Co-ops for some PhD students, miniature American flags for others!

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Photo by Quinn Dombrowski. Shared under Creative Commons.

I read with some interest the recent news that the University of British Columbia will be launching a pilot program, offering co-op positions to their PhD students in English. The news was greeted with some excitement from people, myself included, in that it seemed to be that a major university was finally doing something to address the employability of their English PhD grads who more than likely won’t be able to find a tenure track job. For me, however, the shine wore off pretty quickly, much the same way my initial enthusiasm for all things #alt-ac waned before long.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell. While I think it is wise for PhDs in any discipline to cultivate skills that have use outside of the university, implementing a co-op program for PhD students doesn’t actually solve the fundamental problem faced by PhDs entering the non-academic workforce: the fact that compared to being in the workforce for the same amount of time, a PhD in English (and I assume many other fields) is a not the best place to do your non-academic career development.

I’d happily argue that doing a PhD in English helps hone a highly valuable set of skills like analytical thinking, project development, written and oral communication, persuasive logic, among any number of things. But what I am skeptical of—and I say this after a year in the private sector, post-PhD—is that the PhD does this as well as actually working for a living. Even if it does as good a job over the same period of time, I’m skeptical that it makes sense to do a PhD to acquire those skills, given that you’re more than likely getting paid far, far less to do a PhD. I know that money’s not a big motivator for many people (especially in an English PhD program), and that’s fine for those people; others, however, would like a living wage before they are 30. And when you consider how many people actually are going into debt for the PhD? Well, the case becomes clearer in my mind.

Realistically, your typical PhD program is designed as prep for one career and one career only: an academic one. This should hardly be surprising, given that it is largely administered by people who have only known the very same career. It’s unfair to expect somebody who has spent his or her entire professional life studying, say, Spenser to all of a sudden provide expert advice on non-academic proposal writing. I think that asking the PhD as it is currently conceived of–and as it is currently delivered–to do more than provide professional training to produce new professors is a bit much.

Is the UBC program a step in the right direction, then? Well, I’m not so sure. The graduates of a co-op PhD program in English may be more employable than others in their cohort who do not work on a co-op assignment. But that’s a pretty small portion of the people who will be applying for those non-academic jobs. If I’m being generous, I can see UBC’s program as providing the means by which students can build practical experience they can put on a non-academic CV. But is the PhD the best place to do this? Are these skills that are necessarily beyond the ken of, say, an undergrad or an MA? It doesn’t seem so; in fact, on the Types of Work page they mention that “Arts Co-op already offers an MA Co-op program in SLAIS (Library/Archival studies) and is recruiting additional employers interested in PhD students from English.” So what’s the PhD for here? That’s four years (at least) of work to put you in the same place in the job market as a person with an MA.

If I am optimistic, I’d say that UBC is making a well-intentioned effort to address a massive problem in graduate education today by helping its students find transferable skills through real world experience. But if I’m cynical–and honestly, around this stuff, I seem to be more cynical than not lately–I’m seeing this as a play on UBC’s part to differentiate themselves from other English PhD programs by capitalizing on a lot of the fear, uncertainty, and doubt facing PhD students (and would-be PhD students) about their employability. That is, UBC sees an opportunity in the market and they are seizing it presumably to attract more PhD students. And after recently reading Garry Canavan’s blog post “The Five-Year PhD as Improved Plumbing,” as well as Mark Bousquet’s How the University Works, I’m extremely wary of any steps taken to “solve” the PhD crisis that don’t involve a significant reduction of enrolment (ideally, but unlikely to be, accompanied by an overhaul in hiring practices and a reinvestment in the faculty. [I can dream]).

I guess for me the bottom line is that a program like UBC’s, and indeed, any program that incorporates “practical” skill development into education at the PhD level is little more than palliative care. I’d love to see programs that gave students the opportunity to pursue their passion in the Humanities while developing practical skills but I just don’t feel as though the PhD is the place to be implementing that.

