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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62 Responses to Working Classes

  1. Philip Nel says:

    Great piece, Jonathan. I expect this will resonate with many grad students and former grad students.

    I pursued a Ph.D. in English because I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in English. After my B.A., grad school in English seemed like the most interesting course to pursue. I honestly never imagined that I’d get a job as a professor. I found graduate work in English to be meaningful, and (once enrolled) decided to see it through to the Ph.D. As I approached Ph.D-hood, I began to think more seriously about an academic career — though, after initial attempts failed, I also made plans to leave academe.

    I’m glad I stayed. Academe has been much more challenging than I could have anticipated two (yes, two!) decades ago when I made the decision to pursue a doctorate. But it’s been rewarding, and I have found, to my surprise, that I’m well-suited for this sort of work.

    I say all of this by way of affirmation. And, so, in conclusion: Stay the course! Keep on fighting!

  2. What an absolutely, totally and completely brilliant post!

    I’m a Russian-speaking immigrant who has no connections and can only rely on what I make on my own in terms of income. People tried for years to discourage me from pursuing my degrees in Spanish Literature. I didn’t listen to them because I love what I do.

    As a result, I got a PhD from an Ivy and am now starting my 3rd year in a TT position. Of course, it has been hard. The nomadic lifestyle, the loneliness, the financial troubles, the brutality of the job market – all of this takes a toll.

    The rewards, however, are huge. I now live the life I always wanted, doing the job I absolutely love. Many of my experiences were very similar to yours but everything worked out in the end. I hope you find a great TT position.

    I also hope you keep blogging because I just discovered this blog and I love it. :-)

  3. Also, forgot to add that my first job as a Visiting P was at Cornell. I miss Ithaca a lot. Please say hi to the town for me. :-)

  4. Helm Hammerhand says:

    This is excellent, wonderfully well-written, and a much-needed perspective amid all the doom and gloom about grad school and the humanities. Thanks for writing this!

    I’ve felt for a while now that even though Pannapacker is right about so many of the facts–the exploitative working conditions, the horrible job market, and so on–he still manages to miss the point in some way I could never quite articulate. You’ve excellently articulated the point he was missing.

    As a current humanities grad student, I’m glad I am where I am. Sometimes it isn’t easy to remember that, but on the whole it’s true. Sometimes I get bitter at my university for paying me so little, angry at the system on behalf of my friends who haven’t landed full-time jobs yet, and worried about what the future holds for me. Being in grad school isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.

    At the same time, though, I have a job and enough money to make ends meet. There are other people in this country who can’t say that. And on top of that, I enjoy what I do. That may not put any more money in my pocket, but it matters. And so I’m glad to be where I am, because even though my life isn’t perfect, I wouldn’t trade it for a different life.

    I wish I could make some kind of larger point out of this, but it isn’t coming together right now so I’ll just join Philip in saying: Keep fighting! Forth Eorlingas!

  5. Tim says:

    Thanks so much for writing this post. Like you, I’ve grown tired of seeing the apocalyptic articles that simply sound like cynical professors closing the barn door behind them, warning anyone off of grad school. You’re showing that it’s possible to have an entirely clear-eyed view of academia–it’s not easy, or romantic, and it’s deeply fraught in the way everything in today’s economy is–yet you can still decide *for yourself* that it’s worth getting into.

  6. Annie says:

    Please don’t lump “alt-ac” careers into the same category as those who should be asked to leave a grad program. Many people in humanities PhD programs have–from the outset–no interest in “ac” careers and are pursuing the degree as preparation for a variety of other paths. We really need to uncouple in our discussions of humanities PhDs the idea that PhD training is only suitable for the pursuit of a TT job. There are so many more–and, frankly, more fulfilling–things one can do with a PhD than be a professor.

    • jsench says:

      Annie, sorry if I gave that impression, that was definitely not intended. I have been heartened by the growing attention to alt-ac paths and have sent applications for a few myself. I was really only meaning to point any potential readers who didn’t know about the conversation to one of it’s hubs, Bethany’s work. In a completely separate line of thought, I meant to say, from a graduate student’s perspective, that I think it would be ok if advisers were more upfront with their assessments of a candidate’s professionalization prospects. In extreme cases – and these are extreme cases – I’ve seen people who really needed an intervention instead of being “passed along.” That’s all. I didn’t mean to give the impression that those who are asked to leave should be sent right to the alt-ac path.

  7. Bravo. Just, simply, completely, gushingly: bravo! –Cathy Davidson (who entered the profession at the second worse time, according to the MLA, in the last fifty years, the worst until the present time, and who wasn’t independently wealthy either: it’s like being an artist, if you have the calling, you better go where you are called; being an investment banker may pay better but, if you hate it, you lose far, far more than the English prof’s paltry paycheck). No one says it is easy. To the brave of heart who want to try it, good luck, one and all, and I hope those of us senior enough in the profession to change it, to fight to make it better, all remember what’s “worth getting into.” Thank you for this inspiring piece.

  8. Monica says:

    I would also add the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets and Breadloaf to the list of undergraduate fellowships. They’re for creative writers rather than criticism/research, but they’re good preparation for graduate school. (I graduated from Geneseo in ’07, and got my MFA from NYU in 2010 — I don’t remember where I heard about Breadloaf, but some great professors at Geneseo were a huge help.)

  9. ESF says:

    This is lovely and smart — not quite my story, but it resonates. I came from the professorial class, technically, having grown up with my mom teaching a low-prestige (but tenured!) job with a salary that held us down to the dime, month after month. So I knew I was expected to support myself financially. I was completely crushed in the mid-1990s when I received the Ph.D. and it turned out that this career was not a way to hang onto my precarious middle-class status. Having already foreclosed on a career as a musician and given up aspirations to be a creative writer, I cursed myself for thinking I had the privilege of becoming an academic, doing queer theory no less. I’m glad I eventually lucked into a stable job but it almost didn’t happen. I tell undergrads they need a few things: a desire to do this that is so strong they can’t do anything else (and they should go try something else for a couple of years), unbelievable stamina for a limited number of years, and a Plan B just in case. The rest is dumb luck. I think one thing we can do for all students is show them that our so-called success is not a result of our brilliance, or our figuring out the system better than anyone else, but of luck.

  10. Absolutely brilliant post, thank you–and a lot of it is very familiar to me (especially the family background).

  11. John O'Shea says:

    Cool article. I am a fifty-something that went back to do a degree in English. Loved it. Went three years total and owe for about one…Didn’t yet finish. Paid for most of it as I went.

