“The Great Ph.D. Scam” (or: Academy Plight Song)

Thanks to the Wayback Machine, here’s my piece from the Boston Phoenix on the MLA, the first feature piece I ever wrote for publication, twenty-one years ago last month.

Who knows if the Wayback Machine is forever?  Just in case, I’m including the text of the piece here.

The Phoenix gave this piece its title, which I think is too fighty.  My title was “Academy Plight Song.”  (Get it?)

I think this holds up pretty well!  (Except if I were writing this today I wouldn’t attach so much physical description to every woman with a speaking part.)

Melani McAlister, the new hire at GWU who appears in the opening scene, is still there as a tenured professor in 2018.  And all these years later, she’s still interested in helping fledgling academics navigate the world of scholarly work; her page “Thinking Twice about Grad School” is thorough, honest, humane, and just great.

Here’s the piece!

The great PhD scam
by Jordan Ellenberg

“We dangle our three magic letters before the eyes of these predestined victims, and they swarm to us like moths to an electric light. They come at a time of life when failure can no longer be repaired easily and when the wounds it leaves are permanent . . . ”
— William James
“The Ph.D. Octopus,” 1903

By nine o’clock, more than 200 would-be professors have piled into the Cotillion Ballroom South at the Sheraton Washington hotel, filling every seat and spilling over into the standing space behind the chairs. They’re young and old, dressed up and down, black and white and other (though mostly white). They’re here to watch Melani McAlister, a 1996 PhD in American Civilization from Brown, explain to a committee of five tenured professors why she ought to be hired at Indiana University.

Everybody looks nervous except McAlister. That’s because, unlike almost everyone else here, she doesn’t need a job; she’s an assistant professor at George Washington University. This interview is a mock-up, a performance put on to inform and reassure the crowd of job-seekers. As McAlister cleanly fields questions about her thesis and her pedagogical strategy, the people in the audience frown and nod, as if mentally rehearsing their own answers to the similar questions they’ll be asked in days to come.

This is night one of the 112th annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, the national organization of professors of English, comparative literature, and living foreign languages. Ten thousand scholars are here in Washington, DC, to attend panels, renew acquaintances, and, most important, to fill open faculty positions. A tenure-track job typically attracts hundreds of applicants; of these, perhaps a dozen will be offered interviews at the MLA; and from that set a handful will be called back for on-campus interviews. For the people who are here “on the market,” that is, trying to become professors of English and so forth, the MLA is the gate to heaven. And, as everyone in the room is aware, the gate is swinging shut.

McAlister is a slight, pretty woman with a trim hairdo and a trace of North Carolina in her speech. All business, she explains how Steve Martin’s song “King Tut” “viewed Tut’s `blackness’ as a commodity, a cultural style to be mobilized for the reconstruction of white masculinity.” McAlister specializes in cultural studies, a lately dominant strain of thought in English departments which aims to question and decode culture by “reading” both literary and extraliterary “texts,” Steve Martin included. Cultural studies is usually lumped with deconstructionism, Marxist and feminist criticism, semiotics, and other allied fields under the rubric of theory; the term has no fixed definition, but it’s safe to think of it as anything in the curriculum that makes George Will tug at his collar and cough.

Theory is also difficult for the layman to read, assigning technical and often unintuitive meanings to common words such as commodity, construction, figure, and spectacle. Like any specialized vocabulary, the language of cultural studies functions in part to assert the speaker’s authority, to keep the in group in and the out group out. Tonight, McAlister is definitively telling the audience they’re in. She deftly mixes the language of theory with enough explanation to make the masculinity of Tut intelligible to the large body of job-seekers with more classical interests — all the while conveying the impression that the explanation is, of course, unnecessary, that she’s reminding the audience of things they already know.

