Graduate students

An Enthusiast's View of Academic Blogs

Adam may not need blogging right now, but even he admits that the community he has as a graduate student is transitory -- contingent upon a certain group of students sharing an institutional affiliation in a particular historical moment -- and perhaps all the more vibrant for being so.

I have a similar community in Irvine: I speak regularly with Joseph Kugelmass, another contributor to The Valve, and our conversations as frequently turn to things we’ve read and written online as they do formal professional matters. Our conversations straddle two mediums; but someday soon, when he’s sporting tenure at an Ivy and I’m adjuncting my way up and down the California coast, we’ll still be able to keep half our current dynamic intact. I’m not talking about pointless Facebook update -- there may be a benefit to knowing that a Simpsons rerun left a fellow Americanist craving Cherry Garcia, but I doubt it’s intellectual. I’m talking about a regular engagement with each other’s intellectual concerns -- everything from the pains of preparing for the job market to the theoretical implications of an interpretive move you’re not sure you should’ve made -- all communicated in a medium able to accommodate everything from idle chatter to earnest manifesto.

Over the past three years, I’ve learned what it’s like to write in a way most academics never have: namely, for an audience. If this seems like a simple point, that’s because it is. Nor is it one of those profoundly simple points, either: it’s straight simple. When a blogger sits down to slave on her dissertation, article, or book, she doesn’t turn her back on the public sphere. Because in the end, the public sphere is us.

I’m talking about the communities we currently have, only five years in the future, when we’re scattered around the country, unable to communicate face-to-face, but still connected, still intellectually intimate, because we’ll still regularly be engaged with each other’s thoughts. But I’m not only talking about us. There’s no reason our community needs to consist solely of people we knew in grad school. Why not write for people who don’t already how you think about everything? Why not force yourself to articulate your points in such a way that strangers could come to know your thought as intimately as your friends from grad school do?

The informal publishing mechanisms available online can facilitate such communication so long as bloggers write for an audience informally. Senior faculty might continue to orient their scholarly production to the four people whose scholarly journals don’t pile up in the corner of the living room, slowly buried beneath unpaid bills and unread New Yorkers. Whether they know it or not, bloggers write for an audience larger than the search committees we hope to impress. They have already started eye-balling the rest of the world, asking themselves how they can communicate with it without seeming to pander to it. By and large, this approach works. To draw from my own recent experience:

In the first week of October, I presented at the American Literature Association’s Symposium on Naturalism. My talk went well enough, but the conference itself was surreal: two tenured faculty members -- both of whom wrote books I wish I’d written at institutions that would never consider hiring me -- two tenured faculty members independently introduced themselves to me and acknowledged that they’ve read my blog, Acephalous, for quite some time. Flattering, but hardly surreal. However, they then told me that they almost didn’t introduce themselves because they were, and I quote, “intimidated.”

Tenured faculty intimidated by a graduate student. These professors obviously put some weight into what I’ve written on Acephalous and The Valve. So I turned to my audience for feedback, and one of my commenters made the obvious point: I have commenters. Most scholars don’t. They have people they need to impress and tenure files to fill; but I have sustained intellectual engagement with hundreds of people. As one member of it wrote: “In the land of the people who work on things only three people will ever read, the schlub with a somewhat popular blog is king.”

Perhaps, but I don’t want to sound like one of Adam’s blog triumphalists, because I consider the power of blogs to be supplementary and concrete: they provide atomized intellectuals a way to meet and remain in contact with fellow sufferers and their ideas. More importantly, they ensure you’re not forgotten.

Scott Eric Kaufman
Author's email:

Scott Eric Kaufman is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of California at Irvine and blogs at Acephalous. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave last month at the annual meeting of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics.

An Open Letter to Graduate Students of English and Foreign Languages

The 20-plus-year job crisis in the foreign language and English professoriate has persisted beyond the shelf-life of “crisis.” Simply put, the increasing reliance on adjunct labor, the creation of compromise full-time non-tenure-track positions, and the continued overproduction of Ph.D.’s fall more neatly under the term “reality” than they do “crisis.”

Wandering the halls of the Modern Language Association convention in San Francisco last month brought to mind the two years I attended MLA conventions, waited in drafty hotel hallways for interviews to begin, and, looking back, participated, sadly enough, in an academic ritual Dante could not have imagined in his visions of hell.

And my baptism by fire led to no job prospects.

