Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed April 1998
Copyright ©1998 by Robert Scholes

Teach Dreams

By Robert Scholes
Robert Scholes is a professor of humanities at Brown University and the author of The Rise and Fall of English.

"On the average, for every 100 people who start work on the Ph.D. in English, only 7 or 8 will reach the end of the line and find their dream job waiting there"

March basketball madness serves as a reminder of all those players whose hoop dreams have been encouraged by programs all over this country - and how few of those dreams of playing in the NBA will ever be realized. What many of us do not realize, however, is that other kinds of dreams, intellectual and professional dreams, are being encouraged by many of the same schools with just as little likelihood that they will ever be realized.

I am talking about the dreams of a rewarding professional life teaching at the college level - dreams that are encouraged by Ph.D. programs at our finest and largest universities. In these remarks I will confine myself to the area of English, which is the one I know best, though I am convinced that similar stories could be told about other fields, in the sciences as well as the humanities. But let me get down to the facts.

The numbers alone tell a very sad story, which only gets sadder when you look behind the numbers at the human lives involved. But here are some numbers to contemplate. When the last reliable survey of these matters was made, in 1992, for every 100 people who entered a Ph.D. program in English just about 50 were actually completing the degree. That rate has not improved in the years since 1992 and may even have worsened. But let us work with that figure.

For the past several years about 1,000 new Ph.D.s in English have been granted every year. For that thousand men and women there were waiting just about 400 academic jobs that might lead to permanent employment, and another 300 jobs that were either temporary or part-time, or both. These numbers may not look too bad, but they need a bit of interpreting. The statisticians estimate that those who do not get the jobs they want remain active in the market for an average of three years.

This means that a person with a shiny new Ph.D. is not only competing with 1,000 others for those 400 full-time tenure-track jobs, but with the 600 who did not get such jobs in each of the previous three years. Thus, there are around 2,800 candidates fighting for those 400 choice spots. The odds against getting such a job are then 7 to 1. And, if we remember that only 50 percent of those starting the Ph.D. in English ever finish it, this means that the odds against an entering candidate ending up with a tenure track job are no better than 14 to 1.

No doubt, at the strongest programs a graduate student's chances are a bit better, but this only means that, at the weaker programs, they are even worse. On the average, however, for every 100 people who start work on the Ph.D. in English, only 7 or 8 will reach the end of the line and find their dream job waiting there.

Why is this happening? Once again, the reasons are not as different from those motivating the "hoop dreams" scam as one might wish them to be. For many colleges a winning basketball program is a money-maker, supported by the efforts of "amateur" athletes. The teaching of lower division English courses, especially when they can be staffed by graduate students, is also a money-maker for many universities. This is because these students can be paid very little for teaching sections the same in size and other respects as those taught by faculty--since part of their payment is to come in the form of the degree they will receive at the end of their studies.

But what if the degree itself is not worth very much? What if it is just a hunting license for an endangered species of jobs? And what if a graduate student, trying to live on the $10,000 or $12,000 a year he or she may earn by being a teaching assistant, has borrowed money that must be paid back after the degree is completed? No wonder so many put off completing the degree. No wonder so many fail to finish. No wonder so many who do finish, finish in despair.

What motivates this desperate process? As with "hoop dreams" this process is driven by the "teach dreams" of the young, compounded with the mentality of academic bean counters who see no further than the bottom line, and the search for a special prestige on the part of English teachers who should know better--the prestige that comes with "teaching graduate students" and does not seem to be diminished by either their exploitation or their despair. There is much to be done to change all this, but first we must admit that what we are doing is wrong.

It is wrong because it exploits the hopes and dreams of the graduate students themselves, and because it means that all their students are being taught by people who grow more disillusioned and desperate each year that they teach, as they learn that their final payment will be in the form of a sheepskin that may not keep the wolf from their doors.