And this brings me back to why the shine’s come off the Alt-Ac apple for me. As much as I do believe that PhDs should be viable hires for organizations, the fact remains that the PhD rarely makes somebody a more viable hire than someone who has spent that same time in the workforce. Of course, it’s a lot tougher to make that call when you’re coming out of an MA and excited to dive deep into Melville or Chaucer or whomever. And maybe that’s the other reason why I think we should be cautious before going all gung-ho for practical components to PhD programs. I think it’s important for people to have a space to explore those kind of intellectual passions without worrying too much about the market value of that practice. And that’s something PhDs are actually good at.

Tautology, Terror, and Billy Budd

Billy-BuddNote: some of the ideas in this post are published elsewhere (and more eloquently, I hope) in my article “Melville’s Motley Crew: History and Constituent Power in Billy Budd.” Check it out.

On April 15, 2013, two brothers committed a horrific act of terrorism at the end of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring scores of others. A week later, RCMP announced that they had arrested two men in connection with an alleged plot against a Via train.The attacks have left many people searching for answers. Yesterday, Canadian Parliamentary Secretary Pierre Poilievre provided one possibility. “The root cause of terrorism,” he declared, “is terrorists.” I suppose the natural reaction to a statement like this is a shake of the head. It’s not exactly the most eloquent explanation, is it? But I, for one, offer my thanks to Mr. Poilievre, for giving me cause to say something about Herman Melville’s Billy Budd.

The link here is tautology. In Billy Budd, the eponymous young sailor—a handsome sailor, as Melville emphasizes to us!—is condemned to death for killing the duplicitous master-of-arms, Claggart. There’s no question that Billy kills Claggart in the story; the real question hangs around his intentions in committing the act. Billy, by reputation and in deed is naive and innocent, completely incapable of guile. The blow he struck against Claggart was not premeditated, nor was it committed out of anger. It was reflex. It was for all intents and purposes inexplicable.

It is up to Captain Vere to determine Billy’s fate. But he has much more on his mind than just Billy’s strike against Claggart. The context of the event is crucial. Set against the backdrop of the “Great Mutiny,” an aftershock of the American and French Revolutions, Billy Budd describes a nineteenth century set into motion by the conflict between democratic uprisings on various fronts and established regimes of power that are fearful that such fervors would spread. The Nore Mutiny was, the narrator says, “[t]o the British Empire . . . what a strike in the fire brigade would be to London threatened by general arson.” The British Navy was the best line of defense against the “irrational combustion” that was feared would be ignited “as by live cinders blown across the Channel from France.” The novel is set fresh on the heels of these moments moments of resistance, and historicizes the events on board the ship in light of moments of resistance and insurgency that in their moment had the potential to shape the nineteenth century.

Sailors played a crucial role in all of this. As Melville’s narrator makes quite clear, sailors are crucial to the smooth operation of transnational capital in the period. Naval vessels ensured the safe navigability of the seas against pirates, privateers, and other threats, and working sailors themselves were, of course, the agents by which goods moved across the Atlantic. But there’s a lot of anxiety here not only because mutinous sailors might be a point of vulnerability but because there’s a long radical tradition associated with the sea. In their fantastic book The Many-Headed Hydra, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker analyze how the “hydra” metaphor was used in transatlantic Euroamerican discourse to describe the amorphous, multitudinous forces of labour that powered the shipping industry. Derived from Greek and Roman mythology, the hydra was a dragon-like creature with seven heads. When one of these heads was cut off, two more grew back in its place. As Linebaugh and Rediker explain, the hydra offered a potent metaphor for the conflict between capital and global labor: colonial rulers

various designated dispossessed commoners, transported felons, indentured servants, religious radicals, pirates, urban laborers, sailors, and African slaves as the numerous, ever-changing heads of the monster. But the heads, though originally brought into productive combination by their Herculean rulers, soon developed among themselves new forms of cooperation against those rulers, from mutinies and strikes to riots and insurrections and revolutions.

In other words, the hydra suggests a non-national, extraterritorial union of persons who had little in common with one another save for their marginalization. The metaphor evokes the uncontainable nature of an multitudinous consciousness that cuts across divisions of race and culture–and nation-states–and threatens the structure of Euroamerican imperial power by defying the rigid hierarchies and spatial organizations upon which transatlantic power depended.

