January 19, 2004

Flush Away

Goodness knows I'm a strong critic of graduate pedagogy in the humanities and social sciences, and a strong believer that doctoral study is in desperate need of reform. I know only too well how many stories of shabby behavior towards graduate students and folks on the job market are out there, waiting to be heard. Any academic who has a touch of honesty and a willingness to listen has heard real, unmistakeable horror stories of interviews that went badly wrong (I myself haven't forgotten the two guys who interviewed me while stretched out on their respective beds, yawning, with shoes off), or tales of misconduct and needless cruelty by professors towards doctoral students.

In a way, I think the horror stories potentially overlook the real issue, which is how far short graduate school in the humanities and social sciences falls from its institutional and intellectual potential, how narrow it has become in its circumscription of the boundaries of academic professionalism, something commentators at Invisible Adjunct, as well as Mt Hollywood and other sites have been discussing avidly of late. It's true, as many have noted, that to get through graduate school isn't necessarily or even frequently a sign of superior intelligence or ability, but just a kind of dogged ability to suffer abuse and a relentless and usually unjustified optimism about one's employment prospects. I agree that any faculty who pat themselves on the back after hearing new data about the absurdly high attrition rates in graduate programs and say that it's just survival of the fittest, a flushing of the system, need to think again. The data on attrition is an appalling indictment of serious flaws in the entire system of academic training.

All of this being said, Erin O'Connor has put up an email from a reader that suggests that we could go overboard here. I don't know if O'Connor views her correspondent sympathetically--she notes that when satire is like life, it gets hard to satirize, but it's not clear who it is that she sees as the butt of the joke.

The butt is clear to me. Her correspondent is an asshole, and whomever he or she is, I'm kind of glad their academic career ended at the 1998 AHA. This is a person who walked into an interview, told the interviewers that they were unprofessional in scheduling interviews too closely together, snottily rebuffed one of the interviewers who had insufficient appreciation for the candidate's publication record, regarded the substance of the interview as "insipid banter", and then went on to remind the interviewers that they were unprofessional before leaving.

Ok. Let's go over this one a little, shall we? If ever there was a poster child for the ugliness of academic entitlement, and evidence that one of the worst things we do to doctoral students is convince them that they're owed a job because of their brilliance or whatever, it's this person.

If you're being interviewed for a job, you're a supplicant. That's not just how it is, but really, how it ought to be, at least until the One World Government creates a giant job-matching master computer that places us all in jobs based on our Myers-Briggs Test. The people in that room don't owe you jack besides a fair hearing for 45 minutes. You have to convince them that you're not just a good scholar and good teacher, but somebody they'd like as a colleague. Do I want somebody as a colleague who is going to act like a prissy psycho every time there's a slight error in scheduling, who gets their hair constantly ruffled because of their exquisitely tuned sense of what constitutes professionalism? No way. It might be unfair to use collegiality as a major evaluative tool later on, at tenure time, but it definitely isn't unfair when you're trying to decide which of 15 people you don't know yet might be someone you want to have as a colleague. Whomever this person is, he or she basically announced in the first fifteen seconds, "I'm an arrogant jerk, and you made the mistake of deciding I was one of the 15 people you wanted to talk to this year. Let's make each other uncomfortable for the next 45 minutes, shall we, and then you can move on to people that you might actually want to work with".

There is another class of horror story that maybe we don't hear about as much as we try to think about the reform of academia, and that's about bad students and bad job seekers. I think it's right and proper that we don't dwell on those stories, partly because they're an easily distorted or exaggerated security blanket for professors who want to resist reform, and partly because they're not a systematic or structural problem, just an idiosyncratic one. But let's not forget that there are plenty of sins to go around here, and that not ever unpleasant experience lies wholly or even largely on the doorstep of working academics. The aggressive pursuit of reform shouldn't be the affirmation of every single axe-grinder out there.