January 15, 2004

Navel Gazing

Came across this entry at Critical Mass, discussing the high rate of grad school attrition, and calling for personal anecdotes about why folks discontinuted their grad schooling. I don't know that my graduate experience will be particularly revealing, but here it is anyway.

I finished my MA but decided not to pursue the PhD. I know quite a few folks who didn't even finish the MA, and this was among the TA group, supposedly the "up-and-comers" in the department.

For the record, I never felt exploited, overworked, underappreciated, or that my professors were attacking me. I was a very good, astute student, and I got along with pretty much everyone in the department, so it wasn't a matter of not "fitting in" to the culture or being pegged as a troublemaker. It wasn't even the poverty and tiny stipend. I still managed the degree without resorting to any student loans. In short, the only thing preventing me from getting the PhD was me.

So why did I stop? Bottom line, the reality of the profession became clear to me and I decided that if I really wanted to teach students about literature, I would be better served teaching AP students in high school. Spending large chunks of my time churning out articles and books that used the latest au courant theories when I had no real interest in them and kissing the proper asses in the department to get tenure and be able to do what I really wanted--teach Beowulf to undergraduates--made me feel more than a little like Sisyphus. So I would spend an additional 3 years in school, MAYBE get a job God knows where that MIGHT lead to tenure in another however many years, bust my ass to publish "the right kind of articles and books" so that I would look good (but not too threatening) to the theory heads and then be free to spend a little bit of time doing the thing that animated me to pursue the PhD in the first place? I don't think it's selfish to ask where the payoff is in that situation. And it's not like my ambitions were to be head of Harvard's English department or anything, either. All that for a shot at a mid-level position in a mid-level university? Hmm. No.

And before you dismiss this all as starry-eyed dreaming about the reality of life in academia, remember that I got my BA at Davidson College, a small, highly-regarded liberal arts school that had managed not to succumb to the siren's song of theoretical rigidity, and whose professors were expected to publish, but not at the expense of their teaching. Then I got to the MA program and realized that Davidson's air was rarified indeed, that the odds of finding a job like that were extremely tiny, and that politics and theory, not teaching, seemed to be the focus of the field. Talk about sucking the love of literature and learning right out of a person.

I don't know if attrition rates are fixable, or if they're even necessarily such a bad thing, since it's not possible for all the folks who finish the PhD to get a good job anyway. But I do think that if the humanities in particular continue to lose bright and committed students because the BS factor (and I don't mean Bachelor of Science, kids) outweighs the joys and challenges of learning and teaching, then departments as a whole will suffer. Right now, the track for a PhD in English Lit seems designed to turn out an endless line of rigidly uniform scholars, and I can't see how that could possibly serve the idea of the university (unity in diversity--of thought, not just ethnicity) well.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at January 15, 2004 08:48 AM

I used to dream of getting a Ph.d when I was young, it sounded so noble and heroic in my mind. I equated it with titles of aristocracy. I wanted so much to believe that it was a reflection of the person's character and ability, part of me still holds it in awe. Now it seems to merely be a teaching certificate for your chosen field. I am wondering if it ever meant anything more than this.

Posted by: Christine at January 15, 2004 10:38 AM

I went ahead and got the PHD, taught for five years and found just exactly what you described. My love of teaching meant nothing to the university but it meant everything to me. I returned to the "real" world of business and continued with my career in computers. This was all in the 70's, so you see, it's not a new thing at all.

Posted by: bigdocmcd at January 15, 2004 10:51 AM

From the ill-thought-out and wretchedly expressed articles by PhDs I see depressingly often, it appears to me that any damnfool can get a PhD and quite a few of them have. Congratulations on escaping before you got corrupted.

Posted by: ManFromPorlock at January 15, 2004 11:11 AM

Works the same in other humanities. I bailed from a History M.A. when it became obvious that my specialty (miltary and diplomatic) was a great way to stay unemployed. Everybody else in our subset of the department was professional military rounding out a promotion, or State/CIA/etc. rounding out for a promotion. The whole lot of us were in seige mentality mode regarding our prospects in general academe (Publish on time and often, because you won't get the grading/hiring breaks accorded other specialities/candidates). I could handle a small debt load for a payoff; I could handle a large debtload for the right payoff. There just wasn't going to be any payoff in the academic field.

(Note: Not in military due to massive visual problems, not in government because, well, I'm a young coot (cantankerous, eccentric, etc.) Went into IT after a diversion in law school (eeeg, talk about no payoff).)

Posted by: Walt Powell at January 15, 2004 11:14 AM

Iím perhaps not the best to jump into this, as I am not a great publisher. However, it needs to be remembered that the Ph.D. is a research degree not a teaching degree. I love to teach but at least in my field you are taught to research. The only way to measure research is through publication. Also, I have noticed that the humanities seem to be more political and theory rigid than professional schools.

Posted by: jim at January 15, 2004 09:54 PM

Jim -

Yeah, I understand that the PhD is a research degree, but as usual in the humanities it doesn't quite fit, because the majority of teaching in the humanities on the undergrad level is focused on introducing students to the literature and teaching them how to think analytically about it. There is research involved there, obviously, but it's not the same as in the harder sciences.

I've often wondered whether we could develop a tiered system in the humanities, allowing MA holders to teach up to the graduate level in their concentrations, but requiring them to publish less and demonstrate familiarity with current research trends and then letting the PhDs handle the grad students and lion's share of the research.

Realistically, the number of PhDs would probably drop if that were the case.

Ah well...

Posted by: BAW at January 16, 2004 08:36 AM

Ideally, everyone's life should be enriched by some knowledge of literature - what's out there, how to enjoy it - not just PhDs. That's why everybody has to have English in high school.

My sixteen-year-old daughter loves reading all kinds of things. You should see the paper she wrote about Edith Wharton for her honors English class. She read a couple of novels so she could make independent observations of Wharton's work. And she wants to be a pharmacist. I think that's going to work out just fine.

Posted by: Laura at January 16, 2004 09:18 AM