Take Your “Love It” and Shove It

I had thought about writing this up as a real piece of opinion-journalism and submitting it to a one of the legitimate outlets for which I now sometimes contribute—but then I realized that I want to use a loooooooot of curse words.

One of the most annoying—and expected—results of the unbelievably still-going kerfuffle over what I thought was a humorous and judicious essay in Slate (shit’s been quoted in the New Yorker and multiple times on Inside Higher Ed in just the last few days alone) is the sentiment, shared in the often-hilarious hate mail I get, and even by my own friends and parents, that I should not regret getting my PhD because “at least you got to spend 10 years doing what you love.”

To everyone: friends, detractors, and even Mom and Dad, this is a fallacious statement on several levels at once, and in its fallaciousness it perpetuates one of the most pernicious and ugly truths of today’s reality of Hypercapitalism, in which we all attempt, with varying degrees of success, to claw our way to solvency.

Fallacy 1: Doing Something as a Vocation Is Just as Fun as the Hobby Version

Don’t get me wrong—I am so relieved that there are people in this fucked-up world who still like to read. I am. There is nothing bad that can come of a voracious reading habit. However: please do not confuse what you do for fun—reading about 25 pages of a book and then putting it down at your leisure, and repeating this at whatever frequency you desire—with what literature professors and graduate students do for work. Let’s see if I can think of examples that bring this fallacy to life.

Example 1: fishing. Let’s say you loooooove fishing: you could do it all day long! And this is perhaps true—but what you do, which involves beer, and shooting the shit, and not really caring if you catch fish at all, is almost unrecognizable to a professional fisherperson, whose job is grueling, insecure, and tremendously dangerous.

Reading is similar to this—albeit with slightly less of a drowning risk. As a literature graduate student, if your program is any good, you will sometimes read upwards of 1000 pages a week. This means that just to keep up in your coursework, you will often read for thirteen hours at a time, with breaks only to use the bathroom and, if you remember, to eat. When I was in coursework, I sometimes got so overwhelmed I wept—and I just read right the fuck through it, because there was literally no time for crying.

And, further, you don’t just get to read it and think, “Oh, well, that book is interesting.” You have to put whatever you are reading within the larger context of everything else that author wrote, and everything else written in that genre, and everything else canonical written at that time period, and every single critical or theoretical approach that could even remotely be considered relevant to it. Every single sentence of a book you read has the potential to spiral off into a hundred conversations—and you are responsible for each and every last fucking one of them. This shit might be convoluted and ridiculous, but is extremely difficult.

Advanced study of literature is like this because through it, we get the background, training, breadth and rigor to act as authorities on these texts when we are charged with imparting them to impressionable young people. We do it like this precisely and only because it trains us to be one particular thing: a literature professor. If we didn’t want to become literature professors—and our mentors, who are all literature professors, didn’t want us to—we could dial it seriously the fuck down, and maybe we could have some “fun” reading again.

Example 2: obstetrics and gynecology. Let’s say you are an OB/GYN who also happens to be either a heterosexual man or a gay woman. That is—you work with vaginas all day for a living, and you also happen to enjoy vaginas recreationally. Do you work with pussy all day long because you looooove pussy? Do you loooove all the pussies you speculize apart, and into whose depths you peer in search of abnormal polyps and discharge, in the same way you love the pussy of your wife or girlfriend? Oh, you don’t? Because one of those things involves a professional approach and one involves a personal approach?

The same is true of reading. The way I had to attack the abjectly unpleasant Bildungsroman by Gottfried Keller, Der grüne Heinrich (Green Henry)—prying it open and peering inside its deepest crevices, on the lookout for just what about it is Bildungsroman-y—this is not the same way I would pick it up to read for fun, if for some ungodly reason that was possible. Because I can guaran-fucking-tee you no Germanist reads Der grüne Heinrich for any reason other than to prepare for and pass the comprehensive exams—the accomplishment of which signifies the mastery of the breadth of the German canon sufficient as such to be qualified to teach any part of it at the undergraduate level.

This is not to say that the professional version of reading isn’t intellectually rewarding—it is massively so. It is just very, very difficult, and requires an immense amount of self-discipline and gluttony for punishment.

