, , , , , , , , , ,

A recent Slate article entitled “Thesis Hatement” has sparked some discussion on this blog. As its subtitle proclaims, the article argues that “getting a literature Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor” and traces the inevitable experience of a newly minted literature Ph.D. Told that if she works hard enough, she will finally land a tenure-track job, she finds this was a lie. She is a mouse trapped in a Kafkaesque maze with no way out—and a hungry cat. (The author, Rebecca Schuman, just finished a dissertation on Kafka.) The theme is familiar across the humanities: it is irresponsible for institutions to continue credentialing people for a career that is no longer available to the vast majority of graduates. It is quixotic for the students to undertake such a program. Don’t do it, and—if you really are “humane”—don’t counsel your students to do it either. Equally familiar are the articles on the other side, which point to the enduring value of the liberal arts in a time of economic trial and call for renewed interest in studying (and funding) them lest we suffer profound long-term consequences as a culture. Already Slate has published a counterpoint, by NYU journalism professor Katie Roiphe, who holds up the literature PhD as useful in many ways besides ensuring a tenure-track job “in a pretty leafy college town.” Foremost among these, says Roiphe, is the development of “a nurturing faith in your private preoccupations, a creative desire that is detached from questions of what other people care about.”

Both articles are depressing, though Roiphe’s is unintentionally so. I suspect that Schuman may not find her increased “faith in her private preoccupations” worth the sacrifices in job security and dignity outlined in her piece—nor is it certain that her newly nurtured faith will withstand the buffeting of market pressures and the ignominy of adjunct work. I want to take another tack, to answer Schuman not only as a fellow student of literature, but also as a fellow “sufferer” on the academic job market, something Roiphe is not.  As a fellow literature student, I am interested more in the narrative backdrop to Schuman’s argument than in trotting out facts and figures and anecdotes to determine how dire the situation is, really, or where humanities PhDs might go if not to tenure-track jobs. As a fellow “sufferer,” I want to avoid whining, on one side, and on the other, an unfeeling dismissal of Schuman’s complaints. While many groups down the ages have suffered a great deal more than humanities PhDs since 2008, there is truth in Schuman’s lament that warrants our attention, both as people committed to liberal arts education, and as people called to respond to suffering with faith, hope, and love.

In this spirit I want to suggest that Schuman’s first mistake was in studying Kafka. There is a nihilism in the picture she paints that goes far beyond the drudgery of a job that just pays the bills. The mouse in the maze, she points out, “wasn’t going in the wrong direction so much as it was walking cat food the entire time. A graduate career is just like this, only worse.” She admits that this is a subjective take on the matter, that nobody outside of academia can understand our desperate need for tenure-track jobs. But a desperate need we have. We cut the same heartbreaking figure as a woman who has become attached to a cold man, sacrificing more and more to win his love, willfully ignoring signs of his indifference because the alternative has become too terrifying to contemplate. Psychologically the same forces are at work: having been lured in by early praise and displays of interest on the part of professors and graduate programs, we invest an increasing amount of heart, with the stakes eventually becoming so high that perspective and reason are lost. Schuman’s answer: don’t start down that road. Do something else.

But I wonder whether any commitment, any investment of heart in a calling or a person, is free from this liability. I wonder, too, how much of the blame for this suffering rests with the sufferer. In a romantic relationship, one person can lead the other on, and no doubt professors and administrators need to think carefully about the ethics of encouraging young people to pursue humanities PhDs and mounting PhD programs. But I am peculiarly qualified to scrutinize Schuman’s side of the story because I share her struggles: we began our graduate careers the same year, and next year looks bleak for both of us, career-wise. We also seem to think alike, because I too approach personal and political problems at the level of literary backdrop (or, if you like, metanarrative). She starts with Kafka; I want to explore a framework here that might offer a more hopeful alternative.

Whose Fault?

If there’s one category into which every book I really love falls, that category would be “literary theodicy”: narrative texts that wrestle thoughtfully with the question of why things aren’t better. These run from the book of Job to Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces and Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation.” Like an old Western, the literary theodicy builds to a face-off in which two main figures gird up their loins, so to speak, and say what has been on their minds the whole time. Unlike most Westerns, in literary theodicy, one of the two figures is God. Usually the argument is not philosophical, but—this is the “literary” part—arises from the story that has been building to that point: to understand why I am grieved, you had to be there and see how it happened. In the case of Job, God’s response is, effectively, “Exactly”: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” Works outside the biblical canon, constrained not to speak for God for fear of blasphemy,[1] typically focus on the other figure, the self. “Here’s my story,” they say. “Am I guilty?” The answer is typically a resounding “yes”: Adam and Eve are responsible for the loss of Eden; Ruby Turpin is a wart hog from hell. This is unusual. Stories are usually told for purposes of self-justification; these, by contrast, are works of critical self-examination, even self-condemnation. They call into question the motives and activities of the characters whose stories they tell—and often, by extension, of their authors. An example that springs to mind is The Brothers Karamazov, in which Fyodor Dostoevsky gives the loathsome Karamazov father his own first name. How might the self-examining narrative of a recent literature PhD read?

