"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Monday, June 20, 2011

Idealism Gone Wrong

Exactly a year ago, I was deep in the middle of teaching a summer session course.

I'd been offered it last-minute, of course, a week and a half before summer session started. It was an upper-level course -- a survey but restricted to majors. It covered a period of about 400 years, only half of which fell within my field of primary expertise. Hence, I had about a week and a half to cobble together a syllabus, through only half of which I might be able to offer students something resembling the educational experience they deserved. And even when one is working within familiar territory, a week and a half is hardly enough time to put together a truly thoughtful syllabus for a course one has not taught before.

Scheduler of Adjuncts didn't care about quality, though, only about staffing the class. Only seven students enrolled initially, but the department chose to run it anyway (normally such a class would require at least twelve) because six of the seven were paying out-of-state tuition, which meant that one-and-a-half of them covered my adjunct salary and the university could pocket the rest.

I didn't really want to take on the class, but I needed the money. I didn't have a tenure-track job lined up for the fall, didn't know if I'd be offered any classes (or how many) to teach as an adjunct in the fall, and had no other summer work lined up but an SAT prep gig that didn't pay enough to cover my expenses for the summer.

Commencement, at which I newly became "recent Ph.D." was the last week in May. It felt good for a day, upon which family and friends reveled in pomp and circumstance, while I sweated in ridiculous regalia, posed for pictures, and later consumed a ridiculous abundance of good whiskey. Then it was back to prepping for the class that should have just been cancelled -- or at least scheduled a month or two earlier (oh, wait, it was, but the second most highly paid professor in the department decided ze was too busy, well into May, to be bothered with such responsibilities).

 But I digress. I pulled a syllabus together, ordered books, and generally got my shit together in order not to embarrass myself and, at the very least, to offer the students something that made them feel like the class was "worth it."

I shouldn't have worried too much, though. Six of the seven students were there to earn credit they needed to graduate the following year -- and that was pretty much all. They did the readings, wrote the papers, talked more or less enough to fill the time in class, and were more or less glad to get on with their summers when the class ended. They helped a class that should never have been turn out OK, for which I am grateful, but we need say no more about them. They are not my subject.

The seventh person who had initially enrolled already had a college degree. And a law degree. And, ten years since graduating from college, was gainfully employed at a law firm.

And ze thought ze wanted to go to graduate school.

Because ze had Deep Questions that couldn't answered anywhere else. Because Academe represented a Beacon of Light and Hope that cast the Enlightenment that comes through living the Life of the Mind upon the Intellectual Darkness of day-to-day drudgery at the law firm.

Really, ze was too old and experienced not to have known better. But the Life of the Mind was calling, and ze had signed up for my course as a kind of refresher and also because ze had attended an undergrad program that didn't have traditional majors (actually, an excellent program, but, alas, such consequences!), like English, and so ze was seeking, through my badly planned, half-assed, last-minute excuse for a class, an immersion in the discipline, a true experience of Intellectual Inquiry through the study of Great Literature, an introduction to the Great Gods of Theory, a journey towards Wisdom in the Word. Indeed, ze burned with a hard, gemlike flame.

Our conversation went something like this:
Student (after first class, clearly beneath hir intellectual functioning): "Do you think this is the right course for me?"

Me: "Well, I don't know. You have a college degree already, and a law degree. Why are you taking an undergraduate course?"

Student: "I felt I needed to take an English course to enhance my knowledge of the Discipline before applying to Graduate School. I also feel I need to prove to Admissions Committees that I'm serious. Because, you know, in my program we didn't have majors, and I need to prove that, for sure, Literary Studies is the Right Field. Because I'm working as a lawyer, not doing what an English Major would do. And because I've never taken an English course."

Me: "How can you be so sure you want to get a Ph.D. in English when you've never taken an English course?"

Student: "Because it is in my blood. Because I have burning Intellectual Questions, and I feel that English is the field most suited to answering them. I want to be a Professor."

Me: "Having burning intellectual questions is great, but you already have a career. And you don't need to go to graduate school to pursue your intellectual interests. You already have enough education to know how to learn on your own. And do you know how few professor jobs there are? Most 'professors' just end up doing what I'm doing, teaching semester-by-semester, course-by-course, not having enough time to prep their classes, much less pursue Deep Intellectual Concerns. And never having enough money. I'm pretty sure you're better off as a lawyer."

