Bread Yes. But Roses Too.

When you have a blog with one post that maybe 25 facebook friends read two months ago, you don’t expect your autobiographical response to a series of essays that have been bothering you to get 3000 page views, 650 facebook posts, 50 retweets, and I don’t even know whats on Google+ in about 24 hours.

But that’s what happened.

Thanks for reading, reposting, agreeing, disagreeing. I have responded in the comments and on facebook as much as I could, but there isn’t enough time. I will write on this topic again taking into account all of the positive and negative feedback I’ve received.

A still from Trash Dance taken during the crane solo.

For now, I want to share some of the dance project that inspired me to finally write down why “Just Don’t Go” bothered me so much – and I think all those reposts later – why it bothers so many others, too. Last weekend I was fortunate to see the rough cut of Trash Dance, a documentary that records the work of Allison Orr, who is on the dance faculty at Austin Community College in Texas, and the men and women of the Austin Sanitation Department. In Trash Project, Orr first worked alongside the men and women of the sanitation department. She did jobs that sanitation workers did, and then collaborated with them to translate their everyday movements into dance. What’s interesting to me is how the performers describe their initial resistance – I’m not getting paid for that, my after work time is my own, etc – turning into an interest for sound, performance, and figurative expression. By changing their frame of reference, the sanitation workers and their audience began to understand sanitation work differently, as something that can’t simply be summed by tasks, pay, and benefits. Pay and benefits are damn important – some of my readers don’t think I know that – but why did the striking women millworkers at Lawrence hold signs that read, “Bread Yes, But Roses Too.”?

I know you can’t see the entire Trash Project performance online, but look for the documentary film Trash Dance at festivals next year.  Here are some clips to give you a sense of it. For some reason, I can’t put my finger on it now, I couldn’t read “Just Don’t Go” anymore without exploring what was on my mind.

And here’s more footage of the performance:

And why was “our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,  hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread but give us roses”  a live political statement millworking  women in 1911 Chicago and 1912 Lawrence, MA could organize around, but not us?

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Working Classes

Yet another “humanities grad school is bad, mmmkay” piece is making the rounds on the internet. This one expands William Pannapacker’s range of influence from the specialized readership of the Chronicle and IHE to’s wider audience. Pannapacker’s columns, which can be summed up as “just don’t go” to graduate school, have been controversial and influential. I’ve heard from first-year grad students that they’d been given a copy of the “Just Don’t Go” essays by well-meaning faculty at their undergraduate institutions. I think it’s a good thing to break down whatever is left of the romantic vision of  humanities graduate school bohemia followed immediately by a career resembling your favorite undergrad professor’s. But if we’re going to banish the romanticism, let’s also get rid of the melodrama that Pannapacker and others offer in its place. Instead of sexy bohos in black jeans discussing Poe and Lacan over coffee, we’re offered a vision of an evil empire sucking the lifeblood out of talented twentysomethings until those twentysomethings are suddenly thirty and have nothing to show for themselves but debt and a cv that reads more like a record of exploitation than a résumé.

Francisco de Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son

I’m not here to defend university administrations, the low wages of teaching assistants and adjuncts, or the precariousness of year-to-year (or semester-to-semester) contracts. Pannapacker and others are right; adjunctification and the growing reliance on rotating pools of graduate student teachers are outpacing the hiring of tenure-track faculty and this is bad for teachers and students. As Pannapacker points out in his latest, this puts many inexperienced and overworked teachers at the “front lines” of higher education where students in need of basic skills and deep advisement are being taught by those with the least time, resources, and experience to devote to them. I’m with Pannapacker when he says that we should be out front in telling students and parents about the benefits of having full-time tenured and tenurable teachers in the classroom with students. The benefits for students, from lower student/faculty ratios, increased opportunities for office hours and advisement, and better truth-in-grading practices, would improve on major problems that I hear students complain about frequently. So, yes, how can we get the high-profile rankings generators like U.S. News and Princeton Review to take “who is actually doing the teaching” into account, and how do we convince parents and undergraduates to pay attention to such facts? We would hope that making the case that we need more tenured and tenure-track professors (or at least full-time, long-term contract instructors) in the classroom working with students would lead to the hiring of more tenure-track faculty. But we also have to recognize that it’s easier and more politically expedient to do like Texas Governor Perry and flog those “decadent” professors who pursue “wasteful” research on the public dime, and instead of expanding resources simply shrink them (insist on more with less) and call it all better. Pannapacker isn’t crazy about the dangerous path American higher education has been walking, and even though it’s hard to fight the simplistic responses of some politicians and unsympathetic portions of the public, we should really get serious about changing things. So, yes, all this is true:

