Category Archives: Professionalization

Enough already

Ugh. Another snarky article about how graduate students in the humanities are deluded and responsible for their own misery, this time from Rebecca Schuman at Slate. I hate these rants for several reasons, one of which I’ve touched on earlier: there is no land of magical great jobs that people are sacrificing by going to graduate school, particularly in the humanities. Everybody’s having a tough time finding a secure, fulfilling job these days. The US labor market is undergoing some pretty fundamental shifts, and it’s far from evident which careers and fields will emerge from the Great Recession unbattered and offering opportunities to young workers.

Obviously, academia isn’t a secure career choice, but there are very few secure career choices these days, and even fewer secure career choices that someone committed to teaching and critical inquiry can feel passionate about. Most graduate students aren’t choosing between a run at the academy and a well-paid, highly-satisfying job in the non-profit sector. They’re choosing between grad school and a job they hate, or a low-paying job in a field that’s overrun with other folks looking for a career doing something they feel passionate about.

“Don’t go to grad school” makes all sorts of blanked assumptions about class and race that Tressie McMillan Cottom covers beautifully.

But that’s not even what irritates me most. Because, yeah, as individual advice, “don’t go to grad school” is pretty good. Everyone should be strongly advised not to go to grad school. But that cannot be the only message about grad school that makes it onto the national media radar. Not while we’re still holding out any hope for American higher education as an institution.

When we say “don’t go to grad school,” and especially when we say, “don’t go to grad school in the humanities,” we’re confirming the popular notion that the humanities are useless. They’re so useless that the best advice we can come up with is to just shut them down wholesale by depriving humanities departments of anyone to teach in them. They’re so useless that advanced study in the humanities can’t possibly prepare you for anything other than a professorship. They’re not only useless, but they’re toxic. Spend too long in a humanities discipline and you become a broken-down shell of a person whose primary contribution can only be angry rants about the academy.

All of that may be true in many individual cases, just as “don’t go to grad school” is good advice in many individual cases. But if this is the only advice we can offer, if this is the best solution to the problem of graduate education, then we might as well hand the job of educating American college students over to EdX and Coursera now.

These perennial rants are an opportunity to say, yes, graduate education in the humanities needs some serious attention and, yes, the people who teach college students to think and write should not have to live in poverty, but we need people to teach students to think and write. If no one goes to grad school, then the machines will have to grade the papers, and American students will be poorer for it.

Why keep giving advice that suggests exploited workers are to blame for their own exploitation? Why keep giving advice that offers absolutely nothing in the way of systematic or institutional solutions? Why keep giving advice that, if actually followed, would shut down education in the humanities? The only reason I can think of is that you don’t actually believe educating students in the humanities is worthwhile. And if that’s the case, why do you get to be the voice that everyone outside of academe hears? Why do you get a national platform? And why are those of us who still care about defending the humanities engaging with this stupid argument again and again?

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How far downhill has freelance journalism gone in the last 120 years?

Very far. In 1891, Walter Hines Page writes the following letter of acceptance for an article for the Forum:

My dear Sir:

I thank you for submitting your interesting paper on “Europe’s Military Frankenstein,” which I shall be glad to use in an early number of The Forum. I shall ask you to accept our check for the sum we usually pay per article — $75, which is not a large sum, to-be-sure. We shall be able to give you, however, the most appreciative audience reached, we think, by any periodical.

$75—“not a large sum, to-be-sure”—is, wait for it… $1796.34 in 2010 dollars. The letter doesn’t say how long the article was, but I’d guess not more than 2 or 3 thousand words.

ETA: Page follows up with a check for $100 ($2395.12) instead of $75, because he “could not find a paragraph that [he] could suggest [the author] to leave out. What, after all, are a few pages more or less, when you have an interesting paper?”

Citation: MS Am 1090 (1039), Houghton Library, Harvard University

A four year PhD?

So, MLA president Russell Berman says we need to reform the literature PhD. He frames the argument in terms of cost: “Doctoral programs are expensive.” They’re expensive for the universities who fund their doctoral students, and they’re expensive for the students who assume the cost of their education at programs where they’re not funded. And time to degree takes forever: 9 years on average in English and comp lit. Those two things are not unrelated, although Berman doesn’t talk all that much about that. Students in poorly-funded graduate programs take a lot longer to finish the PhD because they’re doing things like working extra jobs, adjuncting on the side, waiting tables in the summer. Across the board, there are other things that affect time to degree. Parenthood’s a big one, but other life-related things also get in the way. People rethink the work they’re doing. And in my program at least, folks will often defend a dissertation but not graduate for a semester or more so that they can remain funded by the department while taking a second go at the job market.

