Part one: an institutional shell game.
One of the absurdities of the contemporary university is this: at the same time that those of us firmly held in the tight embrace of tenured institutional belong begin to really acknowledge that most of our PhD students are not going to become professors, we same tightly embraced tenured people are being actively pushed (“incentivized,” I think, is the jargon for this) to increase the numbers of graduate students we enrol.
The math here is complicated. Which is to say, I don’t quite understand it, but it tends to the effect that graduate students in all areas are profit-making for the institution. There’s a net gain to the university for each grad we enrol, and a bigger cumulative gain if we enrol a certain biggish ‘target’ number.
I begin to suspect that like the users of Facebook and like the audience of broadcast television, graduate students are the product of the institution rather than its consumers (forget apprentices). Facebook and TV sell their users for advertising revenue. And the university? From what I can tell, over and above the reputation points we gain for having PhD students around generally, and beyond whatever measure of glamour or power that accrues to individual supervisors for having acolytes, the university ‘sells’ graduate enrolments to the provincial government for incentive money. I think. Like I say, the math is complicated.
I am developing some ethical concerns here.
Part two: when do you break their hearts?
Many of us tell many others of us to stop admitting graduate students to our programs: there are already too many graduates without jobs! (By ‘jobs,’ we only ever really seem to mean ‘tenure-track professorships’.) The debt loads are crushing! You’ll be 40 and unemployed, living in a basement, teaching remedial composition to part time phys ed majors for approximately 40 cents an hour. Students, though, still clamour to come. They have big ideas (like I had) and dreams of the life of the mind (like I had).
We’ve already discussed here (and others have discussed elsewhere) what to do about this disjuncture. So you want to get a PhD in the humanities? Ha! But then, every one who sits in a chair in an office with SSHRC reference forms in hand and grad applications piling up can’t say that it’s impossible: we did it, right? I actually get to live my life of the mind with my big ideas and it’s pretty sweet. But no tenure for you!
Many of them–many of you–want to keep coming, regardless of the dire warnings. Many of us–me!–are uncomfortable either squashing the grad school dream or nurturing it. I mean, I love the big ideas the graduate students bring to the seminar table, the office hours, the committee meetings. But I don’t want to see anyone disenchanted, disillusioned, broke and in despair after they graduate. Or, God help us, dragging their degree out for a decade to hold on to the pittance of one teaching assignment per term, gripping the life of the mind by the fingernails.
What to do? I have yet more ethical concerns telling potential grad students not to follow their dreams and their interests.
Part three: a modest proposal
If you want to do a PhD, you should do one. But! Only under this condition: you treat it like the first job of your career. Think of the PhD like a 4-6 year chunk of time, a discrete part of your life, where you earn a salary, live a real life (of the mind, of course, but also without taking loans to pay for food), and enjoy the full range of adult experiences. Don’t put your life on hold for some future utopia: that ain’t how this works anymore. Treat your PhD like a job: maybe it’s a low paying job, but that’s okay, because you really enjoy it. If you’re not going to enjoy this time, if you’re not going to be satisfied with your life while you do it, then don’t do it holding your nose for the glorious reward of the coming professorship. Because that’s a recipe for misery, all round.
People change jobs a lot over their lifetimes. Consider the PhD as one more job: it’s a great job, so far as it goes, really. You get to follow your interests and your passions. You mostly set your own hours. Your colleagues are great fun, and really smart. You often get to travel. You’ll write a book-length study of your own devising. You’ll get opportunities to interact with the public through teaching. While in this job, you prepare for your next one, the next part of your career: sure, you’ll learn how to be a professor, but you should also hone your other professional skills, too, because you know the PhD doesn’t last forever.
The sticking point in my plan is that you have to make enough money to live on. The real tragedy of grad school, often, is that students are so invested in the idea that are apprenticing into a well-paid professorial gig that they consider grad school an investment in future earnings–so it’s okay to take on debt, sometimes a lot of it, like law students or medical students do.
That’s not okay, actually. Don’t go to grad school unless you can live on your stipend. It’s absolutely not worth taking on debt for. Debt will limit your options once the degree is done. Debt will embitter you. Debt will make you desperate. Let me be perfectly clear: if you consider the PhD a job (as I’m suggesting to) don’t go unless they pay you.