After considering applying for a paid training program to obtain a bus driver’s license in Ohio rather than work for less money as an adjunct instructor of English, I concomitantly considered applying to the spring two-year college market. Although this is changing somewhat, community colleges’ budget cycles often mean their faculty positions are advertised and filled in the spring. I received four interviews and three job offers, the best of which I took, and the benefit of which placed me at the front of a classroom rather than behind the wheel of a bus.

All this is to say, do not despair. The four-year job market may pass you by, the MLA may be a memory now, and the coveted research-intensive universities may find others for 2/2 teaching loads, but you can pursue a life of the mind in other settings that may not be utopian.

Let’s first look at the landscape of higher education before I discuss the promises and pitfalls of community college faculty life. According to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s classifications, 4,391 colleges and universities serve over 17,000,000 students. Only 283 of 4,391 institutions are classified as research universities (very high or high research activity), and/or doctoral/research universities. To their credit, these 283 universities enroll 28 percent of students, according to the 2004 IPEDS fall enrollment figures. By contrast, some 1,814 associate’s colleges -- including an additional 32 tribal colleges, which generally offer two-year degrees -- enroll 39 percent of American postsecondary students

In terms of faculty characteristics, full-time faculty degree attainment at the community college level remains heavily tilted toward the master’s, with 71 percent holding terminal master’s degrees while 13 percent hold doctorates. For the adjuncts who teach over two-thirds of community college courses, a definite pitfall of the system, only 5 percent hold doctorates.

Although statistics tend to bore humanists, I offer an overview of higher education to highlight points of interest to the Ph.D.’s in foreign languages and English who imagine themselves laboring only in the academic culture in which they took their doctorate. This spring, 1,814 two-year colleges and 32 tribal colleges may well need your expertise.

I have heard people lament, “As a humanist, I am not trained to teach five courses per semester to the under-prepared introductory student, thereby crowding out time for research.”

My response: “Think.”

To cite myself as an example, the state of New York paid for my master’s and the state of Ohio paid for my Ph.D. My training as a humanist helped me become a public intellectual whose politics and personal ethics demand that I give back to and reform the very system that helped me reach this stage in my career. Higher education is so diverse, two-year colleges themselves so diverse, that I cannot possibly speak in sweeping terms about any of them.

I can say that many of my colleagues are brilliant. I can also say that, as Emily Toth/Ms. Mentor writes, everyone who moves from graduate school to academic positions will have moments where they think, “I am surrounded by idiots.” Usually such moments represent the newly hired faculty member's overreaction to some errant words from the mouths of department misfits, committee losers, or administrative malcontents. Knowing that teaching is a messy prospect, I look for perfection neither from teachers nor students, and, I assure you, I am at my college for the students rather than for the misfits, losers, and malcontents. Proudly under-educated and provincial faculty give higher education a bad name.

My students motivate my research in unexpected ways, leading me to create a nationally recognized preparing future faculty program, to securing a spot at a week-long seminar at the United States Institute of Peace, to publish two books, to take students on grant-funded field trips, and much more.

To be sure, the high attrition of students at my community college demoralizes me. Then again, the ability of students to reach a high bar inspires me. Each semester represents a personal emotional roller coaster, at turns terrifying and fun. The fun should be restored to students’ intellectual lives, as well. Many have experienced schools as sites of degradation, yet they persist. Maybe you can relate.

But myths die hard deaths, and some myths about the community college sector contain kernels of truth. Faculty do teach a great deal. Graduate students may find the prospect of a 5/5 (or higher) load unthinkable. Sometimes I still do. However, I have taught a variety of courses during my tenure -- Critical Thinking, Introduction to Humanities, British Literature I and II, as well as many, many composition courses, online and face-to-face. Dabbling once into a basic skills course gave me enough pause to leave that work to my more talented colleagues. In short, thinking of course topics, of themed composition courses (our faculty regularly offer advertised composition classes in the graphic novel, gender and sexuality, protest literature, banned books, writing for education majors, and the like), rather than of course load mitigates some of the trepidation faculty experience in the face of a 5/5 teaching assignment. Learning communities, team teaching, and special projects may well reduce one's course load, depending upon local administrative policies, as may union contracts that weight composition classes as 4 credits rather than 3 because of the grading required of instructors in writing courses.

Teaching as much as we do can be intellectually stultifying. Community colleges pride themselves on innovation and responsiveness, excellence in education at an affordable price, but even the architecture of many two-year colleges speaks more to utilitarianism than to fostering a life of the mind. Bucking a full-time position in an academic setting for part-time work in a university setting may well be more intellectually stultifying.

