University Diaries
A professor of English describes American university life.
Aim: To change things.
Contact UD at: margaret-dot-soltan-at-gmail-dot-com

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(Tenured Radical)

Friday, January 16, 2004

A Fine Mess

There’s a good deal of talk lately about high attrition rates in graduate school in the humanities. It’s sometimes hard to get these numbers, since universities find them
embarrassing, but it looks as though they’re often up over fifty percent, which represents an awful waste of time and money.

One aspect of this discussion that seems strange to me is its focus on the various delusions and obstinacies of the students applying . But they’re not the fuckups; the graduate admissions committees are. In any other organized setting, if at least half of the people you painstakingly invite to share your enterprise wash out, you don’t sit around psychoanalyzing the washed. You change the invitation committee. (Or you change the nature of the enterprise, but that’s another saga.)

These committees are prone to feckless generosity because they are, to begin with,
desperate to demonstrate to deans that their programs are thriving. Some committees routinely accept foreign students if they can pay their own way, even though a non-native speaker will have difficulty in a Ph.D. program which begins with the prose of Jacques Derrida and goes downhill from there. Admissions committees can, more broadly, be politically correct to a suicidal degree. At unimpressive graduate institutions, committees take pretty much all comers, even though people who graduate from grade-inflated, creative-writing-heavy undergraduate programs have not been educated at all, let alone prepared for...for what? Now that the content of the discipline the committee represents has disintegrated, admissions faculty have no idea what might constitute proper preparation for the mad panoply of activities they and their colleagues perform in the classroom.

For what it’s worth, here’s my almost-dropout story. It happened a long time ago, before the discipline collapsed; and it happened at the University of Chicago, a serious place that, at least on the Ph.D. level, had some standards of admission.

I loved the courses, most of the faculty, and most of the fellow students. Loved Chicago and loved the campus atmosphere of easy love affairs and smoky cafes (told you it was a long time ago). But then I began reading current journals and recently published books in the field, and my blood ran cold. I concluded that in order to succeed I would have to become an automaton. I wanted to write like George Orwell, not Bela Lugosi.

So I told a friend in the program (he’s now a rich attorney) that I was going to drop out; and he told a famous, much-respected professor in the program, who hauled me into his office. Why did I want to leave the profession? he asked. What worried me?

I was flattered by this man’s gesture - amazed, actually - and our long talk convinced me to rethink my decision.

I’ve always been insanely happy I stayed in, and thus I've always been very grateful to this man. And I’ve never written like a vampire.