As the ten readers of this blog who’ve been with me since 2003 know, I worked in the private sector for eight years before I decided to do the PhD (which, by the way, I don’t regret, but not because I got to spend several years “doing what I love,” but because it was rigorous and made me smarter, and I like being smart). What I mean is: I worked a lot of private-sector jobs, and they were all challenging in their own ways, but none of them made me work even a tenth as hard as I worked in my first year of graduate school alone.

Quasi-Fallacy 2: Doing an “Artsy” Thing as a Profession is Worthless to Society, So You Should Basically “Love” It Enough to Do It For Free Or You’re Unworthy Of Doing It.

This one doesn’t require as much unpacking (plus, my shit’s exhausted from all the ranting; plus, this isn’t real journalism so I can be as uneven as I want), because it’s pretty obvious: as Sarah Kendzior has already written far better than I ever could, most professions in academe (and, she didn’t deal with this, but it applies as well in the arts) are completely devalued in our Capitalist system, and so the resultant mentality is this: if we have the chutzpah to do something worthless instead of something that matters even a little bit, we should be completely prepared to live that worthlessness every day, by being paid what our work is worth: jack fucking squat. We’re told, more times than we can count: Well, if you want to do something so stupid, you’d better as hell love it, because there’s no other reason to do it.

How we have become a world in which a majority of people openly argue that music, art and literature are worthless is a matter for another time, but that’s the reality.

So I wouldn’t so much call this an argumentative fallacy as I would just a very hurtful truth. When you say, “Well, you should be grateful someone paid you $15,000 a year to do what you love in graduate school,” without even the above fallacious content of that “love,” you are advocating and perpetuating a system that believes that literacy and artistic expression have no valued place in the world.

This is especially rich coming from my beloved and admired mother, who is both an astonishingly gifted English scholar and an accomplished concert violinist, and has been compensated at extortionately low rates for both activities for her entire adult life. That she of all people is telling me not to regret my PhD tells you all you need to know about the insidious devaluation of our work that has wormed its way into every single one of us.

Semi-Conclusion Of Sorts—Give Me A Break, I Blog Because I “LOVE” It

Does this mean that I don’t, actually, love German literature? On the contrary, I love it so much I am writing a project right this second that aims to bring its amazingness outside the cloying walls of the Ivory Tower.

But do I love it enough to move across the country and back every damn year by myself (because why should my partner uproot himself from a permanent job for my temporary one?), to put my whole goddamned life on hold, to push my personal relationships to their breaking point and sometimes beyond, because I am falling apart under the pressure of feeling like a goddamned failure—and all the while, to say “thank you” to all the people who create and perpetuate the system that makes this total devaluation of my (admittedly limited) talents the status quo?

No, I do not, and I shouldn’t fucking have to, and neither should anyone else. Being a professor should be a job with no more or less respect than any other professional job, with its pros and its cons, and with compensation commensurate with what its specialized knowledge and dedicated labor is worth. Forgive me—or don’t—for believing that this worth is more than $2700 per course. For who needs rent, food or health insurance when there is love?

45 thoughts on “Take Your “Love It” and Shove It

  1. So very true. As a grad student who has spent almost every day this week crying over work – because when you’re writing a dissertation, and lots of elements are out of your control (e.g. if you have to work with other people or gather empirical data), and it doesn’t go right, it’s WORTHLESS and ALL YOUR FAULT – I very emphatically do not love it. If it were so lovable, it wouldn’t be so painful!


  2. I would have more empathy for you if you hadn’t made it seem as if you were lowering yourself when you applied to universities at places of which you had never heard. I know plenty of Ph.D,s who would love to work at such universities. Moreover, you write as if you are speeking to those who know nothing of grad school. I loved grad school. I loved reading for my courses, writing papers, and writing my dissertation. I loved studying for eight to ten hours a day and wish I could get away with doing now.


    • Ladies and Gentlemen, Fallacy Number Two at work. Oh, I faaaailed because I’m a big failing failure, because I didn’t think every grueling second of my program was pure fucking bliss. I dunno, maybe I just worked harder than you did…


  3. I didn’t get a tenure track job. I went to work in publishing and took adjunct gigs in places to supplement my income because publishing isn’t a lucrative industry. I’ve worked in departments at which all full-time people were MAs, earning $15,000 a year less than they would have if the had Ph.D.s, according to the the college’s published pay scale, because the school wouldn’t hire PhDs as full-timers or give tenure to faculty in a service department. (To get accreditation as a college, only 30% of the faculty need to be full time–not tenured–and for a university, the percentage is 35%.) I also know ABDs that were booted from their programs that have tenure, I assume because they cost less. I’ve had students earning more than I do coming into college, dreaming of earning more with a degree. I’m not defending academia as a business (or a place to earn a living), but the actual study was a joy to me. I wasn’t trying to be mean, just noting that there was another perspective in the minds of failures like me.


