Graduate Study in English

Every year, students ask me for advice about going on for graduate study in English and American literature.

Most have enjoyed the English major at Rutgers, have done well in their courses, love literature, and are drawn to the idea of spending their lives as classroom teachers.

Two decades ago, I was perfectly happy to encourage such students to go on to a Ph.D program, and was more than willing to write letters of recommendation.

Today, given employment prospects in college teaching and the decline in quality even of top graduate programs, I give a simple piece of advice: don't think about going on for the doctorate.

From an interview with Richard Rorty

Rorty: The more the English departments make fools of themselves by being politically correct, the easier a target the Republicans are going to have.

Interviewer: Is that what you meant by "making asses of themselves"?

Rorty: I think that the English departments have made it possible to have a career teaching English without caring much about literature or knowing much about literature but just producing rather trite, formulaic, politicized readings of this or that text. This makes it an easy target. There's a formulaic leftist rhetoric that's been developed in the wake of Foucault, which permits you to exercise hermeneutics of suspicion on anything from the phonebook to Proust. It's an obviously easy way to write books and articles, and it produces work of very low intellectual quality. That makes this kind of thing an easy target from the outside. It permits people like Roger Kimball and D'Souza to say these people aren't really scholars, which is true.

 English Professors Observed

A conference of medieval scholars -- or "scholars" -- as reported by Charlotte Allen, herself a doctoral student in Medieval Studies. Her article gives, in WCD's opinion, a very good picture of what it's actually like to be an English professor today. It is not a pretty picture, but it is a true one, and one that should be taken into account by anyone contemplating going on to graduate study in English.


Click here on

"A Dark Age for Medievalists"

Note: though the following was written a history rather than an English professor, it suggests what lies in store for the vast majority of those who "go on for the Ph.D" in both disciplines.

Already Gone

By Max Clio

Most Americans would consider my job a plum job. I am a tenured professor of history at a public university in the Midwest. I get summers off to read and write. I have health care. My employer matches my retirement-plan contributions. My salary is above the median annual household income.

And I'm miserable much of the time.

My main problem, which becomes less tolerable with every passing year, is the students. My best are mediocre. The worst are semiliterate. Grading a stack of exams or papers is a painful experience.

Every year it gets harder to persuade myself that my comments may lead to student progress, even when I notice marginal improvements here and there. One of my better students — the sort who ordinarily provides a slender ray of hope — e-mailed me recently, fretting over a "marked decline in student attitudes" on our campus, as students "demand more of the professors and less of themselves." The local school district, the area's pipeline, is in crisis, so future prospects aren't good.

Add to all that a major dollop of alienation and anomie.

My closest friends on the faculty, with whom I forged tight bonds in my first few years here, have left or are leaving. I'm in a locality far from family or roots, out of sync with my cultural and political instincts.

I know: Accentuate the positive. And there are many good things about my job. Everything in my first paragraph and several more — research support, conference travel, consulting opportunities — are posted at my computer so I don't forget them in my darker hours. I haven't always agreed with the administration, but my dean is fair in evaluating my performance. With new buildings and plans, the physical look of the campus is improving, and that makes more of a difference than one would think.

But I'm so miserable because of the quality of my students that I'm giving very serious consideration to throwing in the towel on academe, which would have been inconceivable even a few years ago. The only thing that's stopped me is my children, who need my income and benefits.

Copyright 2008 (c) Chronicle of Higher Education


Why Not the Ph.D?

By now, you've probably heard rumors about how bad the job situation is for recent Ph.D's in English and American literature.

The rumors aren't exaggerated. In some graduate programs, it is not unusual for 30-40 Ph.D's to be looking for college or university employment and for only 1-2, at most, to get any kind of job offer.

The fact that some people do receive offers disguises an even harsher reality. Very often, appointments obtained by new Ph.D's are either temporary or dead-end positions, or are earmarked entirely for teaching Freshman Composition.

In non-selective institutions, which amount to well over 90% of U.S. colleges and universities, freshman comp now tend to be what was once called Remedial Writing. "Literature" courses, if they exist, tend to be classes in basic reading comprehension and remedial education.

Furthermore, there is now no good Ph.D program in literary studies in the United States. Even top-ranked programs now tend overwhelmingly to be devoted to Cultural Studies, with an emphasis on identity politics and popular culture rather than literature.

Even in a program like Harvard's, a graduate course in Shakespeare is today as likely to concentrate on talk-show motifs like "cross dressing" as on Shakespeare's plays as self-contained worlds of motive and action, or on such essential background as Renaissance neo-Platonism, medieval theories of kingship, 16th-century Anglican and Puritan theology, or the conventions of Elizabethan drama.

Finally, the level of training even in "top" programs has become quite weak. No program I know about demands competence in three languages (Latin, German, French). All have "hit or miss" examination systems allowing students to pick and choose among the works, genres, and literary periods on which they are to be tested, leaving huge blank areas in the knowledge essential for the Ph.D. And no program demands systematic training either in the earlier periods of English and American literature or in the method of "close reading" that is an indispensable prerequisite for competence in higher-order interpretation. Many programs now routinely award the Ph.D to candidates who are quite literally unable to make sense of a Shakespeare sonnet or a Donne elegy.

The bottom line: you should probably not go on to Ph.D study in English because (1) there are no jobs, and (2) even if there were, there is now no program available that provides sound training for anyone interested in a Ph.D in literary studies.

The MAT in English

As recently as ten years ago, I was able to suggest that students vocationally drawn to literary studies apply to an MAT program instead of thinking about going on for the Ph.D. Up to that point, there were still several programs that gave sound training in English and American literature, and that expected their MAT graduates to teach at the secondary level the method of "close reading" we use in my English 219.

That, alas, is no longer the case. Even the program that I most highly recommended to students has now adopted a "therapeutic" approach to classroom teaching, with as marked an emphasis on identity politics and Cultural Studies as any university English department.

Example: in one MAT program I know about, students are told to ask their pupils to "act out" the meaning of lines in a poem through physical gestures instead of focusing on the meaning of the language. (The rationale is that "students have a short attention span, so you need to give them something to do when they get tired of reading.") The same program forbids any use of the Socratic method, which it describes as "cold calling." (The rationale is that addressing questions to specific students risks embarrassing those who have not done the reading.) A recent assignment in this program was to "make up a Facebook page for your favorite character in the story." (The rationale was that students find reading "alienating," so that basing assignments on Facebook or Twitter makes the written word less "threatening.")

If anyone knows about an MAT program that emphasizes actual teaching in English and American literature-- as opposed to "therapeutic" approaches or Facebook assignments -- please get in touch with me. Once I have verified that the program provides sound preparation for bright English majors who are considering teaching at the secondary level, I will list it, and describe its features, in this space. In the meantime, I do not think that this is the time for young people with a serious interest in literary studies to apply to programs at either the MAT or PhD level.

26 May 2011