A way out

This post calling for a moratorium on “don’t go to grad school” advice columns, along with a post that captures the appeal of Don Draper in a way that challenges my conclusions in Why We Love Sociopaths, an old post of mine about class and academia, and some discussions with Brad yesterday, makes me think of a quote from Kafka’s “Report to an Academy” that I have always found deeply moving:

No, it was not freedom I wanted. Just a way out; to the right, to the left, wherever; I made no other demands; even if the way out should only be a delusion; my demand was small, the delusion would not be greater. To move on, to move on! Anything but standing still with my arms raised, pressed flat against a crate wall.

19 thoughts on “A way out

  1. Thanks for linking this.

    Last month I was at the county courthouse for some church related business (I sit with folks in family court more than I wish I did) and ran into one of my former students from some years ago. I asked her, “I hope you’re not in trouble,” and she assured me that she was interning to beef up her resume to get into a good law school.

    As we chatted for a few moments, I asked her if she was aware of the job prospects for law school right now, and all of the news about law schools misrepresenting these prospects, and she said yes, and quickly terminated the conversation.

    Now: I kind of feel I have a responsibility to tell people about the risks of graduate education, especially my students, etc. But as to the article’s question: Why don’t the professors try to do something about it and change academia from the inside out? A professor isn’t going to change job prospects for law school grads, but the law school professor does have the ability to halt admission expansion, etc., even if that means that her job may be cut in the process.

    Secondly: As more teaching is being done by adjuncts like myself, and I know adjuncting is exploitative, I am powerless to change anything. In the last year I had my syllabus changed without my permssion (even adding graphics), taught in a situation where I had no control over the textbook I used in class, and even had a situation where I could not agree to teach another section so the institution just merged those students in the unstaffed class into the section I was teaching and changed the class cap from 35 to 70, of course, while paying me for one section. It doesn’t matter if I will not teach there again; they’re laying off full time people, and many of those folks will be, I assume, the future adjunct pool.

    My point is to respond to the really good argument being made here, namely, that professors can initiate change from the inside out. In some cases, I sometimes barely have control of my own class. Fewer and fewer can really do anything to change unless there is another way.

    Sorry to just think out loud, and rant out loud about this…

  2. I found the thesis of the grad school article rather annoying. The only one of the critiques with which I’m really familiar is Burke’s; I read it before I was even in grad school and passed it on, in my attempts to discourage an undergrad from going to grad school, my last year as a grad student. (When my ability to fight neoliberalism in the university was not at its heights.) And I just don’t see how it shifts blame onto actual or prospective grad students. Where is Burke’s self-satisfaction? Tell me how to read him so I can see it! Is Burke looking out onto the field of straggling adjuncts and struggling current grad school enrollees and taking grim delight in his predictions’ having been borne out, saying, “well, I always told you that it was a bad idea because of the job market, and that the job market is the way it is because of you and previous versions of you”?

    Burke is, I take it, aware of systemic problems in the university and in the various disciplines; that doesn’t prevent him from being able to address individuals and make the point that they would be well advised to think hard about what they’re getting themselves into if they enter grad school. Indeed: the individuals are well advised to do that because of the systemic issues. It’s a big leap, as far as I can tell, to claim that prudential advice aimed at someone not yet in grad school shifts blame for the state of affairs motivating that advice onto those already in or recently departed from grad school. Show me where Burke makes the claim that undergrads morally oughtn’t go to grad school, or that they are blameworthy for doing so, should they do so. The only entries in the genre under discussion that I’m familiar with all make prudential points (and so do I, when I try to dissuade people from making what seems to me an ill-advised, but morally A-OK, decision): this is likely not to turn out as you desire/hope/think it will; it’s not only uncertain but extremely stressful; at the other end you may have convinced yourself that you are (though you likely won’t actually be) incapable of being happy, or acquiring work, anywhere but in the academy; etc. In other words: one makes the same kind of point that the author of that piece himself makes. (“Now, don’t get me wrong, it often is a terrible idea to go to graduate school.”)

    The claim that one writes such columns rather than fighting “the real enemy” is bad rhetoric (no one (I hope!) writing such columns conceives of grad students as the enemy, though perhaps that just means that really it’s good rhetoric) and bad logic: (a) you can do both; (b) insofar as the real enemy is yet undefeated, isn’t it only fair to apprise potential grad students of just that fact, that there’s a real enemy, the real enemy is making things pretty bad, the real enemy has been around for a long time (with us before, and likely after, tea party governors) and lots of people don’t even seem to realize it, etc.—all with a view, in fact, to saying, “so, now is not, perhaps, the best time to do this”? I mean, in the face of “union-busting, and off-shoring, and leveraged buy-outs, and Reagan, and everything else”, isn’t it, in fact, reasonable to point out to hopeful factory workers that if they have other offers, they might want to seriously consider them?