Just to be clear: There is work for humanities doctorates (though perhaps not as many as are currently being produced), but there are fewer and fewer real jobs because of conscious policy decisions by colleges and universities. As a result, the handful of real jobs that remain are being pursued by thousands of qualified people — so many that the minority of candidates who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery.

Universities (even those with enormous endowments) have historically taken advantage of recessions to bring austerity to teaching. There will be hiring freezes and early retirements. Rather than replacements, more adjuncts will be hired, and more graduate students will be recruited, eventually flooding the market with even more fully qualified teacher-scholars who will work for almost nothing. When the recession ends, the hiring freezes will become permanent, since departments will have demonstrated that they can function with fewer tenured faculty members. [link]

But I can’t get on board with Pannapacker and his growing fanbase who print out his article and give it to that college junior who is thinking about grad school in the humanities.  And here’s why:

As things stand, I can only identify a few circumstances under which one might reasonably consider going to graduate school in the humanities:

  • You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.
  • You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.
  • You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.
  • You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.

Those are the only people who can safely undertake doctoral education in the humanities. Everyone else who does so is taking an enormous personal risk, the full consequences of which they cannot assess because they do not understand how the academic-labor system works and will not listen to people who try to tell them. [link]

By this logic, I should never have gone to graduate school to study literature. I am not independently wealthy. My parents did not attend four-year colleges, and certainly do not have any connections within influential academic circles. I was not married into money when I started, nor am I now. I was not seeking a credential for an already-existing job.* As a result, I was a perfect fit for Pannapacker’s band of the tired, hungry masses yearning to breath poetry when, in the fall of 2004 I went off to Syracuse University for a tuition-free MA and a pre-tax $12,106.00 no-insurance stipend in exchange for teaching writing courses 2-1. Yeah, pretty bad deal in retrospect, right? Except at the time I thought that this was awesome. Wait, you’re going to pay me to teach and learn? I’d still have to work in the summers to make rent and bills – and I did, mostly under the table at the State Fair where you can make $3k cash in two weeks – but I was going to have a chance to go to a bigger university than my undergrad (a small, but lovely SUNY college where a kid from a working-class family could be prepared for entry into the middle class) and to see whether or not I had a chance at academia. So, at this point my case probably sounds very much like Pannapacker’s projected victim. Poor guy, he never saw it coming.

Except I knew exactly what I was getting into. When you grow up in a family of working people you get to know a thing or two about how employers are not the best representatives of your interests. When you spend your college summers working on construction sites you pick up some things about the risks you take with your body and your mind when you take a job. When you’ve seen a steel company retroactively cancel the pensions and benefits of thousands of retired and laid-off workers, then you have an idea about secure futures and broken promises.

My time in college was spent oscillating between periods of academic study, professional training, and labor. I’d work for a summer delivering flowers and being a line cook, then I’d go off for the semester to study English and secondary ed. Over the winter break I’d do some volunteer teaching as part of a mandatory practicum, then I’d return to school for a semester. From May-August I worked in construction, rising before the sun and coming home as it set. Back to school, then the next break I’d take a part-time janitorial gig cleaning my elementary school of all places. One summer I decided that even though construction provided serious cash – enough to pay my public college tuition – I wanted to take a summer internship teaching summer school in New York City. The pay was low, maybe $300 for the entire summer, but the benefits were an unlimited MTA card and an apartment in Brooklyn Heights. All of NYs museums, parks, and libraries at my disposal in exchange just for my teaching! Then back to school, then back to stripping wax off of elementary school floors. You get the idea.

Then in the fall of my junior year, the director of the college honors program – who’d accepted me into the program as a sophomore – called me to his office and asked me what I wanted to do when I was out of school. I told him that my plan had always been to become a high school English teacher. He asked me how that was going. Well, I said, my preparation was going along well, I’d spent a lot of time in classrooms becoming prepared and I found the coursework a little too easy.

