Stop Calling Us “Smart Suckers”!

Humanities grad students respond to William Pannapacker.

In his July 27 Slate essay, “Overeducated, Underemployed,” William Pannapacker called graduate students in the humanities “smart suckers.” An English professor at Hope College in Michigan, Pannapacker argued that “in all likelihood, a humanities Ph.D. will place you at a disadvantage competing against 22-year-olds for entry-level jobs that barely require a high-school diploma.” He then outlined a plan for reforming higher education.

Pannapacker’s essay prompted vigorous debate in the Comments section, and many readers posted lengthy responses on their personal blogs. Slate asked a few proponents of the humanities higher-education track to share their views, which you’ll find below.


I had no idea I was a part of a community of “really smart suckers” until I read William Pannapacker’s article, “Overeducated and Underemployed.” When I discovered my new social identity, I laughed aloud. I laughed because I earned a Ph.D. in English without any knowledge of the job market or even professional opportunities available to those with such a degree. I laughed because I walked away from a tenure-track job with the hope that I might find “something like a normal life.” Most importantly, I laughed because I returned to my tenure-track job a year later with the understanding that the life of the mind as a teacher-scholar was, in fact, a normal life.

In the midst of my laughter, I couldn’t help but recall the awkward trajectory that led me to this moment. I found graduate school by accident. The spring semester of my sophomore year of college, I decided I wanted to live in New York City for the summer. A friend recommended that I participate in the Leadership Alliance summer program at Columbia University. The application was easy enough—a project proposal. I got in, and there I learned about graduate school. I had never heard the word doctorate and I’m certain that I pronounced it “doctorin’ ” long after the end of the summer. Nevertheless, it was there I discovered that I could read and write for a living. I’d spent my first years as an undergraduate attempting to fit into majors that were uncomfortable—biology, economics, computer science, computer engineering—because I wanted to make money, have job security, and benefits. I walked away from the Leadership Alliance armed with a new knowledge—that my passions, reading and writing, could be my work.

There are times when I am certain that this profession was designed for me. There are times when I wonder if I should walk away, as Pannapacker suggests. I remind myself that I did walk away only to learn now what I know for sure—that I can no longer deny the pull of what I love. Therefore let this be my confession or admission of guilt: I am a really smart sucker.—Tara Bynum holds a Ph.D. in English from Johns Hopkins University. She is an assistant professor of English at Towson University.

 William Pannapacker isn’t wrong: Humanities degree programs are in need of structural reform and the market for Ph.D.s is minuscule and impossible to game (I’ve seen brilliant students struggle on the market; awards and publications help but are no guarantee). More troublingly, the future of the humanities is in jeopardy, as higher education is increasingly reconceived along the lines of vocational training, rather than as a period for cultivating the fundamentals—thinking complexly, writing clearly, and analyzing data with care and skepticism. But Pannapacker’s response to this situation—avoid graduate school unless you are “independently wealthy, well-connected in the field … or earning a degree to advance in a position you already hold”—strikes me as a symptom of, rather than a solution to, this disease of vocational myopia: it reduces the value of graduate study in the humanities to your immediate job prospects.

If a job is all you’re after, the disappointing paycheck you will be very lucky to receive as a newly minted assistant professor will not make graduate school seem “worth it.” Yet I can say without blushing that my experience of life is infinitely richer for having spent the last seven years thinking as hard as I can among some of the smartest “suckers” I have ever met. For me, graduate study was like getting fitted with a second nervous system—I feel that much more acutely alive and responsive to the world. I will try to pass that vividness along to my students as long as this broken education system allows me to. In the end, I may well have to walk away from academia, but, if so, I suspect I’ll feel more regret for those students than I will for myself.Cristin Ellis is a Ph.D. candidate in English (ABD) at Johns Hopkins University. She is an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi.

William Pannapacker writes that most undergraduates “are out of their freaking minds if they are considering graduate school” and advises students not to attend. Well, I think that’s dangerous, because even if a Ph.D. doesn’t lead to a long-term job at a research university, pursuing one can prepare you in unexpected ways for a successful career outside of higher education.

I initially went to graduate school to become a professor and had absolutely no interest in teaching middle or secondary school. But after working with struggling undergraduate students I reconsidered. Graduate coursework awakened a new sense of purpose within me that I would not have developed otherwise.

After completing an M.A., I became an independent-school teacher. Independent schools often seek to hire individuals with graduate degrees (both M.A. and Ph.D.). We are set apart from other job candidates because we have the experience of teaching at the university level. We are also compensated to reflect this distinction. Those who seek quality teaching (our administrators, board of directors, and parents) specifically want teachers with specialized content knowledge; they expect it on day one in the classroom.

There is a strong difference between a master of education (M.Ed.), which most teachers hold, and an M.A. or Ph.D. in your content area. An M.Ed. (which I also hold) is very helpful in terms of teaching strategy, but does not offer the deep content knowledge necessary to truly become a master teacher. We need more secondary teachers who have had the experiences I have had and we won’t get them unless they are first trained in the humanities at the graduate level.Gina Liotta holds a master in English from Syracuse University and a master in education from the University of Oregon.

