The old joke about studying English went, “Would you like fries with that major?” I haven’t heard that joke in years. Barista has replaced fast food worker as the career of choice for warning against the perils of majoring in English.
What are we to make of this new old joke about the English major? Why did barista replace fast food worker? The fact is that English majors are not particularly likely to end up as baristas or as workers in the food service industry in general. Plenty of data is available to disprove this idea, so what does its persistence mean? The English major barista is a myth in the sense of being untrue. It is also a myth in the deeper sense of that word: a story that a culture tells itself to explain wishes or fears. In this case, fears.
First things first. Data show that English majors do not tend to end up as baristas. Over each year, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a detailed survey of about 1 percent of the national population. Called the American Community Survey, this census includes questions about age, educational attainment, field of degree and employment. Respondents to the survey cannot actually choose “barista” when reporting occupation, but they can choose the category “counter attendant, cafeteria, food concession and coffeehouse.” However, the number of people in this category is small when further segmented by field of degree.
A more reliable analysis groups this category along with several related ones, including bartenders, waiters, dishwashers and the like. That larger grouping does not literally count English majors who work as baristas, but it gets at the spirit of the claim, with greater statistical validity. If the destiny of the English major is service behind the coffee bar, then bartending, waiting tables or washing dishes cannot be far behind.
However, none of those food service jobs are the English major’s particular fate. According to the Census Bureau, graduates with an English degree have about a 4.9 percent chance of working in one of these food service occupations for some time between the ages of 22 and 26. By comparison, the average among all degree holders in this age group is about 3.5 percent. So English majors are only about 1.4 percentage points more likely to work in food service than the average for all degree holders.
When we look at mature workers, the data bear out a broader observation: majors in the humanities and social sciences take a little more time to find their career footing, but then they catch up with and sometimes exceed in salary earnings the graduates with more professional degrees. For degree holders ages 27 to 66, the percentage of graduates in English working in food service professions for some time during this 40-year period is 0.72 percent, or about one in 139 majors. Among all majors ages 27 to 66, the average is 0.48 percent. English remains higher than average, but not by much. The 0.24 point difference translates to an additional one in 417 chance of ending up at working in food service at some point between the ages of 27 and 66.
So where, in fact, do English majors end up working? The top occupations for English-degree holders ages 27 to 66 are elementary and middle school teachers, postsecondary teachers, and lawyers, judges, magistrates and other judicial workers. Indeed, English majors, who go on to a range of careers, are less likely to work in food service than in many highly skilled positions, including as chief executives and legislators (1.4 percent), physicians and surgeons (1.2 percent), or accountants and auditors (1.2 percent). Parents worried that their children will study English and end up as baristas should know that their sons and daughters are statistically more likely to end up as CEOs, doctors or accountants than behind the counter of a Starbucks.
Level of education and age, rather than choice of major, most predict work in food service. Between the ages of 22 and 26, people who do not report a baccalaureate degree have a somewhat higher percentage of food service work than English-degree holders: 5.68 percent vs. 4.88 percent. For mature workers, ages 27 to 66, the corollary numbers are 1.45 percent and 0.72 percent. For full-time mature workers, the difference a baccalaureate degree makes is particularly striking. English-degree holders ages 27 to 66 work full time in food service at a rate of 0.53 percent, those without a baccalaureate degree at 1.92 percent. Starbucks has made help with college degree completion a perk for its workers. If all those baristas had B.A.s in English, or in any degree, there would be no need for this program.
Of course, the English major as barista is also shorthand for a general belief that a degree in English leads to underemployment -- that is, to jobs that really do not require a college degree. A recent study shows that around 12 percent of recent college graduates ages 22 to 27 with a degree in English work in low-skilled service jobs. That is the same percent as for baccalaureate holders in this age group who majored in psychology and earth science, and 3.4 percentage points higher than the average for degree holders in general, which is 8.6 percent. Those percentages may be higher than we would like, but there’s nothing distinctive about English majors in them.