    Your piece resonates with me. I may go back to school. I have a job as an arborist, one could say a career. It has been the mixed blessing and curse of a place to make good money and a place to risk life and limb(s). But even though I love a lot about it, it is not as good as the experience I have had getting mostly A’s in college, mostly in the humanities, starting at age 43.

    Nothing can replace or compare with what I have learned in school, when I was finally ready to go. Maybe I spend too much on books, maybe I spend too much time reading, maybe maybe. But you are spot on when you say we are not guaranteed bliss in the outside world. I am a consulting arborist who does international work. I am a respected teacher. I still have to climb once in a while. Have to, not “get to”.

    The world is a shark-fest in some ways. Insurance and benefits are not easy for anyone to get.
    I appreciate your piece.
    John O

  12. Carolyn S. says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I just successfully defended my Ph.D at Tufts yesterday (!!!!!) and while I’m unsure what my long-term future career plans are (and even though parts of my grad school experience were pretty hellacious) I’m finding that I am just truly grateful to have spent the last several years of my life thinking and reading and teaching and I wouldn’t trade all that in for better financial security. I believe in the value of my education, and I also believe that with it I will be (somehow) able to be pursue work that is both satisfying to me and good for the communities I live in.

  13. Thanks for this really moving piece, Jon. The one point I’d push you on is your call for stronger weeding-out mechanisms in graduate school. I worry that replicates an all-too-familiar pattern where bright students from working class backgrounds enter Ph.D. programs with less preparation, are left to their own devices to figure things out, and then get blamed for not professionalizing or otherwise doing things that they should have been doing. What’s needed in that case is not a frank discussion of the student’s failures; rather, it’s an acknowledgment that graduate programs sometimes fail students who *would* make great academics, were they only provided with better mentoring and guidance.

    • jsench says:

      Yes, I’m beginning to be sorry that I put that in there without more explanation. I guess what I’d like to see is not so much “weeding out” but actual interventions instead of passive aggressive behavior. I think students like me when I started my MA are more likely to be passed along than pushed to do better and shown how to do better. I might go change that, because when I was writing I really had in mind a few very isolated cases.

  14. Kate says:

    My undergrad advisor told me to go to grad school with the expectation of not getting a job, but knowing I would get to spend 5-7 years doing what I loved, something most folks don’t get in the capitalist labor market. That turned out to be great advice. I got my interdisciplinary Ph.D. and have spent 5 years in temp/adjunct/”postdoc” teaching gigs and am now headed to a long term lecturer gig–no, everybody, it’s not TT. I absolutely love my work and can’t believe it is my life right now, but this TT track or bust stuff means I’m still technically “a failure,” according to this endless stream of Pannapacker-type stuff and my public-Ivy grad school peers. I find it exhausting, reducing the value of this work to the time/money equation. And no, I don’t come from a fancy elite background. I come from the humanities. Thanks for a fresh perspective!

  15. Nate Mills says:

    A great read Jon. Some thoughts:

    1. A certain prof at Syracuse told me that the only thing I should ask myself before applying to graduate programs was whether or not I loved literature–like, really, seriously couldn’t imagine life without the sort of literary, cultural, and theoretical questions that structure academic discourse. But also, whether or not my attachment to the literary was fanatical enough to survive the myriad frustrations and difficulties of academic life, because I’d need something to keep me motivated in the midst of all that. I think that was a very sensible and useful self-test. I ask undergrads who ask me about “The Profession” the same question.
    2. I think we need to pay more attention to the content of the english profession, as well as the structural/material side of things. After all, the study of English is not by any means a realm of free thought and exploration–certain methodologies, certain theoretical and sociopolitcal assumptions, certain trends in research exert a hegemony over the field as a whole. To be successful in academia is, of course, frequently a question of financial sustainability, but it also often means adapting to or working one’s way into those hegemonic intellectual positions. Also, there is the matter of content-based intellectual “protocol” – the extra-rational intellectual or compositional procedures that have become established as the marks of a certain kind of pragmatic mastery of the field’s discourse and that can often be disguised as gate-keeping mechanisms. Not that it isn’t important to gain facility with those protocols, but that their reproduction and affirmation also serves to delimit intellectual access.
    3. I still think the financial problem is paramount when it comes to graduate school, but it’s exacerbated by a culture in most English deparments of pretending that financial problem doesn’t exist. I spent most of the past 7 years of my life worrying about money-related things that had I had a non-academic job I wouldn’t have worried about. Not that I’m complaining–I went to graduate school because the idea of literally every other job or career-path was unbearable. But it does mean that I’ll always remember graduate school as some sort of diabolic exercise in survival and debt management, Balzac’s LOST ILLUSIONS in the 21st century. The reluctance of most academics (tenured faculty, generally) to see their places of work as structured around this sort of financial lack and labor exploitation–graduate students get paid a fraction of professor salaries for doing, qualitatively, much of the same work, and adjuncts and part-timers don’t have it any better–only makes this financial toll the more mentally difficult to endure, since everyone is implicitly or explicitly denying its existence around you. And because its socially impolite, in most places, to discuss the finances of being a graduate student, these problems become much worse than they need to be. I’ve seen friendships erode over differential funding packages: I had no idea, for a while when I desperately needed money, that graduate students could take out loans, because the graduate students who already had were too ashamed to talk to me about it. These “don’t go to graduate school unless you’re wealthy” theses are a good first step, I think, in making the discussion of graduate school less a discussion about career choice and more a discussion about power and exploitation.

  16. ASG says:

    To be fair to Pannapacker, if you (Jonathan) had never considered a Ph.D. before that fateful conversation, and if you’d worked in a variety of jobs like delivering flowers and working on construction sites, I’m not sure you were ever exactly his audience in the first place. I’m one of those people who hands out copies of those Chronicle articles to M.A. students who are considering a Ph.D., but the students I hand it out to are all the same: they’ve never done anything outside of university in their adult lives, and they ‘know’ the statistics but are still somehow ‘sure’ they’re going to land in the 20% (and falling) group who will get a tenure-track job afterward. They’ve been told their whole lives they’re brilliant and they’ll succeed at anything they do, and they want to study Shakespeare forever so grad school is the only option they can think of.

    I recognize this type because that’s exactly who I was at 22, and I was royally screwed by the system because of it. I’ve seen literally hundreds of students get screwed in exactly the same way, both before and after I left academe.

    But the important thing is, those students were naive in a way I don’t think you ever were, and they were sold a bill of goods that you hadn’t even encountered until you had already gone through a life doing other things. Most importantly of all, they can’t think of anything else and have never tried. They like school, they’re comfortable in school, they’re afraid of what is ironically called ‘the real world’, so they slide into a Ph.D. with no expectations except a vague one of ‘I’ll be a professor some day.’ Pannapacker’s articles are the best way I know to open a student’s eyes about that reality. A lot of my former students go on to do a Ph.D. anyway, even after reading him, but at least they are not surprised by what they find there, and they’re more willing to cut their losses if it doesn’t work out.