The formal considerations here are very important to Billy Budd. The multitude–the potential for a multitudinous consciousness–defies the formal logic. It is inexplicable under general rules of decorum and order, and from the perspective of someone who relies on rigid forms and order, inexplicable–just like Billy’s strike against Claggart.

These issues are at the front of Captain Vere’s mind as he tries Billy. With Vere, “forms, measured forms are everything.” He has been unmoved by the “invading waters of novel opinion social, political, and otherwise, which carried away as in a torrent no few minds in those days, minds by nature not inferior to his own” but because, he says, “they seemed to him insusceptible of embodiment in lasting institutions . . . [and] at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.” That is, Vere likes stability rather than disruption, order rather than chaos.

This is why Billy’s act troubles him so. Melville describes Billy’s act “quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at night,” the simile connecting Billy’s action, perhaps, to the “irrational combustion” of the French Revolution. Vere’s worry is precisely that if the general mass of sailors hear about Billy’s deed, they will rally around him. His first goal is to “guard as much as possible against publicity” and to exert full control over the narrative of what happened:

The people,” (meaning the ship’s company) “have native sense; most of them are familiar with our naval usage and tradition; and how would they take it? Even could you explain to them–which our official position forbids–they, long molded by arbitrary discipline, have not that kind of intelligent responsiveness that might qualify them to comprehend and discriminate.

Vere’s position is a bit hard to swallow, and in the novel it seems that everyone knows it. But Vere worries that clemency of any kind would be seen as an act of weakness and inspire the other sailors to question his supreme authority. Acting as the case’s only witness as well as Billy’s prosecutor, he contains the narrative to the act alone, reducing it, as Nancy Ruttenburg explains to tautology. (Ah, I got back here eventually.) He directs the courtroom to ignore “any conceivable motive” or “provocation” and “confine its attention to the blow’s consequence, which consequence justly is to be deemed not otherwise than as the striker’s deed.”

Vere contains Billy’s action to its consequence, effectively stripping the act of any possible justification it might have had. Billy himself is effectively silenced. When offered an opportunity to speak in his own defense, Billy defers to his captain/prosecutor: “the young sailor turned another quick glance toward Captain Vere; then, as taking a hint from that aspect, a hint confirming his own instinct that silence now was best, replied to the lieutenant, ‘I have said all, sir,'” though he has said nothing at all.

Ultimately, when Billy’s story is reported in “News from the Mediterranean,” it’s very different from the one Melville’s narrator tells. Claggart becomes a hero for sniffing out a potential uprising on board the ship, but was “vindictively stabbed to the heart” by the nefarious William Budd.

Now, the point of all this is not to suggest that the terrorists who commit terrorism are much like Billy Budd. Not at all. Obviously Billy’s blow against Claggart bears little resemblance to a craven bomb attack directed against innocent civilians. The point of this is, though, to show how regimes of power rely heavily on techniques like tautology precisely because they eliminate what Melville calls the “ragged edges” of the story. By reducing an act of terrorism to the act itself, the state removes those ugly elements of the narrative of terror that do not conform with the “measured forms” of the national story. It renders the act inexplicable without calling into question the circumstances that might lead young men to perform an unthinkable and horrific act. It turns aside the kind of probing questions and inquiry that such an act really should raise and instead becomes authorization for the further consolidation of power so that the measured forms of narrative are not violated yet again by the inexplicable act of violence. This is one way in which violence against the nation can be folded back into an argument for stronger state authority–through a reduction of narrative to tautology.

Alt-Ac Careers, the Lost Generation, and the University

"A mash-up of two images to metaphorically depict the challenges of escaping the ivory tower."

"Escape the Ivory Tower" by jtneill. Reproduced under Creative Commons.

I created this blog as an alternative way to disseminate my research. That is, I expected this to be a place to post work in its germinal stage, material that didn’t make it into a final draft of an essay, bits of trivia that I encountered while doing my research, and the like.