He asked me whether I found it satisfying. This was the first time in my life that anyone had ever asked me whether the work I was doing was satisfying. There’d been jobs that I liked, like delivering flowers. There’d been jobs that paid well, like construction. There were jobs that didn’t pay well and that I didn’t like, like washing dishes. But no jobs were ever particularly satisfying to me. I didn’t know how to respond to this question about my chosen profession. My idea about teaching was that it could be satisfying and that it was within reach. I’d seen people from my church or my mom’s friends’ kids go on to be teachers. I’d imagined that one day being a teacher would allow me to stop working with chemicals and heavy machinery, to read, to influence children positively, and to live a life that involved owning a house. But was I finding it satisfying? Was that even a rabbit hole worth going down?

I admitted to the professor that working in the schools had shown me that the expectations of administrators (and the federal/state policies they were enforcing) had more to do with teachers managing children as products with minimal standards ratings than it did with teaching them. Perhaps this was the influence of the Dead Poets Society film wearing off on me, but I felt that the schools where I had been student teaching or summer teaching were treating students like prisoners or widgets. In education classes, I often felt that even while we were thinking of solutions to these very problems, we spent so much time memorizing state standards for lesson plans we’d never be able to implement anyway.**

So, no. I was increasingly sensing that after three years of intensive training and practice, being a high school teacher might not be satisfying, or fulfilling. I told the professor that I wasn’t sure, but that I noticed that my enthusiasm had waned.

“Did you ever think about going for a Ph.D.?” he asked.

“No.” I answered.

And it was the truth. Even though the faculty I loved to listen to and discuss literature with all held Ph.D.s, the thought had never crossed my mind that a Doctor of Philosophy degree was something that I could attain. Before college, I’d never met someone with a Ph.D. in any field – not that I knew of anyway. My parents aspired for me to be like the people they knew who had B.A.s and B.S.s, and law school had been mentioned a few times but no one in my social circle knew anything about that, especially not that a J.D. was a kind of doctorate. The thought that I could get a Ph.D. had literally never crossed my mind.

“Well, you’re certainly smart enough to do the work, and if you like teaching but are frustrated with how it works at the secondary level, then it might be a good path for you. You’ll have to figure out whether you like research and writing, but that will come.”

“But I don’t think I can pay for more school after this. Especially not a private university,” I said.

“Most programs will pay your tuition and give you a little money to live on.”


And at that moment, my life was changed.

I didn’t decide then that I’d go for a Ph.D., but I knew that I’d apply and see how these offers worked. I didn’t leave my secondary ed program because I still wanted to be able to pursue that career once I graduated. So I started walking two paths at once. I continued my volunteer teaching, including an entire semester of student teaching at rural and urban schools in and around Rochester, NY. At night I wrote my honors thesis on E.E. Cummings’ novel The Enormous Room, which eventually became a thesis about his career as a painter. It was my first foray into research. I liked it but was really bad at it. Really bad. The summer between junior year and senior year I worked as a janitor again, this time cleaning a medical facility and a car dealership.*** I read everything I could about Cummings, World War I literature, writer/painters, and American modernism. I did not understand how to make an article. It was all so new to me. I saw that people wrote about writers and literary works, but they somehow connected these in non-obvious ways to political, social, and philosophical questions. My mind raced. I read more and more political theory, finally started to get a hang of the philosophical reading I’d done in my earlier honors courses, and struggled to create my own versions. My honors thesis was pretty terrible in the end, but I was so excited about reading more and more. I felt, for the first time in my life, that I could connect dots. I began to understand that history was not simply a story and a lot of dates, but debates over whose stories would be heard. I was turned on to labor and feminist history in a way that put academic knowledge behind my lived experience of working in construction and service, and listening to family and community stories about the steel plant. I began to see how words like hegemony and ideology weren’t just fancy or obfuscatory, but tools which, though imperfect, gave me the ability to pull back the curtain a bit.

I was able to become my own person because I was given permission to think, and to seek satisfaction. I stopped pursuing a career, and started pursuing me.

But according to Pannapacker, I’d been ruined. I’d been set on a path of unprofitable, exploited labor that I could never have imagined before getting into it.