  17. Mike says:

    They certainly didn’t teach succinct writing in that ‘ol PhD of yours. I wish I could finish your post to see how the story ended, but I’m at work. What I did want to say is that in the sociology PhD program I dropped out of, they taught us that anecdotal evidence is about as useful as…well, hell, you’re the Lit guy, you can finish that one off creatively.

    But my point is, basically, for every rose-coloured story like yours, there are many more that reflect a reality closer to that described by Pannapacker. Even though I was pursuing a degree up here in the Great White (socialist) North, I know that if my supervisor hadn’t (blessedly) noticed that I was becoming disengaged with the petty departmental infighting, the hopelessness of producing research that might ever do anything more than gather dust on a little used shelf somewhere, and the crushing feeling that real life was leaving me behind, I might be 30, childless and still be in school.

    Or worse still, I might be done, gloriously underemployed, unable to afford children, a house, or a car, because of a massive, un-default-able debt behind me, and have very few good job prospects ahead of me.

    And that’s where Pannapacker’s criteria for a low-risk degree come in. You’ve aptly, in many, many words demonstrated why those criteria are meaningless to you (you obviously derive immense satisfaction from your work), but not everyone subscribes to the romantic notion that every job must be a satisfying calling (ironically, the working classes, who you refer to in the title of the post, have rarely had the luxury of thinking up a bourgeois notion like ‘being satisfied by work’).

    That is, if you’ve done as Universities have trained us to do, which is view education as an investment like any other, then PhDs have stopped offering a decent ROI. If you want to get a PhD because you’re S-M-R-T and so that you can make a decent middle-class income, beware that you are taking a big risk unless you’re one of those groups identified by Pannapacker’s list.

    • jsench says:

      I am sorry that I wrote such a long post. This blog had one post before this one and had a “readership” of about 25 of my friends on Facebook. I didn’t know it was going to attract the audience that it did. I also don’t mean to suggest that my story is everyone’s story or that my story is even a useful model for other people. Anecdotal evidence is, as you say, not worth much. And that’s why I am not disagreeing with the overwhelming evidence presented by Chris Newfield, Marc Bosquet, William Pannapacker and so many others that the business of higher education is in serious trouble and it isn’t pretty for the people it exposes to the risk of debt, low wages, and a whole bunch of personal difficulties. Everyone speaking about that is absolutely right.

      That said, paths that don’t expose us to these risks are hard to find, especially if you are in the working class or your grip on the middle class is light. As I wrote, “the ladders are being pulled up everywhere.” Except for the strength of my father’s union, I was never guaranteed health insurance, a house, the ability to raise children, the ability to decide what to do with some of my time. Very few are.

      “Working Classes” was meant as a nod to people who work in academia and who are from the working class.

      The point I meant to make – my life story aside – is that I think Pannapacker’s “Modest Proposal” rhetoric can be harmful to non-privileged students who have had pathways closed for them by, or with the assistance of, the privileged. There are a lot of people who simply don’t know how often privileged people think they’re doing non-privileged people a favor by advising them not to do something unless they are privileged.

      Thanks for reading.

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  19. Mr. K. says:

    I’d like to reiterate ASG’s thoughts. The reason I like Pannacker’s and other articles is that they show how incredibly starved the imagination is of humanities professors who are giving their best students advice on their future. Eleven years ago, I had a conversation with my undergrad academic advisor in English, and he basically had zero advice for me except for thinking about grad school. The conversation wasn’t quite as condescending as the one you had with the professor asked if your intended path would be “satisfying.” Yes, the way you describe that conversation is utterly condescending: there are lots of jobs out there that are intellectually “satisfying,” and they all have their unsatisfying moments as well (as does TT; committee work and grading, anyone?). The problem is that professor-mentors, those who by definition “made it”, and who mostly have not had a career outside of academia, and often even don’t have much social contact outside of university circles, rarely have the imagination or experience to point bright students to non-grad school paths which could also be an intellectually rewarding place to use their tightly-honed analytical skills.

    After spending far too long in my grad program (having gotten about a third of the way through my diss), I finally took a long-overdue self-assessment, realized that intensely researching one tiny corner of the universe that maybe 20 people cared about was actually quite stultifying and unsatisfying for me, which along with the dismal job prospects, convinced me that cutting my losses was the only legitimate option available. I used to think that my political tendencies would make me unfit for the non-academic sector, but my many years in grad school (at a school going through several administrative scandals) showed me that universities tend not to be all that different politically from the corporate world that now primarily funds them, and tended to be more hierarchical structurally in addition to severely limiting your geographic options. I transferred to an information science MS, taught myself how to program (talk about a “satisfying” experience; I’ve found that coding keeps me intellectually energized far more than critical theory or great literature), and am now heading to a decent job doing something worthwhile and stimulating that starts literally a week after I graduate; if I’d stayed on the PhD track, I’d probably have a nice title right now, but would likely be facing adjuncting hell for half the pay.

    I don’t think grad school in the humanities was a complete waste of time. I learned about some of the subjects I’m fascinated in, read a lot of interesting things, made some good friends, got much better at public speaking (though still was never a great teacher), learned how to brew a damn good beer, and perhaps most importantly, learned to live very cheaply. I actually still think a humanities MA that comes with a tuition waiver can often be a great option for newly graduated students looking to do something they love short term before setting out into the non-academic work world. But I do think there needs to be much more awareness of the difficulties of life after a PhD, accompanied by a more enthusiastic presentation of non-PhD options which could still be worthwhile experiences. My only critique of Pannapacker is that he doesn’t spend enough time talking about potential alternative options for smart students who majored in the humanities; he sells a bit too much doom and gloom, and not enough hope. But I think (hope?) that he and others like him are finally awakening the humanities from their stupor of thinking their primary goal for their best students should always be to replicate themselves.

    • jsench says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

      Satisfaction, or maybe a sense reward, is something that was incredibly important for my working parents. They wanted it for me, even if they didn’t always have it. That’s why I told the story about my mother’s advice. I think she’s right.

      I should also say that my path isn’t the only path to satisfaction. I have a friend who left academia to work in skilled carpentry and now outdoor education. I was in awe of his self-awareness and willingness to pursue something that made him happier than what he was doing. I have another friend who left a tenure-track job to work as a writer/researcher at a think tank. They both found satisfaction, I think, in those decisions. The professor who sat me down helped me to figure out what some of my options were and gave me license to pursue them.

