In 2009, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an “advice” piece entitled “Graduate School in the Humanities: Don’t Go.” In the article, Professor William Pannapacker (ironically of Hope College) proceeded to get real and lay down some truth for aspiring seekers of higher education: there are no jobs, you will grow old trying to get one, you will be poor and in debt (and did we mention old, particularly women, who age so much more decisively, what with your womb clocks and all), and you will become angry and embittered by your failures to secure stable employment. This hit a nerve. And probably because that particular nerve rarely gets sleep and likes to wake many of us up at 4:15 in the morning, we are aware that Professor Pannapacker speaks a certain truth. The world that many graduate students are trying to enter is broken and there are no easy roads to security. Even if we manage to grab hold of a rare job, the future of working as an academic looks pretty bleak. So why don’t those of us who understand this pack up and leave?
If we listen to Rebecca Schuman, who recently updated Pannapacker’s screed for 2013 inSlate, it’s because we were too stupid to heed his message, suggesting that the original article “convinced no one.” And, as Schuman writes, “It certainly didn’t convince me! Why? Because Pannapacker is a tenured professor. He pulled it off, so why can’t you? After all, someone has to get these jobs.” Yes, perhaps we are stupid and optimistic and blind. In some situations, like when the world is going to shit, sometimes these aren’t the worst things to be. But I don’t think it’s that we’re all just sitting unaware that the sky is falling and hoping it won’t fall on us. Some of us, as Tressie McMillan Cottom suggests on her blog, are trying our best to be “brave” and we are trying to stick around in this shitstorm of terrible labor practices, endless competition for scarce jobs, nasty administrative choices (like the president of CUNY calling grad students “roaches” or, even worse, pepper spraying our undergraduates who have dared to question the vision for higher education in this country) because we care and we want to change it. Or, because even if the university succeeds in chasing us out, we haven’t failed by completing a PhD.
There are many reasons why these screeds of “Don’t go! Graduate School will ruin your life” leave me wanting to kick the wall. Yes, things suck. I make no bones about that, but these screeds overlook the work that students are doing to organize, agitate, and resist the restructuring of higher education. And this oversight raises the question: if you realized the Pannapacker “Truth,” then did you then get involved in your union, in an activist group, in an education alternative (like the Free University), or in a conversation with your students? When did you start realizing that a career in academics also means addressing the very conditions of our labor? What have you done besides comparing the kind of tenacity it takes to be a graduate student today to being a willful smoker who smokes “four packs a day” and hopes to not get cancer?
As someone who has had cancer, I’m a little offended, but I’m also deeply aware that there are no self-interested choices that can really save you. This is true in academics as well. We’re finding ourselves in a world where “doing the right thing,” including staying on the straight and narrow path that may or may not culminate in tenure, is not enough. There is a cold logic of privatization at work in these “don’t go” screeds. This logic foregrounds an “every man for himself” mentality, which mirrors the very toxic culture of academics that so closely binds self-worth and research production. To what degree have we internalized this toxicity when we suggest to others that they should “save themselves”? This is not to say that we should not be very angry about the state of the job market, but to ask how does such privatization lead us away from addressing larger, structural issues at play here?
In addition to this, everyone should read Tressie’s post. It is smart, impassioned, and on the money response to these “reality checks.” Too many of “some” people have gone on to higher education, but too many others simply haven’t. What happens if “you can’t do better” than go to school? I agree with Tressie that the “Truth” of the “don’t go” advice is not entirely wrong and that we need to be very clear with prospective students about the road ahead of them and the placement of financial burden, but just because we may not see the future clearly for ourselves is no reason to throw the entire institution under the bus. Are we really ready to say that higher education is no longer a link to mobility?
If so, we have some serious thinking to do about what life is this country is about and what such a “no future” really looks like. I am not ready to accept that fate. Many of us are not, which is probably part of why we stick around in our adjunct positions. We know that when and if we leave, our students will be even more on their own—and we also know that the wolves are circling, ready to MOOC-ify the classroom, by which I mean get rid of it entirely and truly strip education down even further. This is really the big issue here, and I wish that more graduate students would realize that participating in the freakout over tenure is a drain on energy that would better be used to stand up to the larger forces that are eager to break the tie between education and mobility, particularly in the public university.
This is not to say don’t freak out, but send the energy outward. Make it social. Organize. Read the news and reject this bullshit mantra of private failure. My guess it that it is this type of mental resilience and recasting of shame (like we see happening around student debt) that we will need regardless of where we work.
Also, grad students: If the following is true of your experience, where have you gone to graduate school and how do those very programs need to be modified:
During graduate school, you will be broken down and reconfigured in the image of the academy. By the time you finish—if you even do—your academic self will be the culmination of your entire self, and thus you will believe, incomprehensibly, that not having a tenure-track job makes you worthless. You will believe this so strongly that when you do not land a job, it will destroy you, and nobody outside of academia will understand why. (Bright side: You will no longer have any friends outside academia.)
CUNY may be a rare case, but it has not been as lonely as this. Nor has it suggested to me that my entire self is my research. Perhaps because we are public, scraping along, working full-time, parenting, and teaching, we are a little more pissed off then other graduate students? But students here talk to one another. They create community. If I had not gone back to school, I would not have had the chance to learn alongside of some of these truly brilliant, radical people. So, if you ask me about graduate school, I will tell you it sucks, but I will also say: Flock to the Public Universities. Demand access and entry to higher education. Nothing will be easy when you get there. But we cannot afford to leave the university to those currently in charge of it. PhDs, we need you.