‘100 Reasons’ to Do Something: Grad School as a Platform

One of the myriad benefits of being a student at Corpus Christi College at Oxford – beautiful gardens, travel grants, exquisite tastes on the parts of the librarians – is the chance at unexpected conversations with new friends in the college MCR. In the middle of a hectic day earlier this week spent writing a paper for an upcoming conference, I ended up falling into a revealing conversation about how people view graduate school in the humanities these days.

Corpus Christi College: civilization on Merton Street

Speaking with an art historian and a historian of antiquity, the former described what I suspect are common travails for many graduate students at a recent conference. She had attended an event on 17th century France, but she was virtually the only graduate student at the conference. Everyone else – old white male professors chummy with one another and in no hurry to introduce themselves to her – paid little attention to her work, and generally made her feel unwelcome. There was little enthusiasm for someone young who had developed an interest in the discipline, and when it came time for her to deliver her presentation, the attitude was less one of potentially discovering a new, exciting scholar, than sitting through tripe before the public school camaraderie could pick up again at the pub soon afterwards. It was awful.

The historian of antiquity, meanwhile, had had fewer such discouraging experiences, but strongly felt the effects of pre-professionalization. Even if she had wanted to turn her work on the Black Sea in Late Antiquity into something more dynamic than a series of research articles, as a young academic she felt herself enslaved to the tyranny of Research Assessment Exercises, a British institution which (to oversimplify) encourages a publish-or-perish culture. What to do?

Such feelings of despair are, as I’ve discovered attending several conferences (in Amsterdam, Exeter, and London) recently, despairingly common among graduate students. We seem to learn more and more every day about why attending graduate school, especially in the humanities, is a terrible decision. Milestone articles like ‘Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go’ by William Pannapacker, a professor of English at Hope College in Michigan, ‘Faulty Towers’ by the dazzling writer and critic Bill Deresiewicz, and popular blogs like ‘100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School’ both capture and perpetuate these negative attitudes.

Broadly, the line is this: graduate school is a huge time suck of five to seven years that will delay your becoming an adult, throw you into poverty for that entire period, and not even guarantee you any substantial improvement in employment prospects. You’re likely, especially in the humanities, the common critique says, to learn postmodern mumbo-jumbo that won’t prove of any marketable value. There are no jobs. Competition for the ones that do exist, which are mostly adjunct positions, anyway, is brutal. And if you do get one, you’re likely to be the only New Yorker reader in the entire zip code that your godforsaken branch of underfunded State U. is located in. Give up, the critique says. Don’t even try.

While your humble narrator here is, I hope, far from naïve on these matters, I try to take a slightly more optimistic bent on these matters than my friends the art historian and the historian of late antiquity. That there are significant reasons for despair, as I’ve outlined in several posts on higher education in this blog before, I don’t doubt. And my perspective as a securely-funded grad student at a comfy institution with interests slightly more ecumenical than, say, Etruscan poetry, might render my perspective rosy, too.

Graduate school: a ‘ship of fools’?

Still, what I said to the two other Corpuscles (students at Corpus Christi) I was speaking to – and I sincerely believe is the attitude that younger scholars or humanities and social sciences graduate students nowadays have to take – is that we need to stop taking our education so passively. Too often, blogs like ‘100 Reasons’ or articles like the ones cited above portray graduate school as just one more step in what’s been described in some blogs as the ‘K-JD’, or ‘K-PhD’ process. Young people spend the first twenty-five or thirty years of their lives in classrooms. For many I’ve seen, graduate school is less a time to break out intellectually than to figure out how to simply shift to the other side of the teacher-student equation that’s been their dominant experience for most of their educational lives. Students hang around university campuses looking for teaching assignments in composition classes, or training to teach in narrowly-defined fields to fit the job postings in the silos of Russian History, South Asian History, American History, International Relations, and so on. Students spend very little time producing things outside of what their teachers demand; indeed, often they aren’t given the tools or frameworks they need to learn how to create projects outside of the bounds of the classroom.

This is a terrible way to live. If you read through all of the posts on 100 Reasons, the impression you get of a graduate student is of a hyper-passive individual unable to justify to the outside world why his or her chosen subject matters to any broader public conversation. Rather than thinking creatively (or even critically, as Anthony Grafton does in a recent NYRB piece) about the opportunities and challenges the Internet, they are, as the most recent post illustrates, just waiting to get obliterated by what Ken Auletta describes in a recent New Yorker piece on Stanford as the oncoming tsunami of online education. The message the blog emphasizes to you, with its photographs of Victorian and Edwardian schoolchildren and washed-out Impressionist paintings, is: be depressed. Give up. There’s no hope. You’re screwed.

As Grafton’s piece (itself a review of a recent and promising book by Andrew Delbanco) exemplifies, we shouldn’t confuse this critique of the depression crowd with confidence that we have answers to the challenges in American higher education in the 21st century. It’s far from clear what kind of jobs – at least in the 20th century sense of an academic job – will exist in the 21st century university for humanists. But one thing I hope to do in upcoming blog posts is to try to think out loud about some of the ways in which younger scholars could re-imagine their career trajectories, or indeed the way they think about careers that involve a humanistic education.

One author and blogger who I’ve begun to follow much more closely recently, who is massively popular outside of academia but, as far as I can tell, obscure among scholars is Seth Godin, a business and marketing blogger. While some within the academy might dismiss Godin as superficial, or find the idea of appropriating ‘business wisdom’ to their enterprise irrelevant, I think they’d be committing a huge mistake in doing so. While addressing himself primarily to a business and entrepreneurial audience, Godin’s work essentially revolves around the question of how entrepreneurs, or ‘artists’ – people engaged in producing things where their comparative advantage is not their low cost in producing a commodity, but rather producing something special in a world where our basic needs can be met quite cheaply – have to redefine themselves in a post-industrial age.

