Marc Bousquet to Robert Townsend: Huh?





A funny thing happened on the way to the AHA this year -- American Historical Association staffer Robert B. Townsend issued his annual report on tenure-track employment in the field. Unsurprisingly, he concluded that holders of freshly minted doctorates face grim prospects. What raised my eyebrows -- and those of many others doing scholarship in academic labor -- was his insistence that the labor market for faculty in history is a matter of an "oversupply" of persons holding doctorates, and that the profession needs to control "the supply side of the market," i.e., "cut the number of students" in doctoral programs.

This is the sort of thing that used to get said all the time by disciplinary-association staffers -- as what I call part of a "second wave" of thinking about academic labor, emerging out of discredited supply-side thought dating back to the Reagan administration. Thanks to the third wave of thought arising from graduate students and contingent faculty in the academic labor movement, you just don't hear so much of this sort of thing anymore. In most fields, it's pretty well understood that the real issue is an undersupply of tenure-track jobs, i.e., that the issue needs to be addressed from the "demand side." There's no real oversupply of folks holding the Ph.D. because what's happened is an aggressive, intentional restructuring of demand by administrators -- in many fields, work that used to be done by persons holding the Ph.D. and on the tenure track is now done by persons without the terminal degree and contingently. Increasingly, even undergraduates are playing a role in this restructured "demand" for faculty work, participating in the instruction of other undergraduates.

In this context, it was a bit unsettling to read Townsend's 2010 analysis:

The near perpetual sense of crisis in history employment over the past 20 years had very little to do with a diminishing number of jobs, or even the growing use of part-time and contingent faculty. ... The primary problem today, as it was a decade ago, seems to lie on the supply side of the market -- in the number of doctoral students being trained, and in the skills and expectations those students develop in the course of their training.

Red flag, bull, etc....


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