The great PhD scam
by Jordan Ellenberg
"We dangle our three magic letters before the eyes of these predestined
victims, and they swarm to us like moths to an electric light. They come at a
time of life when failure can no longer be repaired easily and when the wounds
it leaves are permanent . . . "
By nine o'clock, more than 200 would-be professors have piled into the
Cotillion Ballroom South at the Sheraton Washington hotel, filling every seat
and spilling over into the standing space behind the chairs. They're young and
old, dressed up and down, black and white and other (though mostly white).
They're here to watch Melani McAlister, a 1996 PhD in American Civilization
from Brown, explain to a committee of five tenured professors why she ought to
be hired at Indiana University.
-- William James
"The Ph.D. Octopus," 1903
Everybody looks nervous except McAlister. That's because, unlike almost
everyone else here, she doesn't need a job; she's an assistant professor at
George Washington University. This interview is a mock-up, a performance put on
to inform and reassure the crowd of job-seekers. As McAlister cleanly fields
questions about her thesis and her pedagogical strategy, the people in the
audience frown and nod, as if mentally rehearsing their own answers to the
similar questions they'll be asked in days to come.
This is night one of the 112th annual meeting of the Modern Language
Association, the national organization of professors of English, comparative
literature, and living foreign languages. Ten thousand scholars are here in
Washington, DC, to attend panels, renew acquaintances, and, most important, to
fill open faculty positions. A tenure-track job typically attracts hundreds of
applicants; of these, perhaps a dozen will be offered interviews at the MLA;
and from that set a handful will be called back for on-campus interviews. For
the people who are here "on the market," that is, trying to become
professors of English and so forth, the MLA is the gate to heaven. And, as
everyone in the room is aware, the gate is swinging shut.
McAlister is a slight, pretty woman with a trim hairdo and a trace of North
Carolina in her speech. All business, she explains how Steve Martin's song
"King Tut" "viewed Tut's `blackness' as a commodity, a cultural style to be
mobilized for the reconstruction of white masculinity." McAlister
specializes in cultural studies, a lately dominant strain of thought in English
departments which aims to question and decode culture by "reading" both
literary and extraliterary "texts," Steve Martin included. Cultural studies is
usually lumped with deconstructionism, Marxist and feminist criticism,
semiotics, and other allied fields under the rubric of theory; the term
has no fixed definition, but it's safe to think of it as anything in the
curriculum that makes George Will tug at his collar and cough.
Theory is also difficult for the layman to read, assigning technical and often
unintuitive meanings to common words such as commodity, construction, figure,
and spectacle. Like any specialized vocabulary, the language of cultural
studies functions in part to assert the speaker's authority, to keep the in
group in and the out group out. Tonight, McAlister is definitively telling the
audience they're in. She deftly mixes the language of theory with enough
explanation to make the masculinity of Tut intelligible to the large body of
job-seekers with more classical interests -- all the while conveying the
impression that the explanation is, of course, unnecessary, that she's
reminding the audience of things they already know.
"It's pornographic," Todd Gilman, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard, says
(approvingly) of the mock interview; another candidate's interview, he says, is
in real life "one of those moments that no one has access to." And, as in
pornography, the distinction between watching this performance and fantasizing
about one's own performance is intentionally blurred. McAlister's physical
smallness; her straightforward,
rural-inflected speech; even the peppily truncated spelling of her first name
make her wholly unthreatening and unalienating to the audience -- a figure with
whom everyone here can feel free to identify. You're meant to walk out of this
thinking: "I have a great résumé. I am a cultural-studies jock.
I'm smart and pretty and the focus of everyone's desire." And from the rapt
look of the audience, it seems to be working.
The real interviews start tomorrow morning.
Jordan Ellenberg is a writer living in Somerville.