“Yet of all the machines that humanity has created, few seem more precisely calibrated to the destruction of hope than the academic job market.”
“I still teach, and do so with a veteran’s pride in what I know and what I hope I can give. My classrooms are, I hope, bright and sunny places where we can spend good time with Joyce’s Ulysses or Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. But I know what some of my students sense, that what we do now faces an array of problems, any one of which might prove surmountable, but which together amount to an enervating spectacle. Fewer and fewer undergraduates are showing up in classrooms, mine and everyone else’s; the pleasure of undergraduate reading is everywhere blighted by worries about money and career; university administrators are more likely to classify “literary types” as budgetary liabilities than as assets; the disciplines we teach are in a free fall, as ideology, ethnicity, theory, gender, sexuality, and old-fashioned “close reading” spin away from any center of professional consensus about joint purposes; and the youngest would-be professionals, shrinking in number, stare at diminished job prospects.
It would be a pleasure to map a way out of this academic dead end. First, several of my colleagues around the country have called for a return to the aesthetic wellsprings of literature, the rock-solid fact, often neglected, that it can indeed amuse, delight, and educate. They urge the teaching of English, or French, or Russian literature, and the like, in terms of the intrinsic value of the works themselves, in all their range and multiplicity, as well-crafted and appealing artifacts of human wisdom. Second, we should redefine our own standards for granting tenure, placing more emphasis on the classroom and less on published research, and we should prepare to contest our decisions with administrators whose science-based model is not an appropriate means of evaluation. Released from the obligation to deliver research results in the form of little-read monographs and articles, humanists could then resolve to spend their time teaching what they love to students glad to learn. If they wanted to publish, they could do so—at almost no cost—on the Internet, and like-minded colleagues could rapidly share the results of such research and speculation. Most important, the luxury of reading could be welcomed back. I want to believe in what they say.
I have also wanted to believe that English and American literature constitutes a subject of study that is historically coherent and shaped by the intrinsic design of its own making. The causes giving it that shape can be analyzed, as can the merit and integrity of each of the achievements within it. And students, without whose energetic presence the study will wither, can be attracted to an activity—partly aesthetic and partly detective-like—in which they can participate along with teachers who bring enthusiasm to the work at hand. Like young scientists teaming together with older scientists at the same workbench, they can be made to feel that what they are doing makes sense, is shared by others, and will result in knowledge worth having. Perhaps they, the youngest generation, can labor with their teachers in putting together the house that has forfeited its sense of order. If they do, they can graduate with the knowledge that they possess something: a fundamental awareness of how a certain powerful literature was created over time, how its parts fit together, and how the process of creation has been renewed and changed through the centuries.
Some of their detective work could involve topics of great current interest—the role of race or gender or sexuality in the making of a work. But the focus would or should be on the books, not on the theories they can be made to support. English departments need not refight the Western culture wars. But they need to fight their own book wars. They must agree on which texts to teach and argue out the choices and the principles of making them if they are to claim the respect due a department of study.” — more —
My time in graduate school and the “profession of English literature” ended in 1973 — during the peak years of English departments. I had left business. At three universities I made up an English major, earned my M.A., and completed course work for the Ph.D. (See “Ph.D. -R.I.P” ) in The Tortoise Factor. I have not found a better summary of the context of my days in the humanities than Chace’s essay — nor the passion of a more committed professor. So much of what he says, I felt in those days — particularly the degradation of the teaching of English composition. Over forty years there has been no appreciable change in the “profession of English.” Something precious is being lost with the decline of the humanities in the University —, much of it explainable in the passage of time for the reasons Chace cites. But much of it is due to the dereliction of duty by a self-serving profession that let the precious slide away. Even a Graduate Teaching Assistant could see it then and many of us did. There were of course a few like Professor Chace. I just never met any.
I will just refer to the film, “The Paper Chase” to capture the essence of the time and Chace’s essay. Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr., a law professor played by John Houseman told his first year law students, “You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush and ; if you survive, leave, thinking like a lawyer.”
