Unlike Professors Pennapacker and Mulholland, this blogger was one of the unlucky ones. A mediocre undergraduate transcript doomed the blogger to 4th-rate M.A. program and a 3rd-rate Ph.D. program. Surprise, surprise, surprise; this blogger ended up spending a (so-called) career at a 3rd-rate (at best) juco. However, this blog has given a nonentity an identity. As Steve Martin cried, in "The Jerk" (1979), upon finding his own name in a new phone book: "I am somebody!" If this is (fair & balanced) semi-melancholia, so be it.
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 The Big Lie
 Neither A Trap Nor A Lie
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The Big Lie About The "Life of the Mind"
By Thomas H. Benton
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A year ago, I wrote a column called "Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go," advising students that grad school is a bad idea unless they have no need to earn a living for themselves or anyone else, they are rich or connected (or partnered with someone who is), or they are earning a credential for a job they already hold.
In a March 2009 follow-up essay, I removed the category of people who are fortunately partnered because, as many readers wrote in to tell me, graduate school and the "two-body problem" often breaks up many seemingly stable relationships. You can't assume any partnership will withstand the strains of entry into the academic life.
Those columns won renewed attention last month from multiple Web sites, and have since attracted a lot of mail and online commentary. The responses tended to split into two categories: One said that I was overemphasizing the pragmatic aspects of graduate school at the expense of the "life of the mind" for its own sake. The other set of responses, and by far the more numerous, were from graduate students and adjuncts asking why no one had told them that their job prospects were so poor and wondering what they should do now.
I detected more than a little sanctimony and denial in most of the comments from the first group and a great deal of pain and disillusionment in the latter. The former seem used to being applauded by authorities; the latter seem to expect to be slapped down for raising questions. That's why they write to me, I believe. They want confirmation that something is wrong with higher education, that they have been lied to, systematically.
Some people have mistaken my position that graduate school in the humanities is fine for the rich and connected for the view that that's how it should be, as if I am some kind of smug elitist. It often happens that readers—looking only at an excerpt from a column—mistake practical advice about coping with a harsh reality for an affirmation of that reality, instead of a criticism of it.
One reason that graduate school is for the already privileged is that it is structurally dependent on people who are neither privileged nor connected. Wealthy students are not trapped by the system; they can take what they want from it, not feel pressured, and walk away at any point with minimal consequences. They do not have to obsess about whether some professor really likes them. If they are determined to become academics, they can select universities on the basis of reputation rather than money. They can focus on research rather than scrambling for time-consuming teaching and research assistantships to help pay the bills. And, when they go on the market, they can hold out for the perfect position rather than accepting whatever is available.
But the system over which the privileged preside does not ultimately depend on them for the daily functioning of higher education (which is now, as we all know, drifting toward a part-time, no-benefit business). The ranks of new Ph.D.'s and adjuncts these days are mainly composed of people from below the upper-middle class: people who believe from infancy that more education equals more opportunity. They see the professions as a path to security and status.
Again and again, the people who wrote to me said things like "Nobody told me" and "Now what do I do?" "Everybody keeps saying my doctorate gives me all kinds of transferable skills, but I can't get a second interview, even outside of academe." "What's wrong with me?"
The myth of the academic meritocracy powerfully affects students from families that believe in education, that may or may not have attained a few undergraduate degrees, but do not have a lot of experience with how access to the professions is controlled. Their daughter goes to graduate school, earns a doctorate in comparative literature from an Ivy League university, everyone is proud of her, and then they are shocked when she struggles for years to earn more than the minimum wage. (Meanwhile, her brother—who was never very good at school—makes a decent living fixing HVAC systems with a six-month certificate from a for-profit school near the Interstate.)
Unable even to consider that something might be wrong with higher education, mom and dad begin to think there is something wrong with their daughter, and she begins to internalize that feeling.
