Revenge of the Geeks in Tweed


Blue tweed, very serious

Blue tweed, very serious

Ah, it must be Spring. Yesterday the NYT had a slow opinion day, so they published a pithy little essay by a Mark Taylor (a theologian) on how “the University” is hopelessly arcane and of little value. Funny, the same day the Census Bureau released a report showing that university education continues to yield enormous benefits to those who pass through the doors. The constant drone of dipsticks who claim that a real (not online diploma-mill) college education provides no preparation for the “real world” is simply pigshit. Even philosophy majors are better off than people who go to vokie-techie to pick up a $10-an-hour-and-no-benefits service job.

But, the anti-intellectualism (as Andrew Perrin correctly penned it) of Taylor’s essay was just the hook. Taylor is really talking about GRADUATE education. Taylor argues that nobody gets jobs, that it is pointless to even try to publish, and that because of this we need to transform the structure of education by getting rid of departments and disciplines (which teach people how to do research and publish it) and instead forge working groups around big questions or problems—like Water, and Mind, and shit like that. This whets the hackles of the “interdisciplinary” types, who are always whining about the constraints of disciplines (what with their nasty attention to things like theory, method, and evidence). And, since it’s pointless to even hope that graduate students (those poor little things) could ever produce a book or article worthy of publishing, we should instead give them degrees for making web sites and video games. Shitfire, I should put my blog on my vita!! Except I don’t even put half of my conference presentations on my vita.

Why is he saying shit like this? Because he’s a geek in tweed. A humanities whore. A guy who likes to go to meetings and make things happen. And, to make sure that what happens continues to benefit the geeks in tweed who have always controlled academe (while the rest of us are doing research and shit). It is true that most people who go to graduate school ain’t gonna make it in academe. Big fucking deal. It’s a great job, but there’s a lot of work involved. And, you have to be genuinely interested in your scholarship in order to make a contribution. But, shitloads of people DO make it. They DO get their dissertations published. They DO get jobs. They DO make tenure. In sociology and most social sciences, the proportion who do make it is about half of graduate matriculates. So, yeah, half of the grad students won’t make it. And, it may have been a total waste of everyone’s time and of scarce resources. But, for the other half, they finish their dissertations, they get tenure tracked (yes, tenure tracked) jobs, they publish, and they wind up having a nice career in a cool industry that doesn’t require you to steal pensions from old people.

Ah, but there’s the problem. Unlike Taylor, I’m describing what happens in graduate education in a real discipline. Sociology, the queen of the social sciences. In other discplines, Zoology, psychology, physics, economics, political science, chemistry, etc. the story is pretty much the same. Taylor’s gloom and doom view reflects his position in an arcane arena of the humanities. Religion. What the fuck is that? Nothing. Why? No discipline. A fractured bunch of remnants of divinity schools. Their specialization isn’t the problem. The problem is that there are too many people studying the topic, and NO, there is no demand for scholarship on the citation style of 14th century monks. When I was at Vanderbilt, we admitted hoards of students into each of five core areas of the PhD program in the Graduate Department of Religion. My area was “history and critical theories of religion”, I still don’t know what that means. Notably, “church history” was a different core area. In my ten years at Vanderbilt, only two of my students in the GDR finished and got tenure tracked jobs. The problem is that SOME DISCIPLINES NEED TO BE SCALED BACK. Most graduate programs in English, philosophy, religion, and such disciplines need to be eliminated. Others need to be cut back in dramatic fashion.

Notably, almost all of the overenrollment of graduate students is in the humanities. The graduate assistantship budget for the Department of English in my humble university is more than ten times that for Sociology. All of our graduates get tenure tracked jobs, while almost none of theirs do. Taylor’s right about one thing, a lot of this is being done to staff courses with cheap labor. And, that’s bad. The answer is not to eliminate all departments or disciplines. The answer is to get rid of the graduate programs in most of the humanties, and hire the excess PhD’s into permanent jobs to teach the remedial and core courses.

Ah, but the geeks in tweed need to keep their status–they don’t wanna teach remedial writing or intro to humanities or art of the western world. That’s why they wear tweed. So, instead of eliminating their departments and disciplines, they want to eliminate ours! Then, they’ll lord over us by making sure that every new working group is headed by some humanities moron in a tweed jacket. Some philosopher/theologian will be the head of a “working group on Mind”,  and she’ll divvy up the department budget to give herself and a few other humanities folks $20k in travel and book money, while the poor biologist who needs $50k just to start her research project will get $20k. I mean, it’s only fair, right?

Interdisciplinary organization is almost uniformly a ruse used by humanities types to coopt university resources. Women’s studies, ethnic studies, cultural studies, whatever. How many social scientists benefit from these? Who is the head? Whose students do they fund? Who gets credit for the bodies in the classrooms? The answer is almost always “english, history, and philosophy.” We get token appointments (freebies), no credit for joint listed courses, and no influence over any real resources. Interdisciplinary programs are a clever mechanism for herding more bodies into required humanities courses, which then requires expanding the graduate programs in the humanities, which then produces more PhD’s than jobs….


2 Responses to “Revenge of the Geeks in Tweed”

  1. Allison M. Balch Says:

    I’ve actually done a lot of thinking about this. It always seemed to me that there were just way too many history majors. Sure, about 1/8 of them should have been there because that is about as many jobs and positions they will be able to find in the field of history. Humanities departments should be the most difficult departments to get admitted to and the hardest to graduate from. It would reflect the realities for graduates in the field. Look at me now, I was number one in my department, did two internships, and one very prestigious fellowship and now work at an ice cream store for $11 an hour.

    When I graduated with my B.A. I decided that I either wanted to go to the top museum school in the country, Winterthur, or none at all. The school paid you a salary to attend and the networking and skills it could provide would insure a job in a top museum. They only take 8 students a year, which I suppose, reflects the mentality reflected above. If I couldn’t make it I decided I would have to take a more practical career path. The jobs are scarce in the museum world and even top students I know from undergrad fellowships who now have M.A.s are struggling to find jobs at Bath and Body Works. I didn’t get into my fancypants museum school, but was an interviewed finalist, so I guess I’ll be a lawyer now where there seems to be a much better post-graduation placement rate.

  2. sherkat Says:

    Well, I’m not really railing too much on undergraduate education, so long as there is that “other” option. Programs need to emphasize that. You have wonderful options because of your degree and your performance. You can do law school, and you’ll be great! But, there are way too many history grad students….

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