  3. I very much agree with Ben — though I think there might be some crucial distinction to be made between the industrialization of advice (by way of these “don’t go to grad school” columns one encounters in edited volumes & unedited blog screeds) & competent advisers who know the students to whom they give this advice. The articles obviously speaking in broad enough terms that they allow themselves wiggle room and exceptions — “of course, there are some students who should go to grad school . . .” — but few are the students who know while an undergrad if they fit this bill, and I suspect they are the ones who actually seem to take these columns to heart. The advisers, the ones inclined already to give good advice, have already internalized this rather obvious fact and probably don’t need the reminder.

    For me, no amount of articles trying to dissuade me from going to grad school would’ve worked at the time. And perhaps even not even a sound adviser could’ve managed this. But at least in hindsight, I should like today to be able to smile at the latter and say “You told me so.” Alas, I do not.

  4. Ben is right that Tim Burke’s piece is the best one could ask of the genre — his account of the psychological damage that academic socialization process does is amazingly apt and easily places him in a league of his own. It was unfair of the author to take a random swipe at his piece. It’s also true that there’s no necessary contradiction between activism to change academic working conditions and prudential advice about the current reality thereof.

    Overall, I didn’t intend to endorse the article. Whatever my point was here, it wasn’t to agree to or make an argument.

  5. I agree that Burke’s “don’t go to grad school” article is one of the best – it was also one of the first, was it not? I think part of the air of self-satisfaction comes from the endless repetition of the theme – surely no-one who writes these articles now thinks they’re saying anything new, yet they still feel compelled to write them. What annoys me about the genre is a kind of negative exceptionalism about academia: it’s not enough to say that graduate school can suck, no, it has to maintain academia’s exceptional status by insisting that graduate school is definitely the suckiest thing you could do. I mean, really, what other choices do you have a year or two out of college? They’re probably all as bad as graduate school.

    There’s a somewhat similar kind of exceptionalism in that article on Mad Men, which annoyed me quite a lot with it’s claim of a morally exceptional status for Don and Peggy who are supposedly “outside” the capitalist logic of the rest of the characters.

  6. I was very swiftly talked out of going to grad school. A TA who I admired a lot sat me down and said “Are you thinking of going to grad school? You shouldn’t go to grad school.” My admiration for her (and many of my young, union-activist TAs) was driving my interest in going to grad school, and that admiration mapped easily onto listening to her advice.

  7. I now agree with Voyou on that Mad Men post, though I am still pondering the episode. I did find it a little jarring that the author moved so quickly from “always have an exit strategy” to “morality,” and in general I’ve found it suspicious when people want to claim Don has a clear ethical code. But now I’m starting to feel like I’m cheating on JMS.

    This has been an episode of “Adam links to things he doesn’t actually agree with in order to make a point that may or may not be clear to anyone else.”

  8. I actually like both of the links! No doubt the *Mad Men* one was a bit moralistic, but i nonetheless thought there was something there in the notion of lines of flight, breaking away, etc. — i.e. regardless of the reductionism of the piece, i think that point is one that needs to be thought.

    And on the “don’t go to grad school,” i’d just say that in my experience there’s a significant degree of incommensurability between those who are in a position to write those articles and those who are meant to receive them. Don’t do what i did, i promise you it’s not worth your time … that sort of rhetoric, in my mind, presumes a sort of division of self that ought to be refused a priori. And i say this as someone who has spent a lot of time lacking the security that such article writers have, and that such prospective article readers are being supposed to want. Why do I have to think of myself in those terms? And why do they have to? In any case, i guess i’m saying that i find those articles depressing, but not in a good way. As Bifo says, we need a thought of depression that would not be depressing. Those “don’t do it” articles are depressing in a very depressing way, as they tend to want you to think about your desire in a manner quite alien to that desire. (And i’d say that they exhibit a moralism greater in degree than the *Mad Men* article.)

  9. Dan gets at what I liked about the Mad Men post — the notion that sometimes, having a way out is the closest you can get to an ethical stance. There was something devestating about Don’s decision to cave in and sign the contract in season 3, for instance, and it was exhilirating when he managed to find a way out of it at the end.

    To continue with Dan’s point on the grad school articles, I was reflecting yesterday on the trajectory of my life (prompted by the fact that yesterday I had a meeting at Shimer College to talk about how my first full year had gone), and it seems clear to me that I never seriously considered a middle-class lifestyle a priority. It’s never occurred to me to want to have kids, for example, and though I have obviously wanted companionship and sex, marriage has always seemed like a grim duty rather than something to be desired (and this despite the fact that my parents have a very happy marriage). My salary is low and will likely remain so, but my main complaint in this regard is that it’s not allowing me to get out of debt as quickly as I’d like. And clearly homeownership is a total scam at this point.

