A reader sent me the link to Craig Fehrman's recent essay in College Literature, "Prepreprofessionalism: Rankings, Rewards, and the Graduate Admissions Process" (behind the Project Muse firewall). Fehrman's central argument, based on a couple of years trawling through graduate admissions websites, message boards, and wikis (better you than me, Craig!), is that although much has been written about the professionalization that goes on in graduate school, the process is one that actually begins much earlier.
What Fehrman calls prepreprofessionalism is visible in the applicants, some of them still undergraduates, who already have a focused area of study, a preferred theoretical approach, and an awareness of the job-market exigencies that they believe make such intellectual and rhetorical tailoring attractive to admissions committees (by convincing them that they, the applicants, are focused and motivated and ready to hit the ground running).
Anyone who has met recent graduate-school applicants knows that this is true--and those of us who advise students considering graduate school probably recommend at least some of these behaviors (don't write a statement of purpose that natters on about your love of literature; do show that you're interested in doing work in a particular area and that your interests are a good match for that specific department and faculty). But I'm quite sure I'd never thought about this as part of the professionalization process, and neither had it occurred to me that it could be a bad thing.
To be sure, Fehrman does not assert that it's either good or bad; he works hard to avoid the moralizing that attends most discussions of preprofessionalization (either it signals the death of the life of the mind! or it's the only way these kids will get jobs ever!). But reading his article, which is peppered with excerpted message-board posts from strung-out would-be graduate students obsessed with department rankings and looking for every possible competitive angle, is enough to bring out the curmudgeon in almost any reader: graduate students should be trained broadly! They should be open to changing subfields entirely! (And they should GET OFF MY LAWN!)
I'm generally in favor of professionalizing graduate students--not because I think they're DOOOOMED otherwise, but because I'm impatient with the gauzy, romanticized notion of the humanities that is often presented as the alternative (and also because I support an understanding of our profession as a profession: a creative and rewarding one, to be sure, but one that benefits from generally-accepted standards of evidence, rules of comportment, and the like). And yet, Fehrman's article inspires me to just that kind of guaziness about how things should be--perhaps because his article doesn't, as it couldn't, track what happens to these message-board-posters once they actually get into graduate school: are their interests really that narrow and targeted, and they themselves such hyperprofessionalized automata? I hope not, but I also rather doubt it; nothing rids a person of the belief that she has the key to success faster than graduate school.
But wise readers--especially those of you with more recent experience with graduate school admissions than I--what do you see and what do you think?