Ed Woell (PhD, 1997), offers his thoughts on the changing landscape of higher education.
After teaching full-time at the college level for seventeen years and reaching the rank of full professor, I remain deeply grateful and indebted to the history department’s faculty—above all Dr. Julius Ruff—for enabling me to pursue a vocation of reading, writing, and thinking: or what I like to call “living a life of the mind.”
My vocation eventually led me to Western Illinois University, where I have taught for twelve years and last year became the director of graduate studies in the history department. I oversee a graduate program with about thirty students pursuing a master of arts’ degree. For the last ten years the number of students in the program has remained stable, for which our department should consider itself fortunate.
Over the same time, however, the number of undergraduates majoring in history at WIU has declined, resulting in the loss of faculty when anyone in my department has retired or moved on. Compounding the losses in majors and faculty is a budget crisis in the state of Illinois, and with it a steep decline in state funding for the public university system. At present our governor is proposing a draconian 31 percent decrease in state funding for higher education for the next fiscal year. Although the state legislature will probably not comply with such a cut, the outlook for disciplines in the humanities at our state universities is bleak. It thus should come as no surprise that morale among many faculty at my university is approaching rock bottom.
Despite such trouble, our work goes on. One of my charges as graduate director is offering the introductory course on historical theory and methods for new graduate students. When I first taught the course last fall, I wanted my students to start the class by confronting what I considered to be graduate school’s most important question: why were they there? To this end I had my students read several essays about career prospects for those with degrees in history. These included not only William Pannapacker’s “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” and Larry Cebula’s “Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot Be a Professor,” but also Stephen Mexal’s “Don’t Be Afraid of Graduate School in the Humanities” and Susan Adams’s “Majoring in the Humanities Does Pay Off, Just Later.” I found the students’ reaction to these readings interesting. Surprisingly, few understood the way academia now works—namely in how many schools have grown reliant on adjunct faculty, often to the detriment of those seeking tenure-track jobs. After being confronted with how much of a longshot becoming a full-time professor is these days, some students adopted the belief that current trends in higher education were only temporary, and the many opportunities to get on the tenure track which had once existed would someday return.
While I cannot share these students’ optimism, I remember what it was like to be in their shoes as I attended Marquette University. In retrospect I realize that a love for history sometimes blinded me from seeing that while higher education offered a promising vocation, it was not immune from larger forces beyond institutional control. I have since learned that like many entities in our globalized economy, higher education is often shaped by cut-throat consumerism, short-sighted political tempests, and the supposed promise of shiny new technologies.
Given this reality, whenever a student comes to me expressing an interest in an academic career, I feel deeply torn in how to respond. On the one hand, I have an obligation to be candid with the student about the dismal prospects for a historian’s career in today’s ivory tower. On the other, I am averse to dismissing the student’s esteem for history, especially in light of how far my own love for the subject has taken me. Beyond this push and pull, though, I must admit to the student that I count myself among the lucky few to be not only a tenured and full professor, but also one who has grown ever more dedicated to the historical discipline through my many years of teaching, scholarship, and service. And I am likely to argue that now, perhaps more than ever, our society needs what we historians do. In doing so, I unwittingly embody an unspoken truth for that student: living a life of the mind—complete with the sense of gratitude and wonder that such a life can cultivate—is still possible, and ultimately well worth it.
Edward J. Woell is Professor of History at Western Illinois University, where he is Director of Graduate Studies. He is author of Small-Town Martyrs & Murderers: Religious Revolution & Counterrevolution in Western France, 1774-1914.