In all those six years as a striker in the “profession of English literature,” I never heard nor met a professor who felt any obligation to train the mind. They were dedicated to their own minds and careers. There was no effort to teach or even mentor “thinking like a professor.” And, of course, there was nothing like the bar exam for assessing one’s knowledge in breadth and depth. But then the law is a profession. Undoubtedly we were expected to teach ourselves literature and criticism. Indeed, it was sink or swim. And every teacher had his own swimming pool. The Sixties and Seventies were anarchic. Many of our heads were full of mush; indeed, it was the style. Universities could not control it all. There was no center to hold. There still isn’t. Thank you Professor Chace.
I wasn’t a frat guy in college. I was pretty much the opposite of a frat guy. But as I’ve slowly come to understand more about my own discipline, and the workings of academic life in general, I’ve come to believe that most of our professional communities operate pretty much the same way that frats do.
Bear with me here. As we all know, a credential alone is not enough to be accepted within and achieve professional success within an academic discipline. Access is tightly socially controlled. Just as the Greek organizations that some of our undergraduates participate in are defined largely by social gatekeeping mechanisms, so too are academic disciplines defined. A discipline is not only a grouping of a topic or subject of expertise, but also a social grouping, defined as much by who it excludes from its ranks as who it includes within them. Down to the individual level. —more—
I have only just read Death without Tenure and The Maltese Manuscript by Joanne Dobson, literary mystery writer of the Karen Pelletier series from Doubleday. I intend to read the entire series. They are literary, academic mysteries of intriguing, suspenseful plot and excellent characterization. They are also warm, sensitive and full of humanity. Brilliant Karen Pelletier, the sleuth, by virtue of stubbornness, determination, and professional passion pretty much asks for all the difficulties her curiosity brings upon her. But she perfectly captures my ideal image of the teaching Ph.D. who really cares about her students.
As part of my ongoing desire to shed light on the realities of academic life to would-be English professors, I add Dobson to my collection of references. Like the graduate students Pelletier teaches, I was incredibly naive many years ago. I dreamed of the professor’s life, but many years later I wondered why. All told I passed four years in the university, taking courses and notes in anticipation of writing a dissertation and then leading an idyllic life teaching and writing; especially challenging the minds of my students. Life in the university eluded me no matter how hard I deluded myself.
Certainly Dobson spins a great tale, but along the way her insights into academic life are lessons from which I might have benefited. I’m not sure I would have dropped out of grad school because of them — but I might have. How youth deceives itself! She depicts truths that only the rarest of tenured faculty would convey to a graduate student. One has to have the ears to hear and eyes to see.
Here’s one example of Dobson’s satire of academic jargon. At a dinner party in the Maltese Manuscript(p.83), Harriet, a member of the English faculty, asks of Sunnye, the famous detective novelist, “As a woman author suppressed by the cultural strictures of partriarchal capitalism, do you find murder provides you with a transgressive symbol system for an anti-essentialist social critique?”
“Sunnye stared at her. ‘Murder?’ she queried. ‘Are you asking me if I condone murder?’
“Only as a mode of hermeneutical rhetoric.”
“The novelist turned abruptly to me[Karen Pelletier].
‘What’s she talking about?’
‘I[Karen] translated. “I believe she’s asking if you write about murder in order to protest the male-dominated power structure of modern life.”
“She pursed her lips, annoyed. ‘Why doesn’t she say that?”
