Category Archives: Opinions

PhD Programs: In for the Long-Haul

I wanted to bring something up on my blog that I find myself explaining over and over again to people who are not familiar with how graduate school (at least in the humanities) works. Most people are astounded that my program is expected to take 6 years minimum, and many students stay longer than six years trying to find a job. Some realize the rigor of our programs, but can’t imagine how six more years of “being in school” could be worthwhile, let alone prepare someone for a profession. Others think of graduate students as evading  getting a real job, lazily hanging around school trying to extend their undergraduate days.

However, there is an important distinction between undergraduate programs and PhD programs that many people outside of academia do not realize: coursework is not the main focus of graduate school. Being a PhD student is a job. We are expected to teach university-level courses; we grade papers, design lesson plans, and instruct students just like any full-time teacher. As for the dissertation, we are essentially expected to write book on a topic in our field. This is not your undergraduate paper on [insert canonical text] times twenty, but an original piece of work based on years of research. The topic needs to be specific enough to be unique, but also relevant to the issues academics are thinking about (and maybe even what people outside academics should be thinking about). The graduate program provides us with the training and resources to write this dissertation, and this work serves the basis for whether or not we get hired in academia.

Six years to write an entire book while teaching university-level classes part-time all of a sudden sounds like an incredibly short period of time. Not to mention, PhD students still do need to complete coursework in their field. The goal of passing coursework is not simply a means of demonstrating intelligence (as it often is for the undergraduate degree), but real, hands-on training in the academic profession. We learn to write scholarly articles, present our ideas at conferences, and hopefully get those ideas published. That is a lot to fit into six years, and many students need more time to finish their dissertation and secure an academic job.

This is precisely why I don’t view PhD programs as a means to an end. While the undergraduate degree can serve as a badge of intellectual ability competence, the PhD requires teaching at the university level and producing a publishable book in an academic field. I do not think viewing a PhD program as a means-to-an-end of becoming a professor is a particularly gratifying view, or even the right way to view graduate school.

It is not profoundly different from starting one’s own business: the work is extremely challenging and requires a good deal of dedication and original thought. It likely requires a financial gamble in which you will be earning a lot less than you could earn for years, just for the potential reward of earning money doing what you love. The percentages of those who actually achieve that dream job they set out to obtain are disconcertingly low – and those who become millionaire CEOs or famous writers in their field even lower – but in the end those who are driven and competent will find other avenues of success. Maybe those who take on traditionally cynical views of academia will disagree with me and see a PhD in a humanities subject as a frivolous pursuit of a dying vocation. But really, has there ever been a time in human history when professions in the arts and humanities were easy for anyone to obtain and never came under fire for being impractical? Either way, if you do not view it as a means to an end, the journey will not be a loss.

 

Feeling Stressed in Graduate School vs. Feeling Stressed in the “Real World”

I often wonder, why are graduate students so stressed? Or perhaps more accurately – why has stress (whether or not there is good reason for it) become such a fundamental part of the graduate school experience?

People in the business world have to make deadlines, compete for promotions, and deal with terrible bosses. They sometimes do challenging work, sometimes do mundane work, and sometimes have to work late. Many, many people don’t enjoy their jobs. Nonetheless, there is no doubt people associate graduate school with higher levels of stress and anxiety.

How many times has a relative or acquaintance responded with “oh, I could never do more school!” when you confess that you are willingly subjecting yourself to attending more classes and writing more papers after obtaining your undergraduate degree?

Based on my experience in the “real world,” the 9-5 working schedule was both overwhelming and relieving. I would come home at night and simply be too exhausted to do what would normally constitute “me time.” Unless I had a specific event organized with friends, I was considerably less interested in going to see movies, meeting up for a drink, or simply hanging out at someone else’s house. I was generally in bed by 10:30pm after a glass of wine and some TV. Even on Fridays, I was at times too exhausted to go out with friends. At the office, dealing with the added stress of customer service in addition to getting work done often made for a harried and taxing 8 hours of work.

However, for the most part these stresses did not follow me home at the end of the day (except for the tiredness). If I wanted to go to bed at 10:30pm, no unfinished work would prevent me from doing that. I could sit down to a nice dinner without worrying that I should be getting something done. And if I wanted to be a lazy bum and watch TV for the entire evening, I also had that choice.

The fundamental difference between the “real world” I experienced and graduate school is that the “work” follows you everywhere – 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You could sit down and relax at the end of the day, but you could also start reading those 200 pages you have due in a few days. Even if you procrastinate the work, it still hangs over your head like a shoulder angel shaking its head in condemnation. Moreover, the work is never finished because you are almost always given more to do that is reasonable to accomplish in the allotted time frame.

All that being said, I think a large part of getting through graduate school is asking yourself why you chose this system and figuring out how it can work for you. I chose this system because I enjoy the work I do in graduate school more than I did the work at a marketing firm. I also would rather sit through three hours of class than a three hour business meeting. Of course, this sometimes depends on the class, but in general I’m here because I enjoy discussing English literature.