Go if you think the PhD is a job you will enjoy for the amount of time you do it. Prepare for a number of different job scenarios that will arise when you finish. Maybe you will become a professor, but probably, you won’t: prepare for the next stage of your life, post-degree, accordingly. You don’t ‘waste’ your time in a job just because you ultimately change jobs. But we often think of the PhD as a waste if we don’t get a particular kind of next job, or if we’ve gone into catastrophic levels of debt to pursue it, or put off things in our lives (like having a family, or moving out of our parents’ homes) to get the degree. In those circumstances, a PhD might be a waste. Approach it like a low-paying, highly-rewarding, short-term job, though, and you can see more clearly to do a real cost-benefit analysis before you begin.
Is that offensive? I don’t think this kind of pragmatism is incompatible with ideals: please, follow your passion! But the reward for that passion and its pursuit is going to be a dissertation well-written–I can pretty much assure you the reward is not going to be a tenure-track job. Don’t let that reality stop you from coming if you really want a PhD, and I would absolutely encourage you to come if you’re happy to live on your stipend for five years and then move on to something else.
That, I think, is an ethical approach to graduate studies.
What do you think?
It is hard to be a teacher in November. The grading seems never-ending. The strange emails from students who have not been in class since September start trickling in. Research deadlines for the semester creep closer and closer. And there are still two and a half weeks worth of lectures to be written. Oh yes, and did I mention the grading? But recent and ongoing events have reminded me once again that these are small (albeit pressing) parts of my job as a teacher. There are global lessons to be learned. They are unfolding before our eyes, and they are being taught to us by students.
Like many of you I have spent the weekend watching in horror as students sitting in peaceful protest on the ground are sprayed directly in the face with pepper spray. I have watched as professors stand with their students in peaceful protest, and I have watched as they too are thrown to the ground. I have read one of the most powerful examples of speaking truth to power in Assistant Professor Nathan Brown‘s open letter to University of California Davis Chancellor Linda PB Katehi calling for her resignation. And when that Chancellor finally left the safe confines of her office I have watched as hundreds of students employ the powerful tool of silence. I have watched this all from my computer screen in my home in Canada where on November 10th police were called onto the campus of my alma mater and pepper sprayed students who were in peaceful protest against tuition hikes.
I have been enraged by these occurrences. I have been disheartened. I have been moved to tears. But most importantly, I have been moved.
Sure, some of those students who demonstrated incredible restraint while Chancellor Katehi walked to her car have handed in late assignments, skipped class, or sent emails signed ‘respond ASAP!’ Or not. No doubt some of the students on the McGill campus sit in the back of class and text throughout lectures. What I mean here is that these are not perfect people; they are people whose lives are affected by policies, economies, and now by pepper spray.
As Cathy N. Davidson and others suggest, those of us who teach in the university space have a responsibility to our students that extends beyond coming to class prepared with well written and well conceived lectures.What I am saying moreover is this: there is a profound connection between standing in front of students in a classroom and standing beside students on political and ethical grounds. It is a connection I am going to work harder to remember as I walk into the classroom, and as I manoeuvre through the minutiae. We occupy positions of relative power, even those of us in sessional or part-time positions. We owe it to our students to let them know that we support them, that we care about their issues, and that we will stand with them in protest against injustice.
We owe it to them. We owe it to the future we want to occupy.
Thanks to TVM, MJH, and MRE. Thanks to Judith T. for telling me she was also moved.
I think we need a boast post–well, I think I might need one, because this week, it feels like the voices in my head are doing nothing but complaining and pointing out my flaws (“I hate grading! I’m an idiot for assigning all this writing! I’m actively getting stupid because I never get to read anything! I’m a terrible researcher! I’m inherently unserious and immature! Why is the office 18 degrees? Where’s my scarf and fingerless gloves? Wah!”).
Instead of getting lost in awful minutiae of the end of term, I thought I’d come back to first principles. I’m thinking about the passion that brought me here, and the skills that allow me to shine, in my own way at least. Because that’s what keeps me going.
