To follow my colleagues Laura, Desiree, and Jackie, who have lately been exploring myths about English departments, students, and faculty, I thought I would explore three myths about graduate study that I encounter as Graduate Advisor.
Myth #1: You Must Get Your Degrees from Different Places. Not that it’s a bad idea to get degrees from different places. If you get your BA, MA, and PhD from three different schools, or at least from two different schools, then you meet more people, you’re exposed to different ideas, you find different library collections to explore, you enjoy life more and become more cosmopolitan, and dozens of other advantages.
But the myth I’m talking about here is more like “nobody will hire me if my CV shows three degrees from the same place, because that’s an automatic resumé-killer.”
And really, it doesn’t work that way. If you’re applying for a teaching-heavy job, the first thing they look for is how much, how varied, and how strong your teaching experience is. (Unless it’s the 25th of August and the semester starts on the 26th, in which case they look for whether your breath will fog a mirror and you aren’t currently incarcerated.)
If you’re applying for a research-oriented job, they look to see how interesting your dissertation is, and what you’ve published to establish its high quality.
Somewhere down the line, the trivial matter of where you earned all your different degrees (always assuming none of them is from Dr Nick’s All-Nite Research University) might come up over drinks, but really, nobody uses that fact as a quick CV weeder.
Myth #2: I’ll Never Get a Teaching Job Because I’m Too Old / White / Anglo / Male. Because you’re right, there are hardly any old white Anglo males in this business. Hell, there’s only one in my office.
Age: first of all, the ideal job candidate nowadays is probably someone who’s 62 years old and will retire as soon as s/he earns tenure, saving their employer decades of seniority raises. Second, no, you will not go far in the profession if your idea of cutting-edge scholarship is Cleanth Brooks and your dissertation idea is “The Influence of Existentialism on the Beat Generation.” But aside from that, ageism in the academy, from all I can tell, is at a historical low.
The same applies to worries over your various un-PC attributes: your whiteness, your native English, your maleness. The counterpart myth, “All the Jobs go to Young Black Disabled Lesbians,” is equally trite. They strike me as excuses. Yes, if you are an intellectual reactionary, if you come across as tacitly racist or with a chip on your shoulder about how beleaguered you are as a member of a majority group, you might not get much sympathy in a humanities department. If you, by contrast, keep an open mind and seek out new ideas, why wouldn’t you get a fair chance at any jobs that are going?
Myth #3: College Teaching in the Humanities is an Upper-Middle-Class Profession.
College English teachers can expect to make poverty-level salaries as adjuncts, working-class salaries as full-time untenured faculty, and skilled-trades salaries as tenured senior faculty.
Bob Seger had a song back when I was in high school:
I wanna be a lawyer
Doctor or professor
Member of the U.M.C.
I wanna drive a Lincoln,
Spend my evenings drinkin,
Have stock in GM and GE.
Lawyers and doctors, if they survive to senior levels in their professions, yes, they can aspire to such giddy circumstances. English professors? we drive ancient Hondas, spend our evenings grading papers, and the only coupons we clip are the ones that offer 40% off at Half Price Books.
William Pannapacker has recently made waves with a series of increasingly embittered attacks on the hypocrisy of graduate education in the humanities in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The myth of the academic meritocracy powerfully affects students from families that believe in education, that may or may not have attained a few undergraduate degrees, but do not have a lot of experience with how access to the professions is controlled. Their daughter goes to graduate school, earns a doctorate in comparative literature from an Ivy League university, everyone is proud of her, and then they are shocked when she struggles for years to earn more than the minimum wage.
“Graduate school in the humanities,” Pannapacker concludes, “is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon ‘the life of the mind.’” Despite his histrionics, I tend to agree with Pannapacker. Not about the “trap” aspect, mind you, but about the myth that lots of advanced degrees will bring you luxury cars, single-malts, and bulging portfolios.
In fact, I very much doubt that teaching English ever entailed such things unless said English teachers had them already. Teaching English is a working-class occupation. We do not control the means of production; we do not possess independent capital. We are ill-paid. Thanks to an economic principle called the Baumol effect, we can’t become more productive over time, so the only way for a school to afford English teaching and its irreducible labor-intensiveness is to keep eroding our salaries in real terms. Basically, society doesn’t value what we do, and we’re paid accordingly.
Pannapacker bemoans the lack of “real jobs” in the humanities, but lots and lots of us have real jobs. We keep them as real as possible by working for what prison guards or truck drivers make. And folks, that’s not as tragic as Pannapacker insists. Lots of prison guards and truck drivers, after all, own their own homes, have hobbies, and get out to see the occasional movie or NASCAR race. If it would mortify you to be seen at the Motor Speedway, well, the Fort Worth Opera has $20 tickets. Culture, precisely because it’s consumed by the underpaid, is often an excellent bargain. Reading is still pretty much free.
The most important thing for people to know about college teaching as they go into it is that it’s a working-class occupation. Some initial myth-busting on that score can save a world of grief later on.
— Tim Morris