Why did I – why do we – get into this profession? It’s hard to remember. Maybe they want us to forget. But how could I? Late nights with Dostoevsky, The Tempest at the Globe, Gravity’s Rainbow pre-dawn on the Metro. In a word, love. Or perhaps another, vocation.
A few weeks ago I was asked by a professor in the English department to participate in a roundtable with undergraduates to discuss graduate school. How to apply? What’s it like? After discussions of the logistical details, the professor asked if any of the panelists had any last words of wisdom. Her husband, also a tenure-track professor in English, replied simply, “Don’t go.” That is, “Don’t go – unless you must.” This sums up my experience with the all too maddening - and now sadly disillusioning - English PhD program.
“Don’t go.” The job market is toast. I actually took a class titled Introduction to the Profession of Letters this semester. I think it should have been called The Way It Used to Be. We learned about publishing books, peer reviewing, academic freedom, politicization. Important issues, no doubt. But you can see where I’m going with this – they don’t want us to know that we aren’t going to get the glitzy job that we dreamed of getting when we signed up for this. No – adjuncting, living year-to-year, teaching four classes a semester for peanuts – this is our real future. Had we known, would we have come? It looks bleak.
“Dont go.” I love literature, but to say that I still do might surprise a lot of people in my position. This gig seems to want more than anything to suck any romantic notions out of reading. This is a profession, after all, that requires the utmost in objectivity, discipline, and taste. Of course however they don’t mention an aptitude for backstabbing, brown-nosing, elitism and downright mean-spiritedness, tricks of the trade for the “successful.” I’ve seen departmental politics hault the progress of a graduate student firsthand. It looks bleak.
“Unless you must.” Thankfully, a silver lining. Namely, the spirit that guided me into this program in the first place. Sure, jobs are scarce, and life in an academic department is not too dissimilar from a corporate office, and the pressure to say something “smart” so that our papers will get published and we can lord our intelligence over friends, students, and, of course, interviewers, remains. But it will break me only if I allow it. My spiritual food still nourishes me. I still read the books that I like, and not because I think I should like them. I can’t leave home without something to read. I write sentences in my head, walking to work, riding my bike. Less than a week removed from the final gauntlet of papers, I am recovering this spirit. And with a year to go before my comprehensive exam, I have no obligation but to take in as much American lit as I can. I promise to do so on my terms, and politics, pressure, elitism, resumes, jobs, titles, and whatever other inferiority complexes that grad school wants to provide as a requisite, can go to the devil.