Advice Not to Go to Graduate School Obscures Real Issues

By now, the latest anti-(humanities)graduate school screed, “Thesis Hatement” by Rebecca Schuman, has made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. The author warns us against going to grad school in the humanities, stating, “I now realize graduate school was a terrible idea because the full-time, tenure-track literature professorship is extinct. After four years of trying, I’ve finally gotten it through my thick head that I will not get a job—and if you go to graduate school, neither will you.” She runs down a nice list of the many humiliations, large and small, of the academic job market, ending with the blanket advice that, “when it comes to graduate school, you should just chuck the ladder before you try to climb it. You’ve only got to run the other way.”

Let me say right off that I don’t disagree with Schuman’s advice. The job situation in higher education for humanities PhD’s is deplorable, and in many ways, she is right to issue such warnings. However, as Tressie McMillan Cottom has pointed out, the author fails to consider the ramifications of her advice for people who are members of underrepresented groups in academia, namely black students:

Let us not engage the change that needs to happen in academic labor by telling people who could stand to benefit the most from credentials that we have socially constructed, through racism and classism and sexism, as more necessary for some than others that graduate school is a net negative. Because it is not.

Instead, let us consider a calculation of social distance, aspiration, returns on investment, prestige and cost. Let us give students a patchwork quilt of tools to determine that graduate school math for themselves rather than a blanket default condemnation that is rooted in our own social position, experiences, and privileges.

This is spot on, and I can only respond with a YES. One of the many reasons I like this response so much is because Cottom focuses on structural and systemic racism – or, in her words, “structural racial projects” that are “a function of a complicated mix of social constructs, organizational processes, politics, history and probably magic.” As Cottom points out, Schuman mostly ignores these larger systemic issues in her piece, arguing that since “none of [these issues] will be sorted out in the five to 10 years it takes you to get a Ph.D,” it’s not worthwhile to consider them.

And this is precisely my problem with the piece. In her emphasis on individual choice – don’t YOU go to grad school, it’s the worst decision YOU can make, etc. – Schuman does little to address the larger systemic issues surrounding structural racism, misogyny, and classism; academic labor; privatization; and cuts to the public funding of education. In centering her attacks on the individual – effectively displacing any potential discussion about larger structural issues onto a narrative of (failed) individual choices – Schuman misses an opportunity to discuss the system as whole. We should be working on how to get a handle on the many convoluted and complex social, political, economic, and historical forces shaping higher education and academic labor today, not on how to blame or shame individuals who decide they want to go to graduate school.

Again, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with Schuman’s overal point here; I’m disagreeing with the way in which she has chosen to frame this topic. Personal experiences and individualized advice may make for a compelling story, but we also need stories invested in making systemic change visible and possible. We need to start debates about the ways in which academic labor and higher education as structures and systems are changing, not provide more fodder for those who denigrate the humanities – and those who choose to study them – as irrelevant, out of touch, and useless.

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Just before posting, I ran across this response to the Slate piece from Karen Gregory, who is right on the money:

There is a cold logic of privatization at work in these “don’t go” screeds. This logic foregrounds an “every man for himself” mentality, which mirrors the very toxic culture of academics that so closely binds self-worth and research production. To what degree have we internalized this toxicity when we suggest to others that they should “save themselves”? This is not to say that we should not be very angry about the state of the job market, but to ask how does such privatization lead us away from addressing larger, structural issues at play here?

At the risk of repeating myself: YES, YES, YES.

2 thoughts on “Advice Not to Go to Graduate School Obscures Real Issues

  1. Here is one way to address this. As a parent of a high school student who expects to end up paying the full bill for college, just like I did my older children, I look for a school that has a high percentage of full-time faculty. I’m not shelling out six figures for my child to be taught by people who have three part-time jobs because they are not going to be able to do the equivalent advising, planning and teaching as someone who is full-time on campus. One of the questions I asked on campus visits is , “What percent of your faculty are full time?”

    If schools start losing revenue when parents choose to pay tuition at a campus with more of those tenure-track people, perhaps they will quit skimping on faculty.

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