Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Thirty Years Ago: PhD Comps

This morning I realized that it's been 20 years since I took my PhD Comprehensive Exams.  Then, 10 minutes later, I thought, no, it's been 30 years--I took Comps in 1991.

It was such a different world then, in so many ways.  We arrived on that morning of Oct. 7 (or was it the 8th?) with our blue books and pens in hand.  We were ushered into the better English department conference room, the one with the better chairs and the longer table.  We were given our questions, and we had the full day to write our answers.  We did the same thing on the second day.  Some of the questions would come from the test bank that we had been given early in our grad school enrollment.  Some would be unseen.

We were expected to make reference to critics and scholars, albeit in a general way.  It was a test process that rewarded people like me, people who had been well trained in talking about the scholarly approach to a work in a broad, general sense, people like me who could encapsulate the history of the literary work and our thinking about the work, in just a few sentences.

I remember looking at the questions and thinking that they had been chosen with me in mind--and of course, that was likely true.  Our grad school professors chose the questions, and they knew who was testing.  When I made my way through grad school, I saw the whole system as being set up to admit only a few of us, while the rest of us faced obstacle after obstacle.  In some ways, that was true.  

But in many other ways, my view wasn't true.  I went to the University of South Carolina, a state school, not one of the Ivy Leagues.  It's a shame that my professors weren't better at articulating the process.  Imagine how it would have been different if they had said, "We want to help you become a better scholar, a better teacher, a better writer.  No matter where you start, that is our mission."  I look back now and see that mission statement.  At the time, I thought there were a few slots, and we all had to fight to keep them, a graduate game of musical chairs as it was.

Of course, in terms of replicating our graduate school professors, in the hope of landing a job like the ones our professors had, we were playing a rigged game.  Those jobs, tenured faculty at a flagship state school's English department, have mostly all disappeared.  And even back then, in the 1990's, those jobs had disappeared.  We thought it might have been a temporary blip.  Surely once professors started retiring, we would have jobs open up.

In fact, when I started grad school, that was the expectation shared by so many of us:  all those professors hired in the late 1960's and early 1970's would start to retire, and we would finally be at the right place in the right time in the life of the U.S. economy.  Now we all know that was not to be.

In some ways, I was lucky.  There were still plenty of community college jobs to be had.  The for-profit sector was expanding.  But those jobs didn't leave much time for the reading and writing that had made a teaching job so attractive.

I do realize the irony of it all, the fact that those community college jobs look pretty good right now, even though the pay hasn't gone up significantly since I left the one I had back in the mid 90's.  Sigh.

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