Interview by Darrah Lustig
Rebecca Schuman is an ardent commentator on the current state of the humanities. Schuman earned her PhD in German at the University of California, Irvine in 2010 after which she held a post as a Visiting Assistant Professor of German at Ohio State University under the auspices of the ACLS New Faculty Fellow program. Following a series of realizations about the nature of academics in the humanities, Schuman composed a series of articles about her personal experience. Most influential in this regard was her piece in Slate entitled, "Thesis Hatement," which incited a flurry of responses. These articles, along with subsequent blog entries expose the hardships and inconvenient truths about everyday life in academia. The Graduate Caucus Chronicle interviewed Schuman in order to find out more about her own personal experience as a graduate student, her perspectives on and reasons for pursuing an of alt-ac career path, and the changes that she would like to see take shape within the academy in order to prepare graduate students for the harsh realities of life in academia.
Grad Caucus Chronicle (GCC): Your Slate article, “Thesis Hatement,” generated a slew of reactions. Many blatantly dismissed your article as whiny; some aggressively attacked it (and you for taking such a stance), while yet others (in great numbers) showed support. How do you explain such a varied response to what seemed to be a personal essay? What suggestions can you provide to graduate students in the modern
languages, who invariably found themselves in one of these camps, and who found themselves lacking the tools necessary to evaluate complex discussions like the one generated by your work that directly relate to their future?
Rebecca Schuman (RS): I think readers who saw “Thesis Hatement” as whiny just didn’t go for my attempt at gallows humor. I completely understand—I annoy myself on most days, too.
The aggressive attacks have come largely from three groups of people: entrenched academics who believe that their careers are purely the result of a functioning meritocracy; recent hirees with survivor’s guilt and huge amounts of fear about tenure; and, finally, graduate students who do not want to hear it.
I am guessing that grad students’ anger derives primarily out of fear of the unknown—there’s no way to know how the job market will affect you. But I think it’s a natural mechanism to attempt to banish negative energy about it, to just radiate job-market positivity and institutional fealty—and when someone like me gets in your face with things you don’t want to acknowledge, the natural reaction is to push back.
I do think every assault on “Thesis Hatement” had at its root the fear that what I said about the job market was true. People reacted to my critique of a systemic failure with personal attack and it was hurtful, but it makes sense: if you can make it about my weaknesses, then the system is a navigable meritocracy. This is not to say I had perfect credentials! I didn’t—but still, I’m no slouch. But none of my vociferous detractors ever brings up my litany of publications, or the other distinguished stuff on my CV, because that’s counter to the narrative that I failed because I’m a big failing failure. I may be—but that doesn’t change the fact that some of the positions in German this year had 250 applicants. Why are people so scared of just facing that incontrovertible fact? Because it shows how little agency anyone has in amidst such terrifying odds. Any tenured faculty who responds to those odds by saying, “Well, there are always jobs for good people” should be sentenced to ten years as an adjunct.
This brings me to the reason “Thesis Hatement” resonated positively with so many others. What we all have in common is that we have seen how academic hiring really works—that someone does get what few jobs there are, but that it is impossible to figure out why. Sometimes a position advertised as “beginning” and “20th Century” goes to an 18th Century scholar who’s been on the tenure track four years. Other times, a listing demanding a “proven scholarly agenda” goes to an ABD without a single publication.
The best way to describe the job market is that it is a Randocracy—that the incalculable, unobtainable quality of “fit” trumps all. That may be a rather Kafkan reading—but if the approach fits, so to speak.
GCC: Your articles in Slate and The Chronicle of Higher Education suggest that you underwent a series of revelations about the true nature of academia in late stages of graduate studies and during your post-doc phase. What are some of the things you discovered too late that you wish you had been informed about earlier?
RS: The single thing I wish I’d realized back in graduate school was that faculty stigmatization of non-academic work is a total construct, and a ridiculous one at that. I did not need to socialize myself to such an extent, to believe that I needed to become a replicant of my advisers in order to have any human worth, Total Institution, yada yada. Academic mentors, great though they are at being academics, are just people. I did not—do not—need to become just like them to be worthy of breathing air. I wish it hadn’t taken four years of really intense feelings of failure to realize that.
GCC: In discussion forums you have been indirectly described as an advocate for inconvenient truths about the current academic system that governs the humanities. What do you see as the big issues that remain unaddressed? What suggestions do you have for graduate students, who see themselves interested in discussing these issues in online forums openly, but shy away in fear of repercussions for their career?
RS: I think just within the last few weeks, there have been huge strides in addressing what I see as the major problem—departments obscuring, withholding or outright fabricating placement data about their PhDs. This breakthrough is almost singlehandedly due to William Pannapacker’s advocacy in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the resultant PhD Placement Project, which is now ongoing. I made the mistake during grad school of thinking Pannapacker was an antagonist—in reality, he cares more about graduate students’ fates and the future of the academy than anyone else I know.
I hope that grad students know that I also care deeply about their futures, their well-being—and that is precisely why I am yelling so loudly. I don’t want other people to end up like me—but I don’t mean ‘don’t have my (not actually) shitty credentials’ or ‘don’t be outspoken.’ It has to do with the attitude I had upon graduation that anything outside of permanent employ in the Life of the Mind constitutes worthlessness. Even if you don’t think you’ll feel that way in two, three, four years--don’t underestimate the power of academic socialization.
