What are the most useless things you learned at grad school? Here are nine of the stupidest things they taught me, plus I call Harold Bloom an overeducated asshole.
Grad school. It’s a wonderful time. Filled with books, personal growth, and abject poverty. You sit up there, in a seminar room, uncoding ideology, sipping coffee, writing beautifully complex titles to articles, dazzling a room of undergrads with your strings of words like, ‘the rhetoric of ideology,’ ‘the process of trauma and mourning,’ ‘the intersection of auditory technology and discourses of the body.’
And then it happens. In the midst of a four hour discussion on a Thursday night about the covert politics of some obscure Bishop in 17th century England, you begin to wonder about the wisdom of your obscure career choice.
Your professor won’t shut up. It’s 5:30. He’s now talking about the Earl of Rochester (how many goddamn Earl’s of Rochester were there? Or are they all the same one?).
Three hours later, after an evening of researching journal entries of some deranged artist in the archive, you walk to the bus-stop in the dark. The campus is empty. Your friends drive by in big cars driving to their hip downtown condos, buying vacations to Vegas on the weekend, drinking bottles of wine and sushi in nice restaurants, while you while you parse some Latin, feeling guitly about buying a 2 dollar coffee.
Grad school, you think, is useless. Is the 1300 dollar per month fellowship the department gives you to survive really the sign of a starry future? If your uneducated friends are getting all of the benefits of life. . .
Are you really the smart one?
Years later, you leave academia. Try to polish your resume. Try to find a nonacademic career. It’s then you wonder if, just if, a few of those thousands and thousands of hours spent studying the glory of aesthetic contemplation couldn’t have also included a few practical hours of work experience?
Here’s a list of the 10 most worthless things I learned at grad school. These are the things that could have been cut from the curriculum. Because if I hadn’t been learning these things, I could have been studying some that actually might have helped me find a nonacademic job faster after leaving graduate school.
#1 How to Write a Title That Begins Playfully and then Ends with Serious Scholarly Tone
After much study, you learn the little formula.Begin with a slightly playful pun about the theme. Then hammer serious in the second part so that people know that you are producing seriously complex scholarship.
Here are some real titles published by real scholars. Let’s examine their sparkling rhetorical architecture.
Bleak Houses: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction
Notice the first clever pun, subtly alluding to Charles Dickens’ classic work, and yet, also brilliantly calling our attention to an overlooked aspect of Victorian scholarship, one that happened behind closed doors—martial violence and unhappy households. Write like this and you can buy some wire-rim glasses, have a giddy following of undergraduates at your office door, and call yourself an eminent scholar.
The Plot Thickens: Toward a Narratological Analysis of Illustrated Serial Fiction
I wasn’t sure what narratological analysis was, but if I had to guess it would be over-complication of low-culture Victorian magazines so as to justify serious scholarly attention. But the opening joke is wonderful and shows the playful side of the scholar. Who said serious scholarship can’t be fun?
It isn’t. But that brief space before the first colon is your moment to express your bookish self.
De-scribing Empire: Post-Colonialism and Textuality
Whoa. This one is intense. Wait a minute…this isn’t just old scholarship. This is political action!
Again, notice the clever opening pun, suggesting both the first imperialist activity of description and the second activity of scholarly un-doing which uncovers the ideological matrix of imperial control that happens at the insidious level of textuality. It’s like opening the hood and seeing the ideological processes of language exposed right before your eyes. Take note.
It won’t take you long to learn how to write titles like this. But it will most likely make you waste many hours thinking of puny ways to begin your blog posts until someone gently puts their hand on your shoulder and says. . . please. . . stop.
#2 The Other
Without a doubt, the most sensitive person / thing / white light to ever exist. If you give it a name, or even try to explain it, the Other instantly evaporates.
He / she / it / the nameless lives in the shadows, an uninvited yet completely necessary guest, but this is not its choice. Nay, it has been put out there in the cold, to look into your happy home, by the exclusionary ethos of your imperialist self.
Whatever you do, never speak about the other. Never name the other. Just coax it out of the shadows with a soft Derridian chant (yes, yes, yes). Sorry, that might have been confusing as translation is im-possible, oiu, oiu, oiu.