I’m passionate about reading. All the time. I think, at this point, I’ve got all the ads on the bus memorized, for example. This morning, I read all the text on the box from which I removed a new bar of soap. So I should be happy, and I guess I am, that I have so much in front of me to read. I really am excited to read my students’ papers (but not to grade them). I’m excited to read the textbook (but not to prep my class). I am always excited to read material in my field in a new book, or an article. My biggest passion, beyond just simply reading all the time, is for my field: honestly, I just keep finding more and more to be fascinated with in computing culture. When I started, the world wide web had just been invented, and I wanted to understand how people came to understand computers as personal machines. Ha! And now there’s so, so very much more to think about and I get so excited I start to talk really fast when I even consider it.
So my passions still drive me as much as they ever did.
And what am I good at? It’s hard to remember now when I feel so beaten down by meetings I don’t feel well-enough prepared for, by grading piles that don’t ever get any smaller, by research that is so completely not writing itself now. Hm. Well, I’m funny. My students in their evaluation always seem to remark on how I can make even boring stuff kind of fun and I think that should count for something, shouldn’t it? A spoonful of sugar, and all that? Man, my prep might not be as thorough in late November as it was in September, but, dammit, at least I’ve got the personality and the wit to really sell it. So. I’m good at being funny.
Here’s something funny, a little gift from me to you: my husband and I were walking in from Amazingly Distant Parking Lot when we came upon this. There’s something very late-November-y about it, which might resonate with many of you. Enjoy:
Huh. Okay. Now I’m feeling a little better about life. I’m chuckling out loud right now, just like in the video, at that poor stuck squirrel.
Maybe a little pause to consider what you’re passionate about, and what you’re really good at can help you get through term, too: maybe slam poetry rocks your universe; maybe your skill is giving compassionate extensions to stressed out students; maybe you can’t get enough of literature in translation and have an uncanny ability to plan meetings that have solid agendas and always end early. I’d LOVE to hear about it.
Please! Tell me the passion that keeps you going through this November slog, and one thing you’re good at that makes it all a little easier. Let’s all cheer each other, and cheer each other up.
“Mom, did you know women are objectified?” asked my fifteen-year old son, as I picked him up from school. In spite of more than ten years of experience fielding my children’s questions as I am driving, I still narrowly avoided hitting the car in front of me. Ignoring my frazzled demeanor, and in typical teenage fashion, my son continued to ask more questions, as well as give me his opinions, regarding women’s lack of access to education and resources. I had to smile as he expressed earnest concern for the plight of women in general, reiterating his original question, and wondering if I, “as a woman, Mom” had been a victim of men’s oppression. It is important to note, at this point, that this is the young man who up until a few months ago had gone to see the latest Transformers movie as much for the robots as for the Victoria Secret model starring in it. This is also the teenager who spends time with his friends rating women in terms of hotness factors, and whose daily lexicon increasingly includes words like “beautiful” and “sexy.” Imagine then my surprise, to hear him use words like “patriarchy” and “feminism”, and to hear him debate the merits of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.
Our conversation took place during his first week in high school when his grade ten Social Studies teacher decided to begin a curriculum focused on globalization with an introduction to feminism. A bold move on her part, and one for which I, as a mother and a post-secondary instructor, am personally grateful. It is easy to track some our children’s more tangential milestones, but it is harder to discern the growth of their moral character. As parents, we always wonder if our children are absorbing some of our perspectives on life. Are we nurturing open-minded, non-judgmental individuals? Are we raising both genders to believe in equal access and equal opportunities? As a mother, I can track my children’s physical growth, but it is only through these conversations that I get glimpses of the complex human beings they are becoming.
I learned that my son was shocked when the teacher asked how many students had mothers with post-secondary degrees, and in a class of thirty-five students, only five students raised their hands. It was gratifying to learn that my son not only understood these gender differences, but could also be disturbed by them. He found it hard to understand these statistics, as he is surrounded by women who value education. He has aunts with PhDs, MBAs, and various Bachelor degrees. He has a sister and several female cousins currently working towards university degrees. On the other side of the gender equation, my son has seen his father take care of him while I have been away at conferences, working, or studying. My husband never refers to this task as babysitting, being on “mom duty’, or doing women’s work, as some of his male friends do. Even though the gender boundary lines are sometimes negotiable, our children know that our roles as family caregivers, parents, and providers are interchangeable.