I was not ready for the Ph.D. when I finished my B.A.. My thesis was an amateur effort. I’d never seen a “personal statement” for graduate school applications, and I didn’t know anyone from my school who’d gone on to a graduate program in English. Professors gave me the best advice they could, but still, I had to write it. And several professors gave me “the talk.” One in particular, the college president who also taught in the English department, called me to his office. Before he’d write me a letter of recommendation, he wanted to know why I wanted to go to graduate school. I told him that I’d always known that I wanted to teach – at this point he probably raised an eyebrow – but, I continued, since I’ve been working on my thesis I also find that I like research but I don’t know how to do it. He talked to me for quite a while about what expectations were like for research in the profession and how I’d have to put a lot of focus on research even in order to get a job that was primarily teaching. I was grateful for some other practical advice he gave me because it gave me a lay-of-the-land. In the end, he gave me the recommendation.  It’s good that these professors took time to paint a picture of the difficulties of graduate school and of the realities of the job market. From these conversations I also learned that not all Ph.D.s are viewed the same, that I should pay attention to rankings and subspeciality, and so on. All really great practical advice and warning. If this was the result of Pannapacker and Pannapacker-esque articles, then great. I’m glad for it, and I hope someday to be the same sort of advisor.

But I am so thankful that no one ever said, “just don’t go.” And I’m really glad that no one said “just don’t go unless you’re independently wealthy or your parents are influential in academia.” Because I might have believed them. I’d been told -or absorbed- in my life that so many things were out of reach because of money and class. I didn’t even bother applying to private schools because I knew how much money they cost. No one told me about scholarships, except like $300 Polish Community Center Scholarships that went to one kid in the area. I didn’t know that the price tag changes once you get your foot in the door and start putting a package together. I also didn’t know most people just loaded up on student loans.**** I went to a small public school that, luckily for me, was the right fit at the right time and had that pushed me to see where I could go, not where I had been. I’d listened to people who’d said, “just don’t go,” before, and finally got a place where people were willing to tell me, “keep your eyes open, but try it out.”

Are these the villains of higher education in the humanities? Are these the “well-meaning but ill-informed professors… bolstered by the message in our culture that education always leads to opportunity” that Pannapacker warns us about becoming or listening to?

My credentials and my writing weren’t enough to land me in a top-50 Ph.D. program. But I did receive a few offers for MA programs. A few met my minimum requirements: free tuition and enough money to pay the necessary bills each month. I went to Syracuse for that $12,106. Ugh! You should have just not gone! The first steps toward a wasted decade!

Well, it was hard. It was a lot of teaching. Two sections of intro college writing that first fall, capped at 20 each. I’d been in the classroom before, so it wasn’t as terrible a shock as it was to others. I did notice, and relished, the freedom I felt in the classroom to design the syllabus and to articulate goals in my own growing vocabulary. I was underprepared, and the students would have been better served by someone with more experience, but I had to get started there and they ended up in my sections. I taught them how to write a college essay, I know that. Making ends meet was hard. Eventually my college girlfriend moved in with me and she found work – so maybe Pannapacker would say I had help. But we didn’t share benefits, so I could have gotten the same financial help from a roommate. I had no health insurance because it was pre-“Obamacare” so I couldn’t be on my parents’ plan and I couldn’t afford to pay bills and buy the expensive out-of-pocket care the university made available. So, that was precarious. But it was during one of the first major recessions of the 00’s, and most of my friends were unemployed and without health insurance.

At the same time, however, I was living on my own, away from my parents, and making enough money doing something that was, well, satisfying. I took three seminars that semester and after chasing my tail on the undergrad thesis, I started to understand more and more about literary history, methodologies, and the profession. I made friends with the folks in my program who were going through similar life changes – and those people are still some of the closest friends I have, friends I’ll have forever. And I did all of this without worrying about my exposure to hazardous chemicals, workplace accidents involving heavy machinery, or repetitive motion injuries. Make no mistake: providing oneself with a living without exposure to physical harm on a daily basis was an enormous step to take for a male in my family born in the 20th century. The money was no good, my furniture was from the side of the road and Goodwill, my new work clothes were gotten on the sly through a friend’s J.C. Penney employee discount. But I just went anyway.

