“You are not your debt.” So said Curtis Marez, President of the American Studies Association, at his address in D.C. True enough. But also, it seems, not so true at all.
Because the news since the Modern Language Association conference has been dominated by the ethics of debt. And what has been revealed is that many are existentially consumed by their ledgers. Slate columnist Rebecca Schuman condemns comfortable tenure-stream faculty for failing to fight for full-time jobs for the growing caste of adjuncts. “Fuck you,” she writes, in a directive aimed at those permanently employed faculty who dismiss her call for a revolt of the adjunct class, “and while you’re fucking yourself, ask yourself: why are you trying so hard to make me go away?” William Pannapacker, a writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education and longtime scold of graduate study in the humanities, ticks off the list of offenses: “debt, attrition, adjuncts, broken lives, trust betrayed.” And Karen Kelsky, whose estimable consulting service is no longer extended to would-be applicants to doctoral programs precisely because the job market is in ruins, has broadcast the findings of her crowdsourced archive of debt, which reveals that more than a few people leave graduate school with a debt over $100,000.
Writing – or tweeting – about debt seems to require the use of broad brushstrokes. Focusing the blame solely on tenure-stream faculty members for graduate student debt and the crisis of adjunctification – and referencing the personal sentiments of betrayal and dishonesty and complicity – leaves out too many other deeper structural issues, like the reallocation of resources to STEM fields, or the decline of public funding for higher education. It flattens the differences between publics and privates, R1s and SLAs, foreign language departments, inter-disciplines, and the social sciences. It obscures meaningful distinctions of race, gender, and class. It instructs people to simply not go to graduate school, because it assumes that graduate school should inevitably lead to a tenure-track job or else someone has been betrayed, or lied to, or just plain old screwed over.
There are many major issues with higher education, but the solutions to most of them are well beyond the reach of tenure-stream faculty. Chairs and department members can’t generally compel deans to do much of anything, because decisions about financial reallocation aren’t usually made by deans – they get made by Provosts and Presidents, by big donors, by trustees, and by students, who can always take their precious credit hours elsewhere.
There is, though, a metaphorical debt to be paid here. We owe graduate students a clear shot at a degree without an interest rate on the back end (so, a reasonable stipend, workshop space, and research support, but also financial counseling and informal support mechanisms). We owe them some very straight talk early in their coursework about an exit strategy if they aren’t going to make it. We owe them a direct path to the degree, and structures and cultures that make it possible for them to complete their work in decent time. We owe them degrees with somewhat flexible career outcomes. And we owe it to them to match the size of our incoming cohorts – as best as we possibly can – to the job market success of recent graduates, and not chiefly to the sometimes self-indulgent abstractions of graduate teaching.
These things are within reach. These things can be done.