Sterling Professor of the Humanities Harold Bloom is frail.
After his son walks Bloom to WLH every Wednesday and Thursday, he sets up a video camera across the table to record his father’s seminar. Once the class is underway, Bloom periodically rises and stomps his feet, once every 30 minutes. It’s the ceremony of being ancient.
“You must forgive the old man, little bears,” he says, “for if I do not exercise these tired limbs, you will have to carry me out of here on your backs.”
He and Levin have an agreement, Bloom says: The former will keep teaching until the latter retires.
In 2008, Sterling Professor of History of Art Vincent Scully ’40 GRD ’49 retired after more than 60 years of teaching. The History of Art Department had no one immediately prepared to replace him, so the class was canceled for the term. In 2009, Bloom struggled to finish his classes and fell so ill he had to be hospitalized; Professor Leslie Brisman graded students’ papers for him. Days later, Sterling Professor of Classics and History Donald Kagan fell down a flight of stairs while walking to class and had to be hospitalized. He couldn’t leave the hospital to deliver his final lecture, so his TAs encouraged students to watch recordings of the previous year’s last lecture online.
JOHN WILLIAM STERLING
“He was rather a short man, very straight, with bright eyes and rather vivid coloring. He gave one the impression of great alertness,” wrote Anson Phelps Stokes, Secretary to Yale University from 1899–1921. “I shall never forget the impression he made on me.”
In a letter, dated May 21, 1926, to University Librarian Andrew Keogh, Stokes provided a detailed recollection of his first meeting with John William Sterling, Class of 1864. The secretary claims that he immediately knew he was in the presence of a very hard worker whose interest in Yale was intense.
“The University was at that time — I think that this was 1906 — in great need of funds,” Stokes wrote. He was engaged in the “Yale Endowment and Extension Movement,” and an alum from Stokes’s class of 1896 had encouraged him to speak with Sterling.
The era of industrialist robber barons and muckraking journalists was in full swing. Sterling was an established, immensely successful lawyer in New York City. He had graduated from Yale in 1864 and was admitted to the bar three years later. He became a corporate lawyer and, in 1871, co-founded Shearman & Sterling, the firm that would represent Jay Gould, Henry Ford, Standard Oil and the Rockefellers.
Would he contribute to the Endowment and Extension Movement?
“It was stated that he was difficult to approach,” Stokes wrote, “and that he never contributed to Yale objects.” Other reports, though, had reached Stokes indicating that the lawyer might have finally changed his mind.
The two met in Sterling’s New York office.
“Mr. Stokes, I am working here night and day with one great object in mind,” Sterling said, “to make as much money as I honorably can to leave to Yale University. When I die you will find that I have left you a fabulous sum.”
In his letter to the librarian, penned 20 years later, Stokes recollected the last line of their conversation: “Now Mr. Stokes, please remember that this is told you in the strictest confidence, which I shall ask you to share with no one during my lifetime.”
And, for 20 years, the words and the promise exchanged between these two men remained stored like a safety deposit box, untouched, in the vault of Anson Stokes’ mind.
EXCEPT FOR ONE
Harold Bloom declined to comment for this article because, the professor said, he needs his strength for teaching and talking to students about their essays. Tom Schmidt ’07 LAW ’11 worked for two years as his personal assistant. Schmidt took three seminars with Bloom at Yale. He drove Bloom to class. He typed manuscripts for Bloom.
After graduating, Schmidt went to Cambridge on a Mellon scholarship. Bloom now has Thayne Stoddard ’11, another student assistant, and Schmidt is in his third and final year at Yale Law School. He occasionally visits the professor at his home and in class.
Asked to describe the qualities of Bloom that make him as a successful teacher, Schmidt spoke slowly: “His outrageous intellectual capacities: his memory for poetry is extraordinary, as is his writing, and his enthusiasm for poetry is contagious.” Like Bloom, Schmidt speaks in prose.
Harold Bloom is an American writer and literary critic, the author of “The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry,” “Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens,” “Hamlet: Poem Unlimited,” “The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost, “and, most notably, “The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry and “The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages,” the recipient of the 1985 MacArthur Fellowship, a prominent antagonist of other writers and academics, an opponent of feminist, Marxist, and New Historicist forms of literary criticism, an 80 year-old with a bum leg, a legendary collector of sweaters, perhaps a genius on the scale of Samuel Johnson or Oscar Wilde, and a Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University, where he has taught for 55 years.
