Monday, November 1, 2010

So You've Got a PhD in the Humanities...

As usual I've been spending a (good) portion of my Sunday working, and one of my tasks for the weekend is to write this post. After soliciting suggestions from friends and colleagues (thank you!) and thinking about that humorous little video that made the rounds last week I've decided to weigh in on making fun of the profession.

I'm not the first to do this, nor is it the first time I've done so. The first time I was given an opportunity to think about the ups and downs (to put it mildly) of the profession was on a panel hosted by the Professional Concerns Committee at ACCUTE this spring. Likewise, many of the commenters here have been thinking gamely about the pros and cons of "So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities" and the responses have been varied. The reason I'm wading in again though has directly to do with a conversation I had with a graduate student friend of mine last week. "After I finished watching that video and laughing I felt kind of ill," she admitted.

Before I get there though, let me recap in case you've been living under a wi-fi-free rock or don't feel like spending four minutes of your life watching this: xtranormal.com is a site where you can type in dialogue and make your own film. In this particular little gem a young woman (blonde, with vaguely hipster glasses) comes in and speaks to a female Dean about getting a letter of reference for graduate school. What follows is a hilarious--if uncomfortable--exchange. The student blithely asks for references because she has "brilliant thoughts about death in literature" while the Dean attempts (with increasing acerbity) to alert the student to the, ahem, difficulties of attaining a permanent job in the profession.

Ok, it IS funny. And often bang-on. But there are several things that give me cause for concern. I'm going to skip over the fact that this is a conversation between two women (unpaid emotional work?), the fact that it conflates the position of a (female) Dean with the office-sharing, salary-realities of an adjunct, and instead think about dissing the profession versus restructuring the profession. And yes, this is both blue-sky thinking (defiantly so, as it is cold and rainy in Halifax today), and devastatingly earnest. That's just how I roll.

While I am reluctant to advocate honing business-like skills such as PR (possibly because I desire to live a life of the mind? Sigh.) one of the dangers of simply trotting out the admittedly myriads of inequities and labour abuses that can and do happen in this profession is that they become the central focus. I wasn't a cheerleader, but it seems that there is something in celebrating what we do well. I teach in an English department. Among many, many other crucial skills, we do a heck of a job teaching students about critical thinking. How might we productively celebrate (ok, and advertise) what it is that our specific disciplines do well? I realize that I'm focussing on the Humanities and Social Sciences here, but I'm sure this can be shifted to be a useful thought exercise across disciplinary lines.

Here's another issue: I noticed that the people who were predominantly most reluctant to laugh at this video were not the folks on the Dean's side of the desk. They were folks like me (contract workers) or graduate students or undergraduates. What kind of message are we sending to ourselves and to the future if we don't also start thinking about how to repackage--and I mean fundamentally repackage--what we do (or at least how we explain what we do, because I hold to the belief that there is much that is being done very well indeed).

And so back, obliquely, to the conversation that I had with my graduate student friend, who was concerned that there was no point and felt ill after watching the video.

Why did she feel sick? Because she's in the profession--or at least trying to be--and so am I. We're both pretty acutely aware of how difficult it is to get a permanent job, and I at least am viscerally aware of what that job looks like if you ever get to the other side of the desk (however temporarily) so my question is this: How might we think and act positively about the game without getting inextricably mired in its increasingly corporate structure?

For starters, give yourself a pat on the back for reading this blog: we're engaging in community building here.

Here's another thought, what about (more) co-op programmes in the Humanities?

Perhaps a commons for the exchange of pedagogical strategies?

Other thoughts?


10 comments:

  1. I really like the idea of the co-op programme. I have a Canadian Studies student doing a)an assessment of aboriginal history in the Nova Scotia system and b)curricular/lesson planning for said system - totally on her own, but because she wants to be a teacher, and didn't want to write another 15 page essay. If we could refine co-ops to suit the humanities - with critical or analytical and research elements - that would be a great move. (I know of some courses that place students in work environments, but I'd want students to retain an independent head space to assess and evaluate that environment).

    Of course, that entire comment is tangential to the real message of your post. I didn't like those videos. You're right: the "inside jokes" were geared to those of us (ie. tenured associates) who may have suffered but ultimately have succeeded. We have no right to complain in such obnoxiously jaded fasion about what is - taxing though it may be, for myriad reasons, as Hook & Eye indicates - a blessing.

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  2. We have coops here at Waterloo -- very well established among English students at the BA and MA levels. In fact, we have some problem with graduating some of our students, not because they are incapable to completing their degrees, but because (especially true of our MA students) employers tempt them into dropping out with the lure of full time job offers.

    True story.

    One of my undergrads thus in recent memory was complaining that her pre-graduation job offer had a salary that was only the same as her coop salary for the Maker of Portable Email Devices. It was in the 40Ks. She figured she could do better than that, and get more vacation. She was in her early 20s, with no student debt (coop earning paid all her education).