Everyone has told her that "there are always places for good people in academe." She begins to obsess about the possibility of some kind of fatal personal shortcoming. She goes through multiple mock interviews, and takes business classes, learning to present herself for nonacademic positions. But again and again, she is passed over in favor of undergraduates who are no different from people she has taught for years. Maybe, she wonders, there's something about me that makes me unfit for any kind of job.
This goes on for years: sleepless nights, anxiety, escalating and increasingly paralyzing self-doubt, and a host of stress-induced ailments. She has even removed the Ph.D. from her résumé, with some pain, but she lives in dread that interviewers will ask what she has been doing for the last 12 years. (All her old friends are well established by now, some with families, some with what seem to be high-powered careers. She lives in a tiny apartment and struggles to pay off her student loans.) What's left now but entry-level clerical work with her immediate supervisor just three years out of high school?
She was the best student her adviser had ever seen (or so he said); it seemed like a dream when she was admitted to a distinguished doctoral program; she worked so hard for so long; she won almost every prize; she published several essays; she became fully identified with the academic life; even distancing herself from her less educated family. For all of those reasons, she continues as an adjunct who qualifies for food stamps, increasingly isolating herself to avoid feelings of being judged. Her students have no idea that she is a prisoner of the graduate-school poverty trap. The consolations of teaching are fewer than she ever imagined.
Such people sometimes write to me about their thoughts of suicide, and I think nothing separates me from them but luck.
Scenarios like that are what irritate me about professors who still bleat on about "the life of mind." They absolve themselves of responsibility for what happens to graduate students by saying, distantly, "there are no guarantees." But that phrase suggests there's only a chance you won't get a tenure-track job, not an overwhelming improbability that you will.
Some professors tell students to go to graduate school "only if you can't imagine doing anything else." But they usually are saying that to students who have been inside an educational institution for their entire lives. They simply do not know what else is out there. They know how to navigate school, and they think they know what it is like to be a professor.
There should be a special place in hell for the professors who—at the end of an advisee's 10-year graduate program with no job in sight—say, "well, academe is not for everyone."
The main point of another column I wrote six years ago ("If You Must Go") is that students considering graduate school should "do their homework." But the problem is that there is still almost no way—apart from the rumor mill to which they do not really have access—for students to gather some of the most crucial information about graduate programs: the rate of attrition, the average amount of debt at graduation, and, most important, the placement of graduates (differentiating between adjunct, lecturer, visiting, tenure-track positions, and nonacademic positions). Programs often claim that graduates who are working as adjuncts or visiting faculty members are successfully placed in the profession.
Most departments will never willingly provide that information because it is radically against their interest to do so. I can see no way for that information to become available unless it becomes part of accreditation or rankings in publications such as U.S. News and World Report. Perhaps departments might start offering details if students started demanding it in large numbers, with support from organizations such as the American Association of University Professors. Maybe it's possible for graduate students themselves to start gathering and reporting this information on a Web site.
Graduate school may be about the "disinterested pursuit of learning" for some privileged people. But for most of us, graduate school in the humanities is about the implicit promise of the life of a middle-class professional, about being respected, about not hating your job and wasting your life. That dream is long gone in academe for almost everyone entering it now.
If you are in one of the lucky categories that benefit from the Big Lie, you will probably continue to offer the attractions of that life to vulnerable students who are trained from birth to trust you, their teacher.
Graduate school in the humanities is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon "the life of the mind." That's why most graduate programs resist reducing the numbers of admitted students or providing them with skills and networks that could enable them to do anything but join the ever-growing ranks of impoverished, demoralized, and damaged graduate students and adjuncts for whom most of academe denies any responsibility. Ω
[Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an Assistant Professor of English and Towsley Research Scholar at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Pannapacker is the author of Revised Lives: Walt Whitman and Nineteenth-Century Authorship, and he is currently preparing two books, Walt Whitman's Cities and The Legacy of the Rural Cemetery Movement in America. Pannapacker earned a B.A. in English at St. Joseph's University, an M.A. in English at Miami University, and a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University.]