      Just for the sake of clarity, the professor who sat me down in his office had been an engineer working defense contracts during the Cold War until he gave it up in his late 30s (I think) to do a Ph.D. in philosophy.

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  21. I enjoyed reading this piece. You ask questions that I have grappled with ever since I became aware of the vast curricular difference between two-year and four-year institutions in the United States. But I want to complicate some of your points. You read Pannapacker’s article as an instance of privileged society shutting doors in the face of the non-traditional student, the working-class or even middle-class student. But the points that he raises are not about preserving privilege. He speaks of the very real economic exploitation of graduate student labor in American Universities, of the lack of funding when they most need it, of the horrors of adjunct work. These are not merely questions of preserving privilege; these are actual, economic problems that graduate students face in the later stages of their degree or right after they finish. I was lucky enough to find funding till the very end; I am lucky enough to have a partner who is financially stable. But I am lucky as are you to get into Cornell, get funding for five years, and finish in that accorded time. There are numerous graduate students who do not finish because their funding runs out. There are still others who graduate from middle-rung universities, do not have publications or networks (because they were busy earning money to stay alive), and are thrown into this highly-competitive job-market without the kind of sureties that someone who was lucky (yes, the operative term is “luck”) enough to find admission into an Ivy-league university. I still don’t know where and if I will land a tenure-track job by the end of the 2011 hiring cycle. Surely, there is something wrong when years of specialization do not guarantee even half-decent income? And I don’t think my love for literature or critical thought is rationale enough to put up with the cruelty of the job market or a sordid job teaching six courses a semester for lousy pay. I think departments do need to rethink their admission policies; that graduate students need to have unions and better pay (wages, not stipend); that institutions should be forced to hire full-time staff rather than depending on adjunct-work to cut costs. Only thinking about these issues will allow individuals coming from non-privileged social backgrounds to successfully continue with higher education. Until such changes begin to materialize, Pannapacker’s “just don’t go” seems like really sage advice.

  22. Sisyphus says:

    I wish you luck, jsench! I thoroughly enjoyed my PhD program, even the anxiety-producing and crisis-laden aspects of it.

    And yet, I find myself diverging more and more from your viewpoint with every passing year I go on the market again, revising the same damn job materials, scraping together some sort of adjunct piecework — and yes, my teaching postdoc is “full time” but does not in any way feel like a “real, full time job” or have any resemblance to the life of the mind — and I come further around to Pannapacker’s position. I especially agree with ASG’s points above — a PhD and ten-year employment gap basically makes you unemployable for entry-level office/nonprofit jobs, if you haven’t been keeping one foot in that doorway all the while, and if I had really had someone lay out this fact and what it really means to “start over in an alternate field after doing the PhD purely for love,” I probably would have quit it way back in the beginning. Investing a huge chunk of time in something can be valuable and rewarding and yet still not worth it enough in terms of the doors that closes.

    Anyway, good luck! Some of my friends at my former PhD institution joke that they will move to Montana and start a commune farming alpacas if the job thing doesn’t work out. You can come too, if you promise not to accidentally set the woods on fire.

  23. FrauDr says:

    I am working class and, at your age, in late grad school, I probably felt like you do now. That I would never regret it. That it beat the heck out of every awful summer job, all the dishwashing, file-clerking, and anything most of my hometown friends were doing instead of grad school (or instead of college, for that matter). That it was my passion, and was taking me places intellectually and physically where someone from my background could never have hoped to go. That I was good at it – the teaching, the research – and that doing it all so well was its own (immense) satisfaction. You feel that way now, with TT in English at 20 % (is it really as high as that?). In my field, it is down to less than half of that, and, though I have been steadily employed teaching full time, but adjunct-ly for over 15 years, seen my research come to fruition, changed lives with my teaching and all that — I can honestly say, older, with no health insurance, pension, and never having earned more than 18 K per year-no-benefits from college teaching. . . yeah, I regret it. I regret what it has done to me and my family, especially my parents (their shining star of a daughter unable to support herself financially – they are both confused and deeply worried by my situation) and, of course, my children. Some day you may arrive at the point where it’s not all about you and your personal fulfillment, where other lives are affected by the decisions you are making now. Some day you may need a little more income, health care and security than you have right now. Some day, you may have to stop because you need dental care, or your kids need a childhood not defined by financial need, and, yeah that day may very likely come for you five or ten years before the fellow academic from a wealthier background. In the meantime, maybe getting off the high horse might help. Sugarcoating the very bitter pill awaiting most of us is irresponsible and naive. We need more, not fewer articles, that tell it like it *really* is.

    • FrauDr says:

      I will add that, had anyone been as honest with me at the time I was entering grad school as the “just don’t go” articles are now, being a working class kid with undergraduate student loans to pay off, I would definitely have reconsidered the decision. Although I don’t think anyone could have known back then just how bad things would get in academia (who would ever have predicted that college teaching would pay less than pre-school room attendant?), we do know now, and that’s the message that should be getting out. The more it gets out, the more hope there is that the rest of the country outside academia will realize what is going on, bringing with it some, dim hope that things will, some day, get better.

  24. recent Ph.D. says:

    I am sympathetic to your perspective, jsench, doing something because it is satisfying and nevermind the paycheck now or later. I went to graduate school because thinking, reading , writing, and teaching were more satisfying to me than the other options I felt I had at the time.

    But the kicker for me has been the realization that for every graduate student willing to teach for $12K a year, there are a dozen recent Ph.D.s who can no longer afford to do so — because they grew up a little and want a modestly better standard of living, because they have families to support, because the student loans they borrowed to supplement that $12K stipend are now coming due. And so they jump ship, even if they’d rather be teaching, if they have the opportunity to, as I have. Or they go on food stamps. Or they borrow money from their parents.

    And so, the reason I can’t endorse the view that it’s OK to go to grad school and do satisfying work for a while for less than you’re worth and face the consequences later (even though this is exactly what I did) is that the pool of underpaid labor this creates contributes to the very problem we all have to confront later — which is that there are no “good” academic jobs anymore and haven’t been for a long time. Remember, between around 1970 and today, the ratio of contingent to tenure-track faculty has reversed. Those of us — and I include myself — who chose to go to graduate school because we were willing to sacrifice decent wages for the chance to do “satisfying” work for a few years (or maybe a decade!) have contributed to this reversal.

    I didn’t really understand this equation until my first attempt on the tenure-track job market, when I started looking around and seeing the discrepancy between the tiny number of good jobs available and the vast legions of my peers who were, year after year post Ph.D., still teaching as adjuncts, VAPs, and postdocs. And few seemed quite as satisfied with the status quo as they might once have been.

