hybrid specialization comes with its own unique set of issues. For one thing, hybridization itself has a subversive element, as it defies easy categories and questions assumptions that are made when those categories were instituted. Hybrid digital pedagogy goes even farther, as the use of technology and the ready availability of information raise questions about how much can and should information be changeable and manipulated. The implications of that, of course, relate to the issue of what should be in the canon and who gets to decide that. So, seeking a hybrid specialization with digital pedagogy and a more traditional academic pursuit, such as English literature, can present challenges, and those challenges can make it extremely difficult to pursue both aspects of the hybrid specialization. A student can feel pressure to choose one area or other, as pursuing both might require valuing different and opposing priorities. This is particularly true in those cases where hybrid specialization calls into question the canon, what should be part of it, and who gets to decide that.

Bhabha’s ideas have been used in other academic disciplines besides the study of literature and have been useful in contexts other than postcolonial cultural studies. For instance, in an article titled “Learning in Third Spaces: Developing Trans-Professional Understanding through Practitioner Enquiry,” authors Rob Hulme, David Cracknell, and Allan Owens discuss using Bhabha’s notion of a third space to allow professionals from a number of disciplines to come together and formulate an agenda for implementing educational programs for children. Using a third space, it was possible for these professionals to work in an environment that did not privilege some professions over others but assumed that all members of that hybrid space had something of value to contribute. The authors state that the third space gave professionals a recognized space where they could step away from the issues of their workplaces but still reflect upon them, a navigational space “that allowed for travel in between and into different discourse communities,” and a conversational space where “competing knowledges and discourses are translated, contested and drawn closer together” (Hulme et al. 541).

The authors’ use of Bhabha’s third space in this context was not without its difficulties. As Bhabha himself notes, hybridization “can be a very uncomfortable process . . . [and] is arrived at only after social and individual identities have been partially surrendered or altered” (Hulme et al. 541). In this authors’ study, the success of a third space to allow for effective implementation of educational policy was dependent on the extent to which professionals were willing and able to identify as a participant in the policy effort as opposed to primarily identifying as an educator, social worker, health professional, or what have you. The fact of the matter is that their participants found that process to be quite difficult, and although the process had some notable successes, the authors in the end were at best cautiously optimistic about the possibility of long-term use of a third space to foster hybridization in a multi-professional context. They state, “We can point to the success of our multi-professional action learning sets and focus groups but the particularity of these events has to be acknowledged. Whether this kind of collaborative activity can be embedded in the day-to-day reality of practice in multi-professional settings remains to be seen” (Hulme et al. 548).

The authors also caution against too casually using Bhabha’s theory in other contexts besides that which Bhabha himself had in mind, specifically that of colonial and postcolonial discourse. And, there are concepts Bhabha develops that were inapplicable to the authors’ context, such as “cultural essentialism, hegemonic historiography and the politics of polarity” (Hulme et al. 540). Still, other scholars caution that limiting the idea of hybridity to historically marginalized groups creates “a danger in thinking that it is only in classrooms of marginalized [students] that hybridization occurs” (Gonsalves et al. 393). With these cautions in mind, hybridity in academic specialization nonetheless holds promise as a means for students to develop the skills for meaningful employment after graduation, at least until such time as the systemic changes are implemented that would address the greater issues of post-graduation employment in the humanities.

Institutions can help students through the problems inherent in hybridity by actively seeking to provide a third space where the polarities of identity that come from traditional academic specialization can be “partially surrendered or altered,” as the authors in the trans-professional study were able to do. In graduate study, such a third space would encompass something not unlike the interdisciplinary potential of the typical undergraduate honors program, where students are encouraged to come together based on interests other than their academic majors and encouraged to do work within that framework that counts toward their academic degrees. Such a setting would also allow faculty to identify apart from their own academic departments, and it would provide a space for faculty and students to question the assumptions made in traditional academic categories such as the canon, what should be part of it, and who gets to decide that. Similarly, it would allow students a space where they can express their frustrations at being pressured to identify with one or another traditional academic discipline.

Graduate programs in the humanities have shifted to some extent from halls of learning to career mills. The problem is that the career graduate students are likely to gain after graduation, and indeed the career for which graduate programs have most prepared them, is a part-time or temporary, non-tenured teaching position. At the same time, students’ expectations of what sort of career they are likely to gain after receiving their graduate degree in the humanities has not changed. Hybridity allows for the sort of shift in understanding that can lead to long-term solutions to this problem. Also, until such time as these long-term systemic changes are implemented, hybridity in graduate study holds some promise as a means of securing meaningful post-graduation employment opportunities for students in the humanities. Graduate programs can encourage hybrid specialization through a number of means that would provide students and faculty the chance to collaborate apart from traditional categories of academic speciality. In such a way, graduate students can gain a multi-disciplinary understanding and skill set that can bring them meaningful employment.

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