This high school class on feminism also reminded me that as academics, we sometimes bash secondary school educators by dismissing their efforts and viewing their pedagogical knowledge as inferior to our own. We forget that it is often great high school teachers who have set us on the path we are now treading. I owe a debt of gratitude to them, and now to this Social Studies teacher who is molding the students I will be teaching three years from now. As a result of her efforts, these young adults will not be intimidated by courses that have “women” or “feminism” in the title or description. These are the students who will choose to take courses on gender studies, and who will come to our classes eager to join in on the conversation. I can’t wait to hear what they have to say.
Lourdes Arciniega, PhD Candidate. University of Calgary
This week I have had the luxury of a four day weekend, or rather I have had four days in a row where I have been able to focus on work. What’s more, I’ve been happy to hunker down in my little flat making pot after pot of tea and work chip away at the monstrous To Do list that haunts my every waking moment. Not since I was an MA student living alone with neither roommates nor partner have I had such a solitary and focussed weekend. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t–couldn’t–work like this all weekend every weekend, but this was a rare and welcomed gift of time + space + focus = productivity. Amazing!
Time is collapsing all around me.
I am grading first year papers, and as I sometimes do, I dug out one of my papers from first year–from, holy crap, 1992! And I read it. And was transported back into that smart aleck self I was then, all piss and vinegar and not much knowledge at all. It was a paper on “To His Coy Mistress” wherein I expressed surprise that literature could be witty. (Yeah. I was that kid. Let me just apologize to all my teachers …) The paper both sounded like me and did not sound like me … and was in Courier font, because my prof didn’t like computers. When I put the paper down and blinked up at the sunshine in my campus office I was totally discombobulated. The shift from 1992 to 2011 happened in that glance up from the paper. How did this happen to me?
We are hiring a new junior colleague in my field (digital media studies! Please apply!) and all of a sudden it occurred to me that I am not, actually, junior any more. I’ve been here seven and a half years; I got my PhD in 2004. I was imagining that we would be hiring … I don’t know, someone from my cohort? But I won’t even be a generational peer of my new colleague. I’m not the fresh thinking any more; I am one of those who will benefit from the infusion of someone else’s fresh blood into the body of the department. Amazing!
In my digital life writing class, my grad students have all had to produce personal blogs. As I read through those, the lives they articulate are both startlingly familiar and achingly remote. Grad student experiences are eternal and timeless, and while those experiences are part of my experiences, my history, it’s not really my story any more. I’m mostly through my existential crises, my big moves to new cities, my basement apartments and groaning bookshelves whose tomes were assigned to me by others. How did 1998 get so far away from me without my really knowing it? Most of my friends are closer to 50 than they are to 30.
My oldest nephew is in grade 11: his mother and I are taking him back to our alma mater this weekend, for campus day. He spent the first two years of his life on that campus. We’re going to retrace our steps, only this time instead of handing him in his slippery nylon snowsuit back and forth as we try to find a spot to eat that’s not in the smoking section, he’ll be busy fending off the hugs of my five year old daughter while his mother and I can’t stop remarking on the things that have changed, and the things that haven’t. My nephew is full of excitement, amazed to discover that university classes don’t run every day, from 9:00 until 3:00, and that he gets to pick them all himself. That there will be classes with hundreds of people in them. The freedom and the responsibility.
One of my colleagues is retiring. There’s going to be a party, with speeches. His kids have moved away, and he and his wife have sold their big old house with the beautiful gardens and the pocket doors and are renting something, until they figure out what they want to do next. He seems quite happy to be walking away. Amazing.
This is my twentieth year in university. More and more of my life is anchored to these places, these schedules, these routines. Orange and brown decor, brutalist architecture, the rhythms of academic semesters. Meal plans, parking woes, and backpacks. Thousands of 18 year olds, bookshelves everywhere, and hyper-literate conversation. This has all stayed mostly the same, but I guess I’ve been changing all along, right?
This is not a lament, no. I’m happier now and here than, really, I’ve ever been. I guess it’s just that circumstances lately have brought home to me that even if I’m not going anywhere, everything is still moving forward. Amazing.
This week I read two articles that prominently featured women. The first was published in the FedCan blog, the second was published in the National Post. Despite their vastly differing focuses and intended audiences I found myself making connections across the two articles, and friends, I find those connections worrying.
