“Working Classes,” higher ed, and the ‘should you go to grad school in the humanities?’ question

I’m posting a couple of links full of rich and meaty thought that are both about class and higher ed, but ultimately on two different, but related issues. Anyway, they’re discussions that I wish I could involve myself in, but I’m still kind of mulling them over too much to respond articulately. And in some ways, I don’t think I’m quite the right person to do so, anyway.  So I present them to my readers to take up in the comments or at their own blogs.

The first is actually one of Karl Steel’s posts over on Google+. You don’t need a G+ profile to read it, since it’s a public post (though you do need one if you want to comment). Here’s the link. And here’s a snippet to give you a sense of it:

In grad school … I used to think I was something special, by which I mean an interloper: working-class family; public schools only till starting the PhD; first person in my family to go to college…

I’m past it all now, but this feeling–call it ressentiment and you won’t be far of the mark–had gone sour long before I gave it up. I’m done pretending to still be a working class kid. Unless some catastrophe throws me back on my family resources (which = nothing), there’s no point is holding on to what I was, not on the edge of my 41st birthday and and not when things continue to work out all right.

The discussion in the comments is really active and thoughtful and worth reading, all of it. (This, btw, is one of the reasons why I prefer G+ over Facebook — the interface allows longer, richer discussion and you can link to public posts. It’s like a middle ground between social networking and blogging.  And word on the street is that the anti-pseudonym stance may actually change. But I digress.)

The other link I want to share, a blog post by JSench at his almost brand-new blog, is also about being working class in academe, but instead of being about professorial personae and backgrounds — and whether they still matter once you’ve seized the brass ring of a tenure-track job — it’s about the decision to go to graduate school in the first place.  It’s an answer to yet another of Willliam Pannapacker’s pieces on why no one should go to the hell that is the PhD factory (this time, for Slate instead of for the Chronicle of Higher Education). Pannapacker’s latest bothered me in ways I couldn’t articulate, but JSench does it for me, with wit and clarity and a perspective I wouldn’t totally be able to bring to it.  Here, let me quote from the beginning, middle, and end to give you a sense of it, but, as they say, you really should read The Whole Thing.  Here’s part of the opening paragraph:

I think it’s a good thing to break down whatever is left of the romantic vision of  humanities graduate school bohemia followed immediately by a career resembling your favorite undergrad professor’s. But if we’re going to banish the romanticism, let’s also get rid of the melodrama that Pannapacker and others offer in its place. Instead of sexy bohos in black jeans discussing Poe and Lacan over coffee, we’re offered a vision of an evil empire sucking the lifeblood out of talented twentysomethings until those twentysomethings are suddenly thirty and have nothing to show for themselves but debt and a cv that reads more like a record of exploitation than a résumé.

And here’s something smart and pointed from the middle:

Except I knew exactly what I was getting into. When you grow up in a family of working people you get to know a thing or two about how employers are not the best representatives of your interests. When you spend your college summers working on construction sites you pick up some things about the risks you take with your body and your mind when you take a job. When you’ve seen a steel company retroactively cancel the pensions and benefits of thousands of retired and laid-off workers, then you have an idea about secure futures and broken promises.

And here’s a part I really liked in response to the “you shouldn’t go to grad school because there’s no job guaranteed” argument:

In the neoliberal United States, no one is guaranteed a job with health insurance. Most people, not just humanities majors, face difficulty finding employment that pays well, is secure, and has good benefits. There are no sure bets. If you think business school is a sure bet, there’s someone there to tell you it isn’t. If you think law school is a sure bet, there’s someone there to tell you it isn’t. If you think culinary school is a sure bet, there’s someone there to tell you it isn’t. And if you think that the humanities deserve special ridicule in all of this, you’re wrong. If you think a Ph.D. in physics is a sure bet, there’s someone there to tell you it isn’t.

