Monday, April 14, 2008

On Generalizations (and Grad School, Tenure, and Taylorism)

Can't do with them, can't do without them--that's the problem with generalizations, I say. As an antidote to the off-target generalizations flying around about tenure these days--"it exists only to protect lazy bullies!" "it's to blame for the corporatization and casualization of the university!" "it restricts the academic freedom of the untenured and nontenurable!"--may I humbly recommend that you go and check out A White Bear's post on the way faculty and graduate students (are expected to) interact (and so much more) over at Is there no sin in it?? Go ahead, I can wait.

Read it? Yeah, yeah, I know it's not about tenure even tangentially, but I'll get to that. One of the things I love about her post (and AWB's blogging more generally) is the way she sets up and qualifies the generalizations she makes--they inevitably come from carefully-observed and -thought over details of her life. Even better, almost every post reads like an insight has just hit her or a pattern has just fallen into place in the world or her head. She's not putting it out there as her settled view--she wants to see what her readers make of it. And because she has built up such a great readership and commentariat over the years, the comments on many of her posts are as illuminating and moving as her writing that got each of those asynchronous conversations started. Which is to say that she gets blogging--she really is committed to exploring the possibilities of this medium and of playing with its emerging conventions and traditions.

Tenure? Oh yeah! Here's the connection, in slow motion. AWB offers three interesting generalizations about what being a graduate student means.

1) "PhD students, even more so than undergrads, are, on the East Coast, anyhow, expected to be slime-dwelling sycophants. We are supposed to keep in mind at all times that, although we are responsible for teaching big courseloads of difficult classes, sitting on committees, helping to run programs (often out of our own pockets), advising students, writing recommendation letters, developing curriculum, and on and on, we are in probation. Our classes are observed and evaluated every semester, our behavior is analyzed to the finest degree, our work scrutinized for purity of thought, and, on top of all that, we make about a quarter of what a tenure-track prof makes, and usually without health insurance."

2) "And when I meet students from other, more formal and stately PhD programs, I am rather shocked by the god-like awe that separates the faculty from the graduate students. At MLA one year, I remember sneaking off to a casual Thai restaurant and watching a whole program dine together, everyone in thousand-dollar suits, with the graduate students speaking only to say things like, 'Ah, I believe Professor X is correct there!' and 'Ha, ha, Professor Y!'”

3) "If there’s one kind of mentoring that really gets lost somewhere in graduate programs, it’s something about how to be brave."

She's not putting these generalizations out there as The Truth. For those who read her post and check out her blog regularly, it's clear that these are reflections based on comparing her (relatively collegial) experiences with others'. But because she's so observant, so smart, and such a good writer, it feels to me that she's earned the questions she poses at the end of her post, in which she puts forward even broader generalizations:

Partly, I suppose the grinding-down is there because most of the people who seriously consider grad school in the first place are egotistical assholes, but what about those who are so easily convinced by the grinding-down that they are scum? What benefit does it offer them to further scummify them? We receive all kinds of professional training, but as far as interpersonal social training goes, all grad students seem to be learning is how to couch every statement with an apology and a self-negation. Who is there to lift us up so that, when we go on the job market, we look like young professors, and not like self-loathing vermin? Is the feeling that one is a vermin somehow productive in a way that I am blind to?

Tenure? I'm getting there. First, I want to throw a question or 5 of my own out there. How widespread are the problems AWB identifies? Do they get worse the higher up the academic status (and endowments) ladder you go? To what extent does tenure exacerbate them? To what extent does it cause them? Is it possible that tenure has nothing to do with them at all?

Sure, AWB's comment thread on this post is mostly about gender, generations, and mentoring, but I don't think I'm out of line to connect this to the tenure issue. When you're in your graduate program, you tend to assume it's a microcosm of the entire profession--that The Field is Your Department writ large. If you hit the jackpot on your job search and start your first tenure-track job at a place that's roughly equivalent to where you did your graduate studies, you're too concerned about figuring out the local politics and culture of Your New Department to make much of the difference in perspective on The Field you're getting. Meanwhile, the vast majority of people starting their tenure-track careers find themselves in the world of Academic Taylorism, too busy to do more than rue how badly their graduate programs prepared them for life outside the Billion Dollar Endowment Club. And the rest--the majority of candidates--do academic piece-work. The generalizations you tend to make about The Field start from the kinds of institutions you've been at and positions you've held in your academic career.

What Craig Smith and I have been trying to do is connect the dots--explore the relations between the training/credentialing system, the job search system, the academic staffing system, and the institution of tenure. A post like AWB's can help us do this--from our various institutional locations and academic histories--together.


A White Bear said...


I'm glad those posts were fruitful for you! And yes, I think a lot of these problems seem to be repeated on the higher levels of the profession, too. I've heard about as much disappointment and stress from assistant profs as I've heard from grad students, a real sadness about the way seeking tenure mimics the worst parts of graduate school. I know of several programs in which the asst. Ps do basically all of the administrative labor while the tenured types do something similar to the husband who breaks dishes every time he washes them so he won't have to do them anymore. On top of all that administrative labor, they're trying to publish, improve their scholarship, and mentor students, on far less salary than those who have the right, if they wish, to "prefer not to."

I'm not quite the type who tells every student who wants to go to grad school that they shouldn't, but that one should try to decide whether this life narrative---and this is the one for the very fortunate who do get TT jobs---is appealing. When you look at all the possible futures for your post-graduation life and even the most absolutely successful one seems dismally intolerable, it's time to think about doing something else. For me, I think it's worth it; I'm deeply invested in continuing this kind of work. But for a lot of my students, who just love literature and discussion, I sometimes feel like a good long talk about the career arc is not a bad thing.

The Constructivist said...

Same here. From my institution, we have more people going on to MFA programs or interdisciplinary programs like Women's Studies, and comparatively few going for the PhD in English Studies. I'm always frank about the slim odds facing them to even get their foot in the door by being admitted into a great grad program that's right for them. And when I teach our intro to the Master's program next semester, I'm definitely starting out with a frank look at the state of the profession.

Two hopeful notes, though: one is that people have to be so competitive in our field that they tend to do very well in interdisciplinary searches (when their expertise really is a good fit for the job); two is that there are plenty of places outside the BDEC that only hire people they intend to tenure and see the assistant professorship as a time for mentoring, support, and development. I'd love to hear more happy stories from places like this with reasonable expectations for and working processes of granting tenure....

That said, the majority of junior faculty I knew at my grad program felt exactly like you describe. But that goes back to my point that the field is much bigger than the PhD-granting institutions....