“You Cannot Possibly Be This Stupid”
It will tell you a great deal about the psychology of graduate students and former graduate students that they find this sort of thing amusing:
(or this on Law School)
The shit-storm that academic life can be isn’t very funny. The fact that relocation to places you never wanted to live, terrible job security, terrible odds on even getting a job, terrible benefits for most, long distant relationships, uninspired students, etc, etc, are as normal as they are is not funny.
What makes this video funny, you see, is that the prospective grad student is so stupid. Ha! Which accomplishes several things. Most humanities academics have serious reservations about their career choice, and a sense of frustration that the things we would want our life to be — the things we’ve worked incredibly hard to make it — are not being borne out in reality. Many people get very bitter about this, quite naturally so. And imagining a caricature of ourselves, that dumb, naive, and stupidly idealistic idiot in the video, allows us to cathect our disappointment with the person we’ve become onto our worst nightmare image of ourself.
But that’s the smaller part of what this is about, I think. Mostly, we’re identifying with the person in a position of power bullying the student, and we attempt to pass off contempt and hatred as cynicism. That’s the thing that’s so striking about the humanities xtranormal video (compared, say, to the law school one): how clueless the prospective grad student is. The law school student at least stands up for herself, but the humanities cliche is just a clueless robot, babbling on in utter hermetically sealed envelope of idealism. And since so many of the things that abusive bully of a professor says are so completely true, her bullying gets passed off as realism. This accomplishes several things. For one, it allows us to contrast our own bitter cynicism (we’re identifying with the jaded prof, remember?) with the naiveté of the student. We would never be so naive, therefore we are not her. Which is the same dichotomy between good cynical realism on the one hand (though not coded as male here, as it usually is) and stupid (as usual, infantilized and feminized) idealism, just as when Fish quoted Hemingway. And if we get off on seeing the cynical-realist-us attacking and flagellating the dumb-idealistic-naive-us, well, that says a lot about us.
It also, by the way, allows us to defend our own position (or the one we would like to pretend we will have) from the competition. After all, the glaring thing in both cartoons is the fact that the cynical prof figure is trying to deter the student from following his/her own example. Not that one shouldn’t be very careful about encouraging others to follow in your own example — sometimes tenured profs can encourage students to follow in their footsteps without telling them the whole story about their chances — but as someone I’ve been conversing about this on twitter pointed out, this seems much more like an attempt to demonize the faceless masses of competitors who make the likelihood of our getting a job so much smaller. In other words, we address to the “oversupply” of humanities PhD’s by trying to deter potential competition or project onto it the rage we feel about not getting the job and life we rightfully deserve.
Updated: Kotsko on the ritual satisfaction of stating the Grim Facts about the job market.
Below, an email I wrote to someone asking for advice on whether to apply to an English PhD program:
I’m not going to tell you to re-consider other options, but you will find that the further along someone is in a PhD program, the more pessimistic they are likely to be about it. Basically, my spiel is that a PhD program can be a wonderful experience, but it will also warp your brain in ways that you will spend much time trying to control, it can leave you stranded at the end, and will definitely require all sorts of painful personal and familial sacrifices over the long run (I’ve developed serious sleeping disorders from the experience, and every grad student fucks up their back eventually; no one tells you this, but it’s a nice illustration of the kind of toll it takes on you). And as you certainly know, to call the job market “bad” is laughably inadequate; the very, very best are competing against the very, very best for the handful of jobs that exist, and even before you get to that point, it can be a life characterized by anxiety and uncertainty. It really needs to be something you feel yourself called to do, and something you feel like you can do well.
If it is, those sacrifices can be worth it. They were for me, I think, even though I’m entering the period where the trade-offs are most stark and the benefits seem slim compensation at best. And I’ve even had an unusually good experience in many ways; Berkeley English is a very good place to do a PhD because the faculty culture is basically humane (characterized by a sort of benevolent negligence, but mostly in a good way). Yet there are also programs that grind you into sausage, and when there’s so little payoff at the end, you need to go somewhere where the life you’ll have there is actually the thing you want (not a stepping stone). Grad school is the thing itself; you might get a job at the end of it, but if you want to do it because you want to be a professor, you’re setting yourself up. You have to want to be a grad student, and to be aware of what that entails.
I don’t want to whittle away your idealism, because that stuff is your oxygen. But you should also have a sense for what you’re up against: the point of graduate school is to remake you in the image of scholars past, and they have a lot of ways of doing it. But the more you realize that, the better off you’ll be in managing the transition. And it certainly isn’t all bad; you can learn an awful lot by emulating prior generations, while a place like Berkeley really is quite benevolent in its negligence: they give you a lot more space to explore and try new things than most programs do. But at the end of the day, they’re job is to re-make and socialize you to the institution, and your job is to find ways to be what you want to be within the institution. And there is friction as that happens. While a PhD program allows you to do certain kinds of exploration — you get the time and space and resources to (potentially) do the kind of explorative work that life normally does not give you much time or space for — it also brings with it a lot of demands, and the trick is figuring out how to manage them, how to differentiate what they want you to learn (and the kinds of pathways you’ll be steered towards, without your realizing it) from the kinds of discoveries you want to make. Blogging, for me, is a way of incorporating non-academic elements of my intellectual life into my work; when you have no outlet for the different things you might be capable of doing and thinking, you often find it very hard to do anything but the things you do have outlets for. I’ve had to work very hard to keep my focus on African literature at Berkeley, not because anyone wants me to change focus — most people are excited about that work — but because, in the absence of other people doing that kind of work, the social rewards can be slim (compared to doing work in fields where you have more interlocutors).