I’m sitting in another academic meeting. As the conversation turns to graduate student mental health, lived stress, and concerns about the academic job market, a faculty member interjects that while it might be an unpleasant fact, “graduate school just is a culture of judgment.” The sentence floats into shape in my distracted mind and jerks my attention back to this (always endlessly another) academic meeting. The heads around me nod silently. Because the sentence disturbs me deeply I lean forward to respond. But the words gathered too slowly in my head and someone spoke over me. The current of conversation quickly drowned out sentiment and made coming back to it difficult. And so I’m raising the matter here.
Since I don’t know what the faculty member actually meant, this post is not about the speaker of the sentence but rather how I received it. It is about my own sense of what it has meant for graduate school in the Humanities to be a culture of judgment and why I think it needs to change.
Perhaps graduate school in the Humanities has always been detrimental to our students’ mental health and stress levels, but I contend that conditions are much worse now as graduate education is currently organized within our contemporary socio-political-economic context. We are all caught up in the hurricanes of today’s particularly brutal iteration of capitalism that (1) mandates an entrepreneurial approach to everything, including one’s self and one’s “project”; (2) compresses (for the sake of “efficiency”) the time-to-degree from the nine year average I faced in the 1990s to a five year lockstep students must keep pace with or face financial penalty*; and (3) has corporatized the university away from intellectual endeavor (or even sustained thought) and toward the single, laser-focused goal of marketability.
This is not a learning context; it’s a pressure-cooker.
Add to this shared context the low wages accorded graduate student instructors and, thus, the debt that many of them rack up just to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. (I’ve been told by a graduate student at my institution that they know of graduate students who have sold plasma in order to make ends meet.) Do we wonder why graduate students in the Humanities seem a bit desperate? Can we really be surprised at the increased requests for mental health accommodations?
Graduate students are constantly assessing the stresses they undergo and the sacrifices they make. Are they worth it? To what end are they aiming? To what “better life” are they oriented?
Perhaps (debatably) the stresses of graduate school–stresses that increasingly show up as depression, writing blocks, and anxiety disorders–would be worth its endemic difficulties if we faculty could promise a legitimate shot at the golden ring of tenure. But we can’t, and not because we are not training our students vigorously enough. Our students are smart, scrappy, and dedicated. They are passionate about their subfields and passionate about teaching. They jump the hoops we set out for them. They revise, edit, and grow in their writing. They professionalize like crazy. But tenure is shrinking nationwide and Humanities positions are shrinking in number in general. Too many doctoral students are applying for a shrinking number of tenure-track jobs, and too many doctoral students are entering a “no-exit” life of adjuncting positions, earning less than the poverty line working 2-4 jobs, often at 2-4 different institutions, teaching and grading without graduate student support, the stability of departmental regard (and voting rights), and sometimes without dedicated campus office space. Even students who miraculously win a tenure-track position are often teaching a 4/4 or 5/5 load that is physically and psychologically crushing.
The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature published a joint report, “Job Advertisement Data 2016-2017” in May, 2018. It’s now two years out of date, but let me cite its “key findings” (I’ve added the bold font):
“• Positions advertised in AY17 increased 4.0% compared to AY16. This increase
in postings was primarily the result of increased listings for non-faculty positions.
• The total number of faculty positions decreased by 8.6% year over year from
AY16 to AY17. Within this percentage, several mixed findings can be highlighted:
o Postings from research institutions are at an all-time low since AAR and
SBL began collecting employment data in 2003.
o The number of entry-level faculty positions increased by 11.4% year over
year from AY16 to AY17.
o The number of tenure-track faculty positions reached a six-year low.
o The number of postings from baccalaureate institutions is at seven-year
• For faculty positions, the most selected category for the annual course load
shifted from three to four in 2016 to five to six in 2017.”
Let me translate:
- Advertised positions for Religion doctorates increased in the Academic Year 2017 mainly by increasing administrative, library, and “other industry” (K-12, NGO, publishing) positions.
