Keep the Humanities, Lose the Fetish: A Consideration of Life after the PhD and MFA with Brian Matzke

Leah Falk: Let me start by asking (although I know you’ve covered a lot of this on your blog) how have some of your expectations changed about being a humanities scholar from when you entered the University of Michigan to now?

Brian Matzke: Well, the first thing to bear in mind is, I started grad school at 22, fresh out of undergrad, so to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. And to be honest, if a college student asked me about grad school right now, one of the first things I’d recommend is to NOT go to grad school straight out of undergrad. You just don’t have the perspective. I suppose I was somewhat naive about the process and figured a Ph.D. from a top-tier institution would be enough to secure a professorship. The biggest thing that has changed in terms of my expectations is I know that’s no longer true. 

Leah: Yeah. I think many people starting MFAs, too — whether right out of the undergrad gate or not — also labor under this misapprehension (although it seems to be understood that at least one book publication is also required to be competitive for the tenure-track). What do you think you might have done differently during your Ph.D. if you’d spent a few years out of school? (A sort of impossible thought experiment, I know.)

Brian: Probably the biggest thing I would have done is prepare a “shadow resume,” as some people have put it, and seriously explored alternative career paths. This is something I’ve just started to do in earnest, and I wish I’d done it 5 or 6 years earlier. I’m still pursuing TT jobs as well, but my options feel broader now than they did in grad school, and I think I would have felt more empowered if I’d had less tunnel vision earlier on.

A big part of that is also work/life balance. It’s easy to be a workaholic at 22/23, but now I’m engaged, I’m thinking about family, etc., and I don’t want to be in my office or in the library 12 or 14 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Leah Falk: For sure. You’ve written a little bit about alt-ac and how the lip-service paid to it isn’t really enough in the face of how competitive the TT job market is, the reality of how many humanities graduates will actually go on to non-academic employment — what kinds of resources would you like to see there, and how likely do you think current students would be to take advantage of them early on?

Brian: You know it’s funny, in my latest blog post I mentioned an alternative career paths seminar that [The University of Michigan’s] Rackham Graduate School was hosting. I actually signed up for it (I lied on the online form and said I was still a grad student–ha!). It was remarkably well-attended, especially by second and third year Ph.D. students in English. That was a really useful resource, actually (and would have been more useful if I were still in grad school). Simple things like sessions on how to write a resume, how to approach people for informational interviews, etc., can go a long way, and I definitely think students will attend.

In some ways I think I’m old enough at this point that I’m not representative of the current mentality. I entered grad school prior to the 2008 financial crisis, when things were still good enough that we could afford to be a little naive. I think current grad students are at least somewhat more realistic about the market and the need to keep their options open.

Leah: Among MFA students, especially those who come right out of undergrad, I’ve sometimes encountered the attitude that “I don’t have any other skills” but this particular kind of writing. Which makes me kind of mad, because out of necessity I feel like I’ve discovered all sorts of skills and interests in the working world that I wouldn’t necessarily have had to countenance in grad school, or if I’d gone straight from grad school to an academic job, etc. Do you encounter anything similar in English Ph.D. students, or do you think they tend to have a better-rounded sense of their own range of abilities?

Brian: Oh I absolutely encounter that among Ph.D. students, and am guilty of it myself. I still find it somewhat difficult to conceive of what the day-to-day experience of a lot of nonacademic jobs are like. But the important thing to bear in mind is, with academic jobs, so much of the actual work is basic white collar tedium–answering emails, attending meetings, serving on committees, etc. The basic skills that comprise 80-90% of an academic job are virtually identical to the majority of nonacademic white collar jobs out there.

I don’t know about you, but I see it as a two-pronged problem: on the one hand, an anxiety about being able to DO a nonacademic job, and on the other hand, an anxiety about not being FULFILLED by a nonacademic job. In both cases, I think that anxiety is fueled by a poor sense of what both an academic job and a nonacademic job actually entail.

Leah: Yeah, I agree. I think the fear of 9-5 (which I was totally guilty of, and now that I DO work 40 hours a week, it hasn’t totally gone away) comes largely from not being able to imagine any kind of stimulation coming from that rigid a schedule. I think I became more comfortable with a non-academic career path when I realized I’d have just as much time (or more) to write coming home at 5 pm (and not bringing much work home with me) as I would if I were teaching 3 courses a semester.

Which brings me to the question of scholarship: do you feel like you have time to privilege research and writing? And do you feel like your former teachers, who taught you as an assumed future professor (maybe) treat you as an equal in that manner?

Brian: Yeah, I got virtually no scholarly writing done this past year. Part of that was due to the demands of my teaching schedule; part of that was due to the time demands of searching for a job, since I’m still pursuing TT positions; and part of that was due to some unexpected family health concerns that took up an unexpected amount of time (which is another factor grad school doesn’t really prepare you for). With my teaching load at Michigan, keeping up with scholarship is theoretically possible, but it’s damn difficult.

