The stupidity of what I’m doing and the meaning of real work: Reading for PhD comprehensive exams

Last weekend, I wrote a flurry of posts after months of relative silence because I needed to do real work.

This might sound strange: I am doing a lot of things, especially reading, but all of it is make-believe, pretend work. That’s because the primary thing I’m doing is studying for PhD comprehensive exams in English lit. The exam set is structured in four parts: three, four-hour written segments, and a single oral exam, on topics related to stuff that’s not very important to me and probably not very important to most people. The exams also aren’t very relevant to being an English professor, because the key skill that English professors possess and practice is writing long-form essays/articles that are published in peer-reviewed journals. The tests I’m taking don’t, as far as I can tell, map very effectively to that skill.

As a consequence, the tests, although very time consuming, aren’t very good proxies for what the job market actually wants me to do.*

Consequently, PhD exams—at least in English—aren’t real work. They’re pretend work—another hoop to be jumped through on the way to getting a union card. Paul Graham makes a useful distinction in “Good and Bad Procrastination,” when he says that “Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work.” That’s what I’ve done through most of grad school, and that’s part of the reason why I have a fairly large body of work on this blog, which you can obviously read, a fairly large body of fiction, which you can’t (at the moment, but that’s going to change in the coming months). To Graham, the kind of small stuff that represents bad procrastination is “Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary.” Passing exams has zero chance of being mentioned in my obituary. Writing books or articles does.** PhD exams feel like bad procrastination because they’re not really examining anything useful.

They’re also hard, but hard in the wrong way, like picking patterns out of noise. Being hard in the right way means the soreness you get after working out, or when a challenging math problem suddenly clicks. The quasi-work I’m doing is intellectually unsatisfying—the mental equivalent of eating ice cream and candy all day, every day. Sure, they’re technically food, but you’re going to develop some serious problems if you persist in the ice cream and candy diet. The same is true of grad school, which might be why so many people emerge from it with a lugubrious, unpalatable writing style. Grad school doesn’t select or train for style; it selects and trains for a kind of strange anti-style, in which the less you can say in more words is rewarded. It’s the kind of style I’m consciously trying to un-cultivate, however hard the process might be, and this blog is one outlet for keeping the real writer alive in the face of excessive doses from tedious but canonized work and literary theory. Exams, if anything, reinforce this bogus hardness. If I’m ever in a position of power in an English department with a grad program, I’m going to try and offer an alternative to conventional exams, and say that four to six publishable, high-quality papers can or should take their place. That, at least, mirrors the skills valued by the job market.

The bogosity of exams relates to a separate problem in English academia, which I started noticing when I was an undergrad and have really noticed lately: the English curriculum is focused on the wrong thing. The problem can be stated concisely: Should English department teach content (like, say, Medieval poetry, or Modernist writers), or skills (like writing coherently and close reading)? Louis Menand describes the issue in The Marketplace of Ideas:

[C]ompare the English departments at two otherwise quite similar schools, Amherst and Wellesley. English majors at Wellesley are required to take ten English department courses [. . .] All English majors must take a core course called ‘Critical Interpretations’; one course on Shakespeare; and at least two courses on literature written before 1900 [. . .] The course listing reflects attention to every traditional historical period in English and American literature. Down the turnpike at Amherst, on the other hand, majors have only to take ten courses ‘offered or approved by the department’—in other words, apparently, they may be course sin any department. Majors have no core requirement and no period requirements. (Menand 89-90)

Most departments right now appear to answer “content.” Mine does. But I increasingly think that’s the wrong answer. I’m not convinced that it’s insanely important for undergrads to know Chaucer, or to have read Sister Carrie and Maggie: Girl of the Streets, or to have read any particular body of work. I do think it’s insanely important for them to have very strong close reading skills and exceptional writing skills. Unfortunately, I appear to be in the minority of professional Englishers in this respect. And I’m in grad school, where the answer skill mostly appears to be “content,” and relatively few people appear to be focusing on skills; those are mostly left to individuals to develop on their own. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone discuss what makes good writing at conferences, in seminars, or in peer-reviewed papers (MFA programs appear to be very interested in this subject, however, which might explain some of their rise since 1945).

As Menand points out, no one is sure what an “‘English’ department or degree is supposed to be.” That’s part of the field’s problem. I think it’s also part of the reason many students are drawn to creative writing classes: in those, at least the better ones, writing gets taught; the reading is more contemporary; and I think many people are doing things that matter. When I read the Romantic Poets, I mostly want to do anything but read the Romantic Poets. Again, I have nothing against the Romantic Poets or against other people reading the Romantic Poets—I just don’t want to do it. Yet English undergrad and grad school forces the reading of them. Maybe it should. But if so, it should temper the reading of them with a stronger focus on writing, and what makes good writing.

Then again, if English departments really wanted to do more to reward the producing of real content, they’d probably structure the publishing of peer-reviewed articles better. Contrary to what some readers have said in e-mails to me, or inferred from what I’ve written, I’m actually not at all opposed to peer review or peer-reviewed publications. But the important thing these days isn’t a medium for publishing—pretty much anyone with an Internet connection can get that for free—but the imprimatur of peer-review, which says, “This guy [or gal] knows what he’s talking about.” A more intellectually honest way to go about peer-review would be to have every academic have a blog / website. When he or she has an article ready to go, he should post it, send a link to an editor, and ask the editor to kick it out to a peer-reviewer. Their comments, whether anonymous or not, should be appended to the article. If it’s accepted, it gets a link and perhaps the full-text copied and put in the “journal’s” main page. If it doesn’t, readers can judge its merits or lack thereof for themselves.

The sciences arguably already have this, because important papers appear on arXiv.org before they’re officially “published.” But papers in the sciences appear to be less status-based and more content-based than papers in the humanities.

I think this change will happen in the humanities, very slowly, over time; it won’t be fast because there’s no reason for it to be fast, and the profession’s gatekeepers are entrenched and have zero incentive to change. If anything, they have a strong incentive to maintain the system, because doing that raises their own status and increases their own power within the profession. So I don’t foresee this happening, even if it would be an important thing. But then again, academics are almost always behind the important thing: the important thing is happening in some marginal, liminal space, and academics inhabit a much more central area, where it’s easy to ignore stuff at the margins. I don’t see that changing either, especially in a world where many people compete for few academic slots. In that world, pointless hoop-jumping is going to remain.


* There’s a vast literature in industrial organization on the subject of hiring practices, and most of that literature finds that the most effective ways to hire workers is to give them an IQ test and a work-skills or work-practice test. The former is effectively illegal in the U.S., so the best bet is to give workers a test of the thing they’ll actually be called on to do.

** I also consciously ask myself this question set:

In his famous essay You and Your Research (which I recommend to anyone ambitious, no matter what they’re working on), Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions:

1. What are the most important problems in your field?

2. Are you working on one of them?

3. Why not?

I have an answer to number three, but it doesn’t seem like a very good one.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: The GeekDesk / writing space post: « The Story's Story

  2. Pingback: My novel, Asking Anna, is out today | The Story's Story

  3. Pingback: My next novel, THE HOOK, is out today « The Story's Story

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