So, here's my baggage:
1. I do think that it's unethical to suggest to students that graduate school is anything but one of the most risky options available for "what to do" with their English degree. In fact, it might be the absolute riskiest option, and they should know that, not just because I say "don't do this!" but they should know the how and why of that risk.
2. That said, I am glad that I ended up taking that risk. (Of course, it worked out well for me, so that is a factor here.)
3. I do think that there are many rewarding things people can do with their lives with an English degree that don't involve graduate school in English, and I am careful to suggest those options - to encourage those options, and to explain the pathways to those options - to students. That said, law school isn't exactly a fantastic option for a lot of reasons (so this is not the failsafe that I think English profs often make it out to be) and even going to get trained as a librarian isn't necessarily an option that is filled with jobs! jobs! jobs! in our current economic climate. In other words, I don't think we're off the hook if we advise people to law school or to library science. In fact, English grad school can be a better short-term option, if students can get a fully funded slot. (Note that I say it can be a better short-term option - not necessarily a better long-term one.)
I think that the thing that I resist in the "Graduate School in English - Don't Do It" (and yes, you should be singing that to the tune of "Teenage Suiciiiiide - Don't Do it" tune, and if you don't know the pop culture reference to which I refer, well, shame on you) is that really it's not about telling all people not to do it. It's about telling people who are, variously, working-class or female or ethnic minorities or even middle-class people who don't have family money or spousal support, not to do it. It's about telling people who don't go to Ivies or elite slacs or their equivalents not to do it. It's about reifying an educated elite and telling everybody else to go work in human resources or in administrative sorts of jobs or whatever. Those people should just be happy to get a paycheck, really. Because they aren't part of the privileged class that can strap on a career as an intellectual. They can read in their free time, right? It can be a lifelong and enriching hobby for the unwashed masses, but clearly they shouldn't aim for it to be something more than that.
But if you have family money? Pursue your dreams! If you marry advantageously? Rock it out with your grad school ambitions! If you "fit" into the status quo of our cultural image of what a professor should be? The world is your oyster! (Which of course, isn't true in the discipline of English, either. Those people still might end up being adjuncts, or people with long-term contracts, or people who end up working in student services sorts of gigs. But the reality is that they will still get the support [material, emotional] that they need to pursue graduate school, whereas, these narratives indicate, people outside of the educated elite shouldn't even consider it.)
And this, for me, is the rub, with the "Don't Do It" narrative. This approach to how to handle professionalization in English (whether that's professionalization toward a range of fields with a BA or toward advanced study in the discipline itself) is both lacking in subtelty and ultimately discriminatory. And any student educated in English at the undergraduate level by decent professors should be able to recognize that fact. So what the "Don't Do It" narrative produces is similar to what the "Dancing is the Gateway to Sin" narrative in Footloose produces: a wild daughter who has premarital sex with a jerk who challenges the new guy in town to a game of chicken on tractors and who punches her in the face. Or, alternatively, uninformed students who go to grad school anyway, in programs that don't fund them and that treat them badly and don't prepare them for the profession, which then blame the student for not ending up in a job with health insurance while laughing maniacally as they talk about the "revenue" that these unsuspecting students have generated for the university.
So, no. I don't think that it makes sense to tell students to go to grad school in English only if, as Benton suggests, the following factors are in place:
- You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.
- You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.
- You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.
- You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.
- I was not in any way shape or form independently wealthy. However, I also did not have to support anyone other than myself, and I did have the support of my parents (materially, emotionally) during graduate school. What that meant was that I was hurting no one but myself by trying. I also got good advice about going to grad school funded, so, though I do have student loan debt related to living expenses, I could have paid my bills if I ended up in a lower-wage job (think in the 20s) than my current one (inside or outside the academy). I never considered adjuncting as a career move I'd make - I can type 100 words a minute, and seriously: I would have worked in a clerical job with benefits doing transcription typing on the side before I'd have adjuncted full time, and while I'd not have been flush with funds, I would have been able to survive on that).
- I made the connections that I have in graduate school, because my "connections" prior to that were with people with high school educations or less. I also dispute the fact that "connectedness" can secure tenure-track jobs these days. I have friends who ostensibly are much more well connected (pre-grad-school) than me who are still doing VAP gigs or who have left the profession altogether. Connections are what you make of them (a), but also (b) connections don't mean shit when over 500 people apply for a job. Dude. With that many applicants, at least 20 will be "well connected." There is only one job. I think that this possibility is obsolete.
- I actually think it's not always a good thing if you're relying on a partner, as for most people who do, that binds them to a place. The reality is that if you're bound to a place, you will not get a job as a t-t person in English. And so, advising students in this fashion in some ways can relegate them to the adjunct track, particularly in the current economy. Indeed, you might have a partner with a great job, and then you go to a great grad school where the partner has the great job. But then when you want to pursue your own career, they don't have an option to move to rural South Dakota. In which case, you'll be adjuncting at your old grad school, not really pursuing the career that you had in mind initially. This is also why it can suck to enter into a partnership with one's dissertation adviser, incidentally. Do that, and you may well always be the faculty wife who teaches in the department and is never an actual faculty member with faculty pay and faculty benefits.
