Finishing School

Why the hazing rituals of graduate school aren’t worth the trouble

A PhD program in the humanities isn’t an education but a finishing school. You emerge from it speaking an entirely different language, with a different tone of voice and maybe even an accent, like Eliza Doolittle post-Henry Higgins. The symptoms are unmistakable.

You might begin to pose every declarative statement as if it were a question that you’re not actually asking, by ending every sentence with, “…right?” As in: “But Zygmunt Bauman has already problematized the whole notion of ‘politics,’ right?” You learn that the only sort of behavior appropriate to professional life is cold politesse, so you develop the habit, almost instinctively, of adopting an elaborately formal discourse in emails to professors, or colleagues you don’t know well; you find yourself often expressing the sentiment that you would be “perfectly delighted to have a coffee sometime”—the kind of phrase you would have once been ashamed to use. You cease to read for enjoyment, except furtively and shamefully. If you get caught carrying a book around that looks off syllabus, some policing colleague will check your papers by asking you, “What are you reading that for?” For which professor, what class, what career reason? The only pleasure you allow yourself to speak openly about, and again only in tones of boisterous embarrassment, is a predilection for bad television. “Ohmygod, I watched eight hours of Law and Order: SVU last night!” you splutter. This is how you signal you are an intellectual.

If you come to graduate school after any time spent, say, at an office job, the atmosphere in the academy is palpably different. Offices are filled with false cheer and desperate bonhomie, gossip and gladhanding; by contrast, the academy can seem a chilled and airless place. Long ago, the sociologist David Riesman characterized this distinction in workplaces as “false personalization” versus “enforced privatization.” The former is the pseudo-friendship of the white-collar world that serves to mask real hierarchies; the latter is the friendship-killing frigidity of the academy that exacerbates vast power differentials that don’t really exist.

No professor, however young, would make the mistake of treating you, a graduate student, as an equal, socially or professionally, even if very little separates you in intellectual terms.

They spent years having their psyches crushed by their professors, and it seems only fair for them to do the same to you.

Your compensation is that you can go out later with your fellow students, blow your stipend on booze, and talk shit about the professors behind their backs for hours on end. But the next day you return to school, aching and sober; and all the hard words you leveled at the faculty in private suddenly dissipate into meekness before figures of authority. Passivity: graduate school’s most lasting and universal gift to its students. Man hands on misery to man.

The most important story to tell about graduate school, one that people can’t tell enough, is one about academic labor: underpaid doctoral students with unsupportable teaching loads, the ongoing adjunctification of the professoriate. Of course, the undergraduates you teach are also working. Politicians often talk a great game about working to pay their way through school (when they didn’t, a la Romney, “borrow money” from their parents), but this is true of most of the undergraduate workforce; a majority work, and one third of American undergraduates clock in thirty-five hours a week or more. If they aren’t working to pay for school, they’re going into debt servitude, with loans that they will service their entire lives. (The best explanation I’ve seen of how all this interconnects is Marc Bousquet’s hand grenade of a book, How the University Works.)

As far as grad student exploitation goes, I happily escaped it, and therefore can’t speak to it directly. For the last few years, I’ve been a doctoral student in the English department of a staggeringly rich university in Silicon Valley. You know the place: enormous and sunny, full of red-tiled roofs and sandstone archways like an oversized Taco Bell, with names like “Gates” and “Hewlett” and “Packard” spelled out on the lintels. I went to graduate school because I had been groomed for it as an undergraduate, had had many professors tell me that I should continue my studies. The same professors told me I should take time “off” to work; and so I did, during the day in publishing houses and nights for a fledgling literary magazine. As usual in New York, I found myself attending literary parties, where I talked about the writing I should have been doing instead of attending literary parties. This got old, and so I made sure to get into a school far from New York—in the state where I had grown up, as it happened. There, I promised myself, I would make time to edit and write more for my journal.

I have gotten writing done, lots of it. This is because, in material terms, the university has treated me nicely. My fellowship is incredibly high compared with most programs, and I haven’t had to teach much at all. Money seems to be spilling out of the seams of the institution. Ask for a certain honorarium to bring a speaker to campus, and the authorities in charge of the cash box will immediately beg you to take more. The library is capacious and well-stocked. The undergrads are smart, if uncurious, and generally work hard. This should have been an ideal setup.

And yet graduate school has been a drag. This is because I allowed myself to get caught up in the banalities of professionalization, the most common feature of graduate education in the humanities. From day one of school, you learn not what and how to read, but rather how to position yourself as a candidate for the dwindling number of humanities jobs. It’s assumed from the outset that there’s nothing new to discover, only positions to take and status rewards to acquire. (For this reason, humanities students have come to love the lacerating sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, who is always surreptitiously talking about the social life of academia, even when he is ostensibly describing the hard sciences or politics.)

Any scenario where you might be educated is quickly transformed into a competition for prestige.

Departmental seminars are little more than occasions for students to outcompete each other in conspicuous displays of intellectual plumage and toadying to professors. Conferences, panels and lectures sometimes result in a good paper or two, but more often they’re scenes of ostentatious back-patting and ass-pinching by the audience, each “question” prefaced by breathy testaments to the brilliance of the work on offer: “I want to thank you for that wonderfully nuanced paper”; “What a brave interpretation of Middlemarch”; “That was a delightful and vital exposition, but forgive me, I have one quibble…” (Check out the humanities blog Arcade to see how the post-and-comment form of online discussions can reproduce this grotesquerie to a T.) It’s no wonder that, in such an environment, the research itself has the tendency to become pinched, narrow, and gutless.