I immediately recognized that universities and academic labor are hierarchical just like the companies I’d already worked for or heard stories about from family and friends. I knew that I should try to get my MA and then move to a school that would pay me better, give me better material benefits, and give me better soft benefits like access to power brokers. But how was I supposed to know that? I was one of those fools “taking an enormous personal risk, the full consequences of which they cannot assess because they do not understand how the academic-labor system works.” Well, it doesn’t take a million dollars to understand working conditions. In fact, I think not having a million dollars is exactly what it takes to understand them. I knew what I was into. I chose it. I lamented that my university was paying me so little to teach so many students. I felt bad for myself and my students, many of whom complained that for the first two years of undergrad they didn’t expect to talk face-to-face with a professor (this was across disciplines, not just in the humanities). It was hard.

But at the same time I started reading more and more in the areas I felt drawn to. I learned histories that were inspiring, saddening, and thought provoking. I read literature that never would have crossed my transom, and that forever changed my sense of what, when, and where humans were capable of imagining. I debated these things – and sports, and politics, and music – with my friends while drinking at the cheap ass bar on our block. I started working up applications for places to do the Ph.D.. I knew more about who had money, prestige, and what their placement records were like. I also knew from experience that people don’t always walk in the front door of sweet deals. Indeed, as Pannapacker says, it’s helpful if your parents are well-connected, but it’s also clear to the rest of us that sometimes you have to claw your way in. So, I decided to get to know folks at Cornell. I took grad seminars there through an exchange program with Syracuse. I got a scholarship to pay for me to go to the School of Criticism and Theory. All of this so that I could supplement my non-elite background with proof that I could make it “in the club.” One of my best friends was in medical school at the same time and we were both surprised at how identical our situations were. He was one of the very few med students whose parents weren’t doctors. He too was constantly looking for extra opportunities to access the top.

And I also decided that if I didn’t get in to a top program, then I would seriously think about quitting academia – even though the thought of it was scary because I really liked the kind of thing I was doing. But there were other options. Finding high school teaching that I liked was one option, or temping my way into a company, law or library school maybe. It was difficult and full of uncertainty.

Then, in early February 2006, I received an acceptance letter from Cornell. They were going to double my current stipend and give me health insurance. Plus I would have two years of research fellowship and teaching in three other years. I felt like the king of the world, like I’d walked into the rich kids’ party and stolen their champagne. Once at Cornell, I really hit my stride. I knew how to write a seminar paper. I knew the field I wanted to be reading in. More importantly I think for young grad students, I knew what I was no longer interested in. It wasn’t easy, but I could buy some new clothes and I wouldn’t have to work at the State Fair or the Thai restaurant***** during the summer anymore. I only had to teach one course per semester, too. I felt like I was finally in a place where my research and my development were respected by the institution at a basic level. (That’s not to say that the faculty at Syracuse weren’t great, they were amazing, but the institutional levels of support weren’t there.) At Syracuse I knew that I was being given a kind of deal – kind of like the New York summer teaching gig – we’ll give you the very basics in exchange for a lot of your labor.  This seemed to me very much like most employment situations I was going to land in in my early 20s. And then, when I was 25, Cornell seemed to be giving me a chance to not only provide them with labor, but to develop myself intellectually as part of my work.

Of course I am still anxious about whether or not I’ll get a tenure-track job. The market is bad, worse now than when I started graduate school. But the last time I got a scar on my hand from being cut or burned at work was the year before I started graduate school. The first time I was given money in exchange for using my brain was when I started graduate school. Being in graduate school has allowed me to develop very deep skills in writing, researching, networking, organizing, fundraising, and managing collaborative teams. Even if I don’t get a tenure-track job, those are skills I have that are incredibly sharper now than they were before I started.

I’ve traveled places I never would have been able to before. Sure, I might have taken a tour bus trip of France by now if I’d started a non-academic job years ago. But now, for better or worse, I’ve become the kind of person who wants to go on a trip without a hermetic bus window between me and what I’m seeing. That might be construed as elitist, and you’re free to level that charge. I’m thrilled for my mother who has been able to take these kinds of trips to Rome with her church group. She’s thrilled with it too – the first in our family to go to Rome, I’m pretty sure. But the choices that I’ve made and the work that I’ve done have moved my horizons, made my brain fire in certain ways, drawn me to questions without apparent answers. And sometime in the last three years or so, after all that, I have felt like the person I want to be.

