in passing

19Aug10

I’m not going to bother to link to it; y’all know where to go for Historiann’s latest but, on the all-too-prevalent idea that it’s okay to carry on the unethical hiring and graduate student training practices b/c there are worse ways to spend your 20s and 30s: actually no, I’m struggling to think of worse ways to spend my 20s than spending them in the middle of nowhere, completely ignored by faculty in my program, vastly undertrained in my two main fields of inquiry, and being abused and treated grossly unfairly in comparison to my less-producing colleagues.

If, at the end of the day, this does not translate into either a job or a conscious choice of mine to leave academia (as opposed to be forced out due to lack of hiring opportunities), I will not look back on my 20s as an amazing time in my life in which I pursued my love of learning. Somewhere around the time I was told I was the worst student in my department (despite the mounds of evidence to the contrary of this unprovable idea), this stopped being a light and airy pursuit of knowledge for the sake of it and it became a quest to get the PhD that some people patently don’t want to give me.

But hey, the line of thinking that suggests that, b/c people chose something, it’s alright to abuse them and treat them unethically seems to be the one that’s won out and, in the face of what was really discrimination, I should really just remember my joyous love for learning that I could have just as easily quenched by taking the occasional Learning Annex class.

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7 Responses to “in passing”

  1. I feel for you—but everytime I read a post like this from you (I’ve been lurking for a while, and it hurts to read so I can only imagine how it feels to live it), I wonder “why do you not simply make that conscious decision to leave academia NOW?” This place is not good for you.

  2. There are reasons why I’m not leaving. For one, I actually like my field and what I study (or plan to study after this dissertation/1st book). But more significantly, I know myself enough to know that if I leave without getting the PhD, I’ll regret it and will see it as my being forced out because of the hostile conditions I found myself in rather than choosing to leave. (Right before this particular situation came out of the blue last fall, I was energized about my work and my field and quitting was the furthest thing from my mind. There have been extended moments since, when taking part in field-specific opportunities that arose this summer when I have been similarly enthusiastic about my field.)

    That being said, I think about whether I should stay or go pretty frequently. I’m going to be applying to jobs and fellowships this year but it’s going to be a very limited search. This place isn’t good for me, although I’m not sure if it’s the academy as a whole or just my department/university, which is horrendous for me and where, thankfully, I will not be this academic year. But the kind of ethical issues being raised on Historiann’s blog really bother me and I find the prime idea revealed in the comments–yeah, systemic changes are necessary but we don’t owe anything to the graduate students we’re training b/c they’ve chosen to be here–really disingenuous, borderline disgusting, and something that underpins a lot of what goes wrong with graduate education. X student chose to be here (and is lucky we deigned to accept ze) so there’s no need to address Y problem.

  3. 3 servetus

    I really agree with you on this point and unfortunately most people are so invested in their career decisions that they’re not willing to be really critical thinkers about the current problems. For example, is the only response to attacks on traditional tenure really to affirm emphatically that traditional tenure is the only way to go? There’s a problem when it’s precisely the people who are supposed to be teaching future citizens how to think outside the box repeatedly demonstrate their incapacity to do so themselves.

    I think this issue is particularly acute as regards graduate education. I’m involved in a couple of situations right now mentoring grad students where there is a stalemate between advisor and advisee with regard to what is to be done next, with the grad student asking for advice and the adviser refusing to give it, with the justification that their advisers never would have done that. All of this ignores the fact that there have been significant changes in secondary and postsecondary education in the last two decades that mean that our students don’t have the same kinds of background we do in addressing certain situations. Saying “this is how we’ve always done it” does not solve current problems, but even the most putatively progressive academics take refuge in that line, again and again.

    Given the number of bailing grad students I’ve known in the last decade (what graduate program really publishes attrition figures? But it was high in my graduate program, and seems about three times as high in the one I teach in now) a lot more honesty at the beginning of the program, including during the admissions process (no admitting people who aren’t prepared in hopes they can solve the problem during grad school, even though we’re pressuring students to finish ever more quickly) seems called for.

  4. 4 doctormon

    You’re right. That argument is as dumb to me as the argument people make in support of fraternity/sorority hazing–“well, it was done to me.” I can never understand why, if you are going to invest 4-6-even 10 years into someone–someone who is going to carrying the name of your institution–why you wouldn’t want them to have the best experience possible. People would cry bloody murder if they treated students that way at any other level of education.

    I don’t buy that a choice to learn more should open someone up to being exploited and abused. I’m not teaching at a doctoral level institution in part because of those attitudes. But I do recognize that those of us who leave that environment also remove our potential to influence change there as well.

