That’s a quote (slightly paraphrased for headline-osity) from my first-though-twelfth grade classmate and current labor-organizing hero Robin J. Sowards, who is currently in a very interesting discussion with Michael Bérubé over on my public Facebook feed. I wanted to reprint it here because of its accuracy and sheer genius in phrasing.
I also wanted to return, for a second, to the misguidedness of “future-proofing” the humanities PhD by turning it into a watered-down “entrepreneurial” version of its former self. As someone who went from PhD to self-employed “entrepreneur” (or, as I like to call it, fuckup-preneur), I am particularly offended by the water-it-down provisions of the “New PhD” (aka Executive Literary MBA), and here’s why.
Although I am, on most days, very proud of my unexpected “career turn” into journalism and general shit-stirring, if I were to be totally, completely honest? I still wish, often and with a lot of pain, that I were a university professor. Not a real one, by the way–bogged down in petty vendettas with “colleagues” out to sabotage me, terrified for my professional life every time I say a single word with personality in it–but the realized potential of what a university professor can and should be (and, just sometimes, is): A teacher-scholar who creates challenging and fun courses for my students, and who writes a few articles and a book or two about very difficult things, and who performs service to the institution that allows me to have this job.
I repeat: Despite my bluster and swearing and burn-it-down bravado, on many days I still very much wish I had “made it” as a professor, and still very much think a large part of the gifts that I have to give to the world will sit unused and unwanted on the shelf until they rot.
Do you know what makes me feel better on those days? It’s to know that no matter how much of a failure I was or am in academia, I still wrote what my advisor—looking directly at me and stopping mid-walk so he knew I knew he really meant it–called “a brilliant dissertation.” I turned that dissertation into a book that displays the kind of singular scholarly commitment and totalizing rigor that is only possible because I got a doctorate: A real doctorate, whose journey required pushing my brain to the absolute limits of what it was capable of doing, and then pushing it a little bit further out than that. I have a doctorate in German. I used it to write a book about Kafka and one of the most difficult philosophers who ever lived. It contains totally new insight, and completely original research that is itself based in and strengthened by the scholarly conversation decades-long. It was the most rigorous experience of my life–one I entered into specifically for its rigor. It is the one thing that nobody, no FULLPROF, no obnoxious Slate commenter, no hate-mailer, no lifeboater, nobody can take away from me. I am a scholar now. No matter what I choose to do with my life, I will be a scholar until I die. It is the one bit of comfort I have after dedicating a decade of myself to a system that otherwise shut me out, and whose gatekeepers continue to try to put me in my place (i.e., far away, and quiet quiet quiet).
I work outside of academia now, pretty successfully. But do I wish I’d taken workshops on blogging, public engagement, collaboration, entrepreneurship and more pedagogy (I did, actually, take many workshops on pedagogy)? Fuck no. There are problems with today’s PhD study, make no mistake–and they often involve “advisors” who are terrible at giving advice, who harm more than they help, who think trial by fire is the only way into the club that will actually not let their charges in anyway. But those problems most acutely involve the jobless hellscape that greets PhD-havers. It is an understandable and noble idea to try to adjust that hellscape so that it offers more and different jobs. But watering down the PhD–and make no mistake, a five-year “re-imagined” PhD is a watered-down PhWhatever–will take away the one thing that nobody should take away from a generation of scholars left on the shelf to rot. There is, as Robin says, no way to “future-proof” the PhD without undergoing simultaneously a contingent-faculty revolution. Everything else is just self-serving smoke.