Consider, too, the facts of salary, tenure, and benefits when looking beyond myths of the two-year college, one of which holds that faculty do not earn wages comparable to the four-year sector. Given the community college movement's early alliances with high schools, many have graduated pay scales or step systems based upon education and years of experience. I move up a step on the pay scale each year, enjoy adequate health care fully funded by the college, earn 15 sick days and receive 2 special emergency days per year. By law, tenure in Illinois runs on a three-year clock, and the peer-review process is formative rather than evaluative, leaving a pre-tenure candidate feeling more nurtured in her/his classroom practice than harassed. Combine all of this with a generous retirement package, and one invariably concludes: I work a lot and I'm paid for the work.

The adjunct path often leads to the work, sans the pay and benefits. To take concrete examples, of two-year colleges with ranks, the AAUP faculty salary survey for 2007-8 lists assistant professor pay ranging from a high point of $85,000 (Westchester Community College, New York) to a low point of $34,500 (Lackawanna College, Pennsylvania).

Myths aside, I encourage an empowered faculty role in the life of a college. The same should hold true of one's own career path. If the college at which I work has given all it can to me, and if I have contributed all I can to the college, I have no reservations parting ways. Should administration seem like the sector within which I can most impact students, I will pursue administrative jobs -- either at my current college or elsewhere. Tenure involves a college's commitment to employing me for life. I make no such commitment to stay employed at one school for life. More philosophically speaking, I tell my students that education always opens doors, and I believe the same of my Ph.D.

The Ph.D. confers upon a holder a certain cultural cachet. Whether to use this cachet in service of community college students, many of who will be first-generation and working-class, is not a decision to be made lightly. But if said students are to move along to four-year colleges and universities, should they so choose, they need professors with deep capacities for instructional flexibility, critical thinking, political savvy, and communitarian values. That might be you.

Again, do not despair about the dearth of university jobs with 2/2 loads, and, more importantly, do not fall prey to contempt prior to investigation — the surest road to ignorance. Visit community colleges, visit their classrooms, discuss career options with two-year college professors, and let go of the notion that 6,795,850 students gather in America’s two-year colleges to waste faculty members’ time, to dawdle, or to fail.

My faculty position is not utopian, but I defy anyone to tell me I would have traveled the world to academic conferences on subjects ranging from James Joyce to online teaching, encountered 3,600 students over 10 years, gained insight into the ways people’s minds work, contributed to a community, and have a stake in higher education were I in that bus or on an adjunct track, waiting year after year for a university position that may never materialize.

Sean P. Murphy
Author's email:

Sean P. Murphy is professor of English and humanities at the College of Lake County.

A New Humanities Ph.D.

After Sidonie Smith, president of the Modern Language Association, took on the herculean task of asking the profession to rethink the shape of the dissertation, Arnold Pan at Post Academic took up the MLA’s call to respond. Among his suggestions was “legitimating non-academic options for Ph.D. students, beyond the more practical advice offered by the campus job center.” Much attention has also been devoted lately to what Bethany Nowviskie calls “#alt-ac,” the alternative academic track for humanities scholars.

But humanities education needs to do more than change the shape of the dissertation, legitimate non-academic jobs, or validate academic jobs that are not tenure-track teaching posts. The crisis in academic humanities, brought on by years of focus on nothing but turning out professor-wannabes, has to be addressed long before the job-placement stage. Long before the dissertation stage. We need to train Ph.D. students differently from the first day of graduate school.

If we value the humanities enough to teach them at the undergraduate level, if we believe that humanities education produces thoughtful, critical, self-aware global citizens, then we need to recognize that advanced training in the humanities cannot be simply the province of aspiring tenure-track faculty members. If there’s no prospect of a tenure-track job in the humanities, and humanities graduate programs train students for nothing but tenure-track jobs, how long can these programs be sustainable?

The current job crisis may be just the impetus graduate humanities education needs in order to recognize that what it has to offer is essential to this democracy, and essential to training leaders in a whole range of fields, far beyond academics.

As Pan, Nowviskie, and others point out, if most graduate programs devote a thought to "non-academic" careers for their Ph.D.s, they make very clear that there are indeed only two categories — academic and undesirable, i.e., everything else in the entire world. It’s that everything else we should be addressing, though.

Among my own friends I count a director of a state humanities council, a director of a university women's center, and a director of a state Center for the Book. Graduate work in the humanities has been absolutely essential to each of those professionals, in the sense that they learned writing, research, and analytical skills that they use every day. They discussed values, ethics, and aesthetics, and they applied abstract theory to concrete texts. They learned to develop complex arguments, to balance competing claims, to present clear positions. Yet in none of their graduate careers did any of them get any acknowledgment that such preparation might be of good use in any number of professional contexts. And in none of their graduate careers were any of them offered any coursework or workshops that focused on anything other than their academic disciplines.

