So You Want a PhD in the Humanities?

This is now floating around the blogosphere (I can’t seem to embed it but here’s the link to XtraNormal and the video: http://www.xtranormal.com/watch/7451115)

Like all of their videos, this one is both funny (“You’ve never spoken to me before and you want a reference from me?”) and sad (“You will spend your career defending your career choice to everyone.”). 

Of course, according to this blog posting by Mark Bauerlein, an English major will only make $20K a year less than an entry level Engineer. So there’s that.

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Changing Directions

massachusetts1445-gate_930405In a recent issue of Harvard Magazine, one of my graduate school professors (before he was at Harvard), Louis Menand, encourages graduate schools to change directions:

Doctoral education is the horse that the university is riding to the mall. People are taught—more accurately, people are socialized, since the process selects for other attributes in addition to scholarly ability—to become expert in a field of specialized study; and then, at the end of a long, expensive, and highly single-minded process of credentialization, they are asked to perform tasks for which they have had no training whatsoever: to teach their fields to non-specialists, to connect what they teach to issues that students are likely to confront in the world outside the university, to be interdisciplinary, to write for a general audience, to justify their work to people outside their discipline and outside the academy. If we want professors to be better at these things, then we ought to train them differently.

After receiving my Ph.D. (and I raced through that degree, student loans gnawing on my heels, despite teaching at several colleges at the same time), I wrote an article complaining about the narrowness of my graduate school education.  While I spent days immersed in the appropriate biographies and fictions of my chosen authors, as well as feminist and literary theory, by 3pm I’d stop, watch a rerun of Thirtysomething to clear my head, then head to whatever college I was teaching at that evening, trying to “teach [my] fields to non-specialists”.  Despite one required class in Teaching College English, I was still a novice at teaching, creating assignments, classroom management, evaluating student writing.  I wanted my graduate program to offer me more help with the job I was so clearly “credentializing” to do.

And now, as I spend my weekends alternatively evaluating how well I did with that teaching (aka grading essays), and working on two articles “for a general audience” as well as  a presentation that is part of my own quest to “justify [my] work to people outside [my] discipline and outside the academy,” I take another look back at my graduate education, and remember that yes, there was one professor who took pains to explain how we could improve our writing, requiring that we read and respond to each other’s drafts, and another who encouraged us to present our work at smaller interdisciplinary conferences, thus forcing us to write for a wider audience.  I had hoped those rare professors of the early 1990s were much more common now, but Menand’s essay suggests otherwise—at least at Harvard.

Menand’s essay concludes with a warning, however, that graduate education should change directions, become more like a law degree in terms of efficiency (so at least 3 years in length but fewer than the 10 it takes many students?), yet still maintain its purpose of creating the next generation of cultural watchdogs, of sorts:

But at the end of this road there is a danger, which is that the culture of the university will become just an echo of the public culture. That would be a catastrophe. It is the academic’s job in a free society to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn’t want to ask, investigating subjects it cannot or will not investigate, and accommodating voices it fails or refuses to accommodate. Academics need to look to the world to see what kind of teaching and research needs to be done, and how they might better train and organize themselves to do it. But they need to ignore the world’s demand that they reproduce its self-image.

I don’t work with graduate students beyond those few working on a teaching-centered masters degree, so I’m far removed from that world now.   But I know many academic bloggers do.  Is graduate school, particularly in English, changing in ways that reflect the need for less insularity? Is it a degree that can prepare someone to be not just an academic (in a market with fewer tenure track job openings annually*) , but also a public intellectual and someone who is seen as being an asset in other, non-academic, fields?  If so, how are they changing exactly? I’m curious.

* Added 16 Nov 2009: Mark Bauerlein blogged about the dismal job opening numbers in English and languages.

Rejection, Failure, and Self Reflection

My first panic attack happened during the summer before my second year (not my first, interestingly) of graduate school and adjunct teaching.  I was walking along 5th Avenue in NY and suddenly stopped breathing: there’s no other way of explaining it.  I responded with the usual Prozac and Psychotherapy, stopping the latter soon after realizing that the Psych Ph.D. was no smarter than I was (intelligence being a key factor in how I chose men, no matter what their relationship, at the time), and stopping the drugs as soon as I discovered that alcohol was cheaper, and quicker.

That was many, oh so many, summers ago, but ever since then I’ve gone through the depths of despair, so to speak, every single summer. Sometimes it happens in August, as it did way back when, but more often it happens in July, and now, it seems, it’s front loading to late June.   