“It’s pornographic,” Todd Gilman, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard, says (approvingly) of the mock interview; another candidate’s interview, he says, is in real life “one of those moments that no one has access to.” And, as in pornography, the distinction between watching this performance and fantasizing about one’s own performance is intentionally blurred. McAlister’s physical smallness; her straightforward, rural-inflected speech; even the peppily truncated spelling of her first name make her wholly unthreatening and unalienating to the audience — a figure with whom everyone here can feel free to identify. You’re meant to walk out of this thinking: “I have a great résumé. I am a cultural-studies jock. I’m smart and pretty and the focus of everyone’s desire.” And from the rapt look of the audience, it seems to be working.

The real interviews start tomorrow morning.

Except for a brief boom in the late 1980s, the academic job market in the humanities has been shrinking for 20 years, and the flow of new PhDs has been on the rise for almost a decade. The National Research Council estimates that 923 people received PhDs in English in the 1993-’94 academic year (an increase of 20 percent from the trough in 1986-’87) and of these, only 42 percent are known to have tenure-track academic jobs now. The numbers for foreign languages are approximately the same.
Where are the rest? About a fifth are in non-tenure-track full-time positions; in other words, still on the market, this year or in years to come. Six percent have left the academy altogether. Ten percent are unemployed. Another eight percent are untrackable. And 10 percent hold part-time appointments: these are the adjunct faculty, working semester to semester, without benefits, often teaching courses at two or three colleges at once.

According to the American Association of University Professors, adjuncts make up close to half of college faculty members in the United States. With little time for research or publication, adjuncts are cut off from the main avenues for professional advancement. “I’m working like a dog just to have enough money to live on,” says John Maguire, 49, who taught six English comp courses last fall, split between Berklee and Babson College. This semester he has five courses; next summer — a comparative vacation — just two. It adds up to about $39,000 a year, with no benefits. (According to Maguire, Berklee has agreed to a contract providing benefits to part-time workers, but is delaying implementation by “dither[ing] about the language.”) Is he here on the market? “Yeah,” he says. “Just like I’m on the market to win the Megabucks.”

With such poor prospects ahead, why do new hopefuls keep entering the pipeline? It’s certainly not the comforts of graduate school. Suppose, for instance, you start the English PhD program at Boston University. First of all, you can’t just start; if you don’t already have a master’s degree, you’ll have to complete BU’s one-year MA, for which you will almost certainly have to pay tuition: at the moment, $20,702. After that, you’ve got about a 50-50 chance of being allowed to enter the doctoral program. (One BU student told me that the passage from the first program to the second was presented to him as “a formality” — the university, he says, “uses that large MA class to fund itself.”) For your first four years of doctoral study, you’ll teach one course a semester and receive a $9500 stipend.

After that, the money disappears. Theoretically, you’ve finished your dissertation and are ready to graduate. One student estimated that one in five people are done after four years; another said she’d known one such person, ever. Suppose you’re not done. You can still get a job as a lecturer and try to finish your degree while making $2600 a course — no benefits. You’ll be fighting for the lecturerships not only with your colleagues but with PhDs from other schools who didn’t get full-time work, whom you’ll probably begin to resent and hate, both because they’re competing with you and because they remind you of a possible future you’re trying to ignore. Students at BU feel their situation is worse than the norm, but it’s not much better anywhere; at Yale and the University of California, it’s been bad enough to drive the graduate students to strike.

Everyone at the MLA conference agrees there’s a job crisis in the humanities, but they don’t agree on much more. Even the most basic terms of arguing about the subject remain, in a popular formulation here, “sites of contestation.” Incompatible stories compete, Rashomon-like, to explain the same dead body.
One story, apparently the most popular: because of a demographic contraction and declining state funding of higher education, the academic labor market has shrunk, and shrunk for good. Faculty members have nonetheless sanctioned the increasing production of graduate students, even opening new PhD programs. Why? Robert Holub, a professor of German at UC Berkeley, writes in the MLA journal Profession: ” . . . professors profit directly from graduate students, who teach classes professors do not want to teach, populate seminars so that professors can indulge in their specialties, and do research professors do not want to do (or pay for).” From this point of view, the solution to the job problem is primarily a difficult exercise of will; faculties should allow marginal graduate programs to be closed, and cut admissions to the ones that remain, so that people will no longer be trained for jobs that don’t exist.