- Indeed, earning a credential that your employer is paying for is totally a grand idea. I have no objections to this. In fact, I often advise my English Ed students who think they may want grad school to go into high school teaching in order to get this benefit for their MA. This one is fine to me, in isolation. It's just that those elite intellectuals won't take this option. Students like mine will. And that sucks. Because why should working-class students have to do indentured servitude in public high schools before they even entertain the idea of grad school? That, if HS teaching isn't what they actually want, is wack. This advice is the same as telling a student who wants to be a lawyer, if they go to a crappy undergrad institution, that they have to be a paralegal for 5-10 years before they can think about law school.
Well, here's what I tell my students.
I ask them why they think they want to go to graduate school. If they say it's because they want to teach, I ask them why not high school. If they explain why they don't want to teach high school, I ask them what they think the job of a college professor is. And then I tell them about my job. All of my job. I tell them about the rage-inducing service. I tell them about the various demands of teaching and how much time they take. I tell them about how long it takes to get an article to publication, and the various steps of that, I tell them about the tenure process, and I tell them about the disappointments of things not going how they're supposed to go. I tell them about feeling like you're a loser because you don't end up in a t-t position (based on friends' examples) or in a t-t position at the "right" kind of school (based on my own experience). I tell them about the even worse feeling of teaching piecemeal by course, comp, to make 20 grand a year without insurance. I tell them about the students whom I've advised to grad school who've left after the MA to have great, great lives. I tell them about all of the parts of it.
And after all of that, if they still want to be a college professor, I tell them about the personal sacrifices. I tell them about the relationships that can't survive grad school. I tell them about trailing spouses. I tell them about long-distance marriages and about the biological clocks that stop ticking. I tell them about living far away from dying parents.
And let's say they're not sure that grad school would be for them. I tell them about the careers our undergrads have gone on to secure. (Jobs at the local entertainment weekly, jobs in student services or PR departments of our university, jobs in corporations in the area, jobs in editing, jobs teaching, jobs in non-profits, jobs in HR departments or other local businesses.)
Let's say that they think that they want grad school but that they also reveal that they never want to leave the area and they don't really like research. I tell them all of the other things that they should probably consider, because if those are the conditions, becoming a "professor" is unlikely at best.
All the way along, whatever their situation, I talk to my students about professionalization. Whether that means internships at local businesses or doing conferences (locally, for undergraduates, etc.), doing research projects with faculty members, doing editing projects, etc. I talk to them about the skills that they need to be able to demonstrate with this major. The point is, jobs, whether those "jobs" are conventional or whether they are jobs that lead to graduate school, or whether they are in themselves graduate school, require experience and expertise. School doesn't get those people those things. You've got to be thinking about marketability long before you've got the degree - whether that degree is a BA, and MA, or a Ph.D. Because for students outside of elite universities or colleges, you've got to have more than the degree. Actually, maybe all students need more than the degree, but students at my kind of university don't realize they've got to do those other things, necessarily. Because they don't necessarily have the advising (whether by family or by faculty) that privileges those things.
So, I suppose what I think, at the end of the day, is that "Don't Do It" is as irresponsible a piece of advice as "Do It." First, because if we're doing our jobs then our students should be utterly suspicious of both pieces of advice. Second, because while I don't want to produce a generation of "mini-mes" in the academy by sending my students off to mediocre grad programs, I also don't want to produce a generation of students who get tracked into crappy jobs that are "good enough." Ultimately, what I want, is to advise students in such a way that I give those who might succeed on the academic track the best support possible, as well as the best advice about what to do if it doesn't work out. (One thing I spend a lot of time talking about with my students who end up pursuing grad school is what they'll do if they don't get a job on their first year, or second or third years, out.) And I want to give students who might not succeed on the academic track the best advice possible for them, giving them options that will make for a great life - a life that will enrich them - even if their "dream" is not the thing that they ultimately should pursue - which isn't the same thing as just telling them no.
Here's the thing:
Should anybody pursue an advanced degree - whether it's an MA or a Ph.D. - in English unfunded? No.
Would I encourage anybody who has attained an M.A. or a Ph.D. to pursue the adjunct track? No.
But do I think that we should only encourage a priveleged class to grad school in my discipline? Do I think that only people who went to Ivies or Elite slacs, or who have wealthy spouses, or who have trust funds, should get to think about and teach others to think about books for a living?
No, I don't think that.
Even though we have a huge problem with adjunct labor, even though we have a profession that is not equitable and that doesn't take care of the people that it trains. No, I don't think that the answer is to say that only the privileged few should be granted access. No, I don't think that the privileged few should be trained toward the profession of college professor. I don't say that because I want to exploit the underclass that I teach. I say that because I want to be able, when it is possible, to bring some of those students up out of it. They should, if they want it and if they are suited to it, have that chance.
With that being said, I had a conversation recently with my student whose thesis I'm advising. She expressed that she thinks grad school in English may not be for her. After listening to her, do you know what I said? I told her that if she thinks she'd be happy doing anything else that she should pursue that. I also told her that even if she changed her mind, that grad school would be there whenever she wanted it. I then told her that I want her to be happy more than anything. I will be as happy for her if she gets a regular job and pursues that as I would if she applied to grad school as I would if she did law school. What I want is her happiness. Do I think she could be a great grad student? Yes. Do I think she's a great person? Even moreso. And being a great and happy person matters more. She needs to do what is right for her. If she takes an academic path, I will do everything in my power to help her success. But I won't in any way be disappointed if she chooses something else. Why? Because I care about her infinitely more than I care about me and my ego and my academic lineage. And that's how it should be.