Every week or so we see another article in the mainstream or Higher Education press telling smart young people that going to graduate school in the humanities is a waste of time and money. We seem to be coming to the point qualitative researchers would call “saturation”, where new data doesn’t really add anything knew to the debate.
This whole genre of writing has been bothering me for some time but it is only recently that I’ve figured out how to articulate the particulars of this idea. (Warning: this might be a little ranty.)
Most of these articles speak in universals. If it’s bad for some, it’s bad for all.
As Tressie McMillan Cottom pointed out in response to a recent example, one persons crappy job might be another person’s upward mobility. And yet the predominant voice in these articles does not leave room for the same circumstances to be valued differently depending on where the reader is placed.
Along the way I saw lots of stories like this one from Slate today. It’s on the far right extreme of the “don’t go!” advice market but it is indicative of what that advice entails. It’s some combination of an assessment of the academic labor market, the odds of tenure track appointment, the high cost of graduate school, and the emotional toil.
That advice is not wrong.
It is, however, a bit disingenuous about the implied comparison always being made. Namely, that one can do better.
But, what if one can’t do better? Like me, five years ago?
This is the case for many black students and I will try to unpack the Pandora’s box of structural and social processes that make it different. I do this not to judge what is, again, not wrong advice. Instead, I do it so that we can think more fully about how complicated any blanket advice is and how we should always interrogate our position in our advice and, most importantly, how that might be different than the position of the people on the receiving end of our (usually well-meaning) advice.
Thinking about it, these articles aren’t really advice, at least not how I understand that term.
Advice assumes that the receiver of the advice will weigh your contribution in relation to their own knowledge and advice from other people, will consider their own unique set of circumstances, and come to their own decision.
Mythical thinking 1
The thing that jumped out at me this time is that this so-called advice is also based on mythical thinking.
Many potential PhD students claim that they want to do a PhD because they want to become a professor. The bitterness in these articles comes when, many years into the process and many thousands of dollars of debt later, they discover that this may not be possible or may not be the job they thought it was, or both.
If your idea of a professor is similar to this
Who wouldn’t want a job where you only have to work five hours a week, you get summers off, your whole job is reading and talking about books, and you can never be fired? Such is the enviable life of the tenured college literature professor, and all you have to do to get it is earn a Ph.D.
(Rebecca Schumann in Slate)
then you should definitely reconsider your decision.
Being a professor has never been like that. Ever.
I leave dust-bunnies around for the unicorns to eat but I don’t get angry that they don’t seem to disappear without me sweeping them up.
Mythical thinking 2
The second type of mythical thinking is not quite so blatant.
If you are considering doing a PhD and becoming a professor because you think that higher education is immune from the social and economic forces that are affecting every other sector of the economy, you should also reconsider your decision.
The Ivory Tower is a myth. It always has been.
Universities are not magically immune to the forces of neo-liberalism, globalization, and such that have led to the reduction of real wages, increased unemployment, the casualization of labour, and all the other things that are leading to increased inequality.
Governments have been demanding increased accountability and relevance for about 30 years. It was part of the Thatcher/Reagan political revolution and if it’s just catching up with your life now, you should be grateful for the reprieve.
If your critique of the changes in higher education is situated in a wider critique of those forces and in making connections between higher education and the economy and society more generally, I’m happy to engage in conversation.
If, on the other hand, you are bemoaning the loss of some special status. I can’t help but think that you are just whining. The guys who used to work the line at Ford are no less deserving of a living wage than you are.
What I mean by “reconsider”
By “reconsider”, I don’t mean decide not to go.
I mean, do more research into what being a professor is really like, and what is really required to get that kind of job. Hint: it’s not the same in every institution. You might actually want to talk to some people.
I mean, read the higher education news. Learn what is happening in the sector and what that means for employment, working conditions, research funding, and so on.
Then take responsibility for your own career.
Consider your own position: Your values. Your strengths and preferences. The range of opportunities open to you. The constraints on those opportunities based on your race, class, gender, immigration status, geographical location, etc.
Make the decision that is best for you, accepting that what is best for you is not what is best for someone else.
This post was edited July 2, 2015.