Student: 'IknowIknowIknow. I've read all the 'stay away' articles. I've read Thomas H. Benton. I've read Marc Bousquet. But I know this is really for me. That I'm meant for it. If there are not jobs when I graduate, I can always go back to lawyering, or I can teach high school. Or I can just be an adjunct, because my spouse is a lawyer, too, and ze makes even more than I do. So, it's just irrelevant, the job market."

Me: "The job market is irrelevant?"

Student: "Well, for me it is."

Me: "For fear of spewing cliches, you do know that 'no man is an island,' right? I mean, the job market may not be relevant to you, but it is for most of the rest of us. And the reason we're having this conversation -- you wanted to know if this summer class is the right one to nurture your intellectual curiosity -- well, the reason I would say it's not the right course for you is that it will not be the kind of intellectually stimulating course you may be expecting. It may not be what you're expecting at all, and the reason is directly tied to the academic job market and, more broadly, the labor structure of higher ed. I wish I could tell you differently, but I'd be lying. Honestly, I'd love to have you in class --and I hope you'll stay -- but you'll be wasting your tuition."

Student: "Oh.................but, you know, I thought so-and-so was teaching this course. Ze has a really impressive scholarly profile. I wanted to Learn from hir..........Why are you teaching this class?"

Me: "An explanation at this point would be futile. I'm telling you these things because I think the next generation of academics has a responsibility to be concerned about the state of the profession they are entering, not just their own Intellectual Interests. I wouldn't say that no one should go to graduate school, but if all you care about is yourself and your own 'interests', well.....what about your future colleagues? What about your future students? Your choices indirectly but ultimately affect their working conditions and quality of education. Those things should matter to all of us, above and beyond our petty individual interests. Because what do those interests matter, if the learning community of which we are a part falls apart?"

Student: "I don't like you. You're scaring me. I'm not taking your class. Who can I talk to in this department that will tell me what I want to hear?"

Me: "Over there. There's the door. Many people here, unfortunately, will tell you exactly what you want to hear."
And so ze withdrew. I was sincere in saying that I would have loved having hir in class -- ze had a lot to contribute. But the class wasn't what ze was looking for, and I felt an obligation to disclose at least a glimpse of how things really are to someone aiming to throw away a career ze already had for a naive ideal.

*     *     *     *     *

I'm not sure there was a course being offered that summer that was what ze was really looking for -- or that graduate school, more generally, would have given hir what ze wanted.

Self-interest, self-absorption, self-aggrandisement, self-deception, self-delusion. Academe encourages these qualities by mislabelling them idealism and commitment to "the life of the mind."

I'm not saying I'm any better than this student. I fell into the same trap a decade ago -- had a career as a high school teacher, had a gainfully employed partner, ignored the signs of a sick sad academic world because my Intellecktaulle Interests took precednece.

Why do so many people keep falling into this trap over and over and over and over again? Doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting different results? Isn't that the definition of insanity?


  1. So do you think I'm nuts to want to move in the opposite direction, go to law school?

  2. Hmmmm. Depends, I guess. I know a few too many lawyers who aren't working as lawyers. They're gainfully employed but not earning what they thought they would. Which must kind of suck if you borrowed $150K to go to law school.

    I am inclined to agree with Worst Professor Ever on the question of should you puruse more education: "No, you should not. End of story. Do not get an MBA. Do not get a PhD. Do not go to law school. Do not pass Go. You will be wasting your money because there are already too many people with too many credentials. So unless you like the idea of the university using you as an angel investor (at best) or cheap labor (at worst), save your money."

    What I'm seeing out here -- a few months into working on the "outside" -- is that the people doing well aren't necessarily the ones with any sort of education beyond a bachelor's. They just hit the ground running and figured out ways of making themsleves useful in the world, which, over time, led to interesting jobs and decent salaries.

  3. Yes, I'm inclined to agree also although I really like esoteric academic work and although my reasons for having wanted to go to law school all this time are pretty specific.

    It's just hard to tell. There are a lot of things I could do, e.g. commercial web design like Amanda Krauss, etc., if I had to, God knows I've got the skills. But the only impassioning career ideas I've ever had were:

    * top type professor (not drone professor, which is what I actually am)
    * certain kind of public interest lawyer and legal scholar
    * certain kind of investigative journalist (this is actually the one I've always considered the most out of reach / unrealistic)

    ... so if top professor and cool journalist are both impossible, which I think they are, then the kind of law job I have in mind would be what's left and better in that it would be in a city, and the debt thing would be OK since I'd be in a job that qualified for loan forgiveness.

