April 6, 2013

"Getting a literature Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor."

This is scarcely news. This is something everyone I knew already knew 30 years ago, but this Slate article is very well written, with some nice references to Kafka, the subject of Rebecca Schuman's thesis. So good luck to Schuman in the life an independent writer.
There’s a little fable from Kafka, appropriately called “A Little Fable,” that speaks to why this was very stupid:
"Alas," said the mouse, "the world gets smaller every day. At first it was so wide that I ran along and was happy to see walls appearing to my right and left, but these high walls converged so quickly that I’m already in the last room, and there in the corner is the trap into which I must run."

"But you’ve only got to run the other way," said the cat, and ate it.
The mouse wasn’t going in the wrong direction so much as it was walking cat food the entire time. A graduate career is just like this, only worse, because “A Little Fable” lasts three sentences and is made up, while graduate school lasts at least six years and will ruin your life in a very real way. But, as in the fable, this ruin is predestined, and completely unrelated to how “right” you do things.
By the way, aren't we all Kafka's mouse, running toward certain death, with the only other option being a premature death?  

73 comments:

rhhardin said...

It's probably the lefty environment that makes you useless today.

Even music majors did fine in computer programming, in the 60s.

Hagar said...

"We all know what B.S. is, and M.S. stands for More of the Same, and PhD just stands for Piled heap Deep."

There is a need for a few academic researchers and what-not, but often spending that much time in college in your young years have made you unsuitable for actual work in the profession, and, anyway, you are now married with kids and can't take the risk, so you just stay in college and teach more young people about a profession you have no experience with.

edutcher said...

Music is very mathematical, if you think about it.

The problem with Liberal Arts is that you have to regurgitate the Lefty's professor's pet theories, rather than think for yourself.

Ipso Fatso said...

Yep, we are all on our way to certain doom, some in a Hugo, some in a Maserati.

Tyrone Slothrop said...

As an undergrad I came within one quarter of graduating with a degree in Comparative Lit. I had a crisis of confidence. What could possibly be more useless than such a degree? I dropped out. In my mid twenties I went back to school and got a degree in mechanical engineering. I have never regretted it, except for the lost time.

somefeller said...

By the way, aren't we all Kafka's mouse, running toward certain death, with the only other option being a premature death? 

Yes, but premature death preceded by penury and massive student loan debt burdens is even worse.

And I also heard a version of this 20 years ago, which was one reason why I went to law school instead of grad school. But I think the rise of usage on non-tenure track adjuncts has made things worse for PhDs in recent decades. Classic oversupply problem.

Paddy O said...

What a sad way of looking at things.

Maybe there's a difference between pursuing such a degree because you think it will solve issues of identity or provide a safe income.

That's not why I did it. I had questions. I love learning. I poured myself deeply into wells of knowledge and wisdom. It wasn't easy, but I look back on the last five years of PhD work with a sense of celebration, delight.

It could also be that I had an adviser who had the same approach--bitter, jealous, burned out advisers make for the same sorts of students. Mice in a trap, walls converging.

Of course, maybe too, theology is a field without constraining walls. There's always more, each room bigger than the next.

Robert Cook said...

"It's probably the lefty environment that makes you useless today."

What "lefty environment?"

Some benighted souls see hobgoblins of their own imaginings everywhere they peer.

Shouting Thomas said...

Yes, I have BAs from the University of Illinois in both English lit and instrumental music.

Proved to be a great foundation for a career in programming.

Not mentioned in the article is the reality that, to even be considered for the one those tenured positions in literature, you must toe the ideological line ferociously.

You must trot out ever more arcane bullshit about race, sex and gender.

In other words, the worst toadies get the few jobs that exist.

Paddy O said...

Further up and further in!

somefeller said...

And here's one possible response to the problem: abolish tenure and replace it with 5 year contracts that are only terminable for cause or financial necessity. That would create more academic labor market churn and might lead to higher salaries because universities won't be able to underpay because of the non-cash benefit of tenure.

Michael K said...

My daughter took a leave of absence from her PhD History program, where she was on a fellowship, to get a job and is unlikely to go back. Her Masters is in Library Science, a more practical degree.

Paddy O said...

"abolish tenure and replace it with 5 year contracts"

One of the places I'm adjuncting at has this approach. No tenure. 1, then 3, then 5 year contracts.

No discernible difference. No churn.

traditionalguy said...

Russian Proverb: Studying the past will cause you to lose one eye, but not studying the past will cause you to lose both eyes.

Shouting Thomas said...

No, somefeller, the real solution is to abolish the federal student loan programs.

