Saturday, July 30, 2011

I Wrote a Super-Long Post Last Night...

...about class, aspirations, and academia, a reaction to this:

"I can only recommend graduate school in the humanities—and, increasingly, the social sciences and sciences—if you are independently wealthy, well-connected in the field you plan to enter (e.g., your mom is the president of an Ivy League university), or earning a credential to advance in a position you already hold, such as a high-school teacher, and even then, a master's degree is enough."

This was preamble to a call to reform higher education. Fine. But when an author leads off by telling people like me that non-vocational graduate education is not for us, I get pissy, and spend an hour writing and editing a long and very personal post.

Upon waking, I decided there were enough of these posts floating around out there (see below), so I didn't need to add another 1000 words to the soup. So how 'bout I just say to people from the losing side of the socio-economic gap** that:

1. ...academia is a tough path, and you should have no illusions that finishing a Ph.D. will land you a tenure-track job, and certainly not that it will catapult you into an economic bracket significantly better than that your parents had***; yet...

2. ...if you know these things, have asked yourself the hard questions, and you're still yearning to devote years of your life to something you love, maybe because when you're learning history, or literature, or invertebrate reproduction, you know that you're exactly where you're supposed to be, and if you've got a real talent for whatever it is and you can bust ass and get the work done, then don't you dare let any random blogger tell you that your choices are wrong, just because they're not economically practical.

Conclusion: Telling people what their priorities "should" be based primarily on their class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or whatever is the epitome of condescension. If you're doing it, knock it the hell off.

Post roundup:

**Now there's one thing I'd be happy to see named after Ronald Regan.

***I'm actually only marginally better-off (economically speaking) than my parents were at my age, and that's only because I have no children to support. And if you factor in my debt and their real assets, I'm much worse off.


Anonymous said...

Hey, thanks for the link, but you credited it to the wrong blog. It's Dr. Virago at Quod She, not Heu Mihi. :-)

And to this -- Telling people what their priorities "should" be based primarily on their class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or whatever is the epitome of condescension. If you're doing it, knock it the hell off. -- I say, hear! hear!

thefrogprincess said...

Like I said over at QuodShe, Pannapacker doesn't bother me, in part b/c I take his dark view of why graduate education continues in this guise without any change. I also don't take him literally. But what you say here:
1. ...academia is a tough path, and you should have no illusions that finishing a Ph.D. will land you a tenure-track job, and certainly not that it will catapult you into an economic bracket significantly better than that your parents had***;

that's a critical point and the reason I get behind Pannapacker all the time. I do think there's an upward mobility narrative inherent to graduate school, made worse by the fact that those of us on "the losing side of the socio-economic gap", as you so brilliantly put it, have had little personal interaction with professors. Or at least not the kind of interaction that gets you involved in conversations about their finances. For an upward mobility narrative to seduce people into a field in which getting to your parents' economic status is the best scenario (here I'm thinking about the years of adjuncting), well that's truly abominable.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Dr. Virago: Ooops! Thanks -- I've corrected the post.

@ Frogprincess: I was actually thinking about you as I was writing that really long post last night, so I'm glad you weighed in here.

Karen Kelsky, aka The Professor said...

I'm glad to have found your blog. As you know prob. if you read the comment thread for Pannapacker's stuff, I'm a huge supporter of his. I think he tells the truth about the lie at the heart of the enterprise---one I saw all the time when I was a prof---that an oversupply of Ph.D. students is admitted to serve the egos of the professors and the teaching needs of the departments, while the advising they're given (it's all about the diss and the 'life of the mind') is actually antithetical to their leaving with the skills for an actual job, in academia or otherwise. I feel like his "don't go unless you're wealthy" is a red herring that has thrown too many people off the trail of his true intervention---which is, graduate education in the humanities is, at this point in time, a profoundly unethical system.

Karen Kelsky, aka The Professor said...

Oh, can I add: it's really hard to look up and realize that you're worse off than your parents when they were your age... My parents were able to pay for my and my sister's college. I, the (former) professor, can't even dream of doing that for my two kids. Is that not some kind of irony?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

You know, I don't know that it's any more unethical than is higher education, full stop. The truth is that people who go to universities purely to get the paper to get better jobs are unlikely to do as well in the long run as those who go straight into what they love or those who get university degrees because they place an intrinsic value on learning. That we encourage too many students to go to university, and make it possible for them to go by allowing them to take on insane amounts of debt, is at least as unethical as giving people the opportunity to go on for a chance at the brass ring of academic work.

If the only thing one could do with an MA or PhD was be an academic, then fine. Pannapacker would be right. But he's ever so wrong. FFS, I was making more with my PhD outside academia than I am now, and that was in 2001. Having advanced degrees did sometimes mean coming in at a lower pay grade, but I moved up very quickly in every non-academic job I had.

And I'm really tired of Pannapacker's whining. Because it is not always true. It's certainly more true in English than in many other departments, but not every field requires a ton of grad students to keep the service classes going. And there are universities that only allow grad students to teach after being trained, and only admit students they can fund.

Things that are true:

Undergrads need to be told about the realities of the situation.

Grad school can suck, and some programs do abuse their grad students.

