Tuesday, August 18, 2009


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?


Z said...

This frenzy pervades our applications. A good proportion of applicants have already attended conferences and even published articles. I saw a would-be (or is it still "would-be"?) medievalist a couple years ago applying with a publication in Chaucer Review! Plus there are more and more journals geared towards publishing undergrads, and national prizes for their theses, etc. It's kind of insane.

All the serious applicants have a field of study carefully thought out, and most of them describe their dissertations!

There's definitely push-back from some of the faculty, who often look worse on an applicant who seems to think she has nothing at all to learn from us and already has decided her entire career.

The whole thing is just madness. Not sure how it can be dealt with, though...

Doctor Cleveland said...

I haven't read PhD applications for a while, but I have.

There is a good deal of "pre-professionalization," and some of that shouldn't be surprising. Naming your field of study and offering a plausible dissertation topic are pretty much requirements of the process.

But for all the hand-wringing, there are also plenty of applicants who aren't "pre-professionalized" much, or at all. People who don't suggest what they'll study, so their files can't be given to an appropriate reader on the admissions committee. People who send the wrong writing sample. People who want to do work that has already been done in 1958. We never wring our hands about those people, because they never make it to grad school, and we presume that they were rejected because they weren't very good.

It's not the applicants pushing their unwanted careerism on admissions committees. The message boards Fehrman researched are trying to divine what admissions committees are demanding *from them*, so they can give it to us. And even if they're wrong in certain details, they're working from the evidence of who actually gets into programs.

My main concern is with the people who are left out of this conversation entirely, the large groups of people who don't have access to the information and contacts that would help them navigate the process. The pre-professionalized applicants aren't the whole applicant pool. I'm not convinced they're even the majority.

medieval woman said...

I think we're dealing with something like a trickle-down theory here (pardon the 80s-vintage economic concepts). The expectations just keep rising - it simultaneously terrifies me and doesn't surprise me a bit that Z got an application from a kid with a publication in Chaucer Review (I hope they had an MA already?? Ugh) - I'm convinced that we're only years away from saying, "You don't already have your first book published? How can you possibly expect to get a tenure track job?"

Having said that, I'm with ya, Flave. I agree that we should be professionalizing students in all the ways you suggest - i.e., instilling in them that this is a profession and not a "gauzy" love fest. In fact, the kind of "true aesthetic and intrinsic greatness" that some of my senior colleagues spout (i.e., "Milton's greatness") makes me want to hurl. I think Milton's great, too - but that's not the basis of my lectures! But I also don't want them to think that they don't have anything to learn in grad school, which I think pre-pre-professionalization can cultivate. How do we tell would-be grad students that their thinking should be rigorous yet supple? I guess just like that, huh?? ;)

Michael E. said...

Obviously, there is a limit here: Undergraduates don't need to publishing in the Chaucer Review. On the other hand, undergraduate conferences are now increasingly common in the sciences, and so they are going to become more so in the humanities as well.

The part that I think is good is the idea that one should have a sense of what a scholarly field is, some rough sense of affiliation to that field (or fields), and a sense of a trajectory -- even though that trajectory will change dramatically. Again, I think lit. studies is fairly unique in the degree to which it accepts students still who have very poorly defined senses of the part of the discipline that interests them.

There's another part of this as well. There has been pressure from several quarters to lower the time-to-degree for graduate students. (Most graduate schools are on this bandwagon, pressuring departments. And students rightly want that time-to-degree to be reasonable as well.) That is only possible if the students coming in have some sense of where they want to go. So, when I was reviewing applications as DGS, I liked seeing some sense of a field and even some ideas that could emerge into directions for dissertation research. I didn't expect those ideas to stay fixed -- and I didn't like seeing anyone who claimed to know exactly what her dissertation would be -- but I thought it gave me a sense that this was someone ready to move forward toward the dissertation at a reasonable pace.

Flavia said...

Michael, you make some good points--especially about the fact that English (and I presume the humanities more generally) is unusual in the degree to which it has, historically, admitted graduate students with only a general sense of what they intend to study.

