Monday, May 16, 2011

Poor Life Choices

Lately I have been thinking about graduate education in the humanities. Perhaps it would be a bit extreme to say that I have been having a moral crisis. Like St. Thomas, though, I sometimes have my doubts.

It’s not that I give credence to right-wing attacks on humanities research. Nothing drives me up the wall more than to switch on some local news story about an illiterate state legislator claiming that the humanities are irrelevant and a waste of tax payer money. I have written here and elsewhere about how critical an engagement with the humanities is for an informed and responsible citizenry, mostly to keep them from electing illiterate state legislators. Ethnic studies research also has a critical role to play as the nation’s demographics continue to shift. Ironically (in an Alanis Morrisette sorta way) it is at the very moment that companies and government agencies are desperate for individuals who can intelligently engage with minority communities, especially Latinos, that many universities are slashing their ethnic studies programs. I am looking at you, University of Texas system.

My concerns about graduate studies in the humanities are a bit more pragmatic. I have wondered about the wisdom of churning out armies of Ph.D.’s when the opportunity to land a traditional tenure–track position is becoming more and more remote. "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked" or something . . .

Do we have any ethical obligation to resist the temptation to admit graduate students when we know this to be the case? How do we balance that obligation with an equal investment in insuring that new research on critical topics like race, gender, sexuality, class, disability studies and other fields moves forward?

Sadly, I have no answers to these questions. Instead, I can only think about the type of advice that I would give to newly admitted Ph.D. students in the Social Sciences or the Humanities. Hopefully you already received some clear-cut guidance before you applied to these programs. If not, here are some things to consider as you start a new program. It might be harsh, but it’s only because I love you.

    1. Do not expect to get an academic job. Surely I can’t be the first person to mention that the academic job market is beyond miserable. A few very lucky folks land a coveted tenure-track position, but then a few lucky folks also win the lottery. Many others are placed into some mighty abysmal working arrangements as part of the adjunct machine. Universities and colleges, regrettably, know that they can acquire cheap labor and offer no guarantees because there is a surplus of Ph.D.’s on the market. Only you can decide if you want to work those long hours for minimal pay (and probably do without health benefits). It seems wiser, though, to prepare yourself to walk away from the t-t market. Consider obtaining an advanced degree as the opportunity itself. You have six years (or so) to really delve into topics that interest you. That is a luxury that can be enjoyed on its own.

    2. Learn to combat feelings of being an intellectual imposter. If you find yourself feeling like everybody around you is a bit smarter or has read more, don’t worry. They are all thinking the exact same thing. I won’t deny that admissions to a graduate program depends upon a range of subjective criteria. Nonetheless, you would be surprised by the level of consensus that usually forms around candidates during admissions. This means that you should rest assured that you are just as bright and capable as any other student in the program.

    3. Learn to combat feelings of being an intellectual superior. This is the flip side of number two. Indeed, many students vacillate between these two extremes. Graduate school can turn you downright bipolar. You have talents, to be sure, but they do not surpass those around you. It has seemed to me that once graduate students go down the path of hyper-ego their minds close faster than a vegan restaurant in Texas.

    4. Use the gentle cycle on the washing machine. Have you looked at your stipend recently? You better make your existing wardrobe last because there are no trips to the mall in your future. It’s either that or join a nudist colony by your fifth year.

    5. Remember that being a graduate student is a remarkably privileged position. This might seem hard to imagine given the brutal hours that you spend toiling away in the library. Nonetheless, you are now part of a tiny educated elite in this country whatever your economic or social class prior to admission. Estimates suggest that only 3 percent of the nation’s population holds a Ph.D. There are many mighty smart people who would have jumped at the chance to continue their education, but circumstances prevented it. This isn’t to say that the stress you feel is not real or that institutions can’t do better. Still, remember that you aren’t exactly shoveling coal for a living either.

    6. Avoid having sex with faculty members in your department/immediate field. In my time, I have been propositioned by faculty who outranked me and also by graduate students. I don’t mention this to make claims about my innate hotness (Although . . .), rather it is to suggest that such things are a common turn of events in the academic world. It seems to me if you are a woman or a gay man, your chances of fielding unexpected/unwanted advances are pretty high. For some gay men, it’s how they say hello.