I also prefer the scheduling freedom. This can be a conundrum for many graduate students because although the 9-5 schedule is more rigid, it is also an excuse for why work was not completed outside of that time frame. If you don’t have something important done by 4pm, you know you have to work extra hard in the last hour but in graduate school it is easy to fall into an endless cycle of putting things off. But when it comes down to it – I would rather accept the challenge of scheduling my working hours and my free time rather than having them scheduled for me.

If I prefer to work out in the afternoons and study from 7-10pm, I can. If I’d rather sleep in later and stay up later, I – to some extent – also have that choice. People in the corporate world usually do not experience this type of freedom coupled with this type of responsibility until they own they are high up on the rungs of business. If you owned your own business, you may have the flexibility to set your own store hours, but your work would most certainly follow you home every day.

Like everything, this lifestyle has the good and bad elements. They key difference I always try to remind myself of is that I had a choice whether or not to come to graduate school. I could be sitting in an office job right now making $30K a year with prospects for promotion. But I gave that up to be here.

Scheduling my time is more stressful and at times I let it get the better of me. I believe it is safe to claim that graduate students are more stressed than people in entry-level corporate jobs. However, if you are doing something you are passionate about – it should also be more rewarding.

To proofread or not to proofread? That is the question.

I have heard the dialogue on this hundreds of times. Proofread your papers – even one typo will discredit you!  I have regularly seen professors interject some warning on their syllabi and essay prompts that too many typos will result in a lower grade. Typos are symbols of laziness, or at worst, mistaken for a lack of understanding of the correct spelling or grammar. An unfortunately placed typo will confuse and even alter the meaning of an important sentence.

I have, for whatever reason, always begrudged the task of proofreading. Once you fully understand all the mechanics of writing and are able to wield them to powerful effect, going back and playing seek-and-find with autocorrect mistakes is the unpleasant brunt work of writing.  It is like the task of cleaning up the poop in the animal cages is to a zoologist. Necessary, but menial and not enjoyable.

In spite of the fact that I do often proofread my own work, some error or another usually slips past. (See my Writing Sample post for details) The longer my paper is, the more inertia I experience in going about the task of proofreading. Moreover, I find the process of proofreading my writing maddeningly inefficient. Once I am intimately acquainted with a piece of writing, my brain just corrects mistakes as I’m reading. Sometimes, I will go back to a piece I wrote weeks ago and wonder how a typo could have been so blatantly staring me in the face and I still didn’t notice it.

In order to effectively proofread my own work, I need to somehow alienate myself from what I know I meant to say. And that takes time and effort. I’ve even had professors recommend reading your paper sentence by sentence backwards to catch mistakes. If it’s a short response, ok, that’s possible. If it’s a 20 page research paper with gaggles of footnotes and citations? Forget it. That’s time that could be spent sprucing up my conclusion or tackling some or reconsidering that one paragraph that never quite felt right.

The other issue is that when you are a student, you are always working on a short deadline. On top of that, you probably have other papers due at the exact same time. You don’t have the luxury of having your editor go over your writing before it’s published. There is always more that could be done to improve a high-order concern. I feel that I can’t justify setting down my pen to read it over until the last possible second – and well, that means a few typos will sneak their way past.

After my fiasco with my writing sample, I went through a cautious phase. I decided that I needed to finish my papers in enough time to clean everything up. In effort to plan everything out and get it done early, my ideas ended up being too safe. I realized my frenzied writing process, scribbled in a coffee-induced haze, was an inseparable part of my critical voice. In my old ways, I would go up to the last minute reading articles, free writing ideas, scratching entire paragraphs, and rearranging the structure of my paper the night before it was due because a brilliant idea came to me. My polished typo-free paper lacked my signature lofty ambition.

proofreading

I know the arguments. You’ll say that if I get my priorities straight I should have time to do both – come up with a brilliant paper that is polished as well. Maybe this isn’t as big of an issue for others.  I do read my papers over before I turn them in.Yet, somehow when I do that last read-through of my paper before I turn it in I just don’t catch all the mistakes. It’s usually after I get it back and reread it that I realize there were a few awkward typos.

Is it laziness that leads me to disdain proofreading? Is it poor taste? Is it arrogance? I still haven’t quite found that happy medium where a paper is polished, but not too safe. The truth is I value wild ambition and big ideas over simple, clean, and buffed to a shine. Just take a look at my closet (but really, don’t). It’s not that I think a sloppy, haphazard paper is a good thing. It’s not. I’m talking about those persistent little typos that you just don’t notice when you’re in basking in the hyper frenzy of having put the finishing touches on an awesome paper at the last minute.

How much time do you leave to proofread your papers? Do you think the presence of typos in your writing detracts from how professional it sounds?

P.S. pardon my typos

Response to the Wall Street Journal’s “Who Ruined the Humanities?”

