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.

Problems in the Academy: Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University

The problems in American universities are mostly structural and economic, and the biggest are occurring on the faculty side of the liberal arts and social sciences: since around 1975, too many professors (or at least people earning PhDs) vie for faculty slots relative to the number of undergraduates. Menand says (twice) that “Between 1945 and 1975, the number of American undergraduates increased by 500 percent, but the number of graduate students increased by nearly 900.” Undergraduates clear out of the system in four to six years; graduate students who get PhDs (presumably) stay or wish to stay for whole careers. Since 1975, college enrollments have grown much more modestly than they did from 1945 – 1975, and the department that’s grown most is business, since so many undergraduates now major in it. But grad programs haven’t scaled back, leaving humanities types to fight for scarce jobs and write polemics about how much it sucks to fight for scarce jobs.

Menand doesn’t identify the supply/demand problems as the major root cause of the other issues around political/social conformity, time to degree for academic grad students, and so forth, but it’s hard not to trace “the humanities revolution,” “interdisiplinarity and anxiety,” and why all professors think alike to supply and demand. Each of those topics are each covered in a long chapter, and Menand’s first, on “The Problem of General Education,” seems least related to the others because it is mostly inside baseball: how we ended up requiring undergrads to take a certain number of courses in a certain number of fields, and what academia should be like. But the others make up for it.

The Marketplace of Ideas is worth reading for knowledge and style: the book has the feeling of a long New Yorker article—Menand is a staff writer there—and if he occasionally pays for it with the generalization that gets coldly stamped out of peer-reviewed writing, the trade-off is worthwhile. Menand is also unusually good at thinking institutionally, in terms of incentives, and about systems: those systems tend to evolve over time, but they also tend to harden in place unless some catastrophic failure eventually occurs. Such failures are often more evident in business than in public life, since businesses that fail catastrophically go bankrupt and are much more susceptible to competitors and regulators than governments. The academic system is, as Menand points out, something out of the 19th Century in its modes of tenure, promotion, displinarity, and so forth. But it’s unlikely to go anywhere in an immediate and obvious way because public universities are supported by taxpayers and even private ones are most often nonprofit. Furthermore, whatever problems exist, universities do well enough, especially from the perspective of students, and having a glut of PhDs to choose from doesn’t harm universities themselves. Consequently, I don’t see as great an impetus for change as Menand implies, very loosely, that there is.

Take, for example, the PhD production problems from earlier in this post. The logical conclusion would be for fewer people to enter PhD programs, for universities to close some programs, for degrees to take less time (the natural sciences often end up requiring five years from entering to conferring degrees, while humanities programs creeping above ten years), and so on. But there’s no real incentive for that on the part of an individual university: having graduate programs is impressive, grad students are cheap teachers, and people keep applying—even though they know the odds (this basically describes me).

Thus supply and demand stay out-of-whack. University departments can remain perhaps more insular than they should be. Publishing requirements increase as publishing becomes more difficult. But there’s little need to change so long as enough students enter PhD programs. Menand suggests shortening the time to graduate degrees, making them more immediately relevant, and closing some programs—none of which seem likely in the near future unless students stop enrolling. But they don’t because, once again like me, they see professors and think, “that looks like fun. I’ll take a flyer and see what happens.” Nonetheless, the professoriate is already changing in some ways: about half of students, as Menand observes and the Chronicle of Higher Education does too, are now taught by part-timers. With as many choices among instructors as universities have, that trend seems ripe for further acceleration.

Menand says that “For most of the book, I write as a historian.” He also says that he’s “not a prescriptivist” and implies pragmatism, rather than polemic. That’s wise: identifying the problems are probably easier than finding those pragmatic solutions to them. He uses English as an example of what’s going on more broadly, and he is an English professor at Harvard. Part of the crisis is within English departments—what exactly does it mean to study “English?”—and part of it is external. The part outside English departments has to do with rationale and economics—as Menand says, “People feel, out of ignorance or not, that there is a good return on investment in physics departments. In the 1980s, people began wondering what the return on investment was in the humanities.” Note his “people feel” formulation, which is unsourced but occurs throughout; most of the time, speaking of a common culture feels right because Menand has his finger on the intellectual zeitgeist enough to pull off such comments, and elsewhere he has the numbers to back those comments up, especially regarding the flatlining and even decline in the absolute and relative percentages of English majors on campus.

The other interesting thing is the word “crisis,” which I’ve used several times. The Oxford American Dictionary included with OS X says that crisis is “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger.” The word “time” implies that crises should pass; but in English, the one or ones Menand identifies has lasted for more than a generation of academics. According to “The Opening of the Academic Mind” in Slate, “The state of higher education in America is one of those things, like the airline industry or publishing, that’s always in crisis.” In Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem, the protagonist, Renee, thinks:

In the great boom of the late fifties and early sixties, graduate departments, particularly at state universities, had expanded and conferred degrees in great abundance. But then the funds, from both government and private foundations, had dried up, and departments shrunk, resulting in diminishing need. Suddenly there was a large superfluity of Ph.D.s, compounded by demographic changes […] The result has been a severe depression, in both the economic and psychological senses, in the academic community.

That was published in 1983. People are still publishing the same basic argument today, only now they often do it online. Perhaps the real lesson is that academics are great at learning many things, but supply/demand curves and opportunity costs are not among them, except for economists.

The problems are exacerbated in the humanities and social sciences because grad students in those fields don’t have industry to fall back on, but the natural sciences are not immune either. As Philip Greenspun points out in “Women in Science,” America seems more than willing to source its science graduate students from developing countries, which takes care of supply from that angle (if you read his essay, ignore the borderline or outright sexist commentary regarding women, even if his point is that women are too smart to go to grad school in the sciences; pay attention to the institutional and systematic focus, especially when he points out that “Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States”).

Of course, even as I make myself aware of works like The Marketplace of Ideas, I continue working toward that PhD, convinced that I’ll be the one who beats the odds that are still better than Vegas, though not by a lot. But I’m also part of the imbalance: too many people seeking PhDs for few too jobs, particularly too few jobs of the sort we’re being trained to do. Yet academics still provide a vital function to society in the form of knowledge, and in particular knowledge that’s undergone peer review, however difficult or abstruse peer review may have become in the humanities (for more, see Careers—and careerism—in academia and criticism).

The question of what academia should be like is to some extent driven by what professors think it should be like, but it’s also driven by what students think it should be like. Students ultimately drive academia by choosing where to go to school. An increasing number of them are choosing community and online higher education. It’s not clear what this shift means either. Still, professors have blame as well: as the aforementioned Slate article suggests, “[…] Professors, the people most visibly responsible for the creation of new ideas, have, over the last century, become all too consummate professionals, initiates in a system committed to its own protection and perpetuation.” True. But given that they have tenure, control departments, and confer the PhDs necessary to become professors, it seems unlikely that major change will come from that quarter.

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