Cheese Rolling at the Bazaar: Abstract Advice for Doctoral Candidates in the Humanities
Retaining confidence on the present humanities job market can involve quite the application of cognitive dissonance, intentional narcissism, and false consciousness. In both PhD programs and at the employment carnival, remembering the original desire that an academic once had to compete in a university system that is consistently both underfunded and critiqued as superfluous can test the very ethical principles that many researchers first applied when writing their graduate school applications.
The anti-intellectual environment of the public sphere frequently asserts that many in the humanities are victims of an egg-head syndrome that prevents pursuing tangible goals. I regularly ponder, how can scholars who want to pursue humanities education engage a public sphere that often argues their intellect is wasteful, unnecessary, and out-of-touch? What is an academic supposed to do when economic incentives to remain in the academy are declining, the student population often resists any knowledge that questions their own beliefs, and the public increasingly finds truth more from emotional hearsay on the anonymous internet than with veritable facts and rigorous methodology?
For many of us in the first few years of our academic careers, we are forced to bounce. I have recently found myself away from family in another country, and am grateful for the academic opportunity in that land to the North, even as I am disconnected. Like a wheel of cheese down Cooper’s Hill, the early career academic must take each knot of dirt and grass in their path to spin off in whatsoever a direction the job market leads. Ten years on a research project, climbing as a Sisyphus into impenetrable historiographies, false hypotheses, and funding quagmires, led many to the top of a graduate school mountain. A brief morning on that summit, receiving a diploma to become a PhD, truly meant something, and will mean something to those still pushing their substantial academic stones.
The PhD is an accomplishment that culminates years of educational pursuit, social sacrifice, and consistently virtuous behavior. However, for many, staring off that mountaintop often leads to the sight of an abysmal market below. And, as the cheese on the hill, many of us roll quickly down, without agency, only hoping that some university will grasp before the bottom of the chasm sends us back to the missing metaphors of parent’s basements, friend’s couches, or psychiatrist’s lounges. The different personal, social, and ethical goals pursued to become PhDs may never come to fruition. There is no magical thinking, vision board, or law of attraction that will make academic dreams come true. There is no Secret in the world that outshines meritocracy or materialism. Instead, we have only ourselves to ponder. Accordingly, what is the best thing to do for an early career academic facing underemployment, a lack of employment, or the crisis of giving up moral principles to enter particular employment?
Hold on to ethics. The flights of anti-intellectualism may have reached to the highest offices in this country, but that is only a brief layover. Hold on to pride. Retain confidence in who you are as a person, in the work you have created, in that original hope that you could change the world for the better. Do not compromise who you are because you fear unemployment. Find always that original hope that started your path to a doctorate. Rediscover those social truths that prize research, teaching, and the importance of intellect, even as some may assert that intelligence is a waste, your project is not right for this institution, or you just do not have the right experience.
Make your work matter.
Never betray your ethical self.
And, in the end, you will find the place you were meant for in this majestic, meritocratic, spiritual, divisive, honest, and hopeful conglomerate called the academy.
Andrew Kettler received his doctorate from the History Department at the University of South Carolina in May 2017. He researches the use of olfactory language in the making of racial, class, and gendered metaphors that were used to assert forms of state, religious, and patriarchal power during the Enlightenment. Andrew has recently published some of these original findings in Senses and Society and the Journal of American Studies. During the 2016-2017 academic year, Andrew completed graduate research using funds provided from the Bilinski Educational Foundation. For the 2017-2018 academic year, Andrew is serving as Assistant Professor and Early American History Fellow at University College, University of Toronto. In spring 2018, Andrew will continue monograph research as a Mayers Residential Fellow at the Huntington Library and a Center for New World Comparative Studies Fellow at the John Carter Brown Library. His manuscript, “Odor and Power in the Americas,” focuses on the importance of aromatic class consciousness in the making of Atlantic resistance to the racialized olfactory discourses of state, religious, and slave masters.
Questions? Comments? Ideas? Email GRADprofdev@sc.edu.