Grad school can perpetuate some of the worst things about higher ed

There are professors - and honestly, I think they are more common in SLACs like mine, where faculty have overinflated ideas of their positions and are often out of touch with the realities of grad programs for students who are 35-40 years younger than they are -- who really are into self-replication. And if any student relies on just one professor for advice and recommendations? Then someone is not doing their job.

How people deal with being stymied in their plans is individual. Pannapacker may not like it. He may be burnt out from being an adjunct and being on the job market for too long. But he doesn't have the right to make the choice for others. They may not regret spending the time on grad school, even if they don't end up with academic jobs.

But really, I am sick unto death and wanting to slap people when I hear this shit. Because if that's what had been going around when I started, I might not have. I had to deal with a family who really, really thought grad school was a bad idea. They weren't even sure why I wanted a degree in history, rather than something "useful" like an admin or business degree, or maybe a teaching certificate. it's hard enough to come from a non-traditional background without some asshat who has made it telling you that, because the system sucks, you need to make the sacrifice and do something else with your life.

Yes, the system needs fixing. No doubt. But until we start looking at the real issues, like why faculty need those course releases -- to meet publication requirements that have to do with proving one is 'productive' as much as anything else -- then it isn't going to gt better.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Karen: I do acknowledge the points he makes about the current system being organized to provide an oversupply of cheap labor. But Pannapacker's posts all seem to reduce the decisions of the less privileged to pure economics. My point is that we shouldn't boil anyone's motivations down to an economic cost/benefit analysis, no matter where they come from.

Professors and universities have an obligation to share the realities of the labor situation with prospective students. But blanket "shouldn't" statements like Pannapacker's assume that poor and middle-class people need to be told what's best for them.

thefrogprincess said...

Just to add to my earlier comments: although I'm generally supportive of Pannapacker's ideas and, to some degree, his tone, I use his ideas in a different way than he does. I actually just sent his Slate piece and a link to the Internet Archive of Invisible Adjunct to a student considering graduate school. (Now that everybody finds P's Slate piece condescending, I'm a little worried but whatever.) But what I said is that I would help hir in whatever way I could whatever decision ze made AND I said that ze needed to be fully aware of the situation SO THAT ze could enter academia ready to go. By that I mean considering all the possible uses for a PhD (admin, high school teaching, community college teaching, public history and museum work, digital humanities, etc) and incorporating some experience in these areas into hir graduate training so that at the end of graduate school, ze is as marketable as possible. One of the biggest problems, which other bloggers have mentioned, is that if you don't enter grad school with these alternates in mind, you can find yourself at the end of the road unqualified for many of the non-professorial positions due to lack of experience.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I think you're right on the money there, Frogprincess. It's okay to do something impractical because you love it, but you should do so with all the facts in hand, and with a plan B and C firmly in mind. I'd add that students should train themselves not to buy into the idea that plans B and C mean that they're a failure. Hell, they might discover that those "alternate careers" might actually make them a lot happier.

Susan said...

I just want to add on the economic front: I think many of our students will not be as well off as their parents were at their ages, whether they go to grad school or not. So part of the problem is the narrative of upward mobility is being squeezed along with the middle class.

That's not to say that a good bit about graduate education isn't pretty sick; it's just to provide some context.

Anonymous said...

My point is that we shouldn't boil anyone's motivations down to an economic cost/benefit analysis, no matter where they come from.

Amen, not least because that's the exact logic with which the humanities get screwed over at the budget meeting.

Anonymous said...

Delurking to say: Thank you!

After some time in the corporate world, I'm working towards that ever impractical humanities PhD and the thing that always irritates me most of all about these discussions: The tone of these articles always implies that grad students are naive sheep who didn't do any research into the current state of academia. It's insulting!

I know exactly what I'm up against, as does everyone else in my program. If I spend 7 years getting this degree and then wind up back in the corporate world? I'll be monumentally more satsified than if I never gave this a shot. We want to do research for a living; why wouldn't we research our own desired career path?

I think Pannapacker makes some valuable points, but give us a little credit, no?

Anonymous said...

I am a graduate student in the humanities, and I recently stumbled across your blog. I have to say, thank you very much for the perspective on this issue. I've spent much of the past few years reading up on how miserable my prospects will be. I have a decent idea of what I am getting into here. I am not harboring any illusions about what I am going to get out of this. I grew up ridiculously poor and understand what that feels like. I always appreciate advice on entering this field, even the condescending type, because I have not been through this before. But even this appreciation has its limits. So thank you, for providing some alternative, but still realistic advice about all of this. I will definitely stick around your blog.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

ADM - Pannapacker's not an adjunct, he's a tenured prof at a liberal arts college in, I think, Michigan (or maybe Ohio). I'm pretty sure he taught as a grad student, but I don't think he adjuncted for any significant length of time (he was very involved with the MLA grad student caucus/employment issues, though).

Anonymous said...

Likewise delurking, to agree with you and cry, "hear, hear!"

Those posts got my dander up as well, but like you, enough had really already been said. But this--Telling people what their priorities "should" be based primarily on their class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or whatever is the epitome of condescension--is brilliant, and dead on. So, you know, thanks for the encouragement.