I think I was pounding the desk saying “Yes!” at that point, especially since I’d had a conversation this summer with an old grad school friend who tried to tell me that the moment he decided to leave grad school and do something else was when some venture capitalist type said to him, “You’re doing all this work and you won’t necessarily get a job from it?”  I could only sputter at the time at that — couldn’t quite express how that wasn’t a good framework for deciding to quit (and also, I really don’t think it’s why he quit at the time — he’s rewriting his history) — but if I’d had my wits about me, I might have said something like the above. Also, I would’ve pointed out that Mr. Capitalist must not be very good at making money if he’s so risk adverse.  But that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway, back to JSench’s post, here is what I really took away from this post, and what I’ll keep in mind when I advise my students, especially our MA students:

And so, please don’t tell your students that if they’re not rich or well-connected that they shouldn’t go to graduate school in the humanities. Tell them if you don’t think they are cut out for the work, and please tell them how difficult it can be at all points along the way. Also tell them that if they want to go to law school or culinary school. But if they still want to go, help them figure out how to be the person they think they want to be, how to become the person that will be satisfied. They will need skills. They will need to pass tests in practice and in academics. They will need to make friends, make professional connections, perform themselves in interesting ways, and they will need luck.

Overall, I think this post really hits closer to the truth about graduate school than all the “sky is falling! don’t go” hand-wringing and yet also counters the romantic notions our students sometimes have.  And I like that emphasizes the value of the experience and the degree in and of itself, which too often gets lost in these arguments (and I, for one, have been guilty of losing that).

Anyway, go read. And then come back here and discuss.  Or else respond on your own blogs.  And I, for one, am adding JSench to my RSS feed reader!

>Advice for a budding medievalist (in literary studies)

>Yes, I’m still here. Holiday travels and events, plus getting back into the swing of organizing my unstructured time, took a toll on my blogging. Also, I was trying to decide what to write about next and dithering over it until I got an e-mail today asking me to give advice to a first year undergraduate student at another institution who’s interested in medieval literature and in possibly pursuing graduate studies down the line. And I thought, “Wow, that would make a great blog post, especially since it’s medieval in content and I haven’t written a medieval-related post in awhile (which means that Jonathan Jarrett has probably taken me off of his blog roll or is about to!).”

So let me share a draft of what I might write to him when he writes to me (it was his professor who first contacted me on his behalf and the student hasn’t gotten in touch with me) and see what you think. Please feel free to add to or argue with what I say. And since it’s advice for a student at a very small college, where departments consist of 3-5 people and no classical languages are taught, perhaps in the comments we can also make suggestions for those students at bigger colleges and universities. (And note that in the letter I *gently* address the “whether you should go to graduate school at all” issue. He *is* only a freshling.) Also, if my tone is too condescending, please tell me! I’m not used to talking to first years about graduate school!

Edited to add: with some minor revisions, you could easily adapt this advice to apply to any English major. Do a few more revisions, and it could apply to any humanities major or any other liberal arts major. Feel free to use, adapt, and link!

So, here’s what I might write:

Dear Stu,

I’m so glad your professor put you in touch with me. I’m happy to answer your questions and give you some general advice about what to do to pursue your interests in medieval literature now and in the future. You’re already *way* ahead of the game by thinking about graduate school already as a first year student. I didn’t realize that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. until I was already out of college, and I felt like I spent the first couple of years in graduate school catching up with what I didn’t know. So, in a way, the advice I’m giving you now is what I wish I had done myself as an undergraduate.

OK, first of all, you have three and a half years to explore: to find out what you love, what you’re good at, and who you want to be. Don’t be so focused on the goal of getting into graduate school to study medieval literature that you miss your chance to learn new things — things you might not even yet know you’ll love. You can get more advice like this about college in general and how to get most out of it from the book The Thinking Student’s Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education by Andrew Roberts (University Chicago Press). Not all of his advice will apply to you, since the author works at a big research university (Northwestern) and bases a lot of advice on what resources students at such big places have. For example, he says not to take too many courses with any single professor, but there are only 5 professors in your English department, so that can’t be helped. Also, he has an annoying habit of saying that most professors are more interested in their research than teaching. That’s definitely not true at your college, which is committed to undergraduate teaching, and it’s not even true of everyone at a research university like his. But most of his advice is excellent and equally applicable to you as it is to a Northwestern student.