    But I agree, for most people and certainly for recent college grads, I am totally against grad school. It was really good for me, I must say, because I was raised to have zero confidence and still didn't have much by the time I graduated college; by the time I had the PhD I had managed to get over a whole lot of c*** and I am really grateful I had the chance to do it.
    But, I would have advised myself (did advise myself, just didn't take own advice) to go into something else at graduation, and it's what I'd advise others, too.

    Of course, I also don't recommend more than negligible student loan debt -- I did the PhD when it was a lot cheaper, so I just lived on TAships; I also did it in a place I really wanted to live anyway; so it wasn't the kind of sacrifice it is for a lot of people.

  4. Why is cool journalist impossible?

    I can't say journalism has really appealed all that much to me. I've been doing a bit of freelancing lately, and it's OK. I do like getting paid to write, but I don't like not having the kind of control over what I say that I have when blogging or even doing an academic article.

    At least you're passionate about some other things besides esoteric academic research. For me, in earlier years it was classical music (and if you think finding a tt professor job is hard, try finding one in a professional orchestra!) and then later esoteric academic research.

    I suppose being a public interest lawyer is something actually doable, and that's good, to be at least somewhat passionate about something doable.

    I'm a lost cause, I guess. Which is why I'm trying out the independent scholar thing and seeing where it goes. Being a secretary is pretty much as boring as you'd expect, but I don't really know what else to do with myself. This job is quite decent, as far as such jobs go -- an office with no dress code, a much nicer physical space than any of the crappy offices I shared as a grad student and adjunct (no cubicles here!), amiable coworkers, walking distance from home, and plenty of "down time" to do whatever I please with -- the latter being the primary reason to stay while I try to figure things out...

    The one thing I would have advised myself to have done differently in the course of earning the Ph.D. would have been to have a Plan B: Gain more marketable skillz (even just doing some freelance writing to "prove" that -- hehe -- a Ph.D. in English can actually write) and network more with people outside academe, which is something I've never been good at, even in academe, but on the outside, that's how you get jobs. And I'm stuck at square one.

  5. The kind of journalist I want to be would be like, Michael or Christian Parenti, or Pico Iyer, which would be hard to break into. My idea is that it would be a result of my law job.

    My original idea with the PhD was to go into think tank type of work. Then I got swept up into job market expectations although my plan B was precisely yours, if I didn't get a job, be a secretary. But I got a (good) job, hated it, wanted to quit and go back and retrain (the plan I had involved Arabic, and boy would that be lucrative about now) or into industry somehow. But I got convinced to take a different job, liked that better, but during it came up with the law school dream. Have not yet been able to finance that and this is partly due to my uneven confidence.

    I think you're doing well, though, and I also think I should have worked harder on the Plan B during the PhD program. It's just that it became such a hothouse, so much to do to get through every term, it was hard to come up with time to reflect. That's how I got onto this juggernaut.

  6. Your plan that involved Arabic -- yes to that. Another piece of advice I would have given to myself would have been to use the tuition remission, once I was done with coursework, to become proficient in a language like Arabic or Chinese (there's a HUGE demand around here). My French is only good eough to have passed the required language exam, and it's pretty useless now.

    I do wish grad programs would do a better job of promoting this sort of thing. Instead, they encourage grad students to believe that if they publish just one more article, present at one more conference, teach one more class, that they'll eventually be "competitive" enough to get a tt job. And it's such bullshit. Going on the market ABD the first time, I had one full-length article. Wasn't enough. Last year, I had two. Wasn't enough. This year, if I do go on the market again, I have three. I'm going to bet it's not enough. When it comes right down to it, what matters is "fit," and I have no control over that. Moreover, I didn't get into this in the first place in order to "fit" somebody else';s idea of what a scholar is. Better to have a back-up plan!

  7. What interests me is that people are now told they *will* be marketable. In my day we were told that there would be no academic jobs, the people who got them would be the exceptions, and so on.

    What I wish we'd been told was what it was really like! Only a very few professor jobs are like the jobs my professors had, and I knew what the problems were with those (I'm faculty spawn, too) ... didn't really have a clue of how much like high school it would be ... !!!