The Oversupply of PhDs

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Oct 18 07:20:21 MDT 2000

Helena Echlin, Letter from Yale (full article at

Grooming oneself into a marketable academic is now the thing - forget about
the pursuit of truth and beauty. There is a stream of workshops on
publication and public speaking. In my class on The Canterbury Tales, the
reason we spend so much time analysing book reviews is because, as
successful academics, we will be writing them ourselves. Our final
assignment takes the form of a mock Chaucer conference. We each deliver a
twenty-minute paper. Grades seem awarded as much on the basis of one's
professional poise and command of handouts and slides as on one's quality
of thought.

In seminars, it is now impossible to have an interesting discussion because
each student there is struggling so hard to impress the professor. No one
listens or responds to other comments. They are too intent on framing what
they will say next.

As the number of PhDs increases, and as theses crowd onto library shelves,
there is increasingly less new ground to cover. There are now more than a
thousand articles on the 'Wife of Bath's Tale' alone. Yet tenure-track
positions are still awarded for original articles and theses. As a result,
the young man who delighted in the joy of analysis decides to write a
dissertation on the image of the pin factory in the work of Adam Smith -
its significance and influence. I leave without finishing my PhD.

Why then do so many people still pursue PhDs in English? After all, this is
America, where a college dropout, Bill Gates, became one of the richest men
in the world. Now, more than ever, outside the academy there are fortunes
to be made. The answer is partly economic.In Keep the Aspidistra Flying,
Orwell's hero takes up a career in advertising and makes his fortune with
the marketing of PPP, Pedic Perspiration Powder. Smelly feet do exist of
course, but do we really need to combat the problem with a medical powder?
Orwell's advertising agency makes us think we do, partly by packaging the
solution in jargon - the neologism, 'pedic' and the latinate
'perspiration.' Something similar has happened with literary criticism.

Everybody should of course read literature, but spying a commercial
opportunity, universities have turned this activity into something that
requires an arsenal of theories and an army of professors. Because
universities stood to make money from literary criticism, they developed a
supply that far exceeds the demand. They drew paying undergraduates with a
greater range of courses (and rather popular ones too). They made money
from graduate tuition fees - usually paid at least in part by the students
themselves. In addition, each new graduate student was a source of profit
because departments needed teachers for freshman introductory courses in
writing and literature, and graduate students provided a pool of
comparatively cheap labour. In the second half of the last century,
undergraduate admissions expanded rapidly, leading to an increasingly
diverse and consequently often unprepared body of students. Inexpensive
graduate teachers became increasingly necessary. Professors shied away from
this work because they saw it both as too hard and not hard enough - tough
work without much intellectual challenge or cachet. Instead, they were left
to compete for the rewards of promotion and tenure by pursuing ever more
recherché research. Literary criticism has reached its current
overdeveloped state at Yale as a result of the profit motive. It has become
the Pedic Perspiration Powder of the academy.

But the oversupply of PhDs is not just a matter of economics. It's about
psychology, tooGraduate school has a special appeal for those who have
always done well academically. They can continue life in a world they know,
a world with clear goals, rewards and respectability.   The job market is
tight, but for most students it will be six or more years before they have
to face it. Some of them may eventually enjoy the sizeable salaries of
professors ($119,000 on average at Yale in 1999-2000, according to the
Chronicle of Higher Education). True, during those six or more years you
must live on loans, or, for the lucky few, slender grants.

But the average Yale graduate student does not seem to mind the ascetic
life. They work the same hours that investment bankers are working down the
road in New York. The harder they work, the less ability they have to
resist. Their energy is so reduced that they have none left over to
question their situation. At the bottom of Sterling library, there is a
dim, desk-lined basement. Because of its ranks of candy and soda machines,
it is known as Machine City. At midnight there are clusters of pallid
graduate students to be seen there, making notes and sipping bad coffee
from paper cups.

Because critics are hazy about their function, because their function
becomes even less clear in a world that may prove to have no need for them
when they graduate, graduate students raise their work to the level of
religion. I have never known anyone to pursue an activity so furiously as
Yale graduate students pursue literary criticism. They rush between library
and seminar, clutching the outsize refillable plastic mugs you can buy from
coffee houses. During discussions, they take constant sips of coffee and
jiggle their feet as if in a state of continual electric shock, as if the
intellectual energy flowing through them is so great it must have some
outlet other than their speech. Even the professor's foot is twitching
madly - and I can't take it any more.

At Yale, professors are revered. I am accustomed to calling my teachers by
their first names, but in graduate school I learned to call them
'Professor' - even when they are not, in fact, professors. My peers
struggle to ingratiate themselves with these august figures. Professor
Yeazell invites students to an end-of-semester party at her
architect-designed house in the suburbs. The main room has floor-length
glass windows looking onto a dark view of a frozen river bordered by
snow-laden trees. She sits on the couch and we sit on the floor, eating
bloody slices of beef from large white plates. 'Professor Yeazell,' gushes
one of my peers, 'can you think of any way you could improve your book on
Henry James?'

'Well…' she broods.

'Tell me, tell me', says the young man. 'Because if there is any way it
could be improved, I would rewrite it and get tenure for life!' I see
nothing wrong in honest admiration, but this seems like shameless
grovelling. Even Professor Yeazell looks mildly repelled.

Professors do not deserve this kind of worship. Why don't we give all great
teachers the same admiration and pay, whether they work in graduate
departments, colleges or even in high school. The number of people doing
PhDs should be cut to a fraction of its current size. The people who put so
much into PhDs should do a general MA, then hone their teaching skills for
high school students and for college undergraduates. (To give Yale its due,
the department does offer a course in teaching skills, although not in the
skills needed by high school teachers, or even in those needed by teachers
with challengingly underprepared college students. Meanwhile, the highest
status and pay are still reserved for the scholarly thinkers.) And among
those few who do do PhDs, there should be room for generalists as well as
specialists. The concise introduction and the extensive survey should be
rewarded, as well as the occasional dissertation on Wordsworth's thumbnail
or Shakespeare's big toe.

Those in the academy should also make sure that they leave plenty of room
for pleasure. Of course, we know by now that our pleasure is culturally
relative. When we read, we cannot transcend our time and place. So what? Is
that a reason to stop enjoying literature, or trying to work out why we
enjoy it?

T.S. Eliot once divided literary criticism into 'the elucidation of works
of art and the correction of taste'. Nearly a century later, his vocabulary
seems suspect. 'Elucidation' is too final - it suggests that a text offers
up a single absolute and correct meaning, rather than a range of
possibilities. And 'correction' is a little chilling, with a savour of the
penal institution. But he is right about the twin pillars of criticism,
analysis and evaluation. Until it cuts back on one, and makes room for the
other, Yale will continue to be the place where language goes to die.And in
the next century, we will look back upon literary criticism as it was
practised in those Disneyland cloisters with pitying wonder - the same
wonder with which we now look back upon medieval scholars quibbling over
lists of rhetorical terms.

Louis Proyect
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