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Neither A Trap Nor A Lie
By James Mulholland
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In "The Big Lie About the 'Life of the Mind,'" the columnist "Thomas H. Benton" argues that graduate school in the humanities is based on "structurally... limiting" the potential employment options of students. He is right, just as he is correct that there is a special place in hell for those professors who avoid their responsibilities in making graduate training honest and humane. Still, he is wrong when he concludes that graduate school in the humanities is a "trap" and a "lie."
I am arguing here for the life of the mind, or at least a version of it. I was inspired to write this by the recent articles on the topic written by Benton (aka William Pannapacker, a professor of English at Hope College), and the intense and passionate response they provoked among this newspaper's readers (The Chronicle, 02/12/10). It would be difficult not to feel moved by the arguments and anecdotes that readers shared.
Like Benton, I have been one of the lucky ones. I had undergraduate professors who took an interest in me, and graduate professors who helped refine my work and prepared me for the job market. I am a junior faculty member on the tenure track at a liberal-arts college where I am happy. But before that, I was a visiting assistant professor, so there was a time when I wasn't sure what my future in academe would be. Nonetheless, I believed throughout in pursuing this profession.
As I was reading Benton's examples and the responses of his readers, I replayed the events that led me to my current teaching position. Considering the wreckage that is the hiring market in the humanities this year—and for the past three decades—why did I, why does anyone, decide to go to graduate school in the humanities? Are we all crazy?
I asked myself that because, for the first time, one of my own students has applied to graduate school in English. She could not be better suited for it: She is an agile thinker, a strong writer, a mature researcher, and, perhaps most important, a tireless worker. She dedicated herself to her senior thesis with a focus that seemed more appropriate to graduate students. She already is a graduate student; she's simply looking for a place to make it official.
But while I am a champion of her candidacy, I am ambivalent about her prospects for all the reasons that are recounted in the heartbreaking comments section of Benton's column, "The Big Lie." I insisted on giving her what has become known in academe as "the talk," telling her every horror story I know of professional misfortune and unfairness. It changed her thinking about how to apply to schools, but otherwise she remained insistent.
I wondered if she comprehended the gravity of the situation. Back when I got "the talk" from my undergraduate professors (in a market that was bad, although not as bad as it is now), I understood what they were saying, but it was extremely difficult, as a young person, to make emotional sense of their words. I couldn't feel the urgency that they were trying to impart. All I knew is that I wanted to be like my professors; I coveted their lifestyle.
A generation of young professors has grown up with the job crisis—it's normal to us, it's never been different. We're expert at imparting the anxiety that comes with graduate school to our students. I think that most graduate students now understand how dire it is, while still attempting, perhaps with incomplete information, to weigh the risks.
There are many ways to pursue intellectualism in and out of academe. I think of the life of the mind as the union of intellectual labor and professional success that, at its best, allows academics to explore ideas and still be supported financially. But I also consider the economic and social compromises that such a life might necessitate.
This is not what Benton would call sanctimony or denial. I do not intend to diminish the emotional and economic severity of the job market, of graduate-student debt, of adjunct teaching, of the "two-body" problem, or the host of other forces that conspire to destroy academic lives. Instead, I want to suggest that we should not discount the possibility that our students desire to live a life that involves academic ideals and intellectual study, despite all of the impediments.
One counterargument might be that only a happy few get to live the life of the mind. The kind of middle-class success that was assumed to come with graduate school in the humanities quite often cannot be achieved with a tenure-track salary, let alone adjunct wages.
Still, I was struck by one of Benton's examples in particular. He wrote about a couple who (I presume) replied to one of his articles, whose daughter had earned a doctorate in comparative literature and was struggling financially while their son "makes a decent living fixing HVAC systems" after six months at a for-profit trade school. I appreciated the example because it crystallizes the conflicted ideas that motivate most students who apply to graduate school. We want to be financially secure, but we also want to achieve a professional position that has a unique relationship to work.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, I was employed one summer by its housing-maintenance department. My supervisors were carpenters and electricians who worked for the university. They could not understand why I would want to go to graduate school to study poetry. They outlined an alternate life in which I became an electrician, got paid to learn my trade, and, if I was lucky, owned my own business.They made a persuasive argument for a life I had never before imagined. But I didn't want to be an electrician. I wanted literature to be my work.
