This is a talk that I gave to the graduate student luncheon, on August 24, 2017, for students entering the English department to pursue a degree or certification in one of our various graduate programs. Several faculty colleagues enjoyed it, some encouraging me to post it on the department’s web site. I am too uncomfortable to post it on the university-owned domain, though I of course speak in my formal role as sub-sub administrator. I decline to gloss my talk here, as it was meant to stand alone. I leave it in the form of occasional remarks, with minimal minor revisions to reflect some of my ad lib explanations and asides (at least to best of my recall).
My colleague Debby Rosenthal, a professor and now department chair for English at John Carroll University in Cleveland, signs off her email with a bit of wisdom literature, a contemporary proverb: “The shortest distance between two people is a story.” Because last semester our department chair Robert Trogdon wrangled me into this job of Graduate Coordinator, it falls to me to host this gathering, for new graduate students, and for which I thought it best to prepare a few words. In the hope that I can shorten the distance between us, in a moment I’ll tell you a bit my own graduate school story. But first, I’ll briefly summarize what a Graduate Coordinator is. I have two fairly well-defined roles: one, to learn policies and handle administrative tasks and to advocate for and to try in collaboration with faculty to improve the several graduate programs in English at Kent State; two, to advise students, part of which includes translating and communicating policies to you in timely fashion, mostly via the graduate student listserv. For that second role, advising students, I hope to hold onto some humility, to remember that advice about graduate school is not necessarily always good advice about life.
During rush and whirl of first weeks, and with the group of students here today from diverse programs–master’s and doctoral level in literature and rhetoric and composition, masters in teaching English as a Second Language, and creative writing: or as we say with our department’s abbreviation soup, LCTSP, LRSP, TESL, and NEO-MFA–this is neither the time nor venue to communicate details–so in my story will stick to larger themes, and hopefully give a bit of good advice, if not about the particular graduate career on which you are about to embark, then maybe about the place of graduate school in your life.
On idealistic days, I think of the two graduate coordinator roles–departmental administrator and student advisor–as being reasonably compatible. If by advising I can help keep you and your plans for study from running afoul of institutional policies and expectations (which could probably be found on a web site or in a handbook or degree planning guide were your search thorough, exhausting, and scholarly), I probably serve both you and the department simultaneously. When I’m more cynical, what I hope to have the courage to advise you against a system of professional training that can be exploitative. By way of illustrating the conflict between the two roles–to remind you that faculty and institutions can take advantage of (or at worst, exploit) graduate students–my story is about my own times in grad school.
My family is from central Texas, which is where I went to undergrad. A few months after I married my college sweetheart, I set out for graduate school at Indiana University in the fall of 1992–doctoral program, comparative literature, unfunded. In spring 1993, I was informed that I was a 2nd alternate for a teaching fellowship the following year. I had a chance at a fellowship if enrollments rose and more sections opened up–or two people ahead of me on funding list dropped out–or if no one of those things happened, I could expect to be twice as deeply in debt after second year of grad study. This did not seem like a good risk. My spouse was homesick and also wanted to go to graduate school, so of concern that I might not get funded I had applied to English department at North Texas in Denton, where I ended up enrolling following semester, with funding via a teaching fellowship. In short, I quit one grad program for another. Two weeks after I drove away from Bloomington with an overloaded U-Haul attached to an undersized pickup, the comp lit department at IU called to offer me a teaching position and funding. Yes, that is exactly how carelessly thoughtless graduate programs can be. My anxieties about debt did not register for the department, or at least were secondary to department’s need, to have ready supply of on-call instructors, some held on call up until the day that the semester started by a chance at tuition remission. I have not regretted my decision not to return to IU, because I place a higher value on my family’s happiness. Also, if you ever pull a U-Haul trailer 900 miles behind an undersized pickup, you would not want to repeat the same three weeks later either.
The next year was pretty good, at school in North Texas in the English department, but my wife and I wanted to start a family. It was only at this point that I learned that a master’s in English literature does not itself count as a career path. This fact, apparently well-known among faculty, was a genuine discovery to me, during my second year of graduate study. So–drawing on years of moonlighting in alternate careers: newspaper copy editor, technical writer, bookstore warehouse worker, scholarly press typesetter and copyeditor–I put graduate school on back-burner and this time headed into what would become almost a decade-long career, technical writing at software companies, where I wrote documentation and training materials for payroll, accounting, income tax preparation, and toll and traffic management industries. Two times now I had quit or postponed full-time graduate school–once in Indiana with debt and no degree, once in North Texas with a little more debt and a degree that was at best tangential to the careers that were paying my family’s bills. This alternate version of my life, I would note, does not appear on my professional vita.
The first moral of my story is: if you no idea what you will do with your degree, and you discover that you’re digging a deep financial hole, stop digging. That is, you can quit graduate school. Also, if the type of degree you that earn means the most likely kind of work that you can get is part-time adjunct teaching–those of you starting an MA in Literature, in Rhetoric, and NEO-MFA especially, that’s you–local universities will be willing to exploit you. If you are from a family of means or your partner has a good job, the amount that you personally will be harmed by the exploitation may be psychologically manageable. If you’re unfunded and not well-connected financially and spiraling into debt, then do everything you can to avoid being exploited among the ranks of adjunct faculty who teach many of our classes.
Now I DO encourage you to respect, to advocate for, and to support the efforts of our adjunct faculty to unionize and to agitate for better wages and benefits. Adjunct faculty have been exploited for decades. It wouldn’t hurt to unionize staff and graduate students as well–if possible. Nonetheless, the administrative ranks and tenure-track faculty benefit from the exploitation of other workers on campus, and you may need to fight with, or against, some of us to change that.