As far as I am concerned Dobson’s work and Karen Pelletier meet the highest purpose of the best literature — to teach and delight. David Milliken
I have found that most prospective graduate students have given little thought to what will happen to them after they complete their doctorates. They assume that everyone finds a decent position somewhere, even if its “only” at a community college expressed with a shudder. Besides, the completion of graduate school seems impossibly far away, so their concerns are mostly focused on the present. Their motives are usually some combination of the following:
“I quit because I’d lost the stomach for being part of the institution of higher education — one that wasn’t sustaining me intellectually, financially or spiritually; one that wanted me to teach classes for very low wages — as a grad student and then likely as an adjunct faculty member. I quit because I was exhausted and couldn’t handle the obstacle course that grad school and the academic job market still required my running through. I quit because I needed to heal from the trauma of watching Anthony die. I quit because far from that so-called Ivory Tower being a place of solace and contemplation, it had become a nightmare of bureaucracy and politics. I quit because I didn’t want to be a cog in that machine. I quit because I felt the system was broken. And at the time, I was broken too.” — MORE —
Here is an addition to my collection of stories on “The Tortoisefactor” about the PhD Octopus and how timeless it has become. The author is Audrey Watters who writes a blog called “Education Hack.” I trust that the wary will find her thoughts and experience useful. They simply illustrate the landscape of graduate study and the life of the mind. My reminder to all is that the library and books are alive and well unsurrounded by the moat of the university.
I stumbled upon comments by Francine Prose in The Atlantic. She expresses her feelings about being among people who somehow did not share her interest in literature in quite the same way and with quite the same passion. She was among people who study “texts.”
I have been taken back some thirty-eight years to my own similar moments and feelings in grad school. Unlike Prose I hung around until my last option was exhausted. I wanted to feel I had done my best in the face of the odds. Those three years were not wasted, but only, only because of the reading, thinking and writing I did for myself. Now that I have forgiven the naiveté of a thirty-one year old, I have no regret.
If you have stumbled upon this blog and you are facing similar decisions and feelings, I urge you to click on the link above. Francine Prose is the author of twenty books including novels, children’s stories, novellas and short stories.
I stumbled upon comments by Francine Prose in The Atlantic. She expresses her thoughts about being among academics who somehow did not share her interest in literature in quite the same way and with quite the same passion. She was among people who study “texts.” She terminated her doctoral program and left.
Prose’s words have taken me back some thirty-eight years to my own similar moments and feelings in grad school. Unlike Prose I hung around to exhaust my last option because I wanted to feel I had done my best in face of the odds. Those three years were not wasted, but only, only because of the reading, thinking and writing I did for myself. Now that I have forgiven the naiveté of a thirty-one year old, I have no regret — finally. After several livelihoods I find that the friends I made in my books are still there for me.
If you have stumbled upon this blog and you are facing similar decisions and feelings, I urge you to click on the link above. (The reference is the third from the last question on page three.) Francine Prose is the author of twenty books including novels, children’s stories, novellas and short stories. Elsewhere on this site in the Career category, you will find my experience with the PhD Octopus.
Your comments are genuinely and fervently requested.
Steadfast and cautious,
For more than thirty-eight years I have been haunted by a failure . that has tinctured my life. Counseled by some to “just get over it,” I am only now seeing the ghost vanishing slowly behind me in a mirror, but it recedes ever so slowly, too slowly at the pace of a tortoise. I want this specter to disappear from my life. Perhaps final demise depends upon this offering to cyberspace, an effort to save another PhD wannabe from a similar fate.
My ordeal battling the PhD Octopus occurred from 1970 through 1973 at a Midwestern, land-grant university I will call Stiltmoor State. While passing time and other careers have brought a measure of peace — enough for me to admit that a 20 something put himself into his own predicament — I would have preferred to be a professor today. I’d have been a good one, a teaching professor. At least that was my dream. However, there were causes of my failure to become another Mr. Chips and I want to reveal them. The particular PhD program itself is long since dead; and all emotion aside, deservedly so.
Therefore, I offer my caveat emptor. Because the University progresses no faster than the tortoise, much of what I experienced still goes on. And while schools have created Doctors of Arts programs for the teaching professional or better focused the PhD on teaching, the old, excruciating, academic, medieval dragon waits in his cave for the next knight in armor.
