I first read this article when it was making the rounds on social media last year. I remember one friend, who has had a terrible time on the job market, posting it with the words “Why yes.” It was really rather poignant and sad.
This piece, much like William Pannapacker’s “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” (which the author, Rebecca Schuman, makes reference to), bemoans the state of the literature PhD (I feel like I should note here that Schuman’s degree is in German literature, not English literature, a fact that she neglects to mention) by talking about the lack of jobs, the increasing reliance on adjuncts, etc., etc. It’s all stuff that most of us have heard before countless times. Perhaps what made Schuman’s article so popular at the time (“the time” being a fleeting moment in April 2013) is her caustic tone and the fact that she is so unapologetic in her criticisms.
Let’s face it; Schuman is funny. When she writes “What if you’ll never have time to read books, and when you talk about them, you’ll mostly be using made-up words like ‘deterritorialization’ and ‘Othering?’” I laugh because it’s painfully true. She strikes a chord when she discusses Pannapacker, too, pointing out that his aforementioned 2009 article was disregarded by many because he is a tenured professor. And I think that she has something. I read Pannapacker’s article five years ago and obviously still made the choice to return to academia. Schuman’s status as an adjunct lends her article more credence as a cautionary tale.
Of course, this caustic tone is also alienating. When Schuman refers to her reader as “smartypants” and exasperatedly asks “Now that you (as opposed to Schuman herself, who admittedly “should have known better”) know better, will you listen?” it puts readers on the defensive and makes them less likely to consider her argument. While I find the article funny and relevant, the underlying message is that anyone who pursues higher education in the humanities is a complete idiot. Even though Schuman aligns herself with the ranks of these “idiots,” the message is still very sobering.
This brings me to a more interesting question, one that articles such as this are not seriously exploring. That question is “Why are so many people, knowing full well the risks involved with a graduate degree in the humanities (and I would argue that most people are aware of these risks, especially in the age of social media, where stories such as Schuman’s make the rounds repeatedly), still choosing to pursue advanced study?” Are we all complete idiots? Sometimes I find it difficult to read commentary from people like Schuman, people who have spent their entire professional lives in the academy. Would Rebecca Schuman really be happier if she were working as an accountant? Perhaps she would, but perhaps she wouldn’t. She certainly would not be one of the most popular educational columnists on the planet if that were the case. The truth is that academia is not the only industry plagued by problems from the recession, and the solution to the humanities’ problems does not lie in continuing insularity.