To return to my own story, 7 years after getting a degree at North Texas I returned to graduate school, this time to the PhD program at University of Virginia, but this time funded. That isn’t the whole truth. One source of funding was tuition remission, a teaching fellowship. And you know that vaguely worded advice you hear about no outside employment? I ignored it. My second source of funding I did not talk about, when at school, continuing to moonlight 20 hours per week in my old career, which paid about 5 times as much per hour as my teaching fellowship. Four years later–after falling further in debt and nearly suffering a stress-induced nervous breakdown–I finished a PhD, was unable to find a faculty position, and set off with a freshly-minted PhD from Virginia to Nebraska for a one-year post-doctoral fellowship. Two years after earning my degree, I received my first conference interview at the Modern Language Association (a national professional organization for language and literature study), my only on-campus interview, and my only full-time tenure-track job offer–that would be this one. Had I not gotten a job at Kent State that year, I would have quit this profession a third time. As much as I like this job, I would also say that between 1995 and 2005, I had a decent career in technical writing. And, by the way, it pays better. Never forget, as one of my North Texas grad school professors said about being a professor, “It’s a job”–even if you have to think about it as a calling to be successful, which you do.
Now I love my job, and my colleagues, most of the time. But one reason that I got a faculty job is that I was able to draw on my outside experience—s a technical writer, as a document designer, etc.–to enrich my scholarship. A reason that I got a chance at this Kent State job was that I published, two journal articles while in graduate school. So this is my second piece of advice. Always make sure your graduate school work is looking forward to something else. Your work for a class project does not end because the class ends. Your class papers and projects need to go somewhere–become teaching exercises or lesson plans, become blog posts for your public profile, become presentations or conference papers. If you’re an MA student and want a PhD, you need to ensure that a class paper might turn into the germ of a project that will become part of PhD application. Especially if you want a PhD to turn into a faculty job, your class projects as often as possible need to turn into conference papers, dissertation chapters, and, most importantly, peer-reviewed journal articles. Obviously, this can’t always work out. But to be successful in a graduate degree program, especially the PhD, you are going to have to devote yourself to the academic and scholarly work, to write with publication in mind, not for an assignment. But the more of yourself that you can put into that work–even the parts of yourself that may seem separate from your academic English self, such as the other languages that you speak or read–the more compelling your work can be. Regardless of your degree—now I’m talking to everyone, not just PhD students–don’t construct an ideal of a teaching and professional life in which it stays pure and uncorrupted by worldly concerns–your own personal ones and that of others. Learn new domains of knowledge, but also expand current domains of knowledge, qualities, and skills that you already possess–languages, technical computing and software skills, long-term planning skills, teaching techniques, oral presentation expertise, research and writing–and remember that all those can transfer to careers outside academia.
One of my plans, as graduate coordinator, is to expand and diversify the types of opportunities we provide to students, including brief seminars on publishing in academic journals as well as mainstream publications, continuing in graduate school as well as seeking careers in types of employment that are not on the faculty track, or are outside the university entirely. Again, watch our graduate student listserv for those announcements.
All of you, I’m sure, know the legend of the boiling frog, that a live frog will leap immediately out when put into a pot of boiling water but won’t leap out of gradually heated water. The usual moral that is taken from the story does not, to my mind, match the experiment very well. In the original of the experiment, Friedrich Goltz demonstrated that some frogs in fact WILL leap out of gradually heated pot of water–and some frogs won’t. The difference between the two sets of frogs, both placed into the gradually heated pot, was that one set of frogs, the ones who did not leap out, had had their brains surgically separated from their spinal column. I suspect there’s a lesson to be had in there somewhere.
It appears that I have finished my stories but left out many moments when I felt exploited in graduate school. There were more of those moments. Let it suffice that institutions, and people who serve institutions, can be thoughtless and even ruthless. I’ll wrap the mantle of charity around those moments. Another piece of advice: graduate school and even the profession of scholarship in your field consists of small groups of specialists. When its time to burn bridges, remember how small these social circles are. So I advise that you communicate with your peers, join AGES (English graduate school society)–and look out for yourself and for one another. As the title of Spike Lee’s movie said, do the right thing.
Upon starting or returning to grad school, it may be hard to explain to your family and friends why you would want to do it. After you’ve been in it a while, it may become hard to imagine yourself ever leaving. But if upon thinking carefully about current or future opportunities it does not seem wise to stay, you can leave. If you can do this kind of work, you can do other kinds of work, other jobs, some of which pay quite well. Use grad school’s flexibility to combine continuing your education with figuring out how to acquire skills that can serve other types of careers. But how your stint in grad school fits into your larger life–your family, your purpose, your career–is typically up to you. So long as you are in this pot, always keep looking one or more steps ahead. If an alternative looks like a better choice for your life than staying in academia, or if at this moment you’re jumping back into academia, remember that you can take another leap, in whichever pot you want to get into–or out of.
Now you know my biases about graduate school, which will likely inform what I tell you in my role as an academic advisor. Don’t rely to much on one person’s wisdom–not even mine. The life experiences of other faculty–and of your peers–may impart different lessons. Also, for particular local and university matters, the office staff, Sheri McMahon, Jenni Nikolin, Lauren Gougler, and Christine Strock, bring the wisdom of collective experiences that faculty do not have. Balance several sources of professional advice against that which concerns your personal life. Now I’m going to turn this over to a panel that has been assembled by current graduate student Yvonne Lee.