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How to be Unprofessional

A.W. Strouse

Plenty of empirical evidence demonstrates that humanist doctoral students are utterly screwed:

  • The mean attrition rate in humanities Ph.D. programs is roughly half.
  • Time-to-degree averages about ten years.
  • There are practically no decent jobs for humanities doctorates.

And anecdotal evidence confirms, too, that many graduate students feel tormented by their advisers, tortured by poverty-level stipends, and generally just stressed the hell out.

So, what should we do?

Personally, I see this doomsday scenario as a radical opportunity. In such a dire situation, it would be irrational for me to simply conform to the norms of professionalization in the hopes of winning a tenure-track position. Therefore, I feel liberated. If I have nothing to lose, then I can to take big risks, go for broke, and enjoy my studies.

As I recently argued (in a special issue of Pedagogy [1] dedicated to issues in graduate education) I want to create a more “unprofessional” kind of “professionalism.” I’m not talking about skimping on footnotes, sleeping with undergraduates, or staging “occupations.” I’m talking about making a conscious decision to take pleasure in my studies and to resist, in whatever ways possible, the forces that often make graduate school unpleasant. My theoretical explication of “unprofessionalism” can be found in the article; here are some practical policies:

  • Don’t complain to or commiserate with other graduate students. It’s boring, unproductive, and self-indulgent.
  • Write only one course paper per semester. During my last three semesters of coursework, I would arrange my schedule so that I only had to write a full research paper for one of my courses. I would audit some of my classes. And for the full-credit courses, I would write a historiography paper (usually to compliment the full paper); or I would create a translation, an edition, etc. This made my life much less stressful, and it made my papers much stronger.
  • Read widely. I’m currently reading Paul Vitz’s biography of Freud. Freud has nothing whatsoever to do with my dissertation, but I’m completely fascinated by Vitz’s thesis that Freud was an unconscious Catholic.
  • Get out of the library. I usually work from home. But when I’m reading at the library I always make sure to take a long walk to my favorite bakery, where I eat a big cookie. Life is too short!
  • Get out of academia. Go to the theater, go to a roller coaster park. Tutor, garden, volunteer. Don’t wait until summer break—do these things during the most stressful part of the semester.
  • Grade papers with a timer. Any highly literate person should be able to read and grade an undergraduate’s six-page paper in five minutes. When I grade my students’ essays, I set a five-minute timer for each paper. Often I go over the time limit, but it’s pretty exhilarating to race against the clock.
  • It’s OK to cancel office hours sometimes. Occasionally I hold my office hours in Central Park, or I cancel them altogether and walk up to the Metropolitan Museum. (I love to look at those pious portraits of Low Land burghers[2], whose neurotic work ethic and propensity for self-flagellation still inspires so many of us.)
  • Your students will respect you more if, just once during the semester, you use a four-letter word.
  • Don’t ask permission. A few semesters ago I decided to teach Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde in a required, freshman composition class. I knew that my supervisor would tell me it was a terrible idea to teach Middle English in an introductory course, so I never mentioned it to anybody until after the fact. The course was, of course, an overwhelming success, because students love to be challenged.
  • Ask for opportunities. In my experience, most of the people working in the university are kindhearted, bright individuals who recognize the struggles that graduate students face, and they’re more than willing to help—but they often don’t know how to help. But almost every time that I have asked for an opportunity, it has been afforded me. All you have to do is: figure out who to ask, figure out how to ask, and then ask.
  • See the big picture. Graduate students are in such bad shape for a reason: the folks who dictate national economic policy believe strongly in privatized, individualist entrepreneurship. We are impoverished, because (in theory) such material pressures will force us to compete, innovate, and create—in ways that benefit society at large. That ideology may or may not be flawed. But, for now, it’s all we’ve got to work with. And, to some extent, it is working. On the micro-economic level (i.e., in terms of my own quality of life) being a graduate student kind of sucks sometimes. But, on the macro-economic level, the system produces quality researchers and teachers for what is arguably the world’s best university system.

Looking at the situation from a global perspective, I’m grateful that the American taxpayer is willing to fund my quixotic investigations of medieval poetry. I see it as my duty to repay society for its investment by working hard, teaching well, and creating new opportunities. It’s my responsibility to make the most of my time as a graduate student, and sometimes that means challenging preconceived ideas about what it means to be a graduate student.

A.W. Strouse is a poet who studies and teaches medieval literature at the City University of New York. Strouse’s articles have appeared in Romanic Review, Pedagogy, and Names; and Strouse’s recent book of poems, Retractions & Revelations, is available from Jerk Poet[3].

[1] http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/pedagogy/toc/ped.15.1.html
[2] http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4f/Hugo_van_der_Goes_007.jpg
[3] http://www.jerkpoet.com