    It is a paradoxical and unconscionable system that willingly takes cheap work from bright and talented people only to deny them, through a career in the very profession they’ve already devoted a decade to. And so, I wouldn’t say to a prospective graduate student, “Don’t go because it’s not in your future best interest” anymore than I would say, “Go because it’s satisfying work.” What I would say is this: “You may indeed get a great deal of satisfaction out of being in graduate school, but, at the same time, if you teach your way through, you will be contributing all the way through to the very system that will later deny you — and nearly all of your peers — a job at the end. So, go if your conscience will let you. But it may just be, these days, that — no matter how much you love the work — the better thing to do is to walk away. Indeed, if you care about the future of the profession, the better thing to do is to walk away.” The fewer people willing now to work for a pittance merely because the work is “satisfying,” the likelier there are to be more better-paying jobs for tomorrow’s professors. At least, I like to think so…

  25. Guest says:

    Your long-winded post misses the point of the article you claim to be criticizing. If you know the risks and are willing to take them, then great. But your anecdotal tale tells us nothing about the average “working class” student entering, and quite frankly, seems to fail succumb to the very thinking it is proclaiming refute. Namely, you sound like a starry-eyed youth who is sure you will be the one with the tenure-track job, despite your latter claims to the contrary.

    FYI, the overwhelming number of people with the tenure-track jobs did not get their MA at one school, and a Phd at another. So already we see, if you succeed in achieving this “satisfying career,” you are not the normal case.

    Poverty becomes more and more difficult as you age. Being poor in your twenties is, for most people, easy. A person is (usually) healthy, lacking in dependents, and faces no social stigma, job discrimination nor romantic disinclination for their state. They can bounce from temporary job to temporary job. But try being poor with health problems, two children, a spouse, facing discrimination based on your age/lack of appropriate job history, etc. – it’s a completely different story. This is why it is so important to STRESS to young people what there is a good chance they are signing on for. (And nobody is suggesting other careers are without drawbacks as well.)

    And, FYI, the “writing skills” on display here are only considered skills in one place: the academy. Nowhere else is such rambling (and quite frankly, self-involvement) taken as a virtue. A novel or technical research report written in such style would be atrocious. So if you don’t end up with the tenure-track job, you might find yourself back in school at 32, to start another career.

    By the way, I admire a person who loves literature so much they choose to study despite the practical realities. Just like I would admire a musician or actress who pursues such things knowing the risk. But your (narcissistic) push back against spreading knowledge of these risks misses the point.

    • jsench says:

      Until yesterday, this was a blog with one post that about 25 facebook friends read. I didn’t publish this in the Chronicle or on IHE so there was no word limit and little more structure than I decided to give it while working out my thoughts in relation to Pannapacker’s. Sure, I put it online with my name on it, so anything can happen. And it did. My apologies for being long-winded and narcissistic on my personal blog (which until yesterday was pretty quiet). I’m not sure why you think I’d write a technical report like an autobiographical blog post, so I can’t answer you there.

      I stand by my claim that no matter what path you take through your twenties, you can “end up being poor with health problems, two children, a spouse, facing discrimination based on your age/lack of appropriate job history, etc.” Now more than ever. Just this week I saw a few articles in the New York Times about age discrimination and whether or not employers should be able to limit their candidate pools to people who are already employed. And they weren’t about the humanities job market.

      I never said that we shouldn’t tell students about the risks and realities of graduate school (in the humanities, in physics, in business, in law). In fact, I agree completely with Pannapacker’s assessment of the corporate university. I said so above. But to advise someone that they cannot, or should not, do something based on a perception of their class status is, from my perspective anyway, doing more harm than good. Students need to understand the risks, yes, but they need to make decisions on their own.

      Thanks for writing.

      • Guest says:

        If you don’t intend your postings to be read by anyone other than your friends, you should lock it as such. Facebook allows you to post things only to friends quite easily.

        Nobody is disputing the fact that taking “any” career path can result in ending up poor. But that is only trivially true. If you graduate from Harvard Law School, Harvard Medical School, or with a Phd from one of Harvard’s humanities departments, your chances of ending up poor in your thirties are quite different in each category. Even with the massive loans (usually) required for the first two paths, the overwhelming number of people coming out of those schools are *not* poor (or anything close) in their thirties. The average HLS graduate, first year out, makes $160,000 plus a bonus. And that is literally the 1st year out of school.

        There are always a reasonable number of people from working class background in law and medical school. In fact, I would wager more so than in humanities Phds.

        Most people who can get into a top-notch Phd program can also get into a top-notch law school (going to a lesser law school is much riskier, which is another issue entirely.) So they should know what they are choosing to do and the risks involved. The idea that the financial risks are equal for each path (with or without a recession) are demonstrably false. Your implying otherwise spreads harmful misinformation.

        The potential benefits also differ, of course, and everyone should take them into account.

  26. Kam says:

    Lots of interesting replies but I feel that many of the commenters that disagree with Jon gloss over the working class issue. For those of us who don’t come from privileged backgrounds graduate study is oftentimes the best option possible–regardless of the increasingly exploitative nature of the system, which, indeed, sounds awful. I’ll cut to the chase: some of us would be stuck in very dangerous and health-damaging, not to mention low-paying, jobs if we had not gone to grad school. Some of us never had that shining prospect of an alternative career because it was graduate school that helped us develop a sense of self-worth and learn about networking. Before that, some of us had virtually no one to network with and no idea how to fend for ourselves on the job market. I think it’s very difficult for those more privileged to relate to this position. Thanks again, Jon, for this thoughtful and very personal essay.

    • jsench says:

      Thanks Kam, you got to the heart of something that was perhaps a bit too dispersed over my entire post.

    • Adah says:

      If you are intelligent enough and driven enough to succeed at grad school, then you are intelligent enough and driven enough to succeed at another profession. Academia might be more appealing, but it is not the only option for working class students.

  27. Jordana Rosenberg says:

    Hi Jonathan. This is a terrific document. I will certainly direct my undergrads to it, as it offers lots of excellent advice and inspiration for them. I also especially appreciate the deft way you handled the question of the past battles — and the battles that lie ahead — around the elimination of tenure track positions and the adjunctification of the university system, all the while insisting on the value, pleasures, and significance of graduate training. Ultimately, you articulate the most promising vision of academic work I’ve read in some time — a materially-grounded radicalization at the heart of reading, writing, and historical inquiry.