    • You are NOT a failure, and neither am I. The exploitative nature of academia is failing thousands of students by giving them poorly compensated instruction. And the “universities of which you have never heard” crack was aimed at wide eyed undergrads who think they’ll have a choice about where they will work if they become professors. No deportment anywhere would lower ITSELF to hire ME, and I would have gone anywhere, despite the very real possibility of that ruining my personal life and the possibility for a family, because for an industry that invented Women’s studies academia is hilariously patriarchal, because the only people who can psychically deal with moving all over Creation every year are men in old fashioned patriarchal marriages whose spouses and children will follow them. Honestly, I would have gone anywhere that hired me and thanked my lucky stars. But nobody would, so now I get the cold comfort that at least I don’t have to live out my days in Fuck Ass Nowhere, Tennessee or wherever. Of course now I’m going to starve to death, so, you know. I’m glad you enjoyed your program. But most people have at least some moments where it gets to be too much, and telling them they don’t love it enough is borderline abusive.


  4. I completely agree. I am also a graduate student and this month has been, perhaps, one of the most brutal that I’ve ever endured. The sheer volume of work we have to produce in three weeks’ time is not simply unfeasible (at least if you want to maintain your health) but is so damn painful that if one could hospitalize a brain, mine would have had a permanent seat at the ER. I, too, love the work that I do. I love most of my readings and I am certainly a better person for them. That said, the conditions under which I am forced to conduct that work are so bad that it makes me question why I even decided to pursue my degree in the first instance (tears and panic attacks included). Thank you for voicing this.


    • Hang in there. It is completely normal to love the work in the abstract while acknowledging that your working conditions are wackadoodle. For me, weirdly enough, things got a lot more humane once I started my diss. That is certainly not true of everyone, though. What I would like to see, and believe would be a positive step in academia, would be more people admitting that advanced study and research ARE hard work deserving of the inherent dignity of all labor, and we should not be made to feel that, when something goes awry for us, that it is our fault for “not loving it enough.” This “love” trap is a large part of what lands so many of us as adjuncts for life.


  5. I felt like this about choosing not to pursue a career in “fine” art, another wonderful world in which the only people who can afford to do it have trust funds. I found myself on the receiving end of a lot of guilt-tripping about how much I didn’t love it enough. See also publishing, film-making, working at a magazine, etc. On a side note, I wish I wrote as beautifully as you. That is certainly a benefit one gets from all that reading.


  6. I’m a 67-year-old female tenured full professor of education, where there are more jobs than in the humanities, yet even for someone in my privileged position, academia can be hellish in many ways. I’ve endured bullying (largely because of my ideas), fought for students and faculty who were being treated unfairly, and largely felt I’ve been living in intellectual wastelands. The teaching and scholarship are challenging and rewarding, as is the freedom, but it’s been a rough road. I’m still working because I can’t afford to retire yet, and am still very engaged in my work, but I’d only recommend getting a doctorate in fields where jobs exist, and even then only if you can’t imagine doing anything else for a living.
    Thanks for the refreshingly vulgar post.


  7. You keep implying that thinking that academic analysis of literature is meaningless is the same as thinking literature is meaningless. No. Not the case. Literature and art don’t need to be obsessively, excessively and pointlessly dissected to have a “place” in the world. That is the little secret that critics and academics are missing out on. The world can enjoy the book whether or not every jot of it has been subjected to withering, exhaustive frippery to place it in canonical perspective.


    • I think that when people say that academic analysis of literature is meaningless, they are reacting naturally but defensively to something they don’t understand, either because they haven’t taken the time to, or because it’s too hard. Academics do this too–anytime they don’t know something, they render it unworthy rather than admit there is something about which they are ignorant.

