FWIW, I wanted to use ‘Assistant Jizz Mopper’…

…and it was summarily abgelehnt by my editor (in advance of the Standards department) at Slate, where my newest article tackles a huge and complex subject, one I’ve tackled with considerably less nuance in the past: The future of graduate education. This particular piece uses UCI (my alma mater!!!) and its new 5+2 doctorate-and-postdoc program as an example; I largely think the program is a good idea, but I’m a bit hedgy on the postdoc aspect — especially the title, as you’ll see. Anyway, I still don’t expect this piece to gain me any new friends among grad students who think I am vile and out to crush their dreams, nor do I expect any Edible Arrangements from the School of Humanities anytime soon, but I hope you all know that I gave this matter an excruciating amount of thought. I’m not exaggerating (for once); it really pains me to put myself back into the headspace I need to be in to think about these things. I have moved on from academia and while I enjoy reporting on wacky news or things that don’t directly concern me, this one thing really does still affect me emotionally, and writing about it was legitimately painful. NO PRESURE TO LIKE IT, amirite? Here’s a taste:

There is no conceivable reason that medical doctors can go from pimply little undergrads to actual brain surgeons in less time than it takes to write a dissertation on Der grüne Heinrich.

Someday I am going to index all the times I’ve burned Der grüne Heinrich in print, but that day is not today. Today, as all days, I’ve got a baby to take care of. She’s got two teeth now, and she’s not afraid to use them on my boobs, because everyone knows breastmilk is best when chewed.

ANYway here’s another excerpt, so you can see where I wanted to use ‘Assistant Jizz Mopper’. (“Isn’t that kind of misogynistic?” asked my editor. “I thought that job usually went to guys,” I answered.)

But [The Mellons’] palliative measures are temporary, and the cratering of the labor market is permanent. Nobody asked me, but if I had a couple billion dollars to throw at the humanities, I’d create permanent lectureships at schools like UC–Irvine instead of two years’ worth of assistant Victorian-era child chimney sweep or assistant porn booth swabber or assistant pleb positions. (An email to the Mellon Foundation for comment, and to test out this excellent theory, was not returned.)

Thanks as always for reading!!!!! I MEAN IT!

PS I’ve got a new one coming out later this week about anti-vaxxers…I’m bracing myself for whatever doxxing or hate-mailing or mass-unfriending or tweet-stalking those motherfuckers do these days…stay tuned to this bat-channel!

PPS No new terrifying legal threats from Her Highness of the Big-Girl Panties. YET. I’m sure federal, state and local law enforcement are on high alert tho.

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14 thoughts on “FWIW, I wanted to use ‘Assistant Jizz Mopper’…

  1. As a current grad student who is going into her 7th (and hopefully final) year of her PhD program (that doesn’t count the 2 years of my MA), I am all for the 5 year PhD with one major caveat: faculty have to get their heads out of their asses and actually support students enough to make 5 years happen. Med school students get done because their programs are highly structured. PhD programs seem to be free-for-alls. Faculty need to stop telling students they’re “not ready” for this or that stage of the program and need to stop encouraging perfection in the dissertation, as you note in the article. One year of coursework instead of the standard two is plenty. My second year of coursework seemed like unnecessary treading of water. Do exams in the second year with no exceptions – no excuses about not being ready or needing more time to read. If delaying exams was only an option for students taking a leave of absence, hardly anyone would do it. One semester for the proposal with no option to delay that either, and students will have 2.5 years to write the dissertation, which is plenty. The program where I got my MA offers only three years of funding for people who got their MAs there and four years for people who didn’t, but the faculty are not at all supportive of students getting done in this amount of time, so I know very few people who have actually graduated from the program because after year 3 or 4 they have to start working and have no time to write the lengthy and brilliant dissertations most faculty there require.

    And I absolutely agree about the 2 year post-doc. I like the idea of going on the market after everything is done, but considering that less than half of English PhDs get tenure-track jobs, it seems to hardly matter when we go on the market.

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  2. Agree. It’s back to the classic formula you’ve been advocating for years: stop herding graduate students/temp labor into the corral and instead use available sums to open up 1–2 permanent lectureships/TT lines.

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  3. Another problem with a five-year program (which I officially had, thanks to the Mellons, who at the time were trying to stave off the looming shortage of Ph.D.s in the humanities — yes, their crystal ball is a bit unreliable — otherwise, my program would officially have been a *four* year one) is that, even if the candidate has hir shit together (I was young, but I did), the department may not manage to keep its shit together over the five years. I dealt with some minor but fairly predictable personal issues during my grad years (deaths of grandparents whom I had a hand in caring for; parent’s remarriage to a stepparent who didn’t (doesn’t) much like me), but my grad department downright fell apart the year I passed generals, losing 5 or 6 members, including the chair, my advisor, and most of the people who might have served as backups. So I embarked on trying to plan a dissertation without an advisor, in an overstretched department that had little to no structure for shepherding students through the dissertation process beyond the advisor/advisee relationship (which, in my case, didn’t exist). Needless to say, that didn’t turn out well; I defended nearly 15 years after I arrived on campus. I bear some responsibility (I should have recognized just how much of a mess things were, and jumped ship, or at least demanded help/guidance), but even if I’d been mature, extremely skilled at diplomatically but firmly making sure I got the advising I needed when I needed, etc., etc., it still seems likely that the mess would have slowed my progress toward the degree. So add “unexpected events in the department” (which could also include supposedly good things, such as an advisor getting a prestigious fellowship and disappearing from campus for a year) to the list of things that can go wrong, even if the candidates are carefully selected for their ability to finish quickly.

