Friday, August 05, 2011

For its own sake

Part I

Well this collection of "grad-student" responses to Pannapacker was a lot weaker than I'd have hoped, and not just because Slate didn't opt to feature Miss Self-Important and my posts and our comments. We have instead:

-One letter from an assistant prof who kinda-sorta effortlessly ended up with that job, and who finds it endlessly humorous (there are several mentions of laughter) that anyone considering grad school might be concerned about the job market. Yes, how hilarious for those who enter knowing what a PhD is supposed to be for and then don't get a job. I mean, this letter is kind of about class - the writer is, I suppose, making a point about underdog status when mentioning having not known the word "doctorate," and maybe laughing at the children of privilege who know perfectly well what a doctorate is, yet don't get one or if they do, don't make anything of it. Maybe? Is this too generous a reading? In any case, the message is, this one person woke up one day with this awesome position, so what's the problem?

-One letter from someone ABD but already an assistant prof (some "grad student response," Slate), who thinks that it's morally questionable, or something, to abandon a sinking ship. Oh, here's the mushiness MSI described (and, I now see, confirmation): "[G]raduate study was like getting fitted with a second nervous system—I feel that much more acutely alive and responsive to the world." I'll unpack this in soon...

-One letter that is, I think, about how it's useful to have a PhD if you want to teach at a private secondary school, by someone who has two MAs, and who seems to confuse private-school teaching with community service.

-Finally! A letter from a current PhD student, a "single mother of two young children" who's all about learning for learning's sake, and isn't afraid of romanticizing the humanities. Hmm.

-Last but not least, a letter that actually makes some good points - about how grad school can compare favorably with other options - by the grad-student blogger Flavia pointed us to.

All told, it's not surprising that Pannapacker's response is basically to say that he has not budged from his original position. Not surprising, that is, because no one Slate has chosen to ask has thought to as Pannapacker what he meant by "graduate school." And because Slate couldn't bother to stick with responses from people who haven't already won the game. So once again, some in the comments think it always means a decade's worth of tuition/debt. Once again, we're stuck in a mushy realm of whether or not Pannapacker is offending the delicate sensibilities of grad students who are too sensitive to have their life choices questioned. Which is really not where I, for one, would like the discussion to go. (I'm thinking of writing up my own guide to this genre, which will be titled, "How not to tell young people not to go to graduate school," because otherwise this will just be post after post of the same, each time one of these things appears.)

Part II, ideas below still in progress...

All of this is bringing me back to Paul Gowder's excellent point at MSI's: "Opportunity to think about interesting stuff =/= opportunity to get paid to think about interesting stuff, even if only in the form of grad school stipends." MSI herself (correct me if I'm wrong) seems to see the difference between being funded or not as relatively minor, because time's invested either way. But I think there's a massive difference, in practical as well as symbolic terms, between "airy ideals" and "airy ideals" plus an income, even if abandoning those ideals may have meant a higher income. I'd think this even if there were no difference come job-market time between the chances of funded students and those neck-deep in debt. It's like what I've been saying since forever about unpaid internships - setting aside the ways that unpaid time-consuming undertaken by adults end up disproportionately benefiting the rich and well-connected, there's the fact that whether you need it to feed your family, to buy your own beer, or not at all, it means something specific to be given money in exchange for your work. It means both that what you're doing is about more than your own self-betterment (even if you learn and mature, perhaps even enjoy yourself, on the job), and that you have been assessed as an adult (even if you're technically 12 and babysitting) and someone has decided that your time is a good investment.

This is why it doesn't much interest me how delightful a learning experience is 'for its own sake' if it comes at a life stage when all full-time, productive endeavors (with such exceptions as: philanthropy by billionaires, stay-at-home parenting, and graduate programs that lead with near-certainty to high-paid employment/go with having a high-paid job in the summers during) come with a paycheck. What I don't want to see happen, but what I fear is happening, is for grad school to become (or return to?) a path celebrated by its followers for its self-improvement potential, as so great in and of itself that nothing practical about it should matter. I mean, it's fine if it is for some, and if those students fund the rest. But those of us in it for a professional credential - even if we also had better enjoy it regardless of what the job market looks like on the other end - should not get too excited about eschewing material needs in favor of 'enriching' experiences. I don't want doctoral programs to become yet another arena in which it's considered crude or beside the point to fuss about rent and food money - something only sustained by rent and food money coming from somewhere else, namely parents or, in the case of older students, a wealthy spouse. Even paths not chosen for the money need to come with some. If we lose sight of such things as the need for compensation during, and (if to a lesser extent, because virtually no job guarantees security 5-8 years down the line) serious consideration of employment possibilities after, if we veer too far into grad school's worth as a mind-expander, we get problems. Different ones than if we veer too far the other way and only look at pay during and placement after, but problems all the same.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

See Timothy Burke's latest:

Excellent, especially in his focus on the intense disciplinarity of the academic world in the U.S., a point left underdeveloped in the recent fracas.