Is the study of English doomed?
Should Ph.D.’s be envying ABD’s, who, in turn, should be dissuading even tots from learning their ABC’s because they’ll only end up with a stack of IOU’s if they take a liberal-arts education beyond a B.A.?
Are humanities departments essentially one big Ponzi scheme?
Should we be chasing one another around the hallways with sticks in order to put ourselves out of our own misery and, in addition, so as not to cause risk to others?
Not that we’re bitter, but it hasn’t actually been a fun week of reading in The Chronicle.
We hear from Peter Conn at the University of Pennsylvania that “as a profession, we are enrolling too many Ph.D. students, we have been doing so for decades, we spend far too long in guiding them to their degrees, and we then consign them to a dysfunctional job market.” And then, just as we were able to lift our head from the table, Frank Donoghue from Ohio State University tells us that those of us who teach in doctoral programs where the ABD rates are high “perpetuate the system that brings in fresh recruits” even as we tolerate “the disappearance of advanced graduate students at rates comparable to that of casualties during the Gallipoli campaign.”
Attempting to crawl under the table at this point, we still hear Donoghue’s voice as he makes the argument that “at the entry point, departments across the country grossly overadmit new students to their Ph.D. programs because they need to provide teachers for their lower-division courses (particularly first-year writing sections) as cheaply as possible. … As for those students who finish their Ph.D.’s while still being financed by their departments, and who get tenure-track jobs, we should stop using them in our propaganda about job-placement success and start calling them what they are: lottery winners.”
Even after it got all quiet, and we thought we were safe, as we inched into the light, we were smacked in the head by the righteous cry from Katharine Polak, Ph.D. candidate in English and comparative literature at the University of Cincinnati, who told us (taking full command of the mighty plural) that “We, the humanities graduate students of the United States of America, do not want your pity, or your smug, self-congratulatory admonishments of our choices. What we want is your help formulating a path that will lead us into careers where we can be useful, not exploited” and also thanked her English Graduate Organization for offering “helpful advice, including appropriate attire for the job market and how to write a grant.”
OK, so what am I supposed to tell my students, huh?
I can tell the undergraduates not to go to graduate school. Hell, I did that three times this week and it’s only Tuesday, thereby setting a new record for myself in the active, not to say frenzied, discouragement of continuing education. I did everything but pull the batteries from their laptops so that they couldn’t complete online applications. They saw the sincerity of my expression and have all decided to look elsewhere for gainful employment, such as working for the Ice Capades, which, even though it went out of business in 1995, still appears to be a better bet than entering the academy.
But what about the really excellent graduate students? They already know how to write a dissertation, publish their research, teach excellent classes, and they already dress in highly appropriate attire.
So I’m asking, and I’m not kidding anymore, folks: What do I tell them?