When I entered the University of Illinois in 1968, my tuition and fees per semester were less than $250.

Adjusted for inflation, that would amount to about $1,700 in 2012. Tuition and fees are close to $7,000 a semester in 2013.

The slush fund of student loans is responsible for this. Get rid of the student loan program, and can all the Diversicrats.

The cost of college would settle back to where it was when I entered school. That is, kids could work part time during the school year, full time during summer vacation, and with a little help from their parents graduate debt free, as I did in 1971.

Hagar said...

University professors and other government employees tend to have very exaggerated ideas about how much money we make out in private industry.

Stephen said...

As a devoted follower of the great, albeit fictional, philosopher, James T. Kirk, I dispute your grim premise!

KIRK: I changed the conditions of the test. I got a commendation for original thinking. ...I don't like to lose.
SAAVIK: Then you never faced that situation, ...faced death.
KIRK: I don't believe in a no-win scenario.

Bender said...

By the way, aren't we all Kafka's mouse, running toward certain death, with the only other option being a premature death?

No, all of us are not. But some are. And it is hard for them to let go of their existential angst.

They could let go. There is yet another way. But they refuse to take it. Meanwhile, they project their own chosen doom unto everyone else as universal and inevitable.

66 said...

I think the problem is more with the graduate student than the graduate studies. Kafka, with his suicidal mice and his characters transforming into roaches, was a huge downer. Was this graduate student unable to find anything more uplifting in the entire history of western literature? Shoot, if Prozac had been invented a bit earlier, Kafka might have had a whole different outlook.

Roger J. said...

Adjunct professors are the migrant labor of academe--its just they don't pick us up at home depot when we teach. Full disclosure: I am an adjunct, but am comfortably retired and teach because I want to and enjoy it. Many of my adjunct colleagues teach because they have to and are not well paid.

Bender said...

That's not to say that once one goes down the wrong path that things are not a lot harder and real freedom is not taken away. Indeed, once one makes that initial error of going the wrong way, one's judgment is necessarily impaired, the ability to discern which is the right way to go and which is the wrong way is corrupted. And then things are made worse by encountering walls and obstructions of our own making.

But there is a way out.

Surfed said...

I passed from middle aged to old just this last year.

somefeller said...

No, somefeller, the real solution is to abolish the federal student loan programs.

There is something to that also. A fire hose of money will lead to inflation. But rather than wreck the ability for people to take out loans to invest in themselves, let's go back to the system we had 20 years ago - make student loans dischargable in bankruptcy after a period of years post-graduation (to prevent strategic bankruptcy). Lenders would be less likely to loan money for no-name private college tuition then.

Also - stop defunding state universities. If in-state tuition is kept at a reasonable level, most problems are solved for most students

Mark O said...

Actually, I'm Kafka's huckleberry.

somefeller said...

One of the places I'm adjuncting at has this approach. No tenure. 1, then 3, then 5 year contracts. No discernible difference. No churn.

Very interesting. But the labor churn I'm talking about would need the term contract system to be commonplace to occur. If most universities keep tenure, the outliers won't affect the general market. But your experience is worth noting.

whoresoftheinternet said...

It always amazes me that all those leftists have read Kafka and Orwell and Huxley and yet still think totalitarianism is the way to go.

Reminds me of those Christian philosophers who read about the Greek gods and yet never questioned their own faith.

Dogma is a powerful bitch.

traditionalguy said...

Kafka has a Balkans world view where one of the the Empires is always just around the corner from you: Russian, Mongolian, Prussian Polish, Austrian, and Turkish...sounds like Wisconsin to me.

betamax3000 said...

"I’ll be the cockroach smoking two cigarettes.”

betamax3000 said...

"Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. Then the cat ate them."

betamax3000 said...

At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others — poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner — young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life. Then I turned into a cockroach."

Bender said...

In the face of Greek and Roman philosophy - including their pagan beliefs - the early Church did plenty of questioning of their faith: Who is God? What is God? Does God really exist? Who and what are Jesus? What is the relationship between Father and Son? What is evil? What is good?

Being a religion of the Logos, Christianity has always been concerned with truth and being a faith that seeks understanding. That means asking questions.

The Church has questioned the faith a hell of a lot more than those who ignorantly attack the Church.

betamax3000 said...

"The prolonged and tumultuous argument that ended by herding us into that room eludes me, though I have a sharp physical memory that, in the course of it, my underwear kept climbing like a damp cockroach up my legs and intermittent beads of sweat raced cool across my back."

betamax3000 said...

