A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Should you go to graduate school in the humanities?

Should you go to graduate school in the humanities?

No, because you will find yourself surrounded by neurotics who wring their hands and solipsistically lament “the state of the field.”

Yes, because you will find yourself surrounded by thoughtful individuals who engage in continuous critical self-examination about their work and its place in society.

For about the past month, my Facebook feed has been filled with discussions on this question, should you go to graduate school in the humanities? This question typically accompanies links to articles exploring the question. It started with this piece in Slate, and  has continued more recently with this piece in The New Yorker, with several others in between.

It’s good that these articles are being written. Going to graduate school represents a substantial investment of time and energy on a kind of professional development that, given the precarious nature of the academic job market, entails tremendous risk. That being said, I haven’t read these articles. When one of my Facebook friends posts them, I never click on the link, and I often hide the post from my Facebook feed. These articles aren’t for me—they’re for those who haven’t yet made a decision that I made many years ago. I know that, at best, these articles will provide me with an opportunity to pat myself on the back and say, yes, going to graduate school was the right choice. A far more likely possibility is that these articles will leave me with a feeling of regret about a choice that I can’t undo. I’m prone to anxiety as it is—I don’t need Slate or The New Yorker to help me on that front.

Which is why I’ve been surprised that so many of my friends have continued to post these articles and engage in lengthy discussions of them, since most of these friends are are, like me, on the tail end of their Ph.D. and thus not the articles’ target audience. After some discussion with a few of them, it became apparent that this wasn’t about wallowing in their depression, as I often suspected. Nor was it about figuring out what to advise someone were they to ask if they should go to grad school (like the articles’ titles suggest). It wasn’t even about how our field is perceived by the middlebrow intellectual audience that Slate and The New Yorker represent.

Instead, these articles are serving as a vector through which people can communicate their existing feelings of anxiety about the future. There’s an element of self-flagellation to this that I don’t appreciate. By broadcasting their regrets about their decision to go to graduate school, many graduate students not only insult themselves; they also insult others who are in the same precarious situation. But the fact that these discussions appear to be so damn common among later-year Ph.D. students indicates that they are filling a real need—a need that our graduate programs are not filling.

There are two personality traits of people who get into graduate school: ambition and inquisitiveness. These two are not mutually exclusive; in fact, if you want to be successful you had better be both. But graduate programs—top-tier graduate programs in particular—are not equally skilled at cultivating both sides of their students personalities. As the job market has become more competitive, the culture of graduate school has, in many tangible and intangible ways, done more to cultivate ambition, such that, by the time you complete your Ph.D., acquiring a tenure-track job has been imbued with a symbolic importance that far exceeds its practical importance

But practically speaking, those jobs simply won’t be there for many of us. Taking a broad view, I’m frustrated with the academy for not doing more to adapt to the technological and economic changes that led to this situation. Had the field adapted, it might’ve better demonstrated its worth and there would be more jobs out there. But more immediately, I’m frustrated with the academy for perpetuating an outdated sort of tenure-track fetishism that places blinders on its students at a time when they most need a full range of vision.

The reason many later-year Ph.D. students are posting “should you go to graduate school?” articles is because there aren’t many “should Ph.D.s get professorships?” articles out there. But that’s the question we are—and should be—asking. Many of us lack the professional guidance necessary to navigate this job market as it exists in 2013. How might it be possible to subsist as an adjunct professor or a lecturer? Where does one find international job opportunities? What about high schools or community colleges? What about administrative positions or libraries? What private industry jobs might value a humanities degree, and how do we market ourselves towards those jobs? Is it possible to teach at a university on a part-time basis while doing other things? How do we address the two-body problem?

A focus on narrowly defined professional ambitions—the tenure-track professorship—makes just asking these questions an exercise fraught with anxiety. But graduate programs have a responsibility to answer these questions, and to do so early in their students’ graduate careers. If graduate programs did that, it might be possible for their Ph.D.s to see that there are many ways to succeed as members of an academically-literate intellectual community regardless of whether or not they are "academics" in the most conservative sense of the word. This is necessary on a practical level to ensure students' financial well-being, but it’s also necessary to ensure their emotional well-being. And I think that they would be easier questions to answer if graduate programs cultivated inquisitiveness the way that they cultivate ambition. If graduate programs don't start doing this, then we’ll all just keep freaking out on Facebook.

ADDENDUM: If graduate schools do want to narrow their students' options to the tenure-track professorship, they're free to do so, but they had better accept far fewer students into their programs. If they still want to exploit graduate student labor, they had better provide those students with more professional options.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Etiquette Guidelines for Students Interacting with Instructors

I've been thinking a lot lately about the reasons why instructors (graduate students in particular) get frustrated with their students. Often these frustrations stem from a sense of entitlement that instructors get from their students--a sense of entitlement that stems from unreasonable demands on the instructor's time or a simple lack of common sense. But I've been wondering if we're being unfair. A lot of those frustrations are our own fault for not making our expectations clear from the outset, and what we gloss as "entitlement" might in fact be simple ignorance. It requires a lot of socialization to succeed in a university environment and an explicit primer on the social norms that govern that environment might be one of the most empowering tools that we can give our students. With that in mind, I've made the following handout, which I think could be a very effective teaching tool, especially for first year students in the context of a small class, like a first-year writing course.

