Events

Friday, December 3, 2010

Could You Please Write Me a Letter of Recommendation for Graduate School? (I know I'm not giving you much notice, but...)

I just recently put up the December calendar icon. I know what that means. The days grow short and the hopes grow long. Yes, it's that time again: the two or three frigid months of deepest darkness when the majority of letters of recommendation for graduate school are due. (Why do you think I am up at this hour?)

As if by divine grace, along comes this video gem (it has several counterparts in other fields) to remind me as well as the students just what they propose to get themselves into. It has gone viral in university literature and history departments. It also has provoked quite a controversy. Opinions divide sharply into two camps: (1) it’s hilarious (LOL, LMAO); and (2) that’s not funny.

Some highlights:
Student:  Being a college professor will give me the flexible schedule that best suits my personality.

Professor:  No, being a college professor means that you will work on average 65 hours a week trying a publish an obscure article that no one cares about in an obscure scholarly journal that nobody will read, just so that you can put it on your c.v.

You will serve on five to six committees at your school, where you will discuss just how much of your salary the administrators believe you can do without and how many more classes they believe you can teach so they increase the millionaire salary of the football coach.

Student:  I like Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society.” I want to live a life of the mind.

Professor:  Oh, my God. Life is not a movie script. Humanities and higher education is under attack SUNY Albany just cut their French and Italian programs. The Tea Party may take control of Congress. They believe all college professors are radical Marxists and they are scheming of ways to have us all fired.. You will have a career where people will demand that you constantly justify to them why you exist, and you will begin to question the nature of your own existence. You will discover that your own life has been a complete waste and that will be confirmed to you when a student like you walks into your office asking for a recommendation.



Clearly, it struck a nerve, for someone felt motivated to produce “Yes, I Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” (with the rather unoriginal subtitle, “Response to the video…”)



It in turn produced a stream of critical viewer YouTube comments whose bitterness and cynicism went far beyond anything contained in the first animation.

So, who’s right?

Personally, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. A similar entry in the series, in which a totally arrogant and talentless would-be writer attempts to pitch his magnum opus to a jaded agent, has likewise gone viral. And, interestingly, some of the same humanities faculty who hated the piece on the letter of recommendation loved this one. (One expressed the wish for a flat-screen tv on her door, so that she could have it on constant replay, 24/7.)

The subtitle of the original piece really should explain its intent pretty clearly (we're talking about textual interpretation here, folks, and this is not Ulysses): “A bright motivated undergrad decides to ask her professor for a letter of recommendation to graduate school.” Then, again, the student is described as having gotten a "C," which seems contradictory as well as bizarre (you almost have to try to achieve that, given grade inflation nowadays).  Perhaps, too, poor choice of the stock computerized voice assigned to the student made her sound stupid rather than merely full of the youthful idealism that we, too, once possessed.

In any case, I think the reactions were so strong because devoted scholars and teachers, lovers of culture, somehow felt their character and raison d’être threatened. At a time of economic insecurity, when the humanities face the twin threats of budget cuts and declining appreciation for seemingly non-utilitarian intellectual endeavors in society as a whole, they no doubt felt they were being told that their lives had been futile, based on a lie or a misconception.

When I was growing up, it was an annual spectacle to watch the rural Republican legislators denounce all those "lazy" professors at the large state university who never did any work. These critics apparently identified work with "contact hours," i.e. the time faculty were contractually obligated to spend with students. Fine. By that standard, I suppose we are lazy but far from the laziest or best-paid: the average professor may have 6 to 8 hours in the classroom per week and a couple more in office appointments, whereas the pro football player does, by the same measure, about 3 hours of work—and the clergy, at the bottom of this totem pole (in both quantity of labor and social utility), maybe one to one and a-half hours of work (depends on the religion and the golf schedule).

In all seriousness, I'm the first to admit that we are lucky and privileged: we do what we love and get paid for it, we enjoy unusual job security, we are to a rare extent (if not completely) in control of our own work time, conditions, and obligations, and we get long vacations, even if that vacation consists not in freedom from work, and rather, in the freedom to configure that work time in more flexible (though also more intensive than average) ways.

