Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Humanities Jobs: Are they Worth It?

Lately, I have been confronted with the question of whether landing a humanities job is worth all the fuss. It seems that everyone around me earns a higher salary. I recall, for instance, walking to the local Sheetz gas station and noticing an advertisement for a needed assistant manager who would earn close to $50,000 with additional medical and retirement benefits. Christmas cards from distant relatives have been arriving, alerting me to recent job promotions and extravagant vacations. What is striking is that many of the cards are coming from people who are ten years younger. I remember these former tykes playing with Hot Wheels and Barbies as though it was yesterday.

I contrast the successes of friends and family with that of the humanities professor. The latter often goes into debt in order to attend graduate school. Perhaps he or she is lucky to receive free tuition and maybe a stipend to undergo postgraduate work, but even with a small income stream coming in, the PhD student lives below the poverty line during the multiple years of solitary confinement that it takes to complete a degree. This situation becomes even more complicated if the PhD candidate has a spouse and children. Little boys and girls do not understand why their daddy or mommy has to be locked up in a room or library all day instead of playing with them.

The payoff, of course, is that one day the PhD degree will be earned and lead to a tenure-track position at a reputable college, university, or seminary. Yet, as we all know, these jobs are illusive and securing one of these rare gems has been compared to winning the lottery. But suppose that one does land a tenure-track faculty position, what then? The reality is that you now have a job earning the equivalent salary of an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant. Even worse, the teaching post you accepted may require you to move to an undesired location far away from relatives (or civilization for that matter). The teaching load might be a 4-4, or worse, with responsibilities to teach entry-level general education courses full of unmotivated freshman. Sure, you are now "Dr. so and so," but is an additional prefix to your name worth all this?

In thinking about the potential disadvantages of the life of a humanities professor, it is only fair to point out the benefits as well. First, there is the joy of teaching. You get to engage (albeit sometimes sleepy) young minds on subject matter in your field. It may not be your specialty, but the information you go over at least in theory revolves around your knowledge base. Prodding students to think about interesting topics and relevant issues can be very rewarding, and even more so if you have the chance to teach an upper-level elective nearer to your specialty. A college professor teaches more mature students than the middle school or high school teacher, which means that classes have the potential of being the site of stimulating conversations and debates. Second, you have much more time off than most working adults. You have an extended summer vacation (and part of the spring off for that matter), a long Christmas break, and your own spring break, not to mention additional holidays. In the summer months while others are slaving away or bored at a Dilbert-type office environment you have the chance to do a number of things, including outdoor activities, research, and/or traveling. Third, you are paid to stay current with your discipline, which means that if you enjoy reading, you have the best of jobs. Academic presses send you free copies of books for you to review for journals or as potential classroom textbooks. Books push you to think about the accuracy of details in your lectures or offer new insights for research projects that you are working on. Fourth, there is a level of respect given to professors. Students in most cases call you "doctor" and the general public perceives that you are an intelligent person simply by the fact that you hold a faculty position. There are many additional perks that one could talk about, but these are some of the basics.

All-in-all the life of a professor is a good one. But not everyone would agree that the benefits outweigh the costs associated with this type of job. Anyone who doesn't enjoy reading, solitary research, teaching (obviously), and grading should not strive to be a professor. Furthermore, if you want to be wealthy and have an extravagant lifestyle, a humanities professorship is not for you. The benefits of a professorship is very much counter-cultural in that instead of leading a fast-paced life that utilizes high tech gadgets, the professor instead plops himself or herself into a chair and slowly and methodically reads (usually printed books), writes, and grades. In an age when most people seem to have a thirty-second attention span, professors are called to read thousands and thousands of pages on subjects that would leave most people yawning. The bottom line is that it is worth it to endure the challenges leading up to a full-time teaching position, provided that a person understands what that type of life entails.

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