Friday, April 12, 2013

Do I Have a Moral Obligation to Stop Writing Grad School Recommendations?

Hot on the heels of Rebecca Schuman's blistering Slate article on the perils of graduate school, Sarah Kendzior has penned a piece about the exploitation of adjuncts for Al-Jazeera that Cranky Bear would heartily approve of.  These articles have provoked outpourings of bitterness and approval from my friends with experience in the academic world, and for good reason.  They well articulate the feeling of betrayal that many of us have.

Yet today, in the midst of all of this angst, I was talking with a former student over email about his possible grad school plans.  His one option is a terminal master's program at a very prestigious university (the same program at the same university that I graduated from), and he's wondering whether to go or not.  I have tried hard to expose him to the realities of the academic job market, but he is a very passionate and idealistic young man.  Like me once upon a time, he is the type of person willing to sacrifice his youth and quality of life to pursue the scholarly dream.  Unlike my younger self, however, he went straight from college into the work world, and now has a steady, well-paying job in the business world, and gets to live in Austin, Texas, to boot.

I have told him that he should not jettison his current life for a shot at the academic ring unless he really, really wants to do it.  I have told him the odds, but like Han Solo in an asteroid field, it's still full speed ahead.  I don't know what else I can do, apart from refusing to write letters of recommendation, an option that's off the table because I already wrote glowing letters for him.

As much as I tried to dissuade him from applying, I also know in my heart of hearts that he's the by far more suited to being a scholar than any other student I've had.  His knowledge and theoretical understandings are warped by growing up in a repressive, rural Texas environment and attending a third-rate university full of traditionalists, but I know that grad school would easily set him right.  I look at someone like this with his ability and drive, and think that it is an insane profession that would not welcome someone so suited for it.

I then remind myself that it is in fact an insane profession.  For instance, I know multiple people who've published books with reputable presses on important topics who can't get tenure track jobs.  I know many more who are fine scholars and stellar teachers who toil as low-wage contingent faculty, or who are on the tenure track at schools that pay little and offer a pittance, if anything, for research funding.  At the same time, I know complete and utter mediocrities with tenure.  I have seen someone get promoted to full professor, apparently on the strength of his having been a crappy department chair.  The more I think about it, the more I realize that it is these people who keep the academic dream alive.  The youngsters see such mediocrity and think "if they can make it, surely I can too."

It's becoming obvious to me that just telling my former students to reconsider graduate school isn't stopping them.  They don't even listen to the advice I give them on how to play the academic game.  I know other former students at second tier doctoral programs who are worried about their career prospects, but who ignored my advice to jump to more prestigious universities after completing their master's degrees.  These two students are very intelligent and highly capable, and will most likely toil for close to a decade to get a degree from a school whose appearance on their CV will mean an automatic toss into the discard pile come job application time.

I also told them that grad school was not the way to go in the first place, but they obviously didn't listen.  Of course, neither did I at their age.  I heard the horror stories, and thought to myself "I'll make sure that won't happen to me" with all the arrogance and stupidity of youth.  It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the only way I can do my part to preventing the next generation of youth from being sacrificed to the Moloch of graduate school is to refuse to write anyone a letter.  Deep down I know I'm not capable of such an extreme move, but I am beginning to think that this reflects an incurable sentimentality and optimism on my part, not the best interests of my students, or my moral obligations to them.

12 comments:

Professor Binnington said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Surly said...

I get your dilemma, I do, but you don't have the right to make that decision for your students, anymore than anyone did for you. They have to be allowed to find their own path, and you've done all you can to advise them. Beyond that, it's their call.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Well, that's what I've been telling myself. I guess it's what I will keep doing, although part of me thinks that the perils of academe have become so severe that my rec is simply greasing the tracks to their personal ruin.

Surly said...

I feel your pain, I really do. And you're not wrong about the statistical probability of personal ruin, but it's their person to ruin, I'm afraid.

Sarah Juliet Lauro said...

My husband and I are 200,000 dollars in debt because of a terminal masters program at a prestigious university. I'm telling students I won't write unless for funded programs.

Rebecca Schuman said...

:D. Or, rather, :( :( :(. At any rate, terrific post (and not just because you refrained from launching into any ad hominem attacks on how much I suck and therefore prove that we are indeed a meritocracy). I liked you from my blog, so expect FIVES of new readers.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

@Rebecca: Thanks! Many seem to view academia as a Great Chain of Being, with full professors at Harvard at the top and adjuncts at community colleges at the bottom, with everyone in-between arranged according to their talents in their proper place. Challenging that view is akin to the reaction Galileo got from the Church.

Rebecca Schuman said...

You can say THAT again--I learned that the hard way.

bmi said...

Although I don't encourage my students to get an academic graduate degree, I have a hard time telling smart, driven, and inquisitive students not to go to grad school. But I do tell them only to go if they are well-funded and to be prepared to find non-academic work when they are done. I still don't know if that's enough, but it salves my conscience. Even though my own post-PhD odyssey has been painful, graduate school did make me a much smarter and more interesting person and I don't want to keep my students from getting that experience if they want it.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

BMI: there's the rub. I am a better person for the knowledge I gained and the people, like you, that I am lucky to have met in grad school. Those were some of the most fun and fulfilling years of my life. What followed was a nightmare, unfortunately.

Nicholas Koerner said...

,As someone who is going to grad school I struggle with the thought of what else I could do. All of my professors recommended the grad school path to me and from my work on campus I found I loved working with students so it is hard to hear that I have entered into a fool's game.

One of my economics professors told me that the problem with the university is that it is a feudal system trying to fit into a capitalist market system. How accurate do you think that assessment is?

Debbie said...

Here's what I've learned from my post-graduate school foray into Social Work:

Self-determination is the alpha and the omega of the therapeutic relationship. If an individual wants something and she cannot be dissuaded from doing it, that is on them.

In the middle is the power of Motivational Interviewing. The conversations you have with your students, if you really want to change their minds, needs to focus on their ambivalence. If there is one small part of them that thinks going to graduate school is maybe not such a hot idea, help them articulate why that is. However, if 100% wants to go, there is no ambivalence and we return to self-determination.

If you cannot persuade them to stay how, then at least advise them on how to maximize the experience through networking. They should leave the terminal program with more than a head full of ideas and a piece of paper. They should also have FB, Twitter, and whatever newfangled social networking system full of people who can help them make the most of their career choices.