“A mind of that quality is a very rare thing. You can’t expect every generation to produce it,” said Schmidt. But can our generation — internet natives weaned not on black ink but glowing screens — even produce another Harold Bloom, a man who once boasted he could read 1000 pages an hour?
“Oh, it’s still possible,” said Schmidt.
“$15,000,000 STERLING BEQUEST TO YALE”
The honorable amount of money that John William Sterling left Yale was a sum of $15 million. When he died in 1918, it was the largest sum of money ever donated to an institution of higher learning in history. Adjusted for inflation, the “Sterling Bequest” was worth more than $200 million in today’s dollars.
A gift of comparable size, Stephen Adams’s ’59 $100 million donation to Yale School of Music in 2005, left the school entirely free for all students in the foreseeable future. Sterling’s gift, however, was literally twice as awesome.
The former lawyer also mandated that his estate fund “at least one enduring, useful and architecturally beautiful building, which will constitute a fitting Memorial of my gratitude to and affection for my Alma Mater.” But there was enough money for four: Sterling Memorial Library, the Sterling Law Building, the Hall of Graduate Studies, and where the aspiring M.D. waited for his interview, the Sterling Hall of Medicine.
And yet there was still one last clause. Sterling had instructed that the rest of his money be spent on “to some extent, the foundation of Scholarships, Fellowships or Lectureships, the endowment of new professorships and the establishment of special funds for prizes.” It seems like almost an afterthought; but this small clause has gone a long way in the past 92 years.
According to the Yale Office of Public Affairs, a Sterling professorship is the highest honor bestowed on Yale faculty. It is awarded by the president of the university to academics considered the very best in their field.
University President Arthur Twining Hadley awarded the first Sterling professorship in 1920 to the chemist John Johnson. Nine Yale presidents have since conferred Sterling appointments on countless tenured academics. A cattle-call of the most famous recipients would include economist William Nordhaus, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Nobel Prize winner James Tobin, art historian Vincent Scully, historian of Ancient Greece Donald Kagan and former Yale President Howard Lamar.
Professor Pericles Lewis is the director of graduate studies for the Comparative Literature department. He is not a Sterling professor, but he works closely with two: “Professors [David] Quint and [Roberto] González Echevarria have each written several major critical works and countless important essays …. Their work displays a richness of learning and originality of thought that are the marks of the best scholarship,” Lewis wrote via e-mail.
To work along these leaders is very inspiring for younger faculty, he said, which gets at his ultimate evaluation of the Sterling professorship’s positive qualities: “The primary rewards of an academic life are not financial — they are about leading an intellectually fulfilling life and also, to some extent, about the recognition of your peers; distinctions like named chairs are a way to recognize and encourage the highest accomplishment.” So competition and recognition give rise to cooperation.
When starting to select a Sterling professor, University President Richard Levin said he consults with the Provost, as well as the deans of Yale College, the Graduate School, the Law School and the Medical School before making a decision. Usually, once he has identified a candidate, he will check with the relevant department chairs as well. A research stipend of $4,000 per year also comes with the appointment.
“I don’t know how many Sterling professors were established originally,” Levin said in an e-mail. “But when I became President in 1993 there were 27.”
The professorship’s growth moves in tandem with the rise and fall of the American economy. “During the 1990s the endowment grew rapidly, to a point where it exceeded the funds needed to pay for 27 professors,” Levin said. So Levin recommended to the Corporation that they expand the number of authorized chairs to 36, but it took several years to reach that level, he explained. “Subsequently, in the middle of the next decade, as the endowment continued to grow, we expanded the number of authorized chairs to 40, and we have still not reached that level.”
The “Sterling professor” page on Wikipedia lists the names of 43 professors as “Current Sterling professors.”
“I believe that, after last spring’s retirements, we currently have 37,” Levin said. He’s right, and Wikipedia is wrong. However, many of the six Emeritus professors listed on the Internet (the only place they are listed) continue to teach classes.
Publicly available statistics of another kind, the “Faculty Gender Equity Indicators report” of 2006, showed that Yale employed 979 tenured professors. 20.2 percent of tenured professors at Yale are female, and women hold 40.8 percent of tenure track jobs, the report stated. Harvard and Princeton had similar ratios of tenured female professors, but a lesser percentage of women were on the tenure track at each.