I feel satisfied by my life and my work in a way that I could not have imagined until a mentor showed me some of my options.

I have made friends and found loves that are so precious to me. I have found a way to live  life that satisfies me and my principles. I might not get a tenure-track job, but I still wouldn’t trade the way I spent my twenties for a do-over or a different outcome. And I think there are a lot of people in my position – precariously perched at the end of their funding packages and dealing with the question of what comes next – who feel the same way.******

Even if you’re independently wealthy, there are no guarantees in life. You might be killed in a car accident or by a fast-moving cancer. You might develop a serious addiction under the pressure of fame or money. Or you might go through life not knowing or caring who makes your food or builds the roads you use or dies in a war for your oil. You don’t know in advance. But you can try and you can change. You can get into Yale and be a total failure because you’re not prepared for the work or were uninterested in the profession anyway. You can get a tenure-track job and the same thing can happen. You can be capable of an elite career in academia but never figure out how those are put together. You have to keep your eyes open, stay in touch with what you want to do and how it’s done, and you have to keep swimming. And it still might not work out. There’s a big element of chance in all this too. Chance helped me get into Cornell. My friends who’ve gotten tenure-track jobs all speak of the role of luck in the process.

In the neoliberal United States, no one is guaranteed a job with health insurance. Most people, not just humanities majors, face difficulty finding employment that pays well, is secure, and has good benefits. There are no sure bets. If you think business school is a sure bet, there’s someone there to tell you it isn’t. If you think law school is a sure bet, there’s someone there to tell you it isn’t. If you think culinary school is a sure bet, there’s someone there to tell you it isn’t. And if you think that the humanities deserve special ridicule in all of this, you’re wrong. If you think a Ph.D. in physics is a sure bet, there’s someone there to tell you it isn’t.

So, I don’t understand why Pannapacker imagines that all current or potential graduate students are really surprised by this. Many people in my current graduate program came here from another “real world” job in search of something different. Many came from M.A. programs where they were learning full well how academia works on the ground. In fact, it’s only those who came to programs from positions of extreme privilege who seem to be clueless about the state of academia when they get here.

I know people who have gotten tenure track jobs at Ivy League universities, tenure track jobs at small colleges, adjunct jobs, private high school teaching jobs, public high school teaching jobs, editing jobs, people who have become organic farmers, journalists, local politicians, car magazine writers, musicians, and photographers. I don’t know what I will become, but I’m proud of what I’ve done.

If I could go back to meet myself on my first day of college, Freshman Me might not recognize me. But I know for sure that Freshman Me had no idea how to become me. It took a lot of dedicated teachers, hundreds of thousands of pages of reading, hours of writing and talking, and a few people who were willing to sit me down and say don’t be afraid of what you don’t know, here are some possibilities, here are some paths, be careful of x,y,z and good luck.

My mother, who can be infuriating in that way that mothers are, said, when I told her how difficult it is to get a Ph.D., and a tenure-track job, and then tenure: “Well, you’re going to be 30 or 40 or 50 anyway, so you might as well have tried the things you wanted to try.” After wanting to resist her – no, you don’t understand… it isn’t just try hard and good things will happen! – I realized that she was not saying that at all. She was saying that you’re going to live as long as you’re going to live, and it’ll be a gift if along the way you can answer the question, “am I satisfied,” in the affirmative. Thanks, Mom.

And so, please don’t tell your students that if they’re not rich or well-connected that they shouldn’t go to graduate school in the humanities. Tell them if you don’t think they are cut out for the work, and please tell them how difficult it can be at all points along the way. Also tell them that if they want to go to law school or culinary school. But if they still want to go, help them figure out how to be the person they think they want to be, how to become the person that will be satisfied. They will need skills. They will need to pass tests in practice and in academics. They will need to make friends, make professional connections, perform themselves in interesting ways, and they will need luck.

It’s a lot easier along the way if you have lots of liquid capital and a private safety net, and that has only accelerated under the transition from liberalism to neoliberalism.  The ladders are being pulled up everywhere. But that doesn’t mean that it’s “your irrational love for the humanities” that “make[s] you vulnerable to ongoing exploitation.” It’s your irrational love for existence that makes you vulnerable to ongoing exploitation whether you like to read novels and critical theory or quarterly financial reports or case law or mathematical problem sets.