Another story of the work shortage: there is no work shortage. This leftist critique holds that to apply the supply-and-demand logic of capitalism to the academy is to give up on what makes the academy important. “The job market is a contestable idea,” says a graduate student from CUNY. “It’s not natural; it can be opposed; and it can be reversed.” Grover Furr, a professor at Montclair State and member of the MLA Radical Caucus, puts it this way: “These are politically created circumstances — and so the political dimensions of the response are more important than the economic dimension.” That is, the first story contains the implicit, and wrong, assumption that the job problem is the result of God-given economic forces, when, in fact, there’s lots of work for everyone to do — it’s just not available in the form of jobs. Here the administrators are the guilty parties; it’s their decision not to replace retiring faculty, or to replace them with cheaper adjunct labor. In this analysis, cutting graduate enrollment is the worst possible policy. Instead, the faculty, adjuncts, and graduate students ought to make common cause, endorsing unionization of student employees and faculty, and resisting the efforts of state legislatures and university administrators to reshape the university along corporate lines and fiscal rationales.

Then there’s the right-wing story, in which the humanities are in trouble because the current mainstream of scholarship — that is, scholarship informed by theory — is a fraud, perpetrated by leftist professors embittered by their marginalization in the public sphere. The reason there are so few jobs for English professors is that English professors are selling a product students don’t want, and which legislatures are (rightly) reluctant to subsidize. People like Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Kimball, and William Bennett sold a lot of books on this theme during the so-called culture wars of the early 1990s, and it still makes a reliable column for conservative op-edders like the Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley, who, on the third day of the conference, wrote sternly that Shakespeare and Toni Morrison were not “equivalent.” To the conservatives, the special language of theory is just obscurantism — an attempt to assert an authority that hasn’t been earned. And any knowledge that’s to be gained from reading Steve Martin (or radically re-reading Shakespeare) is knowledge not worth having. No one at the MLA was espousing this point of view, at least not audibly, but the popularity of the conservative story has had its effect on morale. “What we do is such a caricaturable quantity,” one graduate student told me. “We all live in fear that people think we’re doing intellectual masturbation and that our difficult work isn’t appreciated. . . . You’re suddenly beset with the feeling that no one understands or cares about what you’re working on.”

The MLA has its own story to tell about the job problem. By their count, the number of jobs listed in English was up 13 percent this year, and the worst of the shortage may be over. “We know that there are going to be larger numbers in college — a boomlet — by the turn of the century,” says Phyllis Franklin, the MLA’s executive director. “We also know our society values advanced education. This is a fact.”

No one who wasn’t speaking for the MLA seemed to share this view.

Much of each day’s activity centers on the 747 panel talks. The speakers are usually job-seekers or resume-building junior faculty, with the occasional big name like Harvard’s Marjorie Garber pitching in. The panels I visit aren’t thrilling; the talks seem repetitive and the audience inattentive. It reminds me of being in a college class that meets right before lunch. A graduate student explains it to me this way: compressing an hour lecture into a 20-minute lecture is very hard. Stretching a five-minute insight into a 20-minute lecture is very easy.
Jonathan Yardley notwithstanding, identity politics don’t dominate; there’s lots of Shakespeare happening, not so much Toni Morrison. Science is very big: panels are convening on “Poetry and Computers: Digital Poetics” and “Virtual Worlds with Real People” and “Millennium or Apocalypse? The Golem and Other Jewish Science Fiction.” You get the feeling that the scholars here are a little envious of the scientists, with their uncontested authority to speak on their own subjects. (There’s no Yardley chiding the chemists.) That authority has been a sore point ever since 1995, when Alan Sokal, a physicist at NYU, successfully placed a hoax article in the literary-theory journal Social Text. Bad PR by Social Text’s editors, with the aid of some sensational reporting, turned the low-grade scandal into a major embarrassment for the humanities. It’s no wonder so many of the scholars are shy of me. Three different people ask me if I’m writing “the usual hatchet job.”

