Strangers on a Train
A chance encounter provides a lesson in complicity and the never-ending crisis in the humanities.
By Cathy N. Davidson
Early on in my first tenure-track job at Michigan State University, in the late 1970s, I happened to be riding the same train from Lansing, Michigan, to Chicago as the department chair who hired me, Alan Hollingsworth, who had since become dean of our College of Arts and Sciences. It had taken me three years to land a tenure-track position, and I was a second-round pick at that, after the original candidate failed to pan out. According to Modern Language Association statistics, it was the worst time for new PhDs (until the present one). It was the tail end of a baby boom, with too few students coming in to undergraduate colleges and universities and too many overblown humanities programs continuing to churn out new PhDs as if the demographics had never changed. There were more than six hundred applications for my job, and I felt like I was hanging on to the profession by my fingernails. And there was my chair-turned-dean standing over me, nodding to an empty seat and asking, “Is this seat free?” I thought about the five-hour ride from Lansing to Chicago as I moved my book bag and tried to make it seem sincere when I smiled and replied, “Of course! Please join me.”