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!