    If your priority is to have a middle-class lifestyle or beyond, every option other than finance is probably bad.

  10. Know this isn’t really the venue simply to write another “don’t go to grad school” things, but I’d rather not put this on my own site.

    Out of the best pals that I’ve made during grad school and my first academic job, here’s the outcomes so far:

    1) Applied for a temporary job which turned, happily into a permanent job at a lower-tier (NYC!) university.
    2) Got a job in a deeply rustic place after long job market agony. Almost immediately left for a thinktank back in the metroplex.
    3) Never applied for jobs – works at a private high school.
    4) Got a gold-plated job, and later tenure, at an elite institution. But in creative writing – he never finished his PhD.
    5) Got fired from a gold-plated job at tenure hearing because he had a book, but not with a prestigious enough press. Years in the wilderness ensued.
    6) Spousal hire at a nice though rustic LAC. Spousal hire through ridiculous, shaming scandal. (Report of scandal = best-selling memoir).
    7) Got fired from a solid job, because he had a book in contract, but not yet printed during his tenure hearing. Now works at a museum.
    8) Has a great job, but it’s taken ten years to work the first book through the process and is currently scared shitless, to the point of mental instability, what the forthcoming revise n’ resubmit reports will bring as he might well be totally fucked.
    9) Has a job, and was lucky enough to postpone his tenure hearing (that was bound to fail) by getting a fellowship elsewhere this year. May well still lose his tenure case.

    I’d say three of ten hasn’t had to suffer from ridiculous, life-rending stress – life-rending stress to the point of writing their late-twenties and thirties off as basically a shit period of life – and one of those (4) is a special case and another dropped out of the system before the stressful part.

    So… I guess what I’m trying to say is that while I understand the resentment of the “don’t do what I’ve done… what I’ve done so very very well” there’s another side of it too. Only from this position is it possible to see that even in the cases of the “great success stories” who “flourished at elite graduate programs” what a load of crap this generally is even for those that seem to have succeeded. And then there’s all those that don’t “succeed” at all.

    Tragic thing is, that aside from the career anxiety stuff, there’s so much to love about this line of work it’s ridiculous. Thus the fear of losing one’s wings.

    (One of those listed above, by the way, is me…)

  11. In essence, it sounds like Ads is agreeing with Adam’s claim that, “If your priority is to have a middle-class lifestyle or beyond, every option other than finance is probably bad.”

  12. In other words, out of my 8 best friends made 1999-2007 (not counting the creative writer but counting myself) one has tenure, and all of the others are either out of the game, have lost tenure case, or have a high probability of losing them or equivalents in the next year or so.

    So… it’s not just “don’t go – you’ll never get a job.” For me, it’s “even in the unlikely event you get a job, get ready to lose it or lose your mind keeping it….”

  13. Another way to do it (per the model of one of my current PhD students) is to a) get a job in finance b) quit job in finance to write novels c) find that publishers love novels about finance types and their spiritual crises d) have novels become best-sellingish e) signup for PhD.


  14. One last thing:

    “Why don’t the professors try to do something about it and change academia from the inside out? A professor isn’t going to change job prospects for law school grads, but the law school professor does have the ability to halt admission expansion, etc., even if that means that her job may be cut in the process.”

    This seems to me incredibly naive. The only way to change the system would be by becoming a dean. You get to be a dean by agreeing to do the bidding of the chancellor or provost or whomever’s at the top. If you don’t do the bidding, they fire you.

    If I futzed with admissions rates or anything like that that could “change the system,” they’d simply take them out of my hands and give them to someone else. If my department decided to pay adjuncts at a higher rate, the university would smash us and take our money away. They set the rates centrally – as they do almost everywhere I imagine. The best that a department – let alone an individual in a department – can do are gestures of principled resistance. The idea of “changing the system from within” is simply not on the table.

    Such an idea isn’t all that distant in its unworkability from the sense that some middle manager at Raytheon or something is, by a small act of courage, going to stop the company from manufacturing armaments. Or even the senior VP of whatever at Raytheon.

    “even if that means that her job may be cut in the process”

    I don’t see what good that would do – it’s not like they’d fire her but then build a little monument and agree to keep admissions rates low because of her martyrdom.

  15. Exactly right. For my own part, I’m going to try to write a lot of “other stuff” this summer. Or more “other stuff” than I usually do.

  16. Dan gets at what I liked about the Mad Men post — the notion that sometimes, having a way out is the closest you can get to an ethical stance.

    Reminds me of one of my favorite lines of John Emerson’s: “Even ethical, non-corporate, flesh and blood persons often spend the best part of their days working to satisfy corporate needs, and can only behave ethically after work as a sort of hobby.” Ah! But if you have a way out, you can decline to satisfy at least some corporate needs—at least the needs of this corporation. Maybe the next one will be just as bad. Depends on the nature of your way out, I suppose.

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