I didn’t expect my first post to be a meditation on the state of my academic career. I guess it’s not all that surprising. Part of the reason I created this blog was to help me get an academic career. But lately, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about what an academic career looks like.

This is in part due to the recent surge in dialogue surrounding the so-called alternative academy (“alt-ac,” or “altac”) movement. Spurred on, in part, by what I would describe as an emergent “lost generation” of scholars who have been or are being displaced by the dearth of “traditional” academic work—that is, the tenure-track position—in the United States and Canada, proponents of the alt-ac movement are exploring alternative career paths for scholars, especially those in the humanities and the social sciences, who have no obvious road to an “industry” the way some graduate students and faculty members in the hard sciences might.

Obviously, this has captured my attention. I am, after all, a potential member of that “lost generation.” I defended my dissertation nearly a year ago, and since then I have been working as part-time faculty member. I have it a lot better than most. Compared to many other institutions, particularly those in the United States, my university pays me fairly well, and if I can get two or three courses a semester, I do okay, financially.

At the same time, that’s a big—and frustrating—”if.” It’s pretty difficult to plan for your future if you don’t know how much money you’ll be making in four months’ time. Right now, I am unemployed. I was very lucky to get a summer course, but it doesn’t start until July. This means that I don’t have an income for two months.  I’m fortunate to have a supportive partner with a full-time job, but for many, this would be a pretty dire predicament.

There’s a psychological cost here. Many graduate students become of the mindset that anything other than the tenure-track job is a sign of failure. The fact is that this is what universities are training you for when you are a Ph.D. student. Though many schools will now have workshops on working outside the ivory tower, or advertise the non-academic careers of some of their graduates, programs are still designed as an apprenticeship in being a professor. You take courses. You do comprehensive exams, to ensure that you are capable of teaching beyond your dissertation. Finally, you write something that resembles an academic book and, with the approval of some senior scholars, you join a fraternity of academics and are expected to publish, publish, publish, turning chapters into articles and the dissertation into a book.

In the meantime, you apply for jobs, and you’re told that in today’s market, you can’t be choosy. If you want to be a professor, you have to be willing to work anywhere. You can’t (much to the chagrin of your parents) wait for a job in the right place to come along, or just drop your CV off at the university down the street. Oh, and there’s a time limit, too. If you work as an adjunct professor for too long, you’ll become “tainted goods,” and hiring committees will wonder why you didn’t find a job already. (The reason, of course, probably has nothing to do with the candidate.) Regardless, your eyes must always be on the prize: a book-lined office in some ivied building, and the title of “professor.”

The alt-ac movement wants to challenge these ideas. Its proponents recognize that there simply aren’t enough tenure-track jobs to go around, and that it is unrealistic to tell graduate students at this point that there ever will be. But what makes me a believer in this movement is that rather than simply telling students to jettison their dreams of higher education, especially in the humanities, the alt-ac movement recognizes that fields like English, History, and Sociology do develop students who have something to contribute to the world beyond the university. As a doctor of English, I’m idealistic enough to believe that the humanities do give value back to the world, and that I have useful skills, abilities, and talents that are desirable to off-campus institutions and businesses.

However, if the alt-ac movement is to really take off, it is going to need institutional support. And frankly, I don’t know why universities aren’t clamouring to get on board. If humanities departments want to survive, and even thrive, they need to actually embrace the fact that the tools of the discipline have value outside the university, and they need to market that. Part of the reason humanities programs are struggling so is because of the perception that they have no value beyond the choir they are preaching to. Universities need to embrace the possibility of alternative careers for academics. This will demonstrate to the world that the humanities and the social sciences do absolutely have value beyond the walls of the university and that they are capable of more than just preaching to the choir. Universities should do more to liase with post-academic scholars and use them as a contact point between the humanities and the “real world.”

So, I guess my interest in the alt-ac movement is not simply out of self-interest. It’s not a “plan B,” or an escape hatch. It’s something I believe in pretty strongly. I know far too many intelligent, skilled, and creative humanities students who have an awful lot to give the world, within the university or without.