Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Why Even Major in English?

I had a depressing talk with a student today about post-undergrad options. As you know I'm not big on sending people to grad school, but I tried hard to convince this student not to make a bad choice while still not shitting all over the whole notion of graduate study. (What's worse than going to grad school in the humanities? Paying 30k a year out of pocket for it!) My compromise advice ended up being to take a graduate-level course in spring, before graduating, to see if what people actually do in grad school is something that really lights a fire in Student X's soul.

Because, frankly, grad school for me was nothing like undergrad, where we had profs entertain us with some nifty novels. And I loved that! Enormous amounts of work, reading theory that was so dense it made me cry with frustration, writing long abstruse papers on minutiae of lesser-known texts because "Dude, Hamlet is so cool" is not a publishable argument --- I loved loved loved all of it. It was punishing. It was hell. It was the level of rigor that I most enjoyed. If your vision of grad school is that you love reading a novel and then talking about how wonderful it is, you will probably hate the souped-up, professionalized, scholarly, competitive model that grad school has become.

But as you can see, I am only getting paid the minimum to do something only tangentially related to all that right now. So I pointed out how many years I have been out there pounding the pavement and not getting a job, and I named my salary now, and my student debt amount, and mentioned that most English profs start at about 40k a year, and in general tried to paint a realistic, yet bleak, picture. Without being soul-crushing. It's difficult, I noticed. I think I have to work on my ability to be evil to someone's face, because watching someone's expression as they have their soul crushed hurts and I found myself backtracking and trying to cheer up Student X at various moments, which meant that my advice was pretty incoherent merely out of a sense of being nice --- "The job market sucks! Abandon All Hope Who Enter Here! Oh, but don't worry! You're a nice person! Something will work out for you! --- As long as you don't think that that "something" will be a tenure track job!"

And I noticed over at Bitch PhD they linked to yet another column by Thomas H Benton ---- Why You Shouldn't Go to Graduate School in the Humanities, version 2 ---- and I pretty much agree with every thing he says, just as much as last time he wrote about this. (And for those of you, especially for those people who commented in the Bitch comments that this was too bleak an assessment, coming from someone who has a tenure-track job, he has been doing actual stats and interviews for many years now, talking to the population of PhDs who never made it. He is going beyond the anecdotes of the successful to collect data. And that data is pretty bleak.)

But what really made me depressed about my student conversation today was that Student X made a dichotomy between going on to grad school, and being wait staff. Student X has done the whole waiter/waitress/bartender direction to help pay for school, and seems to think this is the only viable option ---- what the hell else do you do with a BA in English besides wait tables or go to grad school?

Ohh, honey.

I gotta say if this is all students here are being taught as available options, then I am just disgusted with the English department. Shit, you've been learning to read and write well for the past four years, surely there is a business that will pay you a middle-class salary to do their writing and researching? Some HR department needs reports written, marketing needs promotional materials, a nonprofit needs some grantwriting skills? I mentioned this, but Student X did not seem to believe it was a reality. And didn't seem interested in teaching high school. And liked the life of the mind and study associated with being a professor, even teaching comp at a community college.

Yeah, you and 300 other people. Of course it's a great job --- that's why we're all applying for it. There are a lot of people who want to do it and not a lot of paid spots for it.

I feel like someone needs to be working more with our students, if this is the mindset. Someone in the English department needs to be explaining them more about how the job process works, and the supply-and-demand of job skills works, and how to see yourself fitting the qualifications of all sorts of jobs out there you didn't really even know existed, and how to take a shit job and pay your dues before moving up the ladder into something interesting, and to aggressively push students to see options besides grad school.

But that person sure as hell can't be me. For two reasons:

First and foremost, I'm an adjunct. I'm not around; I can't count on being around; there's no reason I should invest my time and energy into a department when I (sigh) have no clue where I will be working next year. Someone permanent needs to make it his or her vocation to lead this program with zeal, to constantly reiterate that there are options for English majors and there are viable alternatives to grad school ---- our women's studies dept. doesn't have this problem, and that's because all the profs make explicit reference to activism in their courses and expect them to at the worst take jobs in mainstream businesses to transform them from within if they are not going out to the nonprofits and the activist organizations and the think-tanks. So at the very least there should be one full-time prof making a point of teaching, and reteaching, every year, the simple fact that there are other paths besides grad school.

Especially because we have idiot commenters making statements like this:
We've had decades now of terrible job markets; anyone who enters graduate school and doesn't realize it is a huge crap shoot hasn't been paying attention
Without realizing that, hello! Students finishing up undergrad and heading out to grad school are only about 22! They have not been around watching academia for decades, only for four years! Every single year you have a new crop of students start undergrad and it's like rebooting the computer; you have to start fresh with each group. And that includes teaching each group about the perils of grad school and the values of their major. Every single year.