What would a humanities Ph.D. program look like if it saw itself as preparing professional humanists rather than simply humanities professors? Courses from outside our departments could complement our intensive training in a chosen area of specialization. Deep work in a specialized area is most valuable, teaching us organization, research, writing, and often collaboration skills that are necessary in any humanities field. But how many of us, even in academic positions, would have benefited from a graduate course in organizational structures? In grant writing? In state and federal government? In arts administration?

A doctoral program that allows such courses to count toward the degree would be the stronger for it, I believe. If programs allowed two or three of these pre-professional courses in three years' of coursework, the loss of discipline-based courses would be more than made up for by the benefits of increased job prospects. Students who didn't want the courses needn't be force-marched into them, but the humanities departments would need to endorse the new approach. That will be the tough part -- getting faculty who might be unaware of these humanities-based professional careers to steer students in this new direction.

And it’s not just coursework that should change. Graduate student employment would need a shift in emphasis as well. Most grad student work in the humanities is teaching and research assistantships, of course. These jobs are not designed to prepare graduate students for careers as faculty members, though; they’re designed to teach the undergraduates at a very low rate of pay. But there are other jobs at the university, jobs that are equally designed to exploit graduate student labor but that offer training in a bigger variety of skills. When I was in grad school, I did survey research in the school of education and taught outside my department, in both the journalism school and the business school. I had friends who worked in administrative offices in women’s studies and African American studies. A guy in my department worked in the university’s foundation office and eventually went there full-time.

The one thing that all those jobs had in common, however, was that my home department neither placed us in the jobs nor recognized that the jobs offered anything of value to a humanities degree. Imagine a humanities department that assembled a list of jobs from all over campus and asked graduate students to consider what they might learn from each. Or, even better, a department that asked its graduate students to compile an electronic portfolio that collected work from both humanities courses and graduate employment. The portfolio could include an essay in which the student reflected on the skills and knowledge he or she was acquiring and the ways those things might be useful after the degree. It wouldn’t have to be a job portfolio, but it would have to ask the student to think about what he or she was learning, beyond the theory and content in the discipline.

A humanities department that really saw the value in placing thoughtful, well-trained humanists in government, nonprofit associations, and even business or the military, could shape a graduate experience around the idea of the humanist at large. Such a direction need not, and indeed should not, be a separate track. These wider opportunities and broader coursework should be available to all humanities graduate students. How much better would academics be in our committee work or as department chairs or in national organizations if we had been prepared in our graduate programs for those parts of our jobs that did not revolve around research or teaching?

We are beginning to acknowledge that the graduate training we offer in the humanities is simply not fair to our students, the vast majority of whom will never get tenure-track jobs in their disciplines. But the worth of humanities graduate education need not depend on the number of tenure-track humanists it produces. Graduate education in the humanities is an excellent preparation for many, many careers. But our students should not have to find those careers on their own, and they should not have to think of those careers as “non-academic” careers—the jobs we take when we can’t get the jobs we’ve been trained for. Humanities education needs to take itself seriously. We believe that undergraduate humanities programs produce thoughtful, informed, global citizens. Now we need to decide what we really want graduate humanities programs to produce.

Paula Krebs
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Paula Krebs is professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts. She serves on the board of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.

A Debate Reopened

Smart Title: 
New decision sets stage for fresh look at whether graduate and research assistants have right to unionize.

The Other Mental Health Crisis

Smart Title: 
Ten percent of graduate and professional students at Berkeley have contemplated suicide.

Loose Canon

Smart Title: 
A graduate student discovers that a 19th-century novelist who has been hailed as an early black female writer was actually white.

Data, not Speculation, on Female Scientists

Smart Title: 
A report about physics suggests that women are leaving the field early, between high school and college.

Trying Again in Minnesota

Smart Title: 
Six years after a bid to unionize teaching assistants was defeated, petitions are filed for a new vote.

Contract Breakthrough

Smart Title: 

Nearly two years after their last contract expired, thousands of graduate students in the State University of New York system have a tentative pact calling for raises, new benefits and major expansions of some existing benefits.

The contract provides the teaching assistants for the first time with a grievance procedure for those who are dismissed, full coverage of "in network" hospitalization, a fund to offset the growing cost of technology fees, and extra pay for those who live in the New York City metropolitan area.

Financially, the teaching assistants will receive:

Foreign Applications Fall Again

Smart Title: 
Survey finds a 5 percent drop in those seeking a graduate education, following a 28 percent decline last year.


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