The Dream Is Gone: Leonard Cassuto’s The Graduate School Mess

My graduate education at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought served me well. I had the privilege of working closely with professors who represented for me not only a career but an attractive way of life. I landed a tenure track job that enables me not only to study and write about the great books and questions that drew me to graduate school, but also to share my interests with students. It is gratifying when one of those students wants to follow my lead and attend graduate school. When such a student comes to me for advice, I always say the same thing.

Don’t do it.

I tell them that because I was lucky to find a tenure track position after four years of searching for one. In my field, political theory, the job market was then bad and is today terrible.

In The Graduate School Mess: What Caused it and How to Fix It, Leonard Cassuto, Professor of English at Fordham University and author of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Graduate Adviser” column, focuses on the situation in the humanities, which sounds even worse than in my field. 

Consider some of the numbers Cassuto cites. Median time to a Ph.D. in the humanities “stands at about nine years.” Attrition is around fifty percent, and half of those who don’t finish leave later than one might expect—only “half of all attrition…takes place in the first few years.” Moreover, “non-completers tend to carry heavy loan debt.” More than half of humanities doctoral students take on debt to pursue the Ph.D., and 28 percent will owe more than $30,000, not including undergraduate debt. Yet graduates may very well not get a tenure track job. 

According to a 2014 Modern Language Association (MLA) report, U.S. universities produce about 1,000 English Ph.D.’s each year to chase about 600 tenure track jobs. They have to compete with those who have not succeeded in winning a job in prior years, and with others looking to move up the ladder. If the sole purpose of graduate school is to train professors—which may be the case in the humanities—then thousands of professors are “preparing thousands of graduate students for jobs that don’t exist.”

That’s a mess indeed. And Cassuto argues that it is not enough for academics to rail against higher education budget-slashing Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and hope that the humanities will be better funded come the revolution. Nor does he think it is enough to train fewer Ph.D.’s (more on this later). Rather, professors and others interested in the present and future of higher education have to acknowledge that one very important thing wrong with graduate school is “bad teaching, plain and simple.”  

By bad teaching, Cassuto means, in part, teaching in a fairly narrow sense. For example, the “hodgepodge” of courses available to graduate students, driven, Cassuto asserts, mainly by faculty research interests, does little to prepare students for their qualifying exams. This lack of focus increases “time to degree,” since students must prepare for the tests on their own. 

But he also means teaching in a broader sense: nearly everything about graduate school, Cassuto suggests, including the admissions process, the curriculum, the character of the dissertation, and the influence of advisers, teaches graduate students that the only acceptable outcome for them is a job as a professor, preferably at a research university. 

Such teaching trains our students, many of whom can’t have such a job, to be unhappy, even if successful. That is the “main problem that faces graduate school in the United States right now,” and it is an ethical problem. We have been “reprehensibly complacent about the preparation of [our] apprentices and reprehensibly casual about the economic currents that are shipwrecking the professional lives of so many of them,” according to Cassuto. We “need to take better care of [our] graduate students,” and in order to do so, we need to reconsider nearly everything we do in humanities doctoral education.

I cannot consider every idea Cassuto puts forward, but many are worth pursuing. We should “insist on the publication of detailed placement data.” I think nearly all professors are honest about the job market, but students continue to think they will overcome the odds and land a good tenure track job; they cannot be told too clearly how bad those odds are. Programs should, as the English Ph.D. program at Idaho State has done with respect to community college jobs, look to occupy distinct niches in the market, rather than seeking to move up in the “prestige hierarchy” defined by the placement of students in research-intensive positions. Advisers should be mindful not only of pushing students through the program more quickly but also of helping them understand, as early as possible, when it’s time to quit. 

Another idea, perhaps the leading idea of the book, is thornier. Cassuto thinks that graduate programs in the humanities should be redesigned to offer training for nonacademic positions. He likes a proposal advanced by past president of the MLA Russell Berman and five of his colleagues at Stanford. It calls for graduate students to submit, after two years of coursework, a ranked list of career preferences. Subsequent work, including additional courses and the dissertation, should support the student’s career goals, whether they center on college level teaching, educational consulting, translating, or publishing. 

The Stanford proposal, which seems to have some traction, is one of several approaches to what for Cassuto has to be a basic objective of the reform of graduate education, to “prepare today’s graduate students for a wider range of employment, not just academia.”

Just why this idea is less appealing than the others is suggested by Berman himself, who has advanced this and other thoughtful proposals for reform as an alternative to admitting fewer doctoral students: “I fear that any call to reduce doctoral programs will end up limiting accessibility and diversity, while playing into the hands of budget-cutters.” Cassuto himself concedes that many programs “need to shrink” but he underplays the point, choosing to emphasize instead the danger of making programs smaller, that graduate education will become too elitist and conventional. He does not acknowledge that even today, with the number of humanities Ph.D. completions increasing in the face of the collapse of the job market, leading humanists are still unwilling to seriously consider shrinking their programs. 

Karen Kelsky, another prominent writer on graduate education has questioned this way of thinking in the very ethical terms Cassuto uses: those who argue for maintaining programs at current levels are “people already employed who don’t want to see their world destroyed.” But the present approach is “destroying lives.” One does not have to agree completely with Kelsky to think that one should balk at drawing students into even a five-year Ph.D. program by offering to prepare them for jobs outside of the academy which, as in the cases of journalism and publishing, may themselves be quite scarce. Cutting the size of programs might at least insure that the students who remain are fully funded, so that they are paying only opportunity costs, not going into debt.

I agree with Cassuto that we need to question the assumption that the primary value of the humanities Ph.D. is the training of researchers. One of the strengths of Cassuto’s book is that he considers the problem of graduate education in the wider context of the relationship between the university and society, and he is right that as a matter of history and reason, it is strange to think the primary purpose of advanced humanities education is the production of journal articles. 

Yet, whether he is talking about the teaching mission of the humanities, or the value of public engagement by humanists, Cassuto neglects one important reason that the public has soured not only on humanities researchers, but also on humanities teachers and public intellectuals, namely the politicization of the humanities. Cassuto does mention in passing an “incoherence in humanities education that has led critics of the academy (and not only those on the political right) to bemoan the intellectual integrity of the enterprise.” Yet if Cassuto wants to make a case for the value of the humanities Ph.D., he needs to address the politicization issue. There is, after all, no evidence, even if it is a truism that “an educated population leads to a healthier democracy,” that training more humanists will do anything for democracy, if the intellectual integrity of the humanities is seriously in question.

Indeed, at last year’s MLA conference, as I noted here, a panel devoted to the plight of adjunct instructors, one casualty of the graduate school mess, was attended by a mere five people. At the same time, 250 people were attending a meeting concerning what the policy of MLA ought to be on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These people are fiddling while their profession burns. I doubt the public, which Cassuto hopes will respond to a case of the humanities as a “caretaking” profession, has any desire to be cared for by this crew.