October 20, 2003

A Letter from a "Lamb to the Slaughter"

A reader takes issue with my "don't go to graduate school" postings:

dear invisible adjunct,

I recognize that this is a long-dead topic, but I wanted to comment on your recent advice-to-undergraduates-considering-grad-school postings. As an actual undergrad considering grad school, I was a bit dismayed by the common misperceptions of people in my position by posters on your site.

Not all of us are naive, pampered, lazy, or convinced that our 'specialness' will warrant a 50K+ income. Not all of us have been intellectually spoiled by too-liberal head-patting on the part of our professors. Many of us have done real research into the actualities of academic life, both for grad students and post-grads. We know which programs offer health insurance and which will necessitate late-night calls to our med-school friends. We know which departments force grad students to squabble over money and which generally fund across the board. We've read the doctoral student quality-of-life surveys and we've charted the suicide rates per campus. We know that our living situations will likely be difficult at best (and we know the relative costs-of-living in the various parts of the country we're considering). We know that the odds of actually completing a PhD are dubious and the chances of a tenure-track job dismal. We know that academic life is no more fair, noble, rational, apolitical or pleasant than life in general.

While I appreciate everyone's concern, please don't imagine that I'm ruining my life out of some misguided vision of a utopian community of well-funded and well-fed poetry-lovers who enjoy spending their hours of leisure-time providing supportive comments for each other's research. I know exactly what I'm getting into. It's not the academy's fault and it's not the media's fault and it's not the fault of my professors. My choice is my own. My eyes are wide open. And if I am in fact offered a funded position at one of the grad schools I'm applying to (an iffy question at this point in the game), I'll accept.

And if I never work, so be it.

I choose to spend six years of my life pursuing something that I love (yes, even if by the end I will no longer love it, even if it will crush my ego and leave me a bitter, suicidal wreck, even if it will trap me in a cycle of self-loathing, poverty and fear). You can argue that my choice is moronic or masochistic, but please respect that it is, in fact, a choice.

I realize that adult life is about failure and compromise. It's just that I'd rather fail at something that I love than something that I hate.

-- lamb to the slaughter

I appreciate the email, though of course I can't agree with the sentiments expressed therein. I've already stated the reasons why I don't recommend graduate school in the humanities, and I don't think there's much point in repeating myself (the main postings can be found under the heading "Entries on the Academic 'Job Market'" in the sidebar -- of these, the most explosive by far was "1 in 5: Thomas H. Benton Explains Why You Shouldn't Go to Graduate School").

Instead, I'd like to clarify a couple of points.

First, I certainly do not see prospective graduate students as "pampered, lazy, or convinced that our 'specialness' will warrant a 50K+ income." I don't believe I have ever suggested anything of the sort, though no doubt at least a few of the commentors at this weblog have stated or implied something along these lines. On the other hand, I do see many prospective graduate students as naive and ill-informed. I don't believe this is a misperception, but that, of course, is a matter of perspective. My perspective is of course that of someone who has already gone to graduate school and come out with a PhD in a field where there are very few full-time jobs (though ample opportunities for part-time teaching).

Second, my "don't go to graduate school" postings are not addressed to any undergraduate in particular. They are intended to provide an alternative perspective on the issue, which any reader can accept or reject as he or she sees fit. Though I certainly would not recommend graduate school, I also would not presume to tell any individual not to go. Instead, I would urge anyone who is considering graduate school to do some serious research before making the 6-year commitment.

Finally, one of the main themes of this weblog is that these questions are not primarily matters of individual choice and individual blame. I don't believe that nobody should go to graduate school in the humanities, and again, I wouldn't presume to say just who it is who should or shouldn't go. At the same time, I firmly believe that many humanities graduate programs should be scaled back and some eliminated altogether. I say this not because I don't see the value in the study and teaching of the humanities but precisely because I do.

Quite simply, there are too many humanities PhDs chasing after too few full-time jobs. This overproduction has not only degraded the "job market" for PhDs but has also damaged the quality of humanities education in this country. When universities and colleges rely on a reserve army of cheap labor to teach undergraduates, they make a mockery of their stated teaching mission (which is most often expressed as "a commitment to excellence"). So long as there is a ready supply of cheap teaching labor at hand, I see no reason to expect that universities and colleges won't continue to make use of it. Thus, cutting back on the production of PhDs is one of the necessary steps toward reversing the trend toward a devaluation and degradation not only of the degree itself but of humanities teaching more broadly.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at October 20, 2003 10:35 AM

Dear Lamb-

You wrote: "We know that academic life is no more fair, noble, rational, apolitical or pleasant than life in general."

Actually, you're only partly right here: in fact, academic life is much worse than life in general.

If you want to study something you love for 6 (or 8 or 10) years, go right ahead. I'll just remind you, however, that in the process, you might have bills to pay, kids to raise, braces to pay for, whatever. It's great to do what you love, until reality steps in and rains all over your parade.

I'm not going to tell you not to go to grad school. Hell, I was in grad school for a combined total of 10 years. What I'm going to tell you is . . . don't discount the advice of people who have been there, and been hurt. Like I've said before, you can't play that game without hurting someone. Everything's fun and games, until someone loses an eye.

Posted by: Academy Girl at October 20, 2003 04:23 PM

"I realize that adult life is about failure and compromise. It's just that I'd rather fail at something that I love than something that I hate."

This sounds like someone who is on the verge of full-blown clinical depression.

In my experience, prospective grad students in the humanities are often deluding themselves. To think that such a choice is being bolstered by someone who looks to the future with total disappointment and futility is hardly an argument that the choice is wise or productive. (Oh, and let's not fetishize "choice" -- choices are supposed to be productive and rational, not intrinsically good.)

Posted by: JT at October 20, 2003 05:00 PM

Allow me to repeat my earlier claim that if it were known that no one would ever get a tenure-track job, rather than it being known that it's unlikely that any given person will get one, there would still be a lot of people in graduate school. In fact, I bet that the level of enrollments would stay close to what they are now. It's the lifestyle that appeals to people.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 20, 2003 06:38 PM

You may or may not be correct to argue that there would be just as many prospective graduate students even if undergraduates were fully aware of the dismal prospects for academic employment. I tend to doubt this, but there's no way to prove the point one way or another.

But the fact that the lifestyle appeals to people is not a good enough reason to continue to enroll them. Your argument presupposes (perhaps correctly) that humanities departments will continue to run their programs on a large scale even despite the bleak employment statistics. What I am arguing is that humanities graduate programs should cease and desist from this destructive policy. The gatekeepers and caretakers of the profession need to take a good, hard look at the numbers and start behaving more responsibly -- more responsibly not only toward the undergraduates who would enter graduate school but also toward the profession itself.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 20, 2003 07:35 PM

I probably have asked you this before, but say that you get a 2/2 tenure-track job for next year. Your teaching load is, of course, entirely dependent on graduate student labor. What do you do?

I agree with you about humanities graduate programs, and I'm not trying to suggest that you're a hypocrite, or even that this would be hypocrisy--I certainly will take such a job if offered. Glory in it, even. But then I would structurally no longer be able to think in same manner about the labor issues, as I'd be part of the problem.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 20, 2003 07:55 PM

Chun wrote: "It's the lifestyle that appeals to people."

Do you mean being in school is what people like or graduate and living in poverty . . . or both being in school and living in poverty?" The flaw in your logic is that, at some point, the "lifestyle" becomes self-damaging.

Posted by: Academy Girl at October 20, 2003 08:33 PM

People so much like the free time in graduate school (and let's face it, there's lots--the work gets done in bursts) that they're willing to endure poverty to have it.

Have any of you ever had a corporate job? For despair and general soul-killing misery, graduate school doesn't even come close.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 20, 2003 08:38 PM

Chun wrote:
"Have any of you ever had a corporate job? For despair and general soul-killing misery, graduate school doesn't even come close."

Well, which soul-killing misery would you prefer -- the one with a paycheck, benefits, and vacation time or the one with poverty, few prospects, and "bursts of work" that occur intermittently 24/7?

This is a silly conversation.

Posted by: Academy Girl at October 20, 2003 09:14 PM

"This sounds like someone who is on the verge of full-blown clinical depression."

That was my reaction also. Therapy supported by SSRI's would be cheaper and faster.

Chun the unthinkable:

"People so much like the free time in graduate school that they're willing to endure poverty to have it."

The Dude didn't have to be a graduate student to maintain his thing. Why pay the freight or put up with the BS.

"Have any of you ever had a corporate job? For despair and general soul-killing misery, graduate school doesn't even come close."

Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. The semi-monthly paycheck made up for those problems.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 20, 2003 09:20 PM


I've been in the corporate sector for as long as I was in graduate school (6 years each). Both have their benefits and drawbacks, but I have to say, the most "despair and soul-killing misery" I've ever felt came in my two serious years on the academic job market (1996, the year I finished the doctorate, and 1997, when I was adjuncting). Yes, corporate life is a grind and can wear you down in subtle ways, but nothing restored my self-respect like landing a real corporate job with salary and benefits.

Your comments about corporate life make me wonder if you've ever worked in this environment.


Posted by: Kevin Walzer at October 20, 2003 09:40 PM

I'd certainly be more comfortable with an upper-level corporate job, as they have done perhaps the best job of any group in history of insulating themselves from risk in proportion to the enormity of their actions. I'm also a nihilist without any strong moral sense, so I think I'd fit right in. These are mostly hereditary jobs, however.

Cubicle-jobs, no. There, you see, you are "managed" by others while you perform actions of unspeakable meaninglessness. While I do enjoy the dada performativity of it for a while, I'm really much happier as a cutting-edge radical intellectual.

