Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Job Satisfaction

The other day, I read precisely two blog posts: Moria's, and Annie Em's. Moria's asks her readers, importantly and earnestly, what got them through graduate school and what keeps them going int the field despite the constant inferiority complex, while Annie Em posted the Xtranormal video "So you Want a PhD in the Humanities?" that most readers of this space will have already seen linked 57 times, and watched at least twice.

I understand all of the anxiety being floated about: the untenable economics of the labor market, the exploitation that that has engendered, the anxieties that people feel about constantly having to justify their work to family members and friends whose eyes cross before you even finish telling the title of your research project. It's not easy to be in the humanities at the moment.

But people seriously. Let's also not lose sight of the fact that it is GOOD to be in the humanities right now. Forgive me for the pollyannaish rhetoric here, but I love the fact that even though I do not live in a particularly desirable geographic region, that I have friends and colleagues and neighbors who understand and even make Foucault jokes at the bus stop. I love that I get to have serious, in depth conversations with students about the nature of time and the past in literature, about how drama and performance help us understand our very identity, how the language of advertising leaves us without a language of our own to describe our experiences of the real world (Virginia Woolf, Caryl Churchill, George Saunders, all this week).

Just today, I finished a revision of that last chapter to send to a colleague, I read a dissertation chapter on J.M. Coetzee for a supplemental job letter I'm writing for someone just going on to the job market, I read two other dissertation chapters on the politics of narrative space in the literature of the marvelous for a student who is preparing to defend in a month, and I am about to read an article by a colleague in history on 19th century American masculinity and aspirational class identity for an interdisciplinary writing group. I have worked HARD today, but that work has been amazing to do.

And that's the thing about this job. As I wrote over at Moria's, this job is great because at its core, I get to read books and talk about them all day long. I get to think hard, have ideas, discuss those ideas, share those ideas, write about those ideas, listen to feedback about my ideas, learn about other people's ideas, respond to other people writing their ideas, have drinks over ideas and dinner over ideas.

Yep. Tomorrow I'll begin grading a batch of moderately poor student essays, and I have five recommendation letters to write sooner or later, and advising to do in the advising office and a thousand other things that make this profession like virtually any other profession: annoying, boring, mind-numbing.

But I worked in offices, doing copy writing, answering phones, supporting business plans and mission statements that not only did I really not believe in, but working with a group of people most of whom were not even interested in the critical thinking that went into my reasons for even having a stance on a business plan or a mission statement other than "It's profitable."

This job? not profitable. The business plan? not really a world-beater, if the current trends in the corporatized university hold true. The mission? Not perfect, but really pretty damn good. Have ideas. Refine the ideas. Exchange the ideas. Teach the ideas.

So I'm going to take a minute and say that yes, there are all sorts of reasons that we should be reading our own profession critically right now. I hate that so many smart, rigorous, awesome people are out there struggling to find decent work in the field. But I hope they keep looking. And yes, I am bugged by the number of not-always-brilliant undergrads who want to find out how to be a professor. But if they see how much I love this job, how can I blame them? And yes, I know that in the scheme of things, I have a very good job, geographical location notwithstanding. But that only makes me want to fight harder so that more people can do this work and do it well.

So you want a PhD in the Humanities? I. Don't. Blame You.


Anonymous said...

Delurking to thank you, very much, for writing this.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Thank you for this. I was beginning to think I was the only person who was a little bothered by the video (less so since I learned that the creator was a grad student and presumably mocking her own former-self rather than students of her own, but it still doesn't quite sit right with me). Being a prof at an obscure little rural college is a good life, all things considered. And grad school is likewise a pretty good-if-temporary life, and I don't think I would have regretted going even if it hadn't led to a job.

Jenny said...

I feel like the video is more motivated out of despair than anything. Yeah. It would be great to be a professor. Too bad I'm not one. I'm an adjunct. My contributions are minimized pointedly and intentionally by those I work for (not my chair). Today I ran into an issue because I don't have a computer and some software I need for a class can only be accessed on campus. Lovely. I tell my grad students, my brilliant, awesome grad students, to avoid doing a PhD at all costs because I want them to have better lives and careers than me. I care about them, and I want more for them than I've gotten. Only 30% of jobs these days are tenure track. I'm not encouraging them to play those odds. Yes, you have a good job. But only a very few of us get it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response, Horace,: the video is over the top snarky--but I admit I was that student years ago begging for a reference because I loved reading about books about women. And while I'm not quite that professor (who clearly no longer likes her career choice and dislikes students), they exist.

And yes, on good days I totally agree with you: I love my job, I'm proud that I ignored all those profs in the late 1980s who asked why the heck I was getting a PhD in English (the job crisis is far from recent), and I'm lucky because I did get a tenure track job and was flexible enough to move 3000 miles to take it.

Since I'm at a community college, though, MOST people, including the prof in that video, would think that I did not get the brass ring of jobs even tho 200 PhDs applied for the position....

But the video has gone viral BECAUSE of its truthiness (see Colbert). I work with and/or know way too many people who don't love paying student loans on an adjunct's salary, who have not been so lucky, and who just can't be so flexible. And Humanities programs are being cut. The video's truth is leading to some fabulous discussions across the web, and that can only be good.

But I'm happy for your success in the Humanities, Horace, and I know that it's because of profs like you that the field is not going to go down without a fight.

Horace said...

@Jenny: I suspect that from your vantage point, that this post might feel like gloating. But my point is not to distinguish myself from you--we all know I was lucky. I believe I am smart and hardworking, but I've read your work and I know that you are smart and hardworking, and that I have been lucky and you haven't (yet) is certainly one of the problems that must be addressed.