I know other academics go through this, too (see PhD Me, for example): we are so focused on others and ideas (our own and others) for 60+ hours a week, 7 days a week, 10 or so months, that it’s not until the academic year ends that we have the time to breathe.  And while we are breathing we see the now pages long, 10 point font, to-do list we’ve been saving for just this summer, (everything from finishing the painting of the damned hallway, finally, to reading the dozens of books and articles we’ve saved for course prepping for fall term, to the reviews we promised to write, to the dinner invitations we still need to return, to writing up our own half-baked ideas we’ve been jotting down or blogging about informally all year), and naturally panic occurs.

It’s not necessarily rational: I do have more time now that I’m not teaching 15 hours a week, holding office hours 5 hours a week, grading and prepping 20-30 hours a week, and doing committee work several hours a week.  I’m teaching online, which requires only 5-10 hours a week, depending on the week.  I know the problem:  all the free time,  too much time to think, to dwell, to obsess. I must spend so much time working or just DOING STUFF during those 10 months of the year that I am successfully postponing any self reflection, any time for just thinking. 

Clearly, not a healthy way to live.

Thus the panic is happening earlier this summer than ever before, but at least this summer, I can attribute it to two specific events (or, more precisely, non-events).

The first: the rejection I received from NPR. Though they wrote to ME, asking ME to submit a revised “Three Books” essay. They have now rejected the revised essay with this pithy note:

“Thanks so much for your submission.  The essay isn’t really working for us, so we’re going to pass.”

To be honest, I really don’t love what I sent them: I struggled with turning something I originally threw together in 200 words into a 500 word essay. (Here I am writing a 1000+ word blog posting for god’s sake—I simply can’t write 500 words!) In the process, the heart and soul was whittled out of the piece.  But, despite actually agreeing with their pithy assessment, rejection is rejection, right?

And today, I’ve decided NOT to continue reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest even though I wasn’t so sure I’d go through with the whole Infinite Summer thing to begin with. I did read the first 63 pages (as per our assigned reading).  However, Dave Eggers’ 2006 foreword was perhaps not the best way to start the book: in it, he practically begs the reader to give the novel a chance. He starts well, noting that most readers of “literary fiction” like to read both easy to read fiction as well as challenging fiction, rather than either-or:

“These readers might actually read both kinds of fiction themselves, sometimes in the same week.”

Yes, that’s certainly true. I’ve just finished Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (definitely in the “easy to read” category—fast read, stock characters, happy ending) while also reading Infinite Jest and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth (the latter two in different subcategories of “challenging fiction”).

But then Eggers compares Infinite Jest to a

 “spaceship with no recognizable components…very shiny, and it has no discernible flaws…It simply is. Page by page, line by line, it is probably the strangest, most distinctive, and most involved work of fiction by an American in the last twenty years. At no time while reading Infinite Jest are you unaware that this is a work of complete obsession, of a stretching of the mind of a young writer to the point of, we assume, near madness.”

At this point, I’m thinking: oh great, one of those cult-followed novels that only those who wear black, black framed glasses, and carry their smugness like Linus’ blanket everywhere they go will appreciate this novel.   Then Eggers says that the expected age of a new reader of this novel that captures “the consciousness of an age” is 25.  Oh, he concedes that some more ancient readers, 30 or even 50 year olds, might be condescendingly reading the book for the first time, but basically, he assumes that like he was the first time he read the book,  the reader is a 25 year old English major, and, I assume, male.

So I go into this book knowing that I am not at all the target audience. Not a good way to begin a novel when I have dozens of other novels,  novels that are practically begging a middle aged woman English professor to read them, waiting for me by my bed. 

So even though the novel is fairly easy to read (despite the endnotes, which do seem to be increasing with each chapter, unfortunately), and with characters who (sorry Eggers) DO resemble other characters in fiction, from Holden Caulfield way back to Tom Sawyer—and all those adolescent boys/men in between—and there does seem to be an actual plot focusing on different addictions, I just don’t want to keep reading. I have too much else to read. 

So, rejection and failure in one day.

But it has led to self-reflection. It’s summer. I do have a long to-do list, but hell will not freeze over if I ignore half of it. And while neither my rejection nor my failure will impact my career or my life in any negative way—no job or income depended on either—they have led me to reflect on what I really want to accomplish this summer.  And I’m happy with that.   I’ll let you know if I figure what that actually IS before August.