I actually look, sound, and act much like Jeff Bridges' character in The Big Lebowski, though I'm not as in shape or motivated, so score one for you, Robert.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 20, 2003 09:54 PM

Hmp. This is why I got my B.A. in linguistics (my first love) and then, with the help of Lingua Franca's Real Guide to Graduate School, took a Hard Look at the job market and realized that in a good year, there are maybe sixty linguistics openings and maybe a thousand kids applying for 'em. And I hadn't the grades, or the grit, or the sheer nastiness, to be the kind of person who eventually wins one of those slots.

So, after mulling the whole thing over for a couple of years, I am now in a Master's program in clinical psych (which seems to be turning out to be my true love, thankfully). A Ph.D. may be in my future, but since I really want to practice, a Psy.D. may just wind up being the way to go.

Speaking of which, guys 'n' gals, lay off the diagnoses, huh? You don't ask heart surgeons to do your plumbing, and (flame on!) you don't ask disgruntled humanities grads to bandy about the terms `clinical depression' or `SSRI'. I don't really want to ruffle any feathers, but this sort of thing has been bugging me lately.

Posted by: Luis at October 21, 2003 12:23 AM

"What I am arguing is that humanities graduate programs should cease and desist from this destructive policy. " --IA

I wonder why these programs should be responsible for informing people about lousy job prospects? Shouldnt it be the responsible for the students to find out before they commit themselves to any one program? A graduate program of any kind doesnt come with guarantees of a job.
I dont see unemployed CS guys blaming their college CS programs because they cannot get jobs.

Posted by: Passing_through at October 21, 2003 12:29 AM

"I wonder why these programs should be responsible for informing people about lousy job prospects?"

I'm saying they should take upon themselves the responsibility for ensuring the continuation of their profession as a profession. The basic rules of a guild: if you allow/fail to prevent the use of cheap, contingent labor, you can expect to see a degradation in wages and status.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 21, 2003 12:54 AM

Luis wrote: "You don't ask heart surgeons to do your plumbing, and (flame on!) you don't ask disgruntled humanities grads to bandy about the terms `clinical depression' or `SSRI'."

Actually, there probably are a lot of humanities grads out there who are more than qualified to recognize the onset of depressive symptoms and probably have had an up-front-and-close experiences with ssri's. On the other hand, good that you picked a career with real-job potential outside of academia.

Posted by: Academy Girl at October 21, 2003 12:56 AM

If I can make a point, as a PhD currently lawyering? I wish Lamb luck, and I don't think that going to graduate school is necessarily a waste of time, much less a ticket to suicidal depression (though it can easily become both). If L. has been reading this board and some others, s/he will have realized that not all grad programs are alike, and that s/he should only attend one that (1) gives her money (2) graduates its students in a decent amount of time and (3) has at least a few cheerful souls among its inmates. But I would urge L. to take a couple of years off beforehand, and try something else before grad school, in part to learn a little more about the working world (not all of which is as bad as some posts would suggest) and in part to pick up some real-world skills that sh/e can use if the PhD track does not work out. The danger, as I see it, is that too many people go from undergrad straight to grad school, absorbing along the way a great deal of nonsense about how all non-academics are (1) dumb and (2) trapped in HELLISH jobs. If Lamb instead waits a little, s/he can enter grad school with a more realistic appraisal of the options available, and can be aware that if s/he decides to stay in grad school, it's because s/he wants to, not because the "real world" is too terrible to contemplate; and if s/he decides to leave, s/he won't be stuck without a clue as to what else s/he could do.
BTW, IMHO the best thing written about whether to go to grad school is Tim Burke's short essay, which I think is somewhere on IA's site.

Posted by: hw at October 21, 2003 09:25 AM

Luis: I wasn't issuing a diagnosis; it was a non-professional opinion. Am I allowed to express those?

Chun: Your point about free time is interesting. My problem with my PhD program is that, though it was not as time-consuming as a regular job, by the end of it I realized that I was doing work that I would have had no interest or belief in when I entered the PhD program. The end results of the program was incompatible with my intellectual goals and values. So would I rather work part-time at a book store and do work that I really believed in? You betcha.

Corporate life: this depends on someone's belief sets, obviously, but I don't think there's any comparison between the despair of graduate school and the occasional anomie of corporate life. I've picked those words carefully: despair/anomie.

Posted by: JT at October 21, 2003 09:38 AM

And, as usual, good discussion.

Posted by: JT at October 21, 2003 09:38 AM

"I wonder why these programs should be responsible for informing people about lousy job prospects? Shouldnt it be the responsible for the students to find out before they commit themselves to any one program?"

I think the better way to think about this is as a shared responsibility. The problem with this model, though, is that while some prospective graduate students are considering entering grad. school with their eyes wide open, sadly many are not. And I would urge those who are poised to flame me for what I am saying to NOT underestimate the depths of denial which people on both sides of this equation are capable of. In my experience, many undergrad professors still encourage students to apply and go. And they cast off whatever vague misgivings the students may have about their future prospects with a wave of the hand and 'don't worry about that, the market in the humanities will surely have changed for the better by the time you're finishing'.

And let us not delude. While a 21 or 22 year-old is inded an adult, and a responsible individual, he or she is STILL just 21 or 22, which means they are just starting to find their way in this world. I say this without any condescension: they do not know very much just yet. And they are surely still in a very impressionable phase of their lives.

Is this wrong to say? Sorry, I guess I have crossed over the generational divide. *sigh*

Posted by: Chris at October 21, 2003 09:39 AM

I'm with Kevin---Chun's comments abt corporate life are completely off the mark and they are typical of many academics (whose knowledge of the non-academic world is extremely limited).

As for the references to the cubicle lifestyle, you know, there are a lot of adjuncts whose offices are cubicles (or shared with three dozen other people). Chun, may I suggest that you come up with another phrase as "cubicle lifestyle" can apply to the academic life as well?

HW makes an outstanding point and one which I wish grad schools would take into consideration when accepting students: the best scholars are often those who took time off between their graduate and undergraduate careers. These people are often more committed and their work is often more nuanced (in grad school, I found the most rigid marxists etc. were those who had never actually held real jobs---it's very easy to subscribe to sweeping theories when you are unaware of the complexities of real life). Additionally, while I think it's great that Lamb loves his/her field, I'd like to suggest that he/she try other fields before making a final committment to grad school (would you commit permanently to vanilla ice cream if you had never tried chocolate, raspberry, strawberry, butter pecan etc.?).

Posted by: hana at October 21, 2003 09:41 AM


What's your explanation for the popularity of Dilbert, Office Space, and The Office? Having a laugh at how bad things might be?

I have seen a graduate student warren filled with cubicles, but there are a couple of differences. Your failure to note them is probably attributably to effort justification. The only reason I can imagine you read this blog is that you're a failed academic, and that's fine. I probably will be one as well, and then I'll turn back, wearily, to the outside world. I'm pretty sure I won't be telling myself ten years later about how much better it is on my side, though. To repeat myself, the reason so many people go into graduate school against all odds is that the alternatives are so excruciating. A tenure-track job is, sadly, and to paraphrase Aronowitz, one of the very few good ones left in America.

I personally became a marxist (tendante Richard) after over a year of corporate work (and easy-listening FM), and I should point out that posting here during company time is probably a violation.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 21, 2003 10:34 AM

Chun: I read these blogs b/c I am an historian and a practicing one at that. I found the site b/c I was looking for discussions abt history---oddly enough, as an historian, these discussions are relevant to my work.

I look at the site b/c I am active in the AHA---knowing what historians say (especially a younger generation) is crucial if we are to get the AHA to think broadly and to put historians in more varied work places (in case you haven't noticed there is actually a crisis in academia---not all PhDs in history will find academic positions and I believe that the AHA should help these people find viable options). I get "work credit" if you want to put it that way for my AHA work. My boss (and no, he's not a Dilbert type---he's a PhD himself and a former tenured professor) loves that I am active in the AHA and a smaller history group here. He regards it as a fundamental aspect of my job. And get this! My boss is not a guy with a whip who comes around and demands that I prove to him every minute that my nose is to the grindstone. He actually regards me as a professional and believes that I know what I am doing and that I can be trusted to use my work time in a productive manner...

As for the popularity of Dilbert etc.--I am not saying that everyone in the corporate world is ecstatic (any more than everyone in academia is). I actually think life is much more nuanced than you appear to believe it is. You seem to believe that the corporate world is peopled with faceless and nameless drudges who labor in cubicles while a bunch of fat cats wallow in their luxury penthouse office suites. Life really isn't that simple. I'd also point out that there are many parallels to Dilbert for the academic world (David Lodge, Jon Hassler, Jane Smiley etc. all write the academic version of Dilbert).

Posted by: Hana at October 21, 2003 11:00 AM

Sweepingly determined generalizations all around, I see. Yes, there are those who find corporate jobs worthwhile, or at least worth the economic benefits. Several can be found in close proximity to where I now sit.

But for many of us, this system simply does not work - it is a psychic, emotional, and yes, an economic burden. I perform "actions of unspeakable meaninglessness" daily, which have succeeded in inducing a state of profound despair. My financial and emotional situation is actually much worse than it was during my MA work, and that is why I am returning to grad school.

Chun is, to an extent, correct - the "free time" is worth the (relative) "poverty." Academic life does have constraints, and they can be crushing in a multitude of ways. Those who advocate a corporate life seem not to realize that, if one wishes to pursue a line of research - particularly in the humanities - that the opportunities are radically limited.

If you are bitter that your PhD research didn't conform to the predetermined notion you began with, well, then get out of the way. There are plenty of us who acknowledge the sacrifices one must make, and are willing to undertake them. It may not be pleasant, but it's better than the regulated intellectual annhilation of the corporate world.

Posted by: shkspr at October 21, 2003 11:00 AM

Er...I actually turned down several academic offers to take my current job, a full-time research job with a cubicle as an office. I read this blog because I enjoy IA's articulate views and because after 11 years in the academy I still retain interest in the life, even though I myself decided to leave it.