Franz Kafka and Albert Camus walk into a bar.

Everyone dies.

Ann Althouse said...

The funny thing is: She picked Kafka. If Kafka was an attraction to her to begin with, why did she expect a better fate than what she got?

Ann Althouse said...

"Kafka, with his suicidal mice..."

How was the mouse suicidal?!

66 said...

And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer. But then came the cockroaches.

betamax3000 said...

"A breeze stirred the gray haze of Daisy’s mouse-fur collar."

66 said...

"and there in the corner is the trap into which I must run"

Clearly a suicidal mouse.

Trouble with mice is you always kill 'em.

betamax3000 said...

Those Who Whisper Beneath the Floors say all doors are exits, not entrances.

Bender said...

Having now read the actual article, the problem is buying into that initial lie about higher education. Once one walks off in the direction of a lie, with each step he is getting further and further away from the truth.

To escape fully, one must undo that first lie.

66 said...

I can still tend the mice, George? I didn't mean no harm, George.

chickelit said...

Another fable involving mice:

A very ambitious king, never satisfied with his new conquests, is travelling one day. He sees a vast province blessed by the smile of the sky and kissed by the blue sea. The king sighs from dawn till dusk: “Oh! How happy I would be if only I could have that province!”

In the province there is a beautiful estate with a magnificent grounds and a palace with marble steps and rooms full of costly furniture, tapestries, and mirrors. A millionaire passes and sighs: “Oh! How happy I would be if I had that house!”

In the house there is a beautiful woman. She looks down from a balcony and sees a lovely little boy with blond hair. She sighs continuously: “Oh! How happy I would be if I had that boy!”

On the roof of the building is a nice black and white cat sunning itself. The blond child watches him from morning to night and sighs: "Oh! How happy I would be if I had that cat!

The cat, from his observation post, sees a mouse that comes out of the attic and sighs: "Oh! How happy I would be if I had that mouse!

The mouse, scurrying about, attempts to reach a piece of parmesan cheese suspended on a beam and sighs: "Oh! How happy I would be if had that cheese!"

A good fairy, who hears all those wishes thinks, with her supernatural power, that she can make six creatures happy, and orders that their dreams come true.

Thus at last the mouse manages to sink his teeth into the cheese, the cat has the mouse between its paws, the blond child gets hold of the cat, the beautiful lady takes the blond baby as a child, the millionaire buys the villa of the woman and the king conquers the vast province.

But soon the fairy realizes that she has deceived herself. The mouse eats the cheese, the cat eats the mouse, the child gets the cat, the woman adopts the child, the millionaire buys the house, the king gets the province, but soon everyone resumes their sighing for other things. Only one, the poor mouse eaten by the cat, cannot have new desires; all the others are more dissatisfied than ever before.

And so the fairy is convinced that on this earth, humans, with their discontent, make their own existence unhappy.


link to the original Italian fable

betamax3000 said...

Re: "By the way, aren't we all Kafka's mouse, running toward certain death, with the only other option being a premature death?"

Zig-zag. Zig-zag.

betamax3000 said...

The mouse fears the cat; the cat fears the vacuum cleaner.

creeley23 said...

I have a friend who got a BA in philosophy in the seventies and even back then his professors all discouraged him from going further because of the jobs situation.

Would that more humanities professors today were as decent.

The Pannapacker article (under the pseudonym, Thomas H. Benton) she links is a far better for informing the reader than her emotional cry.

Uncle Pavian said...

Bender is correct about the lie of graduate school. If only I had heard of the Kafka fable (and connected it to more education) before I applied to law school.

William said...

To a certain extent, the deprivations and poverty that a grad student must endure in his pursuit of truth and wisdom are a feature and not a bug. In the middle ages tons of young men and women entered monasteries and convents to live a life of simplicity and order. I think such young people nowadays gravitate to advanced degreees in the humanities. They can spurn worldly dross while pursuing the far nobler goals of learning and wisdom. Their poverty and lack of prospects only serve to further purge the soul of its material longings. Then they drop out and get a real job.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

rhhardin,

It's probably the lefty environment that makes you useless today.

Even music majors did fine in computer programming, in the 60s.


The fit between STEM generally and music is very strong. At UC/Berkeley, it seemed like half the University Symphony comprised science, math, and engineering majors. A friend of mine who is a composer and organist makes most of his living as a programmer. Another friend went straight from graduation to work at Bell Labs ... and study at the Manhattan School of Music. Music is his job now. I was a MechE, and my work is now entirely music.

Bruce Hayden said...

