It just so happens that yesterday morning I read this piece in the Chronicle, along with its lengthy comment thread, in which James Mulholland offers a rebuttal to the most recent in Thomas H. Benton's series of offerings, the gist of which one might somewhat ungenerously summarize as "only naive fools go to graduate school in the humanities and only evil and dastardly professors with the privilege of tenure who are totally disconnected from reality support them in doing so." I'd already posted about BES and her adventure in grad school applications before reading that rebuttal, but as fate would have it, a commenter directed me to the Benton piece to which Mulholland was responding, and since that comment, I've been mulling. Mulling and thinking. Both about the rebuttal, as well as about Benton's commentary on these issues, as well as another fine series featured in the Chronicle, too, the 6-part "Academic Bait-And-Switch" (links to parts 1-5 are at the bottom of the previous link) series by Henry Adams.
[Aside: Do any of the rest of you find it, well, troubling, that all of these columnists for the Chronicle are male professors of English who work at SLACs? And that when we see women columnists on the Chronicle's advice page that most often they don't get to talk about Big Important Issues like the "state of the humanities" but rather that they are enlisted to talk about the only things that women academics apparently care about, which involve the two-body problem, birthing babies, or mentoring those in need? Because I find that deeply troubling.]
Here's the thing. I've written countless posts (to which I'm too lazy to link) in which I have attempted to think through my position as a mentor to students in regards to graduate school in my discipline, and in which I have expressed my ambivalence and fear and general angst about the issues that all of the above columnists address. I don't believe that "there will always be jobs for the best and the brightest"; I don't believe that graduate school is some idyllic time of inquiry and Deep Thoughts in which time stops, material reality ceases to exist, and one leads a "life of the mind." I don't believe that graduate school is always the most emotionally or even intellectually healthy option for a life after undergrad, and I don't believe that it's generally the most financially responsible choice that any person can make. I don't find arguments about the moral or societal good of my discipline, or of the humanities generally, a terribly compelling rebuttal to the very real institutional and structural realities of the employment structure of higher education, nor do I think that there is something privileged and special about the life of a humanities professor if we're comparing it to the life of people in other careers.
And yet, I have supported students who want to pursue graduate school and who want academic careers. And I don't think that this makes me someone who tells Big Lies, who entraps the unsuspecting and naive, who preys upon the innocent and baits them with one thing and then pulls the rug out from under them. From the columns by Adams and Benton (aka William Pannapacker), it would seem, however, that I'm all of those things.
Or, if I read myself through the lens of Mullholland, it would seem that I'm a person who believes that pursuing an advanced degree in my discipline is akin to running off to New York to become a dancer or poet or actor, or, alternatively, who dreams of being in the NBA as a college player, and I don't believe that either. And the main reason that I don't believe that is because at its core, the job of a college professor, however difficult such a job is to obtain, is neither as awesomely bohemian nor as glamorous as the above have the potential to be. It's a bourgeois, middle-class, ultimately pretty boring sort of a career choice, and that's if everything works out as planned, which most of the time it doesn't. While it's true that most people who run off to be artists or actors or basketball players will not succeed in achieving those dreams, it is also true that if they do then the payoff is infinitely greater than if one "succeeds" at becoming a professor. While the competition to succeed may be similar, the reality of one's job if one succeeds is very, very different.
But so. If all of that is true. If I don't advocate for a modernized life of the mind in which we strive to "understand the pleasures of those who still choose to pursue" it (as Mulholland writes), how can I possibly argue that graduate school in the humanities is not a trap specifically designed to "[limit] the options of students and [to socialize] them into believing that it is shameful to abandon 'the life of the mind'" (as Benton describes)? How can I have a problem both with the initial assertion as well as with the rebuttal? How do I see these issues, and how do I justify my continued support of (a very small number of) students who want to pursue graduate school in the hope of securing full-time academic employment?
I suppose the first thing is that I think that this whole concept of a "life of the mind" is a red herring, and that it distracts us from considering the real value of the humanities generally, as well as, to get more personal, from considering the real value of the study of literature more specifically.
First, this reification of the mind/body split, whether one is arguing in favor of the concept of a life of the mind or against it, fails to account for the embodiment of subjects, and this has very real consequences in terms of how we position subjects in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, etc. Here's the thing: the only subjects who may have the privilege of leading a "life of the mind" are straight, white, middle-class-to-upper-class, able-bodied male subjects. The moment that any of those "other" categories intersect a given individual's subjectivity, s/he has to contend with the ways in which embodiment compromises, or at the very least inflects, the intellectual work that one might perform. Don't believe me? Just think for a moment on my aside earlier in this post.
Second, by arguing either for or against the concept of a "life of the mind," one accepts as a given that the work that we perform as academics is somehow distinct from actual living. It is as if, in choosing graduate school, one is choosing to stop living actual life for x amount of years, as if that would even be possible. (I think when people talk about grad school as a "trap" this is what they're talking about - that somehow it robs people of their "actual" lives.) It also implies that those who secure tenure-track employment don't actually have actual lives, but rather, in their cushy ivory tower offices, they have surrendered any connection with actual living in favor of a "life of the mind." Not only do I not know of a single case in which this is true, but also I don't think that it's possible. Now, it may be true that the domestic and daily work that goes along with actual living might not be something that certain individuals have to focus much attention on, because they have partners who take care of all of that or because they have the material resources to pay people to do that stuff for them, but that group is by far in the minority. Academics have lives. They have televisions, friends outside the academy, hobbies, interests, families, worries, responsibilities, paperwork, conflicts in the workplace or in their personal lives, whatever. Actual living doesn't stop just because a person goes to graduate school or just because one becomes a professor. Actual living is not reserved for people who don't go to graduate school in the humanities or people who have gone to graduate school but don't succeed in securing tenure-track employment. Seriously.