To say that "professor" is the only decent occupation available is, well, foolish and myopic. Academia offers some nice perks, namely flexible hours and independence, which I still miss in my nonacademic life. But there are plenty of things I don't miss, namely, teaching undergraduates, tenure review, low salary, and having to write my own grants for research resources. Whether academia weighs out over other types of work depends a great deal on your own tastes for independence, flexibility, salary, teaching, and location.

Posted by: Matilde at October 21, 2003 11:17 AM

"The only reason I can imagine you read this blog is that you're a failed academic, and that's fine."

If my reader mail is any indication, a fairly significant proportion of the readers of this blog are tenure-track and tenured academics.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 21, 2003 11:18 AM

Chun: Altho' I realize that responding to your comments is actually silly and rather pointless, I can't help but respond to your comment that I'm a "failed academic" and your belief that a tenure track job is wonderful. Just for the record: I have published in the leading academic journals in my field as well as in the popular press. I've won several awards (as a grad student and a young professor) and yes, I had that coveted tenure-track job. The tenure-track job wasn't very fulfilling as I wanted to work with people whose training (and intellectual outlook) was broad and varied (when, as often happens, I am at a meeting with people who are JDs, MDs and Phds, the discussion is incredibly stimulating---and very different from when I work with PhDs only).

Overall, I am troubled by the assumption that those who leave academia are "failures." This is the bias I want the AHA to address as it is not at all accurate; I know lots of PhDs who aren't academics. They've published books, speak to a range of audiences and generally have good lives.

Posted by: Hana at October 21, 2003 11:21 AM

Hana, who seems to be a great example of the limitless benefits of Coué's principles, rather misunderstands my point. If you've left academia, you are, in some sense at least, a failed academic--much in the same sense a pier is a disappointed bridge. The negative connotations you associate with "failed" are what I assume must spur the tetchiness of these responses, which are rather comically disproportionate to what I've written.

Hana also, undoubtably, describes her work environment accurately, though it sounds like we might have to quibble about the definition of "corporate," but I'm sure she realizes just how exceptionally rare it is--rare even for those with equally glorified accomplishments. Humans, as Marx wrote, have a need to engage in creative and meaningful work. How many corporate jobs would be undertaken for their own value if it weren't for the wage-slavery system? Hana's, maybe, but certainly not the ones I've had.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 21, 2003 12:09 PM

"Fail: 1) to be absent or wanting; to be insufficient; to lose power or strength; to prove deficient on trial, to be wanting at need"
---The Oxford English Dictionary

A pier does not aspire to be a bridge but rather to be a pier. Why judge it by aspirations which are not of its own making?

The salary is great in my job (yet another reason I left academia) but there are very few people who can and would do their jobs without pay. In fact, the emphasis that so many people put on free time would seem to indicate that, given their druthers, many academics (and possibly other people as well) would prefer to have no job---as it would enable them to pursue their own specific interests fulltime (I don't know any academics who would grade papers for free; would you?).

Posted by: Hana at October 21, 2003 12:27 PM

I'd recommend Ulysses for your own free time.

Speaking of which, I'd like to turn this thread into a comment on which books make you failures for failing to have read. The aforementioned is one example. Others? Anything by Alexander of Aphrodisias would suggest itself, naturally.

Coincidentally, I'm also writing my dissertation on Hamlet without having read either the play or any first-order critical works. All of my sources are at least two orders removed from the "author"'s "text."

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 21, 2003 12:50 PM

Dear Lamb (remember him/her everyone?),

I am new to this posting deal, but have been following this blog for a couple weeks...

I hope that the above posts have had you smiling as much as they have me...

Take it from someone with thirteen years continuous college teaching experience in Biology (all by my choice adjunct thus far, mixed in with raising two kids and three year stints as each a military officer and a corporate drug company QA reviewer with a cubicle)...

Go where you are happy. Yes, sometimes even what makes you happy will make you miserable (every parent knows that!). But, if you do what you love, there will be more moments that make life worth it.

As you appear to have researched, there are good grad programs and not so good. I, myself, have no PhD - I have 2 Masters.

During my second Masters I had the wonderful good fortune to link up with a graduate advisor/mentor who recognized my love of teaching and my desire to maintain my corporate "employability" and supported my decision to quit my approved PhD track work 2 and a half years into it, and opt for the MS degree (in addition to the MEd I already had).

Now, most academics would throw tomatoes at this "failure", and even my department chairman essentially disowned me as "unserious".

Yet, Lamb, from my own experience in academia I urge you to go to grad school, if that is where you truly want to be.


1. Grad school is a mental challenge. There are not many other places you can "push the envelope" of what your brain can accomplish, in a field that interests you. You sound like you want to LEARN... hoorah!!

2. Grad school can (if you let it) open doors to other possibilities. Corporate work pays better than academic work. Based on my own experience you can work corporate during the day and teach a course or two at night. Of course, this would be an option more for those desiring the paycheck AND the stimulation of interacting with students.

However, if your goal is to live the academic "life" and immerse yourself in books (my personal heaven...). Then, why not also diversify? While I hesitate to recommend the Chronicle's "Library career fair" articles this past week... it's not such a bad route. And, it's how I personally worked my way through college.

So, in conclusion to my ramblings, Lamb - do what you love. Just don't do it like an ostrich. Keep your eyes and options open during your journey.


Posted by: Ellie at October 21, 2003 01:50 PM

Chun certainly *does* manage to make himself unavoidable, eh?

Posted by: Kevin Walzer at October 21, 2003 01:52 PM

For the record, I'm not clinically depressed, just trying to be realistic. In ANY field, you advance to a certain level, and then (whether because of politics, lack of adequate available positions, bad luck, incompetence, or whatever) you wind up unable to advance further. Particularly in academia, the moment when you can no longer advance - when you realize, for instance, that you have to compromise your ambitions and take a non-tenure-track job or even leave academia altogether - is necessarily perceived as a personal failure. This is true in the "real" world as well - bright, ambitious people in every industry will always experience a moment of recognition of the mismatch between their percieved capabilities and their actual job responsibilities. (OK, maybe a very few very lucky people find an absolutely perfect job, but this isn't something I'm counting on happening for me).

Posted by: Lamb at October 21, 2003 01:59 PM

BTW, thanks for all the advice and coments! I'm sorry to come off as a ranter, it's just that, after reading through all of the posts on "naive" grad students, I felt I had to justify those of us who really do think we know what we're doing.

Posted by: Lamb at October 21, 2003 02:02 PM

Kevin: Reading Chun's posts, I can't help but be reminded of one of my father's favorite sayings: the smaller the stakes, the bigger the fight; the bigger the fight, the smaller the people. A preference for attacking people and making sweeping generalizations doesn't always further the discussion.

Posted by: Hana at October 21, 2003 02:10 PM


I guess your father is either Henry Kissinger or likes to quote him. And some might regard your comments about corporate jobs not being intensely misery-inducing as itself something of a sweeping generalization.

A further note: it shows a very sensitive ego if you believe that I was attacking you by saying that you were a failed academic. People fail in things all the time; it's the freedom to fail that makes this country so damn great. I've failed in my ambition to be the world's best ping-pong player, for instance. Failure is nothing to be ashamed of.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 21, 2003 02:49 PM

Thanks for your comments. And just for the record, I don't think you sound clinically depressed.

"In ANY field, you advance to a certain level, and then (whether because of politics, lack of adequate available positions, bad luck, incompetence, or whatever) you wind up unable to advance further."

Sure, disappointment is not peculiar to the academy. But I actually don't believe that most postgraduate/professional schools run on the assumption that unemployment/underemployment for a significant proportion of graduates is an okay thing.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 21, 2003 02:51 PM

"I am not saying that people in the corporate world are all ecstatic." Can you read, Chun? B/c I think that you read these posts and then go off on one of your tirades regardless of what the poster says. I like this blog b/c I think the discussions are interesting but you are definitely annoying, simplistic, arrogant (a charge you level at everyone) and...fundamentally...not very bright or open-minded as you seem incapable of reading and understanding nuanced interpretations.

Posted by: Hana at October 21, 2003 03:04 PM

As a lapsed humanities student, now a tenured academic a dozen years out of a science PhD, I find this whole discussion extremely discouraging. Yes, the job market is bad. Yes, it is possible to be badly exploited as a graduate student. Yes, it is important to enter graduate school with your eyes open and to realize that luck and political skills are both at least as important as expertise in your discipline, and much more important than your ability to actually teach.

But many of my college friends took the humanities or arts tracks into graduate school and came out the other end well adjusted and well employed. Some are now tenured academics. Some are in related fields (like publishing). Some have gone in other directions completely. Pretty similar to my friends in the sciences, in fact.

The academic world can be an unfair, heartless place with unreasonable expectations and unreasonable salaries, and it can be a wonderful, supportive environment surrounded by interesting students and colleagues and interesting opportunities. Sort of like the real world. I would definitely encourage my daughter to pursue a PhD, if that is her interest -- but I would also be damned sure that she understood that "success" in academia isn't guaranteed by the quality of her efforts. If you want a safe career path, do what my twin did and become a surgeon. Great career if you want to spend your life looking at the inside of a parade of knees and hips....

Posted by: the astronomer at October 21, 2003 03:07 PM

Chun does make one thing "unavoidable." I have yet to see any deep analysis of why people continue to work toward graduate degrees, especially in fields where there is an oversupply. I just can't buy the "because I love the work I do" simplistic answer yet again. Why IS the academic career so darn attractive despite the odds? I think Chun is on to something. There is a mystique about higher education. Even if one is an underemployed, burned-out adjunct, they still would claim that they were more intellectual than a fully-employed electrician or plumber. It's the old bohemian-romance-of-poverty thing. Problem is, the "fun" wears off when you hit 30. I'm not trying to be offensive; I'm just curious why there is this level of clinging to an academic lifestyle when one's chances of seeing it are nil.