Fortunately, too, these percentages are for recent graduates; the same study shows that college graduates tend to mature out of these jobs. As we have seen, the English majors who do work in food service generally do so when they are young and as a first job -- a start, not an end. The coffeehouse is not their career.
To establish themselves in their careers, English majors need to show a bit more resourcefulness than do majors in narrowly preprofessional degrees. And year after year, that is exactly what real English majors do. They do not possess this resourcefulness in spite of their English degree or as a mere coincidence with it. Creative and independent thinkers are attracted to the English degree, and that course of study helps to develop their creativity and their initiative -- the same personal qualities that serve them so well in the working world after graduation.
So why the barista joke? It reflects negative attitudes about the English major itself rather than the realities of an English major’s likely employment. Since coffeehouses are places for reading, writing and talking, spending time in a coffeehouse is a lot like spending time in the study of English. Naturally enough, English majors like to hang out in them. STEM majors have their labs; English majors have their Starbucks. The joke about the English major barista implies, however, that unlike the science done in a lab, the study of English, whether pursued in coffeehouse or classroom, is without value. What better punishment for wasting this time than being sentenced to work at a coffeehouse rather than enjoying its pleasures, serving those who presumably chose some more valuable and lucrative major?
In this vengeful fantasy, moreover, the barista with an English B.A. contributes to the coffeehouse’s cultural sophistication, the human equivalent of its background jazz or pictures of Seattle circa 1971. The English major’s transformation into cultural wallpaper is part of the joke.
The English major makes an academic career out of studying literary culture or (still worse in the eyes of the major’s detractors) ordinary culture inflated into an academic subject. Having to work in a coffeehouse is punishment for that study, since students who are ambitious to become cultural elites instead find themselves in a lowly service industry, working in their local strip-mall Starbucks rather than sitting at a coffee bar in Florence. The particular name that Starbucks made famous for its workers -- “barista” -- along with all its pseudo-Italian terms, like “grande” for medium, is the foam on the Frappuccino. The joke implies that the job and its pretentious, pseudo-high culture name perfectly fit the empty pretensions of the major itself.
The Thin Bar
But this joke about frustrated aspiration is on us all. Consider the coffeehouse’s storied place in the history of European and Anglo-American modernity. Jürgen Habermas made famous the idea that the activities with which coffeehouses are still associated -- reading, writing, conversation -- made them nothing less than cradles of modern literature and democracy. The coffeehouse was a republic of letters, where literacy and the purchase of a cup of coffee were the only entry requirements to participation in literary and political worlds that had once been the exclusive province of courtly and hereditary elites. Coffeehouses were sometimes referred to in the 18th century as “penny universities.” (One still also had to be a man, although Habermas believes the ideals of the coffeehouse militated even against this restriction).
Your local coffee spot may seem a far cry from a cradle of western democracy or a “penny university.” Particularly with regard to Starbucks, the criticism of the coffeehouse today is that it’s a place of faux culture and shallow consumption, where the other side of high-priced coffee drinks is the exploitation of coffee farmers in the third world and of the company’s own workers behind the counter. From that point of view, Starbucks is just about making money. “Everything else,” as one Starbucks critic puts it, is “window dressing.” As part of that window dressing, the Starbucks barista both serves and reflects a world narrowed to maximized profit and empty consumption.
“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” the poet Wordsworth wrote. Still: Starbucks promises something more than getting and spending. However much our local Starbucks is a place to grab coffee as we rush to work, or an embarrassment of ersatz culture, the success of the Starbucks brand demonstrates a yearning for more fulfilling cultural and communal spaces of the sort described by Habermas. Starbucks doesn’t just sell coffee; it sells the coffeehouse ideal. It offers reading and music suggestions, has printed literary quotes on coffee cups, and has asked its baristas to start discussions about race in America. The criticism that greeted the last initiative is telling. Starbucks was seen as too corporate to serve as a place for genuine cultural or political exchange, however much it seems to promise it.