All is not lost. A bunch of ObamaCare "navigator" slots are opening up, and such employment might be perfect for the average humanities PhD. Money is apparently between $20 and $50 an hour, and even the bottom of that is apparently much better than they can expect as adjuncts. Plus, of course, generous benefits, possibly even exempt from ObamaCare.

creeley23 said...

Pannapacker has also written a witty piece asking the musical question, "Is Graduate School a Cult?", then addressing the checklist of cult charasteristics applied to academia with chilling results.

For all its claims to the contrary, graduate education does not seem to enhance the mental freedom of many students, some of whom are psychologically damaged by the experience. As Newhouse suggested -- perhaps more rhetorically than seriously -- graduate school these days seems to have a lot in common with mind-control cults.

creeley23 said...

Bruce H: Frankly I have wondered if Obamacare, in the back of some liberal administrators' minds, a plan for employing hundreds of thousands of college grads otherwise without possibilities.

rcocean said...

What "lefty environment?"

Yeah, who ya gonna believe, reality or left-wing "Push-back"?

Bruce Hayden said...

The fit between STEM generally and music is very strong.

Agreed - I think that it may at least be partially the logic involved. GF in college had to ultimately choose between music and math, and chose the former. My SO's son jumped from teaching music to IT a couple of years ago, after getting two music degrees (and, still hoping for a PhD). Still teaching privately though, and playing in a band. Partially, it was because school districts are cutting back their music departments while ramping up IT, and partially, it was boredom.

FleetUSA said...

thanks for the link.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

By the way, aren't we all Kafka's mouse, running toward certain death...

No, many of us are not. While fully aware that certain death awaits us, we are happily living our lives until it happens.

Rabel said...

If Rebecca was better looking she'd get hired.

elkh1 said...

Hagar said...
"University professors and other government employees tend to have very exaggerated ideas about how much money we make out in private industry."

No, they don't care how much you make, they have very exaggerated ideas about how much of your money they are entitled to grab.

Basta! said...

somefeller said: "And here's one possible response to the problem: abolish tenure and replace it with 5 year contracts"

A while back the university I'm at replaced an associate professor slot with a 5 year contract lecturer position, one that in addition cannot be renewed. The other profs then had to wade through reams of applicants for the position. Eight made the first cut. Then all us students had to sit through 8 "practice" classes and 8 talks, one per applicant. The person who wound up getting the job knew it was non-renewable and so immediately started looking for a better gig. She left after 3 years, at which point we had to go through the whole rigamarole again. The *winner* for this round actually quit not just the job but the field after a few years.

The university then cut the 5 year slot down to a 3 year one, also non-renewable. I was just informed that I'm expected to sit through applicant classes and lectures later this month, for the latest batch. The whole process is inefficient and destabilizing.

William said...

Do depressed students seek out Kafka or does the study of Kafka depress students. It's difficult to seperate the dancer from the dance.....I haven't read much Kafka, but I always thought there was something self-aggrandizing about his fantasies.. You have to have a certain sense of self importance to think that important people are plotting against you. Nonsense, little man, they don't even know you're alive. And as for the Metamorphosis, I don't need to sprout feelers and lay on my back to inspire disdain I can do it while wearing a suit and with my hair neatly combed. Again, nonsense little man, you don't inspire disgust. To the extent people even notice you, they think you're undifferentiated--a spot of beige in a field of tan.....I would recommend all grad students put down the Kafka and pick up Beckett. Now there's a guy who understood futility and the utter pointlessness of our struggles on earth. None of that vainglorius Kafka crap......I could go on, but I want to go eat now.

galdosiana said...

In my personal experience, as someone who recently graduated with a Ph.D. in literature and got a tenure-track position coming out of grad school, I think that you have to be very strategic during all of grad school (and even prior to admission) in order to land a good job. If you want a chance at a TT job in literature, you must:

1) Go to the best possible school in your area of study. If you are going into English lit, for instance, and you can only get into a Ph.D. program at a mediocre state school, it's probably better to not even bother.

2) Do your work well and finish ON TIME. I can't even tell you how many people take YEARS to finish their dissertations. And when I say years, I mean a decade or longer, just to produce a 200-page research project. These people will rarely do well on the job market because tenure is only 6 years, and if it takes you nearly double that just to produce a thesis, you won't stand a chance in the real world.

3) Choose an area of study and specialization that will be interesting to potential employers, but stray away from cliche topics. WAY too many grad students in literature simply rehash the same old general themes without bringing new light to them. That being said, you also have to be sure to choose a topic that interests you, because if it doesn't, you'll end up taking forever to finish (see #2).