    I’m not so sure about the postdoc part, either. The aspect I like is that it recognizes that a 5-year program may be long enough to produce a Ph.D. (under ideal conditions), but isn’t long enough to produce a viable job candidate for this market (which is, of course, still no guarantee that the person will get a job). People with quickly-finished Ph.D.s usually need both more publications and more teaching experience before they’re *really* ready for a tenure-track job (which means that these Ph.D.s may well be genuinely ready for the academic job market just about the time they’re out of a (postdoc) job). On the other hand, pushing the teaching experience later in the Ph.D-getting experience is also not an entirely bad thing, especially if it seems likely that a good many of the Ph.D.s produced won’t end up with teaching jobs.

    On yet another hand, this approach puts more Ph.D. instructors of record, and fewer grad T.A.s, on the books, which is likely to look good in everything from accreditation reviews to various ranking lists. At at time when students (and parents) are increasingly aware (thanks in part to your efforts) that their tuition dollars aren’t being spent on instruction, such shifts in the numbers can be spun into positive publicity. The title, however, seems likely to undermine that possible effect. I wonder whether the full title will show up on websites, or whether these instructors will just be listed as “assistant professor.” I’m a “[qualifying word indicating that I’m not tenure track] Associate Professor”(though I make less than an entry-level tenure-track assistant professor, but I’ve noticed that, on our department web site, I and my full-time contingent colleagues lose the qualifier, obfuscating the degree to which the department relies on contingent labor (if you consult the “courses currently teaching” list, it’s not hard to tell — TT faculty have 2 classes; we have 4 — but that’s not quite so obvious as a title). Given that students/other tuition-payers are increasingly suspicious of “adjuncts,” I bet that part of the title will show up on contracts, but may mysteriously disappear from more public documents.

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  4. “There is no conceivable reason that medical doctors can go from pimply little undergrads to actual brain surgeons in less time than it takes to write a dissertation on Der grüne Heinrich.”

    I don’t have the faintest idea how long it would take to write a dissertation on Der grüne Heinrich, but I do know that four years of medical school and (an average of) seven additional years as a neurosurgery resident is a longer period than graduate students are allowed to take at my university for completion of a PhD. Nonetheless, I take your general point, and agree. The post-doc issue seems problematic for several reasons. In lab sciences a post-doc seems to be essential these days, and presumably one gains the extensive bench experience that is necessary to run one’s own lab. For social sciences and humanities, post-docs are great, but who pays for this under the proposed model?

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    1. I have known like at least 10 ppl, maybe more, who spent 11+ years on their PhDs. You don’t get a median time of 9 any other way. I wish I had been exaggerating but I wasn’t! Many programs will kick someone out, but others just pull funding, so if the student gets an adjuncting gig or some other job, there’s nothing they can do.

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  5. Rebecca: Thanks for your reply. Not to be overly nit picky (OK, being overly nit-picky….) one can get a median length-of-time-to-completion if half of PhDs take 10 years, and the other half takes 8. I did get that Mellon pays for this experimental program, but I was thinking of the long-term funding prospects. We enjoy having a post-doc around, but my bet is that we’d rather opt to use the cash to pay for another tenure-track colleague….

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    1. No they can’t but for every one of me who took five, there has to be one who took quite a bit longer than that to make a median of 9, correct? So statistically it bears out and then anecdotally it does as well.

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  6. No question, the published statistics are clear. I was simply commenting hypothetically on the math. And there are notorious cases in my social science field, anthropology, of brilliant graduate students who never finished at all — if or how they get factored into the statistics is a bit of a mystery to me, but one student who takes 20 years to finish throws off any calculation of the medium time-to-degree. Seriously, though, I’ve served on enough search committees over 35+ years to know that job candidates who take more than 9 years are often viewed as risky — what’s the odds that they will launch a new research program and publish a significant body of work in the 6 years before their tenure review, if they had trouble finishing a dissertation in about that same period of time post-coursework? A 5 years plus 2 year post-doc program might offer incentives to get the damn thing done….

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  7. Yep the post-doc thing looks worthy on paper. But for about five years now, those kind of post-doc schemes (Mellon, ACLS etc.) have just been a big fat subsidy to well-known universities and liberal arts schools, who of course neither need nor deserve a handout.

    Departments and schools grab the deal with both hands, gratefully take the well-subsidized labor for a couple of years. Maybe make some vague, bogus noises about at tenure lines opening up, etc. And snicker into their sleeves at the ingenuousness of the foundation, ladling out the cash, and the post-doc, thinking themselves genuinely wanted or employed.

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