As usual at Yale, a tinge of bitterness rears its head when statistics and demographics are taken together into consideration. Of the 37 active Sterling professors, seven are from the law school. “The disproportionate number derives from a historical agreement made decades ago to allocate to the Law School six of the then 24 positions,” Levin explained. “John Sterling was, after all, a famous lawyer!” While Levin was not obligated to increase the number beyond six when the total number increased, he said he did so based on the merits of the candidates proposed by the deans.
But only five Sterling professors of the 43 total are women: Annabel Patterson, María Rosa Menocal, Dean of Yale College Mary Miller, Carolyn Slayman and Joan A. Steitz. Why the continued emphasis on male professors?
David Bromwich, named Sterling Professor of English in 2006 and Harold Bloom’s favorite student of all time according to one source, sits in his office, a Jonathan Edwards College Fellows’ suite. It is dark, and the desk is almost bare apart from a neat stack of books. The walls are covered with more books than I have ever seen in a professor’s office.
“My life hardly changed after I was named a Sterling professor; so our conversation will be very brief,” he said.
This past fall Bromwich taught two seminars, one on Wallace Stevens and the other on 18th-century literary critic Samuel Johnson. When he was a Ph.D. candidate in the ’70s, Bromwich was the teacher’s assistant of Harold Bloom’s DeVane Lecture on the poet Wallace Stevens.
Back in his office, Bromwich was considering how Bloom became Bloom. He pointed to the many books, “some of them remarkable,” that Bloom wrote in his early career. “Good and great teachers sometimes have this quality of contagious enthusiasm,” Bromwich said. “But no, I don’t think there’s a universal quality of a great professor.” He pointed to another model of a teacher: More reserved, carefully calibrating all their assertions. “That’s a different kind of a scholarly imagination,” he said.
Bromwich is that teacher, the second kind. He’s young compared to most Sterling professors, and correspondingly spry: He refrains from digressions in seminars, he does not give prepared remarks, and his students know him for his rigor.
Bromwich, Bloom and Kagan all have marked their territory as Sterling professors by directing their attention on and off campus: Bromwich has a monthly column on The Huffington Post, a popular news blog; Bloom, for better or worse, has been engaged in one academic dispute or another for the majority of his career. He speaks, mostly with relish, of his great rivals: Paul de Man, Helen Vendler and Stephen Greenblatt. (He speaks of Naomi Wolf, who accused him in the pages of New York Magazine of sexual harassment in 2004, not at all.) Kagan’s books are reviewed not just in scholarly journals but also on popular websites like Slate.com. And he is the father of two sons, Robert and Frederick, both active in conservative politics.
But Bromwich hesitated to afford any special significance to Sterling professors and laughed off the possibility of there being a predetermined pathway to Sterling professorship. Asked how he achieved the rank himself, he looked sincerely baffled: “I don’t know,” he confessed. “Luck and work in some combination,” he said with a chuckle. He steered the conversation away from Sterling professorships. “Tenure is something more general and therefore much more important because it assists academic freedom,” he said solemnly.
Indeed, at other universities, the highest-ranking chair often comes with a new desk, meaning new responsibilities or new authority. Harvard’s 22 University Professors are not only alleged to be “individuals of distinction…working on the frontiers of knowledge” but act as ombudsmen on faculty issues, similar to divisional committees at Yale. Larry Summers, Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, and poetry professor Helen Vendler are University Professors. Louis and Gates did not return e-mails or phone calls requesting comment for this article, but after poetry professor Stephen Greenblatt accidentally picked up his office phone assuming the reporter “was a colleague calling me right back,” he agreed to a five minute phone interview the next day while he walked between classes. Greenblatt was unfamiliar with the details of the University professorship. At one point, he interrupted the interview to look up the “Harvard University Professor” Wikipedia page on his cell phone’s Internet browser. His ultimate answer to the question of whether the position came with a salary increase was to say, “Universities like Harvard and Yale have many symbolic forms of compensation, and this one, University Professor, doesn’t involve any increase in monetary way,” he said. “It’s symbolic capital.”
University Professors at Harvard and at Columbia (where they have the same name and essentially the same privileges) are allowed to teach courses in whatever subject they choose. A physics professor might be teaching Quantum mechanics one semester and Don Giovanni the next, explained former employee of the Columbia English department, David Scott Kastan. Yale wooed Kastan to New Haven in 2008, where he occupies, metaphorically (for no one gets any actual new furniture), the “George M. Bodman Professor of English” chair.