    Our PhD students, though, don't do coops. We funnel them right into the trap outlined in the video.

    If I wasn't already gripping in vise-like fashion my office chair behind the nameplate that says 'Assistant Professor' I would not watch that video at all. Terrifying.

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  3. By the way, I'm not infringing any one student's privacy there: that's a composite. Because it's a common thing here in our degree. Certainly not the only possible outcome from the degree, but a common one.

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  4. I thought the video was amusing, but also (as it was meant to be) a caricature. It wasn't about the Humanities--it was about an English degree. And it's about the American system (no M.A. degree there, so it's a big jump from undergrad to the Ph.D). And there was more than one thing being lampooned: the ascerbic Dean, the crap job market, the ridiculous choice of topic (Death? Seriously?), the fact that a young woman would even like Harold Bloom, one of the most conservative scholars in English literature studies today, a man who hates any ideas but his own, and who really, really doesn't like women. You name it, there's something to talk about. Very clever.

    My position is on the Dean's side of the desk. And yes, she says stuff that sometimes I'm really thinking when students come in and do not hear the advice I give them...they just want a reference letter and they don't care what I might think about their intellectual projects. For some students, I am a means to an end. It's not fun.

    But that's not all I get to be. I think the video is mildly amusing because it doesn't portray my job as it is most of the time. Most students who come to see me to talk about a Ph.D are trying to be realistic about what they want to do. I tell them the truth--it's hard and you're not guaranteed a job. But if this is your passion, I say, by all means go for it, knowing the risks and the rewards.

    Why do I say that? Because of this...

    True story: when I was looking to go into a Ph.D programme, I went to see my former mentor, who is a very famous scholar at a big university. She endured punishing amounts of sexism throughout her early career. If anyone could tell me not to do a Ph.D, it was her. But she didn't talk me out of it, even though the market was awful at the time. She said, if you really want this, go for it, but don't go here. And then she showed me why: the comprehensive exam question for that year asked students to describe "death" in the work of three authors from three different periods. No word of a lie! And my mentor said, "Look at that stupid question! These people are crazy! Just go to your local school. You have a house, a life. You'll do good work, no matter where you are. You'll be okay."

    I listened to her. And she was right.

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  5. Wasn't there a post on this very blog about how to talk to students who come wanting reference letters for graduate school? With very good discussion of the complexities of the issues.

    I think a lot of us feel ill about this, precisely because it is so complex.

    There are very real issues about the value of the kind of scholarly work that a PhD and an academic career entails. And "critical thinking", while very important, seems to cede the argument that literature itself (and a deep knowledge of it) is not relevant. It treats it as a means to an end.

    I think this is selling the humanities short and contributing (perhaps inadvertantly) to a larger discourse that discounts the value of culture and history in favour of more immediately instrumentally useful knowledge.

    But the fact that a place like Waterloo can create successful co-op programs for undergrads and MA students and yet not provide a context for PhD students that opens up the myriad post-PhD career options is sad.

    An academic career is not the only way to have a "life of the mind" and indeed many academics feel like the reality is nothing like what they imagined the life of the mind to be. And a PhD is not just a developmental phase but could be an important thing in itself.

    The broader issues of the restructuring of employment in higher education is more serious.

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  6. I'm currently working on an MA in English and have decided not to do a PhD because of the problems that the movie addresses. Though I've had several profs encourage me to do a PhD I just can't face it... after working a fairly lame job and getting carpal tunnel during my year off of school, I'm beginning to understand that the years of interesting work as a PhD student will not necessarily cancel out the years of probable hardship I would face after getting the degree. I am becoming increasingly concerned with being able to support myself, and am afraid if I keep going with English, I won't be able to do so. However, not everyone has the same fear or inflexibility that I do. I think it's good that there are people willing to face down the uncertainty and keep going. Anyway, I've decided to do an MLIS after my MA... this way I'll get to live a "life of the mind," but have better job prospects. I don't feel like I've chickened out though, or failed. I'm just beginning to understand what life will work for me, and I don't think becoming a prof will.

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  7. @ Helen: thanks for your frankness, your concerns are the concerns shared by many (often myself included). And as both you and JoVE suggest, there are many many ways to live the life of the mind. Making decisions that work for you is the antithesis of chickening out!

    @JoVE: Point well-made (and well taken by yours truly) about the importance of developing, honing, and training a deep knowledge of literature: I completely agree and you're right, I do side-step that in favour of a focus on the broader less discipline-specific "critical thinking." I do this in part because I know our readership diverse. But as you suggest this also acquiesces to an emphasis on --brace yourselves--usability. As you suggest, the issue of restructuring the hiring system is crucial. As my post problematically implies (and I hadn't notice this--perhaps because I'm not in a full-time faculty position and thus don't sit on these kinds of committees yet?) thinking about training the new work force seems less daunting that restructuring the system itself.