But sure, no one wants graduate students languishing in grad school for almost a decade. Berman’s solution is to completely reform the PhD in literature to make it a four-year professional degree. To make that feasible, programs would have to streamline the coursework required for the degree so it can be completed in two years. They would replace the dissertation with a capstone project. In addition, Berman emphasizes the importance of language facility and digital literacy, as well as increased professionalization for careers outside the academy.

That last part sounds great to me, but everything else seems pretty ill-advised. Berman doesn’t even address the MA that many graduate students receive in the course of the PhD–I assume MA theses and reports would have to go, as well. It’s also not clear where teaching would fit in. Berman divides graduate programs into “universities that provide generous, multiyear fellowships” and places where ” where graduate study depends on teaching assistantships.” My first two years of graduate school were funded with teaching assistantships, but after I completed my MA, I have taught classes in introductory rhetoric and writing, a survey of American literature, and an introduction to  African American literature. Designing and teaching these courses has been essential professional training, not only in the event that I manage to land a tenure track job, but also for any teaching I go on to do. But it’s also taken time on my part. Teaching literature courses have required a significant amount of knowledge and preparation, knowledge built through two and a half years of coursework, an MA report, and a field exam, not to mention observing tenured professors’ courses as a TA. I certainly wouldn’t feel qualified to teach the classes I do without that preparation.

But teaching doesn’t seem to be among Berman’s primary concerns in reimagining the literature PhD, which strikes me as odd, given that I and most of my colleagues came to graduate school because we wanted to teach. According to Berman, “the literature PhD can lead to careers in the public humanities, in cultural sectors—publishing, translation, journalism, the film industry—or, frankly, anywhere in business, government, or the not-for-profit world where intensive research skills are at a premium.” All true, and I’m glad to see these options being publicly discussed as valid career choices, rather than some sort of shameful course of last resort for those who can’t hack it in the academy. Graduate programs should absolutely prepare students for these careers, and should work to integrate professionalization outside the academy into the curriculum.

But does that necessitate the creation of a professional degree in literature? And will that professional degree also prepare to teach literature at the university level? More practically, would departments looking to hire assistant professors want to hire someone with a four-year professional degree in literature? I’m betting no on that last question, and I can’t say I’d blame them. I certainly wouldn’t feel qualified to teach graduate students after just four years, and would still have a lot to learn about teaching undergraduates, as well. And we can worry about time to degree all we want, but those lucky folks who get tenure track jobs tend to have spent longer in graduate school. Some of that is because it’s often necessary to go on the job market two or three times. It also takes time not only to write a dissertation, but to publish and develop a solid teaching portfolio. If departments continue to maintain the same requirements for hiring, then I don’t see how anyone with a four-year PhD would be able to fill them. Would I want a professional degree that gave me a shot at a wide and somewhat poorly-defined field of careers but left me unqualified to even try my luck on the academic job market? Not in the slightest.

I’m also unconvinced by the argument that we need to ditch the dissertation. Berman notes that the scholarly monograph is increasingly useless, and he’s right. But why do we have to see the dissertation as a manuscript for a book? Practically speaking, because you need a book for tenure. But if you didn’t need a book for tenure–if you could get tenure on the strength of articles, or other projects–then we might be able to think about the dissertation in different terms. There is a great deal of value in conceiving of an executing a project of the scale of a dissertation. It takes entirely different skills than the seminar paper, which is generally written in a panic-induced frenzy and quickly forgotten about. Just as we must give graduate students the opportunity to teach if we want to train them as teachers, we must also give them the opportunity to write if we want to train them as writers. And the writing skills one acquires in writing a dissertation are far from incidental. Revision, for instance, which is something I never had time for when writing seminar papers. Conceiving of an argument large enough to need multiple chapters, and showing how those pieces are connected. Breaking an enormous project into multiple pieces, and addressing those pieces at a manageable, sustainable pace. Those are important skills.

