Friday, April 05, 2013

Begin Again

There's another new article on Slate about how one shouldn't go to grad school.  Despite what the author, Rebecca Schuman, says about the "boom" in jobs in the late 1990s, as a survivor of that time, I'd like to say that things were bad then.  They're worse now, with the recession and all, but they were plenty bad then.

It's like every year someone new realizes for the first time that the job market for humanities sucks, and they think because they've just noticed it that the suckage started recently.  It didn't.

Yes, grad school is hard, and the rewards uncertain and often not nearly enough to make up for the opportunity cost.  Don't go.

Schuman builds off a nice analogy with smoking when she notes "In 2005 when I began my own Ph.D., I should have known better, but I didn’t. Now that you know better, will you listen? Or will you think that somehow you can beat odds that would be ludicrous in any other context?"

Yes, she in effect says, we all know smoking is dangerous, and we should know better than to do it, yet people still smoke.  And people should know better than to go to grad school in the humanities, but people still do it.

I'm not actually sure most of my students have heard anything about the job market or grad school in the humanities, though.  Most of them don't come from academic backgrounds or have much experience with academics until they get here.  About 40-50 percent of our students are first generation college students.   They don't know about academic stuff until and unless someone teaches them, pretty much.   I don't push grad school, but when a student asks, I try to be honest about the difficulty and the potential rewards, and about their potential.  (Usually, the students who talk to me about it are excellent students and fine people, so I get to tell them that even as I warn them.)

Three things about Schuman's article stood out to me, one only tangentially.

The more important was the dig at "satellite campuses of Midwestern or Southern universities of which you have never heard."  Yes, here I am, at a regional midwestern school, right in the middle of the target of scorn.  I am indeed sometimes frustrated at living in the land of long winters and at the distance it takes to go pretty much anywhere.  But there's no need to diss us from the privileges of Vassar, NYU, or even Irvine (See Note).   If you've never heard of us, perhaps you need to get out more and take that responsibility yourself?  There are these whole parts of the country that aren't just for flying over.  (Maybe, though, that attitude accounts for her sense that she "should have known better," and my sense that my students don't just know, about the difficulties of the phud market in the humanities?) 

Which brings me to the digs at theory.   Yes, it's specialized language.  So is medical language, and the language of physics.  We use technical language to talk about sprezzatura and metonymy, why shouldn't we use technical language to talk about difficult concepts such as deconstruction or differance?  (And by the by, why would someone choose to go to a phud program at Irvine [or Duke, for that matter] if you don't find theory interesting and exciting?  Okay, I'm assuming that the strengths in Irvine's English and Comparative Literature area also strengths in other areas.  Maybe I shouldn't.  Still, there are some darned smart people there.  Cough *Julia Lupton* Cough)  

Now for the tangential amusement.  Schuman's article links to another recent Slate article, this one by Ron Rosenbaum (who writes, we learn, about Shakespeare).  Like Schuman, Rosenbaum, too, argues that folks shouldn't go to grad school, especially not in English.  Except he relates his decision to leave his grad program in English at Yale in 1969.

If you're (as I am) even the slightest bit aware of which Shakespeare folks studied where, then Yale in the late 1960s is one of those places you're aware of for the impressive scholars who came out of that program.  (I'm not saying they're all perfect, by any means, but I can name some pretty darned smart scholars who did phuds there in the late 1960s, and they're an impressive set.)

So, yes, the job market sucks.  There's a crisis in education.  In other news, war is hell.  Each of these seems to need rediscovery often, alas.

Note.  Schuman provides a link to her dissertation.  I didn't go searching.


  1. I did my PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. At the time I did not know that it would one make it impossible to even get an interview for an adjunct position in the US. I also did not know that it would make getting a job in Africa easy.

  2. "There are these whole parts of the country that aren't just for flying over."\

    Yes. Yes yes yes yes yes.

  3. I, know, right? Newsflash! :-)

    The smoking analogy was the takeaway for me. Everything else--no surprises there.

  4. What's really bizarre is that she's employed (OK, as a VAP) at Ohio State -- hardly second tier. Not New York or Boston, but still! As someone who teaches in a place most Ph.D.s would not move to voluntarily, the digs about location are, well...

    I got my Ph.D. in 1982. There were two jobs in my field that year, one of which was unfunded due to budget cuts. I spent 18 years teaching in an institution that didn't have tenure, and where, at the end, I had one year contracts.

    She clearly thought she would be the exception, and is angry that she isn't - -especially as the universities defund foreign language instruction, or reduce it to language learning, and drop the literature. But she doesn't really think about the system. And really, if I interviewed her -- on the basis of a talk and two dinners -- I wouldn't want a colleague that angry and bitter, never mind one who carried such contempt for her future colleagues.

  5. Bardiac, did you see this? :-)

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