Recently, there's been a slew of articles about the dire prospects for graduate students, especially in the humanities, on the job market. The New York Times last weekend ran an article about the job prospects (or lack thereof) in the humanities. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, a columnist that goes by the pen-name Thomas H. Benton has been warning prospective grad students of the danger of attending graduate school in English. "Just don't go," he says, unless you're independently wealthy, are supported by a spouse, or are independently wealthy.
Today, the most recent Chronicle has a part two to his original essay about avoiding graduate school. Apparently, he received quite a bit of mail that accused him of undermining the importance of the academy, the importance of intellectual life. And, in response, he brought up what I think is a truly important point-- that the rhetoric of doing this (i.e., academia) because we love it is at best naive, and worst, dangerous.
And he's right. For what other profession do people use the rhetoric of "love" to excuse the fact that there are no jobs out there. He makes an important point, that the discipline has lost its ability to take care of its own.
I see this happening in my own department. Surely enough, this spring will bring a wealth of new graduate students to visit campus. Next fall 20-30 new bodies will fill the seats in orientation. And, I can almost guarantee that no one will mention the fact that, in all likelihood, most of them will never become tenure-track professors. They may be told that we have "very good job placement" (I was). They may be told that we're an extremely strong program with a strong faculty (we are). But no one--I'd be willing to bet money on this--will tell them that they should be open to other options besides being a professor. (Other than adjuncting indefinitely, that is.) That would be tantamount to blasphemy in the hallowed halls of the ivory tower.
Trust me- I know this from experience. When I told my otherwise helpful and supportive dissertation director that I would go do something else if I didn't get a tenure track job, she gave me a look that indicated that I might, possibly, have lost it.
The problem, really, is that this isn't about my own piddly job market performance. It's really about a system that perpetuates cycles of exploitation--and not even on purpose. Our professors really do care about how we do--that much I know. But even they don't know how to help us do anything else but become research-oriented professors. And so, this rhetoric of the love of the profession becomes our reason for being, our entire identity.
I was struck by one specific thing in Benton's latest article-- that some of the letters he received from graduate students talked about depression, some about thinking of suicide. And that floored me.
But it also made me realize how very lucky I am to see this as both a vocation and a job. If I thought of studying literature as only a vocation--something so intrinsic to my identity that I could not do without it--my utter job market failure might well have been devastating.
It wasn't, surprisingly enough. I had a fine time in California at Disneyland while I should have been interviewing with people. And I think that is partially because I see this as a job.
I've never been one to think that work comes before family, friends, or other obligations. Especially not family. And I have an amazing family--both extended and nuclear. Every time my little guy comes up with some new idea or game, every time I tuck his small, freshly-washed body into bed at night, my career problems recede. Every time my husband holds my hand as we watch him play, or we laugh ourselves silly about something stupid, those problems recede.
I'm sure it's a bit Pollyanna-ish of me, and I by no means think that kids or partners are the answer to everyone's life problems. But for me they work, I guess. It makes me glad that I didn't make grad school or research my life, because they certainly haven't done a lot for me. It makes me glad that I didn't put anything on hold for the big dream of tenure, because that may never happen for me.
And having them makes that little problem, somehow, ok.