“Henry Adams’s” most recent “Academic Bait-and-Switch” column in The Chronicle, in which he discusses all of his misguided reasons for going to graduate school in English, prodded me to reflect on my own experience as an undergraduate drama and English major who aspired to become a college professor.
Like “Adams,” I wanted to continue my education for reasons that had little relation to what academics actually do. I loved reading books and plays, and sitting up with my friends until 4AM drinking wine or cocoa and discussing literature and life. I wanted to extend this experience as long as possible. And I imagined that teaching in a college would be more of the same—daytime colloquies with bright, interested students, and elevated off-hours discussions with highly educated peers who were passionate about their fields.
I had no clue about the pressure to publish or grinding committee work, or that most colleges and universities were larger, rougher and less respectful of the humanities than my small, genteel, mostly-women’s school. I was completely unaware that my restless and sometimes ornery temperament was a bad match for an academic career. And my teachers, seeing only a bright and passionate young student, encouraged me to go on.
Fortunately for any number of future students, I couldn’t afford graduate school then. I needed to support myself, so those plans were shelved. Instead, I returned to New York, which was entering the huge recession during which, the following year, President Ford famously told the city to drop dead. (I know he didn’t actually say those words—it was a Daily News headline—but that really was the message.) It seemed like every humanities major in the US was pounding the streets that year, all of us applying for the same five jobs.
Since I couldn’t go to grad school, I hoped to get a job in publishing, which would also, I reasoned, allow me to read books and talk about them with smart people. I had some interviews for “editorial assistant” jobs (essentially secretarial work for which you needed a BA because if you were really good and finished all of your typing & filing, they might let you read slush). The ones I was offered, though, paid too little to support me. My friends and I started referring to these entry-level “jobs” (they were more like internships with a small stipend) as “trust-fund positions,” because the women (they were always women at that time) who held them sported dresses, pearls, and haircuts they could never afford on their salaries, even if they were living and eating at home. I lived with my parents when I first came back, but they charged me rent, and I was in debt, so I needed a real job. And they just weren’t there. At one point, I seriously considered going back to the printing factory where I had worked during summer and winter vacations while I was in college, but that felt like such a giant step backward I couldn’t bring myself to pick up the phone and call my old boss.
It all worked out. I found a job proofreading for a law firm. That led, eventually, to writing and editing jobs, and by the time I was writing for a university and had the chance to attend graduate school for free, I was thirty and had a more realistic idea of the kind of work I wanted to do.
But in those early, dark days, when no one seemed to want me because I had neither a business degree, a CPA license, nor the ability to type 60 words a minute, and it looked like I was destined to spend the rest of my life filling out printing orders and sleeping in my childhood bedroom, I received a rather aggressive solicitation from my alma mater. I sent back a nice letter, thanking them for the delightful social atmosphere of the school and the inspiring educational experiences I’d had, as well as my dismay at learning that my four expensive years hadn’t prepared me for anything practical except more school. “As all of the benefits you gave me were intangible, I assume you understand and appreciate the value of my sincere gratitude, in lieu of a financial contribution.”
Definitely a smart-ass, simplistic response to a complex situation. I was, after all, 22 and depressed. But a non-credit course or two on what to expect after graduation, how to apply for jobs that might interest a bright humanities major, and how to “sell” our academic skills in the marketplace would have been appreciated—and this appreciation would most likely have been expressed in more tangible form.
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