Archive | June, 2014

Me and the Ph.D.: A Defense and A Meditation

21 Jun


Today I try something new.  As part of my effort to broaden my blog’s scope, I will take an opportunity to publish something I wrote that never got published.  A few years ago, a recently minted literature Ph.D. wrote a scathing condemnation of the humanities’ Ph.D.  It was a pretty brutal piece, and a lot of friends and colleagues shared it on Facebook and through other forms of social media.  I found the article to be a little whiny and EXTREMELY hyperbolic (which has become the default style of internet discourse, I fear).  And so I set out to write a response and have it published in the Huffington Post or some similar aggregator of blogs and opinions, but I got no takers.  So if no one will publish my post, I will do the next best thing (save keeping my damn opinions to myself) and self-publish.  So, without further ado, I offer my modest defense of the humanities’ Ph.D.


Over the past few years numerous scholars have taken to the internet to condemn the humanities’ Ph.D., or at the very least question the financial, intellectual, and emotional benefits of graduate education.   My membership in  “The Versatile Ph.D.” , for example—a list serve for people with or pursuing advanced degrees—has not resulted in me learning more about the diverse uses of a humanities doctorate (my main reason for joining the site in the first place), but instead subjected me to countless laments about the ways in which graduate education destroys marriages and families, limits intellectual curiosity, and ultimately fails to deliver on the promise of a tenure-track career in academe.  This last point (the narrowing of the tenure track) was most cleverly expounded upon in Larry Cebula’s 2011 posting, “No, You Cannot Be a Professor,” a biting and brutal explanation of the realities of professional academia. And most recently my Facebook page was awash in repostings of Rebecca Schuman’s Slate piece, “Getting a literature Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor,” an apologia in which Schuman laments her pursuit of a literature Ph.D. and rails against the field’s failure to adequately reward her (or, in fairness, most recent humanities grads) with an appropriate tenure track position. 

Having recently completed a history doctorate at a large and competitive research 1 institution, I can certainly attest to the truth of the above-cited condemnations of the humanities Ph.D., and I routinely advise smart, young, ambitious history educators and public historians to avoid the pursuit of such a degree if at all possible. Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable with the overwhelming vitriol which has emerged in these recent denouncements of the humanities Ph.D., particularly in the forums of The Versatile Ph.D and Schuman’s Slate piece—a somewhat overwrought screed in which she bitterly compares the foolhardiness of graduate study and the pursuit of an academic career to carelessly smoking four packs of cigarettes a day and hoping you don’t get lung cancer.

To be sure, graduate education has the potential to be an all-consuming, soul-crushing, pursuit, a seemingly Sisyphean process in which the individual’s intellect, insight, and intelligence are routinely challenged, questioned, and discounted in an effort to socialize them in a particular set of intellectual and discursive behaviors.  And yes, the rewards bestowed on those who survive this intellectual boot camp are precious few.  This is due both to the changing business model of the university, as well as to the failure of graduate programs to adequately prepare their charges for careers beyond the academy.  Two or three years removed from their hooding ceremonies, a number of my colleagues, exceptional historians deeply steeped in the practices and traditions of academic history, have been unable to secure full-time employment in their chosen field.  And what is more, I have a number of dear friends who received their doctorates over a decade ago who continue to move from adjunct gig to gig like so many jazz sidemen. Indeed, one of my colleagues has only somewhat jokingly suggested that we should cease to describe the search for post-graduation employment as an academic “job market” and call it instead a “job lottery.”

The truth of these struggles and challenges notwithstanding, there was much about my graduate experience which was incredibly valuable, rewarding, and irreplaceable.  And in light of the Ph.D.’s recent bad press, I would like to take a little time defending the pursuit of such a degree—not because it’s a good idea, mind you, but because if the five or so of you who read this article find yourself inexplicably drawn to taking the degree, it is worth remembering the rewards such study bestows.

First and foremost my graduate studies helped me form a vast network of smart, inspiring, kind, and generous friends. You read that right…friends.  Despite the intense competition for TA positions, attention from professors, as well as fellowships and other funding, I can honestly say that my colleagues in graduate school were, and continue to be, good, good friends. Thanks to the diversity of historical study at UCLA, and the way in which scholarly research and the job market, such as it is, has dispersed my colleagues across the country and the world, I can count on coffee or meals with longtime friends in a great deal of the US, Europe, and the Middle East, making times away from my family a little less lonely.  In December-January (2008-2009), for example, I spent a cold, dark, and somewhat lonely month in Jerusalem doing dissertation research at the Central Zionist Archives.  Thanks to Facebook, my graduate student friends in country quickly arranged to dine with me, spend the Sabbath with me (Jerusalem all but shuts down on Saturdays), and share in my discomfort with old-school Israeli bathrooms, in which the only thing that stands between your shower and your toilet (no tub, mind you) is a thin, plastic curtain.

