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The Graduate School Mess

When he asked me asked me to review The Graduate School Mess on my blog, its publicist didn’t ask for my address in order to mail me the book. He gave me a password so that I could read the manuscript online.

Book. Manuscript. Long essay. What is The Graduate School Mess if perhaps its primary existence is as a series of scrolled paragraphs on a screen? Does The Graduate School Mess have to conform to regulation scholarly book length (around 300 pages)? Why does it have to do that, if it can make its argument (as I think it can) more briefly and more sharply? The need to feel a square object of a certain weight in my hands is gone, as is the need to pack it with sufficient pages to make up the weight. Is there an intrinsic need, for the sake of its argument, to have the thing weigh in at 300 pages plus?

Indeed, would I not have had an easier time graphically with the book had the publisher removed all the familiar long stretches of emptiness scholarly books offer? (Chapter separations, text within chapter separations, six semi-blank pages at the beginning, thirty pages of footnotes at which I’m barely going to glance, an empty page at the end.) Why do I need them, since I’m reading rolling text on a screen?

This is a particularly acute set of questions given The Grad School Mess‘s strong commitment to changing the ethos of higher study in the humanities in virtually all of its manifestations, including what an 2006 MLA report attacked as “the tyranny of the book.” Leonard Cassuto notes throughout his intelligent and humane set of proposals for changes in grad school that status and conformity account for the “very conservative prestige economy” that has turned grad departments in the humanities into (to list some of his descriptions) ostrich pens and cults and boxes (we professors “live inside the box that we want to teach out of”). He laments the fact that the MLA report – and other suggestions from plenty of other places that peer-reviewed lengthy documents published by academic presses cease to be virtually the only meaningful currency in academia – has been entirely ignored. He concludes with a powerful entreaty that humanities professors in research institutions make their work far more accessible to the larger world.

These ideas are presented in a book that in every respect adheres to the conformist prestige model.

Presenting it in this way makes it likely that its call for change will be shelved, if you will, among the many Harvard and other university press books calling for similar change in the last few years. Shelved too among things like a recent American Academy of Arts and Sciences report about which Stanley Fish wrote. The authors of this report on the crisis in the humanities argue, precisely like Cassuto, that we must get out of the ostrich pen, the cult, and the box, and “connect with the larger community.”

Fish argued – correctly – that the report would be “dutifully noted by pious commentators and then live a quiet life on the shelf for which it was destined.” How can The Grad School Mess avoid this fate?


An ultra-secretive $35 billion corporation (the Harvard Corporation puts English professors’ efforts to avoid the public realm to shame) published this book, which exhorts us toward more egalitarian openness.

Only the exigencies of the market, and the emergence of new technologies, put this conservatively packaged book somewhat forward in time; only the commercial reality that many people won’t buy books but will download text keeps this book from being, among other things, an exercise in irony.

Equally difficult, given the realities of the culture (or cult) the book aptly describes, will be the effort to keep the book from being an exercise in futility. If in fact the situation is a “mess,” “reprehensible,” “mendacious,” “deplorable,” and “disturbing by any reasonable measure,” we will need to find ways to reach not the cultists (who are pretty much beyond reach, given their well-established ability to resist even the severest of market reversals), but, in line with the book’s democratic aims, ordinary readers. They are the ones who need to be alerted to the exploitative distortions (Cassuto lists, among other things, “old-fashioned and incoherent course offerings, bloated time to degree, high attrition, a distorted academic job market and a failure to prepare students for alternative employment, and outdated dissertation requirements”) going on in this realm of higher education.

The book is indeed written in a clear and accessible voice. But the prose can also be dull in a lecturing way (“no freedom worth having comes without responsibility”). Its scholarly self-presentation will I think fail to attract, as will this earnestness. The author tends to call livelier voices and ideas “hyperbolic” (Rebecca Schuman, who, like Camille Paglia** before her, entertainingly describes the cultists up close and personal) or “radical” (Louis Menand), and worries perhaps more than he should that biting depictions of the appalling situation in grad level humanities will encourage anti-intellectual right-wingers to kill higher study altogether. (Fish himself offered a very useful evocation of the culture of the cult here. All of these writers seem to me ultimately perhaps more useful than Andrew Delbanco and Leonard Cassuto and those like them, because they enable the ordinary reader to know her enemy and therefore arm herself.)

As to Cassuto’s recommendations: These tend to revolve around a reform of graduate study in the humanities in the direction of what I’d call a super-BA, a very high-level liberal arts college curriculum. We’re talking about the goal of a greatly heightened cultural literacy with a rather soft-focus specialization that will stand you in good stead in a postmodern job market looking for really smart, flexible, and research-savvy minds rather than people with very deep knowledge of a highly specialized subject. For those interested in pursuing a teaching career, this curriculum would feature how to teach courses, as well as higher thought about the educational process. It might allow you after a year or two to concentrate on parts of curriculum that are, if you wish, more vocational in nature; it would also allow you to remain less vocationally oriented. The point is “to train teachers and liberally educated, public intellectuals” along with those who still represent what Cassuto very nicely calls “the sacralization of research.”



Perhaps the French flunkies should leave academe and form their own organizations, like the Shriners, where they can moon over their idols and exchange photos like bubble gum cards. There are precedents for this in the cults of Swedenborg and Madame Blavatsky.

Margaret Soltan, September 18, 2015 1:50PM
Posted in: defenses of liberal education, professors

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5 Responses to “The Graduate School Mess”

  1. dmf Says:

    she forgot the personality-cult of harold bloom…

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    dmf: There were several cults.

  3. dmf Says:

    yes but of course they all see themselves as the true religion and the others as cults, Paglia can be entertaining but her ironically conservative repackaging (after her master Bloom) of Jungian-ish/NorthropFrye style ‘gnosticism’ is like the New-Age in Warhol drag.
    Does the book you are reviewing have a political/economic plan for making such changes or is this all wishful thinking?

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    I think “political/economic plan” suggests something more precise than the book presents. It’s essentially a moral argument about the unacceptability of the current exploitative and self-destructive situation, and it relies on moral suasion and statistics, along with appeals to a general sense of fairness, rather than something more pointedly analytical or political. I guess my remarks about it go to just this – what I take to be (as with Delbanco) its polemical laxness.

  5. dmf Says:

    hmm moral argument how quaint.

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