I recently read Lee Siegel’s Wall Street Journal article, “Who Ruined the Humanities?” and was prompted to write a response as someone who not only majored in the humanities for my B.A., but am pursuing a degree in English literature at the graduate level. If you haven’t had a chance to read the article yourself, I highly suggest taking a look. The thrust of Siegel’s point can effectively be summarized in the article’s subheading:

“Of course it’s important to read the great poets and novelists. But not in a university classroom, where literature has been turned into a bland, soulless competition for grades and status.”

newspaperSiegel’s disillusionment with the state of humanities in the American education system echoes the complaints of many students who feel academia ruins good books. I regret to report that I have had a number of teachers who have failed to enchant their students with the subject of literature. At worst, some fostered a sense of fruitless competition between students, encouraging them to dissect novels and reduce the power behind their writing to textbook dryness.

It is no wonder that former humanities majors have been outpouring into the fields of communications, advertising, and other more “practical” studies. Literature majors studying literature in isolation from other fields are a dying breed, Siegel informs us, “Never mind that the preponderance of English majors go into other fields, such as law or advertising, and that students who don’t major in English can still take literature courses.”

Far from a sign of the failure of our academic system, Siegel sees this as a saving grace, preserving the inherent value of literature so it cannot become corrupted by dissection in the classroom.

“No more will literature, as part of an academic curriculum, extinguish the incandescence of literature.”

To some extent, he’s entirely correct. A dry lesson dilutes the rhetorical power of a well-written piece of literature – of that there’s no doubt. But isn’t there more going on in the university  classroom than teaching kids to love reading? To suppose that any student can develop superior analytical writing skills just by picking up a copy of Ulysses is a suspiciously privileged view. Not every student has the social advantage of being able to sit and read selections from the English Literary Canon after school.

Where I disagree with Siegel is in his grand assertion that the study of literature as a college major is failing because it doesn’t offer students any value beyond the experience of reading books. His argument hinges upon the idea that what literature has to teach, it does so inherently – it cannot be taught in a classroom.

Now, a number of comments on the Wall Street Journal’s website have already poked holes in this argument. Learning about critical theories of literature and the historical circumstances in which a novel was written not only adds a new dimension to the way we think about books, it calls to mind questions that go beyond the page. There’s a big part of that understanding that comes from contextual knowledge and discussion in the classroom.

My advanced classes at the university level have changed the way I write, think, and communicate. There are different levels of understanding one can glean from literature. You can pick up a poem by William Butler Yeats and appreciate the sound and cadence of the poetry, but someone who is educated in Irish history, mythology, and mysticism will have a different relationship with Yeats’ work.

There are a few works that have changed my perceptions of the books I read and the media I watch, such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and Derrida’s deconstructionist approach to language. They have permeated my approach to reading novels in an important way, if not a strictly pleasurable way. If learning about literature in the classroom has destroyed Siegel’s enjoyment of the classics, it has heightened my appreciation of them.

But that is not the point I want to make. I understand my appreciation for the classroom study of literature may just be another subjective judgement in a world of critics. My true appreciation for my education in literature came after a year of working at the Writing Center at my undergraduate institution. Students came in with all different types of writing: everything from philosophy papers to scholarship applications to personal statements. I was amazed at how many brilliant students had difficulty articulating their ideas.

Not every English major is the most eloquent, brilliant writer. However, I do believe that humanities students are pushed to new levels of analysis and most importantly, of articulating that analysis. When it comes to writing a personal statement for a scholarship or even a lab report, you would be surprised how many non-humanities students struggle to describe their own ideas concisely and articulately.

I truly believe my writing skills have helped me get internships over people whose majors were more suitable for the position. I’ve worked in the engineering, IT, and marketing industries, and in every job situation my ability to communicate helped me get the job and market my skills when applying to scholarships and other positions. I even passed up a full time job with upward mobility to pursue my graduate degree.

Siegel sits in judgement of the classroom treatment of literature from the high seat of a literary purist who, having achieved his advanced degrees in the humanities, now presumes that he developed his eloquence and literary discernment outside the classroom. Maybe he did – but if so he ignores the reality that to achieve that, one must have a relatively affluent and learned home environment. Moreover, he lumps thousands of teachers’ approaches to literary studies into one great failure that has soiled the average American’s appreciation for literature. According to Siegel, understanding the full depth of classical literature “requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught.”

I disagree. The greatest thing I was ever taught by my literature and history instructors was not just to enjoy literature, but to question it. Who wrote this and why? And how did it come to be that I am reading it now? The ability to answer these questions allows a student to make broader connections about the relationship between language, culture, and communication.

I’m not saying that non-humanities majors do not encourage students to think critically about their subjects and empathize with other cultures. I’m also definitely not saying that everyone can and should be a humanities major. I’m saying that what the humanities have to offer still has value in our education system.

Yes, there are misguided teaching approaches out there – just as there are in every subject. However, I do not think that the humanities are “ruined” or even necessarily declining. We are in an economic recession and people are naturally worried about getting jobs and having a marketable resume. One could say the humanities died with the fall of the Roman Empire, but here we are today studying the authors of our own language and era. The role of literature in the classroom is merely changing. We have the opportunity to promote non-canonical texts and the voices of minority authors in the literature classroom. When it comes to education change is not always bad, sometimes good, but always inevitable. In the meantime, I will continue to study the humanities.