Etiquette Guidelines for Students Interacting with Instructors

Success in any college course is determined by your performance on the graded material—the exams, the papers, the other assignments—but it is also determined by the relationship that you cultivate with your instructor. This might not seem intuitive, but making a good impression on your instructor and cultivating a positive relationship with them can lead to many tangible benefits. It can mean that the instructor will be more likely to excuse an absence or provide you with an extension on an assignment. It can make them more inclined to bump up a borderline final grade. It can turn them into a source for a letter of recommendation. And it can determine how harsh or lenient they are when they evaluate the more subjective components of your grade, like essays or participation. Cultivating a positive relationship with an instructor requires following certain etiquette rules. Some of these may seem obvious, but they are all important:


DO read the syllabus closely and consult it for answers to questions about course policies.
DON’T ask your instructor questions about the course that are answered on the syllabus.

DO ask for clarification about course policies or assignments as soon as possible.
DON’T wait until right before the due date to ask questions about the assignment.


DO begin emails with a salutation and end with a signoff.
DON’T misspell your instructor’s name.

DO give your instructors 24 hours to respond to email, not including weekends.
DON’T expect an immediate response to a message, especially one sent late at night.

DO be the last person to send an email during an email exchange. When arranging a meeting, it is your responsibility to send the last email confirming the meeting time. If you do not send the last email, your instructor might assume that the meeting isn’t on.


DON'T ask questions via email that will require a long response and DON’T ask for feedback on written work via email.
DO use email for short, direct questions. DO use office hours for any questions that require extensive feedback or a back-and-forth conversation.

DO take notes during office hours. You likely won’t remember all of the instructor’s advice.

If an instructor offers a block of time when they are available other than their regular office hours, DON’T assume that they will be in their office during that time. They are offering a block of time when they could be in their office if you make arrangements to meet with them.

DON’T refer to a meeting outside of the regularly scheduled office hours as “office hours.”

DON’T miss a meeting outside of regularly scheduled office hours, except in an emergency.
DO email to explain why you missed an appointment as soon as possible.


DO email your instructor ahead of time when you know you'll miss class for an excused absence.
DON'T assume that by emailing ahead of time, your absence is automatically excused. Ask.
DON’T email your instructor about an absence that you know isn’t excused.

DO ask a classmate what you missed in class when you were absent.
DON'T ask your instructor what you missed—not in email or in office hours.
DEFINITELY DON’T ask, “did I miss anything in class last week?” The answer is always yes.

DON’T assume that an assignment can be turned in late because you were absent.
DO turn in your assignment even if you are absent, or arrange for an extension.


DO maintain a professional tone with your instructor.
DON’T share details from your personal life, unless they are affecting your performance in class.
DON’T try to friend your instructor on Facebook (maybe after the class is over, if you had a positive relationship).

DON’T text or check Facebook. Your instructor can tell.

If you are late, DON’T interrupt a lecture or a student’s presentation by walking in.
DO wait by the door until there is a moment when walking in won’t be distracting.

If you must leave early, DO tell the instructor beforehand, sit near the door, and slip out quietly.
DON’T walk out of class in the middle of a lesson without warning.

DON’T lie to your instructor. You’d be surprised how easy it is to get caught. Don’t say you’re only available during a two hour window, only to arrange a meeting for a different hour of the day. Don’t tell an instructor you uploaded an assignment to the course website when you haven’t. Don’t kill the same grandmother twice when explaining your absences.

Generally speaking, these DOs and DON’Ts are all about empathizing with your instructors and understanding what they value in a relationship with a student. Many students assume that their instructors value “respect” in some abstract sense of the term. This isn’t exactly true. For example, many people who hold Ph.D.’s don’t particularly care if you call them “Doctor” or “Professor”; in fact, many will ask that you call them by their first name. 

The top three things that most instructors value are:
  1. Their time. Think about who is teaching your course. If it’s a full professor, they’re probably in the process of writing a book or an article, or they’re engaged in some research project. If it’s a graduate student, they’re probably taking courses or writing their dissertation, and might be applying for jobs. If it’s a lecturer or adjunct professor, they’re probably teaching many courses at once and applying for jobs. In any case, teaching you is not their only responsibility. This doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy teaching you or that they don’t work hard at it, it’s just the nature of the university. So if you’re going to respect anything, respect your teacher’s time, and don’t waste it.
  2. Their students’ time. If an individual student isn’t paying attention during a lesson, many instructors won’t be offended, but if a student distracts other students during a lesson, they’re very likely to incur their instructor’s wrath.
  3. Their work. Instructors love the thing that they’re teaching about, and they work really hard at it. So, the easiest way to make a bad impression is to give your instructor a sense that you are bored or lazy. If they sense that you don’t care about the material, then they won’t care about you. On the other hand, the easiest way to make a good impression is to show some passion for the material, or at least some genuine interest. Even if it’s a required course that you aren’t particularly excited about, finding a way to show enthusiasm will go a long way.