Ghost of My Failure Past: the PhD Octopus

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,

David Milliken

HERE ARE SOME SITES TO VISIT:  This is animated and worth the visit.  Wish I’d seen it years ago. An amusing, satirical view of the whole process.  A budding grad student should not miss this, while there’s still time.  Three requirements of a Ph.D. student.


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For His Stepmother

No tortoise grows wise by not thinkin’ nuthin’.  Male or female the tortoise who would be wise learns sumthin’ ’bout history, geography, biology and algebra.  Well, I was a nerd in that way — though I still enjoy Art Garfunkel’s “It’s a Wonderful World.”  I dearly enjoyed school, even Mr. Vernon who made us memorize a whole page of key dates in history.  I recall 1453 which marked the fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire and in 1066 the Normans came to England. The Brits blew the Spanish armada out of the water in 1588 and the Big Revolution, the French one,  started in 1789, the year the US Constitution was written.  The date for Hammurabi’s Law slips me. Events and dates have always been handy as guideposts for placing the right event in the right century at least.  A man must keep his historical bearings. Since the Emancipation Proclamation happened in 1863, I know that the Founding Fathers did not fight to free the slaves.  These picky things matter and serve as insurance against foot in mouth disease.

On the other hand, one man’s wisdom can be another’s folly.  Proof of wisdom lies in argument, universality and the test of time.  Just because a man lives four decades, it doesn’t make him wise.  Tortoises that old just look wise, but they sure have seen a lot.

My stepmother saw a lot.  She road in a horse and buggy next to  her father, the judge, and she saw the moon shot.  She was privileged to have steamed abroad on both the Queen Mary and the Elizabeth. And she finally boarded an airplane.  Despite the two generations that separated me from this Victorian personage, she was wise in many ways.  At a crisis in my life, she advised, “Trim your wicks, add to your talents and get going.”

I got her letter in 1968 and resented it.  At that point I felt I had been doing just that, trying to find my way.  There she was speaking to me from the distance of two generations. Her good values were Victorian: earnestness, duty, will,  reputation and the Puritan ethic. I appreciate all of them now.  Later on, I became a student of the Victorian man of letters Matthew Arnold (“Dover Beach” and “Culture and Anarchy”).  She believed people should stay married, regardless of their misery and regardless of their destiny. It’s not nice to fool with destiny, she would have said. She was not a churchgoer except in Florida where she loved the Sunday ritual of breakfast out, New York Times thrown on the backseat and the glistening Sarasota Bay as she drove the causeway — truly a picturesque place to pray and praise.  Why this rock-ribbed Republican loved the NYT, I could never quite understand.  Robert Taft, the GOP, Standard Oil and GM could absolutely do no wrong.

In her estimation I was a dilly-dallier, especially as a professional student.  She didn’t know that I knew and appreciated the sacrifice of her generation, especially my father’s.  They made the human potential movement possible.  They created the world depicted in “The Graduate.”  I totally identified with Benjamin Braddock. As a Pre-Boomer I never had to worry about a material thing.  Vocationally speaking, I was a shopper.  I don’t know why we see twenty-somethings as strange these days — except for the abysmal economy they endure.  The ritual is ancient.  Whether prescribed by elders or self-inflicted by the young, we (or at least many of us) must go through it.  Searchers are a type. If we don’t do it when we’re twenty-something, we’re likely to do it when we’re forty something or maybe at both times — or more.  The red convertible has many guises and sneaks into the driveway unannounced. I’ve got to hand it to the Victorians.  They knew how to control their libido — or did they just express it in imperialism.  See Freud.

But she was right  in a sense.  What if a man’s destiny is to dilly-dally for God only knows what reason.  Perhaps, like Ulysses, some can only see their “career” through a rear view mirror when they return into Penelope’s arms and look back to see where they have been.  Well, Mom, there was a pattern. There were themes. I slayed a beast or two — nothing big, mind you.  I can see them now. I hope you’re somewhere where you can, too.  I’d like that.

Keep on truckin’,

The Tortoise

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