William Pannapacker has published, over the last several years, a number of widely influential pieces in the Chronicle of Higher Education and, this past week, in Slate, criticizing the ethics and economics of graduate programs in the humanities. His most widely quoted take-away point, for would-be Ph.D. students, is: if you don’t have private funds to support you both during and after graduate school, just don’t go.
Why? Because the university economy, always precarious, has imploded. Tenure track lines are being replaced at all levels with poorly compensated adjunct positions. The hopes of Ph.D. students to live “the life of the mind” as a university professor–to have a life something like that of their advisor’s– have become vastly unrealistic.
And yet, Pannapacker argues, graduate programs each year take in cohort after cohort of new Ph.D. students to boost faculty egos, to maintain the prestige of the department as a “Ph.D.-granting program,” and to staff classes that faculty no longer teach. They admit these students with full knowledge that the vast majority of them will have no chance for regular academic employment (ie, with a liveable wage and benefits) after completion, but conceal this knowledge through a highly circumscribed advising ethos that focuses entirely on each student’s dissertation project, and what Pannapacker calls “The Big Lie of the Life of the Mind.”
So year after year, cohort after cohort of Ph.D. students dedicate hour after hour to the research and writing of scholarly dissertation projects, struggling over minutiae of citations and shades of meaning, attempting to please their dissertation chair and committee, without being told the truth by anyone in the department: that for the vast majority of them, the hoped-for tangible gains from this exercise are unlikely to materialize. For many, the result of 10 years of time and tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars of expense is crushing debt and the systematic underemployment of adjuncting at $2000 or so a class. Some Ph.D.s marginally employed on the fringes of the academic system have ended up living on food stamps.
Meanwhile, the privileged tenured faculty ignore the wholesale disintegration of the academic economy, and their increasingly ethically untenable place within it, and label any less than optimally employed Ph.D. (ie, any not in tenure track positions), as a shameful “failure” who “never had what it takes.”
Pannapacker’s essays elicit a simply extraordinary amount of response from all sides. He has clearly touched a nerve. His Chronicle essays have prompted an outpouring of anguished stories from unemployed and underemployed Ph.D.s who thank him for telling the truth about their dismal experiences during and after their Ph.D.s, and leveling accusations at the departments that, they believe, systematically misled them. Writes one: “We are supposed to love our intellectual labor enough to give it away whether we are paid to or not. The love is often there but it does not pay the bills. That tends to sour the relationship.” (mjelly33, Big Lie of the Life of the Mind, comment #5)
His pieces have also drawn outraged rebuttals from many who insist that all is well in the academy, or at least not as bad as he suggests.
The fiercest rebuttals seem to rest on one or more of the following arguments:
- I got a Ph.D. and I am currently employed so there is no problem with the system.
- I am getting a Ph.D. and I love it, so there is no problem with the system.
- I got a Ph.D. and am currently unemployed but I did not get the Ph.D. to be trained for a job, so there is no problem with the system.
- I got a Ph.D. and am currently unemployed but the opportunity to think great thoughts about the humanities is priceless, so there is no problem with the system.
- The point of the humanities is to think great thoughts and any association with things as vulgar as jobs and salaries is unseemly.
- I am a working class person, grad school is a better option than most others I had, and how dare Pannapacker or anybody tell me what I can and cannot do.
The only position among these with which I have sympathy is the last. Personally, I appreciate Pannapacker’s use of overstatement to force his point. But I also appreciate that it is not an optimal position, irony aside, to tell working class young people to abandon their goals, and to leave the world of humanistic inquiry to the elite (even acknowledging that Pannapacker comes from a working class background himself). As a number of commentators have argued, graduate school with funding can be a responsible and considered financial choice, regardless of its future outcome, for those who may not enjoy a wide range of other options, or who are comfortable with financial risk. I make the point elsewhere on this site, on the page “It’s OK to Quit,” that I don’t believe in telling someone to abandon their dreams just because their dreams are difficult or next to impossible to accomplish.
My position is, rather: go in not just with “your eyes open” (as so many Ph.D. program apologists insist) but with a strategy and a game plan. Calculate your chances from start to finish, and maximize them with strategic choices about *which* program, *how much* funding, *what* topic, *which* advisor, *how much* TA-ing, *how* to cut corners, *when* to be selfish, *where* to network, *how* to schmooze, *where* and *when* and *how often* to publish. And so on. Find the job ad for the type of position you want and make every decision based on reaching that goal. Get out quickly. Don’t count on your advisor. Don’t fixate on the dissertation. Protect yourself. Collect your own set of transferrable professional skills.
With this set of calculations, it may be possible to optimize the humanities graduate school experience to, at least, minimize risk of debt and maximize potential for employment. I make no apology for this language. No one can change the world if they can’t afford food and health care. That is the point of The Professor Is In.
But to return to Pannapacker: it is unfortunate that “just don’t go”–Pannapacker’s most incendiary claim–has become a red herring drawing attention away from the courageousness and power of his larger critique. He is the first to speak the truth, in the baldest terms, without neo-marxist theoretical trappings or jargon, about the great hidden economy of the academy, and the studied silence–or in cases, sanctioned ignorance–of the professoriate that maintains it.
It is a dishonest and unethical system. Not all faculty who operate within it are personally, individually, dishonest or unethical. Many are sincere, and doing their best to advise their Ph.D.s. Their best simply isn’t good enough. No amount of advising about an intellectual project is good enough in the current economic conditions of the academy, in which Ph.D. students have become the serf labor of a stratified neo-feudal system that is maintained by an administrative elite, in which the professors themselves have little real power, except over their own students.
The solution is not for working class students to turn away. The solution is for the professoriate to tell the goddamn truth.
The solution is for Ph.D. advisors to speak directly to the inequities and exploitations built directly into the reliance on teaching assistant and adjunct labor in their departments, and to the silences around the real potential for tenure track work for their graduates. The solution is for the professoriate to admit that they too are increasingly disempowered “workers” who draw a wage, and to acknowledge and train their Ph.D. students as wage-earning workers as well. The solution is for “employment skills training” to be made a central element of every responsible humanities graduate program in the country, by which I mean: training for both academic and non-academic employment.
Without Pannapacker, the shameful ethics of humanities graduate training would still be hidden behind a veil of bullshit. The masturbatory bullshit of those professors who get off on the miniature stageshows of intellectual prowess that is Ph.D. advising. The bullshit of departments and administrators who mouth the benefits of the life of the mind while running the university like a corporation.