my interview with Dr. Leonard Cassuto, author of The Graduate School Mess

Last month, I was contacted by representatives of Harvard University Press, inquiring about my interest in a review copy of the new book The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix ItI enthusiastically indicated my interest. Like many in the world of higher education, I have been long convinced that deep reform is needed in our graduate education system. A moral and economic crisis has emerged, with many thousands of PhDs unable to gain the kind of post-doctoral employment they had counted on. This has fed a system of terrible exploitation of adjunct and contingent labor in the academy, one which demands reform. I have long argued that addressing this moral crisis is the university system’s most important immediate task. Adjuncts, in particular, need our labor solidarity, and we must work to unionize non-tenured track instructors and work for better conditions for all of them. Additionally, we must make the working conditions of graduate students better, again through labor organizing and unequivocal solidarity from tenured faculty.

At the same time, I have registered my dissatisfaction with the way in which the reform conversation goes, in part because it so rarely discusses actual reform. The “quit lit” genre typically seems far more concerned with the individuals doing the quitting than with reforming the system. Many of the people I interact with who have left the academy seem to want to demand a particular affective response from me, rather than simply recognize our shared dedication to changing things. The tendency to outsized bitterness and recrimination simply makes it less likely that we’ll persuade who we need to persuade. And there is a troubling tendency to misrepresent the overall economic picture for those with PhDs, with rampant claims that recent PhDs are “the new serfs” and comparisons to those uneducated Americans who are trapped in multigenerational poverty. This erasure of the very real, material distinctions between different types of economic distress — all of which, I stress, we must address with material force — does no one any favors, and has ugly symbolic consequences. I am eager to help devise meaningful, real-world reforms to help make graduate education more morally and practically sound, in a world that treats grad students with disrespect and apathy in so many ways. The Graduate School Mess is a valuable text as part of that effort.

Last week,  I chatted by phone with Dr. Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University in New York. What follows is a lightly condensed and polished transcript of our discussion.

Part of the reason I was enthusiastic about the book was that it presents a more constructive take on reforming graduate education than I’ve been seeing. I’m someone who agrees substantively with the large majority of what disgruntled PhDs and ex-academics are writing, in terms of the massive problems with the system and need for reform. At the same time, I’ve found that the conversation tends to be so taken with bitterness and axe-grinding that there’s no space for discussing ways to change. So I was happy that the book is both ruthless in its critique but constructive in its approach.

We’re certainly kindred spirits in this area. First, I want to stress my sympathy and support for the activists in this dialogue.  They have a lot of anger and dissatisfaction with the system, and justifiably so. People have been treated terribly. That’s part of why we’ve got to make changes. But I don’t see how we’re going to make those changes unless we get past the bitterness. Programs aren’t just going to disappear, and the more we focus on anger, the easier it is for them to not listen. So let’s talk reform.

One of the things that has gotten me in trouble in the past has been pointing out that, in general as a class, people who have PhDs are doing well in relative economic terms. And despite what people say, I don’t see any data that shows a large drop-off for recent PhDs, especially given that the jobs crisis dates back to at least the early 1990s. That of course doesn’t mean people aren’t suffering. A lot of people are really suffering, and they need help, and they are right to be angry with programs that misled them. But I also see a lot of people saying things like “PhDs are the new serfs,” equating PhDs without academic jobs to destitute people on the bottom rungs, and that just seems to badly misrepresent the overall picture.

We’ve got to separate the fact that there are people who need help and are entitled to feel anger, and recognize that there also are a lot of people who have moved on from academia into successful, contented lives. First of all, many people either decided not to become professors, or couldn’t get professor jobs, and therefore went elsewhere and ended up happy in their lives. The data gathering is belated, but it’s going on now, finally. Yes, there are people who have been badly mistreated by our institutions, absolutely, but a lot of the people who went the alternative academic route have found a lot of satisfaction in their lives. We overlook the way in which PhD have always gone outside the academic world. In fact, the notion that PhDs have to end up as professors to be successful hasn’t been true historically.  There was only one generation of full employment in the academy. The problem is, that generation has created a memory of abundance, when traditionally, the PhD has been a degree intended for many more things.

One of the things I found interesting in my dissertation research was the degree to which the Cold War changed the academy. There was a vast amount of money pumped into the system in an effort to beat the Soviets.

It’s an irony, because the first wave of history of academia and the cold war was quite rightly focused on the way that the paranoid culture of the time infiltrated academia and created a dangerous time for professors. More professors lost tenure during that period that at any other time. Loyalty oaths were widespread, and the professoriate was shaken to its core. The prurient investigations of political affiliation would be incomprehensible today, even in our own time of terrorist paranoia. That was the subject of the first wave of research on the Cold War’s impact on the university system, and no wonder.