  28. Karen Kelsky says:

    I am afraid that you’ve been so distracted by Pannapacker’s most inflammatory point—don’t go unless you’re independently wealthy–that you have missed his larger structural critique: the system of humanities graduate education is profoundly unethical. Year after year, in department after department, faculty members eagerly admit scores of bright-eyed new Ph.D. students in order to boost their personal scholarly ego, maintain the “prestige” of the department’s graduate program, and to staff the multitude of classes that faculty no longer teach. All the while refusing to spend a moment preparing those students for any job at all, academic or otherwise, and denying any accountability for the fate of their students once the dissertation is defended. For the Ph.D. students, this seems a fine bargain for a few years, perhaps, but then they discover a decade is gone, they have accumulated even more student debt, they are unqualified for work in other fields, and they cannot make a living wage in the one field for which they’re trained. I quote Frau: “older, with no health insurance, pension, and never having earned more than 18 K per year-no-benefits from college teaching. . .”

    My own story was of success. I loved graduate school. I got a Ph.D., got a job, got tenure, got a better job, and became a department head, all at R1 institutions. I trained Ph.D.s who have landed tenure track jobs. But I am still sickened by a system that sells Ph.D. students a bill of goods, and by a professoriate that complacently turns its back on the students who come believing they are being offered a sound form of “professional training.” And so I left. I now run a consulting business dedicated to helping graduate students, adjuncts, unemployed Ph.D.s, and overworked and frantic young tenure track faculty to navigate this exploitative system. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years time, you end up among my clients.

    • Guest says:

      I want to second this point. I come from a working-class family, was fed the standard “don’t do it” bill of sale regarding graduate school as I graduated from my undergraduate institution, which I, like you, understood to be limited in its class politics and ignored. Like you, I did attend an Ivy League institution (I actually came quite close to attending Cornell!), finished there, and started my first TT job two weeks ago.

      Don’t get me wrong– I think the Chronicle article is deeply problematic. The article de-emphasizes what both myself and the above writer understand to be an enormous, prolific and deeply structural problem: that the way that we treat graduate students, new PhDs and adjuncts is exploitative and a deeply abusive system. Additionally, I want to de-emphasize the question of admissions (which puts too much emphasis on individual departments, who don’t make large-scale decisions) and re-emphasize the larger labor structure of universities, especially R1 universities (like the one where I earned my PhD, and the one I am at now), which rely on exploitative practices, especially in regard to grad students and adjuncts, to function. Not even to thrive, but simply to function.

      I, too, started graduate school making nothing, after a long career– I have been working since I was 14– of making nothing. And by nothing, I mean less than Cornell’s nothing– we started at 17.5k/year. During my first several years at Penn, I worked 25 hours a week outside of requisite service work, and despite fellowship years: at a gym, washing towels; doing what seemed like incessant childcare; endlessly adjuncting, and picking up any and literally all available fellowships that required too much extra work for not enough extra money. The labor I was doing– including the additional university service work– was also deeply gendered, and was less likely to burn you, but perhaps more likely to destroy your soul, than other types of “risky” labor. This is not to play misery poker, but rather to ask you to consider moving away from the rhetoric of “it was worth it” or “grad school is still better” it to a rhetoric of “universities are nasty, neoliberal institutions that rely on exploitative labor practices to get richer, and all despite their non-profit status.” As students, and now professors, from the working class, we need to identify with each other, and NOT with the university, to forge a relation of solidarity that resists standard (read: exploitative) university labor practices.

      I hear what you’re saying, regarding Pannapacker’s article; let’s be honest, it’s a douchey piece of writing, like much of the “advice” from tenured professors that appears in the Chronicle. I hear you. I think that everyone else who comes from where we come from also hears you. Grad school is easier, and despite paying about the same, it is more fulfilling than spraying chemicals that make your nose bleed onto dirty collars. Grad school is more “satisfying” than child care that you don’t want to do. The rewards of finishing a PhD– and the enormous respect, and frankly awe, that I have earned from my family, most of whom did not attend college– are huge. But let’s also remember that this is how they get us; this is how they suck us in. It’s that feeling. The university allows us to class-jump in exchange for us forgetting that we were ever making less than 72k/year. And honestly, as working-class grad students/professors, I’m worried that we’re actually more susceptible to the “we’ve made it” rhetoric than our peers who have had a great time being a grad student and living on 17.5/year because their parents bought them a condo and paid all their bills (17.5 is great when all you need to spend it on is restaurants). We need to reject identifying with the university, and all that it pretends to offer, because it turns around and actually does what Pannapacker is saying: it consumes eager, enterprising, and often class-jumping young thinkers in order to cut costs and waste money on ridiculous and often frankly evil investments. And it uses a rhetoric of fulfillment, a story of “this is better than construction work” to do this. While it’s a deeply ambivalent relationship that all of us– you, me, Pannapacker, and the above contributor– are describing, we need to see through the ambivalence and remind ourselves that the university will never, ever have our– and I mean “our” as both formerly (in my case) and currently (in yours) working-class people, but also “our” as in *any* academics*– best interests in mind. They are as invested in making money and abusing people as any contractor, big business, or wealthy family looking for someone to clean their floors and scrape mushy cheerios off their furniture. Respectfully, I want you to reconsider the “it was worth it” rhetoric, even if that’s how it feels– and I know that feeling– because that’s a narrative that the university provides. I completely agree that it is amazing– and especially amazing compared to childcare or drycleaning– to be able to make money for reading and writing. READING AND WRITING. Even as I type it, I can’t believe it. But that wonder comes as a result of hundreds of years of abuse, whereby workers have come to believe that work must hurt, that it must be exploitative, because it always has been abusive, painful and exploitative. Let’s band together and demand new standards. I’m not defending Pannapacker, but I’ll also never defend universities. In short, I think you’ve got the right idea– the article sucks– but the “I’m glad I went” needs to be coupled with “universities are no better in their labor practices than other exploitative jobs.” We can’t participate in creating those hierarchies, because they actually work in the service of university labor practices, and labor exploitation overall. Universities are still contributing to the same system, but are similarly resistant to unionization– low pay, no insurance. If we build that kind of solidarity among workers– and especially if we build into that solidarity an understanding that one of the premises of graduate work is class-jumping– we’ll be better working-class workers AND better wealthy workers, once/if we’re employed.

  29. Molly says:

    Is graduate work in the humanities worth doing or not? What are your standards? Jonathan says it can be profoundly humanizing–*especially* for a member of the working class. Pannapacker says no, because it’s a bad deal economically. Let’s just think about this for a minute. Humanizing, *slightly less alienating* work is a bad deal economically? Of course it is, as universities each day become more and more corporate spaces, rather than sites where, just maybe, sustained critique of what corporations do to people–to human hands, for example–is possible. But if there is anything worth saving about the intellectual work of higher education, and I’m talking about something raw and inherent, not just the current circumstances under which it is performed, then we need to fight for it. Pannapacker says walking away en masse will be a profound vote of no confidence in the system. That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. Do what you need to do for yourself and your family at a particular moment in time, but as a systemic strategy for saving what can save us in the humanities it’s not only doomed to fail, it’s exactly what money-grubbing MBA university presidents want. They want us to walk away quietly, claim that knowledge that can’t immediately be packaged into profits for someone else is a waste of time, and allow them to remake universities into yet another site of capital accumulation for the neoliberal forces with which they collude.