That's why I tell my students that if they go to graduate school they must love the work, because often that is all there is and often you are paid too little for it. But I also tell them that it does not mean they should avoid graduate school. Rather, they must go for the right reasons.
One of those reasons is the pursuit of the life of the mind. Not because we need another generation of teachers who are abused by stressful working conditions, unequal wages, little job security, and no health benefits, but because the lifestyle of academe is meaningful and rewarding in ways that are different from many other careers. Choosing to pursue that life—as irrational as it may seem, as hopeless as the prospect of achieving it might be—can still be a sound choice.
We—adjuncts, full-time professors, researchers, administrators, politicians, and parents—must retool how we talk about graduate school in the humanities. We can no longer present it as a professional school or as career training, with the assumption that more education and advanced degrees always lead to better lives, more income, increased happiness. Instead, we must think of graduate school as more like choosing to go to New York to become a painter or deciding to travel to Hollywood to become an actor. Those arts-based careers have always married hope and desperation into a tense relationship. We must admit that the humanities, now, is that way, too.
What would it mean to see advanced degrees in the humanities as akin to pursuing fine arts, with its expectation of economic instability? How would we talk differently to prospective (and current) graduate students if we saw them as more like aspiring novelists or actors?
For me, graduate school was a compromise: a way to lead an artistic life with what appeared to be a chance for stability. That guaranteed stability has disappeared, even for someone like me who is lucky to have a tenure-track job. For those students who seek to go to graduate school, presenting the choice as an artistic career means that we must accept that persistent professional disappointment is a central part of the life.
Comparing the academic humanities to the arts also necessitates that we be honest with ourselves that the job market is not going to change and that the power of well-meaning faculty members to improve it is limited. The inequalities of employment in the humanities reflect structural shifts going on in higher education. I see little evidence that those good ideas mentioned in past years will be put into place: limiting graduate enrollments, reducing the amount of adjunct teaching, refining tenure standards, accepting the prestige of online publications. In fact, in the short run, some of those plans could be disastrous: Further reducing the numbers of contingent faculty members could toss a generation of already exploited teachers into the worst economic crisis in 70 years.
Instead, we must rethink what professionalization means in the academic humanities. What is it for artists to become "professional" in their training? What kinds of cues and advice do fine-arts programs give their students about their future careers? I don't know those answers, but I think that humanities professors need to talk more with their fine-arts colleagues about how they advise their students about what it means to become a working artist, or how to accept the risk of becoming an impoverished one.
The contradictions of this arts-based approach to graduate school are insuperable. We must operate with the understanding that graduate school is not necessarily a successful professional degree for most students. That may mean we need to recognize the emotional reasons why many students decide to attend graduate school. And yet I am aware that the current job market rewards skills such as focus, expertise, analysis, and productivity. We must somehow inculcate those professional skills while appealing to the contradictory desires that bring our students to graduate school in the first place despite its obvious dangers.
In that sense, then, graduate school in the humanities is not a trap. It's a choice. But it is incumbent on us to make sure it is not a lie. We should not romanticize it; it needs to be reformed in many of the ways that Benton and others have described. But I don't think the trouble with graduate school or the humanities job market is the promise of the life of the mind. Instead, we should modernize that life and understand the pleasures of those who still choose, often against their economic self-interest, to pursue it nonetheless. Ω
[James Mulholland is an assistant professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts. Mulholland earned a B.A. in English from the University of Virginia and a Ph.D. in English from Rutgers University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in ELH, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, and Oral Tradition. His current research project, entitled "Sounds In Ink: Making Poetic Voice in Eighteenth-Century Britain," focuses on the connection between oral culture and the emergence of eighteenth-century print.]
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