Perspective for my story goes back to 1903 when William James, brother of Henry James, wrote “The PhD Octopus,” for The Harvard Review. James wrote his paper because he was concerned about the “tyrannical Machine” of graduate education and the growing obsession with examinations, diplomas and “decorative titles.” He feared that the American university could lose its openness to individuality and encourage a machine that would throttle personal independence. Jacques Barzun in his History of the American University(1968) said, “That octopus . . . has not relaxed a single one of its tentacles; rather, it has grown additional ones.” Barzun’s statement occurred in 1968 just five years before I bilged out of PhD School. Corey Olds most recently 1n 2009 has written “My ‘Miserably Naked Name: The Ph.D. Octopus Is Alive and Well.”
I encourage anyone considering a PhD program to read these and other articles on this arduous ordeal. Research on success and failure in graduate study is available from schools of education — and less likely from the academic disciplines themselves. The latter remain above it all. Read and then if you choose to venture into PhD Land, choose your university well. Not only did I make a miserable selection, but I picked a start up program at a mediocre English department. The vet school, however, was excellent and the football fanatical.
James referred to three types of graduate students. At the top are people who complete with ease, the great ordeals in life. These students are “naturally born” for professional success like natural athletes. Examinations do not terrify them. Their spiritual and worldly interests remain unaffected by sacred rituals. They might take a law degree, and then pop over to the medical school and wind up with an MD as well, and on schedule, hippity hoppity. I was decidedly not in this group. Frankly I don’t know why any of this class would ever have gone to low-prestige Stiltmoor State University, unless like me they had no alternative for financial reasons. Taking out a private loan never occurred to me. In those days I had no awareness of the crucial importance of graduate school prestige in one’s career.
James’ second class of students are not as gifted as those in the first group, but somehow they still rise to the challenge and get a ‘stimulus from the difficulty.’ James says there are some among the cannon fodder “for whom to pass one degree after another seems the limit of earthly aspiration. A professor’s advice does not discourage them. They will fail, and go away to recuperate, and then present themselves for another ordeal, and sometimes prolong the process into middle life. Or else, if they are less heroic morally they will accept the failure as a sentence of doom that they are not fit, and are broken-spirited men thereafter.”
My heroic morality lasted only through the allotted two chances to pass prelims. Intellectual stimulus from literary ideas worked far better for me than the difficulties of an academic program. My priorities were askew and thus, I fell among the cannon fodder certainly, but I didn’t fit perfectly into any of the classes.
While I was found “not fit” by the Committee, passing one degree after another has never appealed to me. Gauntlets have never inspired me with the competitive spirit. I had my Masters from a student-oriented institution I loved. In contrast my Stilty State professors had no effective advice to offer or they held their tongues. Only at the end one said, “There used to be a place for someone in your position, but unfortunately the market is very tight. Small liberal arts colleges don’t have to settle for a Master’s degree or Ab D (All but Dissertation). Good luck.”
I wasn’t even a certified AbD. I had only a certified packet of course transcripts and a 3.7 GPA; oh yes, and the memory of one professor’s recommendation to publish one of my papers on Shelley. I have read since that spending too much time on class work can be fatal in PhD school, but I always enjoyed writing papers and I put much time and effort into them — time that would have been better spent on memorization and data storage.
Thus, I fit James’ third group in my lack of “native force,” but I exclude myself from not having “marked originality.” In evidence I cite notations on papers praising my “imaginative insight.” For example, I was good at associating ideas and relating, say Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy” to America in the late Sixties. I knew that in strict scholarly terms, association of ideas ranked low as marked originality — despite the fact that association lies at the heart of poetry. To be markedly original one must be William Empson developing the concept of The Seven Ambiguities of Literary Criticism. No one on the Stiltmoor faculty swam in Empsonian waters. (Later on I found some solace in the fact that a disillusioned Matt Arnold, one of my heroes, slogged through a dull career as inspector of schools without benefit of a doctorate.) In all my papers I was, if not original (and who really is), at least inventive. I was rather persistent and stubborn, but that’s not what James meant by “native force.” I was willfully strenuous at best. Third groupers are fond of truth, study and books — here I finally fit. My cohort ranks as cannon fodder of the wars of learning — chair à canon as James puts it.”
