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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Graduate Study for The 21st Century--A Good Book

Posted by Jonathan Goodwin on 10/19/06 at 11:55 AM

After coming across Geneviève Brassard’s review [Muse] in the latest issue of Pedagogy, I read Gregory Colón Semenza’s book, subtitled “How to Build An Academic Career in the Humanities.” Equipped with an admiring foreword by Michael Bérubé, it’s a remarkably detailed and pungent volume, filled with meritocratic ethos and practical advice. I’d summarize its basic message as “get to work, parasite.”

You’ll learn that there’s a “mid-Atlantic university” who won’t hire anyone without at least two articles and who hasn’t taught at least ten courses, for example, an instance that invites generalization. You’ll be reminded several times that diligent industry is the key to academic success, not native intelligence, talent, flair, or even pedigree. There are sample everythings--conference proposals, job acceptance letters, varieties of dissertation abstract. Its advice about teaching evaluations might be held to be somewhat contradictory, but there’s probably a dialectical justification for the assertion that they are nearly meaningless, are the cause of grade inflation, and should be abolished (120), and the (mostly) high figures prominently listed in the sample teaching portfolio.

It’s a book that I wish had been written when I began graduate school, and one that I would encourage anyone currently in a graduate program, contemplating enrolling in one, or even having recently finished their degree to read. (Though Semenza works hard at providing examples from other disciplines, I’d say that its English Dept. origins show.) I mostly agree with the idea that pre-professionalism creates a more meritocratic academic culture, though I think the extent to which this is happening is debatable.


Comments

As soon as I saw the assertion “--A Good Book” tacked on to the title of a post by Jonathan, I knew that it would be an ironic assertion—or, actually, one carefully written so that it would be strongly suggested to be ironic without that being actually clear.

By on 10/19/06 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, Rich, that’s an example of your hermeneutics of unfounded suspicion.

Semenza’s book is good, for the reasons I describe above, just as I wrote.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 10/19/06 at 01:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s good because it is “pungent” and tells students to “get to work, parasite”—to take only those examples from the first paragraph?  Perhaps the problem is not with my interpretation, but with the text being interpreted.

By on 10/19/06 at 03:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In the sense of “pointed,” Rich; but the other might require you to have a sense of humor to understand.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 10/19/06 at 03:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Since the same bit is repeated later as “diligent industry is the key to academic success, not native intelligence, talent, flair, or even pedigree”, then I’d interpret your recommendation as saying that this is indeed the basic message of the book.  Maybe it’s just me, but if I were concerned about an academic career, and someone droned on about how “industry is the key to academic success” as if the typical grad student or postdoc was a slacker, I wouldn’t think it was very humorous.

Again, maybe the problem is your writing.

By on 10/19/06 at 03:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Could someone send a message to the shitasses at Project Muse that they aren’t making any friends with their paywall or whatever it is?

By John Emerson on 10/19/06 at 03:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Focused, steady work is the key to success, according to the book. The amount of freedom you have in graduate school in the humanities can make this more difficult to do than it might sound. The book’s full of practical advice on the subject, similar to the “getting things done"/43 folders constellation. In the capacity I’ve had to observe, I’ve noted that people who did have the best work habits (as defined above) have tended to be the most successful, and it’s a message worth hearing.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 10/19/06 at 04:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All right.  Thank you for actually getting less gnomic when questioned. 

In that case, I suspect that I actually disagree with the message of the book, although of course I haven’t read it.  I don’t think that good work habits are really different in kind from “native intelligence, talent, flair”; it’s probably as easy to drastically change one as another, and people who you think have good work habits may just have greater native intelligence, or vice versa.  Of course, a lot of the description that you’ve given sounds like what’s being communicated is basic information rather than unhelpful self-help—about what the current expectations are for qualifications, and about how to write a sample X—and I guess that can’t hurt.

By on 10/19/06 at 04:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for this. 

Have ordered it.

By Matt on 10/19/06 at 10:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I just ordered it also. Thanks, Jonathan.

By Christopher Hellstrom on 10/19/06 at 11:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Put more bluntly: a working-class kid from state schools can sometimes succeed where a privileged one with an Ivy League alma mater may not.”

Well that’s refreshing. I remember seeking out advice for the application & being given well meant though vague universalisms. “In your statement of purpose, create a coherent narrative of your education.” To illustrate what he meant, the Harvard PhD who gave me this advice went on to say, “For instance, I did my undergrad work in linguistics at Cambridge, then I did an MA in film in Amsterdam. So I really had to make the case that it all hung together for what I wanted to do in Comp Lit at Harvard.”

A coherent narrative indeed! I wonder whether Semanza, in one of his “real” moments, says, look, you don’t have to be born and/or anointed into the aristocracy to be successful in academia, but it sure doesn’t hurt. (I will soon find out!) Thanks, Jonathan.

By on 10/20/06 at 01:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, do you think it would be useful reading for people outside the American university system?

By on 10/20/06 at 08:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Laura--I do, particularly if you’re planning on entering the American job market.

Chuck--Semenza has a refreshing attitude about this issue. He finished his dissertation (and got tenured) quickly, and he got a job at a research institution with a degree from a comparable one.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 10/20/06 at 08:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

How does commenting on blogs play into all this?

By Adam Kotsko on 10/20/06 at 10:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In the capacity I’ve had to observe, I’ve noted that people who did have the best work habits (as defined above) have tended to be the most successful, and it’s a message worth hearing.