The second, more relevant reason why I shouldn't be teaching our students about job searches and nonacademic placement is I don't have the first fucking clue about it. I went on to do a Master's because I couldn't figure out the first steps toward finding and getting a job; it all seemed like an open sea with no path or markers. And I'm not stupid, or lazy, or unambitious, just unclear about what the work world was like and how to go about entering it. In Benton's description of today's students, the following points really resonated with my undergrad situation:
  • They are emerging from 16 years of institutional living: a clear, step-by-step process of advancement toward a goal, with measured outcomes, constant reinforcement and support, and clearly defined hierarchies. The world outside school seems so unstructured, ambiguous, difficult to navigate, and frightening.
  • They can't find a position anywhere that uses the skills on which they most prided themselves in college. They are forced to learn about new things that don't interest them nearly as much. No one is impressed by their knowledge of Jane Austen. There are no mentors to guide and protect them, and they turn to former teachers for help.
Which all gets me back to the title of the post. Really, if the only thing a BA in English prepares you for is grad school or waiting tables, why go? What on earth do you get out of a liberal arts education? Surely it must be good for something that will help get you a job that pays and does not totally suck. If the English major has any lasting value for our students then we must be constantly articulating its value for each class, each year, each generation. And connecting its abstract values to concrete, step-by-step job results.

Remember, if we don't expect them to get through an essay without breaking down and modeling all the writing process steps, handing them prompts and bulleted checklists, and making revision comments, then why do we expect them to make the huge conceptual leap from "the critical understanding and appreciation of literature" to finding and applying for the first job of their career completely on their own?


Bardiac said...

No one ever talked about job stuff when I was an undergrad, and I was seriously unprepared. I was lucky to find my way into the Peace Corps, which is actually pretty good about such things.

BUT, our dean here is really good at talking to students about how to frame the skills they've learned through their college education in ways that meet employers' needs, and I've learned a lot from him about it. He often references the AAC&U website, and it's really helpful for ways to talk to students about what employers look for in applicants, and how students can talk about their college work in ways that mean something to employers.

It's the difference between saying, hi, I'm an English major, and saying, hi, I've got well-developed writing skills; I can analyze written and numeric information to help make good decisions; I can organize and work in groups, leading when appropriate; I know how to learn complex information and skills, and how to apply them. I have solid ethics and understand why they're important. And so forth.

Learning this stuff has made me a whole lot better advisor. AND, I think we should talk to our graduate students about those skills, and how they can apply their very advanced skills in all sorts of fields. As a profession, we suck at that, especially.

the rebel lettriste said...

I think part of the problem too is that students are so weirdly committed to "the major" being "career prep." It's the ethos that makes them major in business and accounting even though they hate it.

What I tell students is that whatever they are majoring in ultimately doesn't matter. It's having a BA that employers care about. They are startled.

Really good advice one of my former undergrad professors--who was a terrifying dragon lady, btw--ever gave a class of English majors was this:

"An English major makes a good therapist." And we all must have looked crazy at her, because then she said, "you understand narrative, and that is a useful skill."

Susan said...

Sis, I think you should propose yourself to the department as a link between the Eng dept and Career services. As a job. Because the other folks who are not having an impact is the career services people, who are really supposed to help students with this. Now, you'd have to learn a lot of stuff from career services, but maybe it would be helpful to have someone who starts from the academic side.

Yes, I know, California is in a budget crisis and this will happen some time in the next millenium. But you can bet your last dollar that no one in the dept will take this on.

To be fair to your student, I was pretty much there when I finished college. The Peace Corps at that time wouldn't take a history major (they wanted agronomy skills), and it was law school, grad school, or being a secretary. We know what our parents do; we know the jobs we have had during vacations. Other than that, most graduating students know very little about the work world.

busta said...

I enjoyed reading this. I am writing my PhD in anthropology (filing in May) and am pretty depressed about my prospects. I am at a top tier school, have some publications out, and am realizing that this doesn't magically make it happen. Naive, I know. I have been spending the last few months mind mapping my employable skills, and trying to figure out what's next. But I have also been having conversations with folks in my cohort about pretty much the same thoughts that you express here. We are not being prepared for all those other options. And quite frankly, our entire department has blinders on. To top it off, I am writing letter of rec for undergraduates to go on to graduate school...keeping the cycle going.

Eve Proper said...

The problem is that there is no one around who knows what good alternatives for English majors are. The professors went straight through graduate school. Their former students either went into professional programs such as law or they bummed around for a few years - temping, working for the local weekly - before coming back to get an MA and taking a job at the writing center or tutoring. The career office is too busy lining up yet another opportunity for the engineering and nursing students to think about the ones that aren't so easy to place.

At least, that's how it was in my English program. I had some wonderful professors, but they didn't do career advice.

Doctor Pion said...

Found my way here from Dr. Crazy's .... posting from the Physics side of a CC campus where some of my good friends teach comp.

Student X clearly went to HS, but did Student X take comp at a CC? The difference between teaching comp 1 at a CC and teaching comp in a HS is significant, but a CC is not a SLAC. We don't get the kids who were forced to attend HS, because no one makes them go to class in college, but we do get all of the ones who can't get over 500 on the SAT verbal. The middle third, who deserved a C but got a B or A for attendance.

BTW, someone should know where the grads got employed, but it won't be the English dept. It might be the alumni organization or some state bureaucrat who tracks that sort of thing for the unemployment office, if the career office doesn't know.