Kastan is not a Sterling professor — yet. The author of 16 books and the editor of the version of “Paradise Lost” read in Yale pre-requisite courses of the English major, Kastan describes himself as having been headed toward University Professor at Columbia. Unlike most Sterling professors, Kastan is neither shy nor introverted. His dry wit and charismatic personality have established him and his Shakespeare classes as campus favorites. Chatting over beers at Anchor Bar in New Haven, Kastan declined to say how much of a stipend he receives a year for research — but would say it was more than $4,000. He served as chair of the English department at Columbia until 2008.
To some degree, Yale’s Sterling professors operate like these University Professors — just without express permission. David Bromwich’s ’73 “Age of Johnson” senior seminar in the English department spent two-thirds of its syllabus this semester readings political scientists David Hume and Edmund Burke. Emeritus Sterling Professor Annabel Patterson, also formerly of the English Department, is teaching a two-semester long course this year called “The International Novel” that is open only to International Studies majors and reads bestselling novels like “The Satanic Verses” and “2666.” All courses must first be approved by the DUS of any department before they can be taught, and how closely the DUS vets the syllabus varies from department to department.
But this freewheeling pedagogical spirit is not always met with the applause of students. A participant in David Bromwich’s 2010 “Nonfiction Prose” seminar wrote on Yale’s course evaluation database, “Bromwich is BRILLIANT. Take it for that reason only.” (All such evaluations, viewable only with a working Yale e-mail account, are anonymous.) Overall, “Nonfiction Prose” that year received 8 votes of “Excellent” and 7 of “Very Good.” For his other Spring 2010 course, Bromwich team-taught a lecture on Abraham Lincoln with political philosophy professor Steven Smith. “Lincoln at 200,” was reviewed more critically than “Nonfiction Prose.” “The professors really killed this course,” wrote a disappointed senior, “Their lectures would often be about abstract philosophical concepts or English poets — there were some that had little or nothing do with Lincoln at all!” Another student wrote: “Smith’s lectures are interesting; Bromwich’s, incomprehensible.”
The knife of student evaluations notwithstanding, both of Bromwich’s seminars were filled past capacity the subsequent reading period.
“Yale professors win renown with the student body by having reputations for giving fantastic lectures and teaching popular seminars, not by credentials that are specific to the world of academia,” said Eddie Fishman ’11. Last fall, Fishman boasted he had read every single course evaluation of Yale’s non-science classes.
“I think most Yale students don’t bother to learn about the world of academia, which they are merely passing through,” Fishman said. “Plus so many things on this campus have the ‘Sterling’ appellation that the title itself isn’t particularly eye-catching.”
THE GENDER PIPELINE
Who are the Sterling professors of the next generation? Professors who, most likely, will still be teaching when our hatchlings arrive at Yale in thirty years? Will white males still comprise the majority? Why would they?
Emeritus Sterling Professor of English Annabel Patterson and I spoke on the phone for nearly an hour. Then she told me her comments were to stay entirely off the record. We agreed to discuss allowing her comments to be printed only after I spoke to all five female Sterling professors.
The other four female Sterling professors — Sterling Professor of Humanities María Rosa Menocal, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Joan A. Steitz, Sterling Professor of Genetics Carolyn Slayman and Dean of Yale College and Sterling Professor of History of Art Mary Miller — spoke on the record. But their contradictory explanations on why Yale has so few female Sterling professors reads like a philosophical critique of cause and effect.
When María Rosa Menocal, who specializes in the intellectual history of the study of the Arabic and Hebrew aspects of medieval Spanish identity, lectured mid-semester on Cordoba, Spain to a group of freshmen in Directed Studies, she refused to answer questions on her opinion of the “9/11 Mosque.” Despite the fact the lecture was called “Cordoba, and its mosque … and what they have to do with New York’s ‘Cordoba’ and its mosque,” Menocal chided the fledgling student of the humanities who had asked the question: “You can’t reduce issues like that to sound-bytes.”
A few weeks later in her office at the Whitney Humanities Center, Menocal talked about the inevitability of politics intruding on undergraduate educations.
“I think the main thing that you do as far as politics in the undergraduate classroom is to make sure its not too simplified,” she said. “Undergraduates tend to have a lode of political assumptions that they’ve acquired in a facile way, and I thing the important thing is to make sure you refuse the soundbyte.”