The fast-food joke consigned the English major to a low-paying and unfulfilling job. The barista joke consigns the English major to a low-paying and unfulfilling job that remains tantalizing close to a more fulfilling coffeehouse ideal. To the extent that we also want that ideal, we’re that close, too. We, too, are attracted to the coffeehouse image of a richer cultural and communal life, even if that image promises more than harried working lives and corporate marketing can deliver. A thin bar separates the cultural aspirations, and disappointments, of Starbucks workers and consumers.
A similarly thin bar separates worker and consumer in terms of a feared economic decline. There was a time when we might have celebrated the English major’s drive to explore self and world in college, or as part of a career trajectory that involved some time for similar self-development and exploration of opportunities, before rushing headlong into a career. There was a time when we laughed at hearing the just-graduated Dustin Hoffman advised in The Graduate to stake his future on plastics. And there was a time when we understood that English majors, like other majors in the liberal arts, end up with far more than a salary -- they develop the sense of ethics, history and culture, and the habits of open and reasoned deliberation, that the coffeehouse ideal represents and that are essential to functioning democracies, not to mention to lives well lived.
Today, however, many people laugh at someone who seems unwilling to turn a college education into job training for the industry du jour in order to secure the highest-paying job straight out of college. English majors achieve successful careers, as the data show. That we consign them, in the myth of the English major barista, to a permanent life in food service says less about them and more about us -- about how afraid we have become of defying the market imperative to maximize profit, the single force, apparently, by which we are now supposed to guide our lives.
This fear is reasonable -- stagnant wages, the erosion of unions, the growing use of contract and part-time labor to replace full-time jobs, the increasing gap between rich and poor, and insufficiently regulated financial markets all contribute to the insecurity of middle-class life. For college students in particular, the withdrawal of states from the public funding of higher education, combined with rising tuition, makes any decisions seem risky if they don’t, as the saying goes now, make college an effective return on investment. But the fear is more than that. It is as if any defiance of profit maximization must be met with punishment: the condemnation to a life serving coffee.
We will only really dispel the myth of the English major barista when we confront head-on the structural economic problems and the narrow market ideology that drive the fear behind it. Meanwhile, in their own refusal to succumb to this fear, English majors can be confident they'll do fine spending some time in coffeehouses -- whichever side of the bar they’re on.
Robert Matz is a professor of English and senior associate dean in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University.
Are editors manipulating citation scores in order to inflate the status of their publications? Are they corrupting the rankings of scholarly journals?
While any allegations about cheating or other academic chicanery are cause for concern, journal rankings to date continue to offer one rough but useful source of information to a wide variety of audiences.
Journal rankings help authors to answer the omnipresent question “Where to publish?” Tenure review committees also use rankings as evidence for visibility, recognition and even quality in the academic review process, especially for junior candidates. For them, journal ranking becomes a proxy when other, more direct measures of recognition and quality are not available. Given that many candidates for tenure have recent publications, journal rankings become a surrogate measure for the eventual visibility of that research.
Yet it is easy to rely unduly on quantitative rating scores. The trouble arises when journal rankings becomes a stand-in for the quality of the research. In many fields, research quality is a multifaceted concept that is not reducible to a single quantitative metric. For example, imposing a single rule -- for example, that top-quartile journals count as “high-quality” journals while others do not -- assigns more weight to journal rankings than they deserve and generates the temptation to inflate journals’ scores.
In an editorial in the journal Research Policy, editor Ben R. Martin voiced his concern that the manipulation of journal impact factors undermines the validity of Thompson/Reuters Journal Citation Reports (JCR). He concludes that “… in light of the ever more devious ruses of editors, the JIF [journal impact factor] indicator has lost most of its credibility.” A journal’s impact factor represents the average number of citations per article. The standard, one-year impact factor is calculated by summing up citations to articles published in a journal within the last year, divided by the number of articles published.