4) If you are lucky enough to get interviews and campus visits, be happy about the opportunity, regardless of where they are. Not everyone who graduates with a Ph.D. in literature teaches at an Ivy League university, and yet for some reason most students I know seem to think that they will do so once they graduate. (This is also the fault of poorly-run graduate programs that provide little to no professional training for their doctoral students. It's no wonder they have no idea what to expect, because they've never been told what the profession is really like, anyway.)

galdosiana said...

I should also add, though, that even if you do all of the things I mentioned above, the chances of getting a TT job in literature are definitely declining. Example: one of my friends applied for a post-doc in literature this past fall, and two months before the application deadline she was already applicant #800. No joke.

somefeller said...

The university then cut the 5 year slot down to a 3 year one, also non-renewable. I was just informed that I'm expected to sit through applicant classes and lectures later this month, for the latest batch. The whole process is inefficient and destabilizing.

I can see why. Making the appointment non-renewable guarantees that people will see it a temporary gig, by definition. In fact, it sounds like this method was designed to fail, in order to bolster the standard system.

Michael K said...

Two of my medical school classmates were music majors. Both had had no premed courses. We were an "experimental class" in 1962. Both went into psychiatry.

Smilin' Jack said...

"Getting a literature Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor."

There's a difference?

Bob_R said...

Well the reason I was first attracted to this blog was one of those non-renewable assistant professorships - called a Van Vleck Assistant Professorship in Mathematics at the UW. It's a good start on your research career. Still a very active program.

Kirby Olson said...

I GOT a tenure track job teaching English and am a white male openly Republican Christian with five books and teach 12 hours a week. It's a good life but is like getting to be on Broadway. Most jobs have several hundred candidates. The biggest schools might have a thousand or more. If God wants you to do this He will find a way for you to do it. Did this woman pray to God enough? Her diss sounds dull. I did mine on Edward Lear and other minor comic writers such as PG Wodehouse. The whole thing can be done but you a more musical comedy attitude and to enjoy the journey!

William said...

They spend ten years in pursuit of an unrenumerative degree. They consider Marxism or, at least, European style socialism the very best economic system devised by man. Anyone see a pattern....They say that for compulsive gamblers the emotional pay off is not the occasional winning streak, but the insupportable losses. These reaffirm his belief that the system and life itself is rigged against him. Thus so with the lumpenintelligensia. Being placed 800 in a list of applicants confirms their belief in the inequity of the system and not their adroitness in how to maneuver within it.....Monks used to one up each other in the mortification of the flesh dept. Some would sleep in their coffins. Then others would sleep in their coffins sans pillows. Then others would sleep sans pillows while wearing a hairshirt and fasting till noon. The first one to die a miserable death was the winner. Just so with grad students. The first one to suffer emotional collapse is the most earnest and sincere student.....I can see why the student above chose Kafka's mouse rather than Waiting for Godot as his metaphor. It's far more elegant, and people who are not good at literature won't get it. The student's education was not in vain.

Allan said...

Why are there professors of Literature in the University
and who would want to be one?

You don't need to attend a university to learn how to read a book.

rcocean said...

Frankly, who cares? The vast majority of liberal arts professors are completely useless, except as keeping potential left-wing revolutionaries off the streets.

Try to read any academic writing about any piece of literature, when it not incomprehensible, its used as an excuse to advance liberalism or Marxism (yes, Marxism, I kid you not).

Most liberal arts PHD's have nothing interesting or useful to say, they simply want a cushy academic job that doesn't require them to work.

rcocean said...

Perfect example. I'm reading my first Ellroy Novel "White Jazz". So, I google to find some criticism. The name Mike Davis pops up. Seems he thinks Ellroy is "racist". Who the fuck is Mike Davis? I google some more. Turns out he's a "Marxist" and a "MacArthur fellow" and of course a professor. Former weather underground. Even Boring dumb shallow Bill Moyers has interviewed him. Read the interview, read his criticism. Marxism of course. Intelligent literary criticism - Lol.

rcocean said...

Forget 21st century English Lit professors - boring left-wing losers.

Read: Orwell, Trilling, TS Eliot, Wilson, F.R. Leavis, Kimball, Kazin, van wyck brooks.

David said...

Running mouse?

I always favored his cockroaches.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Kirby Olson,

I did m[y dissertation] on Edward Lear and other minor comic writers such as PG Wodehouse.

I should like to read that, on strict condition that "minor comic writers" was meant as extremely heavy-handed humor.