Thursday, March 18, 2010

Lies, Traps, Fools, and Villains

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.


Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

Since I'm at a CC, I end up advising students about transfer choices for philosophy majors -- which inevitably leads to discussions of graduate education.

When we get to that part of the discussion, I tell them about the job market etc.. and how I'm quite lucky to actually be employed as a philosopher.

I think that, as profs students come to in order to discuss options, it's our duty to lay out the pros and cons. Then we need to hope that we've helped them gain enough critical thinking skills to make their own decisions.

The thing is, even if they don't get a job in academia, going to grad school in the humanities isn't a horrible detour. It's just a learning experience, perhaps a rather expensive one -- but, if the end result is that they are happier in their 9-5 office job because they tried the other alternative, then perhaps it's a worthy detour.

FrauTech said...

I think the only way academia is maybe less "real life" exposure than otherwise is because there's an overabundance of people who succeeded into jobs based on what they studied. Versus yeah at a corporation you're going to see people who studied humanities working in HR, or as admins or maybe second careers in something else. But I definitely agree with your point about people being lucky. I am reminded of how supposedly recent nursing grads are having a hard time finding jobs. Even though there was supposed to be this huge nursing shortage, it turns out not so much. It doesn't help since the stock market tanked a lot of people who might have retired have to continue working longer than they planned. Or even vocational programs such as the ones training people to install solar panels fail to take into consideration that the consumer market for solar remains extremely weak. People are interested but few people can afford. So you can go through some "practical" and "affordable" training such as that and still be lucky if it leads to a job.

Anonymous said...

Dr. C, As always, your very thoughtful posting comes at a time when I'm too crazed to respond in kind with a thoughtful comment, but THANK YOU for this. I, too, am at a cc, so like Philosopher, most of my conversations with students interested in grad school (and we're talking maybe 5 conversations a year) straddle encouragement (since 4 out of the 5 are usually brilliant and have incredible potential) and caveats about the job market for profs.

But what most stands out about your posting is the question about the Chronicle's columnists: mostly men, mostly at slacs (with that Rob guy being the ongoing comm. college voice), women stuck as Dear Abby columnists or experts on the no less important, but perhaps more practical, and yes, softer, issues. Yes I HAVE noticed that.

Dr. Crazy said...

"I, too, am at a cc, so like Philosopher, most of my conversations with students interested in grad school (and we're talking maybe 5 conversations a year)"

You know, I'm not at a CC, but I'd say that's about my number of *conversations* in a typical year - if not fewer - even though I'm at a 4-year university. This year I did recommendations for exactly 3 students for MA/PHD programs in English, and that was actually a pretty high number to have translated into actually applying to programs in a given year. Much more frequently, I will have the grad school conversation with students, and they either decide to hold off and to work for a few years, or they will decide to apply to do something else (a Masters in Teaching so that they can teach high school, library science, law school, Teach for America, etc.), something that fits closer to what they actually want to do with their lives than grad school does.

Anonymous said...

Okay, so. I am really not in love with the comparison to running off to be a actor or singer in New York.

The reason is that one of our closest friends is a composer. He went to conservatory to become a composer and he was going to be rich and famous and all that. He even moved to New York. At this point, he does make his living as a composer and musician. He has made it, in that respect. He did not return home defeated.

He is also not making a million dollars. He makes a middle class salary--enough to own a house and support his family. But the man works about sixteen part-time/contract jobs. He has a couple of steady part-time gigs and then he has students and then he picks up a music directing job here and a piano playing job there. He cobbles it together. That is what it means to make it as a musician.

That is the equivalent of a tenure track job. The broadway star is a named chair at harvard. There are a lot of levels of making it in between that and failure.

At that level, I don't think success necessarily looks like a life that's a whole lot easier than being a professor. In fact, I think it might be harder.

So I'm completely in agreement with what you're saying about academic employment. I just kind of hate the comparison to making a living as a musician.

Anonymous said...

oh, and I was going to say that there is the same sort of advice given in musical theater circles--if you love this so much that you'd do it no matter what, then it is for you. And if it isn't that kind of a passion, you should do something else. Because otherwise you won't make it. And if you do, it's going to mean weeks of non-equity, unpaid parts in lousy productions before you even get a chance to make money. And then it will be lousy pay for loooong hours. Which is to say nothing of all the unpaid time you spend in lessons honing your skills. Even if you make it, "success" looks like working your backside off to make ends meet. It's not actually a glamorous life, even for people who manage to make a living out of it.

Desiree said...

What about saying that it’s not ok to be underpaid, badly worked, or for prospects to be so bad for Humanities graduates? How can the academy turn and eat their offspring?? What about fighting to make the academy more hospitable, like demanding that adjuncts be paid MUCH more than they are…dare I even say it…much more… with benefits? How about unionizing? Actors do it, no?
At the Mulholland article Chronicle page, an artist wrote in a response (#12) “neither artists nor scholars should accept this bad deal we’re being offered: our value to our society and culture is immeasurable, and we should fight for treatment we deserve.”