Posted by: at October 21, 2003 04:08 PM

"There is a mystique about higher education. Even if one is an under-employed burned-out adjunct, they still claim that they were more intellectual than a fully employed electrician or plumber." Or lawyer...or physician...or policy analyst...or speechwriter...or novelist...or journalist.

It's funny; I find this view is most pervasive among academics who went directly to grad school from undergrad. I think that this tendency can be addressed by encouraging more undergraduates to take time off between graduate and undergraduate school, as HW suggested. One of the reasons I was able to leave academia (and why I find Chun's comment that this is evidence of "failure" [however he/she chooses to define this] so silly and fundamentally rather sad) is b/c I knew that I would meet many widely read, deeply curious people outside of academia. My years in between grad school and undergrad exposed me to people who had a passion for history which equalled and sometimes surpassed that of the people I met in graduate school. Too often, bright undergraduates are told (directly and/or indirectly) that there is no intellectual life outside of the university and they rush into grad school b/c they love and are passionate about a subject.

This summer, my boyfriend (a lawyer) and I befriended an intern in his office. This was a 22 year old who was abt to embark on his first year as a Rhodes Scholar. Noah (not his real name) was passionate about philosophy and told us how the only intellectual future he could envision for himself was that of an academic. Noah's only experience is within the university. Ironically, he waxed enthusiastic repeatedly over my boyfriend's knowledge and understanding of philosophy (he has a master's in a related field)---he repeatedly said that Jake pushed him to view and question things in ways that his professors didn't. Yet, Noah remained incapable of seeing that Jake isn't an academic and that he has a fulfilling intellectual life. When I told Noah that my sister, a Rhodes Scholar from 1979, had decided not to enter academia despite her love for history, Noah was deeply dismissive of my sister (how intellectual could she be?). Ironically, my sister has retained her passion for history while I have had to struggle to maintain that passion while I was in academia. For my sister, history is pure---untainted by ugly debates with colleagues who launch vicious personal attacks at conferences etc. She reads widely and often, to my irritation, steals my books.

Posted by: Hana at October 21, 2003 04:32 PM

We too often wear the Academy as a badge of honor. Graduate school is a long, often obscene hazing ritual, and we'll be damned if we will be cheated out of that feeling of accomplishment-slash-superiority. _That's_ what "Noah" is feeling, and that's how I used to feel - and, truth be told, how I still do. The Kool-aid is a powerful force, indeed.

I have seen independent researchers mocked and derided, even - and especially - within the confines of a major research library. After all, they're not in the club, and damn if we're going to let them sneak in the back door...

Posted by: shkspr at October 21, 2003 04:48 PM

"For the record, I'm not clinically depressed, just trying to be realistic. "

Lamb -- I'm the one who called you possibly clinically depressed so I apologize and I'm happy you're not. But your comment that adult life is about failure and compromise is... so monochromatic. Everyone fails at things and everyone has to compromise. But that doesn't mean life is some unhappy experience which can be thrown away in an endeavor that is bound to be a failure.

Let's take an example: a young man says all adult life is about failure and compromise and knocks over a convenience store and shoots a clerk. Is the life they spend in prison an adequate alternative to life as a free man since all adulthood is about failure and compromise? I'd say not. You're presentation of the idea is exactly analogous.

Posted by: JT at October 21, 2003 04:52 PM

Yes, alas, I think you are right, shkspr, but I think that if more academics stepped outside of the academic world, they would see how short-sighted this kind of thinking is.

A few weeks ago, I was at a dinner party where someone refered to me as an academic. I hotly denied the charge---much to the amazement of everyone (while Chun has caused me to be very angry, I'm generally a pretty mild-manner person). All of the people at the table (lawyers, psychiatrists, lobbyists, and librarians) could not fathom why I reacted with such anger (even Jake, who knows all the ins and outs of this---he has a brother with a PhD who left academia as well). Anyway, for everyone at the table, my job which requires me to do highly specialized research (no non-PhDs can apply) does not differ fundamentally from the work which they see professors doing. Repeatedly they asked me "what is the difference between what you do and what academics do?" The truth is the people most inclined to split hairs over this distinction are academics. Non-academics, including PhDs who left academia, usually don't care that much abt these minor distinctions (I must confess that my anger at that dinner was caused by my having been to a conference in which I dealt with all too many Chuns who sneer at the PhD who makes the unconventional choice and leaves academia---if being an academic means having contempt for those outside of academia, I absolutely do not want to have any link, however tenuous, with academia). I read scholarly articles in my field and I make no distinctions between those written by professors and those written by scholars outside of academia. And just to contextualize this: the people at the dinner table were, at one time, those bright undergraduates (Amherst, Georgetown, UCLA, Brown, Hopkins and U/Penn) who contemplated going to grad school.

Posted by: Hana at October 21, 2003 05:10 PM

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Because he was told he was an academic failure.

Why did he cross back?

Because he realized there was no such thing.

What is an academic failure? You could measure that in so many different ways, it's not even funny. Not publishing? Being a bad teacher? Working at a junior college? Not working at a college? Working at a college and stifling any ounce of creativity out of students? The list could go on. It seems to me that success has more to do with personal goals than with what people in the academy think makes a person successful.

That being said, there still are horrid problems in the academy that I think should make grad students think twice before trying to make a career there. With the number of replies that have posted here, people obviously feel very strongly about this issue.

Posted by: Academy Girl at October 21, 2003 06:01 PM

The only explanation for Hana's anger here I can find is that I've somehow hit a nerve (or she inherited the Kissingerian vanity and temper). You'll notice that I never said anything about scholarship having to be done inside the academia or people who leave academia being deserving of scorn. I merely made the uncontroversial observation that many people find academic jobs to be better than alternatives and are willing to endure long odds in order to try to get one. Equally uncontroversial is that it's a structural feature of capitalism that most people have to spend their lives performing tasks of meaningless drudgery.

The word "failure" might make people angry, but I think that's because of our "Lake Wobegone" culture where everyone has to feel that he is exceptional in some way. Hana, you'll note, was quick to point out that she had the tt job, etc., because in her mind anyone who did leave academia without one would have the "failure" taint she mostly certainly does not possess.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 21, 2003 06:13 PM


Please don't think I'm not condoning convenience-store violence! I obviously haven't been very clear - I'm sorry if you got the wrong idea. Let me re-phrase. Adult life is about adjusting your expectations to reality (or in other, frequently needlepointed words, adult life is about learning to change the aspects of your life that you can, and accept those that you can't.) You said,

"Everyone fails at things and everyone has to compromise. But that doesn't mean life is some unhappy experience which can be thrown away in an endeavor that is bound to be a failure."

I think what’s causing all the confusion is my (mis)use of the word “failure”. For me, failure is a stage of life that everyone passes through, a stage when goals and ideals are reassessed in terms of real-life experience. Failure does not imply that your life has been a waste. It doesn't mean you should go throw yourself under a train. It doesn’t even mean you should be unhappy or bitter about the ambitions that didn’t pan out. It just means that you should quietly accept that despite your best efforts, you will probably never attain the degree of success of which you feel yourself capable. And it means you should reassess what “success” means to you (like Academy Girl said).

We all know, that, in reality, its very unlikely that we’ll publish the first consolidated grand unified theory of everything, or write the great American sonnet, or discover that Hamlet’s soliloquy, read aloud onto tape and then played backwards, secretly reads “Marx is dead”. Does that mean we should all stop trying? IMHO, no. (OK, maybe I should stop trying the Hamlet thing....) Adult life is about tempering ideals with reality. It’s about balancing what you want to do and what you need to do. Maybe it means leaving academia and explicating Ulysses on your lunch-breaks from the insurance firm. Maybe it means working for a community college and focusing on teaching rather than research. Maybe it means going to gradschool for a few years, and then dropping out when pregnancy or unforeseen expenses necessitate getting a real job. For me, it means enrolling in graduate school knowing that I will probably eventually have to take a non-academic or non-tenure-track position.

I don’t think that these are worthless or unimportant choices, and I don’t think that the people who make these choices lead worthless lives. Of course, at the moment you first make the compromise, it feels like failure. To snobby academics, it looks like failure. But, in my pop-philosophical opinion, its the first step to constructing a meaningful life.

Posted by: Lamb at October 21, 2003 08:05 PM

Q: What do Charles Ives, Wallace Stevens and Benjamin Whorf have in common.

A. They were insurance company executives.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 21, 2003 08:28 PM

I just wanted to raise one tiny quibble about something that was said earlier -- "The danger, as I see it, is that too many people go from undergrad straight to grad school, absorbing along the way a great deal of nonsense about how all non-academics are (1) dumb and (2) trapped in HELLISH jobs."

I agree with the larger point -- that students need to get a bigger sense of the world and their place within it and of the other people who inhabit it. However, considering the character of many entry-level jobs these days (overwhelmingly adminstrative, from my current job-hunting perspective) I'm not so sure that simply taking a year off from school will serve to counteract points I and II. It really depends on the sort of job you can get.

For example: my volunteer work at a local museum is enriching, fun and filled with lively intelligent people. Score one for the idea that outside work reveals there's more to life than academia.

On the other hand, my _paid_ work as a temp has been tiring, dreary, boring and far below my abilities. The people I work with are friendly, yes, and good co-workers in that sense, but few of them show any ambition nor -- and I hesitate to say this, because I know it will sound arrogant, but it is true -- are most of them very bright. (Either that or they are terribly uneducated -- this is a group of people who can have a 15 minute conversation on whether Alaska and Hawaii are states or not.)

I will admit, however, that even this unrewarding environment does not make me wish to return to the academic job market. I may be a peon, but at least no one feels compelled to point this out. They're simply happy if I show up on time and don't cause any major screw ups.