I share the suspicion and unease that many academics feel about excessive reliance on journal impact scores for the purposes of academic evaluation and tenure decisions. Yet, while I am not a fan of impact scores calculated over a one-year period, my research on journal rankings leads me to conclude that Martin’s concerns are overstated.
The two main sources of manipulation that Martin discusses are coercive citations (whereby editors require authors to add citations to the journal in question) and creating a queue of online articles, which artificially inflates the number of citations per published article. While any intentional manipulation of journal rankings is reprehensible, to date the overall effect of this type of behavior in practice is quite limited. I arrive at this sanguine conclusion after exploring a variety of indexes and data sources in a forthcoming assessment of journals in my own field of sociology.
A clear hierarchy of journals in sociology is evident no matter what data source (Web of Science or Google Scholar) one uses. There is a great degree of commonality across measures in describing this gradient, even though many low-ranked journals are bunched together with quite similar scores. Manipulation of one-year data has not altered the overall picture a great deal (at least not yet) because five-year measures yield very similar rankings. And even to manipulate the one-year impact factor, editors would have to insist that new authors cite the most recently published articles in that journal.
Substantively, I doubt that much manipulation in sociology journals occurs because, first, the raw scores have not inflated over time and second, the relative ranking of more than 100 journals has been quite steady. Individual journals here and there have moved up and down slightly, but these changes are much more readily attributable to changes in the level of scholarly interest in particular subfields and editorial choices than to any individual editor’s efforts to game the system.
The main reason I discount concerns about manipulation is that different approaches to journal rankings produce a broadly similar picture of inequality. In my study, I use Google Scholar data to calculate the h-index for journals. This measure focuses on the top-cited articles over an extended time period rather than the average citation in a short time frame. It would not be easy for journal editors to manipulate this measure, even if they were aware of it its use.
Let’s take citations to Martin’s own journal, Research Policy, as an example. I obtain an h of 246 over the period from 2000 to 2015. That means that 246 articles cited at least 246 times have been published in this journal during this time frame. That is an impressive score, exceeding the visibility of the American Economic Review (h=227 over the same time period) and the American Sociological Review (h=162). (I calculated all figures with A. W. Harzing’s 2015 Publish or Perish software using Google Scholar data.)
The h statistics just cited reflect the remarkable visibility of these leading journals. It would be quite difficult to develop strategies to artificially generate enough citations to significantly alter those scores. I prefer the use of h as a measure because it attempts to capture the skewed nature of scientific scholarship. Yet the fact remains that the overall hierarchy of journals is broadly similar whether the h-index or the conventional impact factor is used.
In their 2012 study, Allen W. Wilhite and Eric A. Fong present data of concern regarding the prevalence of coercive citations. The pattern of coercive citation was particularly pronounced in lower-tier journals, and especially in the field of business and management. Yet again, I doubt that the overall journal regime is appreciably altered by dubious editorial gaming stratagems. Wilhite and Fong identify eight journals in which this practice might be common enough to matter (more than 10 reports of coercive rankings), but none of those journals has made its way into the top tier in the field (as measured in the JCR standings). In other words, by dint of a relentless and long-term commitment to manipulation, some third-quartile journals might be able to inch their way into the second quartile by manipulating scores, but that is unlikely to alter the overall contours of the field.
If a significant group of low-visibility journals undertook a major effort to increase their citations, that would make them as a group harder to distinguish from the top journals. In the field of sociology, there is no indication that middle- and lower-tier journals are narrowing the distance from the most frequently cited journals. Indeed, this enduring gap is itself interesting, in that it suggests that search engines are not increasing the visibility of journals to which few individuals subscribe.
At the same time, we need to remember that journal rankings serve as only a rough proxy for visibility and recognition of individual papers. In other words, articles published within the same journal will vary in how often they are cited. In my analysis of 140 sociology journals over the period from 2010 to 2014, most of the 10 most frequently cited papers were not published in the top-ranked journals. Thus, substantial variability in visibility (citations) within journals coexists with broadly stable patterns of inequality between journals.