Graduate school friends are like your friends from summer camp or a high school sports team.  They have shared in your struggles and frustrations.  They’ve sat in the same library as you for hours on end and furiously written book reviews and other works to meet the end of the quarter deadline.  Like you, they have the inside scoop on which professors were generous with their time, grades, and funding, and which professors were just colossal pains in the ass. And this kind of shared experience lends itself to a predictable and heartwarming camaraderie. One Friday night several years ago, a drunken graduate colleague and I (who was just as drunk) sat around my apartment and railed at one of our professors as our non-graduate student spouses looked on.  We decried our mentor’s admiration of an earlier form of graduate training modeled on the German University system.  We loudly and angrily condemned his unrelenting questioning of our dissertation proposals and other work, and then, as the powerfully inebriated often do, we did a 180 and expressed our undying love for him, for his generosity, and his commitment to our emotional and professional well-being, and somehow, we felt a little better about our lot in life.

But graduate school friends do more than provide a shoulder to cry on.  As a diverse body of scholars interested in different fields of study, geographical regions, temporal eras, and research methodology, graduate school colleagues broaden one’s intellectual horizons.  I know that the academy is often mocked for the way in which encourages a kind of politically correct group think, but such hyperbolic, Fox News-like condemnations of the academy are largely false. I can honestly say that I learned more from my cohort of up and coming scholars than I did from my professors, and I know that a number of my professors believe that is very much the point of the graduate school experience.   Through my interactions with my grad school colleagues I learned a great deal about the history of the wider world, the field of economics, the uses of social science, and the history of American jurisprudence.  I have come to see more clearly the ways in which gender, race, and class obscure and/or enhance our understanding of the past and the world around us.  I have learned (as best I can) how to harness today’s technologies to quantifiably study the peoples of the past (and present), as well as how to use those same technologies to communicate our work to a wider audience.  And of greatest importance, thanks to these deep and fulfilling friendships, my learning continues, through conversation (in person and on the web), through correspondence, and through reading my colleagues’ works as they continue to learn and grow.

Satisfying this interest in learning and growing is, or should be, one of the greatest benefits of graduate education.  It certainly was for me.  To be sure, like Schuman, I have seen the ways in which adherence to a particular theory or methodology can limit that learning and growth. The graduate student is often taught to drop names, to be aware of the latest trends in scholarship solely to feign in depth familiarity with them in casual conversation, much in the way that an actor drops the names of the latest hot director or producer.  Still I have also seen how graduate studies can help foster greater intellectual understanding and personal development.  Familiarity with the works of theorists like Habermas, Gramsci, and Foucault, of the Yale School of consumerism, or the Subaltern Studies scholars of the 80s and 90s (see how I did that?) is, or should be, a tool meant to enhance our understanding of humanity and the world. The best graduate programs open the doors to this kind of knowledge and encourage us to continue to research and explore throughout our careers.  I suspect one can develop this habit of mind without entering graduate school, but how many people can honestly say they would do so without the compelling pressure of a 30 page paper on the subject by quarter’s end?

So yes, graduate school experience was emotionally and intellectually exhausting. It is not for everyone, and maybe it shouldn’t be for anyone, these days.  It left me deep in financial debt, as well as creating personal and professional debts to friends and family that can never be repaid.  But the experience did not leave me “an emotional trainwreck.”  Actually my wife thought it appropriate to observe that I was already pretty unstable before the degree so…there’s that.  Nor am I or most of my close colleagues sorry we took on the challenge.  The ultimate reward of graduate school was not, or at least should not be, a 300 page dissertation, or a tenure track position.  The rewards were more personal, and powerful. Quite simply I am a better person for having taken the Ph.D.  I am more intellectually open, more interested in the world and its diverse peoples, a more engaged and engaging speaker, and I am blessed with a vast network of friends and colleagues who continually help me learn and grow.  Frankly, what more could anyone possibly ask for?


I Live to Scan Another Day!

18 Jun

Erik Hat


For those of you who may have missed my last post, I announced that I was due for a PET scan and would receive the results this week.  Well, the results are in, and there is no surgery in my immediate future.  As my oncologist said, depending upon the angle that you look at it, my mass may have grown a millimeter.  And the only time he would recommend surgery is if I am not feeling well, or if the growth is significant (say, 7mm in 6 months).  I feel fine.  There is limited growth–so limited that my Dr. tells me there is no change in my mass at all–and so we do this all over again in 6 months.  Tonight, Scantasia, an evolving tradition in my family where we celebrate good scan results with a meal out and  the heaving of yet another heavy sigh of relief.  In all likelihood this will be followed by a brief, personal moment of panic and a tortured consideration of my own mortality, which seems to follow every one of these events (perhaps a mild form of ptsd).  I’ll write about it, and other less creepy stuff, too.  Thanks for reading.  Thanks for your continued good wishes, and thanks for your presence in my life.


As Always, stay tuned.