There's no future in jobs like this, though.

Posted by: Rana at October 21, 2003 08:50 PM

Chun: "The only explanation for Hana's anger here I can find is that I've somehow hit a nerve ..."

I'd say you haven't looked very hard. Or (more likely) you were deliberately searching for a nerve to hit. I suppose that's one way to carry on a conversation, but it's not one I find especially useful or attractive (however reasonable some of the underlying claims might be).

Posted by: random polisci guy at October 22, 2003 01:53 AM

Yes, Chun, you hit a nerve. No big surprise but I would say that 99% of people dislike being called a failure in view of its definition in the OED.

I am also irritated abt this b/c I see in your posts a bizarre tendency toward sweeping statements and assumptions abt people and their views based on very little knowledge. I don't think that's good scholarship.

I am also irritated b/c I think it is people like you who perpetuate this idea that academia is the only place where one can find intellectual passion etc. I am drawing this conclusion from your comments that corporate life is demeaning etc., specifically your comment that people in "cubicle jobs...are managed by others while performing jobs of unspeakable meaninglessness." Oddly enough, many of the people who do this work do not regard it in this fashion---your contempt for these people as well as your ranting tells people like Lamb that if they really want to make something of their lives they must do so outside of the corporate world---i.e. in academia. I find this disturbing b/c it is people like you who indirectly encourage people to go to grad school and who, by your sneering contempt, persuade others that they are failures if they contemplate a world outside of academia (I know many academics who contemplate leaving but are constrained by their colleagues who know little of the non-academic world but who still loudly trumpet "Leaving academia will only result in failure, misery etc." I delayed my decision to leave academia b/c I was surrounded by people like this---who believed that teaching marginally literate students at a very mediocre undergraduate college was preferable to "death by cubicle." Most of these people were not very well-read outside of their own fields, they had lost their passion for their subject and they complained endlessly and bitterly abt their students and the administration. No one, however, was prepared to do the unconventional thing---b/c, as everyone said, "leaving academia denotes failure."

Perhaps I am being unfair to you b/c I am linking you with the many people I encountered in academia. If so, I genuinely do apologize but being told casually as I have been by you that I am a failure and that I perform a job of "unspeakable meaninglessness" (which cracks me up---I work for a large and VERY famous corporate think tank whose primary client is the federal government---we actually shape your life on a daily basis) is, to put it mildly, quite irritating.

Posted by: Hana at October 22, 2003 08:58 AM

Lamb: Great response. It sounds like you've thought very clearly about the situation. I salute you and wish you the best.

Posted by: JT at October 22, 2003 09:20 AM

Chun writes that "performing tasks of meaningless drudgery"

What does "meaningless" mean? There's an ideological angle to it. Personally, I believe strongly in global capitalism and I believe my work advancing it is a plus for humanity, so that's not meaningless. But if the point is that each one of us is a small cog in a vast machine, then that's accurate. I remember as a grad student thinking that my particular work was important to civilization. That egocentricism has disappeared (good riddance!), but I am very aware that many academics, mostly male ones I should add, have it in spades. Chun's comment seems to reveal something of that egocentricism.

Posted by: JT at October 22, 2003 09:29 AM

Lamb: I always think of the different turning points in my life as learning opportunities or forced transition points which lead to new (sometimes interesting/sometimes not) paths, not failures. Life really is a journey which you cannot predicate and many of its strange or forced turns actually turn out to be the most interesting parts. I think of my life as a success---I don't regret being in academia (altho' I sometimes wish I had left it after my second, not fourth, year of teaching) and I definitely don't regret leaving academia. I hope that you find pleasure and opportunity in the paths which you take---that is success, I think!

Posted by: hana at October 22, 2003 09:51 AM

Apropos of the idea of failure in the context of finding an academic job, I have a post about this very subject at my blog. Here is the URL for anyone interested:


Posted by: Kevin Walzer at October 22, 2003 10:05 AM

If I read the previous posts correctly -- and I only have a short break here at my meaningless (and thankfully temporary) corporate job, so a quick scan is all I can manage -- Hana possesses a PhD (in History or a related field) and works for a large think tank. That's great - in fact, it is exactly the type of job that should be included in career counseling for graduate students (you know, the kind of counseling that, at this point, is non-existent in a vast majority of graduate programs).

However, this is not a typical corporate job - at least not the kind that Chun is speaking of. How many positions are available at such corporate institutions? I would venture to say that this type of career fulfillment is the exception, and only applies to certain disciplines. Unless, of course, your company has a position for "full-time sonnet-reader and researcher of bibliographical minutiae of the late 16th-century." If so, sign me up. If not, well, then I suppose I'll just have to take my chances in a PhD program, where a $12,000 stipend (if one of the chosen ones) is exactly $12,000 more than any other institution is going to pay me to do what I choose to do.

Of course, there are career options available outside academia. But such options require compromises more severe than those found within the Academy. You will face a certain amount of derision if you are an independent scholar, not to mention an acute lack of funds and institutional support. You will need great discipline to undertake a line of research that may be outside the confines of a non-academic job. The emotional energy alone required to do this is enormous - something I can attest to, since my brain is so dulled after a day of "work" that my current level of intellectual engagement consists of watching Jeopardy with my cat.

Academia may not be a great option, but often it is the only one. I don't like the current situation, but since it is unlikely to change in the next few months, I'll take my chances. Will graduate school and the ensuing job hunt crush my soul and leave my psyche a shell of its former self? Perhaps. But at least I will have received a good 5 years of health insurance, with the added benefit that my job description included the phrase "sonnet reader."

Posted by: at October 22, 2003 12:20 PM

Sorry, that last post was me, "shkspr"

Posted by: shkspr at October 22, 2003 12:21 PM

I have a question for those who work for think tanks. How did you make that transition?

Posted by: Annah at October 22, 2003 01:54 PM

No, you could argue that my job is not a typical corporate job (I am not sure there is a typical corporate job). However, before I went to work at my current job, I briefly worked for Sprint (a large soul-less corporate group). I found pleasure in my Sprint job b/c, altho' Chun has told me it was meaningless, I felt I was delivering a valued product (I spent years living away from my family and I relied on Sprint very much).

The AHA's forthcoming report on graduate education sharply condemns graduate schools for buying into the belief that academia is the only available option for PhDs. As an historian, I am troubled by this. But when I read the recent poster's comment that companies need to look for "researchers in sonnets" etc. if they are to accept applications from PhDs, I am even more troubled. Yesterday, I had lunch with a friend, an historian who left academia and who works for the government. She lamented the tendency of graduate schools to produce narrowly defined specialists and to teach these specialists that their skills have no meaning outside of their narrow fields. I know literally tons of PhDs (in all different fields) who work happily outside of academia. These people pitched themselves as analysts. I am surrounded by corporate think tanks and government agencies (the federal govt is, I believe, the single largest employer of PhDs). I know classics PhDs who work for the Defense Department (the British have always hired classicists to work for MI6---the American govt is less likely to trumpet this but they do the same thing); I know historians who work for senators as researchers; I know a German lit PhD who works for a German-American businesses (and spends more time in Germany, which he loves, than his academic colleagues) and I know an archeologist (Near Eastern Studies guy from Penn) who works for a law firm as a reseacher. When I began looking for my job, I was convinced as was the previous poster that jobs like my current one were few and far between. This is not so: I wound up with several interviews and three job offers (two outside of DC; pretty amazing as it enabled me to negotiate a great salary). Here I may sound very harsh but I am going to say it anyway: simply b/c you are ignorant of the choices and opportunities, do not think that that means that they do not exist. Where I fault graduate education (and why I am working to try to get the AHA to think broadly) is in its a) tendency to teach grad students that they can find satisfying work only in academia b) their failure to help graduate students re-write theiur CVs (a friend of mine who wants to leave academia sent me her CV to read---I told her that fundamentally no employer will care abt her dissertation title; they will, however, be impressed by her completing a major research project [aka a dissertation] and c) by the tendency of grad schools and the academic culture to teach everyone who considers a life outside of academia that they are failures.

The academic lifestyle can be pleasurable for some but it has some very real problems---as many problems as those which characterize non-academic jobs. B/c I have been accused of being a failure for opting out of one, I want to explain why I left and a factor which people may want to bear in mind when thinking abt academic vs. coprporate jobs. In December, 1997, my 37 husband was killed in a car accident. I had not been 100% happy in academia before this but now I found the academic culture extremely and incredibly isolating (a factor I had disliked before Charlie's death). No one in American society knows how to deal with a 34 year old widow. My academic colleagues all ignored me---I can understand this; death is extremely embarrassing. But I wanted, more than anything else, to lose myself in work, to be forced to have daily work discussions with my academic colleagues (who had always scurried into their offices and shut the door long before Charlie's death). Academia is so incredibly isolating. I'd a thousand times rather than have a stupid meaningless work converstation than find myself, as I did while in academia, spending days literally not talking to anyone outside of my students and the clerk at the grocery store.

This aspect of academic life is rarely discussed but it made me want to leave academia. When I decided to leave, my academic colleagues told me I was wrong to contemplate leaving. Implicit in their comments was the belief that I would fail to find happiness outside of academia. I felt guilty b/c I felt I was disappointing my advisors, letting down everyone who had given me awards or fellowships etc. And, yes, I did encounter a few idiots at conferences etc. who told me I must be a failure if I contemplated leaving (they didn't know my full story but I will admit that, even without Charlie's death, I would have wanted out). When I read Chun's posts, I reacted angrily b/c I am concerned that there are other Hana's out there. Their stories are undoubtedly different but their unhappiness is probably very real. Being told that you are a failure does not further the discussion (and I'll be frank and say I spent a lot of time in therapy worrying that I was a failure as a wife---I should have prevented the accident; completely irrational but there it is---worrying that I was a failure b/c I was deeply unhappy in my job and worrying that I was a failure even as a widow b/c this last year I started dating someone). Do not EVER allow others to define you. If you are unhappy in academia, there are alternatives. Life is complex; the one lesson I have learned is that it entails choices.