    It might also be the case that you are occasionally dazzled by a faculty member who really pushes your buttons. Never, though, does it seem like a particularly good idea when there is such an obvious difference in power. Coming up with polite ways to decline is your best option.

    Feel free to have sex with faculty members in departments far removed from your own. If you are in the humanities, there is no reason not to take a tumble with somebody in civil engineering should the mood and opportunity appear. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

    7. Learn the metric system. Okay, this doesn't really have much to do with your success in the program. Still, it's embarrassing that the U.S. is far behind on converting to metric.

    8. Summers are not vacations. Take a poll of your department’s junior faculty and find out how they spent their summer months. Chances are you will hear things like “researching,” “writing,” “visiting archives,” or “field work.” If you hear the word “vacation,” generally it means they have dragged their significant other along with them in a simple attempt to appease them. “Yeah, I really needed to spend some serious time at the Iowa State Archive,” one might say, “so I took my husband and we made a vacation out of it! I don’t care what they say, Des Moines has lots of summer surprises.” By “vacation,” they really mean that their spouse got to spend time with them late at night and on the weekends when the archives closed. The spouse’s “surprise” was that they found themselves being a dedicated xerox operator the rest of the time.

    This is a window into the life of an academic, especially one who is early in hir career. The demands of the regular academic year generally permit only scattered time to focus on a research agenda. Summers become precious opportunities to really bare down and work. If you plan to spend the four months lounging around a pool without cracking an academic journal or book, save yourself some heartache and drop out of graduate school now.

    9. Tend to your personal life. Sacrifices will inevitably have to be made, but try not to let grad school take complete control of your life. Have plans to get married? No reason not to do so. I mean, you’ll still end up divorced eventually, so why not get the clock running now? At least this way you’ll still be relatively young when your first marriage goes south. Want children? Go for it (Although, as always, I would suggest that one think carefully about the larger environmental implications of producing another weapon of massive consumption). Don’t have a family plan? Rather frequent bathhouses? As long as you have an endless supply of condoms, I say make it a weekly ritual if that’s your thing. In other words, there is really not a reason to delay doing other things simply for graduate school. This doesn’t mean that you don’t still need to do the actual work, but I haven’t seen any reward come to those who put off their personal life.

    10. Keep an eye on the liquor consumption. It’s hardly an original story when one turns to gin when feeling a bit stressed out. I am not a teetotaler (trust me), but it is always well worth thinking about how much liquor you consume. Avoid the binges or drinking every day. Besides, it’s an expensive habit and that money could go to other extravagances – like protein. An ideal scholar ends up with a classroom building named after hir; a less than ideal scholar ends up with the boardroom at Tanqueray named after hir.

    11. Come to terms with the fact that you will not likely live in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston, or another of the nation’s great cities. Back in the nineteenth century, when most of this nation’s universities started, popular thinking associated cities with vice, pollution, and unhealthy living. To insure that young adults remained morally and physically in shape, the logic went, universities needed to be as far away from urban areas as possible. Better that they hang out with the cows. That was before the nation faced the epidemic of bovine gangs. Personally, I blame the alfalfa black-market.

    Now we reap the legacy of nineteenth-century discourse as most of us in the academic world live in small towns rather than metropolises. This, I think, is one of the hardest things that we have to come to terms with for this job, especially if you’re gay (where the number of other gay people is necessarily going to be quite small). I have no solution to offer, which is probably why Tanqueray named that boardroom after me.

    12. Learn how to communicate your ideas to a wide audience. There are good reasons to delve deeply into a particular subfield or methodology. Nonetheless, you’ll be taking your dissertation on a road tour before you know it. If you find yourself at conferences getting asked questions about your main argument (or, worse, not getting asked any questions at all), it’s not the audience’s problem. You have to know how to pitch things in a way that is approachable from a wider range of disciplines.

Keep your chin up. In the end, graduate school is mostly about sticking through it.