In addition, the list of top-cited articles is largely impervious to self-citation. It is simply too difficult to cite oneself enough to vault one’s research into this echelon on visibility. For example, the top 10 cited journal articles in sociology from 2010 to 2014 had 400 or more citations. To catapult one’s own paper into this citation stratosphere would require publishing hundreds of papers in just a few years. No one could possibly publish frequently enough and cite themselves regularly enough to affect inclusion in the list of top-cited papers. And anyone prolific enough to implement such a strategy would not need to game the system.
Authors have a natural desire to seek outlets that will enhance the visibility of their research. In the field of sociology, that involves a choice of pursuing the most selective generalist journals, the top journals in each specialty area within the field, the second-tier generalist journals and then other remaining specialty outlets and interdisciplinary journals. The use of journal ranking data may be marginally useful in informing such choices. Other important factors include each journal’s particular focus, its selectivity, turnaround time, policies regarding second and third rounds of revisions, and so on.
Journal rankings are likely to remain with us because such rankings are of interest to so many parties, as research by Wendy Nelson Espeland and Michael Sauder suggests, even while their value is likely to remain contested. Perhaps a clearer recognition of the imprecision inherent in journal rankings will mean that they will be used judiciously, as a complement rather than a substitute for important and difficult academic evaluations. And perhaps the use of a variety of different journal indexes will reduce the temptation to game the system and redirect efforts back toward selecting high-quality research for consideration by the scholarly community.
Jerry A. Jacobs is professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and former editor of the American Sociological Review.
The story is told of how, during an interview at a film festival in the 1960s, someone asked the avant-garde director Jean-Luc Godard, “But you must at least admit that a film has to have a beginning, a middle and an end?” To which Godard replied, “Yes, but not necessarily in that order.”
Touché! Creative tampering with established patterns of storytelling (or with audience expectations, which is roughly the same thing) is among the basic prerogatives of artistic expression -- one to be exercised at whatever risk of ticket buyers demanding their money back. Most of the examples of such tampering that Robert L. Belknap considers in Plots (Columbia University Press) are drawn from literary works now at least a century old. That we still read them suggests their narrative innovations worked -- so well, in fact, that they may go unnoticed now, taken as given. And the measure of Belknap’s excellence as a critic is how rewarding his close attention to them proves.
The late author, a professor of Slavic languages at Columbia University, delivered the three lectures making up Plots in 2011. Belknap’s preface to the book indicates that he considered the manuscript ready for publication at the time of his death in 2014. Plots has an adamantine quality, as if decades of thought and teaching were being crystallized and enormously compressed. Yet it is difficult to read the final paragraphs as anything but the author’s promise to say a great deal more.
Whether the lectures were offered as the overture to Belknap’s magnum opus or in lieu of one, Plots shuttles between narrative theory (from Aristotle to the Russian formalists) and narrative practice (Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, primarily) at terrific speed and with a necessary minimum of jargon. Because the jargon contains an irreducible core of the argument, we might as well start (even though Belknap does not) with the Russian formalists’ contrast between fabula and siuzhet.
Each can be translated as “plot.” The more or less standard sense of fabula, at least as I learned it in ancient times, is the series of events or actions as they might be laid out on a timeline. The author tweaks this a little by defining fabula as “the relationship among the incidents in the world the characters inhabit,” especially cause-and-effect relationships. By contrast, siuzhet is how events unfold within the literary narrative or, as Belknap puts it, “the relationship among the same incidents in the world of the text.”
To frame the contrast another way, siuzhet is how the story is told, while fabula is what “really” happened. The scare quotes are necessary because the distinction applies to fiction and drama as well as, say, memoir and documentary film. “In small forms, like fairy tales,” Belknap notes, fabula and siuzhet “tend to track one another rather closely, but in larger forms, like epics or novels, they often diverge.” (Side note: A good deal of short fiction is also marked by that divergence. An example that comes to mind is “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, where the siuzhet of the narrator’s account of what happened and why is decidedly different from the fabula to be worked out by the police appearing at the end of the story.)