Let me make clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that humanities PhDs are responsible for our own grief because we should have known better than to study humanities, nor yet that some divine boom is being lowered on us because of our sin (an assumption of Job’s friends and not of the biblical narrator). Christians are convicted of guilt; establishing any clear relationship between particular offenses and particular suffering, though, is notoriously difficult. Here again narrative can shed light in ways philosophy can’t. In one of his stories, Garrison Keillor explores the question of guilt and suffering by inviting us into the mind of a man contemplating adultery. As this man, Jim Nordberg, waits for his romantic interest to pick him up and take him to Chicago, he reflects:

As I sat on the lawn looking down the street, I saw that we all depend on each other. I saw that although I thought my sins could be secret, that they are no more secret than an earthquake. All these houses and all these families—my infidelity would somehow shake them. It will pollute the drinking water. It will make noxious gases come out of the ventilators in the elementary school. When we scream in senseless anger, blocks away a little girl we do not know spills a bowl of gravy all over a white tablecloth. If I go to Chicago with this woman who is not my wife, somehow the school patrol will forget to guard the intersection and someone’s child will be injured. A sixth grade teacher will think, “What the hell,” and eliminate South America from geography. Our minister will decide, “What the hell—I’m not going to give that sermon on the poor.” Somehow my adultery will cause the man in the grocery store to say, “To hell with the Health Department. This sausage was good yesterday—it certainly can’t be any worse today.”

“Far from being hidden,” Keillor concludes, “each sin is another crack in the world.”[2] And what is true of John Milton, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Flannery O’Connor, I find true of myself. Not that I’m a famous author; that I’m guilty too.

These are gloomy reflections for a narrative purporting to be hopeful, but it’s important to know where I stand before I assess my prospects for next year and beyond. Nor do I think that the reality of where I stand “goes without saying”: the point of liturgy is that this particular narrative never goes without saying. The story doesn’t make sense unless all the movements are there. But the liturgy doesn’t end with confession, and neither do these literary theodicies end with utter destruction. In fact, if Schuman’s piece were a true “Jeremiad” (her word), there would be lots of confession of sin and a ray of hope for the future. Jeremiah has much in common with the texts I’ve just been describing: the prophet squares off with God, and God responds convincingly that Israel is responsible for her own desolation. Jeremiah’s most searing question, though, comes after all this: “Hast thou utterly rejected Judah?” Everything hangs on that “utterly.” Many bloggers and analysts are already calling the current generation of humanities PhDs “lost.” Are we utterly lost?

Both Schuman and Roiphe’s accounts of the situation facing the humanities PhD miss the distance marked by “utterly.” Both conflate one chapter of the story with the whole story. Roiphe no less than Schuman assumes that fulfillment for me, now, is the intrinsic good toward which all our efforts tend: that gained, we have won; that lost, we have lost indeed. The climax of Roiphe’s optimistic argument is that you acquire in graduate school “a habit of intellectual isolation that is well, useful, bracing, that gives you strength and originality.” Presumably if you somehow come out of graduate school without this, or if it is beaten out of you by the job market, then Schuman’s maze still obtains. This is one way to understand the human condition, but it is not the only way.

In Medias Res

Books eleven and twelve of Paradise Lost always come as something of a surprise to first-time readers. Having plumbed the depths of hell and soared to the heights of heaven, having managed his ‘great argument’ of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace after casting an eye over the story of Satan’s failed rebellion, Milton takes us through hundreds of lines of reiterated biblical history in the form of a lesson sent to Adam through the archangel Michael. At first moving slowly through events recorded early in Genesis, Michael’s narrative picks up speed (and switches from visual to aural), covering not only the events leading up to Milton’s time but beyond, to the consummation of time itself. This move on Milton’s part has not been met with universal praise. C.S. Lewis, usually an ardent defender of the epic, famously called the archangel’s survey an “untransmuted lump of futurity,” and my students sometimes feel the same. It’s not that the two books are boring—it’s the catalogues of unfamiliar place names that are sometimes accused of that—they just seem somehow unnecessary for moving the plot along. In asking my students why, in light of this objection, Milton might have chosen to lump futurity onto the end of his epic, I sometimes zag over to The Lord of the Rings. “In Tolkien’s fiction,” I ask (now I have their full attention), “why does he call it ‘Middle Earth’?”

A teacher I love once remarked that Dostoevsky writes “conscious of the stories he’s not telling because he’s telling this one.” Tolkien is that and more: he sets his stories in Middle Earth because they only makes sense if the characters (and the reader) live and move in the knowledge that there is a bigger story that started before they got there and will continue after they leave, in which their own peregrinations play a part. So too does Milton place his narrative of the Fall in the shadow of those last two books. Adam and Eve were made to understand that their story was preceded by mighty events in heaven, and they must also understand that they will be succeeded by epochs of human faithlessness and divine faithfulness. Books eleven and twelve extend this sense of “middleness” to the reader, in whatever age she lives: Adam and Eve’s story is our own story, and not in a metaphorical way. Like Adam and Eve, we see only in part, but we see enough to know that bigger things are afoot, that we have a destiny. This consciousness is characteristic of every epic since Virgil, but in the Christian epic—with its imputation of guilt to the hero (Dante’s Comedia begins with a culpably lost pilgrim)—it takes on peculiar poignancy.