On the third day of the conference, the Forum on the Job Market and the Future of the Profession draws about half as many people as the mock interview to a room twice as big. Cary Nelson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana and author of the forthcoming Manifesto of a Tenured Radical, delivers a crowd-pleasing stump speech attacking the MLA’s response to the job crisis, quoting less-than-fervent statements on the matter by several MLA officials. Nelson has a big voice, and a thickety, Old Testament beard, which he makes the most of; his remonstrations sound straight from a peevish God. With their timidity and unwillingness to offend tenured faculty, Nelson declares, “[MLA leaders] have aided and abetted the crisis . . . the disaster they normalized. They have moved on to the wistful contemplation of their graduate students — alas, poor Yorick, he hath not a job.” Nelson’s own prescription is a “Twelve-Step Program for Academia,” including such strong medicine as unionization of graduate students, shutting down “marginal” PhD programs, and a push toward retirement for faculty of a certain age.

He’s particularly hard on Elaine Showalter, a professor at Princeton and second vice-president of the MLA, who has argued more than once against what she calls “’60s tactics” in academic activism. “Showalter believes,” Nelson says cuttingly, “that a graduate education in the humanities is . . . broadening.” The implication is clear: for Showalter and the MLA, a PhD is just another part of rich kids’ social initiation into the world of rich adults, like a Grand Tour, or tennis lessons.

As soon as he’s done, Showalter, a small, sturdy woman with a schoolteacher’s hairdo and a silver sun brooch, shoots up from the crowd, her hand extending upward and a pen extending from her hand.

“The solutions are not going to be an issue of exploitative, seductive, cruel princes of the MLA against a kind of plebiscite,” she says. But for much of the crowd, that seems to be exactly the issue involved. The question period turns out to be more of a cri de coeur period, as audience members stand and testify to what everyone already knows: that the dire future has already arrived, and that no one seems to be doing much about it. There’s a broad feeling that the MLA represents the tenured professors, not the graduate students who make up a third of its membership, certainly not the part-timers. A woman who’s been an adjunct in New Jersey for 20 years stands up: “We are accountable for what we eat, what we wear, what we say, and what we teach.” I’ve never before seen someone so mad as to actually tremble. Suddenly a mystery novel I’d read just before coming, Murder at the MLA, makes a lot more sense. “People who are taking money and pretending to teach [graduate students] that there will be positions are accountable.” (“It’s not fair,” Phyllis Franklin says later, looking beleaguered. “In point of fact . . . we have been making every kind of effort to help those people. There’s one thing the MLA can’t do, and that’s make jobs.”)

As for Elaine Showalter, she really does think a graduate education is broadening, and she’s not apologetic about it. A PhD in English, she tells me, allows you “to write your first book under someone’s supervision”; it makes you a better journalist, a better high-school teacher, a better White House communications director, and so on. So there aren’t too many people being trained; there’s just too limited a perception of what they’re being trained for. “Cutting down,” she says, “is the least interesting, least imaginative, least effective solution.”

But graduate students tend to resent the suggestion that they should be satisfied with work outside the academy. “We didn’t go through this for seven years to work for Motorola,” one speaker says. A graduate student from Columbia: “Name one job this prepares you for other than scholar and teacher. It hurts you, because you’re overeducated, and they wonder why you failed at your last career. There are lots of other jobs, but I could have done them seven years ago with a BA.” Another graduate student told me that when he found out last year he was going to be a father, he sent out dozens of job applications in the industry he’d left to go back to school. One company sent a sympathetic letter but no offer. The others told him his PhD made him overqualified. Now he’s at the MLA, on the market for an academic job. “The fact is,” he tells me, “this is the only plank I can afford to walk.”

So why do people still enter doctoral programs? Nelson, in Manifesto, makes the crucial point that “the job market’s blunt message . . . will not in any way mean [to undergraduates] what it means to graduate students whose careers are cut off in mid- stream . . . . To undergraduates the message will instead be partly symbolic, vaguely invoking disaster or impossibility, and partly incomprehensible.” Here’s the reason so many graduate students feel as if they hadn’t been warned just how bad the situation was. As Nelson puts it, graduate students “acquire an identity they did not have at the outset.” The undergraduate who hears the bad news reasons that if she can’t get an academic job she’ll do something else, and signs up. The person who, six years later, becomes part of the bad news may no longer be able to do anything else.