In response to the question of how one finds work in a think tank: begin by doing informational interviews; speak to people at the places where you want to work and ask them for advice. Buy the book What Color is Your Parachute. It will help you to learn how to do informational interviews and how to find lots of options.

Posted by: Hana at October 23, 2003 09:01 AM

The point I was trying to make earlier, which now is not that important as the conversation has taken a different direction, was missed. What I was trying to portray, perhaps too vividly, is the disjunction between what we studied and perhaps aspired (and expected?) to be doing as scholars and college professors, over against what we often in fact find ourselves doing on a daily basis. The distance between trying to explain to a student why opening sentences such as the ones I cited are unacceptable, and, say, the complicated vagaries of Joyce's Ulysses are, at the very least, daunting. And I don't think I am bursting any bubbles when I say that I highly doubt that the critical mass of students whose writing and communication skills border on illiterate are ever going to get to Ulysses.

My point: teaching freshman composition is a job not unlike the non-academic jobs people here describe. It pays the bills. I earn a more or less low-grade professional salary by doing it. On some days (a few) it can be rewarding; on many other days it just "is"; and often it can suck. I confess that it provides little in the way of the intellectual, spiritual, or moral reward that some of the more romantic posters here describe. On a day to day basis it's just a job and you simply grind it out, try to do your best. You fail, succeed, and fall somewhere in the middle of these alternately. You try to keep your sanity, try not to let some of what passes for thought and "good writing" not get to you, try to get the students to an appropriate level of critical literacy, and then breathe a sigh of relief that it is Friday and the weekend has arrived.

This is largely how my friends who work in various non-academic corporate and adminsitrative jobs describe their work and days. And like them, I get to read and think about Ulysses -- or insert your text of choice -- on my "off" time.

Most of my friends do point out that my job does have one benefit that their's does not. And that is that I get a month off at Christmas, and 3 1/2 months off in the Summer.

In this brave-new-world of adjunctification and Mass-Market-U. this, rathe than days filled with inspired lectures and heated discussions on Hamlet and Ulysses, is the more likely work scenario for the majority of English Ph.D.'s.

(ironically, a good friend who is a historian has it a bit better than I do: even though he is teaching large surveys of "global history," he at least gets to deal with content, whereas I try to explain what's wrong with sentences like 'in this essay Wendy present her personal theory with what's wrong in America today with television'.)

Posted by: Chris at October 23, 2003 09:34 AM

Chris: Thanks for a great and thoughtful post. I want to say tho' that the grass isn't always greener. As an historian, I hated world history! I found it had very little content---it's so broad that the textbooks wind up saying silly and very simplistic things (kind of like the worst student writing). I think your point that some posters have romanticized academia is excellent and very much on target. I found myself spending most of my time grading poorly written student papers (and when I corrected my students' writing, I was constantly reminded that "this isn't an English class!"). I drifted farther and farther away from what I had envisioned an academic career to be. I read Dorothy Sayer's Gaudy Night in high school and I spent my years in academia looking for the world in which Harriet Vane lives. I failed to find that world and I really don't think it exists outside of fiction. This, compounded by the very serious issues in my personal life, made academia impossible for me. I worry that many peopeople have these fantasies and that they will face years of disappointment searching for Harriet Vane's Oxford. Please, everyone and Lamb especially, think broadly and realistically about the world of academia as well as the world outside of academia.

Posted by: Hana at October 23, 2003 12:02 PM

One final comment: I am sure that I have embarrassed a lot of people by mentioning Charlie's death. Death is the great taboo in our society and it really embarrasses most people. I genuinely apologize if I have embarrassed people or made them reluctant to disagree with me. I've spent the last few days wondering (esp. at 3AM!) whether I should explain to Chun why I found his comment that I was a failure so incredibly upsetting. Most of the time I told myself not to---but I decided to do so b/c I want the Chuns of the world to understand that life is complex. A blog is a great place to say and do anything but sweeping personal attacks aren't right (and I was wrong in attacking Chun). I think academia, esp. in the last 30 years, has emphasized sweeping theories (esp. in lit but also history). As a scholar, I find the theories interesting and intellectually exciting but they are not applicable to real life which is complicated and messy. There are no simple categories of analysis (my primary way of identifying myself is completely alien to most theorists). I assume that the people in this site who tend toward sweeping theories are young and/or haven't experienced something which makes them question their assumptions. I envy you that ability but I don't think it should enable you to attack others and castigate them as failures, successes or whatever.

Posted by: Hana at October 23, 2003 12:21 PM

Hana: my condolences on Charlie's death. It's one of my worst nightmares that my wife drives off, crashes and never returns. I'm very sorry.

Posted by: JT at October 23, 2003 01:44 PM

Hana -

I don't think you should be sorry for mentioning the death of your husband, Charlie. When I read that, I felt very sorry about what happened to him and to you. At the same time, I find your point about academia to be very valuable -- when we have people close to us who are supportive, academia might be more tolerable; however, if those people are no longer there, then the isolation common to academic jobs can become acute and overwhelming.

I think your job at the think take sounds very cool.

Posted by: Academy Girl at October 23, 2003 09:15 PM

Absolutely no need to apologize for mentioning your husband Charlie's death. I can only imagine (but can well believe) the sense of isolation of which you speak.

I am sometimes amazed when people persist in citing sex as the great taboo in our society (hello? what aspect haven't we covered? what's left to say?). You are right that it is death that is the great taboo.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 23, 2003 09:32 PM

--quoting ...

choose to spend six years of my life pursuing something that I love (yes, even if by the end I will no longer love it, even if it will crush my ego and leave me a bitter, suicidal wreck, even if it will trap me in a cycle of self-loathing, poverty and fear). You can argue that my choice is moronic or masochistic, but please respect that it is, in fact, a choice.

=== end of quote

Well, this reminds me of when my sister-in-law said "just because I choose to attempt to cook a turkey at 450 degrees and without stuffing, everyone should respect it as my choice"

I think the proper word is "recognize" and that the writer actually gave a good reason why there is less respect.

Posted by: Anon Again at October 24, 2003 12:32 AM

Yoohoo! Anyone still awake? Since I can't sleep and have been reading this very long discussion instead, I thought I'd add a few thoughts. I'm a tenured professor in the humanities, and I wanted to address what Hana refers to as the problem of isolation in academia -- all those colleagues with shut doors, etc. Keeping in mind also the very good question another person on this list asked -- Why the hell is academia, despite everything, so attractive??? -- I'd suggest the following as a small part of the answer. A lot of academics (particularly in the humanities) love precisely the quiet separation from the world of organizations and institutions that some academic jobs offer. We enjoy teaching; we enjoy occasional conversations with our colleagues. But we enjoy more than anything else the essentially autonomous, reflective, even withdrawn aspect of our lives. Things are set up (or they're supposed to be) to encourage us to think, and to think for ourselves. I've always thought that academics who do nothing but conference hop (as in David Lodge novels) are displaced politicians, or at the very least university administrators. And nothing wrong with that! Politicians, administrators, corporate attorneys - I have none of the trouble some academics do with that world - I have admiration for people who can interact easily all day with other people. I don't think they're weird or lacking because they want to be in groups, in corporate settings, and I hope they don't think I'm weird because I prefer solitude.

Posted by: aloysius at October 24, 2003 03:13 AM

Just a quick note and thanks to the people who responded.

JT: I know this doesn't help but since I found your comment abt your worrying abt your wife so directly relevant to a part of my life, I wanted to respond. I panic all the time when I call my mom or anyone and they don't respond b/c I am convinced that the worst has happened. I'm still struggling to find a way of dealing with this---my mom and Jake keep telling me that more than 99.9999999999% of the time our worst fears are not realized and you have to go with that, rather than remembering the one (in a billion times) that your worst fears did occur. I hope that this helps when you worry abt your wife.

And thanks again to everyone.

Posted by: Hana at October 24, 2003 08:48 AM

Hana: I can very well understand your panic. The more I thought about your post, the more I could empathize (as opposed to sympathize, since I felt that already). When I quit academia, I was going through a similar, if much less serious, personal upset and I found the sense of isolation overpowering and upsetting. It's one of the worst environments in which to overcome a loss.

And you're right about death in America. It's one of those taboo subjects that we should probably all think about more. I'll listen to a Bach cantata over the weekend -- there's a culture in which the idea of death is integrated.

Posted by: JT at October 24, 2003 09:13 AM

I realize I unintentionally forced a derailment of what could and should be an interesting discussion and I wanted to bring the conversation back to one of the points which was raised (okay, by me!). This is the issue of what academics can do with their degrees---if they do not want to become academics. When I read the blog, I am struck by shskpr's point abt independent scholars and the contempt most academics have for those outside of academia. I think we are taught to have that contempt in grad school---I certainly saw and shared that contempt when I was in grad school (I really never imagined a life outside of academia the whole time I was in graduate school).

My question and concern: why are academics taught to have this contempt? Do they learn it from their professors? And how can it be changed? The reason I raise these questions is b/c I know what the forthcoming AHA report says (it should come out in '04)---which is that grad schools fail to provide students with an understanding that there are lots of options. I haven't read the report yet (just discussed it with some of the people who wrote it) and so I don't know if they assign blame to a specific entity for this. Here are my concerns and questions as regards this issue: why don't academic organizations like the AHA, MLA etc. teach their students how to use their degrees in many ways (while also cutting back on the number of people who get these degrees)? Fundamentally---and this is a big question I have---why don't people in academia (whether we are talking grad advisors or professional organizations) encourage more people to use their degrees in the public sphere? I am still new enough to DC to be tremendously excited when I am talking with a senator or VIP and am able to use my training to influence policy (alas, this is not easy under this regime). I think this is a great use of my training; I liked publishing articles in scholarly journals and having my mom send them to everyone she knew (yeah, she even sent them to some European relatives whose command of English---much less the academic jargon common to most academic journals---is shaky at best). I think those articles were probably read by 54 people tops. Why don't more grad students feel and why aren't they told that using their degrees in the public sphere can be really thrilling?