What does this age look like? Thanks to YouTube, thanks to Amazon, and thanks to eBooks, we no longer live in what Nassim Taleb would call a Mediocristan world, where being the best lecturer in your city or at your university on American history was enough to guarantee yourself a job as a lecturer. (Incidentally, this was the world of my grandfather, who was literally a lecturer in American history at College of the Desert in Palm Springs, CA, during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.) Cheap books, and YouTube views, and the decline of the cost of transmitting your idea to (potentially) huge audiences to near-zero have obliterated that world. If you’re Tony Judt, or Francis Fukuyama, or another famous academic, you’re read and you merit people’s attention.

College of the Desert in the Coachella Valley: maybe the ideal platform for humanists in the 1960s, but perhaps not in a digital age

But there’s no point, if you’re an ambitious young graduate student or media-hungry would-be pundit, in trying to occupy the Judt ‘slot’ or the Fukuyama ‘slot’ by, for example, studying French socialism and taking controversial stands on Israel, or writing articles on ends to history or neoconservatism. Those ‘slots’ – that package of interests, methodologies, and condensed awesomeness that Judt represented, and Fukuyama represent – are already taken. There’s no reason for someone like yours truly, who can already read Fukuyama’s books or his blog if I’m into him, to read something that’s Fukuyama-lite, because I can already get the real thing at close-to-zero cost. The flip side of this is that while there remains a compelling interest for large educational institutions like Harvard to retain a Niall Ferguson, or Stanford a Fukuyama because of their cachet, there’s no reason for anywhere good to employ Ferguson and Ferguson-lite.) The point that Godin emphasizes is, there’s no point in copying your role models, because your role models are already occupying those slots. Instead, he recommends, find a way to explode into your own slot – a way to command attention, to be read, and, ideally, to find ways where you’re relevant not because you’re in the group of chummy public school boys at the French history conference, but because your work is striking and attracts viewers, and has legitimacy outside of any institution.

More concretely, one of Godin’s blog posts that I think many graduate students could benefit from reading is this one from December 8, 2010, ‘Where’s your platform? Writes Godin, concisely:

That needs to be the goal when you seek out a job.

Bob Dylan earned the right to make records, and instead of using it to create ever more commercial versions of his old stuff, he used it as a platform to do art.

A brilliant programmer finds a job in a small company and instead of seeing it as a grind, churning out what’s asked, he uses it as a platform to hone his skills and to ship code that changes everything.

A waiter uses his job serving patrons as a platform for engagement, for building a reputation and for learning how to delight.

A blogger starts measuring pageviews and ends up racing to the bottom with nothing but scintillating gossip and pandering. Or, perhaps, she decides to use the blog as a platform to take herself and her readers somewhere they will be glad to go…

There’s no rigid line between a job and art. Instead, there’s an opportunity. Both you and your boss get to decide if your job is a platform or just a set of tasks.

Replace ‘job’ with ‘graduate school’ and you might have the beginning to a manifesto for how some of us could rethink our educations. It might be true that you feel compelled, whether literally by your institution or in the illusion of guaranteeing yourself the adjunct position at random state school in Russian history, to model yourself along your discipline’s idea of what ‘standard graduate student in [fill in your field]’ is. But do only that, and you’re just making yourself a commodity, one that happens to be in over-supply anyway. What’s the point? You’re spending five to seven years to make yourself into a copy of something that few institutions seem to actually want, and soon your only avenue to compete becomes on cost. In other words, you’re an underpaid adjunct on short-term contracts, unable to move on to important adult life milestones.

But it’s hard for me to think of many better platforms (again, this is probably more true for those of us not studying Etruscan pottery shards) for making yourself into an interesting, multi-faceted thinker than (top) graduate schools today: vast quantities of free time to write, read, and network; the ability to learn foreign languages or to use your institution’s clout and resources to see other parts of the world; and one of the best routes (if you’re not already well-connected) to get to know lots of smart people quickly. Use that opportunity not just to be standard-issue grad student, but as a platform to be grad student plus something else that’s really special. The exciting (and scary) part is that you get to determine what your niche (I mean beyond already-defined ‘fields’) is going to be.

I don’t want to make this sound easy, but based on conversations I’ve had this spring I think it’s crucial that grad students today find ways to think creatively and productively (rather than through the 100 Reasons doom-and-gloom paradigm, although there is much gloom today, too) about how they’re going to take over their education. Look for more posts in the future on this direction – along, hopefully, with trip reports from upcoming conference stints in Pakistan (May 13 – 22) and Serbia (May 23-27).


2 thoughts on “‘100 Reasons’ to Do Something: Grad School as a Platform

  1. Cesar

    Nicely done. I think one could make a short leap in connecting this perspective to a slightly broader view based on the same principle, applied to life goals and aspirations as a whole. For intelligent people especially, “making it count” seems to be one of these cliches which are all too easy to write off as naive, though in practice it can be quite a challenge to meet. I hate to speak in terms of “potential” and “talent,” but the greater freedom and flexibility afforded to the gifted can make self-actualization rather difficult; tunnel-vision and self-protective rationalization both inculcate insular views of what ought to be done. Of course, it’s always easier to feel successful if one has quantifiable measures to point to, and that, I think, is almost always a negative pull — for graduate students, professionals, and everyone generally.

  2. Luke

    This article addresses specifically what are talking about regarding things grad students can be doing while they are still “in the academy” – http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/Issues/2005/0501/0501vie1.cfm

    “This failure to speak to nonhistorians has, as the Post article indicated, serious repercussions on a policy level. Historians who tend to write in jargon and to write narrowly focused monographs that are of interest only to a handful of scholars do little to help the public understand history.”

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