      But, to your larger point: so, you’re an engineer. To teach Fundamentals of Freshman Engineering 101, to be the instructor of record that is and not TA, one has to have not just a grasp on the freshman-level course material, but on the larger discipline as a whole, yes? The same is true of literature. In order to be able to teach undergraduates why literature is meaningful and fun at a more accessible level (and I guarantee you my freshman level Cultural Traditions class is 100% frippery-free), you have to know a great deal more about it than your freshmen do. You have to be an expert. Expertise is complicated. There is no reason your average book fan should know about Green Henry’s transition from religion to aesthetics, but your professor sure as fuck should know this.

      Here’s a little secret people who dismiss the literary humanities are missing out on. Literary analysis can be extremely challenging and require a lot of intelligence, and people who are good at it are just as smart as engineers and doctors, but simply in a different part of their brain. If you don’t value that part of the brain, that’s your problem, but the concept of expertise works the same in all disciplines.


      • I didn’t say literary analysis was unnecessary. I said that it wasn’t necessary for literature to have a place in the world.
        I understand literary analysis. Both of my parents are English majors. I double majored with engineering, taking 41 semester hours one year in order to take more history and literature classes. I’ve had essays, critiques, short stories, and poems published.
        Entry level engineering classes rely on the same math and science that advanced engineering use. The same sheer constant applies whether it’s EG 101 or MECH805. So yes, it’s important that the professor understand that fundamental AND that nuance because there is no separating them. What’s more important, though, is that a professor does not go out and reprove that the transition from necking to yielding in a solid in order to teach basic engineering. He accepts basic tenets of the field.
        You don’t have to re-analyze the entire corpus of an author to be able to understand the underlying themes in the works. There’s nothing stopping you, but no one is forcing you. But realize that while there is a quantifiable benefit to all of society when that engineering professor discovers a way to produce a more uniform layer of indium tin oxide (you’re probably looking at one right now), uber-academic squabbling over the superiority of the neo-historical or deconstructionist approaches to arcane texts by obscure authors isn’t going to impact very much. It may be hard, it may be challenging, and it may be enlightening for those involved. But it doesn’t matter a hill of beans in trying to have literature, art, and philosophy impact lives or influence the course of our culture – and that is where I think we are all missing out.
        Literacy in this country is slipping, and the leading lights are involved in navel contemplation. Reading as a chore is foisted on graduates, who then foist it on students, who then give it up. Shakespeare’s bawdy is as good an entree into the love of reading as post structuralism, and a whole heck of “alot” more enjoyable…and someone drawn in by the former first is more likely to stick around for the latter…
        These are things that need to be done – but academia has turn the pursuit, creation, and dissemination of knowledge into a monographical equivalent of a dick-waving contest – “mine’s bigger than yours”. You just chose to get out by a different path than I did..


    • If that’s why you went into engineering, please publish a list of the bridges, circuits, buildings etc. for which you are responsible!

      As to your point – literary analysis (philology and its brothers – excuse me – siblings) is an ancient and honored subject, and analysis of texts was once the ne plus ultra of scholarship. It is not easy and does not have the support of laws of physics to make it easier. And, I think it is extremely important for smart people to think about these things, and tell us what they find out.



      • The first paragraph verges on ad hominem, the second begins with an argument to authority.

        The writer’s personal accomplishments are irrelevant to his valuable point. The above doesn’t make the case that because literary analysis is difficult and was viewed as highly important, it ought continue to be emphasized in the future.

        To your first point, and more broadly, engineers (and scientists) frequently work in large teams- monographs are almost unknown in many fields. I don’t know about the above writer’s experience, but everything I’ve ever published or produced has been the effort of a team whose members’ expertise is non-interchangeable.



      • To me this entire argument is beside the point. You think adjunctification doesn’t affect the STEM disciplines? You’re wrong. Whether or not you think a discipline is worthy is completely irrelevant to whether or not its experts deserve a living wage. EVERYONE deserves a living wage, and especially everyone with an earned doctorate and proven pedagogical worth, who is entrusted with the minds of our young. Whether or not you personally think literary analysis is stupid has nothing to do with whether or not depending on adjuncts is acceptable. It is not. In any discipline. For any reason. Engendering cross-disciplinary pissing contests takes away from the real issue. If you think the adjunct model is the humanities’ cross alone to bear, you are sorely, sorely mistaken. And by the time you realize it’s time to fight, it will be too late.