My mood was improving when in 1973 I began re-inventing myself as a community college public information officer. There was hope. At least I was in post-secondary education, if not higher education. I hoped for a course or two to teach, but administrators were denied the chance. As an Idaho State friend of mine did, I might have started a doctoral program in communications, but I was utterly exhausted by my ordeal and could not immediately start another. And I was fed up with preparing. Besides, a proper job was in order.
Some Stiltmoor faculty maintained that GRE scores alone should not exclude a potentially fine professor. Stiltmoor, having said this, then utterly ignored the possibility that the English Department, might bear some responsibility for individualized mentoring, i.e. taking an interest in the student’s idiosyncrasies, and at least helping a man stay within the white safety stripes and guard rails. In truth Stiltmoor recruited its annual yearly chattel of teaching assistants, pre-MA’s and pre-PhD’s, and unleashed them on the freshmen. The senior faculty in order to publish and not perish were thus enabled to pursue the academic preferment of their fancy. Unfortunately Stilty State typified the profession-wide boondoggle.
Throughout the entire three years I felt like an outsider and, for a little while an unabashed one. Some said I was a little cavalier in my attitude. If true, perhaps I was reacting to my sense of isolation. I just did not fit. Behind my failure in PhD school lie elements of youthful ignorance, radical behavior and bull-headedness which I admit. I was not an humble supplicant at the altar of erudition.
Once my faults are taken into account, there remain questions of why I received positive comments and high marks on graduate papers and then was rejected by the examining committee. Before I left I posed just this question and heard in response, “Well, we talk a lot about this in our meetings.” Silence. Certainly a faculty of PhD’s, successful survivors of the ordeal themselves, could have seen behavioral warning signs and spoken up. I heard not a word of admonition. Periodic performance reviews did not exist. Why didn’t the system filter me out sooner so that I might have got on with another life? They knew that most of their GTA’s were miserable and even established a liaison committee to improve morale and continued to chat in closed meetings — or didn’t. Many of us ultimately concluded that misery was part of silent harassment. A few smarter folks baled out. I tried to transfer but there was no assistant ship available. It did not even occur to me to take out a private loan.
James greatest fears have been realized. University faculties are responsible for creating this new class of ‘social failures.’ I am not among them now nor in their trap which ‘intends to pass no man who has not native intellectual distinction.’ That’s what William James said of Harvard. In some equally twisted form I have no doubt that the attitude prevailed at Stiltmoor State University as well. James also said critically that ‘we at Harvard are proud of the number of candidates whom we reject, and of the inability of men who are not distingué in intellect to pass our tests.’ I do not regard myself as a social failure. Stiltmoor State was a social failure.
Quickly from my point of view I cannot tell anyone whether grad school is for her or not. For me, as far as credentialing or enhancing my income or copping better employment, my three years pursuing the PhD in English literature were wasted. I had every research skill I needed by the end of my Master’s program. Unfortunately I elected to hold the pencil harder. I’m afraid I was badly spoiled by my previous institutions and faculties where amidst hard work there had been joy of learning — even some laughter. Because I had prevailed before, I assumed I would again. I admit my ignorance of the realities of the institutional, academic life. Mr. Chips world disappeared long ago if it ever existed.
Stiltmoor State, of course, had a library and I did benefit personally from more books and writing. In an otherwise stultifying atmosphere of academic pretension, I recall with greatest pleasure my courses in 19th Century British Literature, my projected area of specialization — especially The Romantic Movement. The Augustans or Neo-classicists of the 18th Century? Well, I found them august; and satire has never much appealed to me, even though at Idaho State I wrote my thesis on the first four novels of John Barth. Given time and application I hoped to appreciate them better. The Metaphysicals like Marvel and Donne? Oh, one day in the quiet of my cellar room I’ll return to them. I might have been wise then to become a journalist — seeing that Addison and Steele produced literature. But that’s useless hindsight. In an otherwise grim society one professor of Old and Medieval English provided warmth and humor. He seemed to have a whole other life. Alas, now I remember only a line from Deor: “Thaes ofeorode, Thisses swa maeg, ” which means “That passed away, so may this.”