But now, on to the more specific advice about your plans to pursue medieval literature. First of all, as an undergraduate, you shouldn’t narrow yourself too much beyond the major, and your major is English literature, not only medieval literature. Make your goal being the best *English* major you can be and you’ll actually be helping your chances of getting into a good graduate program. Admissions committees in Ph.D. programs don’t want to see someone so focused so early that they seem unwilling to learn or incapable of making connections across a wider literary history. As professors we often have to teach outside of our specialties in surveys and introductory classes, so the better educated you are in English studies more broadly (including English literature, American literature, comparative and world literature, and rhetoric and composition), the more flexible a scholar and teacher you’ll be. If your department offers a literary theory course, be sure to take that, as you’ll need it in graduate school, and it will give you the tools to think with as you study and write about literature now. Start thinking of yourself now as one who studies and thinks about literature and how it works, and not just someone who reads lots of literature. And to do that really well, it helps to think about how language works, so if take a history of the English language course if it’s offered. It also helps to have experience thinking about as many different genres and cultural and historical contexts as possible, so try to take a range of courses that teach you about as many periods and types of literature as possible, even ones you think you might not like. Even if you still want to be a medievalist, those other courses will help you think about how literature works, and therefore how medieval literature works, perhaps in contrast to how a novel or short story or modern play or contemporary poem works. Take the maximum credits you’re allowed in your major department, but don’t skimp on related fields: history, philosophy, art history, literature from other cultures and languages (more on languages in a minute), and theater (especially theater history). As you’re doing all this, get to know your professors, not just in class, but out of class in their office hours and any department events. The more they know you, your work, and your goals, the better their letters of recommendation will be for you. At a small college like yours, it’s really easy to know your professors and for them to know you — take advantage of that opportunity.

And as you get further in your major, start doing research and reading criticism about the works you’re writing about. Write research papers for as many classes as you can — ones that don’t just summarize what other critics have said, but that enter into conversations with them, argue with them, and get ideas from them (with all due credit, of course!). Ask your professors for advice on what to read, on how to do research (if there isn’t a course on research methods), and on how to write in conversation with the criticism you find as you progress in the major. (I recommend the book They Say / I Say as a good guide to writing research papers, and librarians are *great* human resources for helping you learn to do the research.) If your college or the English department offers you the chance to write an honors thesis, take it. Graduate school and a large part of being a professor is about doing research and writing original scholarship about literature — again, in conversation with other scholars — so the earlier you learn to think that way and to read what others have written, the better jump you’ll have on graduate school and being a scholar yourself. After all, one of the best ways to learn to do something is to imitate someone else doing it, and in reading and thinking about literary criticism, you can start using that criticism as models for your own writing.

While on your college’s web site, I saw that your department offers a summer study-abroad trip to England with the professor who teaches medieval and early modern literature in English. If you can afford it, go on this trip. You get course credit and a great experience all in one, and there’s nothing like being in the places you’ve only read about. Even if you’ve been to England before, being a student there is different from being a tourist, and includes opportunities you’ll only really get as a student.

Now, there isn’t time in four years to take every course ever offered, and you have other requirements and educational goals to meet, too (and you should aim to get that broad liberal arts education in the best sense — don’t skimp on the science and social science courses). So you should be choosy in some ways. Since you want to be a medievalist, choose courses in related fields most closely related to your interests. You’ll still get the benefit of breadth, since you’ll be learning how different disciplines have different goals and objects of study. If there aren’t enough specifically medieval offerings in history, art history, philosophy, etc., take courses on the ancient Greek and Roman worlds (especially Roman) and on the European Renaissance. Or find out what was going on in Asia and North America while Europe was in the Middle Ages.

And take as much of a foreign language or two as you can. Be serious about learning the language beyond the required two years. Unfortunately, your college doesn’t seem to offer Latin, so take French or German, or both. If you passed out of the language requirement, take another one anyway, or get better in the one you know. Most Ph.D. programs require proficiency in at least one foreign language, and sometimes two. For medievalists studying English literature, Latin, French, and German are the most useful, commonly-taught languages to know. There are intensive summer programs in Latin, if that’s an option for you now (Google the phrase “intensive Latin summer courses”); you could also leave that for later, once you’re in a graduate program.