Finally, it strikes me as disingenuous at best to address the state of graduate training without also addressing the state of the job market and how that might be changed. More to the point, without addressing the inexcusable exploitation of adjunct labor in the humanities. If I were inclined to take a conspiratorial view of things, I might see this proposed four year professional degree as exactly the sort of thing that qualifies people to be adjuncts but unfits them to be professors. Sure, it’s aimed at getting people jobs outside of the academy, but the need for adjunct labor won’t dry up on its own, meaning that people will continue to take these jobs, particularly if they went to graduate school, as many of us do, with the explicit goal of teaching. Rather than seeing the MLA take this unfeasible stand on graduate education, I would like to see it offer some solutions to the problem of adjunct exploitation. Let’s deal with that before we muck around with a deeply-entrenched educational system. Right now, the job options if you want to teach undergraduates are the unattainable tenure track position and the soul-sucking prospect of multiple adjunct jobs. There are a precious few options in between, and there should be many more. It should be possible to teach undergraduates to read and write, work that desperately needs to be done, without committing to the research and publishing work of a tenured professor, while still being paid a reasonable wage and provided with benefits. Why is that a pipe dream? And why is that not a better systemic issue to tackle than time to degree?

Grad school and opportunity cost

Okay. Not that we really need yet another voice in this never-ending lament about the state of graduate education in the humanities, especially from someone who’s still a year out from the job market, but I am feeling strangely compelled to weigh in. There’s a nice round-up of the current rehashing of the should-you-or-shouldn’t-you question here, so I won’t bother recapping the whole thing. Besides, it should all feel more than familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to this argument for the last decade plus.

What I want to talk about is opportunity cost, because this is the argument that has struck me as most compelling about why one shouldn’t go to graduate school. The standard line goes, not only do you spend six or more years earning just enough to keep you afloat (or even worse, incurring debt), but you sacrifice the experience, earning power, and salary increases you would have had if you had remained in the workforce. That means you come out of grad school with a PhD, sure, but probably without a job and less the six plus years’ experience and earning power you would have accumulated had you remained in the work force. This post estimates (and I use the word estimates generously) that opportunity cost to be a million dollars. This one provides anecdotal evidence that puts the cost around half a million.

I find this argument compelling because I would like to have some retirement savings some day, and right now I don’t have any because I stretch my graduate stipend a long way, but not far enough to start a 401K. And the idea that instead of having saved the absolutely necessary minimum safety net for myself, I might be actually preparing for the future is very appealing. But it’s not necessarily accurate. Here’s why (and here I’m expanding on Mark Sample’s comment here):

0. I’m assuming here that one is going to graduate school without debt. That’s a big assumption, and one that I know isn’t true of many people. But I’m a firm believer that undergrad debt is to be avoided at all costs for exactly this reason: coming out of undergrad with little to no debt frees you up to take career risks. And the one thing everyone can agree on is that graduate school is a career risk. Similarly, I assume that the graduate program you enroll in is fully funded. Because, again, not incurring debt by going to graduate school frees you to take career risks.

0.5. I’m also assuming we’re talking primarily about people who go to grad school immediately or a few years out of undergrad, rather than those who are making a later career change. The hypothetical argument about opportunity cost isn’t applicable to the latter group, as they’re well able to calculate the specific opportunity costs for themselves.

1. The arguments about opportunity costs tend to offer hypothetical alternative careers. Hooters manager is popular. Sometimes people mention law school, but these days that’s a terrible example. Sean Takats uses his career at IBM as an example. The implication always seems to be that someone in any career will be building earning power over the course of six or seven years. That’s not so much the case, though, particularly for people starting a career with a BA, particularly today. My younger sister graduated literally at the top of her class in 2009 and couldn’t find anything other than part time jobs for two years. She’s in grad school now earning an MPP, and will have more job options and make more money when she’s done. But with just a BA, she and her friends were all struggling to find jobs. Some people get lucky or have connections and land a career (as opposed to a job) right out of undergrad, but that’s certainly not the norm. But the idea that there’s this land of alternate careers that recent graduates are walking away from is ridiculous.

2. Even if there was a land of lucrative, stable careers to run off to, we can’t assume that’s what people considering graduate school would do.  Before I decided to go to grad school, I was all set to get a master’s in library science and become a children’s librarian. Wish I’d stuck to that plan–I’d really be raking it in. Of my grad school colleagues, many of them were teaching high school before going to grad school. One was working in a youth shelter. People are drawn to graduate school because they’re interested in certain kinds of work that they’re likely to end up doing even if they don’t get a PhD. And those kinds of work tend not to pay so well.

3. That’s not to say all my colleagues were out saving the world before grad school. Another friend made a ton of money in real estate. She took something like a 90% pay cut to come to grad school. But she was working 90 hour weeks and was miserable. She still works a lot, but she enjoys it. Another friend worked for a health insurance company and made quite a bit of money. But man, is she glad to be doing what she’s doing now.