Her explanation of the disparity between men and women in Sterling professorships is accordingly nuanced. The blame, she thinks, falls to a combination of women’s inconveniently-timed biological clocks and what she calls a historical “willingness to take administrative and community-oriented jobs.” Menocal, who raised two children herself (one of whom is currently a senior at Yale), said the latter issue is the more significant obstacle: “Women don’t turn down the committee assignments and say, ‘I’m here only Tuesday and Thursday,’ the way men tend to, and of course all this is essentializing, but I believe it’s broadly true enough that you see it,” she explained. While she believes Yale is a meritocracy, she contends: “No matter what anybody tells you it’s true that the hierarchy of values is publication and then way below that is teaching and what you do for the institution; but of course the institution can’t function without you doing great work in either of the areas, but I think they’re far less rewarded.”
Menocal rejects the notion that the lack of female role models in academia is or historically has been the real obstacle for women capable of succeeding in the first place.
“I think if you’re ambitious you’re actually not looking at role models but just going out there and doing it,” she said.
This is tricky. Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Joan A. Steitz has argued otherwise in several forums, including a 2006 article, “The Importance of Role Models to Girls’ Educational Choices” for the blog “Agora For Women In Science.” It’s a central part of her public persona, near the top of her Google page and linked from her Wikipedia page. For a 600-word bio on the website of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the primary supporter of her research, Steitz gave the following quote: “When I was a graduate student, there were no women professors in the biological sciences at any major university. Consequently, I never envisioned myself being where I am today: I never thought I would teach; I never thought I would mentor graduate students; I never thought I would be on the faculty of a prominent university. I really thought I would be a research associate in someone’s lab — a man’s of course.”
Steitz echoed this sentiment in our interview; but she largely emphasized the ways she distinguished herself under Nobel Laureates Watson and Crick after tentatively deciding to enter research, a field with virtually no women, in 1967. Like Menocal, Steitz has not had to forego having children to become a Sterling professor. She is married to the 2009 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Sterling Professor Thomas Steitz, with whom she has a 26-year-old son.
As with most professors interviewed, Steitz was nonplussed by questions on how the Sterling professorship had changed her life.
“I’ve never been asked to attend anything for Sterling professors or know anything that was going on or special for Sterling professors,” she said. Aside from the $4,000 bonus, “Not at all,” she replied. “Funny things sometimes happen at Yale.”
Another recent — and female — addition to the Sterling rank is Dean of Yale College Mary Miller. Miller seemed grammatically precise in person, but when the Dean sends an e-mail from her cell phone, the ‘signature’ reads: “Sent from my iPhone. Messages may be terse and may contain misspelled words.” Terse e-mails were typical of Sterling professors profiled for this article. Most have assistants or are naturally averse to “machines,” as Harold Bloom calls them.
Miller’s way of explaining the lack of female Sterling professors seems characteristically mathematical.
“I would assume that it’s the age grade,” she said. “Most Sterling professors are named in the latest phases of their very active careers. I would guess you find that the youngest Sterling Professors are also the female Sterling professors: Menocal, Joan Steitz.” And, of course, Dean Miller herself was named Sterling Professor more recently than any of them — just one semester before she took office as dean in fall 2008.
What Miller went on to explain was less the ultimate cause of this disparity than a really good description of its effect: “You try to reach gender equity in the professorate; there are a lot of different points when there’s opportunity cost for staying in the pipeline, and that’s a longer story. But the pipeline was quite narrow for the cohort of women who are now Sterling; it was narrow at the time when we got tenure and so it’s now narrow at this point in our careers for this level of honor.” So, the ratio of men to women granted tenure 30 years ago is the dominant factor controlling the current number of female Sterling professors.
Yale’s affirmative action policy theoretically should also combat this inequality, but based on Professor Miller’s accounting, to do so would be to disrupt the natural meritocracy determined by the statistics of the 1970s.
Sterling Professor of Genetics Carolyn Slayman was hired by Yale in 1967, became a Sterling professor in “1980 or something or other,” and was appointed Deputy Dean for Academics and Science and Affairs at the Medical School in 1995. In 1967, the medical school was only 6–7 percent female because the dominant attitude towards women in science and medical was “Why should a school invest a larger portion of its slots on women who might drop out to become mothers?” Slayman said.
Today, 20 percent of the tenured faculty and 42 percent of the untenured faculty at the medical school are women, according to Slayman.
“This number has been growing, and as it grows one certainly hopes that a substantial number of these women will succeed and be promoted,” Slayman stated. The current size of the medical school, in terms of operating budget, is about half that of the university.