But I also think that the "crisis of the humanities" and the "job market crisis" each develop rhetoric that fuels the other: because jobs are scarce, we produce cultural artifacts like this one, fueled by palpable despair.

And I think we as a profession begin to internalize this rationale (even if we don't feel the material grounds for that despair). I've seen far too many tenure track professors post this to facebook with some variation of "It's funny 'cause it's true," and my response is double: one--if your experience of academia is that bad on the tenure track, then get the hell out, because I bet I can find someone who wants this job more and will just as likely do more with it, and two--the more we acknowledge this rhetoric as having the force of truth (or even truthiness) the more we fuel arguments about the uselessness of the humanities as a discipline.

I laughed at the video the first time, and I know that no one person is responsible for its ubiquity, but its ubiquity is, I think, counterproductive to the interests of its own producers and disseminators.

Ultimately, my point is not that everyone who wants to pursue the humanities should--that's a different discussion. But the idea that pursuing the humanities is a self-satisfied pursuit for young blowhards in hipster glasses who will eventually turn into shrews wasting away in the flyover, well, it's funny (especially the Harold Bloom line). But in the end, I don't think it is true. Only truthy.

Job Search Freak said...

People tend to think that only doctors,Engineers,financial guys are the ones who make money & can lead a good life, whereas job satisfaction is what matters according to me,irrespective of how much you earn.

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

Thanks from me too! We should boil that down to a bumper sticker:

THE HUMANITIES: Because there's more to human existence than profit and power.


Jenny said...

No, I didn't think you were gloating. I think for me it feels most analogous to white privilege? I think part of the deal with the uncanny robots and their lack of expression is that you can project your side onto it. I don't disagree with a lot of what you said, but I also think that it is a privilege to be able to disregard the giant systemic nightmares and the economic issues and focus on the good stuff. Which, you know, I actually try to do on a day to day basis, because I don't want to be a miserable person. Today, for example, we're making futurist variety theatre in theory and I am so excited. I could pick it apart, bit by bit... but are you coming to ASTR? Maybe we could just grab a drink. :)

Bardiac said...

I think some of the bitter humor I find in this, and bitter is the word, is that this student from a square state wouldn't get into Yale, even to work with a misogynistic asshole as Bloom is reputed to be. And that same student is so innocent that she doesn't have a clue about the elitism she's facing.

How many square state grads do you know who go on to grad school at an ivy, or even a highly reputed R1? How many compass point state grads?

As someone who teaches at a compass state sort of school, I know my best students don't get a look at a lot of grad programs beyond cashing the application check. And I know they don't have a clue, even if they know enough to want to go to a place such as Yale, and how do I explain that to them?

Flavia said...

This is lovely, Horace. I've been thinking some of the same things lately, in fact.

(And Bardiac: I agree with your larger points, of course. But as it happens there were two students from Square State Unis--in neighboring states, not the same one--in my grad program, both within two years of me. So that makes 2 out of about 40? Not a lot, but more than were there from second-tier private colleges.)

undine said...

Horace, thanks for reminding us why we love what we do.

Nels P. Highberg said...

Love it! As I said on Facebook when I commented on how much that video annoyed me, if we spend our time complaining about everything, then we have no idea what we should actually be changing.

Horace said...

Admittedly,, though, I don't want to sound like this post undermines those whose concerns are validly expressed here and in the video. It is, in many ways, a broken system. I just think that highlighting what's great about it is a better defense for our professional values than chopping it off at the knees...

Now, let's work on seriously changing the system to not only preserve what's great about the humanities, but expand their reach.

Mistress Medieval said...

Yes thank you!

Personally, the main problem I have with the clip (as cutting and as truthful as it may be with regard to prospects in the academic world), is that it brands PhD students as completely naive and ignorant. I knew what I was getting myself in for when I signed up for this...yet knowing this hasn't eclipsed my love for the subject, nor did it put me off pursuing something I have wanted to do for years. I obviously didn't decide to do a PhD because of the financial benefits!

Thank you for the reminder of the love behind the day-to-day academic world!

My Own Wife said...

I agree; it IS a great job--if you can get a stable position, that is. I would like to have some of that job security you're enjoying so much. I've been adjuncting since 2007; this is my fourth year on the market. It's only because I cannot imagine doing anything besides teaching and researching and writing and attending conferences that I'm still trying. I suppose I'm not that imaginative. But please remember that it's still a *privilege* to be in a tenure-track position (even) teaching less-well-prepared students at a dinky school in a geographically undesirable location.

Horace said...

I've said before and often that I agree that the undersupply of jobs for qualified candidates is a major crisis facing the field, both from an administrative and from an ethical standpoint. The frustrations that both M.O.Wife and Jenny express here are valid ones, born out of a very real sense that the pathway to the profession is systemically broken.

I don't deny it, nor do I wish to underplay it. That isn't my argument, though. My argument is that the viral status of sentiments that conflate the woeful state of the job market with the state of the humanities generally are fallacious and damaging to the interests of those very folks on the job market; for the more we suggest that the humnanties aren't good jobs (and I admit, happily, that I have a good one, just as M.O.Wife admits, ruefully, that she wants one), the less motivated administrators will be to provide ample tenurable opportunities, continuing instead to create short-sighted contingent options, options like those that exploit M.O.Wife and thousands of others.

Instead, I submit that openly discussing the benefits of the job (not a privilege--a job) that I do have, while advocating openly and often the imperative to create more such opportunities for contingent faculty who do not benefit in the same way, is the smartest rhetorical path to be taking from a position on the tenure-track, one for which I can hardly apologize for having.