Really! What up? If social justice was going on then folks might not get out of Humanities programs and land in a life of bewilderment and food stamps like Benton exposes!

And I agree that the “life of the mind” is a red herring. This academic life is necessary and very practical. So is cleaning floors. Why oh why has our society agreed to pay so pitifully for things that it really needs? Should we be dumb and dirty? Though this sounds kind of fun at first, upon further inspection, ah, I think not. So let’s pay and respect what we need as a society! So many people are underpaid and it is to our detriment to keep saying, as some have done in response to your linked articles at their home site, “well that’s life”, or “well they chose that.”

So whether there is a conspiracy of lies going on or not, the situation in the academy is a bad one on many levels, as far as justice goes. So now what should we all do? I think every tenured, tenure-track, lecturer, adjunct, whatever, on every campus in America should walk out for one day on the same day to bring the issue of faculty conditions to some kind of justice conversation!

PhysioProf said...

This "Big Lie" shit is ridiculous. There are all sorts of highly desired "winner take all" careers where people start at the lowest levels as peons, scrape and claw and get paid like shit for years of "training", and still only have a vanishingly small chance of getting to the highest rung of the ladder: music, acting, sports, law, business, art, writing, etc. Are all those careers Big Lies?

Kyley said...

Dr. C, I've been reading your blog for a long time now, though rarely commented. I graduated in '07 and I'll be going to graduate school next year. My awesome, beloved mentors never lied to me. I know what I'm facing, but I still want to give it a try. Maybe it won't work out, and I have a very solid plan B that I've been working on since '07, but if I never try? I refuse to be one of those people who lives her life afraid of what might/might not happen.

I think the "big lie" claims are insulting to both mentors and the potential graduate students who are not wide-eyed innocents.

These articles always reek a bit, to me, of some bully on the playground enjoying an ice cream cone, while telling you how awful it is and how much you would hate it.

Anyway, I could ramble on and on about this, but I don't want to thread-jack. Thanks for this post.

Christopher said...

Sorry, I'm more of cynical sort, and while I don't think anyone here is a monster or is perpetuating some evil lie, I think many are missing the point, or actually the points. First, "adjunctification" is a systemic process that is proceeding unchecked and will continue to do so. So today's statistic (courtesy of the AAUP) that 1 in 5 who achieve the Ph.D will ever get a whiff of the tenure track, will be tomorrow's .5 in 5, or worse. Second, and someone did allude to this above, adjunctificaiton should also be viewed as a systemic de-valuation of the Ph.D. degree. I realize you're going to offer up arguments for the intrinsic value of the degree, but let's stick to academia and look at the economic value of the degree. Clearly, within academe, an M.A. in say, residence life mgmt. is a far more valuable than a Ph.D. earned by 4 of every 5 who do so in, say, History or English. Or to be more cranky, the admin-asst. (who may or may not have a college degree at all) has far more job security than any adjunct. (and for the record, I like admin-assts., in fact I envy them) And my parenthetical remark brings me to consideration number three. In many cases, the Ph.D. in whatever field will prove to be a liability not an asset when seeking a non-academic job. Yes, I understand that editing, technical writing etc. are fields that may value the degree, but those jobs/careers are not growing on trees and are themselves highly competitive. In applying for the the garden variety corporate/professional job, even a decent paying and skilled one, most professional job seeking advisors advise leaving the Ph.D. off the resume. Now there's a buzz kill.

CattyinQueens said...

Amen, Dr. Crazy. I've been thinking pretty much the same thing for a long time. People with phDs can do more than just adjunct--I have friends who do all sorts of things, so Christopher's point is also missing the point. It's not either you're on the tenure track or you're an adjunct; if somebody thinks those are the two options, then no, they should not get an advanced degree. In the humanities, we value cynicism for sure, but we also value reason (which often goes along with cynicism) as well as thinking creatively about our work and our purpose in the world, not just in an economic system. I'm not all about the "intrinsic value" of the degree, nor is Dr. Crazy, as her comments make clear; but in saying there's either intrinsic value or economic value/liability, you're using the same line of argumentation Dr. Crazy is arguing against.

Christopher said...

Yes, I realize I'm arguing the point Dr. C. is arguing against. That's because with all due respect, I disagree with Dr. C.

Dr. C. argues from the standpoint of one who has achieved tenure. I'm arguing from the vantage point of an adjunct. She asks "to what extent is it a professor's responsibility to devalue his or her discipline or field?" As one who has been utterly devalued, I feel it's my responsibility to present a very accurate portrait of this circumstance to students who ask me about graduate study. She also asks "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?" Again, as one whose daily and professional life has been reduced to precisely this, how, in all good conscience, can I present a different version of my experience?

Look, above this post Dr. C. has one about women being hired for all the wrong reasons. I completely agree with that post, except for one slight difference. Though they may be getting hired for the wrong reasons, they're nevertheless getting hired. And in my world, getting hired is ALL that counts. The ends DO justify the means.