- Faculty positions overall are at “an all-time low”, but entry-level positions increased–this means that institutions gained teaching labor through post-docs, fellowships, Visiting Assistant professorships, and one-year teaching positions, all of which are insecure labor or what is increasingly termed “casual” and “precarious” labor.
- The decimation of tenure is reflected in the fact that the search for TT faculty positions hit a six-year low.
- Institutions without graduate programs are posting more faculty positions than institutions with graduate programs, meaning our students cannot find positions that will continue to support them as scholars who also teach, but only as undergraduate teachers.
- The institutions posting faculty positions (non-TT and mostly entry-level positions in mostly baccalaureate institutions) are also tending to increase the yearly course load from about 1.5-2 courses/semester to 2.5-3 courses/semester.
In light of these economic, academic, and professional contexts, I will venture that Humanities graduate school really can no longer afford to be a culture of judgment. The world in which I was trained, and the world of mentoring I sometimes witness around me was and is built around punitive assessment, chastisement, and expecting a certain disposition of subordination. We need to let go of shaming students with criticism and demerits; we need to stop lecturing them about all the ways they are failing to prepare themselves for the (nonexistent) job market. Instead of shame, we need to offer generative critical assessment in supportive mentoring relationships that gear into each student’s self-determined life plan.
The culture of graduate school should be a culture of mentorship around a shared generative practice of written thought and pedagogy.
What would it look like for faculty members to conscientiously swap out the hierarchical culture of judgment by which we were trained for a more egalitarian culture of mentoring?
What if faculty drop the notion that grad students must develop deep databases of knowledge and slick pedagogical skillsets and, instead, figure out how to mentor students toward smaller intellectual comparisons or exegeses that are more delimited, more personal, more practical, or more aesthetic (take your pick)?
What if faculty were to challenge graduate students to enter the Humanities classroom not ignoring their fields of study, but primarily bent on the internally varied task of galvanizing young adults for a lifetime of struggle (against depression, or racism, or capitalism, or climate change, or boredom, or gender essentialism, or addiction, or…)?
I’m thinking today that a dissertation is well viewed as a problematic node in an interesting matrix, not a magnum opus of original work (the latter relies not only on a timeline for graduate study no longer available to our students but also and more importantly on a model of subjectivity that is, today, ludicrous), and classrooms are well viewed less as spaces of knowledge transfer and more as spaces of choreography, where mental and physical patterns of perception, affect, and possibility can be channeled through the specific expertise we faculty members each hold dear.
As I feel it today, graduate mentoring does not entail training someone to be ready for the (nonexistent) job market or to accede to my expertise, but aims at the murkier, harder task of using my expertise to guide students into becoming who they are.
I may be wrong about much of this; I’m open to feedback. My central concern remains the desperate and unrealistic struggle for the golden ring of tenure and the consequences of this struggle on the mental, physical, and economic health of our students. If a doctorate is, now, a five year investment, then we and the Humanities will benefit if students are allowed to enter the contract of this investment on a more equal basis and to maintain as much control as possible over what those years need to accomplish for them. Should we not train them to be scholars? Sure, train them to be thinkers, and be assured that the particular skills of scholarship will come as the years unfold. Should we not train them to be teachers? Sure, train them up in what matters to you about teaching, but also ask them what they value about the classroom and what they think the next generation of students needs. Because we tenured faculty do not have all the answers and the ground is moving fast under our feet. Our graduate students can teach us much about how to inhabit our broken earth and unbearable lives with dignity and willed optimism.
*Though I can’t find a webpage verifying this policy, the Graduate School at S.U. will charge one course credit per semester (approximately $1500) for any doctoral student who wishes to remain an active student more than five years after passing their doctoral exams. The funding structure pressures students to complete their degree in five years: two years of course work, up to one year to study and sit for comprehensive exams (while serving as teaching assistants and sometimes also instructing their own courses), up to one semester to write and defend their dissertation prospectus, and 1.5-2 years to write their dissertation.