As far as expressing opinions but being afraid—I get it, but academe runs on cowardice because we let it. So stop letting it.
The pushback to me was only because academia has such a culture of chickenshittery. You’re worried about your career, I understand—but how rewarding will that career be, if it’s in an industry that demands nothing less than unconditional servility?
You have the power to change that culture by using your voice.
GCC: In your blog you suggest an overhaul of the value and applications of a PhD via top down changes that would create a space for alt-ac career paths. How do you foresee the (non-academic) job market responding to these changes considering that most PhDs are at a considerable disadvantage applying for jobs that they are deemed overqualified for? Are these top down changes you speak of in reality much bigger than academia?
RS: I can think of several careers off the top of my head for which a PhD is not an overqualification but rather a regular-qualification: grant writer, researcher or research analyst, undergraduate adviser, writing program director/instructor, translator, dissertation consultant (that is a thing!), academic proofreader/editor, certain museum jobs, and of course teacher. I know PhDs or ABDs who do every single one of these things—many of whom reached out to me after “Thesis Hatement” to tell their stories.
I am, however, not the best resource for this discussion. But I know some people who are: Jennifer Polk at From PhD to Life, and Paula and David (and the incredible community) at Versatile PhD. The idea that humanities PhDs are unfit for any other work, or that the nonacademic job market is unreceptive to PhDs, is largely perpetuated by academics. I haven’t found it to be true at all, and neither have Jen, Paula or David (to name a few).
GCC: Have you received backlash or evidence that your editorials and blog posts have negatively affected your ability to work and grow in academia, should you decide to return?
RS: Other than the gleeful predictions from strangers on the Internet, no. Granted, I’m probably blackballed from a few departments—but the joke’s on them, because I never would been hired there anyway, ha! Wait…
Seriously, though, I am amused at those who have claimed my writing tone is so unprofessional that I would thus be a terrible colleague. Because academe demands only the highest standard of professional decorum—I have known senior professors who left their families to schtupp graduate students, who kept their offices so filthy they belonged on Hoarders, or who maintained offices cushier than most people’s apartments but never showed up to them ever; who expressed open disdain for their students; who couldn’t get along with each other and so their departments went into receivership. I’ve known people to get shunned for having the temerity to get pregnant and bullied out of their jobs for having the tenacity to report sexual harassment. And yet, I publish one 1500-word essay of dark humor and I’m the unprofessional one.
But even if I did want to return to the hallowed halls, in five years there will be only adjuncts and MOOCs anyway. It will be a brave new world—it already is!—and even the fight I’m fighting now is pretty much obsolete.
GCC: How do you propose to help current graduate students in the "mid-indoctrination phase" - career counseling? Reduced dissertation requirements? Lower cost of education? Are these changes the responsibility of universities? Of individual language departments? Can you comment on any of these topics extensively?
RS: Adjunct and MOOCs, man. Soon there won’t be anyone left to do the indoctrinating. Honestly, at this point this is sort of like calling in a nautical engineer to suggest structural improvements to the Titanic when its bow has already plunged into the abyss. But:
I guess if there is any single thing that can be done, it’s that directors of graduate programs need to get their heads out of their asses and admit what is going on. Admit how terrible the market is.
Admit that your graduate students will probably not turn into miniature versions of yourself. But this will damage graduate student “morale” (and, more importantly, enrollment in seminars) so I am honestly not sure if it will ever really happen.
I do think reducing time to degree is a good idea, but not by reducing requirements. I think it can be done by reducing the pressure on a dissertation to be a masterpiece. There’s this onus on dissertations to be perfect, and that’s totally unnecessary. I also think that having successful alt-ac employees come in and talk about their jobs and lives, and holding alt-ac career fairs, are good ideas at the institutional level.
GCC: Are the challenges that face graduate students of modern languages particularly intense in the realm of German Studies or do all job-seeking graduates across language departments face the same obstacles that you describe?
RS: In German it’s definitely really bad, because departments are closing and we’re a language that allegedly nobody wants to study anymore (which is not actually true—undergraduates want to go abroad to Germany!), but I can’t say things are cheery in any modern language right now. In Spanish, for example, things are not quite as dire, but ask any Spanish prof if it’s a cakewalk—it isn’t.
I think the key is to realize that there is a big and interesting world out there, and if you resist the socialization that tells you that it’s a tenure-track job or worthlessness, and keep yourself open to all sorts of possibilities, that things may turn out all right in the end. I mean, I have managed to land on my feet, so really anybody can.
Rebecca Schuman received the PhD in 2010 from the University of California-Irvine in 2010, and shortly thereafter was appointed to the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at The Ohio State University, where she spent two years as part of the ACLS New Faculty Fellows Program. Her monograph, Kafka and Wittgenstein: The Case for an Analytic Modernism, is under contract with Northwestern University Press. She is now a freelance writer and consultant in St. Louis, MO. Read her blog at http://pankisseskafka.wordpress.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The Grad Caucus Chronicle is the online publication of The Graduate Student Caucus of the Modern Languages and is dedicated to professional issues regarding graduate students in the humanities and their everyday experiences. It seeks to publish relevant and timely articles and interviews, as well as opinion pieces or contributions in alternative formats that relate to the journal’s mission to provide a forum in which graduate student matters are discussed.