  8. Love this. One point: You forgot about the part where (as a woman), spending eight years in grad school and then five more years searching and waiting for a “real” tenure track job leaves you unable to create the family you always wanted and assumed you’d have. Because although all of your doctor and lawyer friends can afford to create babies with $100K worth of IVF at age 40, you cannot.


  9. here is a suggestion. I am professor (tenured) in Biosciences. You know who we need most? Writers. Grads in Biosciences cannot write to save their life, most of them. We are (the Profs) had to churn up upward of 10 papers a year, about 30% has to be reviews (simply because they are easier than experimental papers). Plus grant applications that are judged now for the beauty of style and embed pictures more than for their content.

    Come here, we will hire you. All of you. This vocation is called Scientific writer or Medical writer. Google up the positions. Seriously. Starts at 50K
    That would take jobs away from Biology grads, though.
    Dogs eat dogs in Academe.


  10. How many disgruntled professional analytical thinkers does it take to completely fail to either acknowledge or respond to the intelligent comment posted by “This is why I went into engineering” on 26 October 2013 at 10:31?

    Also D R Lunsford, I’ve got bad news for you: if you’re interested in a new job, you’ll actually have to apply. I doubt “The Grass is Greaner, yep” will recruit you based on the “PDF of the preprint” you posted in a comment thread on a blog.


    • I responded. I said disciplinary infighting will do nothing to address adjunctification, which make no mistake will come to all disciplines. Academics who are working deserve a fair wage and dignity, no matter the whims of capital or the personal preferences of people who don’t care for one discipline or another. Whims and preferences and fads change. Every worker deserves a fair wage and dignity. Always.


      • Sorry, misunderstanding: I was referring to the actual accusation which “This is why…” makes in his comment. As opposed to the prevalence of “adjunctification” in English vs. Engineering.

        I went to graduate school in Computer Science. I have friends who went to graduate school in the humanities. I did not expect them to understand the details of my research, just as they could not expect me to understand the details of theirs. However, I always made sure to have a layman’s explanation of my work ready, for when the question inevitably came up. “We work on making systems more reliable, because who wants their ABS to fail when they hit the brakes.” Oversimplified, borderline fraudulent — but the intention was there.

        I’m not yet convinced that academic literary scholarship is useless, but I’d like to see its practitioners try a little harder at the layman’s explanation.

        I think is relevant, since the original post is about the value to society (measured correctly or incorrectly) of various types of labour.


      • I specialize in making even the most ridiculously complex literature interesting to bored Freshmen–does it remove some of the nuance? Yes. Do I care? Hardly. As far as my specialized research goes, I used to tell people: “My research points out an important connection between Franz Kafka, author of The Metamorphosis”–interjection, “Oh, I know him,”–and Ludwig Wittgenstein, a rather obscure Austrian philosopher who wrote a lot about language. The reason my research is interesting is that nobody has really done this before, and since both of these guys wrote at the same time, and were concerned with language, they actually have a lot in common.” So I’m not part of the problem; I’m part of the fucking solution, and in the meantime, let’s stop the disciplinary infighting and start fighting against academic labor exploitation.


      • To me it does. Disciplinary infighting–what you do is useless, what I do matters–is what causes some disciplines to be rendered “unimportant” and thus adjunctified. Trouble is, sooner or later all disciplines go out of vogue. That will happen with engineering, too. Then arguing about the value of one discipline or another will be revealed as the distraction it is. What you were talking about was a distraction from the real problem, which is the devaluing of academic labor. Once any kind of academic labor is devalued, for any reason, that opens the door for all academic labor to be devalued.


  11. Of course any particular sub-field in science or engineering will go out of vogue: that’s built into the system and expectations. In a sense, this is the goal: to answer all the questions in a sub-field so that it becomes ‘trivial’. Over time, the same may happen to fields as well as sub-fields.

    My point above, which I think stands, is that just because a field was once considered important doesn’t mean that it should continue to be important. Moreover, something that is difficult is not necessarily important.

    To the point you are bringing in: Adjuncts are are already a fact of life in the sciences, including pre-engineering programs. I note that one of my classmates who has already gone become a ‘full time adjunct’ at a local state school gets pay and benefits at least equal to a post-doc on the NIH scale, well above the median household income.

