The Summer that Never Ends

It’s the end of another school year and surely dozens of newly hooded doctors of philosophy in Religion or religious studies are awaiting their chance to make their mark on the field. How would you know, though? Where would your first stop on this fact-finding mission be? Shall we go department by department and ask? If your first stop is department websites, prepare to be disappointed. Announcements of new PhDs is sporadic–sometimes celebrated on a up-to-date front page and other times going totally absent amid “news” sections years out of date.

If departments are barely keeping up with graduations as public news worth sharing, then how can those of us outside advanced degree granting institutions get a sense of the landscape?

Perhaps our guild, the AAR, can help? Alas, the AAR’s member directory has no function to see members by year of degree granted or degree status. Though the member directory is expansive and includes considerable detail should members choose to post it themselves, in general the database obscures rather than reveals the shape of our field. (It can be extremely helpful connecting with specific people if you’re missing their contact information though.)

So I ask again, how would you go about exploring who our field’s most recent graduates are, where they are from, and what they are working on?

Part of the narrative that has been abandoned by the academy is that of the single “pipeline” from degree to tenure-track position. There’s no need to extensively restate the details of the precarious market for all non-permanent FT employees. The AAR itself said in 2018 that postings are at an all-time low since data collection began in 2003. Postings go down, course loads for remaining FT go up, adjunct and VAP listings go up, departments fight wars with administrators for employment lines and wind up with adjunct courses, and then departments themselves get blamed for failing to do more with less resulting in a further reduction in resources.

Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a sense of where things stand for the vast non-TT newly minted PhDs? We know across US PT non TT faculty make up 40% of all faculty. Including graduate students it may be that the number is closer to 70%. But what about in religion? Outside of the AAR’s Academic Labor and Contingent Faculty Working Group, what can we say we know about those for whom the spring time of graduation turned into an endless summer of contingent labor or employment beyond FT TT teaching positions?

We know the model of the pipeline that only ends in a tenured professorship is faulty, so why don’t we have a better sense of what’s happening on the ground? How many are graduating? In what areas? How does that compare to the job listings and their areas? How many recent graduates failed to find FT employment or chose to find employment that was not teaching in a university setting?

One of the biggest challenges thinking about our field is that we lack the data to think about our field. It isn’t public, nor is it especially accessible data since there are so many different expressions of religion and academic labor in the university. But most of all it isn’t something I hear anyone else shouting about. If we don’t have a sense of where we are now, then how can assess the health of our field’s most vulnerable members?

As we celebrate successes and are more comfortable now seeing a wider variety of success narratives of PhDs in roles outside conventional models of academic life, we need to change our internal models of what the landscape of religious studies scholarship looks like. A recent survey was a nod to this, but it focused on the three pillars of teaching, research, and service for those who have limited academic employment. That’s what we’re doing, but not who we are or how we compensate for the loss of equitable participation.

Moreover, calling attention to the success and challenges of graduates whose careers are not where they’d like them to be is the start of seeing this group and beginning dialogue about their needs. We get so wrapped up in what institutions need that we seem caught in a cycle of limited vision where those institutional paths are the only appropriate ones. The future will be something else and our field will have more rapidly adapt to the changing landscape.