Still, graduate study and the academic career (the fantasies of state legislators and other critics notwithstanding) are no picnic, and prospective applicants need to be made aware of that. We work long hours, but unlike unionized wage laborers, we don't get paid extra for overtime. I would estimate (based on observation and previous studies) that my colleagues work, on average, 60-85 hours per week at their jobs. Some of that time is spent on research, which is necessary for professional advancement, but whose costs—travel to libraries and archives, attendance at national or international conventions—are (contrary to what the second video suggests) paid largely out of pocket unless one works at one of the wealthiest and most elite institutions.

And that's if you get that far. Working backward: The employment market sucks. I remember, they kept telling us, in more or less so many words: when this generation passes, there will be lots of jobs. Well, they said that for at least a couple of decades before people stopped believing it, and in the meantime, given the financial constraints under which we all work, many old positions are eliminated, go unfilled for years, or are redefined in peculiar ways. That reverse itinerary brings us back to graduate school. I've served on the graduate admissions committee of the UMass/Five College PhD program in history. Applications that speak merely of the candidate's "love of history" (did you acquire it because your grandfather told stories of his life, or your parents took you to Gettysburg in third grade?) end up in the wastebasket. (Sorry, kid.) What the graduate programs are looking for is a combination of raw talent, understanding of the field, and understanding of the nature of professional training and the career. Graduate school is in a sense your big moment of freedom and yet also no fun: you are freed from college requirements and able to focus on your true intellectual love. At the same time, you are socialized by being professionalized. With new freedom come new constraints. You can’t be a generalist. You won’t be indulged.

It is, of course, one big string of deferred gratifications held out before the bright student, like a lure before a greyhound at the track: once you are beyond—fill in the blanks:  undergraduate distribution requirements; graduate applications; graduate distribution requirements; your PhD prelim exams; your thesis proposal; graduate school; employment; tenure—any one of half a dozen other things, you will be truly free to do what you love. It’s hard to be both brilliantly creative and ruthlessly pragmatic, especially before the age of 40. As I tell my students: the smartest and most original students often leave graduate school or academe—not because they can’t perform, but because they find the demands of the theater owner are not to their liking. You need to have a very high tolerance for boredom, tedium, and nonsense. Or, as a senior professor told me when I was a student and we met while doing research in Europe: "My grad students tell me, 'They treat us like mushrooms: keep us in the dark and feed us a lot of shit.'"

The main point that the first video is making, then, is that "love" of a field or discipline is not enough: necessary, but not sufficient. In that sense, it’s like love itself: burning passion is not enough to sustain a marriage, which is a social contract and a pragmatic arrangement of daily life over the long haul. Even the most ardent lovers have to come to a modus vivendi about managing the budget, doing the dishes, and taking out the garbage. Those who truly love scholarship and culture and want to make a career of that will also learn, figuratively, to take out the garbage.

Understood? Fine, I’d be delighted to write you a letter of recommendation. Now give me those forms (but please, if you can, give me more than a week’s warning about the due date, too.)

Postscript

I am delighted to report that all the students asking me for letters of recommendation are serious and eminently qualified, as they almost invariably are. Indeed, although it is a little-known fact, Hampshire College is ranked first in the country in the percentage of graduates who go on to get a PhD in history, and eighth in the other humanities.  Follow us on Twitter in order to learn more.

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Some resources if you are thinking about applying to grad school (especially in history):
• Paul Boyer, "Graduate Applications: The Important Elements," American Historical Association (AHA) Perspectives, Oct. 1989

• John King and Andrew McMichael, "Inscribing Your Future: The Trials and Tribulations of Applying to Graduate School," American Historical Association (AHA) Perspectives, Sept. 1998

• David R. Stone (Kansas State University), "Should I Go to Grad School in History? What Happens Once I Get There? A Guide to Applying to History Graduate Programs"

Statement of Purpose and Letter of Recommendation Guidelines (University of California Santa Barbara)

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