Theory Teacher's Blog

So… You Want Humanities!!! (The Retort)

Almost exactly a month ago, I blogged [here] about the Xtranormal on-line cartoon “So you want to get a PhD in the humanities” that almost everyone in universities across the country (and outside the country) was talking about. That cartoon was so popular that it inspired a myriad of copycats about various other graduate school programs, including political science, physics, law school, film, business, and economics. It also inspired a reaction. One of my former students just e-mailed me this reactionary retort called “Yes, I want to get a Ph.D. in the Humanities” that was made a few days after my blog post about the original. In my post today, I want to briefly explain three things: first, why they copycats are not as funny as the original; second, the factual inaccuracies in the retort; and three, the ways in which the retort is a classic example of conservative, reactionary ideology. But before I do that, check it out:

First, why aren’t the copycats so funny?  The copycats resemble the original in that they exaggerate the bitterness of the professor and the naïveté of the student in order to dramatise the ironic contradiction between what the student (and society at large) expects and wants to believe and what the professor fears to be true. But despite the basic, structural similarity, it’s clear if you fool around with google searches that they haven’t had the popularity or buzz of the original. In my opinion, the copycats are less funny for a number of reasons. One reason is their lack of exigency — or what in Greek is called kairos.  Essentially, the context for the original was the recent cuts in various humanities programs at universities across the country that occurred at the same time a political movement in the country was attacking humanities professors. This situation was unique to humanities programs. The cartoon about business school, at least, does include references to the recent recession and the reckless greed on Wall Street that produced it, but the others appear to float above recent historical circumstances. What most of the copycats do instead is simply dramatise the difference between the idealised version and the realistic version — except that because their realistic version has no anchor in true reality (i.e., historical events or even much truth at all), the result is simply two competing fantasies (one utopic, the other distopic), both of which are absurd. A final reason why the copycats are less funny is that they seem to have misunderstood the multiple audiences of the original. As I wrote in my blog before, the original had two audiences, college students and college professors. My interpretation of the original is that it was more a satire on the contradictory state of universities today than it was a mockery of idealistic college students. Since the copycats seem to miss the sophistication of the original (i.e., its multiple audiences and its historical depth), they come across as flippant and silly.

But what about the retort? The retort draws attention to all the privileges and perks enjoyed by graduate students and college professors, but its many obvious factual inaccuracies undermine its humor. First, it assumes all graduate students get free health care, don’t pay taxes, and get to live in an affluent neighborhood, but of course graduate students had to fight hard in order to get health care and don’t pay taxes because they barely make enough to pay rent. (Never mind that not all universities are in affluent neighborhoods.) The history of health care is too complicated to describe in my blog today, but it includes instances in the recent past of graduate students without health care in near-death situations. Second, few graduate students get to travel around Europe, because such scholarships are extremely competitive and have become even more competitive in recent years, especially when European language programs are being cut entirely. There is a huge disconnect between the realities of being a college professor and the idealized version in the video. Likewise, in the popular imagination, college professors make a lot of money, but few actually do. Unfortunately, people who serve on the boards of universities and who actually affect its administrative decisions often believe the popular media representations of the overpaid, underworked, overprivileged professor and fail to give their full attention to the very data (i.e., actual salaries and lists of responsibilities) that is supposed to be the basis for their decisions. In other words, unfortunately, the fantasy about academic life has the potential to produce as much of an effect on administrative decisions as real, statistical data. Moreover, the video assumes that the recession is equally tough for everyone, but this is false. In fact it is statistically harder for Ph.D.’s in humanities to get jobs than for people with B.A.’s, and the reason for this is rather obvious — there is a wide variety of jobs someone with a B.A. can get (e.g., a bachelor’s degree in English can lead to a job in publishing, media, public relations, personnel, administration, teaching, law, medicine, politics, philanthropy, advocacy, etc., etc., etc.), but obviously a very limited pool of jobs for someone with a Ph.D. (e.g., being a professor or working in college administration.)

So, how does this video represent a reactionary, conservative ideology? There are obvious signs, such as the rather childish comment about postmodern theory and the irrelevant quotation by John Adams. The comment about theory is childish because empirical research was always the mainstay of English departments; and likewise theoretical questions have always been, and always will be, interesting to anyone with a brain wanting to do original research — theory simply inspires and directs new research questions. In fact, if anything, the highly empirical research models of Michel Foucault are now so entrenched that most graduate students are basically doing Foucaultian work even though they may not be fluent speakers of Foucault’s jargon or interested in his critical perspective (a state of affairs that many scholars observed about a decade ago.) The quote by John Adams is irrelevant since Adams lived two centuries ago and was expressing an ideal that he hoped the country would commit to, not describing the reality of what the country has in fact actually committed to. But beyond these two superficial signs of the anti-intellectual, reactionary ideology, we can go deeper. Conservative ideology values nostalgic, idealised imagery and represses data about actual working conditions. Whether one is talking about automobile workers, high school teachers, or farmers, the image the conservatives hold on to is one of happy, good people threatened by outsiders and subversives (i.e., dark-skinned theorists.) This image is deployed to undermine labor unions’ efforts to achieve basic rights such as minimum wage, safe working conditions, overtime pay, and realistic expectations about productivity. Hence, the point of the video is that we should all be content with the fantasy and suppress all of those who might point out the difference between the fantasy and reality.

That said, what I appreciate about the video is that it does remind professors that the job can be really sweet if one happens to be one of the lucky few to land in a good place. The hardest part about getting a Ph.D. in my experience is simply this — one has to commit oneself to a very uncertain future.


November 28, 2010 - Posted by | media, teaching


  1. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! I hadn’t seen the “response” cartoon until now, but it’s completely ridiculous for all of the reasons (and more) than you note here. MOST grad students (in Philosophy, anyway) AREN’T covered by health insurance. MOST grad students DON’T get to travel abroad extensively while they’re studying. And MOST universities/colleges are NOT in “affluent, beautiful towns.” In fact, MANY grad students DON’T recieve funding/stipends, and even those who do are likely still accumlating debt for the 5+ years that they are underemployed and matriculating… debt that won’t be easily repaid because, as you point out, even a *good* academic job doesn’t pay that much.

    One interesting point about the “response” video is that the Professor begins with the (subtle) caveat: “Do you realize, IF YOU GET INTO A GOOD SCHOOL…” In my mind anyway, this little throwaway remark actually reinforces one of the points in the original video, namely, that students are quite often so enamoured with their ideal “fantasy” of grad school and academia that they opt to ignore the basic facts. Among those facts: by definition, MOST students DON’T get into the “good schools” (which presumably offer health insurance, funded travel, adequate remuneration and which guarantee top-notch jobs in affluent and beautiful settings upon completion).


    Comment by Doctor J | November 28, 2010 | Reply

  2. The thing is, you may have just proved the nay-sayers right by talking and thinking (or vice-versa) about silly cartoons, probably while being paid a fortune, living in a great place, and, I presume, being hooked-up to an I.V. with sweet meds for free!

    Comment by Ziad | November 28, 2010 | Reply

  3. Thanks Leigh, and good catch on the caveat. I missed that.

    LOL, Ziad…. But coincidentally, I’ve had a nasty cold all Thanksgiving Break, so no I.V. or meds, but I can say that blogging on a Sunday morning in my apartment with a fever and sinus pressure is more do-able (and fun) work than revising and editing a scholarly article or grading papers. But so much for that — now it’s time to prepare for tomorrow’s classes.

    Comment by steventhomas | November 28, 2010 | Reply

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