Why am I writing my dissertation?

UPDATE: From zunguzungu on where public universities are headed (spoiler: to oblivion):

At a certain point, public universities will have ceased to exist. We will only have a variety of private universities, some of which will be subsidized a little bit by tax-payers. Depending on where you draw the line, the University of California might already be at that point — student tuition now makes up a larger portion of the UC’s budget than state funding — but the long-term trend is undeniable: since 2004, the amount of money the UC has gotten from the state of California has been cut in half, and has continued to decline, every year, with utter and complete reliability. And where the UC and CSU systems are now, every other public university will soon follow. This is not a trend that’s going to end tomorrow. This is a trend that ends with the end of public universities. It just depends on where you decide to draw the line. […]

The problem is that Drum displays a scandalous obliviousness to the elephant in the room. After noting that “I ended up graduating from Cal State Long Beach, and I did pretty well during my pre-blogging career,” he tosses out the line “If you can only afford to go to a state university, don’t fret about it too much.”

“If you can only afford to go to a state university, don‘t fret about it too much.” Except this: Kevin Drum went to a state university that does not exist anymore. When he graduated from Cal State Long Beach in 1981, he paid $160 in fees. If he graduated from the same institution today, the tuition he would have paid for this year would be $4,335. They officially call it “tuition” now, because it’s not meant to be a nominal “fee” anymore. It’s simply the price you pay for your education, as a customer, and next year it will be higher, a lot higher. Unless the direction of things change soon, it will be $6,450. And the year after that? It will be even higher. Fees/Tuition in the Cal State system have risen significantly every year since when Kevin Drum went there, and they have risen by around 400% since 2002. Given the complete intransigence of California republicans, tuition will most likely rise by another 32% next year. […]

In short, the option of going to a “state university” which Drum is taking for granted is already nearly gone, and his evasion/obliviousness on this point is infuriating. Whether he knows it or not, whether he means to or not, he is closing his eye to what is happening. Talking about how state universities will survive without state funding — or quietly presuming that they will — is like trying to guess how wheat and barley prices will be affected by the sun being blotted out.

For more on the ridiculous price of college tuition and the ensuing debt that young adults are now carrying, see “Bad Education” at n+1.


Wasn’t originally gonna post on this but then my friend tweeted a link to a YouTube video about the absurdity of graduate school and writing humanities dissertations.  So, here I am.

This video (which is not the one my friend linked to) simultaneously cracks me up and makes me cry, as I have been in graduate school for quite a while and only after having been in graduate school for quite a while did I realize the state of the Academy:

It reminds me of this incredibly comprehensive and scary article at The Nation about the current crisis in Higher Ed.  Some choice quotes:

At Yale, we were overjoyed if half our graduating students found positions. That’s right—half. Imagine running a medical school on that basis. As Christopher Newfield points out in Unmaking the Public University (2008), that’s the kind of unemployment rate you’d expect to find among inner-city high school dropouts. And this was before the financial collapse. In the past three years, the market has been a bloodbath: often only a handful of jobs in a given field, sometimes fewer, and as always, hundreds of people competing for each one.

Over the past twenty years, in other words—or really, over the past forty—what has happened in academia is what has happened throughout the American economy. Good, secure, well-paid positions—tenured appointments in the academy, union jobs on the factory floor—are being replaced by temporary, low-wage employment.

More important is maintaining the flow of labor to their domestic sweatshops, the pipeline of graduate students who staff discussion sections and teach introductory and service courses like freshman composition and first-year calculus. (Professors also need dissertations to direct, or how would they justify their own existence?) As Louis Menand puts it in The Marketplace of Ideas (2010), the system is now designed to produce not PhDs so much as ABDs: students who, having finished their other degree requirements, are “all but dissertation” (or “already been dicked,” as we used to say)—i.e., people who have entered the long limbo of low-wage research and teaching that chews up four, five, six years of a young scholar’s life.

But the relationship between professors and graduate students could hardly be more intimate. Professors used to be graduate students. They belong to the same culture and the same community. Your dissertation director is your mentor, your role model, the person who spends all those years overseeing your research and often the one you came to graduate school to study under in the first place. You, in turn, are her intellectual progeny; if you make good, her professional pride. The economic violence of the academic system is inflicted at very close quarters. How professors square their Jekyll-and-Hyde roles in the process—devoted teachers of individual students, co-managers of a system that exploits them as a group—I do not know.

Well, but so what? A bunch of spoiled kids are having trouble finding jobs—so is everybody else. Here’s so what. First of all, they’re not spoiled. They’re doing exactly what we always complain our brightest students don’t do: eschewing the easy bucks of Wall Street, consulting or corporate law to pursue their ideals and be of service to society. Academia may once have been a cushy gig, but now we’re talking about highly talented young people who are willing to spend their 20s living on subsistence wages when they could be getting rich (and their friends are getting rich), simply because they believe in knowledge, ideas, inquiry; in teaching, in following their passion. To leave more than half of them holding the bag at the end of it all, over 30 and having to scrounge for a new career, is a human tragedy.

Of course, some sectors of the academy—the ones that educate the children of the wealthy and the upper middle class—continue to maintain their privilege. The class gradient is getting steeper, not only between contingent labor and the tenure track, and junior and senior faculty within the latter, but between institutions as well. Professors at doctoral-granting universities not only get paid a lot more than their colleagues at other four-year schools; the difference is growing, from 17 percent in 1984 to 28 percent in 2003. (Their advantage over professors at community colleges increased during the same period from 33 percent to 49 percent.) The rich are getting richer. In 1970 (it seems like an alternative universe now) faculty at public colleges and universities actually made about 10 percent more than those at private schools. By 1999 the lines had crossed, and public salaries stood about 5 percent lower. The aggregate student-faculty ratio at private colleges and universities is 10.8 to 1; at public schools, it is 15.9 to 1—almost 50 percent higher.

Here we come to the most important issue facing American higher education. Public institutions enroll about three-quarters of the nation’s college students, and public institutions are everywhere under financial attack.

Meanwhile, public universities have been shifting their financial aid criteria from need to merit to attract applicants with higher scores (good old U.S. News again), who tend to come from wealthier families. Per-family costs at state schools have soared in recent years, from 18 percent of income for those in the middle of the income distribution in 1999 to 25 percent in 2007. Estimates are that over the past decade, between 1.4 million and 2.4 million students have been prevented from going to college for financial reasons—about 50 percent more than during the 1990s. And of course, in the present climate of universal fiscal crisis, it is all about to get a lot worse.

And once again, I ask myself “why am I writing my dissertation?” (this is a nearly daily exercise in existential masochism)

P.S. I have a laundry list of reasons that keep me going on this project and I often feel lucky about what I do (more than not).  At the same time, the reality of the state of academia, the job market, and how my own university/department exploits me for labor while paying me almost nothing is a hard pill to swallow.


2 thoughts on “Why am I writing my dissertation?

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