    Right now, we have a demand for a large number of academics to teach introductory courses. The low wages for academics will continue as long as there are qualified people willing to take the job, however the institution defines ‘qualified’. I expect that the so-called massive online open courses (MOOCs) are going to significantly reduce this demand. The question is how graduate programs are going to react to the reduction of academic jobs for their students. I doubt these programs will decide to contract fast enough, which means fewer jobs per new graduate.

    The consistently expanding academic world driven by the post-WWII expansion in the number and size of colleges and universities has ended, but the educational system is set up to continue the supply of new PhDs.

    What defines a fair wage when there are more qualified people than jobs?


    • See my post “I demand you stop supplying me with Capitalist claptrap.” Not that you’ve giving me claptrap, but the idea that “fairness” in pay should have anything to do with supply and demand is preposterous. The entire concept of capitalism is antithetical to fairness. That is one of the many, many reasons why it is a disgusting system that I very much hope is in its last centuries. The impending start-up and engineering bubbles should hasten it a bit, and for that I could not be happier.


  12. Very well put. Thank you. I read whatever catches my eye, and with great enthusiasm. On the other hand, I more or less deliberately failed two iterations of literary criticism (English 101) in CC because I didn’t want to write essays about what the stories said. After taking other college courses I liked, the stipend finally ran out with no degree. Now I do pickup temp jobs in IT, and get paid decently. I loved school as long as I got paid. Same with my job. I would do neither for free.


  13. Language and literature actually shape perception which in turn shapes the way we think. Teaching literature and publishing research about literature enable others to understand the choices they make as people, citizens, and consumers.
    Why do politicians care so much about naming? Because what you call something shapes how you perceive it. Is it climate change or global warming? Is it affordable care or Obamacare? But language shifts, narratives shifts so we must also reinterpret. To me, the label Obamacare is a source of pride not ridicule. I could explain all this to students, but instead they experience it first hand by reading The Scarlet Letter in which Hester’s A shifts meaning within her fictional Puritan community. Reading and interpreting also immerse the students in the point of view of an outcast (seeing outside oneself, yet another benefit of interpreting literature). Our published research in the humanities leads individuals to consider the way power masks itself (often through language/stories). People cannot always perceive institutional effects. How does Puritan ideology lead Hester to blame herself at first; then how does she slowly see herself at the mercy of the system?
    Shuman’s writing is the “impact” of a humanities education. She can “read” the narratives of failure that are actually systematic failures and translate that injustice into a new narrative (with humor) to change our perception of adjuncts–actually make see us see the invisibles.


  14. I’m also late to this but whatever…

    I’m an undergrad, close to graduating, considering entering a Phd program. I am so glad I took the time to read your article. This degrading myth that Literature is some sort of wishy-washy field of study that perpetually feeds students with therapeutic yet useless knowledge while they gratefully write an essay per week and freely express their opinion with the assurance that “all views are valid since literature is totally subjective” is fucking bullshit. I work hard now and I cannot imagine how much harder I am gonna have to work to be a competent grad. student. It is not always enjoyable. Sometimes the workload can turn books into merciless agents of torture and perpetrators of insomnia. But, as you said, it is worth is because it makes you smarter and because I have hope that someday I will be able to get paid to analyze literature. And no, I won’t fucking be content with any mediocre job that is offered to me. I might take it but I will be pissed. Anyone who dedicates their time to an academic endeavor deserves more recognition than that. If the monetary acknowledgment is not there, at least let us be angry about it and demand some respect.


  15. 2015 woot woot!
    https://chroniclevitae.com/news/992-the-complete-opposite-of-tuna-on-toast sent me.
    At my age, it doesn’t make economic sense to get a PhD although I loved every minute of going back to school to earn a masters.
    I teach as an adjunct but will never qualify for anything more I’m afraid.
    It’s too bad too because I feel that I’m doing some very innovative programming to satisfy some of the needs that I have with teaching an online course.
    I think that any teacher would love to have what I’ve written: crossword puzzles, word searches, a Wheel-of-Fortune inspired game. I’ve also written programs to help me grade by sending students emails when I start grading their paper and providing multiple other “touch points” that provide positive reinforcement to every assignment.


  16. “The Complete Opposite of Tuna On Toast” was an enjoyable piece, thanks for the link.

    I feel like Rebecca Schuman is starting to get it.


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