Stuck in the Middle

9 Jun

Scarecrow Both Ways


After weeks waiting for my doctor’s referral to be approved,  I finally made my appointment for my June Petscan, Thursday, June 12th first thing in the morning.  Also in June I will see a rheumatologist, make a second visit to a pulmonologist, likely see my oncologist (who referred me for the scan), and make weekly visits to a physical therapist (to help ease the effects of some pinched nerves in my neck).  It seems that as I approach my 50th birthday, I have become a regular consumer of the health care system.  I have become one of those people who likely costs the insurance company so much money that I require younger, healthier Americans to sign up for insurance to bring some financial stability to the system (that’s how insurance works, folks, no matter how you feel about Obamacare).  I am not sure what to make of this phenomenon.  I have always associated having numerous medical professionals on speed dial with old people, but I am surely not old.  Am I?  As I noted above, I have not even hit 50, yet.  My birthday is July 14th (yes, Bastille Day for all of my Francophile friends).  I haven’t even taken the somewhat obligatory step of joining the AARP.  And yet my life is filled with regularly scheduled doctors’ visits, with minor aches and pains, with a sense of nostalgia for 1980s and 1990s, with numerous regrets about roads not taken, and everywhere I go, people call me sir. No, I’m not old….yet, but I think that I have hit middle age.

It’s an odd term, yes, middle age?  At the very least our use of the term, which we generally employ to describe men and women in their fifties and sixties, is either wildly inaccurate or incredibly optimistic.  If I am, as Dante wrote, “midway along the journey of our life,” then I should be about 100 years old at journey’s end.  I’m not sure anyone reading this blog believes that I will hit the century mark.  I don’t really feel like I’m in the middle of anything, except maybe my career.

Instead, I feel very much like I’ve come to the end of numerous life circumstances and the beginning of others. Two years removed from my hooding ceremony, I am no longer a graduate student, and what is worse, most of the young historians I met in grad school have also received their Ph.D.s. And so even my younger friends have come to the end of one road and started down new paths.  On the other hand, this year I have been on television a bunch of times as a, so-called, professional historian. In fact, just this past week I taped two episodes of a new show, and so perhaps I am on the cusp of becoming one of those talking heads we see when the history channel actually chooses to broadcast shows about history.  Who knows?  I feel as if I am coming to the end of my time as a football fan.  While I love the game, I am not sure I can continue to watch young men destroy their brain function for the sake of my entertainment.  I have tried to take a look at other sports and see if I possess a shred of the passion that I have for the NFL in general and the New York Giants in particular.  Truth is, though, that I am not drawn to any other sport in the way that I’ve been drawn to football for the past 45, or so, years.  Perhaps I will dedicate my Sundays to something less competitive.  And, of course, as Emma enters her senior year, Amy and I are fast approaching the end of our time with a child at home, and will soon begin our lives as “empty-nesters.”  Thankfully we have been preparing for this development for years.  While Emma’s time in summer camp may have been a kind of preparation for adulthood, it was also an opportunity for Amy and I to see how we got along as a couple, and I am happy to say that most of the time I don’t annoy her too much.  

Indeed, much of the past year, which I count from the death of my father-in-law last May through Emma’s completion of 11th grade, has been a year of endings and beginnings. As I just noted, last May we lost my father-in-law.  This past fall my mother sold her house in Harrison, New York—once the center of all social and family life for countless friends and relatives.  Just recently my sister has ended her lengthy employ with a well-known department store chain.  Yet another niece has finished high school and is on to college (USC, no less….the horror). And Amy has taken the bold, but very attractive, step of abandoning dyes and embracing her gray hair.  Endings and beginnings seem to hit me wherever I turn. 

Perhaps that’s the real meaning of middle age, not that we’ve reached our chronological midpoint, but rather that we’ve reached a turning point, a moment when one a set of circumstances that have come to define our adult lives come to an end, and yet we have not fully embarked on, or embraced, our new paths.  We’re like Dorothy, standing in front of the scarecrow, asking for directions.  And as those of you familiar with the movie already know, his assistance is none too clear….”Some go this way, some go that way, and of course some go both ways!” Very helpful.  Nevertheless, that’s how I feel these days, stuck in the middle of massive change, but uncertain which way to go, which path to follow, and with absolutely zero sense of where any one path may lead.  That must surely be the definition of middle age. And by the time I get it all figured out, I’ll be an old man, which is a lot better than the alternatives, I guess, but it’s still frustrating.

Well, maybe the AARP will be able to explain all this stuff to me when I join, next month.  Who knows?  What I do know is that Wednesday I eliminate all carbs from my diet, Thursday morning I drive over to the scanning place—a place I’ve been to so many times that they actually remember me—then I take my radioactive sugar, get undressed, climb on a gurney, and let some big electronic doughnut scan my body.  Great fun!  Once I know the results I will, of course share them with all of you.  Until then, I hope that all is well for my many friends, family, and casual readers of this blog. 

Thanks for reading, and, as always….stay tuned.