Publication Date

January 1, 2000

There is nothing like an old friend's wedding to focus the mind upon one's place in the world. As I struggle to finish my doctoral dissertation in American history, I find myself attending one wedding after another. At each one, in the midst of the dining and dancing, I hear the same questions. "You are still in graduate school?" they ask. "What are you going to do with your degree? Teach?" they inquire. Sometimes they wonder what I like about my work. Always, they say, "How is the job market?"

Many of you who read these words are, like me, devoting years to obtaining a degree that prepares you for a tenure-track position in a history department at a college or university. Hopefully, you have asked yourself these questions, perhaps more than once. They are worth delving into. With this task in mind, I recommend the recently publishedAcademic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education, by Carey Nelson, Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois, and Stephen Watt, professor of English and cultural studies at Indiana University.

Academic Keywords is organized around central terms that pertain to university life. To somebody who has not experienced this life, it is probably a dull book, hardly provocative enough to deserve a “devil” in its title. But for graduate students, this guide through what often can seem like a torturous hell is riveting. Nelson and Watt are relentless in their incantations of the blights that have hit the university, and they “make no apology for and offer no retreat from the very bleak, even apocalyptic, portrait” that they “paint of higher education’s prospects” (xi).

The authors argue that too many PhDs are being produced for the university to accommodate. Professors want graduate programs, so they convince themselves that this student will be lucky, that this one will get a tenure-track job. But years in graduate school are taxing. The academic track is an excruciating exercise in delayed gratification. Too many good people spend too large a chunk of their lives postponing other things to concentrate upon one ever-receding goal: the tenured professorship.

Academic Keywords suggests that even this goal is tarnished. Increasingly, a corporate logic has been imposed upon the university, turning students into “consumers” and professors into “employees,” whittling away the power even of tenured professors, and diminishing the quality of existence for students and faculty alike. Professors have retreated from university governance; administrators with the latest managerial models have taken their place. The special values that the university was supposed to uphold are under siege, and the peculiar pleasures of academic life are threatened.

Nelson and Watt offer two concrete solutions. The first, a "temporary strategy," is to "downsize" graduate programs in oversupplied disciplines—in history, for example (122). Their second, more radical solution is to challenge the corporate university itself. They emphasize the potential power of organizing, through a union, through a professional organization, or through established campus-wide channels. In this respect, the authors believe that graduate students have set a fine example. As they put it, graduate student unions "can restore your faith in the university" (156). Throughout the book, they convey a solidarity with graduate students as unusual among tenured professors as it is welcome. Most important, they understand that, among other things, a university has become an increasingly precarious workplace, and that as academic workers we must take stock of our common situation and act accordingly. If enough professors took this insight to heart, universities would be far better places.

Reading Academic Keywords should discourage anyone with even a smidgen of sanity from pursuing life as an academic historian. Obtaining a PhD in history is difficult, and the degree offers uncertain rewards. This book might be hyperbolic. But if its depiction of the state of higher education today is even half accurate, we are being trained to enter an academy that will reject or mistreat most of us.

On a positive note, those who read this book and still want to continue on the academic track will know that they are doing so for the right reasons. Buried beneath the almost overwhelming grimness of this book is an answer to the mystery of why, every year, curious, intelligent, sane individuals enter history graduate programs. "Perhaps no other occupation," write Nelson and Watt, "guarantees you the right to talk intensely with others about texts and issues that matter most to you." And while they note the difficulties of teaching, they argue that "if responsibilities come with that opportunity, so too do some of the great pleasures of the American workplace" (283).

Perhaps the scarcity of such happy words in this book is a result of the authors' assumption that readers do not need to be reminded of their blessings. In the end, however, Academic Keywords confirmed for me three central insights, the first of which is that we do need to remember our blessings. We must not become so preoccupied with the uncertainties and tortures of academic life that we forget the passion for history and for ideas that motivated us to start upon this path in the first place. Second, the book strengthened my belief that we must fight collectively, with all of our might, for the kind of university that we believe in. Finally, as we weigh numerous decisions—to take out more loans, to live apart from loved ones for the sake of that treasured academic job, to continue adjuncting, to take a nonacademic job, or to consider getting a more “practical” degree—we must keep the proper perspective and remember what an old friend’s wedding should remind us of: that there is a difference between making a career and making a life.

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