The good friend at Idaho State wound up teaching English in a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts — pretty close to the ideal I had imagined. Hindsight again. In fact, later on when I entered PR, I taught myself a journalistic style. An MFA might have been another avenue or even rhetoric and composition. But no, I decided to slog on and try to finish what I had started. How many times can a man start over? I pondered.
I let myself be trapped. I also think that the faculty at Stilty knew they had sold out to this Mandarin system. And it seems to me there had to be some cynicism in setting up a new doctoral program in an already glutted market. But I was there too, an enabler of sorts, a buyer. They had to have known they were guilty of malpractice — especially related to a certain type of student.
But I learned to beware of the poo pah of the academic effete. The pretentious, high nose of erudition can be very cruel. And Stiltmoor State University was its home and still is metaphorically speaking. A little research well after my failure revealed that many universities like Northwestern and Columbia take greater care with pedagogy at the graduate level. Some attempt to reveal the real demands of university career building. Many schools design programs with checkpoints of progress. In addition some sensibly break twelve centuries of literature into manageable pieces. Like law schools they take stock in one’s ability to look something up — far more important than a pedantic memory bank.
Once at Stilty I said to a don, “Then I should assume I need to know everything from Beowulf through Arthur Miller ?” “Yes,” came the reply, “and in depth and breadth and a little Faulkner would be wise. Memorize the Cambridge history and don’t forget the best of literary criticism.” Had I known at the time, I might have selected one of those universities that permit a measure of specialization between the completion of credit requirements and prelims. Question is, would any of them have been interested in taking a man from Bench Three? Probably not.
I came out okay, but I’ve had to repair a broken spirit. A sense of the damage has never left me and never will. You can usually tell when a car has been through a major accident. There are signs that disappear only in final demolition and recycling — tough to do with a human being. In the mean time the damage is permanent. Just like a once-wrecked car, my frame’s a little twisted. I consistently pull a little to the left and I shall never have even tire wear.
At this juncture a natural tendency would be to serve up some woe is me and wring my hands over what might have been. I will not do that. First, I have already done so to the extent necessary. Privately and alone I have had my excesses. I will not do it again. The brink of despair isn’t fun. Eventually the cud must be expectorated and rumination ceased. Some stuff cannot be or should not be digested. Second, it is not the way of the wise tortoise to pass hours in lamentation. The clock ticks and I must get on with new activity. Third, that’s the way God made the world and I will not challenge his design. Professor Larry Rice at Idaho State, a Milton scholar, once advised me to submit. “I submit, Larry.”
I can’t blame anyone for not having in Emerson’s term “a perfect intelligence of me” (although Larry Rice came pretty close). I did not have sufficient intelligence of myself — even at thirty-one. And I’ve taught enough to know that no teacher can predict or perfect a student’s performance or savvy. No professor is responsible for developing anyone’s self understanding. I do think they might have made some effort, however, to salvage a 3.7 failure and one whose insight impressed them. Basic humanity can be sorely lacking in the academic Humanities. There was no reality at Stilty State — only my delusions butting against quietus. Something was wrong and it needed fixing.
Steadfast and cautious,
HERE ARE SOME SITES TO VISIT:
http://www.xtranormal.com/watch/7661357/a-phd-in-the-humanities. This is animated and worth the visit. Wish I’d seen it years ago.
http://www.whitecoatblackhat.com/academicfailure/. An amusing, satirical view of the whole process. A budding grad student should not miss this, while there’s still time.
http://matt.might.net/articles/successful-phd-students/. Three requirements of a Ph.D. student.