4. Finally, I don’t think we should look at the years in graduate school as wasted, career-wise. Graduate training develops many relevant, marketable skills. You may need to have a bit of luck or to know the right person to land a job outside of the academy after you get your PhD, but you need to have a bit of luck or know the right person to land any job. Seriously. Job hunting is hard for everyone these days. You’ve got to be ready to promote yourself and your skills and your contributions. But you know what, you’d have to have been able to do that in the hypothetical land of alternate careers. Because all those claims about raises and promotions assume that you’ll be good at your career out there in the non-academic world and that you’ll be able to promote yourself and articulate your contributions and network, etc., etc. Those are the same skills that will turn six years of graduate training into a set of marketable skills.

Okay, I’ve said my piece, although not as coherently as I’d like. I don’t want to imply that there aren’t a million problems with the academy and hiring and graduate training. But (and this is my increasing pessimism speaking) there are a million problems with everything in the American workforce. There is no land of jobs for everyone, and free market capitalism is crushing us here in the academy, but it’s crushing everybody else as well. We can talk about opportunity cost, but we also need to acknowledge that the alternatives to graduate school have their problems as well.

Slow starts and motivation

I’m making lamentably slow progress on the chapter I wanted to have drafted by the end of the summer. I haven’t given up all hope of meeting my deadline, but I have reminded myself that sometimes the early stages of the drafting process take longer than you want them to. The difficulty for me is identifying when I’m dragging my feet because I’m mentally not ready to start writing—I haven’t done enough research, I don’t have a strong enough grasp on the secondary criticism, I have no idea how I want to focus my argument or what I can add—and when I’m just procrastinating because intellectual work is hard first thing in the morning and it’s much more fun to read every diverting thing I can find on the internet. I’ve been doing a bit of both lately, but this week I’ve finally been able to see the structure of the draft start to take shape in my head. I’ve got a good sense of where it can start, and what several of the body sections should address. I still don’t know how it should end, nor what the ultimate argument will be, but I’m not going to sweat that until I’ve got several thousand words written.

It helps that I presented a very preliminary paper on the subject of this chapter at a conference in late May. Having to write the paper forced me to synthesize some of my thoughts about my research and turn what seemed like the most interesting avenue into a short, focused argument. That argument may not be all that central to the final argument of the chapter, but it gives me a place to start.

Perhaps even more helpful to this very intimidating chapter-writing process is the response my paper got when I presented it. I didn’t set the world of American literature on fire or anything, but the panel had upwards of 25 people in the audience (!), and I got several questions that indicated listeners were interested and engaged in the argument I was making. The next day, a scholar whose work I’m familiar with and admire approached me to say he’d enjoyed my talk. And last month, a very major scholar in the field contacted me about my paper—he hadn’t been able to attend the conference, but had seen the title of my paper in the program and had some questions about my research in relation to a project he’s working on.

While none of these encounters have any really tangible consequences for me professionally (although I do have my fingers crossed for a citation somewhere in the last scholar’s book), they’re all helpful affirmations that topic of this chapter is one that others find interesting. Keeping that in mind is an invaluable corrective to the frustration and pessimism that creeps in at the early stages of the writing process. When I start to think that I don’t have anything significant to say, or that nobody will want to read forty pages about what reviewers had to say about this one novel, I can remind myself that what I’m working on is of interest to people other than myself. It doesn’t make the early drafting stages any less painful, but it does make them feel a bit less futile.

Notes to self: conference paper tips

I’m making fitful progress on my paper for a conference later this month. I need to be making less fitful progress, because I need to have the paper pretty well finished by the end of next week. Somewhere between now and then, I also have to do all of my end of semester grading.

I’m past the early I-have-nothing-to-say-how-am-I-going-to-fill-twenty-minutes stage, and have moved on to the holy-crap-how-am-I-going-to-cram-all-my-research-and-notes-into-twenty-minutes stage. In fact, I’m swiftly approaching the I-don’t-care-what-I-say-just-as-long-as-I-get-something-cohesive-written-down stage. This is the point when I start directing my attention to the form of the writing as well as the content, and start reminding myself that I will be reading this paper, out loud, to a group of people who I don’t want to bore to tears, and that I need to compose my words accordingly. In preparation for this stage, I thought I’d compile some of the collected wisdom I’ve picked up about writing conference papers (as well as a few tips on delivering them).