    In my state, the government is currently trying to take away the right of police officers, teachers and firefighters to collectively bargain for things like bullet proof vests, pensions, and middle-class wages. If I had a friend who was one of these state employees who had a better job offer right now, I might encourage her to take it. But as a political strategy? If she finds it satisfying and meaningful to serve her community, to teach kids, to fight fires, to check on parolees, if she finds it meaningful in a way she can’t quite quantify, I’d tell her to find some like-minded people and fight it. And that’s what people have been doing throughout the country since this past winter. We are an impoverished, and yes, elitist profession if we can’t have that kind of bravery to stand up for an institution we believe in, and demand the conditions that make it possible to continue our work. What I appreciate about Jonathan’s post is that it articulates why this might be fighting for (for once!) in a way that finds common cause with all forms of exploited labor, rather than just complaining about some kind of betrayal because academe wasn’t a ticket out of the working class. Graduate students, adjuncts, those of us who’ve been exploited for going on decades now are understandably pretty weary, and therefore when I talk about banding together and believing in what we do and making sure it has a future so that we can pull more kids like Jonathan aside and teach them “not to be afraid of what they don’t know”–when I say we need action, we need action from people with power, people who won the lottery, the tenured professors. And what is especially reprehensible about Pannapacker’s endless articles (which were condescendingly forwarded to me while I was deciding to go to graduate school years ago), is that he HAS won. He’s one of the many voices sitting at the top of the profession, wailing that their profession is dead. Well some of us still believe it has humanizing work to do, and we see how horribly it’s exploiting us, and we want to shout from the rooftops that the real people who needs some calm, cool, firm advice and education about how fucked up universities have become are the people in charge of defunding and destroying higher education in this country, not twenty-somethings who are perfectly capable of looking at a complex picture and choosing their own destiny, and who might still be foolish enough to believe in a dream of something better.

  30. Thanks for this thought-provoking take on an issue that keeps coming up, and for raising the issue that economic cost/benefit analysis might not be the only way of looking at a decision to go to grad school, even for those coming from less privileged backgrounds. I say this as someone with a record of advising would-be grad students to take a good, hard look at the numbers. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story of the relationship between class and academia.

    I have more thoughts on this, but they’d fall under the “get your own damn blog” rubric. And since I do have my own damn blog, I’ll ruminate a bit more and post over there.

  31. What a wonderful and well-articulated response. Thank you for pointing out how some of the lessons learned in graduate school, far from being so much useless “critical theory,” can in fact be quite empowering, at least to some–and can equip us with some of the intellectual, philosophical, and psychological resources we need to develop the resiliency and tactical skills necessary to survive in life, wherever that life might lead.

    You sound like you would be a great asset to the academy, and I wish you all the best.

  32. Wm says:

    I enjoyed your essay, but don’t you ultimately make the same argument as Pannapacker? You suggest if you hadn’t gotten into Cornell, you just would not have gone to grad school. But, you did (get into Cornell, that is). You make ~24,000 dollars a year, and have health insurance. That’s not a gamble: that’s a smart move for someone in their 20s who isn’t independently wealthy. Furthermore, someone with a PhD from Cornell has a far better chance of succeeding in academe than someone with a PhD from Second (or Third) Tier State University.

    So aren’t we left with the same problem? You got into Cornell; good for you. You’ve already successfully passed through one of Pannapackers’ excluding gates; as you say, you’ve “proved” your elite credentials. But what about the aspiring academic who doesn’t get into Cornell? And doesn’t your own story suggest that at that point you yourself would be the one offering the Pannapackerian advice of “just don’t go”?

    Anyway, amidst all your discussion of class, I don’t think you sufficiently address institutional prestige, or your own present privileged position as an Ivy League student. The problem isn’t the vast number of humanities grad students willy-nilly deciding to attend Ivy League schools, it’s the vast number of students who attend, and receive PhDs from, institutions that exploit them, don’t offer any real support to them, and leave them underemployed and without options.

    That’s to whom Pannapacker’s advice of “just don’t go” seems to be, rightfully, directed.

    • jsench says:

      I decided after being in graduate school in the humanities for two years that I would walk away if I didn’t “win” the next portion of the “lottery.” I was still given the information and encouragement I needed in order to conceive of those two years as a possibility. Those two years alone really improved my life.

      I think I was pretty clear about institutional prestige. It exists, it favors some at the expense of others, and it isn’t always based on talent. I don’t have the power to change that on my own, but I’m willing to talk about it openly. It is also not impenetrable. At least a dozen people have written to describe how they “clawed” their way in to prestigious programs from non-elite beginnings. I wanted to talk about how I found back doors to access these things. It isn’t always apparent to people in privileged positions that others have to do extra work to make it look like they fit in.

      I understand why everyone is saying that I wasn’t Pannapacker’s audience, but people are handing these essays to undergraduates and now they’re hitting internet dailies with a really wide audience. He has a lot of audiences, including students who might take the “unless you’re independently wealthy and connected” as more doors slamming in their faces instead the “A Modest Proposal” rhetoric that many suggest it is. And as long as he’s saying that graduate school in the humanities bears a certain professional resemblance to a prison term, and that there’s something laughably quaint about an appreciation for critical theory, I feel moved to respond.

  33. I think that this was a beautifully written piece. Thank you for sharing.

    With regard to other comments: As a grad student in the humanities, I’ve read much longer and much more narcissistic essays than this one and got much less out of them. And they’ve been assigned readings! Self-reflexive does not equal narcissistic, and long does not equal incoherent. If this story were compressed into a sound bite-laden abstract, it would have lost some of its power. “Concise” is not a universal virtue.

  34. Jon, I read your brave and honest post more as a useful extension to Bill Pannapacker’s message than as a counter to it. As other readers have pointed out, you (and I, the first kid in my Appalachian family to grow up with indoor plumbing) are not his target audience. Bill has long been right that there’s untenable sickness in the system; you’re right that the way to fix it cannot be by creating an even more privileged and exclusionary professoriate.  

    I was very glad to see that you’ve removed a paragraph that seemed to link alternative academic jobs with washing out of grad school — although I was sorry that the link to #Alt-Academy went with it, so I’ll reinsert it here: 

    It may prove useful for people sensing that a more hybrid or entrepreneurial approach to their academic lives could lead both to satisfaction AND security. #Alt-ac jobs, as we’re coming to define them, are for PhDs and other highly-educated humanities scholars who want to bring their training to bear off the beaten (and narrowing) professorial path, but in relatively stable positions within the academy.