As for how professors treat me, it’s a mixed bag. Some I’ve found to be very collegial, while others essentially still regard me as a grad student. Really, the most awkward encounters have been with professors who I didn’t know as a grad student. They seem less able to interact with lecturers, since their job is so research-focused, and they assume my job is so teaching-focused. 

Leah: At the same time, there’s an incredible amount of professional energy in the department devoted to the [English Department Writing Program] at Michigan (much more, I’ve since learned, than at other institutions). When you’re together with other lecturers, do you tend to talk about your students, the job market, your own research?

Brian: It really depends on which lecturers. We do really seem to be undergoing a sea change at U-M (I’m not sure how representative that is of the field as a whole). The lectureship seems to be more and more professionalized. Some people still treat it as a temporary position and are very focused on the job market while others are invested in staying in their current position. Those people are much more teaching focused. It’s common, however, for research/writing to take a back seat to teaching and/or the job search, however. 

Leah: You’ve written that you wouldn’t say “don’t” to someone interested in pursuing the humanities, except in the case that it involved going into debt. Imagine a scenario where a prospective student does regard the time spent as a kind of debt, one that he/ she has to pay off by advancing in a non-academic career several years behind her peers, but is still dedicated to the humanities as a field and wants to contribute to it. What would be your advice to this person?

Brian: That’s a really good question. I was just discussing the prospect of teaching at independent high schools with someone, and the sad thing is, that’s a career I’d be very interested in, but it’s one that it’s often hard to break into with a Ph.D. because you’ve essentially priced yourself out of an entry-level position. It’s a really difficulty cost/benefit analysis.

I guess I would say, on the one hand, if you’re contemplating grad school, but you also have some solid ideas of nonacademic jobs that you could be fulfilled in and still carve out time to read, write, and live a life of the mind in your free time, then you should not go to grad school. If you honestly can’t imagine anything other than grad school, then go ahead and go to grad school, and enjoy the time, but devote yourself in those years to really exploring alternatives and not simply doggedly pursing a narrow path.

Leah: Basically, the ideological advice there is to stop considering grad school in the humanities as a certain professional path — or as only encompassing one professional path. 

Brian: Totally. As a friend of mine recently put it, the myth of a “calling” can be very damaging.

Leah: Yes. That totally resonates with me. Although I wonder: if humanities departments really changed their career resources and the way they talked about students’ futures, they’d be accommodating those multiple professional possibilities and seem relevant as a form of professional preparation again. If they refused to, (and some MFA programs just don’t really talk about post-grad issues, because they bill themselves as a time and support resource for students, not a pre-professional program) would they lose some professional credibility? 

Brian: That’s a real risk. I know for PhD programs there’s a strong incentive to boast high placement rates in academic positions. And we do have to admit that professional development opportunities are kind of a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Looking more macroscopically, the bigger problem is the erosion of professorships. 

Leah: Right. Which has been steady. 

Brian: I think I read recently that a generation ago 3/4 of university classes were taught by professors, 1/4 by adjuncts; now those numbers have flipped. You’d have to fact check me on that though.

[Ed.: See Figure 1, “Trends in Instructional Staff Employment Status” in the  2012-13 Economic Status report of the  American Association of University Professors for accurate figures since 1975] 

I’ve often thought that a kinder solution would be to simply accept far fewer students into grad school to begin with–only accept as many as you feel your program could place, and devote all your resources to placing them in professorships.

Leah: Interesting. And that also does away with the problem of the student who feels she’s gone into professional debt after a Ph.D. program that doesn’t result in a tenure track job. 

Brian: Yeah.  

Leah: A cold question, though: if there are fewer Ph.D. (and let’s just tack on MFA) candidates, who teaches the intro writing and lit courses? Do we increase the course-loads of full professors? Keep hiring contingent faculty, assuming that a gap between earning a degree and getting a job will persist? (Obviously this is not the main concern of the candidates, but it probably is a big one of university administrators).

Brian: I can think of two possible ways of answering that question, both of which are preferable to the current system, but both of which have the same problem (i.e., costing the university more money):

One would be multiple tenure-tracks: one that’s based primarily on research, and one based primarily on teaching, so it would be possible to attain tenure while focused on teaching freshman level courses.

Another would be to professionalize fixed term faculty, so you’d have more people appointed to what at U-M we call Lec3 and Lec4 positions, with a certain amount of job security and longer-term (but still non-TT) contracts.

None of those are actually plausible, I have to admit, but I’d advocate for them over the system of current contingent faculty and grad students teaching all the intro courses.

Leah: The first option sounds kind of like combining an R1 and a liberal arts college, and seeking a mixture of the kinds of faculty who’d do well at each. 

Brian: Yeah. 

