Neither a Trap Nor a Lie

Brian Taylor

March 12, 2010

In "The Big Lie About the 'Life of the Mind,'" the columnist "Thomas H. Benton" argues that graduate school in the humanities is based on "structurally ... limiting" the potential employment options of students. He is right, just as he is correct that there is a special place in hell for those professors who avoid their responsibilities in making graduate training honest and humane. Still, he is wrong when he concludes that graduate school in the humanities is a "trap" and a "lie."

I am arguing here for the life of the mind, or at least a version of it. I was inspired to write this by the recent articles on the topic written by Benton (aka William Pannapacker, a professor of English at Hope College), and the intense and passionate response they provoked among this newspaper's readers (The Chronicle, February 12). It would be difficult not to feel moved by the arguments and anecdotes that readers shared.

Like Benton, I have been one of the lucky ones. I had undergraduate professors who took an interest in me, and graduate professors who helped refine my work and prepared me for the job market. I am a junior faculty member on the tenure track at a liberal-arts college where I am happy. But before that, I was a visiting assistant professor, so there was a time when I wasn't sure what my future in academe would be. Nonetheless, I believed throughout in pursuing this profession.

As I was reading Benton's examples and the responses of his readers, I replayed the events that led me to my current teaching position. Considering the wreckage that is the hiring market in the humanities this year—and for the past three decades—why did I, why does anyone, decide to go to graduate school in the humanities? Are we all crazy?

I asked myself that because, for the first time, one of my own students has applied to graduate school in English. She could not be better suited for it: She is an agile thinker, a strong writer, a mature researcher, and, perhaps most important, a tireless worker. She dedicated herself to her senior thesis with a focus that seemed more appropriate to graduate students. She already is a graduate student; she's simply looking for a place to make it official.

But while I am a champion of her candidacy, I am ambivalent about her prospects for all the reasons that are recounted in the heartbreaking comments section of Benton's column, "The Big Lie." I insisted on giving her what has become known in academe as "the talk," telling her every horror story I know of professional misfortune and unfairness. It changed her thinking about how to apply to schools, but otherwise she remained insistent.

I wondered if she comprehended the gravity of the situation. Back when I got "the talk" from my undergraduate professors (in a market that was bad, although not as bad as it is now), I understood what they were saying, but it was extremely difficult, as a young person, to make emotional sense of their words. I couldn't feel the urgency that they were trying to impart. All I knew is that I wanted to be like my professors; I coveted their lifestyle.

A generation of young professors has grown up with the job crisis—it's normal to us, it's never been different. We're expert at imparting the anxiety that comes with graduate school to our students. I think that most graduate students now understand how dire it is, while still attempting, perhaps with incomplete information, to weigh the risks.

There are many ways to pursue intellectualism in and out of academe. I think of the life of the mind as the union of intellectual labor and professional success that, at its best, allows academics to explore ideas and still be supported financially. But I also consider the economic and social compromises that such a life might necessitate.

This is not what Benton would call sanctimony or denial. I do not intend to diminish the emotional and economic severity of the job market, of graduate-student debt, of adjunct teaching, of the "two-body" problem, or the host of other forces that conspire to destroy academic lives. Instead, I want to suggest that we should not discount the possibility that our students desire to live a life that involves academic ideals and intellectual study, despite all of the impediments.

One counterargument might be that only a happy few get to live the life of the mind. The kind of middle-class success that was assumed to come with graduate school in the humanities quite often cannot be achieved with a tenure-track salary, let alone adjunct wages.

Still, I was struck by one of Benton's examples in particular. He wrote about a couple who (I presume) replied to one of his articles, whose daughter had earned a doctorate in comparative literature and was struggling financially while their son "makes a decent living fixing HVAC systems" after six months at a for-profit trade school. I appreciated the example because it crystallizes the conflicted ideas that motivate most students who apply to graduate school. We want to be financially secure, but we also want to achieve a professional position that has a unique relationship to work.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, I was employed one summer by its housing-maintenance department. My supervisors were carpenters and electricians who worked for the university. They could not understand why I would want to go to graduate school to study poetry. They outlined an alternate life in which I became an electrician, got paid to learn my trade, and, if I was lucky, owned my own business.They made a persuasive argument for a life I had never before imagined. But I didn't want to be an electrician. I wanted literature to be my work.

That's why I tell my students that if they go to graduate school they must love the work, because often that is all there is and often you are paid too little for it. But I also tell them that it does not mean they should avoid graduate school. Rather, they must go for the right reasons.

One of those reasons is the pursuit of the life of the mind. Not because we need another generation of teachers who are abused by stressful working conditions, unequal wages, little job security, and no health benefits, but because the lifestyle of academe is meaningful and rewarding in ways that are different from many other careers. Choosing to pursue that life—as irrational as it may seem, as hopeless as the prospect of achieving it might be—can still be a sound choice.

We—adjuncts, full-time professors, researchers, administrators, politicians, and parents—must retool how we talk about graduate school in the humanities. We can no longer present it as a professional school or as career training, with the assumption that more education and advanced degrees always lead to better lives, more income, increased happiness. Instead, we must think of graduate school as more like choosing to go to New York to become a painter or deciding to travel to Hollywood to become an actor. Those arts-based careers have always married hope and desperation into a tense relationship. We must admit that the humanities, now, is that way, too.

What would it mean to see advanced degrees in the humanities as akin to pursuing fine arts, with its expectation of economic instability? How would we talk differently to prospective (and current) graduate students if we saw them as more like aspiring novelists or actors?

For me, graduate school was a compromise: a way to lead an artistic life with what appeared to be a chance for stability. That guaranteed stability has disappeared, even for someone like me who is lucky to have a tenure-track job. For those students who seek to go to graduate school, presenting the choice as an artistic career means that we must accept that persistent professional disappointment is a central part of the life.

Comparing the academic humanities to the arts also necessitates that we be honest with ourselves that the job market is not going to change and that the power of well-meaning faculty members to improve it is limited. The inequalities of employment in the humanities reflect structural shifts going on in higher education. I see little evidence that those good ideas mentioned in past years will be put into place: limiting graduate enrollments, reducing the amount of adjunct teaching, refining tenure standards, accepting the prestige of online publications. In fact, in the short run, some of those plans could be disastrous: Further reducing the numbers of contingent faculty members could toss a generation of already exploited teachers into the worst economic crisis in 70 years.

Instead, we must rethink what professionalization means in the academic humanities. What is it for artists to become "professional" in their training? What kinds of cues and advice do fine-arts programs give their students about their future careers? I don't know those answers, but I think that humanities professors need to talk more with their fine-arts colleagues about how they advise their students about what it means to become a working artist, or how to accept the risk of becoming an impoverished one.

The contradictions of this arts-based approach to graduate school are insuperable. We must operate with the understanding that graduate school is not necessarily a successful professional degree for most students. That may mean we need to recognize the emotional reasons why many students decide to attend graduate school. And yet I am aware that the current job market rewards skills such as focus, expertise, analysis, and productivity. We must somehow inculcate those professional skills while appealing to the contradictory desires that bring our students to graduate school in the first place despite its obvious dangers.

In that sense, then, graduate school in the humanities is not a trap. It's a choice. But it is incumbent on us to make sure it is not a lie. We should not romanticize it; it needs to be reformed in many of the ways that Benton and others have described. But I don't think the trouble with graduate school or the humanities job market is the promise of the life of the mind. Instead, we should modernize that life and understand the pleasures of those who still choose, often against their economic self-interest, to pursue it nonetheless.

James Mulholland is an assistant professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.