There is a theological word for the failure to see the larger story, and that word is “despair.” It is the condition of those in Dante’s hell, the gates of which say lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate—“leave behind every hope, you who enter.” Earlier when I described the need for affirmation from the academy (in the form of a respectable job) as “desperate,” drawing an analogy to a forlorn lover, I was trying to be very precise. The word means, literally, “without hope.” What I want to point out here is that both Schuman’s negative account and Roiphe’s positive one are equally hopeless, in terms of a larger story that might invest their own with meaning. The backdrop to both accounts is very like the backdrop that C.S. Lewis identifies in epic before Virgil, in which, Lewis says,

no one event is really very much more important than another. No achievement can be permanent: today we kill and feast, tomorrow we are killed. An inch beneath the bright surface of Homer we find not melancholy but despair. ‘Hell’ was the word Goethe used for it. It is all the more terrible because the poet takes it all for granted, makes no complaint. . . . [Homer’s] greatness lies in the human and personal tragedy built up against this background of meaningless flux.[3]

Many humanities PhDs have reason to be melancholic. But in the Christian story, darkness is a condition through which one passes, not an abiding reality so comprehensive that the pilgrim doesn’t think to question it. Bunyan’s Christian is tempted to wallow in the Slough of Despond, but called to recognize the Slough for what it is and move forward in faith.


My labor here has been to step back and see the Slough, to assess how my story might be important for reasons beyond self-affirming originality no less than prestige and tenure. Possibly the insights I can draw for my own peregrination in higher learning can be inferred easily enough from the literary reflections above—but for my own sake let me take stock.

(1) If any life in the academy—however exalted—must be located in a larger story in order to have purpose, then any life so located—however lowly, wandering and broken—has purpose. In this world there may remain a need to call for justice, to apologize, to crunch numbers and lobby for change, to educate people young and old about the importance of the liberal arts and those who teach them, but ultimately the worth of those teachers does not hang on whether the world listens. Following from this,

(2) I am responsible to work against the scale of values that sets tenure-track faculty above other members of the community, in both my thoughts and my actions. Many academic Jeremiads focus on violence suffered by contingent faculty because of a lack of attention given them, in Simone Weil’s sense. The fault for this rests not only, or even primarily, on the people who write their paychecks: it rests on all of us. Here again Tolkien is instructive, for he gives particular attention to hobbits, a species not usually thought worthy of attention.[4] Who are the hobbits in the story of the modern academy? A species that stands out in my mind besides the much-bewailed adjunct is the student. Adjuncts are now responsible for a large percentage of the face-to-face instruction received by students in the United States. In behaving as though adjuncts have lost in the game of life, we imply that students are worthless. There are few sights in the academy more heartbreaking than that of a contingent faculty member who has come to accept this view himself, whose students suffer the consequences. I need to remember that if I am a contingent faculty member, either for a season or for the rest of my life, I am doing work of infinite value in caring for the souls in front of me; and

(3) A teacher of humanities who does not understand (1) and (2) should not be teaching in the humanities. We likely pursued our PhDs because we believe that there are things more important than “success” in terms of money and prestige. It’s not wrong to want security, comfort, attention and respect, but neither we nor our students will get as much as we want in the way of these things—so I pray that, if I am going to experience dearth and difficulty, I can at least bear witness to the fact that there are resources to sustain people who lack “success.” In fact, my experience of dearth and difficulty may allow me to testify to hope in ways I could not do otherwise. I am not saying that this potential good justifies the suffering of everyone who has been trampled down in the dehumanizing of the academy; I am saying that, if I let it, my own suffering can be translated into good, both for myself and for my students.

(4) Ultimately, that good can’t be held back by my circumstances. I want to end by turning once more to the end of Paradise Lost, to the moment when Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden. This thwarting of well-laid plans comes with ignominy, uncertainty, and difficulty of the direst sort. But Michael offers Adam these words, which follow us in our story too, at whatever stage in our lives and careers:

Yet doubt not but in valley, and in plain
God is, as here; and will be found alike
Present; and of his presence many a sign
Still following thee, still compassing thee round
With goodness and paternal love, his face
Express, and of his steps the track divine.

[1] An exception is William Paul Young’s The Shack, on which see Katherine Jeffrey’s review in the January 2010 issue of Books and Culture.

[2] Quoted in Ralph Wood, Contending for the Faith, pp. 151-52.

[3] A Preface to Paradise Lost, pp. 29-30.

[4] I’m grateful to Churl for this observation.