Belknap returns to Aristotle for the original effort to understand the emotional impact of a certain kind of siuzhet: the ancient tragedies. An effective drama, by the philosopher’s lights, depicted the events of a single day, in a single place, through a sequence of actions so well integrated that no element could be omitted without the whole narrative coming apart. “This discipline in handling the causal relationship between incidents,” says Belknap, “produces the sense of inevitability that characterizes the strongest tragedies.” The taut siuzhet chronicling a straightforward fabula reconciled audiences to the workings of destiny.
Turning Aristotle’s analysis into a rule book, as happened in later centuries, was like forcing playwrights to wear too-small shoes. The fashion could not last. In the second lecture, Belknap turns to Shakespeare, who found another way to work:
“He sacrificed the causal tightness that had served classic drama so well in order to build thematic tightness around parallel plots. Usually the parallel plots involve different social levels -- masters and servants, kings and courtiers, supernatural beings and humans -- and usually the plots are not too parallel to intersect occasionally and interact causally at some level, though never enough to satisfy Aristotle’s criterion that if any incident be removed, the whole plot of the play should cease to make sense …. Similarity in plots can be represented as the overlap between two areas, and those areas may be broken down into individual points of similarity, dissimilarity, contrast, etc. Without knowing it, a Shakespearean audience is making such analyses all the time it watches a play, and the points of overlap and contrast enter their awareness.”
It’s not clear whether Belknap means to include the modern Shakespearean audience -- possibly not, since contemporary productions tend to trim down the secondary plots, if not eliminate them. But the Bard had other devices in hand for complicating fabula-siuzhetarrangements -- including what Belknap identifies as “a little-discussed peculiarity of Shakespearean plotting, the use of lies.” In both classical and Shakespearean drama, there are crucial scenes in which a character’s identity or situation is revealed to others whose confusion or deception has been important for the plot. But whereas mistakes and lies “are about equally prevalent” in the ancient plays, Shakespeare has a clear preference: “virtually every recognition scene is generated primarily out of a lie, not an error.”
In a striking elaboration of that point, Belknap treats the lie as a kind of theatrical performance -- “a little drama, with at least the rudiments of a plot” -- that often “express[es] facts about the liar, the person lied to or the person lied about.” The lie is a manipulative play within a play in miniature. And in Hamlet, at least, the (literal) play within a play is the prince’s means of trying to force his uncle to tell the truth.
Now, such intricate developments at the level of form also involve changes in how the writer and the audience understand the world (and, presumably, themselves). The Shakespearean cosmos gets messier than that of classical drama, but loosening the chains of cause and effect does not create absolute chaos. The motives and consequences of the characters’ actions make manifest their otherwise hidden inner lives. To put it another way, mutations in siuzhet (how the story is told) reflect changes in fabula (what really happens in the world) and vice versa. Belknap suggests -- tongue perhaps not entirely in cheek -- that Shakespeare was on the verge of inventing the modern psychological novel and might have, had he lived a few more years.
By the final lecture, on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Belknap has come home to his area of deepest professional interest. (He wrote two well-regarded monographs on The Brothers Karamazov.) Moving beyond his analysis of parallel plots in Shakespeare, he goes deep into the webs of allusion and cross-referencing among Russian authors of the 19th century to make the case that Crime and Punishment contains a much more deliberate narrative architecture than it is credited with having. (Henry James’s characterization of Russian novels as “fluid puddings” undoubtedly applies.)
He even makes a bid for the novel epilogue as being aesthetically and thematically integral to the book as a whole. Other readers may find that argument plausible. I’ll just say that Plots reveals that with Belknap’s death, we lost a critic and literary historian of great power and considerable ingenuity.