But the other aspect was that the Cold War was great for academia! An unprecedented amount of money came into our world. That money was put to great use. There was a flourishing of research. Our universities democratized, letting in more types of people than ever before. Cold War dollars helped turn college from an elite institution to a much more diverse one. It was a time of abundance. Professor salaries caught up to those of other professions. We enjoyed wartime spending during a non-declared war. The result was, as I said, a generation of full academic employment. It was the largest-ever generation in the history of our job. It was anomalous, but that population saw it as their normal. It was very hard for them to see as an anomaly because it was their lives, and they passed those expectations on to their students, who passed it on to their students.

What kind of reforms do you think are possible, first, from inside of institutions and programs themselves?

The most important and broadest stroke, it seems to me, is that we have to teach everybody at every level not to despise the choice to leave academia, either before or after a PhD. I think the older generation makes this mistake most often. The younger generation, they already get it, and graduate students know pretty well what’s going on out there . They are clear-eyed about the outcomes that they are facing. It’s their professors who are slow on the uptake. Unfortunately, professors can easily persuade a graduate student to disdain non-professorial work.

Graduate students are frustrated because the structure of their education doesn’t match the opportunities that they face when they get out. We faculty are slowly becoming more aware of that, but we’re not solution-oriented enough yet. So we have to start by honoring that choice when it’s made. That’s the most important thing. One way that we can honor it, and to show that it’s real, is that we need to forge organic, synthetic relationships between graduate programs and offices of Career Services, so that when graduate students walk in, they are made acquainted with the diversity of possibility they’ll face later.

Lots of these problems are structural and difficult to face, but as someone who finished a PhD last year, I’m struck by how much low-hanging fruit there is. Let me give you an example. I’m working as a limited-term lecturer right now, basically an adjunct. I wasn’t sure if I was going to teach; I have a lot of writing work lately and could afford to live without teaching. One of the reasons I ended up coming back to Purdue to teach was because I was told that, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to use Purdue’s letterhead on my cover letters for the academic job market, and that no one would take my application seriously without it. Which just seems so petty and insulting.

Your example’s a good one. That sort of thing, it’s really quite enraging, isn’t it? And it’s a way that we have, that these biases are structural and pervasive. It’s easy to say, oh, I support my student’s choices whatever they are, but in practice they are all sort of ways in which the system – and we are part of the system, we professors – is arrayed against that choice to leave the profession. When you lay it out like that, it seems so cruel, but many of us perpetuate it by not realizing it. I allude to my own blind spots in The Graduate School Mess. One of the reasons that I wrote this book was because of things that I caught myself doing – I saw that I needed to be more conscious of my own biases and behavior. We have a lot of years of complacency that we need to be making up for. The example of the letterhead is a perfect example of not-so-hidden disrespect.

Another thing that came up recently is that my department switched from using an administrative assistant to handle letters of recommendation to having us all do a dossier service – which of course costs money. It’s only maybe $12 or $16 per application, but people do 100 apps or more all the time! And it’s just lifting that money off of grad students who make nothing. What’s really frustrating is that I know everyone in the decision cares about grad students; they just don’t connect that caring to the day-to-day reality of being one. They don’t occupy that mindset.

I think what you’re describing there is just a casual disregard of the status that graduate students have in the academy. Not so much as in their career choices, as in an omission, an occlusion, from the field of vision of the fact that graduate students are poorly-paid apprentices. Then you lock them into systems that cost them money. I suppose that the institution is saving the money of whatever the clerical worker who handled recommendations was making. But the idea of saving money on the backs of underpaid graduate assistants – that’s a social justice issue, and it’s more obvious than most. It exemplifies the way that we don’t sympathize–in the eighteenth-century sense of walking in somebody’s shoes—with grad students. Which is especially frustrating because we all were grad students once!

I’ve also been frustrated, as someone who has had some success writing professionally for the popular press – I’ve been told often that this is a mistake, as someone who wants to be a professor. People tell me it’ll be perceived as unserious or that some search committees will doubt my dedication, that I shouldn’t risk being political…. Which, among other things, is telling me to stop doing the thing that pays my rent.

What you’re seeing is how narrowly we construe our vocation. That’s what The Graduate School Mess is about, really. We academics need to consider what we’re doing in broader terms. Our purpose can’t be just to help ourselves. We have to provide some sort of benefit to culture and society. That requires public outreach. Which we are in many cases conditioned to avoid, in just the way you’ve described. That may be understandable in the historical circumstances, but to say that we can’t pursue an issue because “it’s not engaged in the section of the discourse that we follow,” well, expand the section, change the discourse. It’s fine that we talk to other expert audiences, but we can’t do just that.  Our work is supposed to have benefit in some sense to society in general.

There’s a failure to see, too, the service that your general audience work does. We all suffer, that is everybody in society suffers, if professors labor in a cloister, but professors suffer worst of all because the kinds of misunderstandings, expressed in familiar stereotypes of professors and academia, really hurt what we do. Purdue is a public university, and as a public university in a red state, it’s absorbing all kinds of attacks. But it’s hard to fight back because the national town and gown relationship is in a shambles right now. The only productive way to fix it is if academics engage. Those who can get out into the arena, do it! It helps us all and it also nourishes us as a culture. Exactly what kind of sense of privilege can we justify if we don’t show our work to society?