Knowing that many PhDs will NOT find employment within the academy (it's revealing that Lamb knows this as she/he contemplates grad school), shouldn't we push the AHA, MLA etc. to help find good alternatives and ones which can help our culture (I know I am a naive historian but I really feel if more politicians listened to historians, things would be a wee bit different)? My friend, the govt historian, tells me that the AHA will never change and address this issue but I hope that her pessimistic take is wrong.

Posted by: Hana at October 24, 2003 02:52 PM

I think this business of getting PhDs to see the value of their training in the broader context of American society is linked to the discussion on the other blog---the question of why so few people major in history. If there were more historians working with politicians, appearing as the talking head on television etc. wouldn't more Americans see the value of a training in the humanities?

When I look at what the AHA does (glorify academic positions and ignore all other possibilities for historians), I cannot help but believe that we are making our own profession irrelevant. We never show people history in action just history in theory (the classroom).

Posted by: Hana at October 24, 2003 04:27 PM

Hana: Death may have been embarrassing to your colleagues, but it's not embarrassing in itself, and I'm sorry that you should have ever been made to feel that way. I think you were actually very brave in sharing that, and you have my sincere condolences for the loss of your husband.

Nice to see that Chun the Unemployable hasn't shown up in this thread lately. Moving on...

Contempt for the non-academic life seems to me to be more or less endemic to academia, but the degree to which it gets expressed really depends on where you find yourself. I attend a practice-oriented graduate school of psychology, where the assumption is that most of us are not headed to academic careers, and I am currently employed at a mechanical and aerospace engineering department at a major university, where many of the kids wind up going to Raytheon or Boeing or a major automaker to actually do what they've learned.

The very big problem with the humanities is that humanities grads can't see where else to do humanities but in academia. Hana's post on alternative careers is very enlightening to me and I wish to God this kind of information was more freely available to humanities grads. Shouldn't scholars in these fields be working to find applications and practice for their kids to get into, rather than the, pardon my Latin, masturbatory nature of the current régime?

That was my problem with linguistics: you learned it from professors so that later, as a professor, you could teach it to students. (Maybe a better word for this would be `autofellatory'.) Or you took a lot of CS and bio stuff and went to work for the Japanese in voice synthesis and speech-recognition projects. Or you got an `applied linguistics' degree and went and taught English somewhere in the world. That was about all.

(It could be worse. I worked for a while at a place that offered a master's in Mythological Studies. Considering that this is the only school I know of that does this, and the professors were mostly quite young, there really is nothing one can do with this degree.)

OTOH, the last couple of years, spent in the worlds of engineering and psychology, have taught me a lot about What Else Is Out There. Humanities undergrads should be sat down and talked to about whether they really want to apply postgraduate study to anything. They're probably too young to know, but that's another rant. And this one's gone on far too long.

Posted by: Luis at October 24, 2003 07:25 PM

First, thanks to Hana for her postings and honesty. My sympathies for a terrible loss.

Since Hana wanted to get back to the original topic--or at least one of the original topics--here's my contribution. I think academics in the humanities don't want to talk about non-academic jobs for PhDs because such a discussion would be deeply threatening to them. For Professors seriously to discuss non-academic jobs for their students would be to admit to those students that many of them never will get jobs as tenure-track faculty; such honesty would certainly drive some students away, reducing the parts of the jobs profs like most ("mentoring" proteges) and, perhaps, force the profs to focus more of their energies on undergraduate education. Something similar would happen to graduate students; many grad students stick it out to the PhD because, while they can quote chapter and verse about the dismal job market, they're secretly convinced that they'll be the exception to the rule and will wind up tenure-tracked at a good school. Seriously discussing alternate careers would force them to face the fact that the bright future will likely not happen. This, BTW, is also why so many individuals who leave grad school are labeled "failures," particularly by their fellow grad students. It's a defense mechanism; if those still in school admitted that there were rational reasons for leaving, they might next have to ask whether staying was irrational.

This also, I think, explains why the AHA and OAH will never take serious steps to prepare graduate students for non-academic careers. A rational system, geared to the present job situation, would have many fewer graduate programs and give students the PhD in roughly 4 years, allowing individuals who don't enter academia to start anew at 25-27, rather than in their mid-30s as is now the case. But I think too many people benefit professionally or psychologically from the current (awful) system for such changes to be made.

Posted by: HW at October 24, 2003 10:21 PM

One thing I find I miss most about academia is the degree to which my time was my own to distribute among my tasks as I wished. Since I'm currently working in a job where I get paid by the hour not by the task, this has become quite vivid to me. For those of us who are task-oriented and intellectually inclined and full of obscure knowledge and ideas the general public finds weird or simply incomprehensible, there is a definite appeal to the academic environment. (I am also happy to work on my own and don't get lonely often, so that point probably also valid in my case.)

Unfortunately, academia has proven less interested in me than I was in it.

Posted by: Rana at October 24, 2003 10:26 PM

Let me get this out of the way: I'm a potential returnee to grad school in the social sciences (who has worked in academia for several years already and who has, like Lamb, a pretty realistic understanding of the pitfalls of gradschool and an academic career).
I agree that non-academic career options need to be taken more seriously and promoted more explicitly within graduate programs. But discussions of other options seem far too often to present this as a choice between "academic" and "corporate" paths. What about careers that are neither? What about, as Hana points out, careers in public service? What about all the very interesting work that goes on in the non-profit sector? I've been working in academia in the UK but in a department/field with links to public policy and "third sector" activity (although yes, I'm sure this is more common in the social sciences than the humanities), so I have no difficulty picturing the other roads I might take once I have my phd in hand. Doing research for or helping to coordinate something like an anti-poverty initiative within a non-profit org, working for a thinktank, or even working for some government agency or program might all be attractive, fulfilling, and socially useful options if I decide academia is not for me. If I end up going to grad school, I plan to build up contacts and activities in that other world at the same time. I wouldn't have known or thought to do that when I first graduated, but working for several years, even in academia, has helped me understand how to keep other options open. These types of jobs might not be to everyone's taste, but I think it's important to realize that there is something out there besides what one poster called corporate anomie.

Posted by: reba at October 25, 2003 09:34 AM

On the same general theme, has anyone ever seen the career advice booklet "Succeeding in the World of Ideas" put out by the Institute for Humane Studies? (In 1997 I think; the booklet doesn't seem ideologically oriented, although the organization is.) It doesn't strike me as completely realistic, but does at least suggest other career avenues to undergraduates. http://www.theihs.org/pdf/materials/92.pdf

To go back to earlier comments on this thread about academic contempt for non-academic jobs, I wonder what one should make of this claim by the the booklet's authors:
"You have to be smart to be a successful academic, but you don’t have to be a genius. Indeed, the very smartest people rarely make the best teachers. The principal reason why students so often think that professors are very smart and knowledgeable is that the professors have spent a large part of their lives reading and thinking and possibly writing about their subject and consequently know far more than any student is likely to. They’re not on average smarter than people in other professions, they’ve just specialized in being academics. This means that they’ve studied a subject in depth, read (some of) the literature, and learned the jargon. It is a profession attainable by anyone who is motivated and reasonably bright" (p. 3).
Hmmm, if I were grading that as an essay, I think my comments would include "Need to back up assertions with evidence." I'd love to see what research, if any, they have on the relative intelligence of academic vs non-academic professionals, and how such a thing was measured...!

Posted by: reba at October 25, 2003 09:59 AM

The lack of Tom Delay conservatives in academia demonstrates their higher-than-average intelligence, though, to be fair, there aren't many in upper-management either.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 25, 2003 05:22 PM

I have to be honest--one of the main reasons I like the academic lifestyle (as one previous poster already mentioned) is the fact that we have a month off at Christmas, one week off in the spring, and 3 months off in the summer. To admit this is pathetic, but this time off is one of the most powerful incentives for me to stay in academe. I can't imagine life without this time off, and I have grown too accustomed to ordering my life along the lines of a academic calendar (and too fearful to change it). I guess most would consider me a lazy slacker too.

Posted by: cwd at October 27, 2003 02:24 PM

I definitely understand the lure of longer vacations! It's not something I miss that much abt academia---in part, b/c I always found that my academic poverty meant that I couldn't travel during my vacations. The one thing I do want to point out is that while some businesses and organizations have become less flexible abt vacation time etc., other organizations/businesses do allow people to work at home or to work 3/4 time (with benefits---I have a friend who writes children's books; she works 3/4 time for the computer industry and earns $60,000; she also manages to publish a book abt every 1 and 1/2 to 2 years). The really big lesson I have learned since leaving academia is that, if you hunt around, you can probably find aspects of the academic lifestyles in different types of jobs...but this information is not made available to anyone in grad school or even in faculty positions.

What troubles me abt the emphasis on academic careers (besides the fact, of course, that not everyone will find an academic position) is that we historians (as well as others in other fields) are rapidly making ourselves irrelevant. I cannot help but remember one of Lodge's articles in which he discussed what he perceived to be one of the most troubling aspects of current literary theory---its general inaccessibility to extraordinarily intelligent people (and yes, there are extremely bright people outside of academia). Without extensive training in the jargon, the texts written by many scholars are inaccessible and therefore irrelevant to general policy makers and even thinkers in American society today. Wouldn't it be better if we spoke to the people who influence and shape policy? There is a reluctance on the part of academics to mix with non-academics (as an academic, I knew only a few non-academics and these were people I knew thro' my husband). Even while I was in academia, I found this slightly disturbing---esp. as I often listened to academics make sweeping comments abt "people who produce widgets" and "people, like bankers, who just manipulate and screw the people who make widgets." At the time, I found it silly as I knew a banker (from Charlie) who was a Big Brother, spent lots of time with his little brother and gave generously to inner-city causes. He was active politically as well (and he worked to get his bank to become involved in the community) and I thought he did more to shape and influence the lives of people in the inner city than any academic I knew (and most academics pride themselves on being liberal and sympathetic to the working class and those mired in poverty). I participated in that disconnect when I was in academia (I did not work for any volunteer organizations---now, I work for two) and I generally kept a distance from non-academics.