I asked a lot of graduate students what they would tell someone who was deciding whether to enter a doctoral program. Every one said the same thing: “Don’t do it unless you love it.”

The problem is that it doesn’t seem possible to love it, the way they mean, without doing it.

The 10,000 scholars here in DC are united in a difficult, invaluable, sometimes exciting communal project. Just by reading books (and movies, and menus, and Steve Martin songs) they’re finding out things about how people live — and about what people are, and how people decide what they are — that laymen like me don’t know, and can’t fully understand. But the scholars seem to labor under an unremitting fear that everything they do is worthless. You can see that fear in the protective secret language of cultural studies. You can see it in Murder at the MLA, in which the kind of knowledge English professors have turns out to be the kind that solves crimes. You can see it in the humanities’ conflicted relationship with the sciences. You can see it in the academy’s failure to mount any forceful response to the conservative critics of the early ’90s and to the administration “streamliners” of today.
John Guillory, an English professor at Johns Hopkins, spoke Saturday morning on “Rationales for Literary Study.” Guillory, whose book Cultural Capital has made him an authority on the way academic knowledge is produced and consumed, told a polite crowd that they had to quit worrying about being useful. The problems of the academy, he said, wouldn’t be solved until English professors (and then the public) found a way to value literary knowledge for itself, the way we value, say, knowledge about mathematics.

He didn’t seem to make a big impression, but it’s Guillory I’m thinking about on Sunday afternoon, with the conference winding to a close, as I sit in a little panel room waiting for a hopeful Renaissancist grad student to start his piece on Donne. A woman behind me says, “Don’t spread the word about the Thackeray revival. Right now I am the Thackeray revival.” I’m trying to imagine a world where English was more like mathematics. A reporter’s job at the MLA wouldn’t be to pass judgment on the field but to relay, with suitable deference, the past year’s breakthroughs. People would say things to English professors like “I don’t know how you do it — I never got the hang of reading.” Literary study would have its own E.O. Wilsons and Stephen Hawkings, beloved public shamans with stacks of honorary degrees. And with the rise in public standing would come kibbitzers and hangers-on; maybe Camille Paglia’s a first glimmering of that.

It would be different. The last of Cary Nelson’s 12 steps is “Popularize the Achievements of the Academy.” He’s right about that — it’s the only way to keep cost-cutting legislators at bay. But I’m not sure the scholars want to be popular. Like sensitive, dance-shy teens, they know you lose something, too. As the discourse becomes public, it coarsens and shrinks; it has to fit inside an op-ed piece or a New Yorker cartoon. Is that a price the scholars will be willing to pay? I can’t tell, but I think they’ll have to decide soon.

Out in the hall, the exhibitors are packing up. As the room settles into attention, I get up to go — I have somewhere to be, across town.

“I think we can begin,” the moderator says.


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4 thoughts on ““The Great Ph.D. Scam” (or: Academy Plight Song)

  1. Dave Scocca says:

    I believe any entering graduate student needs to ask the prospective department three questions.

    (1) How many first-year students did you enroll last year?

    (2) How many PhDs did you award last year?

    (3) How many new PhDs did you hire last year?

  2. This is what pure mathematics will look like after the next recession.

  3. Yiftach Barnea says:

    This actually reminded me of The Grasshopper King. Was it part of the inspiration?

    I actually liked the physical descriptions, although, they might be less appropriate when you talk about real people.

    I also never completely understood what the point of investing time and effort in helping “everyone” to “improve” their chance of finding a job is when the number of jobs is fixed.

  4. JSE says:

    Probably the opposite direction, Yiftach: although The Grasshopper King wasn’t published until 2003, it was written in essentially final form by 1995. So I was already sort of primed to be interested in the song of the lonely scholar.

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