05 January 2011

Entitlement is Such an Ugly Word (But an Uglier Attitude)

So.  This proem, "because: a manifesto," has gotten a lot of attention in the last week or so.  I can sympathize with the sentiment because I went through the same process--but I went through it as a first-year Master's student.  I came out of the Master's program at Baylor with my eyes wide open, and I went into the PhD program at UO the same way.  Not everyone gets a trophy, and some people may spend years and years getting that PhD, writing that dissertation, and taking those classes only to find out that there's no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.    1) There are no pots of gold at the ends of rainbows.  The other areas of work the author talks about?  They can be just as ugly, mean, and unfair.  2) Do not forget that you got to follow a rainbow--and not many people can say that.  If I never get a job in academia (and times being what they are...), I will not complain about "wasting" my time getting my PhD.  I had fun taking classes, talking about Beowulf, going to conferences, writing papers.  If getting a PhD and writing a dissertation is a grind that one feels he must endure before getting a job in academia, he will make a very poor academic--since that, it seems to me, is mostly what academic jobs are about.

No doubt things are tough, and no doubt many grad students are negative on job opportunities for the PhD.  Some are coming up with Plans B-D for non-academic work.  Some even souring on academia in general.  But I still cannot understand the surprise and sense of betrayal I hear from people like the author of this poem (and in the comments in the reprint on IHE).  What did these people think they were getting into?

Things have changed in degree since 2004, 2005 when most of the "oldest" PhD students came into programs, but they have certainly not changed in kind.  We are still (in our estimation) undervalued.  The market for humanities PhDs was not flourishing even then.

Where is the personal responsibility to do research for a major life decision like getting a PhD?

Did these complaining recent-graduates not know that it would be a long, hard slog after the dissertation was over?  (It is not law school, and universities do not troll graduating classes at job fairs for possible hires.)

And if not, why not?  Did any of them talk to faculty members under the age of thirty-five before getting a PhD?  While getting a PhD?  (Older, tenured faculty may not understand how hard it is to get a job, but the younger ones certainly do.)

Did these complainers think that a PhD alone qualified them for a tenure-track job?  (A related question: how many were indeed told how tough the market was but ignored the information because they thought that it surely did not apply to them since they were special snowflakes whose talents would surely be appreciated?)

Did they think that the university was somehow obligated to make sure their life choices were financially viable after graduation?  (If so, then why do we teach critical reasoning in composition departments?  The university can run our lives for us.)

Did these complainers give any thought to the practical aspects of their career before they embarked on it?  (Just because we want to read and write about texts does not mean it is automatically valued; talk to the actor who waits tables during the day or the musician who has to play weddings and bar mitzvahs to make ends meet and you will receive very little sympathy.)

I don't wish to downplay the power of this poem as a dirge, as a way of mourning the loss of a dream and as a way of saying goodbye to academia.  It is the blame that bothers me.  It is not the economy's fault, the system's fault, the university's fault, the department's fault,* the students' fault, your fault, my fault.  It just is.

Samuel Johnson was destitute into his thirties; Virginia Woolf was educated mostly at home; John Keats was trained as a doctor, not a poet; Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist by day.  For the love of God, Kurt Vonnegut once managed a Saab dealership.  I cannot imagine any of these people complaining because their contemporary society did not allow them to write what they wanted when they wanted (well, maybe Keats).  One does not have to retain a shabby little office on a university campus to read and write about the things one loves.

*Perhaps in one area, it is the departments' fault.  I know that our job-preparation sequence here at UO is (and was in the past) taught by some cracker-jack young academics.  What they have forgotten, however, is that while they earned their PhDs from the Texas, Stanford, or Duke, we are graduating from UO.  Is Oregon a bad school?  Not at all.  I have enjoyed my time here.  But it is not Duke or Stanford or Texas, which means most of us will not be competing for the jobs at major universities.  Unfortunately, that is exactly what they prepare us for (because it is all they know).  As far as I know, only one or two UO PhDs in the last few years have gotten on at major universities.  Most have landed at directional schools and community colleges.  So why not prepare us for that?   Let us prepare ourselves for the next step to interviewing for major universities if we want to after we have settled in at Northwestern Iowa State College or wherever.  Prepare us for what we will face instead of pretending that we will all interview at Brown, Ohio State, or Smith.


Sarah said...

Another blogger posted a response to "because": http://justbeinlacey.tumblr.com/

You may also want to check out: http://www.selloutyoursoul.com/2011/01/16/leaving-academia-or-should-you-stay-and-save-it/

prehensel said...

The first blog, especially, struck me. Because, despite what I think about our situation, I like revolutionaries. But I'm not one.

Sometimes you need the Marxists and sometimes you need the Social Democrats. But she's right, God help the deans if the revolutionaries and the evolutionaries ever team up.

Maybe, hopefully Sam Cooke was right: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17267529