Be thankful you aren’t in the humanities – PhD’s Blog

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:

via Be thankful you arent in the humanities – PhDs Blog.

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On Career Dreams

Yesterday on a blog, I found a father’s concerns about his daughter wanting to become an English professor.  Memories of career dreams poured over me and my own idealization of the English profession. I once fancied myself Mr. Chips.

Immediately I pondered several questions. Does the young woman want to teach English as an end? Does she have a passion for writing and see the profession as the perfect solution, even a hide,  for one who loves to read, write and expostulate on literature, its meaning, value, significance, et cetera? Is she open to other teaching opportunities: community college, trade/tech schools, secondary schools, overseas and especially teaching in the boondocks? Would she drop back and get the lowly secondary teaching certificate for high school — IF she could even find a slot there; or even in a prep school? Is English professing a means or an end?

More cynically I wondered if she might, all sexism aside, be attracted to a particular professor.   (I could wonder the same about a male student under the influence of professorial charisma.)   Good professors are actors and romancers.

The points are that the cushy university, tenured position, if it ever existed, has become incredibly difficult for the best of candidates. Professors are under much administrative pressure to publish and also to carry significant committee and university duties. Funding shrinks, especially in the Humanities. Universities still need indentured teaching assistants to teach English composition —  so that the senior professors can pursue their career dreams and play the effete aesthete. Universities cannot or will not afford Master’s scale to teach these courses.  Teaching the frosh is anathema to many Ph.D’s.

As far as a livelihood that will support a writer is concerned, they are whatever a person can find to survive and/or starve in pursuit of discovery. One could join a military service, for example, and manage to find time to write. I think of Fred MacMurray playing the novelist on the USS Caine (fictional) and Alex Haley in the Coast Guard (real). The passionate would-be novelist/poet can do as Hemingway and go into journalism (not an easy slog by any means).  Melville went to sea as a seaman. He was a better writer for it. Nothing has changed in the artist’s world. One could go into PR, but that demands a huge compromise. I found being a public information officer rather pleasant, but low-paying. PR people are usually among the first eligible for cutting. Working at Starbuck’s will work for some.

My heart says, “You go, Girl! Live your dream. Stake your will, talents and skills against all odds. Do it now while you’re young and have lots of time and resilience to recuperate and re-invent yourself, two, three, four times over. I want to say that; really I do.  Regretting a road not taken gnaws at the soul.

In youth we always think we will be the exception to the naysayers. That possibility exists, of course it does.  So, go out, be a hammer rather than a nail.  You surely would, if you only could as Simon and Garfunkel sang; but write yourself a note, young lady, a note that says, “I shall never become bitter if what I choose in full knowledge of the world doesn’t work out.”  Laminate the note and tuck it into your purse. That’s a tough one, too.  It’s T. S. Eliot’s “shadow that falls between the motion and the act” (The Hollow Men).

Finally, the universe of arts and letters far transcends and dwarfs the individual artist, professor, college, and university.  In the chance that a youth will choose the mundane pragmatic over the romantic challenging, I say to that person, remember that the academic approach to literature, even teaching literature, is only one approach.  Writers do not write for professors, scholars and critics.  They write out of desire, passion and native wit.  They direct their own study.   Art was invented by more creators without degrees than with them.  When there are no longer bookstores either on the corner or on the Internet, when there are no longer libraries, when there are no more writers and readers groups and publishers, then I will despair.  Besides, academe can stultify a lot of passion and creativity — not always.  The artists are the first heroes in this epic.  You can even find them in your cellar hide.

God bless youth!

Steadfast and cautious,

David Milliken

P.S:  For an interesting story of twenty somethings, literary types all, making their way in New York City, see this NYT article on Literary Cubs.

 

 

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Dropping Out of Grad School, the English PhD in Particular

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,

David Milliken

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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:

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.

 

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