    For me, there’s an even more key concept embedded in the #alt-ac project, and it gets at something I see driving your post, too: the need for a deeper grasp of *what constitutes knowledge work,* and a more expansive notion of *what the labor of the humanities can and ought to be,* in the larger world in which it is embedded. This moves the conversation from us — the stability we provide our families and the personal satisfaction we derive from our jobs, important as that is — to the other things we’re working for: celebration of the best of what’s uniquely human, protection of our cultural heritage and the production of a thoughtful citizenry, a watchful eye on our shared past and future, all that jazz.  

    I think #alt-ac employees (suitably empowered) can stand as one lens for re-projecting the educational system this country deserves. Tenured and tenure-track faculty from working-class backgrounds provide another. But from what I’ve seen, most contingent or adjunct faculty are too busy scraping by financially, commuting from job to job while seeking the next one, hating the impact on their families, and feeling left out of crucial departmental and institutional conversations to provide much clarity on the larger enterprise — the one they prepared so hard to participate in. They’re all scratched up. (That’s a path, I take it, Bill Pannapacker doesn’t want to see for our students, just for lack of clear-eyed advice and advisors’ imagination about other options.)

    Thanks to you, Jon, for posting this despite being embedded in an academic culture that too often whispers, “hush, for heaven’s sake, about your ungenteel past!” — and for indulging my lengthy response here. You’ve enriched this conversation a great deal, and your post — like Pannapacker’s stuff — has been very helpful to me in figuring out what I need to do next in this arena. (It’ll be no surprise to you that it involves getting to WORK!)

    • jsench says:

      Thanks Bethany, you said some really important things here that were only floating around my original comments. Reading your work, I’ve really gained a sense of hope about the applicability of skills developed in graduate training.

      The original paragraph didn’t, I think, suggest that “failed academics” are candidates for the alt-ac path. I think I placed a link to your page too near a discussion of knowing when to quit – a discussion that didn’t ultimately fit right with the rest of the post.

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  36. Hey Jonathan. Nice to hear you your voice out here. Your article certainly kicked up a lot of comments, and that cannot be bad. There are lots of ways to earn a living. I’ve always admired Hester Prynne.

  37. This is a truly excellent post! I especially appreciate the listing of programs that give first-generation scholars the kind of knowledge that others get by having grown up in circles full of intellectuals and professionals. I would add:
    Moore Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program at the University of North Carolina (MURAP)
    Program for Arts and Humanities Development at The Ohio State University (PHD)
    Arts and Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Delaware (AHSI)
    African American Literatures and Cultures Institute at the University of Texas at San Antonio (AALCI)

    I look forward to watching your star rise, Jonathan!

  38. sleepschmeep says:

    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.

    Yes. Yes. YES. You have really hit it right here. Without providing details, I’ll just say that we have similar stories. And this is a brilliant response to an argument that I frequently struggle to counter, as I head through graduate school.

  39. Mr. Sidetable says:

    Amid all the discussion of whether or not Jon is the audience that Pannapacker was writing for, I’ve been wondering if Pannapacker was the audience Pannapacker was writing for. (I’ve never met the man, although I know some folks who overlapped with him in grad school at Harvard, and know nothing of his own class background.) Although there are obviously limits to how much you can learn from a CV, his trajectory seems quite similar. M.A. from the University of Miami, and then to the Ivy League (Harvard), where he had quite a starry committee (Buell, Sollors, Bercovitch), and was taken care of via teaching fellowships and lectureships and research assistantships in a variety of departments (the main difference may be that, what with Harvard having Harvard money, Pannapacker also earned close to $15k from prizes for essays and book collecting during his graduate school career). And from Cambridge to a tenure-track (and now tenured) job teaching English at a very nice liberal arts college in Michigan.

    So he appears to have won the same “lottery,” just a few years earlier, and has done quite well by it. I certainly can’t claim to have read all of his pieces in the Chronicle over the past 12 years, but I have a question for those who are more familiar with his oeuvre. He spends a lot of time telling *you* not to go to graduate school, or that, if you’re already there, you should leave. Has he ever written that he wishes someone had told *him* not to go? Or that, at some point in his graduate career, someone had told him to quit, that he wasn’t good enough, that he should cut his losses and try something else?

    Or is that just the message for other people?

  40. Pingback: A Response to the “Just Don’t Go” Mentality « Adventures in Gradland

  41. gradland says:

    Thank you very much for this post, and for sharing your story. The range of comments have also been a really engaging read, and I’m glad that there are a lot of humanities PhD’s out there who are happy with their decisions. I think your list of “questions to ask yourself before you start a PhD” should be required reading for all potential humanities grad students, and for the professors who would mentor them. I’m turning it into a separate page on my own blog. I also wrote a response to your piece on said blog–much of what I say has already been said here, but feel free to check it out. And if I’ve misrepresented what you’ve said in any way, please let me know. Thanks again!

  42. painsthee says:

    Like all other grad students, I now declare you my new hero.

  43. Idlerat says:

    This was terrific.

    Bitter, Alienated, and Unrepentant ABD

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  45. This really has been the blog I’ve been looking for. I am at the beginning of the seemingly long road of the PhD application process and was feeling crushed by the negative energy floating around in the same vein as Pannapacker (which I had read and reacted similarly to the idea that I had to be independently wealthy or have someone who will take care of me in order to succeed). Thank you for posting this and reviving my drive to continue the path I have started!

  46. Pingback: Working Classes (via jsench) | Amanda Capelli–Digital Porfolio

  47. Hannah says:


    I’m more than a bit late on this, but I’ll echo so much of what has already been said in the above comments: thank you for taking this on, for fighting the good fight, and for still believing that there is some shred of light left at the end of the tunnel. As I trek down this graduate school application path and am continuously forced to shrug off the never-ending rounds of negativity and discouragement (albeit some incredible support, as well), your words have had a tremendous impact.

    A professor of mine, Jon Earle, was kind enough to send this my way. Whenever we discuss grad programs, he never fails to tell me, “eyes wide open.” It’s incredibly reassuring to read something that does just that, but stops short of slamming the door in my face (For a prime example of door slamming, see:

    As a first generation, a recent grad with a BA in history, and one of those “wide-eyed, twentysomethings” who refuses to listen to Pannapacker, Cebula, and co., I’m thankful for the humanity, experience, and honesty that you were kind enough to share. Your words make personal statements, writing samples, and this overwhelming decision just a bit more manageable. For that, I thank you.

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