And finally, start looking into graduate programs in your junior year. Most applications are due in December and January of the year before you plan to start. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking time off from school — I took three years — but if you want to go straight from college, you’ll really need to start getting applications ready over the summer and early fall of your senior year. While you’re doing all this, talk to your professors, especially the more recent graduates of Ph.D. programs — the ones with the title “Assistant Professor” — and ask them about what graduate school is like, where they went, what being a professor is like (especially beyond the classroom), and how they got their jobs. I’ll be honest: I don’t recommend graduate school for everyone. But you’re off to such an early start thinking about it, that if you start preparing now, even if you choose to go another route, you’ll still have given yourself a great and enjoyable education. If by this time two years from now, in your junior year, you’re still thinking about graduate school and no one has given you the “bad news” talk, get back in touch with me. And in the meantime, use the resources of your career center and learn about other career paths you might take. There are a lot of interesting careers out there you’ve never even heard of, as well as a lot of smart people in the world who love literature but who aren’t professors and have fulfilling lives. It’s good to have options.

And any time you want to ask me more advice — especially about graduate programs for budding medievalists — drop me a line. Best of luck and keep in touch!

>A Ph.D. in the humanities? – A kinder, gentler xtranormal video

>This is response to the now-viral video I linked to in an earlier post. This one is kinder, gentler, and more idealistic — except when it takes a few jabs at the earlier video. It’s also a lot more like the actual conversations I have with actual students. And bonus: it makes a Dr. Who reference. It’s also really inspiring and I think that every time I get in a funk about the future of the university and especially the humanities, I’m going to watch this to recharge myself.

You should watch it, too.


h/t Karl at In the Middle

I’m posting this not only because I like it, but also especially for Jeffrey, meg, Flavia, and Clarissa, all of whom I know didn’t like the original, cynical version (or, in meg’s case, didn’t like the emerging genre of xtranormal videos in which experience berates naivete).

>Speaking (again) of delivering bad news to students in the humanities…

>…I wonder if the author of this little movie read the post below? Of course, it could just be because it’s that time of year.


And yes, I *do* question the meaning of my existence.

>Help! Advice needed! (Delivering-bad-news-to-students division)

>Before I get to the advice request, on a somewhat related topic I just want to say that Greg Semenza, who is a very cool guy, sent me a signed copy of the second edition of A Guide to Graduate Study in the 21st Century. And he quoted and cited this blog in the introduction as well as thanking me in the acknowledgments. (He quoted this post, which I really should put on a “Best of Virago” list in the sidebar or something. He quoted a farming metaphor that apparently I made in that post, but which seemed so hilariously out of character for me, a city/suburban girl, that I had to go back and see if I actually wrote it or if one of the commenters did. It seems I did!) So you must now all buy his book for *your* graduate students, because he is clearly a genius with good taste. And also because I said so. 🙂

Anyway, the advice I need is related to talking to students about grad school. Greg’s book is *awesome* for students already in or accepted to Ph.D. programs, or, slightly adapted, for students in MA programs (which is how I use it). But it doesn’t deal with the whole process *before* — the making yourself competitive for grad programs, choosing them, applying to the, etc. (Let’s skip, for the moment, whether anyone should be applying to Ph.D. programs in the humanities at all. I know how to have that talk.)

But here’s what I don’t know how to do. I don’t know how to tell a student “There’s no way you’re going to get into ______.” Or “I really can’t recommend you to ____ program.” Or, worst of all, “I really can’t recommend you for Ph.D. programs.” Many of our students, the BAs and the MAs, are often really naive about the competition out there and about the selectiveness of even the state school Ph.D. programs. The best of them, who have all the same natural gifts as the students who will get into the most competitive programs, have never had to compete for admission to anything (we’re an open admission school at the undergrad level, and though our MA program is slightly selective–we do turn down some people–it’s not terribly difficult to get into). And they don’t have a lot of friends (or any others) who are also applying to graduate programs, so they grossly underestimate the numbers of people doing so. They’ve been big fish in little ponds all their lives and haven’t really been pushed, either by their professors or their cohort. (We try, but really, you need a critical mass of ambitious peers to really show you what you can accomplish. And once you’re at the top of a group, it’s hard to see that there are higher things to aim for.) But they can’t possibly see this from their vantage point. And we can tell them, but they don’t always get the message. (There are obviously exceptions. But if they were all like the exceptions, I wouldn’t be writing this post.) We even have a few faculty members who share the naivety (for various different reasons), and they are often wowed by these students and encourage them to apply to schools they’re never going to get into (and only those schools), so we have to work against bad advice they’ve been given.