Whether or not I get a tenure-track job – and I really hope I do – I have been given the opportunity through college and graduate school to do things and meet people that are not entirely consumable by market logics. That might not sound sufficient to someone like Pannapacker, that might sound like I’m letting “love of learning” blur my understanding of the corporate university and of working conditions. Well, not so. Before I set foot in a seminar room, I’d burned and cut myself at work, seen people die on the job, and worried about my family’s financial stability. I’d pushed paper and come to understand some areas of teaching as a kind of detention center management. And then someone showed me that, my lack of wealth aside, some other way of going about things was within my reach, and that I might like it.

I’m glad I went.


Here’s my (incomplete) advice to undergraduates or holders of the BA considering graduate school in the humanities:

What are your motivations? Do you see yourself in graduate school pursuing a profession and a set of skills, or do you see yourself going because you like what you are doing now?

Don’t go to a program that doesn’t give you tuition plus a stipend that will at least pay what you think is a reasonable portion of the bills given your situation.

On top of that be looking for health insurance and a year(s) off from teaching.

Pay attention to who gets what kind of jobs. Aside from the “best” placement they’ve had, where do the majority of graduates end up?

How many people leave the program without a degree, and why? How long are they there when they do finish the degree?

Is there travel and development money for grad students?

What is the ratio of junior and senior faculty in the department? Do the senior faculty have recent publications? Have earlier and more recent publications been cited by others?

What will you do if you don’t get a good offer? What might you do if you hate it or are indifferent after one or two years?

Faculty, instead of pretending that access to humanities grad school should be cordoned off for the wealthy – and further that future faculties should go back to being entirely made up of the wealthy – try connecting your students with programs like these that can help prepare them in ways that wealthy students are often already being informally prepared:

The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship [link]

The Rutgers English Diversity Institute [link]

The Wheaton College Summer Institute for Literary and Cultural Studies [link]

Some, like the Mellon Mays, have to be at your campus already, but REDI and SILCS are open to undergraduates from different institutions and from different racial and working-class backgrounds. Also, consider starting your own program like these. Even though I’m happy with where I am now, I’m confident that I could’ve been on better footing earlier in my academic career if I’d had an experience like any of these.

[Edit 7/29: I removed a paragraph about graduate advisement. I’d originally said that advisers should be willing to be frank about a student’s professional progress. But, as Toni Jaudon points out in the comments, it’s more complicated than that. Originally, I had in mind a few rare cases where I’d seen someone who wasn’t so much under prepared, but either under advised or no longer interested in the Ph.D. but was remaining in the program, on something like a treadmill. Because these cases, in my experience, are rare and isolated, I didn’t want to leave the paragraph here for all the reasons Toni mentions.]


*When I started my MA I did have a NYS probationary secondary ed license to “fall back on” (though there’s a problem with this backward/forward metaphor) if I decided after two years not to go on to the Ph.D., and I figured I’d need a Master’s anyway for a full license. But I had no outside job that was paying me to go.

**I am not one of those graduate students/academics that looks down my nose at high school teaching, or considers it some sort of consolation prize for “failed academics.” High school teaching is very difficult work – work that I’ve done – and it’s only made more difficult by administrators, legislatures, and parents who don’t afford teachers the freedom they need to teach. In this respect, then, I am something of a failed high school teacher who “fell back on” academia because when I was 20 years old I decided that I did not want to get involved in fighting the disastrous effects of No Child Left Behind at the ground level.

***As an aside, while I had this job I carried the keys to buildings where I could have, in under an hour, stolen enough controlled substances and cars – included a Corvette – to make an interesting movie starring the Oceans 11 cast.

****I’m not advocating taking on student debt, or not taking it on. Different people take on debt for different reasons and to different outcomes. The point is that I wasn’t aware that even people who I considered wealthy (who weren’t really) were taking on debt for school and I couldn’t fathom it.

*****The summer that I was in SCT I also briefly held a job killing fresh shellfish at a thai restaurant on the days when I wasn’t in seminar. At the end of the summer, I spent the first two weeks of the new school year selling tshirts at the State Fair even on days when I had to teach or be in seminar. I’d finish teaching and then 20 minutes later would be on the fairgrounds.

******The responses I’ve gotten from people on twitter verify this.

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