    @Dr. Identity: Thanks for underscoring the humour in the video, and for offering your frank (and frankly, positive) experience.

    @Aimee: Why not at the PhD level? Very interesting nonetheless!

    @Claire: Great caveats about co-ops (which, honestly, I know very little about). Thanks too for the nod regarding the humour resonating differently depending on which side of the desk one sits.

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  8. As a counterpoint to this video, what about this blog post about a professor who is a passionate teacher and researcher?

    http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/university_of_venus/modeling_the_life_of_the_mind

    The question that makes me uncomfortable is thinking about who will become professors in the future? Perhaps the student in the video is a perfect example of who we "don't" want to become a professor, but I found lot of myself in the caricature, at least how I used to be. And I'd like to think I've done ok. What if someone had told me to get out (many did) and if I had listened? What if all of us had listened?

    I'm not saying that we need to ignore the inequalities that exist in the academic labor marker (as a full-time instructor, I now fall into that 50% who say they are "satisfied" off the tenure-track and that makes me uncomfortable), but the rhetoric discouraging bright students from doing PhD's and aspiring to become professors is disturbing in it's relentless negativity.

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  9. I think this video is funny on a number of levels, many of which you have all mentioned very astutely. Importantly, for me at least, I think that it dramatizes many of the things that we (on both sides of the desk) worry about.

    That said, I'm wary of the temptation to turn graduate literary studies (both at the M.A. and Ph.D.) levels into nothing more than "job training." I did a B.Ed. and wasn't looking for more of that from my M.A. and Ph.D. thank you very much. However, I do think that there is a dearth of information in the public realm about what, in fact, it is that we do as literary scholars. I suspect that is why so many of us find it hard to both envision and locate meaningful post-Ph.D. work, and so, Erin, I'm very sympathetic to your notion of the radical "repackage."

    Nonetheless, I think that we also have to be brutally honest about the fact that a Ph.D. is not job-training. It's not a professional degree. Heck, the B.A. is not a professional degree, and when my wide-eyed undergrads come to my office to talk about what they'll do next, their desires to walk into a job that offers them meaningful employment is no different than a Ph.D. student who holds out those same hopes. The difference is that the B.A. grad will have time on her side to go and get some work experience, get further "job training" etc., while the Ph.D. graduate (to put it crassly) has to go out and start earning asap. She doesn't have the luxury of starting off low and working her way up, and is often considered by potential employers as "too qualified" for entry-level jobs even if she wanted them. (Would a publisher really allow an English Ph.D. to do an "unpaid internship"?)

    So what do I do? I tell my students that, of course, their decision to continue on in graduate literary studies is first and foremost their own, but that in whatever way they can, they should bear in mind the need to build up their extra-scholarly resumes of sorts. So that could be: get a B.Ed. and teach high school for a while (as I did); work for a publishing company for a while (as I also did...romance novels!); build up a freelance portfolio; do some editing work; etc. etc. so that they can always feel like they have options - not vague and abstract options, but real and tangible ones - upon the completion of the Ph.D.

    I guess that's my own personalized version of co-op, a DIY co-op experience. At some point, we have to break free from the dependence on our institutions to provide all the frameworks for us and get out there and live our own lives, and so we might as well start putting that in place before having a Ph.D. in hand rather than after (admittedly, this is all written by someone who is somewhat jaded at this particular moment in time and quite likely on the verge of leaving a tenure-track position for the life of the mind beyond and outside of academia, but I should be able to follow the advice I've given to my students, right?).

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  10. I sympathize with the student you felt sick after watching this, as much as I also found it uproariously funny. I finished a phd a year ago... in neuroscience... yet I deeply, deeply relate to this video as well. As a science student I had more funding options than a lot of my humanities peers, and it's easy to impress people by dropping the word "neuroscience"... but the systemic problems in academia run across the board from english to the "hard" sciences. When you have a system of degree inflation, and a limited number of jobs at the top, competition for those jobs becomes brutal. The rat race requires a focus on publishing frequently, rather than publishing quality, and worse (from my standpoint), success seems to depend on developing an incredibly narrow niche of expertise with which you can sell yourself, even if the cost is feeling that only 10 other people in the world really care about your area of research, let alone want to cite your papers. Sometimes publishing feels like throwing papers into a black hole. Not to mention that it's often hard to stay interested in a topic when forced to study it so exclusively. So it's easy to become disillusioned.... not just in the arts, but across the board. I've been soul-searching for a few year now, though unwilling to openly talk about my internal career-crisis until I finished the phd... I'll be as curious as anyone else to see where I'll be in five/ten years.

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