Front Matter & Ch 1: Graduate Study for the 21st Century

As I mentioned last week, while in Canada I started Gregory Colon Semenza’s 2005 book, Graduate Study for the 21st Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities. I first heard about it a few years ago from Collin Brooke, and received it as a gift from my sis for my following birthday (2006?). I’ve skimmed pieces from it since, but now I’m hoping to use it to string together some pertinent advice to sustain me over the next few years. Semenza is a lit professor at UConn and penned this book in the years immediately following the completion of his doctorate at Penn State, a fact he makes known in the introduction.

Front matter (acknowledgements, forward by Berube and intro):

  • Acknowledges Kathryn Hume’s Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt (will be checking this out in the next 3 years)
  • Berube: A professor’s job is a 60-hour week, but “you get to choose which 60” (xv).
  • Berube: A good professional means earning people’s trust. Success = having “your colleagues say, ‘good call'” (xv).
  • University brands don’t matter as much as they used to. Today, academics who work hard and distinguish themselves (usually via a solid publishing record and good teaching evals) get hired.
  • The primary objective of graduate school is “the accumulation of knowledge in an advanced area of study” or “to know something extraordinary or at least something ordinary deeply.The second should be to lean how to discuss that subject clearly and persuasively”(4).
  • Burnout is real danger, but at the same time, expect to work 70 hours per week (huh?!)
  • Graduate student unionization can and should play a key role in improving the work conditions of both graduate students and faculty.

Notable numbers:

  • 10%: the percentage of universities that are considered research (R1s). Although specialization is important, a broad area of knowledge is a smart approach.
  • 9 years: “the average time for completing the Ph.D. … in the humanities” (5)
  • 40-50%: the attrition rate for Ph.D. programs in the US in 2004 (according to the Chronicle)
  • 9%: the rate at which TT jobs decreased between 1981 and 2005 (partially thanks to graduate student labor).

Chapter 1: The Culture of a Graduate Program

Semenza first outlines the typical organization of a department: administrators, faculty (assistant, associate, professor), staff, contingent faculty, GAs, and admin assistants/secretaries and gets it right. Reading this made me realize how much my WPA training has taught me. I pieced this all together on my own during my first year as WC admin.

On research, teaching, service and tenure:

  • Brief discussion on tenure and its importance. Semenza encourages any future scholar to research the history and purpose of tenure, calling it “the primary legal guarantor and protector of academic freedom” (19).
  • Most R1s weigh tenure cases as such: 60% research, 30% teaching, and 10% service.
  • Expectations at R1s = an article per year and a book every 6 or 7 years; however, guidelines are hardly explicit and the definition of a “regular” publishing record is purposely vague in contracts to reserve the right to deny tenure
  • Teaching is important in the humanities because its well-being is weighed by enrollment, not by research grants and the like.

On the politics of the place:

  • “You must show respect for the ghosts that linger in your department” (25). That is, pay attention and understand why things are the way they are. Why Prof X won’t work well with Prof Y, why your TA training program is set up a certain way, or why the Department has particular (if not peculiar) policies. The consequences for arguing from ignorance can be big.
  • The cast of department characters include: The High Priest(esse)s, Deadwood, The Black Sheep, The Careerists, Service Slaves, The Curmudgeons, The Young Turks, The Talker, Theory Boy (or Girl), Life-Long “Learners,” Everyman/woman (26-28). Hilarious and true.
  • “As a graduate student … you will always feel transitional, a hybrid between what you were, and undergrad, and what you hope to be, a professor” (29). Where does that place me? Seems to character 75% of current doc students.

On merit:

  • Graduate students who fail do so because they lack organization and motivation; not because they lack intelligence or creativity. Semenza argues that if profs are working 65 hours per week grad students should work 70.
  • “You should become a professor because you are so completely obsessed with your subject and the skills it demands and because you believe it is the single most important thing you can pass on to other people. Nothing else will do” (30).