But so while I do believe in intellectual inquiry and its value and the joys of it, this whole notion of a "life of the mind" totally rubs me the wrong way, and yes, I think that limiting our discussion to that concept gets in the way of really discussing why anybody should bother to study anything in humanities disciplines.
But so why do I believe in humanistic inquiry? Whether at the undergraduate or graduate levels? (And I should note that I don't believe this list is only reserved for the humanities, but it is what I think that the humanities offers.)
Humanities disciplines teach us:
1. To see outside of our own limited experience and perspective in order to understand viewpoints and experiences that differ from our own.
2. To interpret cultural artifacts in relation to our own experiences, viewpoints, and cultures.
3. To produce logical arguments and to support those arguments with strong analysis.
4. To understand that there is value in exploration, creativity, pleasure, and knowledge, and that even if an object of study resists quantitative, economic, or scientific approaches that it may still have value.
5. To think more deeply about our ethical, moral, and social responsibilities as members of various communities.
I could go on, but I think that's a pretty good list to start with. And here's the thing: each of those items on that list relate to how individuals live in, experience, and understand the "real world." And yes, I believe that education in these areas is valuable, and I think that study in these areas is valuable for all people, and I think that all kinds of people should have the opportunity to pursue deeper study in these areas, not because at the end of it they will get some mythical "life of the mind" but because, as with the study of law or medicine or engineering or math or accounting or plumbing or construction or whatever, such study gives us a greater ability to contribute to the world in which we live. Yes, there are many ways in which we can contribute to our world. Humanistic inquiry is just one in a long list. It is neither more morally good or better for society than the others, nor is it less "practical" than the others. It's just distinct from the others.
But, you may say, given the job prospects at the end of such study, how can you advocate for anybody to pursue degrees in these areas? Not only at the graduate level, but even at the undergraduate level? I mean, seriously: shouldn't everybody just get a college degree that will get them a job? What the hell will people do with a degree in English (or philosophy, or history, or whatever)? Well, first, let me say this: undergraduate majors in English go on to do many things that are totally unrelated to going off and getting a Ph.D. in English. They get jobs in editing, writing, human resources, teaching, administrative work, libraries, and I could go on. We have one of the largest majors on our campus, and the vast majority never pursue any sort of advanced degree in English, and they do go on to lead productive and fruitful lives. I know. It's shocking. Also, I will say that many of those people who pursue "clear job at the end of the degree" fields don't necessarily end with jobs in those fields either, especially in this economy.
At the graduate level, these issues are more fraught. There is a huge opportunity cost to pursuing a Ph.D. in English, even if one is fully funded, and a huge emotional and personal cost to pursuing an academic career. But. I ultimately believe that one of the things that my discipline, and undergraduate education generally, teaches people is how to evaluate information and to make thoughtful decisions based on the information that they have. If I didn't believe that, I think it would be unethical for me to continue as a professor, frankly.
So as I see it, it's my job to provide as much information as I can to students who approach me about the topic of graduate school, both in terms of their own personal aptitude for graduate-level study and in terms of what graduate study and professional life in the academy involve. Further, it's my job to talk honestly with my students about any questions that they have, about my own experiences, and about not only the negatives of that path but also how to navigate that path if it is one that they indeed choose. I also talk to them a lot about other potential paths that they might pursue, as well as how to professionalize themselves in order to position themselves for future employment, whether that employment is inside the academy or not. I don't stop mentoring my students about this stuff after I've written their letters of recommendation, or after they graduate. I don't just tell them "Graduate school - don't do it" and throw them to the wolves. I don't give them the impression that pursuing an advanced degree in my discipline is the One True Way to have a vibrant intellectual life, and in fact, I talk a lot about the ways in which working in the academy can get in the way of a vibrant intellectual life. I make it very clear that they will, if they really want to be a professor, most likely never have a choice of where they live, and I am very open about all of the different parts of the job, emphasizing all of the requirements beyond teaching, talking about literature, and working with students (the parts that are most visible to them). In encourage them to talk to adjuncts in the department, as well as professors besides me for other points of view. I direct them to blogs by people from a range of positions within the academic food chain and to the Chronicle - to the forums and even to some of the columns to which I've linked in this post.
Does this make me a villain? Does this make me somebody who's perpetuating lies, inequality, foolishness, and magical thinking? I don't know. Do we think that law professors do those things? Journalism professors? Professors in social sciences fields? Heck, even business professors? To what extent is it a professor's responsibility to devalue his or her discipline or field? To what extent is it a professor's responsibility to control the choices that his or her adult students make? To what extent is it a professor's responsibility to confirm anti-intellectual arguments that reduce education to something that is merely a means to an end?
I'm not arguing here that job prospects don't matter, or that we shouldn't see education as something that is crucial to future employment. I'm only saying that it is both that and more. As I see it, it's my job both to prepare students for jobs as well as to prepare them for the lives that they will lead beyond their jobs. It's not an either/or.
And yes, it's true that some people will always continue to think that they will succeed where others have failed, that they will be the exception that proves the rule, that all of the things I tell them don't apply in their personal case. I can say, however, that so far this has not been the way that my students have responded, with only one potential exception. And if that exception is bitter and disillusioned at the end of the line, that will suck, but that won't be for my lack of caring or effort, no will it be because he was told a Big Lie, Trapped, Fooled, or Maligned in some way.
5 years ago