  5. 5 Deborah

    I’m so burned out on this debate right now that I’m not sure I can put together a coherent comment. Thefrogprincess, you are so right that “the line of thinking that suggests that, b/c people chose something, it’s alright to abuse them and treat them unethically seems to be the one that’s won out.” It takes a certain amount of serious doublethink on the part of tt faculty to assume responsibility for training graduate students in the humanities to become scholar-teachers like themselves and yet to let themselves off the hook for the misery so many of us experience over the lack of career prospects, not to mention the disservice to undergraduates who are taught by so many miserably underpaid and frustrated contingent faculty members.

    But…we’re adults and knew what we were getting into, right? I don’t buy the argument that most graduate students really know what we’re getting into. We read the IHE articles, but then we look at our program’s reported placement numbers during our first few years and think, “Hey! I’m in a great program! People are getting jobs!! I can do what they do. Yay, I’ll beat the odds.” But we only get part of the story. Departments don’t publicize the numbers of equally qualified candidates who don’t get jobs, the people who bail out of the program ABD with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, the people who end up adjuncting for years upon years…

    How are we supposed to make an informed decision without seeing the whole picture? At the very least, it’s the reponsibility of people who are in a position of sharing this information to share it.

    My Ph.D. is brand new as of this past May, and the jury is still out for me as to whether I would have made different choices if I’d had better information earlier. Maybe I’m just stupid, but I really didn’t understand how bad things were and why they were the way they were until I went on the market last fall and saw firsthand. Ick. What do I do next? Go on the market again? Continue adjuncting and remain complicit with the system myself now that I understand it better? Give up on a decade of training and look for a nonacademic job?

    Sorry to ramble, but I really appreciate that you’ve created a space where people can express these thoughts without being smacked down for them.

  6. 6 thefrogprincess

    Congratulations on the PhD, Deborah. And no worries, rambles and rants are always welcome.

    I think the point you’re making is critical: Although the information about the job market may be swirling around the internet, for various reasons, I don’t think the majority of people entering academia do so truly believing their chances of getting a tenure track job are slim. For one thing, I don’t think that people who have only had a college education really understand what adjuncting means b/c in the classroom, there’s really little difference: the professor has a PhD and seems qualified so what distinguishes them from fulltime faculty is really a bureaucratic issue that undergrads don’t have much insight into. For another, we have to remember that whatever we’re reading on the internet is contradicted each day by the faculty members we’re learning from; there’s not getting around that fact.

    Third, and I keep harping on about this, the analogies to art school, MFAs, and professional sports really don’t hold up. Tenure-track/tenured faculty may say that the odds of getting a tenure-track job are as low as breaking into professional sports but that’s certainly not how the field is packaging itself to undergraduates, nor are the salaries high enough if you make it to make such a severe winnowing process seem worth it. But, even worse, faculty don’t really believe in this severe winnowing process b/c when it comes to discussing adjuncting, we hear tons about how administrators should really turn those adjunct positions into permanent tenure-track lines, a position which suggests to me that we actually don’t see academia/graduate school as art school or professional sport.

    I also continue to be puzzled by the resistance to see graduate school as job training. What else would it be? Yes, it’s a unique form of job training, one that trains you to become part of a scholarly community and that trains you to do independent research, but it’s training nonetheless. A friend of mine made a good point: if people are so resistant to seeing graduate school as vocational training, it’s in part b/c they view vocational training as menial. Perhaps those taking this position should really question why it is they view vocational training as something less than.

  7. 7 Deborah

    To add to your criticism of the false analogy that getting a PhD in the humanities is like pursuing a career in the arts or professional sports, just consider these verbatim comments by our department chair at today’s meeting for us adjuncts teaching freshman comp this fall: “You make an enormous contribution to the department” and “You’re at the center of the mission of this institution.” We might argue about what and how much aspiring musicians and athletes contribute to society, but nobody would say that they’re “at the center of the mission” of any institution as vital to our society as the university is. Many universities simply wouldn’t be able to function without the grad students and recent PhDs teaching general education courses.

    We’re trained to think that rising through the academic ranks is a process of weeding out akin to making it from the minor leagues to the majors in sports, but, in reality, we’re performing an essential job. I call bullshit, and I’m getting off the adjunct track as soon as I possibly can, even if it means backing out of a semester in progress. Seriously, as you say, what’s wrong with calling graduate school vocational training? Everyone needs a job. You can live “the life of the mind” all you want to, but, at the end of the day, we all have to put food on the table. Adjuncting doesn’t let you do that in a reliable or satisfactory way.


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