For example, about a year or so ago, a former student, whose work in our MA program fell about in the average range for our students, wrote to me to tell me she was going to apply to a particular Ivy League school for the Ph.D. And just that school. But she was going to visit it first to make sure it was right for her. *Headdesk* So I wrote back and gave her the statistics for the previous year’s admissions (because I happen to know people at said Ivy and they could give me the cold, hard facts). To my utter shock, this did not deter her! Her response was something along the lines of “Oh, I know it’s competitive, but I think I’ve got what it takes!” *double headdesk* And others to whom I give the bad news talk think I’m just trying to keep them down, that I’m holding them back. (What would motivate me to do that is beyond me — our students’ success is our success.)

For many, I can say a nicer version of “Fine, don’t believe me. Go ahead and try.” And sometimes I get them to add less glorious programs to their list (or simply more programs), and they *do* get in and go on to good things. (I basically suggest they apply to one or two “dream” schools — it’s good to dream! — but then to a range of other, more realistic schools. Then I have to help them figure out what those are, because they have no idea.) So sometimes I can work with them and get them to where they want to be, which is in a Ph.D. program on the way to being a college professor. Ooh, and one of the first RBU students I wrote a letter for is now a tenure-track assistant professor! Hooray! So I’m not saying our students should just give it up. I’m saying they need to be more realistic. I’m *pretty* good at getting them to that point (Ms. Ivy League being the weird exception).

But where it gets tricky (and this is really where I need the advice) is with the ones who want me to write letters of recommendation. I don’t think students realize we have professional reputations, that we know people at these schools they’re applying to, and that our word won’t mean anything (for them or for other students) if we write glowing letters for students whose work just doesn’t stack up. And writing a truthful, damning letter seems passive-aggressively cruel; I think it would also make me look like an asshole to the people reading it. So the only alternative is to say, “Sorry, I can’t do that.” But I am such a wuss when it comes to such confrontations, especially when I like the student personally and have been working with them for some time, which is often the case (and this is really where I need your help). I make the lamest excuses just to avoid saying, “I really can’t recommend you.” For example, once I told a student that since the paper she’d written for me in class was a critical history and not an original argument, my recommendation wouldn’t be worth much (which may be true but wasn’t the real reason I was turning her down). Help me “woman up” and deliver the bad news. How would you do it?

Let’s put this into a few more specific (but totally fictional) situations. How would you deal with each of them? Updated to add: How would you deal specifically with being asked to write a letter of recommendation in each of these cases? That’s the key issue for me. Assume that we’ve already had all the “should you go to graduate school?”/”what’s graduate school like?”/”what’s on the other side of the Ph.D.?” type talks.

1) An MA student has mostly A- and B+ grades in hir chosen area of specialization and doesn’t realize those are damning grades for an MA student applying to Ph.D. programs, and wants you to write a letter of recommendation. You gave hir an A, but in a less relevant class where earning an A might have been easier (say, a methods class or an undergrad/grad survey). [Hm, in this case, I might just go ahead and write the letter, describing the level and expectations of the class as well as hir work in it. And now that I’m not Grad Director, I might not look stupidly naive myself for recommending hir. What do you think?]

2) A student (BA or MA) is applying exclusively either to unrealistically competitive schools or to schools that rejected hir in the first round the last time ze applied and won’t add less selective schools to hir list or drop the ones that didn’t accept hir the first time.

3) Your department has a 0.000 batting average with getting any of your students, BA or MA, into the nationally ranked flagship school program up the road, and you know everyone in the department in your field (and in a number of other fields), and the student asking you for the letter is not even close to best of the students they’ve turned down.

4) The student asking you for a letter has barely survived hir Honors thesis or MA experience, kicking, screaming, procrastinating, and delaying all the way, and hir work isn’t that outstanding. You know a Ph.D. program isn’t right for hir *personally* as well as professionally. How do you convince hir of that when ze’s got the classic combination of unrealistic goals and terrible working habits?