Much of your book discusses what professors and programs can do themselves. How can we invite administration into these changes? How should we approach administrators?

Well, I’ve talked to deans and I’ve talked to a lot of program admins and a lot of provosts and so on. Still, take the following generalization with a grain of salt: I think the deans are more open to the kinds of changes that will benefit us all than faculty and programs themselves. Program administrators think the deans will disrespect them if they change their standards, for example. I don’t think that’s true, generally. Now of course there are exceptions, and everybody can readily think of one. But generally, there’s a sense in which deans look at the big picture more often than faculty and program administrators do. They have a flexibility that is underrated, whereas program admins are concerned (and understandably so) about the prestige of their programs and worried that changes will allow other programs to look down at them, and say “oh they’re dumbing down, they’re getting less serious.”

We need to get past that fear. We need to be pulling together. A lot of it really needs to be at the level of individual programs.  We’re an evaluation culture; we evaluate our work, our students, and each other – so I think it has to start with a reevaluation of the criteria of success that we use. We have been propagating research culture for more than a century without really looking at its ingredients very closely. It’s not that we shouldn’t be engaging in scholarship; if a scholar stops being curious then they go dead in the water.  But there are different ways to express curiosity. John Guillory argues that we’re so busy writing books that we don’t have time to read them! We need to revisit how we assess and reward.

How can we participate in that effort?

How about new program rankings that reflect a broader sense of a program’s value? Rankings that value teaching more, that value PhDs who go on to valuable work outside of the academy? The NRC arrives at its ranking criteria in ways  you’d expect: the National Research Council privileges research! And that’s OK , but not by itself. But why don’t we have other institutions to rank graduate programs? Just like, on the undergraduate level, everyone complains about US News and World Report, that they have a monopoly on rankings, and that they value the wrong things. Well, if we’re so upset about using them, why don’t we develop an alternative? We can do the same thing with grad school rankings. Let’s generate rankings that reflect a more 21st century approach to the value and mission of graduate education.

Do you think hiring committees can be a locus of change here? Obviously, by the time people get to the hiring process, they’re almost done. But it seems to me that the hiring committees have huge power over what gets valued and what gets done in grad programs.

Oh, absolutely. I think that the members of the hiring committees can be change agents if they want to be. Take the example of time to degree. If we really are serious about encouraging people to finish their degrees sooner – and we absolutely should be – then hiring committees have to have realistic expectations over what students can have on their cv’s as ABDs applying to assistant professor positions. Obviously, people who are trying to get through programs quickly, they’re going to accomplish less, becausethey’ll just have less time in graduate school. But they still demonstrate potential. And if we want to honor people’s commitment to getting out of our programs in a reasonable time, we need to recognize that we can’t have these unrealistic expectations of their attainments when they do. This creeping increase in what we’re expecting grad students to already have done, is deeply unfair.  I talk about this in The Graduate school Mess.

I got my masters and PhD in six years, mostly because I was dead-set on not taking too long to degree. I haven’t regretted the decision, but there were times in my fourth  year, my last year in my PhD, I looked at my CV and said, maybe I should take another year just to fill this with more lines.

Imagine if we treated college that way! If we treated college the way we treat graduate school, it’d last a decade. We have a shared expectation that college should take 4 years. When full-time students take longer, we recognize it as a problem. But grad school is this formless thing, where people never feel like they’re done. And faculty can make that worse, even with the best of intentions. We need to set boundaries. After all, it’s a graduate student’s life we’re talking about here. There’s something that’s casually destructive about ignoring that. It’s not malicious, but it’s destructive.

Last question. How would you rank your optimism, or I guess pessimism, right now? Do you think change is likely?

I’m cautiously hopeful. I travel a fair bit these days, I go to a lot of schools, see a lot of programs. Even before I was promoting The Graduate School Mess, I was traveling to support the ideas in it. Based on what I’ve seen, I think that we’ve passed a tipping point, particularly in the awareness that we need to change our system. We’re not yet at a point of awareness, let alone consensus,about how to do it, though .  The conversations haven’t coalesced as to how to get that done. But they’re starting.  Programs that might not have considered changing at one time, even the older, big name programs, they’re getting it now. The fact that people are engaging me on this is proof of a growing, collective sense that we do have to change. The status quo is simply unacceptable from a variety of points of view, not least of them ethical. We’ve misused a lot of bright, good people, and it’s our moral responsibility to do better by our grad students. You know, faculty really do care. We are mostly well-intentioned, idealistic people. Most people in academia are motivated by some kind of commitment to something that’s bigger than themselves. As long as that’s the case, then change is possible. We just have to look around, recognize what’s happening, and commit ourselves to fixing the problems.