March 10th, 2011
Recently I paid a visit to Massey College on the University of Toronto campus. On the invitation of this year’s Journalism Fellows, lucky members of a select, privileged group who get to hang for a year away from the crush of deadlines, I was treated to a lovely lunch and some terrific conversation at this residential home for students and scholars from around the world. Invited to speak to the fellows [sic] about the image and reputation of social sciences and humanities research in today’s science and technology market, I jumped at the chance. Who wouldn’t? Massey is as close to the cozy community of Hogwarts as one can get in this country—without the witches and wizards and all of their nasty spells. If Massey has any trace of wizardry it’s all of the white magic kind—pure charm. The architecture is modern medieval, an inspired brown-bricked ‘sixties concept of the cloistered university–an intellectual’s dream, really. Inhabiting the grounds of Massey is a kind of zen experience, a calm and luxurious place for the mind. Only a good long read in a soaker tub almost comes close.
In addition to the journalism fellows, the luncheon table extended to include some doctoral students who are currently studying on the Toronto campus and living at Massey. All are working in social science and humanities disciplines, all seemed to be working on fascinating projects, and all were incredibly self-possessed and articulate. Eventually the conversation came round to what they were working on and how they imagined their future. One anthropology student admitted he was “really scared” about not getting a job at the end of his degree. In particular, he was reacting to my comment that only about a third of all doctoral students end up getting full-time positions in the academy. No one had told him that before. Some of the other students were not surprised to hear that, however. They had a “tell me something I don’t know” nod to the statistic. Still, if you are a PhD student it’s hard not to imagine yourself part of the majority statistic.
The anthropologist said his supervisor never mentioned anything about his employment prospects, and assumed all his students would work hard to become successful university professors. Obviously, the statistics just don’t bear this out. “What do I have to do,” he beseeched me. “How many papers am I supposed to be publishing right now to ensure I have a job, and how am I supposed to be doing all that while working on my dissertation?”
In this regard, it is worth pointing to a popular column on the Chronicle of Higher Education pages by a University of Illinois professor, called “What I Tell My Graduate Students.” The good humanities professor has it all figured out: “you need three published articles, two or three book reviews, attendance and paper presentation at professional conferences, and, ideally, a contract for the publication of the dissertation.”
Holy anxiety, no wonder the young Toronto anthropologist is scared. My answer to his question was far more measured, emphasizing balance and the need to not lose too much sleep over trying to get published while still in the exploratory stage of his research. It would be remiss of me or any supervisor if we didn’t tell our grad students to attend conferences and aim to have something published by the time the degree is conferred, especially if the goal really is a university job. But students also need to hear about other job options, as I frequently write in this blog space; it is just as important to tell them how to prepare for those as it is to recommend the number of publications one needs to make the interview stage at some university.
Eventually, one of the journalism fellows piped in, and when he did the whole table lit up. Instead of thinking only about yourself and what will befall you if you don’t get a university job, he advised, think about what you can contribute to society with all the skills you will have acquired. Words to that effect. This guy admitted he had gone through the very sort of tortured thinking about his employment prospects, but at some point had turned it all around to think more outwardly, more about the kind of benefits he could give to the world at large, and not the other way around. A young classics vigorously reinforced those remarks, adding that there were endless opportunities for someone with the degree he was pursuing. Classics! Who would have thought?
You know the old joke: is it solipsistic in here or is it just me? I love that. But, of course, graduate school inclines towards the solipsistic, the individual-centered source of meaning and truth, and therein lies the anthropology student’s dilemma. It’s scary being in that world at the best of times, let alone surrounded by peers and supervisors who are urging higher and higher standards of accomplishment. There’s nothing wrong with a dream, but impossible ones should keep to themselves.
Until we stop pushing our students to imagine only higher and narrower prospects, they are bound to be suffering nightmares—that is, if they can sleep at all.