It also has a philosophical algebraic relationship thus: M(Other).
Does that help?
No? That’s because you are a hegemonic fascist who demands everything to have a clear meaning.
And just to make sure we are all on the same deconstructed page here, cutting your hair crooked, hosting a campus radio show about social issues, and wearing a “Fuck your gender” pin on your book bag, does not make you a champion of the Other. Just an over-read, middle-class soulless rebel.
Now, here is the real challenge: explain your thesis on the Other in 5 sentences after an potential employer asks you what you have been up to in your twenties.
#3 What a Livery is. . .
To be honest, I actually didn’t learn what a livery was in grad school. I looked it up about six months ago.
But based on the endless discussions we had in a graduate seminar about early modern London, I deducted that (1) they’re were a lot of liveries in London, making them some sort of significant architectural feature of the city (2) they were located near the Globe Theater. I had heard that Shakespeare and Marlow used to hang out in pubs, absorbing the daily culture and rhythms of speech, drinking and flirting with each other.
So I assumed that the reason why I was being taught about liveries was because they were the common meeting grounds of writers. It made sense. No. They are for horses. Liveries are stables.
So all that time we were talking about fucking horse houses. Thank-you for that Tuesday morning every week for 4 months that I will never get back.
#4 How to Write an Enumerative Bibliography
In the unlikely event your future employer at the local Starbucks will need an alphabetical list of every worthless piece of text published on a given topic, the best thing to do is to spend a good 2 months assembling and learning the ropes of bibliographic studies.
The idea is to be exhaustive. Include every half-baked thesis. Every scrap of paper that mentions your subject. At the end of it all, you will have a ten to twenty page document with hundreds of articles and books.
With your new bird’s eye’s view on “the field of scholarship,” you can now know where to insert your scholarly contribution to “the critical conversation” (more on the “critical conversation” later).
After about 52 years of dissertation slave-labour, your name will one day be added to someone else’s bibliography and you will have secured stellification among the immortal voices of thought.
A tenure job.
#5 How to Collate
Every few years, publishers decide to re-release some old classic book like The Great Gatsby. It is at this point they pick up the phone, dial an “eminent scholar in the field” (the guy with the trendy wire-rim glasses down the hall) and tell him to get down to the archive because they’re are some important editorial decisions to be made.
And so the lone scholar descends. He emerges 12 years later with 4 significant changes. And he tells you them in the introduction to the new edition of the public domain book which you have just paid 24.99 for. They are:
On page 6, 8, and 199, I have removed 3 commas.
On page 12, I have added a sentence that was deleted by the last editor.
On page 176, I have added a note from the author which I found while methodically going through a box of his teenage diary entries which clearly present the development of his aesthetic theory. I found these on a 3-month research trip during the Summer break.
On page 243, I have changed a semi-colon to a colon (imagine 17 pages explaining the linguistic significance of the nuanced change).
On page 113 I have, against all common sense, added a coma which the scholar before me took it out due to his latent imperialist use of grammar to constrain unruly subjects.
Of course your chances of actually getting a tenure track job and being asked to collate anything after grad school is incredibly slim. You might ask yourself, rather than learning this archaic art, wouldn’t my time be better spent learning a few online editorial principles that I could add to my resume after I graduate? Or perhaps a class in technical writing? Yes.
And as you sit in the hot seminar room on a beautiful June afternoon, learning how to fold folios and collate galley proofs, you might also wonder. . . Isn’t the current copy of the Great Gatsby good enough? I mean didn’t the last editor do a pretty good job?
Perhaps. But literary texts are inherently unstable objects, fluctuating with the ebb and flow of cultural mores. We must, for the sake of civilization, reclaim their original voice from the archives of the dead.
Thank-you. But I had a different question—Nick, the main character in the Great Gatsby…he’s gay right?
#6 How to Add Your Voice to the ‘Critical Conversation’
Want to be a real asshole at dinner parties?
Learn the simple art of counter-discourse. It’s easy. Never agree with any thing anyone says.
Trained scholars do not merely paraphrase the ideas of great thinkers. They digest them, ponder them, and then present them back to the world, adding their voice to the great rolling dialogue of thought.