And you're right that there are good reasons to admit students who have a sense of what the trajectory of graduate school, and the career that might ensue, look like and require (to that extent that that's possible--though it's not as if most students entering law school actually know what the realities of law school or practicing are, either).

But the arms-race aspect of this, that Z and MW discuss, is still worrying to me, and in part because of issues of access that Dr. Cleveland raises. It's easy and even correct to say that any student going to grad school should know what it's all about, and what the process requires, but surely that means losing potentially valuable members of the profession, who haven't had the right kind of advising, but who can do the work and learn the rest along the way.

That's why I advise those of my students who are considering Ph.D. programs to do an M.A. first (and at a doctoral institution). The increasing number of applicants with MAs contributes to the admissions arms-race. . . but at least the degree helps with both intellectual maturity and range of interests.

Flavia said...

Oh, and full disclosure: although the stuff I work on now is surprisingly close to the stuff I thought I'd want to work on when I applied to graduate school, I was (as I've mentioned before) a ridiculously clueless applicant--much closer, in my statement of purpose, to the gauzy end of the spectrum. Certainly there was no dissertation topic, no theoretical approach, and no indication of why what I was interested in mattered, even to me, beyond the fact that I liked it.

(But let's face it: when I applied for the PhD I already had a BA from, and was enrolled in the MA program at, the same institution; I'm realistic about the undeserved advantage that surely gave me.)

Michael E. said...

I think the M.A. advice is exactly the right one for students who have a deep love of literature and a lot of intelligence, but not yet the exposure to research. And there are an increasing number of MA's (or at least there were) that offer funding.

For what it is worth, my own experience reading the entire applicant pool for three years running -- which was completely fascinating as a snapshot of the discipline -- is that this frenzy isn't that widespread. Most of the people who really had conferences and some kind "publication" were from Master's programs. I also don't think the credential gave them any advantage. Of course, there are other advantages to doing such things -- the chance to work closely with a faculty member on a research project, the process of revising -- that should pay benefits in terms of the quality of the work. Again, I am less worried about these folks and more about the people heading into a PhD program blind and uninformed about what literary studies is really like. You can only know so much until you do it, but if you don't, you are going to have a long slog of it -- and potentially even longer as you may not be able to complete within your funding structure.

We often lament the number of PhD's that are minted as being too many. It's also worth saying that there are an incredible number of smart, talented people who apply to PhD programs who don't get in. Every year I worked on admissions I was both kind of stunned and deeply humbled to see this.

Anonymous said...

I was an applicant during one of those who_got_in flurries, and even while I was watching the pages and pages of posts pile up, it was both kind of funny and also a little sad, because I think that particular cache of anxiety represents the worst aspects of the kind of person who eventually becomes a grad student - a little passive, a little neurotic, a lot hard-working.

One problem is the swath of professors still in existence at institutions today, which (at least at my undergraduate institution) can range from necessarily ultra-prepared, ultra-sharp newer faculty (a la Flavia, of course!) to slightly older professors who are very theory-oriented, right on up to old-school, holistic-humanities professors who probably went to Ivy Leagues and entered the profession because it was in their family, or they had a penchant for classics and Dickens, etc., and the glut of grad school apps had yet to happen because, well, different society. So, yes, this spectrum is still in existence because of the tenure structure, and it really surprised me how much taking classes from a professor who was very in-the-know about the current state of literary studies and did things like pass out current scholarship in class actually made a difference as to how finally clued-in undergraduate/potential graduate students would be about what to write about in their application samples...it wouldn't be a surprise, I want to say, for someone to come out of my undergrad institution with an English degree without ever having searched Project Muse. I guess. I don't even want to advance the argument that that's a horrible thing - searching Muse cannot teach you to write analytically, but it certainly might give you a lot of great essays whose authors do some impressive writing and thinking.

But to bring this back on topic, I mean, as is evident, as I was applying I was reading academic blogs from people in the thick of it, so to speak, and learning along the way, whereas it seemed like a lot of applicants had no contact with academics at all (where are their professors on this?)and thus had less of a clue, or depressingly, way too much of a clue, pre-preprofessionalized or whatever.