I’m so doomed.

By ben wolfson on 10/20/06 at 01:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t followed this thread, for reasons stated above. However, this does relate to one of my hobbyhorses.

How attractive does the job described by Semenza seem? Without having read anything, it sounds a bit like the retasking doctors have had been faced eith under managed care, amd doctors haven’t enjoyed it much.

Chuck’s questions about pedigree and connections still ring true to me. From my point of view it also seems that getting with the program as far as prescibed methodology goes is as important as ever.

I’ve been asking myself for awhile how well the university will be supporting creative thinking in the humanist areas of study in the next several decades, and this book doesn’t seem to endanger my generally negative conclusions on the question.

By John Emerson on 10/20/06 at 02:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What makes you think, John, that the university was EVER about creative thinking? Sure, it happens in universities, but is that intentional or accidental?

By Bill Benzon on 10/20/06 at 02:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My hobbyhorse is that it’s been increasingly less so since 1950 or so. William James and John Dewey, for example, had successful careers, and CS Peirce would have except that he was too sexy for the XIXc.

By John Emerson on 10/20/06 at 03:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think that you have to worry too much about this one, John.  As I imply above, my opinion is that books that exhort you to work harder are often liked because the idea that you can succeed by working harder is comforting.  While the truth, for the large majority of people, is that by the time you get to grad school your basic work habits are probably set.  It’s become one of your “intelligences”, just like your IQ.  Which isn’t to say that you can’t change it, but that the effort required to change it is similar to the amount of effort it would take to appear appreciably more brilliant.

And sure, it is often observed that people with better work habits do better than those without.  It is also observed that people with greater intelligence, talent, or flair (not to mention pedigree) do better than those without.

If I were giving advice, I’d tell people to first figure out what future committees are going to compare them on (it sounds like the book is useful in that respect), then evaluate themselves in comparison to their peers on those criteria.  If their field has good job openings for 1 out of every 3 graduates, and they aren’t in the top third of whatever criteria, they should only be in grad school if they’d think it was worth it even if they don’t get a good job when they’re done.  Clearly this evaluation can only be done a few, or at least a couple, of years in.

By on 10/20/06 at 03:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

While the truth, for the large majority of people, is that by the time you get to grad school your basic work habits are probably set.  It’s become one of your “intelligences”, just like your IQ.  Which isn’t to say that you can’t change it, but that the effort required to change it is similar to the amount of effort it would take to appear appreciably more brilliant.

All snark aside, I think that work-habits-as-another-intelligence is an unpopular but largely accurate way of thinking.  But while it’s hard to increase your intelligence, talent, or work habits, it is possible (within limits), and so advice to devote one’s efforts to more productive work habits rather than more insightful interpretations of texts is not as useless at it appears at first glance.

By on 10/20/06 at 07:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Even if the basic message is, “get to work, parasite,” there are just so few books of this nature, dealing specifically with the humanities, that I’ve come across. 

As a first year student in an English Lit program, I already get the sense from those who are further along that practical advice is rarely freely given, and if it is given, there is a subtext of,"you mean, you really couldn’t figure this out on your own?”

I’ll read Semenza’s book, if only for the reason that profs and advanced grad students at my school don’t seem likely to volunteer advice or show me where the restroom is anytime soon.

By on 10/21/06 at 12:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I gave my first-year MA students the first few chapters of this book as required reading in my methods class and I think it was very helpful to them in some very basic ways.  For example, many of them had NO IDEA what service was or that professors had to do it.  Others didn’t know it took 6 years to get tenure or that there were different ranks of professors.  Some had no idea how hard it was to get a tenure-track job.  And so on.  For first year graduate students (and those aspiring to be them) who haven’t really talked to a current assistant professor about what their day to day life is like, I think this book is a real and necessary eye-opener.

And even I found some helpful advice in it (or reiterations of what I already knew and needed to be reminded of).  And it was nice to know there were other marathon-running academics out there. :)

By Dr. Virago on 10/22/06 at 10:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Having now read this book, I can say without hesitation that it’s well worth whatever I paid for it. 

Semenza’s three-pronged approach to success in academia—scholarship/service/teaching—is a useful professionalization model. 

Much of what Semenza has to say is stuff that grad students eventually, by virtue of simply being around and interacting with more advanced students, discover on their own.  Of course time management is crucial.  Of course taking semimars with specialists in our field is a darn good idea.  Of course we have to make nice with our departments’ secretaries and administrators.

But I still appreciate Semenza’s gesture in writing this book.  It’s honest (brutally so, at times), strategic, and reassuring.  The knowledge and practical advice contained within this book are a generous contribution to the graduate community.

By on 11/11/06 at 03:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not to be too cynical, but does teaching (or even service) make any real difference to a hiring/tenuring decision?  In the sciences I’d guess that the trio would be research/grantmaking/affiliation.

By on 11/11/06 at 06:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Good question, Rich.  As a newcomer to grad study, I really can’t say.  But my early impression is that yes, teaching and service both make a difference.  Neither are likely to be given as much weight as published papers, the dissertation, and conference activity, but they still give a sense of one’s ability to do something besides write papers and speak impressively about those papers.

Oh, and not that there were ever any doubt, but yes, you are a tad cynical at times.

By on 11/12/06 at 03:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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