(N.B. My own conference presentation experience is relatively limited, so some of this is as-yet-untried advice that sounded good to me [to clarify: advice other people have given me]. My conference audience experience is more significant, though, and some of these tips are an attempt to remind myself of what I’ve observed from that side of the podium.)

1. Keep it short. This applies both to the paper itself (just because you have twenty minutes doesn’t mean you need to take them all), and to the sentences in the paper. Remember that your audience won’t have the opportunity to go back and re-read the first clause of a complicated sentence.

2. Map out the specific tasks your paper will undertake, and make them clear at the beginning of your talk. I like phrases like “This paper will,” or “In this talk, I will.” This can also be a good place to say what you won’t do: “I don’t have time here to cover all of x, so what I’d like to do today is talk about y and z.” If your paper will have several parts, this is the time to list them so that your audience can follow the organization of your paper as you talk.

3. Use lots of signals. This is really an extension of point two. Incorporate lots of transition phrases—way more than you might use in a written paper (unless you’re like me and already make over-liberal use of transitions). Every so often, recap what you’ve done and where you’re going: “Now that I’ve done x, I want to address y.” You can also get a lot of mileage from “In other words,” particularly following long or complicated sentences.

4. Remind your audience of information in ways that make them feel smart, rather than inadequate. “As you know,” or “As we all know,” can generate a lot of goodwill, if said in a tone that makes you audience think you genuinely think they do know. It can gently correct a questioner who isn’t making much sense or doesn’t actually seem to be asking a relevant question. It can also slap down an asshole questioner, or make you look like the asshole, so be sure to use it with the correct emphasis.

5. Don’t spend too much time on secondary sources. This is not the time for a lit review. The best tasks for conference papers are those that can be accomplished without spending very long on what other critics say about your topic. Sure, you want to look smart and like you know a lot of stuff, but the best way to do that is to make a focused, well-supported argument that reflects your own contributions, rather than to quote lots of other people. Of course, you don’t want to look like you’re not aware of important relevant work, but a brief paraphrase or a passing reference is often enough to show your audience you’re on top of things. Assume that if you’re familiar with a significant critic or argument, many of them will be, too.

6. Make your conclusion short, clear, and to the point. Remind your audience what you’ve done in your paper: “As I hope I’ve shown…” Tell them what the next step is or should be. Is there more research to be done? An obvious question your paper raises? Is this paper part of a larger work you want to put a plug in for?

7. Be funny, if you can. I usually can’t, but I think that may be at least partially because I still get really, really nervous. If you can master the nerves and insert a little levity, your audience is sure to appreciate it, and to remember your paper better because of it.

8. Don’t improvise, but if you must, be sure to allot time for improvisation. Nobody likes to hear someone read the last three pages of their paper a mile a minute to try to make up for a digression. And it’s a shame to have to cut a section you worked hard on to make up for a stuttery tangent. If you’re actually good at speaking on the fly, you probably don’t need any of this advice. But if you’re not a confident and accomplished improviser, stick to what you’ve got on the page.

9. Never underestimate the benefit of a good handout. I’ve also seen people use PowerPoint really effectively to display longer quotations, especially ones they were close reading. One presenter had significant words show up in different colors to emphasize what was important in his reading. I’m thinking about trying that out some time, but until then, I rely on handouts to help my audience follow my argument. Some people use the handout to outline the argument itself, but I find them most helpful for evidentiary purposes. The paper I’m working on now is drawn from fifty some-odd reviews of a novel. I don’t have the time to read all the relevant quotations (and my audience would probably claw their eyes out if I did), so I’m planning on putting together a handout of the most important ones so the audience can have a sense of the evidence that supports the claims I’m making. I’m going to try to keep the handout to a page, front and back, though—a good handout is a short handout.

10. Stand still and stand up straight. I had a mock trial coach in high school who used to make me deliver my arguments from across the very large conference room. He’d stand on the other end and yell down to me, “Louder,” and, “Be a tree.” He yelled, “Be a tree,” over and over again until I stopped slouching, stopped fidgeting, stopped stepping up and down on my toes, stopped leaning to one side or the other. Every time I get up in front of a group of people, I remind myself, “Louder,” and, “Be a tree.”

11. Practice. Duh. But seriously, practice reading the paper as much as you can. It gets a lot harder when you’re standing up in front of a bunch of people.

This is a fairly haphazard compilation, so any other conference paper tips, particularly on writing them with speaking in mind, would be greatly appreciated.