First off, this seems relevant. Now for the rest...
Miss Self-Important still thinks grad school in the humanities or social sciences is a questionable life decision. (More on the topic here, both in response to an earlier post here.) As I mentioned in graphomaniacal comments on her blog - comments so endless that Blogger was all, we're not even going to post these, although thanks to MSI, they've been retrieved - I disagree rather strongly with her categorization of my anti-anti-grad-school stance. Speaking just for myself (although I'm not quite convinced my commenters would disagree with me on this), I don't think it's especially noble, a calling, an exercise in self-exploration, a brave anti-materialist stand against the workaday world, etc., to go to grad school. I don't see it as a question of passion vs. sucking it up and facing the grunt work inherent in working for others. I don't see it as selling out to leave or never enter academia in favor of more lucrative work possibilities. I don't see it as choosing the touchy-feely over the practical.
I wouldn't be at all surprised if MSI has heard these notions elsewhere, because yes, they're out there. Indeed, if I belabor the point, it's because I've long argued against this popular conception of grad school, one that only ends in misery - when the college senior who was fated to be an Esteemed Professor doesn't get into grad school, or when the still-more-confident grad-student version of the same can't land a permanent position but isn't willing to consider any other line of work. Grad students with these romantic notions are precisely the ones who are least blasé about job prospects after graduation.
Rather, my argument was and is that for many if not most college seniors/recent grads with good offers from good programs, grad school is the practical alternative. The go-don't-go debate ought to be straightforward enough: it's subjective. It depends what offers you have from grad schools, and what options you have otherwise, and whether - to the best of your knowledge prior to teaching college students, if not prior to teaching at all - you think you want to be a professor. It depends on your mindset - whether your job while filling out apps is Starbucks or a professional track in which you'd have a future. But all these variables make for a pretty weak polemic, which is why these articles, needing to take a firm (and contrarian) stand, warn away anyone interested.
The problem with the uh-oh-grad-school genre is that it conflates, conflates, conflates. Top programs with bottom-rung, funded and debt-producing, MA and PhD. These articles/posts also tend to conflate the question of whether it's a bad idea for the prospective grad student to go that route, and whether it's a bad idea for grad school as it currently exists to continue without extensive reform. They tend to address an audience (conservatives, contrarians, and burnt-out academics) already convinced that academia's in shambles, so precision's not given much weight. But precision would be fabulous.
The complicated question is the big-picture one, about the state of grad-school-as-it-currently-exists. There are the issues we know about, namely: 1) more grad students than tenure-track positions, perma-adjuncting replacing traditional faculties, 2) the imminent kaput-ness of the humanities in general and certain subjects (ahem, as we say in French) in particular, and 3) the expectation of infinite geographic mobility, which is just a subset of 4) the expectation that everyone is "head of household" i.e. a 1950s husband aka (if female, which often enough these days humanities grad students are) single and childless until at least 35. There are also the broader, more philosophical questions about the enterprise, such as MSI's, about whether the "life of the mind" ought to be equated with academia, that one of her commenters brings up - should a PhD even be necessary to teach? - and questions of political homogeneity.
Then there are the problems that haven't already been the subject of a thousand much-forwarded higher-ed articles, but that do impact both individual grad students and the university. These are really the behind-the-scenes version of those listed above, problems that impact even those who most belong in grad school. Specifically, there's the issue of transparency. It's possible to have items 1-4 drilled into you and still not know just how dire your own situation is or is not. If you're the universally-acknowledged best in your field at Yale, you can kinda-sorta relax, but there's a lot of... for lack of a better term, upper-middle ground, basically everyone who has funding, is in a good program, has every reason to believe they're in good standing, but is not top student at Yale. Those of us in that situation can guess but fundamentally have no idea whether we're in professional programs aimed at tenure-track jobs, or whether we're simply being paid to do something interesting for 5-6 years. We don't know until we know.
Moving beyond the question of the sad little grad students themselves, there's the issue of, what's the institution for? In programs that don't demand much teaching, in fields without much research-assistance needed, it's unlikely that students are being exploited for their labor. But if schools are paying (low-to-lowish) salaries to students who for the most part aren't going on to be profs, many of whom have entered at one and the same time claiming (and meaning!) that their plan is to be a prof and thinking of that outcome as something like winning the lottery, what's the point?
Part of the confusion, I think, comes from the extent to which the programs themselves are ambiguous about their missions. Is the point of grad school a) to let trust-fund kids or older folks who don't need an income dabble; b) to provide a paid-if-not-much haven for "that-guy" recent college grads who want to devote themselves to Big Questions and not get out of bed before noon, who think job-jobs are too stifling but who do not have an artistic talent to cultivate instead; or c) to train the next generation of profs, plus, via spillover, a handful of professionals in associated fields in and out of academia?
My sense of this, as someone who knows a good number of grad students in various fields, at various universities, is that fields and individual programs evolve, and that some that were once for dabblers and torn-blazer-aficionados have in recent years begun presenting themselves as professional-training environments. Or vice versa. And I don't think - although I've been pretty lucky in this regard - that profs themselves are necessarily sure who their students are, or what they're there for, whether they're in finishing school or training to be the next generation of academics. Maybe in the windowless room where the cabal that runs The American University meets, there's some clarity about what grad school is, but it can sometimes seem as if no one's entirely sure. All of this creates an atmosphere of confusion, in which there's a fine line between what's "driven" and what's entitled/unrealistic when it comes to professional aspirations at the other end.
One way to reform this would be to create somewhat more explicit tracks, according to different reasons for being in grad school in the first place, then allowing individuals to switch track if need be. Dabblers should know who they are (which I fear sounds pejorative, which isn't how I mean it - maybe a better word would be learning-for-learning's-sake-but-deeper-than-adult-ed? but is there a one-word description of that?) and should fund the professional-training end of things, either in MA programs or doctoral ones for which they pay (that is, until the time may come when they have professional aspirations their departments support). Big-Questions sorts who are not independently wealthy need either to take out loans for an MA and get it out of their system, or to join the pre-prof grad-school track, which does mean accepting that academia is not an escape from networking, showering, or office politics. Finally, those who could plausibly - and want to - become profs, and who are ostensibly on a pre-professional, funded track, should not be conflated with dabblers or Big-Questioners. They should not be expected to have money saved up for a program that's ostensibly paying them, nor should they be expected to be martyrs to the "life of the mind," to suffer for something that's neither charity nor art. To work hard, yes, but with pay and health insurance.
Ultimately, this would probably still leave some discrepancy between the number of even professional-track students and tenure-track jobs, but not to the extent that this exists today between all-grad-school-as-one and those slots. It wouldn't solve the two-body problem. It wouldn't silence those who think research in the humanities is some kind of oxymoron. But it would make it a bit more straightforward what grad school is for.
Much of this is, I think, already in place, but so unstated that people (like at least one Pannapacker's commenter) whose package was in all likelihood intended either for someone who has too much money to care about a stipend, or who wants so much to be A Scholar that they'll take what they can get, nevertheless think of themselves as on a pre-professional track, because after all, they're grad students, and isn't "grad school" the topic at hand?
Wednesday, August 03, 2011
First off, this seems relevant. Now for the rest...