William Pannapacker makes some excellent points about the exploitation of graduate students and the corporatization of university life. I do not, however, support the claim that those of us who choose graduate education are “passively complicit with the destruction of both [the humanities and higher education].” This blame-the-victim line of thinking assumes that if we graduate students “just walk away” and do other things with our lives, the university system will be compelled to mend its ways. But this is analogous to (and as false as) suggesting that the way to end corporate capitalism is for consumers to stop shopping at Walmart. The problems with higher education will not be “fixed” if I walk away.

I started teaching, and decided to pursue a graduate degree, because I love my subject. Books make me happy and being able to talk about books for a living (even if that living is currently classifiable as below the poverty line) makes me happy, too. Pannapacker and others would have me believe that this love is idealistic—a sentimental romanticization of art. But to this critique, I say, “So what?” What’s wrong with the pleasure of reading, of thinking, of learning new things about the world and how it works? I’m not naive, and I was warned by well-meaning professors to avoid pursuing a Ph.D. for all the reasons Pannapacker outlines.

Graduate school is a financial risk and as the single mother of two young children, I am well aware of the sacrifice I am making by continuing my work. I am not guaranteed a job when I am finished; I will have to conform to the standards and the pressures of an unstable job market which may mean a change in my career path; but I do not believe anything in life is guaranteed. For now, I’ll stick with my choice and accomplish the task of a doctoral degree which, if not always a pleasure, still affords satisfaction and pride in my own determination. I will continue my work because, as Stanley Fish puts it, “[t]he humanities are their own good,” and to insist otherwise is to buy into the notion that the only education worthwhile is that which is instrumental.—Corinne Martin is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the Ohio State University.

Singling out advanced learning in the humanities for ridicule because it no longer guarantees a secure middle-class life ignores the fact that pursuing a science, business, law, library, or culinary degree doesn’t assure security, either. The situation may be more exaggerated in the humanities, where there are fewer obvious applications for one’s skills (and in a culture that labels thinkers and artists “suckers”), but it remains the case that the recipients of a Ph.D. in English and a Ph.D. in physics who researched string theory instead of semiconductors have a lot in common. It isn’t “your irrational love for the humanities” that “make[s] you vulnerable to ongoing exploitation,” it’s the fact that ladders are being pulled up everywhere. Investing time and money on knowledge does not necessarily promise a salary and benefits. Except for a period during the 20th century when the public safety net reliably helped a large population of mostly white people upward, this is the way most people have lived in the United States.

Life is easier if you have a lot of money and relatives to pull strings for you. This is clear enough. But the rest of us—especially those who for whatever reasons aren’t drawn to corporate work—need to figure out how to get along. For me, graduate school in the humanities offered a place to think, learn, and teach for a tuition waiver and an initial salary of $12k that rose to $24k and health insurance when I switched universities. Until that point I’d worked in construction, food service, odd jobs, and several part-time high-school teaching gigs, none of which seemed like safe or promising long-term fits. The path to the Ph.D. offered me the chance to live (precariously) off of what I was good at while giving me a chance to grow and get better. It was clear that the odds were stacked against me going in—and well-meaning professors had warned me—but it opened a world where I felt like I belonged, and which allowed me to live according to my values. Along the way I learned to research, write, manage collaborative projects, fundraise, network, speak in public, and I’ve been welcomed into institutions and social circles unimaginable to me when I started.

My vocation and my work—and likely yours—are in danger. As Pannapacker says, we need to organize, raise awareness, and work against exploitation. Depending on the situation, the best option for some will be to avoid academia altogether, to look elsewhere for those things that drew me into grad school. But some of us, not just the rich, will make the informed decision to stay. And the struggle is not only for wages and conditions, but for thinking, teaching, and writing about our shared humanity. As the striking mill women of Lawrence, Mass., showed us in 1912, “hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.” Bread yes, but roses too.Jonathan Senchyne is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Cornell University.


William Pannapacker responds:

I sincerely wish good fortune to the graduate students, in particular, who have written about my recent essay. I understand why the opening paragraphs have been interpreted in ways that I did not intend.

I’ve addressed some of those concerns before, but here are some more clarifications:

Am I against the humanities? No. I teach at a liberal arts college. My career is dedicated to humanities education.

Am I against working-class students? No. I was one. I want them to be successful and happy, to hold on to their ideals, and to be able to build stable careers as college professors.

Am I against graduate education? No. I want to make some parts of it more transparent, so that students can make choices that will motivate programs to serve their interests better than many currently do.

Am I against contingent teachers? No. I was one. I want adjunct teachers to have more equitable working conditions and academic freedom so they can provide the best possible education for their students.

What am I against? The rapid transformation of college teaching into part-time, low-wage, no-benefit positions, and how that has been hidden from the public while tuition keeps going up.

What do I want? Reforms that will support teaching and make graduate education an option that professors can recommend enthusiastically to their best students.

I am glad that some graduate students have found success, but that does not change the reality that graduate training is failing many, many more.