March 6 - 13, 1 9 9 7
[Dead-end Degrees]

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 . . . "

-- William James
"The Ph.D. Octopus," 1903

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.

Learning to cope

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.

Part 2

Jordan Ellenberg is a writer living in Somerville.