They, as my professor used to say, make “critical interventions.” And this must happen in every article and every book published.
The wonderful part is that you don’t actually need to have anything real to say. Just summarize the existing scholarship, and then pretend to offer a new radical interpretation. At any given year in America, thousands of monographs are each, according to the authors, are presenting “a new understanding of (whatever scholarly field you are in).”
“You will all be considered for tenure jobs,” said my professor, “by your ability to change the field.” We all wrote that down in our MoleSkin journals. “Remember to change the field…or you won’t get a job.”
On average, the humanities field changes radically with every paper and book publishes. The same thing happens in every other department on campus. Oh, expect the Music Department. They just listen to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew over and over and over.
As any scholar playing the game knows, the architecture is more important than the furniture. Heavily assert radical new interpretations. Abstractly demonstrate with a few fragments of text.
You are encouraged to call this as frequently as possible: “your work” or “my current research focuses on. . .” And now you know how to write your first monograph.
So what’s your critical intervention?
#7 Old English Translation
While it’s tempting to spend your twenties playing the lute on the green hills of campus, there are two things to consider before spending five years to learn how to translate Old English.
First, everything in Old English has been translated. It’s not like there are a bunch of Old English texts out there that nobody can figure out. So you will actually be re-translating and, most likely, producing an inferior version. (The American and British Aristocracy at Harvard and Cambridge have little else to ‘work’ on for the last 150 years).
Second, there wasn’t very much translation work to begin with. Aside from Beowulf, there are a couple of pages of Christ’s parables, some weird “Guess What I AM?????” poems, and some poem about a dog-person yearning for his or her lover which has baffled scholars for years about the exact meaning as it seems to have contradictory meanings, a fact that could be attributed to either (1) it was written by some lunatic Saxon cave person with no formal education (2) it was written by a Middle Earth teenager (?). The field has been trampled.
Just watch the movie version of Beowulf and assume the book is way better.
#8 Benjamin’s Aura
The aura. The aura.
Picture this. Right now in some graduate seminar, a frazzled student is about to speak. She has waited her turn. Everyone is dreading it as her ideas usually involve bizarre interpretations of theory, stuffing postmodernist ideas into some mystical monotheistic / negative theology framework.
Here it comes. “I couldn’t help but notice this but your paper reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the aura . . .”
And everyone in the room with half a brain dies a little more.
It doesn’t matter if the paper is on early modern drama or cutting-edge neuroscience. Some schizophrenic grad student is going to bring up the concept of the aura.
It will take you about 3 weeks of disciplined close-reading to understand Benjamin’s concept of the aura in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” So all of the August afternoons you spent deciphering that stupid essay was so that you would have knowledge of one of the most cliched and mocked academic concepts. Awesome.
#9 How to Write a Thesis
Nobody in the real world cares that you discovered an “exciting and new” interpretation of Jane Eyre which apparently was overlooked by contemporary scholarship due to their cultural prejudices.Nor do they care that according to your new research, we will better understand the ( cultural / political / sexual identity / racial / historical) perspective of the author’s vision of her society and how these currents of thought have shaped our own (cultural / political / sexual identity / racial / historical) perspective.
If you are lucky, you might get your paper published in a journal with a prestigious name so that future employers think you are smart. Like the European Journal of Aesthetics and Culture.
Otherwise, it’s Quake: The Journal of Anti-Imperialist Discourse Voices or, after they turn you down, Gender Blender: The Journal of Radical Non-Conformist Tenured Scholars and no respect for you.
And finally, you leave academia. . .
Retreating from the green campus, the leafy pathways, the empty library halls.
Your thesis sits on a shelf.
Later, it becomes clear why Grad School was so useless. It took you deep into the forest of specialization. You began normal. You told people you wanted to study “literature.” Years later, you told people “My research focuses on the discursive text of cannibalism, a discourse of body and transcription, with particular emphasis on the visual apparatuses of colonial writing and the competing narratives of slave tattoos between the period of 1799 and 1806.”
Many awkward pauses later, you return to vagueness. What did I study at grad school? Political movements. Yes, all of them.
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