I like to think that I am not an automaton (ooh, very Jane Eyre!), and since coming to grad school I've been happy to find that my department has been more or less willing to let their students have some breathing room, although I will say they of course do a lot of admitting pertaining to future harmony with a particular professor, and above that, distribution across periods. So all applicants already have some cards stacked against them when they're applying, and to think that this winnowing is going to happen on an even narrower level in the job search can be finally not just dispiriting but faintly insane to think about. It seems best not to make so much of "the profession" as a whole in front of undergrad students...I think all professors have to negotiate a pretty cruel catch-22: If academics give off an air of having a great, leisured, intellectual life, or if they actually have it, then the job is desirable and they should ostensibly want to train grad students to do it. But if it's pleasant for them but they know it's not so pleasant for grad students, yet they don't budge from their pleasant vantage point, it all seem a little disingenuous and can breed resentment, particularly when the grad students/undergrads/professors are all in close proximity to each other.

I have noticed that since becoming a grad student I have become more long-winded, keyboardically speaking (long-tapping?).

Miss Self-Important said...

I don't have access to the article, but I have experience with the message boards from applying to grad programs last year, and it seems to me that the most important thing about them is that most applicants do not use them very much or at all. Most people who do only ask for some clarifications of the application process--"Should my statement of purpose be a narrative?" or "I've been out of school for 15 years. Whom should I ask for recs?" They get their answers and go.

The people who stand out are usually a devoted minority of fanatics who are both OBSESSED with applications (to anything, I'd imagine, but grad school happened to be the current target) and can't seem to do anything without group validation, so must ask advice about such things as whether to type or hand-write the addresses on the application envelopes. It's largely these people who are sharing their "stats" and boasting of publications and recs from the "leading professor in the field," and "a very positive response" from some professor they emailed at the school they want to attend.

These aspects of professionalization tend to be highly exaggerated. It turned out that "publications" is usually code for "a term paper that my undergrad magazine published." Everyone's professor is, incredibly enough, the leader in the very same field. And the prospective advisors they've contacted are just too polite to say no. The people with legitimately impressive CVs had usually--as was mentioned above--gone through MA programs.

So I would be wary of using the message board population as an indicator of what applicants on average are like. Many people don't use those sites because they are balanced, self-confident, practical people who don't need 24/7 support from strangers in putting together their applications (or just 24/7 support--you should see how agonized these people get by the two-month wait between applying and hearing back). Also, while teh internetz may help you unravel certain mysteries about the application process, most people applying are also in touch with at least those professors who are writing their recs, and so have a vastly more reliable source of advice and information than the message boards.

In the prospective cohorts I met at various schools this spring, those who knew they wanted to be academics since birth were a minority. Most came from a couple years of post-college employment, often in something totally irrelevant to their field. Setting academia as one's goal early may lead to some professionalizing or narrowing behavior--spending summers taking language courses rather than working, for example, or attending undergrad conferences. A lack of such petit-professor credentials didn't prevent me from being admitted though, so I'm not sure that the arms race has gotten that sophisticated yet.

I also don't think it's a huge problem that some students set their sights on grad school early. It's a long process, followed by a long road to job stability, and it makes sense to start it in your 20's rather than uprooting your family and forcing them to live on a stipend and move around endlessly because you finally realize at 35 or 40 that academia is, finally and definitely, where you want to be.

Finally, on the dissertation proposal problem--I was just told to write about something more or less narrow that I wanted to study and propose some directions or questions that such study would go in. The downside of this seemed to be that many people, lacking better ideas, fall back on their only previous experience of doing substantial research--the college senior thesis--and propose to simply expand whatever it was they wrote then. I'm somewhat guilty of this too. However, proposing a reasonable research interest is, on the whole, a pretty low hoop to jump through. And it does have the benefit of forcing you to consider which departments are going to be good matches for your interests instead of just applying to a handful of schools whose names or locations you like.

Miss Self-Important said...

I should also add that I'm guilty of message board craziness too, lest anyone believe otherwise. And, here is an example thread of the kinds of CVs applicants claim to have, at least in political science: http://forum.thegradcafe.com/viewtopic.php?f=48&t=16751.