The FedCan article is entitled “Status of Women: Gender and the Ivory Ceiling of Service Work in the Academy.” Published as a part of CFHSS’s Equity Issues Portfolio on the Status of Women in the Disciplines and in the Academy the article considers reasons why tenured women are not seeking promotion to full professorship. “Service work continues to pull women associate professors away from research,” write the authors, “what can be done?”
I won’t rehearse the article in its entirety as you can read it for yourself. Suffice to say that the authors undertook a survey of (American) associate professors and found that
“On average, male associate professors spent 37 percent of their time on research, while women associate professors spent 25 percent of their time on research. While women associate professors spent 27 percent of their time on service, men spent 20 percent of their time on service. This dramatic difference suggests that men focus more on their research, which earns greater prestige and potential for promotion. One associate professor survey respondent reported difficulty balancing research, teaching, and service, commenting, ‘In reality, only research matters when it comes to tenure and promotion, but service and teaching require lots of time.'”
The results chimed with a brilliant paper I saw Neta Gordon give at ACCUTE this spring on a panel called “The Corporate University.” Gordon posed a direct question that–truth be told–I wish the authors of this article had asked. Might the value of service actually be devalued, she asked. In other words, and to use the statistics from the FedCan article, now that there are more women than ever earning PhDs, are ‘high visibility service roles’ actually less prestigious than they once were?
The second article I read this week featured women in abstentia. Much of my own research is on Canadian poetry and poetics, and I’m especially interested in acts of public poetics. So I was naturally disappointed that there was no way I could manage flying across the country to attend outgoing Vancouver Poet Laureate Brad Cran and his partner Gillian Jerome‘s brilliant V125. I kept track of goings on via Twitter and was pleased to see a write up of the event in a national newspaper…until I read it. With all due respect to the very fine writers mentioned in the article I have to ask: where are the women? Some of the most innovative, socially oriented, engaged poetics in Canada are being undertaken by women. And yet. No mention of a woman in this review. Not one. Where was Sachiko Murakami? Christine Leclerc? Nikki Reimer? Sue Goyette? Larissa Lai? Sonnet L’Abbé? Oana Avasilichioaei? I could go on.
Why the myopia? Why the disproportionate representation?
Yesterday, I graded and gave feedback on 30 first year essay proposals. I’ve still got five or six to do, that came in late over email. Then there’s the 25 first year revised response papers that I’ve not finished yet. The 15 graduate life writing papers that came in on Wednesday, and the 15 graduate paper proposals that will all be in my email by Saturday. Oh, and I’ve got five graduate seminars to grade, too.
I’m not behind. It’s just grading season. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Wednesday, I will get 40 annotated bibliographies from my first years. And then the grad ones. I’ve got at least 40 new things coming in to grade every week until the end of term. They need really good feedback because it’s components of a stepped essay assignment. And so they also need to be turned around really fast.
I’m getting more efficient, and I hope effective, as I do this job longer, but I’ll be honest and say that the piles of grading fill me with dread. There’s just, it seems, too much of it to really do. 30 proposals in one day was a lot, and I had to do them in batches of five or six, with other tasks in between, because soon enough I run out of ways to say “a statement of commonly accepted fact is not a thesis; a thesis statement should articulate an informed opinion with which reasonable people might disagree” and “if you develop a real thesis your paper will be easier and more fun to research and write.”
(And more interesting for me to read, but never mind that.)
Sometimes I grade work submitted electronically, sometimes I work from paper, sometimes I put my notes by hand on a piece of writing, sometimes I write it up on the computer and print it. I always sign my initials right by the grade, to accept my responsibility for the assessment.
I’m not sure what works best, always, but I’m overwhelmed and procrastinating so I thought I’d try to start a conversation here: how do you get through the grading crunch?
One of my tricks: clumps. If it’s one- or two-page assignments, I’ll grade six first thing in the morning, then do something else, and then grade another six, then a break, then grade five, then something, then grade four. I find my tolerance goes down throughout the day, so the ‘clumps’ have to get smaller because I burn out more quickly. By the end of the day, my ‘clump’ of grading between other tasks might go down to one or two. So my trick is to start hard in the morning, then lower my expectations and my quotas as the day proceeds.
What do you do?