English, Department of


Date of this Version

December 1998


Published in Writing Program Administration 22 (Fall/Winter 1998), pp. 9-32. Used by permission.


Although English Studies as a discipline is often seen as fractured and contentious, there is one subject about which most of us can agree: the job market for new PhDs in English is bad and not likely to improve any time soon. In Bettina Huber’s widely cited survey of the results of the 1993-1994 job search, only 45.9% of candidates found tenure-track jobs. The recent report from the MLA Committee on Professional Employment projects similar figures for the foreseeable future. The fact that the number of graduate students with PhDs in English—especially those with concentrations in literary studies or creative writing—far exceeds the number of jobs available has led to such competition among prospective job candidates that “wise” graduate students begin putting together a professional career from the moment they are accepted into graduate school, and those who work with graduate students are admonished to support them in this professionalizing process (Mangum, Pemberton, Wolfsom). Analyses of the job crisis differ, as do proposed solutions, but again, most commentators agree that if new PhDs want to have a chance at tenure-track employment, then everyone—graduate students and their mentors—needs to do more and do it better. The “more” that graduate students need to do usually refers to activities associated with being a research scholar such as publishing articles and giving conference presen¬tations. But there is some recognition that professionalization should go beyond publication of research to include the professional representation of one’s teaching, administrative work, and academic service.

Because we recognize the highly contingent nature of graduate students’ experiences with professionalization at the different institutions in which they work and those they seek to enter, we hesitate to make sweeping recommendations about the role TA training should play in preparing graduate students to be professionals. What we would like to offer, rather, are some cautions. First, we believe that WPAs and those who work with graduate students need to recognize that calls for increased professional¬ization often implicitly—if unintentionally—lay blame on graduate students rather than on the market economy in which there are too few jobs. While it may be true that some graduate students are unprepared for the professional duties required of newly hired tenure-track faculty, our experiences suggest that graduate students generally are professionals, especially in their classrooms, even though they are often not rewarded as such. WPAs also should be wary of how arguments for professional development for graduate students can be used to dismantle TA preparation programs that emphasize pedagogy. There must be a balance between inviting other faculty to participate in the professionalization of graduate students and maintaining spaces for discussions about pedagogy that focus on teacher professionalism. Lastly, those who do genuinely seek to professionalize TA training on the basis of public calls for reform need to acknowledge that utilizing the language of research, while perhaps persuasive to members of a particular institution, might not go far enough in addressing the public’s larger concerns. While rhetoric is reality, the rhetoric of educational decline which speaks to a wide audience seems ultimately more powerful than the rhetoric of professionalization, addressed to a much narrower audience of academics with, some might say, overly narrow concerns. Until there is more critical engagement about what the professionalization of teaching is for, what it seeks to do, and how it benefits students in the classroom, the discourses of professionalization will seem more a rhetorical response to a market crisis than a genuine expression of a commitment to teaching. Perhaps the most important contribution WPAs can make to graduate students’ professional development is to provide them with opportunities for such critical engagement.