Sisyphus said...

Well, the thing I found most interesting about this article was the end note, which mentioned that Fehrman is a first-year graduate student at Yale, who has been both reading and participating on these boards, presumably as part of his own quest "to get in." A cynical part of me wonders how much this article is a ploy to capitalize through publishing on the one subject he currently has a mastery of knowledge: the application process.

More seriously, I was confused about what his argument actually was, since "contextualizing message board posts" doesn't do very much for someone who, like him, has already been reading along (my secret vice). He says we shouldn't look at the process of preprofessionalization or prepreprofessionalization through the narrative of "the speedup," but doesn't offer something as a strong alternative or why this narrative is bad. Likewise he brings in Ohmann's view that PhDs view themselves as scholars, not teachers (in 1976!) to show that this has now become entrenched at the applying-to-grad-school stage, but without explaining what's so important about that (it's a _research_ degree, after all).

I think I'll post more about this at my place, but right now I have ice cream to eat. Yum.

Sisyphus said...

PS, Medieval Woman, there's no "in a few years" about it --- we have already hired two people who spent 6 or 7 years out of academia to come back with a couple books under their belt before they could get hired as an assistant tt professor. One of them worked while doing so. This is about to fuck up our notions of class and "access" like you wouldn't believe.

Why do you think I'm not working this summer and just writing my articles?

Flavia said...

Thanks, Anon and Miss SI, for your detailed thoughts as recent users or voyeurs on these sites. Fehrman acknowledges that they're a small slice of the applicant population, but he reads it as an important one because (he argues) they're the "elite, overachieving few"--the ones most likely to be from and/or fixating on top programs. As such, he believes that they're a good index of the state of the profession as a whole.

But your two responses suggest that the regular posters (if not necessarily the lurkers) are a still smaller group than that, representing a particularly anxious, and sometimes less-well-informed subset of that "elite" population. I have no way of knowing if that's true, of course, but some of the posts that Fehrman excerpts seem to align with what you report.

And Sis: the biographical detail I was most interested in was the fact that Fehrman entered as an Early Modernist--presumably with a statement of purpose that outlined his specific research interests in that field, and all the rest--and is now an Americanist. That rather pleased me as evidence that stuff does happen to us in graduate school. . . and that the kind of preprofessionalizing that people perform in their application materials is a performance--what applicants believe admissions committees expect from them--rather than a path they're determined never to swerve from.

the rebel lettriste said...

This is so ... funny.

I remember taking the subject test in English as I prepared for grad school, a gazillion years ago. You get to the testing site at like dawn, and mill around. There were these two 20 year old girls talking shop. Girl A: "Well, I'm a Victorianist, blah blah blah." Girl B: "I'm doing Early Modern and gender studies, etc."

I was appalled, and instantly hated them, and was also confused, because I had no damn idea what I "was" critically speaking. In many ways, I resisted the notion that one could even KNOW such things.

Interestingly, I did not identify myself as a medievalist when I applied to grad programs. That took years of study. And, unsurprisingly, I joined the camp of folks who resist the demarcation of so many critical bounds. (The only way one is a 'medievalist' is because 'early modernist' exists as a category, after all.)

Anonymous said...

Interesting thread. Fehrman doesn't have much of an argument, but he opens a window onto a neurotic little world, like the jobseekers' wiki for undergraduates. I doubt those message boards tell us much about the future of the profession. As Miss SI says, most applicants don't use them, and those users who sound most ranking-obsessed and hyper-pre-pre-professionized, if they do end up going to grad school, will have ample time to develop a more mature understanding of the profession they hope to enter. In the two years I've been doing graduate admissions (I teach in an English dept.) I've been impressed by the number of strong, thoughtful statements of purpose we receive. Sure, there are some that sound implausibly pre-professionalized, and some that begin "since I was a child, I've always loved to read" (ne-e-e-e-xt), but a large number seem to strike the balance (on paper, at least) about right. Of course, one may question the wisdom of the hiring and admissions practices that induce twenty-one-year-olds to start defining themselves as "a Victorianist" or "a medievalist," but that's another subject.

Best, TG

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