Leah: I mean, I don’t see the second option as totally implausible – if you have fewer fully-funded grad students across the board, you have some additional funds available for long-term lecturers — although maybe not enough to cover health benefits, etc.

Brian: Yeah, that’s a sticking point. I’m also sympathetic to administrators who deal with a lot of uncertainty with regard to funding and enrollment. That makes it really difficult to know how many people you can hire from one semester to the next. 

Leah: I remember at the end of the last semester I taught at Michigan, there was apparently $17 million or something withheld from the university by the state? 

Brian: Yeah, it’s utterly ridiculous what’s happening to higher-ed budgets. That’s another thing I’d say to those considering going into academia–if you think that this “life of the mind” career is somehow outside of the forces of neoliberal capitalism, it most definitely is not, and this is not a way to avoid those stressors. 

Leah: Right! It’s not a monastery.  

Brian: I’m curious how the MFA experience differs–the general tone of these discussions among Ph.D.s is that this problem is relatively “new,” but I’ve kind of assumed that alternative “day jobs” are much more the norm among creative writers–is that accurate or a pernicious Ph.D. stereotype? 

Leah: No, I think it’s accurate, in part because the MFA is a relatively new degree, and in part because the professionalization of the degree, in the form of “you get this degree so you’re qualified to teach in MFA programs” is even newer. Before Iowa became a big thing, for example, most writers who taught got Ph.D.’s. All of my creative writing professors in undergrad had Ph.D.’s, and were of that generation. And then MFA programs started to proliferate, so there was both more opportunity to concentrate on creative writing, and more opportunity to teach creative writing. But think of the numbers: for every new MFA program that accepts 10-20 people per year, and is 2-3 years long, there are probably only 3-5 full time faculty, most of whom do other duties in the English department or elsewhere. So the odds, even when times are/ were good in academia, were never great.

Brian: Wow. Yeah, as a lecturer I’ve worked alongside people with a variety of degrees, and one thing I’ve noticed is, a lot of us feel like we’ve experienced a bait-and-switch, where we got a degree in one thing, but ended up teaching something else. In English, the jobs are in teaching composition, but creative writing MFAs got in it to teach creative writing, literature Ph.D.s got in it to teach literature, etc. But we’re all just teaching comp. Not that there’s anything wrong with comp. I actually enjoy those classes a lot. But at least starting out, I and a lot of other people were less qualified than someone with a rhetoric and composition degree would be. And it’s not really what we envisioned.

Leah: I kind of enjoyed teaching comp, also. I think there’s a whole other conversation about what comp is for, how students transfer the skills they learn there, but that’s probably for another time.

Brian: Yeah, that’s something that didn’t really get discussed in our pedagogical training. 

Leah: I know one guy who had been an engineer before starting the MFA (and is again now, there you go) and they assigned him specifically to a writing class in the school of engineering. Which in some ways seems like the way to go: letting kids know that writing matters within the discipline they’ve chosen. 

Brian: Of course, that then raises the question as to whether there’s value in exposing kids to “humanistic” writing outside of their discipline–for the purpose of cultivating a well-rounded citizen, etc.

I tend to believe there is, but then I also believe that if that’s the case, then the course shouldn’t be graded, since grades hinder the ability to cultivate a “free” space for intellectual exploration.

Leah: I think the professors of those disciplines (engineering, nursing, etc) also have to agree that humanistic exploration matters. And that actually brings us full circle, in a way: if one does end up outside of academia, what matters is that you get hired by and work with people who recognize that what you know how to do, and the ways you have of finding and creating knowledge, matter.

Brian: Absolutely. Sometimes I think that people outside of the humanities (both professors in other disciplines and people in nonacademic professions) are better at recognizing that than humanities professors are, since humanities professors too often have a kind of disciplinary tunnel vision..

Leah: I work in an office now where there are lots of academics working outside of academia, and that’s a nice environment, too — everyone has a sense of the potential for research and ideas outside of their usual classroom / peer reviewed journal box.

Brian: That’s awesome.

 Leah: Sometimes those applications are just as impractical as they would be in the academy, but whatever.

A last word? 

Brian: I guess just to reiterate the point that academia can be great in a lot of ways, but the longer you’re in it, the more important it becomes to understand it as a form of work–one that can be rewarding but that comes with its own set of problems–tedium, opportunity costs, complicity in certain structures of capitalism, etc. It’s not something to be fetishized above all alternatives.

Leah: Hear, hear!

*

Brian Matzke received his Ph.D. in English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan in 2013. He currently works as a lecturer at U-M in the English Department and the Sweetland Writing Center. His research is on the depiction of science in literature and popular culture, particularly in twentieth century America. He lives in Ann Arbor with his fiancee, Paula, and pug, Jordan Baker.

Leah Falk received her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan in 2012, and is the founder and editor of this here blog. More about her here.

 

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