My suspicion is that the academy has become this way in the last forty years—in between the generation of baby boomers, for whom the major book was Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, and the Generation Xers currently taking over the academy, who grew up in the shadow of Tom Peters’s Liberation Management. In that period, the narcissistic boomers, who had benefited from the last fruits of the postwar growth in universities and the lingering radicalism of their youth, produced some interesting work. But they allowed the academic job situation to go to seed, and left the Xers with a terrible situation. So the Xers conformed, learning to internalize the human resources guru in their head, smoothing all their rough edges, adopting the safe habits that would get them careers in an increasingly dicey environment. The boomers were wild and destructive, but at least they left a strong intellectual legacy. The ensuing generation, however, is a tragically underformed group of middle managers, who make the academic atmosphere the chilly place that it is today.

Yet despite the increasing professional tone of the academy, the fundamental problem with the academy is in fact its incomplete professionalization, its refusal to understand and submit to bureaucracy. For when graduate students are not being exploited by ruthless university administrators, they are being infantilized by their professors. Freud, rather than Marx, offers the best guide to the psychological minefield of academic life. For unlike the transparent world of bosses and workers, where people are compelled to come face to face with their real conditions of life, the academy is obscure and feudal, with graduate students as apprentices seeking entry to a guild. The professors aren’t employers but rather masters of a craft; the stability of their position rests on impalpable levels of prestige and claims to knowledge that the guilds have certified.

Between the master professor and the apprentice graduate student lies a rich field of psychic hazards whose keywords—neurosis, paternalism, incest—are ones that early twentieth-century Vienna would have known well.

The result of this space of total unaccountability is the professor who attempts psychologically to discipline his or her advisee. I’ve heard professors speak about needing to “break” their graduate students, and I’ve seen students get—and have myself enjoyed the privilege of getting—broken in by faculty. Usually this means professors attacking their students’ work on personality (rather than intellectual) grounds, suggesting that they’re mentally unfit for this line of work, or simply by failing them on an exam that they would otherwise have passed. Every graduate student I know has enjoyed one or more such features of the professor-student relationship. Some get over it through bouts of alcoholism, others by increasing their quotient of fawning and self-flagellation, debasing themselves into some version of Edgar from King Lear; still others have found themselves on a psychiatrist’s couch, and soon after on heavy medication. The most common response, however, has been a resort to what Peter Sloterdijk has called “cynical reason”—rationalizing the masochistic system as simply the way things have to be even though one knows better. Except for labor unions, graduate students have few means of expressing solidarity when it comes to the kind of psychological warfare professors conduct against them. The result is a crippling paradox: isolation on the one hand, and on the other an increasing dependence on the institution. If you’ve ever wondered what catastrophe intervenes in the life of the normal and sociable graduate student, lobotomizing her into the arrogant and insecure professor, this graduate school hazing ritual is your answer.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t any recourse at all; graduate students can band together, and the profession can be changed. At a certain point in my graduate career, it became evident that my department had decided to make a system-wide crackdown on graduate students it no longer had faith in. Several students who were on temporary leave, and who were seeking to return to the program, were expelled from the program by an authoritarian Director of Graduate Studies. Several others were given disciplinary warnings about their professional demeanor. And finally one student, an exceptionally young first-year, was singled out for being excessively combative in his seminars and put on academic probation. He was given a set of goals to complete—the administrators asked him to find a set of faculty who would act as his advisers, two years in advance of everyone else; and he was asked to complete a set of unfinished papers. He completed these goals handily, but students began to hear rumors through the faculty gossip mill that the graduate studies committee planned to expel him anyway. A number of us circulated a petition insisting that the student be kept in the program, which, under steady and organized pressure, a majority of students signed. (The ones who didn’t often said that they feared to append their names to a document that might later be used by professors as an informal blacklist.) Observers waiting outside the faculty meeting where this student’s fate was being decided could hear professors screaming at each other through the closed door. In the end, the student was spared; an official letter cited the petition as a key document in his salvation.

Though this bit of collective action is a small source of pride to me, it’s also depressing.

It reminds me that too little of graduate life is actually spent reading or thinking; in fact, the years of graduate school are often intellectually vacuous ones.

Even when they’re not dodging expulsion, graduate students are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about their advisers—do they like me? Do they think I’m stupid? If I insert the right keywords in my dissertation, will they like my work?—rather than working patiently through texts and through conceptual problems. The consequence is that you develop research—and a corresponding personality—that pleases everyone but is alien to yourself.

No one who goes to graduate school now can be wide-eyed about the “life of the mind,” let alone the possibilities of getting a job. Still, compared with the working world, graduate school offers tons of unstructured time, and usually a pretty spectacular library in which to spend it. Institutes and fellowships let you travel frequently and study obscure languages. These things are the unadulterated goods of graduate school, its purest pleasures. And you get paid to indulge them. It might still be possible to carve out an independent existence in graduate school, reading widely and well, and, far from the madding crowd of the academy’s gatekeepers, to write an enriching and satisfying dissertation. And if you’re willing to endure insults and humiliations, the social world of graduate school may offer you a career. This is, however, very unlikely. So, if you must, go to graduate school, but only to read what you want, and learn what you want. Avoid every other blandishment, every grooming technique, every bit of professional advice. Get in, take the money, and run.

Excerpted from Should I Go to Grad School?: 41 Answers to an Impossible Question, published by Bloombury on May 6, 2014. Copyright © 2014 Jessica Loudis, Bosko Blagojevic, John Arthur Peetz, Allison Rodman.