Honeymooning in the Humanities: Letters of Rec

Posted by Natalie Strobach on January 19, 2014
The Profession

I want to preface this entire post by saying that…

Comp Lit Love

I’m fairly certain I’m the field’s biggest cheerleader. When I was 17 I declared that I would get a Ph.D. in Comp Lit. My undergraduate university didn’t even have comp lit as an option, so I combined English, French, Women’s Studies and Creative Writing, completing roughly one major per year so that I would graduate with my own private version of Comp. Lit.  All throughout my time teaching Comparative Literature at the University of California Davis, I have campaigned for the major. I know that the analytical, language, and writing skills we teach our undergrads leaves them well trained for several different professions. My program also puts a lot of time into TA training and maintains comfortable course sizes (often around 20 students, capped at 25), so students had the chance to be heard in the class in a way that other undergraduate majors could not provide in gigantic lecture halls. Students caught my love for comparative literature and year after year a few more trickled in to our department.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have several of those students take additional courses from me or stay in touch in other ways. And of course, a small batch of those students decided they wanted to go on to graduate studies. Like everyone else teaching in the humanities, I’ve written letters for a range of programs: med school, law school, environmental studies, and so on and so forth. I’ve also had a few students decide to go on to graduate work in Comp. Lit., which always made me absolutely joyous. Until now.

I have written two letters of recommendation in the past month. Both students had almost the exact same, near-perfect G.P.A.s and both had extensive extracurriculars from UC Davis, a Tier-1 research institution. They were both just magnificent students all around, students I would never shoot down for a letter of recommendation. The first student was applying to top law schools. Great! I was happy to write her a letter and thrilled to hear back as she was accepted to several high-profile institutions. I was confident that she had a great shot at success in her field, and hopeful that her Comp. Lit. training would add a humanistic edge to the way she practiced law, to everyone’s benefit. A teacher’s job well done, I could tell myself.

The other student caused me a bit more concern, for several reasons: she wanted letters for mediocre M.A. programs in Comparative Literature for which I could see no rhyme or reason other than locale. Having spent seven years supplementing my Comp. Lit. teaching load with work for UC Davis’ McNair Scholars Program, a federally-funded program designed to help students from underrepresented populations get into graduate school, my first two concerns were familiar: one, it’s a bad idea to limit your grad school search based on criteria like location; and two, a promising student with a great GPA should be shooting straight for doctoral programs, not an M.A. I realize that the role and value of the master’s degree varies by discipline, but certainly in literature, an unfunded M.A. is almost always an unnecessary added expense when a good doctoral program is a possibility.

But recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of people voicing an additional concern. Just look at this post from Justin Esarey, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rice and this one from Matthew Guterl, Chair of American Studies at Brown. And I’ve been hearing horror stories from friends who have been on the job market for years without finding something permanent. And now I’m starting to wonder: can I in good conscience recommend that my student pursue even a Ph.D. in  literature? After so many years of cheerleading the discipline, it was a worry I felt incredibly depressed about. Following all of the MLA debates this month, thinking about my own job options, I was nearly incapable of writing a a letter for the M.A. in Comp. Lit.

I wrote the letter, of course, with my full and utmost support. Then I took the time to write that student a separate letter. It was hard to write. I linked her to the articles on Slate and the Chronicle about the job market and about the adjunct crisis. I told her point blank what a bad idea I thought it was, economically, to apply to unfunded M.A.s, M.A.s that would leave her a step down from the level of institution from which she received her B.A. Now, this student is not a McNair scholar, so I’m not sure if she is okay with loans, has a trust fund, previously worked on Wall Street, or is married to a prince. Maybe it’s not an issue for her. G-d knows I’ve met enough Ph.D.s who were treating their doctoral tenure like the best alternative to boredom sitting home and watching Days of Our Lives, people who thought of doctoral work like a time for self-exploration more than a time for professionalization and building a career. But for those of us who intend the academy as a career, rather than a pastime, have we reached the point where encouraging a promising undergrad to enter a literature Ph.D. program is like encouraging the lead of your high-school musical to move to Hollywood and become a star?

As McNair scholar myself, I always thought getting a doctorate would entirely transform my life. As an undergraduate I knew the job market was always less than stellar, but that’s why I went to a fully funded program at a Tier 1. I definitely did not know it was bleak even at that level and I am perpetually saddened hearing of my colleagues’ job-search woes.  I’m honestly not even that jaded (though give me time, I suppose–as I’m just beginning my search for a full time position). I loved my program. I loved the coursework. I love my research. I love love love teaching and working with students. I love feeling like I am constantly contributing to the future in working with those students and I love constantly being awake with new ideas for research. And more than some of my peers, I’m very open to a variety of career opportunities in the academy: positions in administration and advising are, to me, still central to the academic community I love.

But not knowing where I myself will be in ten (or five, or two) years, how can I recommend this career path to a promising 22-year-old who could just as easily be pursuing a career in an easier or more lucrative field? And if I can’t, how do you continue to love a field that you shouldn’t share? 

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