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 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.

College graduate earning and learning: more on student choice

There’s been a lot of talk among economists and others lately about declining wages for college graduates as a group (for example: Arnold Kling, Michael Mandel, and Tyler Cowen) and males in particular. Mandel says:

Real earnings for young male college grads are down 19% since their peak in 2000.
Real earnings for young female college grads are down 16% since their peak in 2003.

See the pretty graphs at the links. These accounts are interesting but don’t emphasize, or don’t emphasize as much as they should, student choice in college majors and how that affects earnings. In “Student choice, employment skills, and grade inflation,” I said that colleges and universities are, to some extent, responding to student demand for easier classes and majors that probably end up imparting fewer skills and paying less. I’ve linked to this salary data chart before, and I’ll do it again; the majors at the top of the income scale are really, really hard and have brutal weed-out classes for freshmen and sophomores, while those at the bottom aren’t that tough.

It appears that students are, on average, opting for majors that don’t require all that much effort.

From what I’ve observed, even naive undergrads “know” somehow that engineering, finance, econ, and a couple other majors produce graduates that pay more, yet many end up majoring in simple business (notice the linked NYT article: “Business majors spend less time preparing for class than do students in any other broad field, according to the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement [. . .]”), comm, and other fields not noted for their rigor. As such, I wonder how much of the earnings picture in your graph is about declining wages as such and how much of it is really about students choosing majors that don’t impart job skills of knowledge (cf Academically Adrift, etc.) but do leave plenty of time to hit the bars on Thursday night. Notice too what Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks found in “The Falling Time Cost of College: Evidence from Half a Century of Time Use Data:” “Full-time students allocated 40 hours per week toward class and studying in 1961, whereas by 2004 they were investing about 26 to 28 hours per week. Declines were extremely broad-based, and are not easily accounted for by compositional changes or framing effects.”

If students are studying less, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that their earnings decline when they graduate. I can imagine a system in which students are told that “college” is the key to financial, economic, and social success, so they go to “college” but don’t want to study very hard or learn much. They want beer and circus. So they choose majors in which they don’t have to. Schools, in the meantime, like the tuition dollars such students bring—especially when freshmen and sophomores are often crammed in 300 – 1,000-person lecture halls that are extraordinarily cheap to operate because students are charged the same amount per credit hour for a class of 1,000 as they are for a seminar of 10. Some disciplines increasingly weaken their offerings in response to student demand.

Business appears to be one of those majors. It’s in the broad middle of’s salary data, which is interesting given how business majors presumably go into their discipline in part hoping to make money—but notice too just how many generic business majors there are. The New York Times article says “The family of majors under the business umbrella — including finance, accounting, marketing, management and “general business” — accounts for just over 20 percent [. . .] of all bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in the United States, making it the most popular field of study.” That’s close to what Louis Menand reports in The Marketplace of Ideas: “The biggest undergraduate major by far in the United States is business. Twenty-two percent of all bachelor’s degrees are awarded in that field. Ten percent of all bachelor’s degrees are awarded in education.” If all these business majors graduate without any job skills, maybe we shouldn’t be all that surprised at their inability to command high wages when they graduate.

I’d like to know: has the composition of majors changed over the years Mandel documents? If so, from what to what? Menand has some coarse data:

There are almost twice as many bachelor’s degrees conferred every year in social work as there are in all foreign languages and literatures combined. Only 4 percent of college graduates major in English. Just 2 percent major in history. In fact, the proportion of undergraduate degrees awarded annually in the liberal arts and sciences has been declining for a hundred years, apart from a brief rise between 1955 and 1970, which was a period of rapidly increasing enrollments and national economic growth. Except for those fifteen unusual years, the more American higher education has expanded, the more the liberal arts sector has shrunk in proportion to the whole.

But he’s not trying to answer questions about wages. Note too that my question about composition is a genuine one: I have no idea of what the answer is.

One other major point: if Bryan Caplan is right about college being about signaling, then there might also be a larger composition issue than the one I’ve already raised: people who aren’t skilled learners and who don’t have the willingness or capacity to succeed after college may be increasingly attending college. In that case, the signal of a college degree isn’t as valuable because the people themselves going through college aren’t as good—they’re on the margins, and the improvement to their skillset is limited. Furthermore, colleges universities aren’t doing all that much to improve that skillset—see again Academically Adrift.

I don’t know what, if anything, can be done to improve this dynamic. Information problems about which college major pay the most don’t seem to be a major issue, at least anecdotally; students know that comm degrees are easy and other, more lucrative degrees are hard. There may be Zimbardo / Boyd-style time preference issues going on, where students want to consume present pleasure in the form of parties and “hanging out” now at the expense of earnings later, and universities are abetting this in the form of easy majors.

This is the part where I’m supposed to posit how the issues described above might be improved. I don’t have top-down, pragmatic solutions to this problem—nor do I see strong incentives on the part of any major actors to solve it. Actually, I don’t see any solutions, whether top-down or bottom-up, because I don’t think the information asymmetry is all that great and consumption preferences mean that, even with better information, students might still choose comm and generic business.

Mandel ends his post by saying, “Finally, if we were going to design some economic policies to help young college grads, what would they be?” The answer might be something like, “make university disciplines harder, so students have to learn something by the end,” but I don’t see that happening. That he asks the question indicates to me he doesn’t have an answer either. If there were one, we wouldn’t have a set of interrelated problems regarding education, earnings, globalization, and economics, which aren’t easy to disentangle.

Although I don’t have solutions, I will say this post is a call to pay more attention to how student choices and preferences affect education and earnings discussions.

EDIT: See also College has been oversold, and pay special attention to the data on arts versus science majors. I say this as someone who majored in English and now is in grad school in the same subject, but by anecdotal observation I would guess about 75% of people in humanities grad schools are pointlessly delaying real life.

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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