These issues may sound disconnected but I think there is a connection. I agree with HW that professors are eager to validate their own loves and therefore perpetuate this disconnect (while in grad school, no one suggested I tutor inner-city kids, work in a museum etc.).

And, Rana, in the professional world, you will find that there are lots of people who love knowledge and are filled with obscure facts. My boss' boss does not have a PhD but he is extraordinarily well-read, always stops by my office with a book and asks me what I am reading, knows more about opera than anyone I ever met and is passionate abt German Expressionism---in general, I would say Larry is more well-read and more curious than the average academic. And just to show that this is not abt snobbery: when I was a professor, we had a fantastic sec'y. She ordered the books for the courses; when the books came in, she used to ask if she could take the books home and read them. She read all of the books I assigned every semester (except the textbooks). She had been an unwed teenage mother at 18; she never attended college but she sought out books (this is why, no matter what snobs may think of Oprah's Book Club, I think it's great b/c Angie didn't read the NY Review of Books but she did read every book Oprah mentioned in passing). I was also impressed by Angie b/c after she read the books I had assigned for a class dealing with the Holocaust, she asked me to recommend books for her three daughters on the subject. None of my fellow academics even glanced at the books I used in my classes. My concern is that people who went directly into grad school may draw their knowledge of the real world from positions which they held which were below their abilities. As a grad student, I worked one summer for an insurance company which was going into bankruptcy. If I drew my understanding of the real world from this experience, I'd have really negative feelings abt the non-academic world. But whenever I have real jobs (jobs which suit my abilities), I've had pretty good experiences and met great people. Next time you attend a museum, look at the people around you; the overwhelming majority of these people aren't academics. Look at the people shopping in your favorite bookstore; they aren't academics etc. And, finally, I'd like to remind everyone that not every academic is brilliant and/or curious. What little socializing I spent with my colleagues was often spent discussing the administration, the stupidity of today's students etc.---I have more intellectual conversations now outside of academia than I ever did in academia.

Posted by: Hana at October 28, 2003 07:56 AM

Re: the disconnect between academia and the non-academic world. Are you familiar with the joke when an academic economist meets a practicing economist and says "Well, that idea may work in practice but the really important question is does it work in theory?"

Posted by: Hana at October 28, 2003 08:59 AM

Hana touches on something that has been sticking in my craw since grad school--the increasing irrelevance of our academic disciplines to the "real world." I am a political scientist, and I have noticed over the years how nothing that political science "produces" is ever noticed or taken seriously by policymakers, journalists, or the general public. Recall that during the 2000 presidential recount in Florida the news media did not interview even ONE political scientist (however, they did interview lots of lawyers, and even law professors). To me, this is a damning indictment of my "profession." What's even worse, in my view, is that most political scientists either are oblivious to their own irrelevance or they do not care because they are "above it all" in their ivory towers.

Posted by: cwd at October 28, 2003 09:02 AM

CWD, I agree with your comment and I can't help but wonder if academics (and here I'll briefly include myself as I was horribly guilty of this while in academia) are responsible for this? In my work, I contact and speak with academics a lot but I am often the only connection these academics have to the non-academic world (and I am often busy "translating" their comments for policy makers). This is a key element of my job and while I'm glad I'm paid a really great salary to do this, I can't help but wonder why so few academics speak directly to policy makers and legislators.

Most of the people posting here view non-academics in a positive way but everyone is aware of the contempt which many academics have for the non-academic world. Is it truly a fear that, if academics know abt the non-acafdemic world, they'll jump ship, which provokes this contempt?

What is most amazing to me abt this is that, even as academics engage in this type of behavior (expressing contempt and disdain for everyone outside of academia), they put their hands out and demand that state legislatures etc. fund them. Again, I was guilty of all of this while in academia so I am not excluding myself from this. But it's very worrisome---this idea that people outside of academia are narrow-minded, don't read etc. but they should all vote to fund and pay for academic studies which will never be used to further the intellectual life of the nation. Very weird. But very troubling b/c I want the political scientists to weigh in on the discussion re: Florida; I want historians to weigh in on discussions re: past policies and the path our govt should take; I want literary scholars to engage in discussions re: literacy and the ways in which literary theory may help us to understand aspects of American life etc. The fact that they don't seems to indicate, as one poster said, a desire to engage in masturbation as opposed to productivity or creativity.

Posted by: Hana at October 28, 2003 10:00 AM

To answer your question in a word, Hana: YES! Academics are wholly responsible for their own increasing irrelevance. Unfortunately, I don't see what can divert them from their own self-delusion and (ultimately) self-destruction.

Posted by: cwd at October 28, 2003 11:35 AM

CWD: In a word "argh!" I suspect that you are right when you say that you don't see how to deflect academics from this path of self-destruction. I am holding out hope for the professional organizations (AHA, MLA etc.) to put pressure on grad schools etc. to re-think this but I am probably naive!

I do want to suggest (okay, beg) people to contact their organizations and raise this issue. Maybe this might help? If more academics engaged in a discussion re: this (and not just on a blog, great as this one is), there would be a shift? Perhaps? Dum spiro, spero (while I breathe, I hope---if I remember my Latin correctly).

Posted by: Hana at October 28, 2003 11:41 AM

Hana--I wish you were right, but I really don't believe that most academics will change. Remember in the early 1990s there was a lot of writing about "public intellectuals," and how a new breed of academics was going to engage the general public with thoughtful, accessible writing? And then the promised books came out and they were just what you'd expect: turgid, condescending, and amazingly disconnected from the non-academic world. No way a well educated general reader would waste his/her time with this stuff, or would give much credence to the public "pronouncements" (and that's what they were) of such scholars.

Which is a shame, because I think there is a real audience for intelligent writing on subjects that are classically "academic." Look at how many people read popular science, and how eagerly well-written history is bought. Louis Menand, say, or Niall Ferguson do sell a lot of books addressed to a non-academic audience while staying serious scholars. Most scholars, however, are not trained to write in such a way, and the academic rewards usually don't flow to a prof for selling books or trying to address issues of general concern. So, much as I would like to believe academics in the fields discussed here (history, poli sci, english) will turn back to the broader public, and will tackle important public issues without resort to (1) impenetrable jargon or (2) pointless quantification, I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by: HW at October 28, 2003 12:44 PM

True story - I once worked as support staff at the legal office for an elite private university. In that capacity, I reviewed documents relating to a social sciences professor who had been denied tenure and who was suing the school alleging unlawful discrimination. What struck me reading the tenure committee's discussion about the professor's published work was that more than one committee member remarked that, while the professor's book was well written and informative, they felt that the book's language and tone were "too" geared towards the public. The implication being that professorial works are somehow supposed to be written in such a way that is difficult for the public to understand.

How amazing. And sad.

Posted by: first time poster at October 31, 2003 07:32 PM

I think I agree that, in part, academics are responsible for their own irrelevance. I wonder, though, how much this is also due to the preferences of the individuals who go into and come out of graduate schools (and then make up the academic population). If you counted up the applicants to humanities and social science graduate programs, across the spread from "least relevant to/engaged with policy and wider public" to the most policy-engaged or applied subjects (here I'm thinking of something like certain branches of geography or urban planning), which subjects would be the most popular? Is it that the least policy-relevant, etc. subjects are attracting the most applicants? I don't know the answer, but if that were true, might it reflect a wider problem of political apathy and disengagement from / ignorance of social issues and civic life among a large number of people in the country? (I would count myself in that group through most of my undergrad years.) I think undergraduate and secondary education does not do enough to challenge that apathy, ignorance, and disengagement. I'm not sure how valid these thoughts are, though, given the small proportion of people who end up working in academia relative to other careers.

(I don't want to take this point to its extreme, either: I would never argue that all academic work MUST be policy relevant; I was trained in philosophy and would argue strongly for the necessity of thinking, theorizing, writing, reading, or knowledge for its own sake, whether or not it seems immediately relevant to the concerns of current society.)

Posted by: reba at November 1, 2003 06:57 AM

I just wanted to contribute some of my (not necessarily crucial) personal experiences here. I was an undergrad in the humanities and thought at that time about possibly becoming an academic in that subject (for your amusement, it was philosophy, of all things).

I graduated and, for reasons we may or may not want to get into, joined an investment management firm and stayed in the industry for five+ years afterwards. Not only did I not generally feel isolated as a humanities person, it was not hugely unusual to participate in meandering, long discussions at work about (somewhat naturally) economics, politics, psychology (investor pyschology, of course), managerial theory and etc.

My firm encouraged me (among other things) to attend doctoral-level workshops in economics. Admittedly, this was in the hopes of using new economics knowledge to make more money, nevertheless, I hope I'm showing that there can be a large overlap between what intellectual interests and "the corporate world".

From my attendance at too many workshops for my own good (quite frankly, I probably attended more workshops than anybody else formally with the department actually did), (and post my MBA degree) I've decided that I should become a business academic full-time. We'll see how that works out, but I've never seen my academic work as seperate from my business work. In fact, I would argue that I'm still doing philosophy in some way.

Anyway, that's just my own personal story for whatever it's worth!


Posted by: alex at November 5, 2003 01:22 PM