“When a department wants to hire a new faculty member, they’re required by the university to do an affirmative action search,” she explained. To prepare the heads and deputy heads of departments, like Slayman, for faculty searches, Yale holds diversity-training seminars.
“There’s a lot of literature that says there are unconscious biases in society and letters of recommendation for minorities and women will use adverbs and adjectives that come across as less enthusiastic,” Slayman said. “These search committees are aware of that and try to look beyond it to make up their own minds.”
Annabel Patterson, to whom each of the other four female Sterling professors affectionately — and separately — referred as “opinionated,” spoke frankly about the gender disparity. “There are very few women Sterling professors, and this partly reflects the bias of all universities towards male full professors — but also reflects the tendency to assume that a Sterling professor will be male,” she said.
While Patterson conceded that the Sterling ranking was “just a status symbol within the university” with “no financial benefit”, she also said what no other professor would admit: “there’s politics to it.” She wouldn’t elaborate.
WHAT WILL THE FUTURE LOOK LIKE?
Regardless of which female Sterling professor’s explanation one chooses to believe, another problem with trying to estimate who will be the next Harold Blooms, Mary Millers, and Vincent Scullys of Yale is that there’s a force at work actively pushing against the impulse to become professors of young humanities majors.
The Ph.D. is under attack.
At a November workshop for Yale English majors considering graduate schools, members of the English faculty along with Ph.D. candidates spoke about the grim job market for Ph.D. recipients. Only 30 percent of people with English Ph.D.s ends up teaching, Assistant DUS of the English department Catherine Nicholas told students, but 90 percent didn’t regret having gotten their Ph.D.s. As for success beyond graduate school, Ph.D. candidate Erica Miao told the audience, “It has to do with your dissertation. You want to have a dissertation that people consider groundbreaking.”
The job market, it would seem, is grimmer than that. Fact checking the 30 percent statistic from the previous paragraph, I was unable to find any information to back up the Assistant DUS’s assertion, but what I did find was a blog entitled: “Do not get a Ph.D.!: This is my crusade.” The blogger, “Dr. Anonymous,” keeps his identity a secret, yet most of its commenters agree with its sharply apocalyptic tone: “You spend your 20s (and in some cases into your early 30s) in poverty while your friends were entering professions that allowed them to buy houses, start families, build retirement accounts, take vacations, eat in fancy restaurants, and on and on,” and “the vast majority of Ph.D.s end up as “adjunct faculty” — they work on a course by course basis, making below minimum wage with no assurances of any kind of future employment.” The post, which has 19 comments ranging from “you said it!” to “what else did you expect” concludes with “There needs to be a nationwide boycott of Ph.D. programs.” Indeed, this is written in bold.
When asked about the state of the job market for aspiring academics, Dean Mary Miller answered obliquely, but with conviction, by pointing to statistics: Across the entire spread of the college, Yale advertised 23 faculty job openings last year. The statistic didn’t have much meaning until I compared them to the number of Ph.D.s that Yale hands out ever year. Over the past five years, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has conferred an average of 347.6 total Ph.D.s per year. Harvard’s number is closer to 500.
Back to Dr. Anonymous: “You see, the academy is the only industry I can think of that does not function on a normal supply/demand cycle. There is almost no demand for humanities Ph.D.s yet the academy continues to produce them — overproduce them, in fact. This is because there is an endless supply of wide-eyed, innocent humanities undergraduate students who do not quite understand how the academic job market works.”
Coincidentally, Professor Patterson aired her thoughts on the same matter in a slightly different way.
“I’m … very dubious about the future of the humanities as a business, as a higher level business in this country. If you’re a scientist, your exceptional merit can be established; if you’re an economist that remains true; if you’re in the humanities, the whole question of eminence or excellence is highly debatable.” Not only do young hires not understand how the market works, the market doesn’t really understand how humanities professors work.
When I forwarded Dr. Anonymous’s 1,400 word blog post to Assistant DUS of the English Department Catherine Nicholson, the one had comforted the achy hearts of English majors at the aforementioned graduate school info-session with the aforementioned “… but 90 percent don’t regret getting their Ph.D.” statistic, I didn’t expect to find a response in my inbox later that day of the same length — a very un-Sterling-like 1,400 words. (Remember: “Messages may be terse and may contain misspelled words.”) Nicholson, an assistant professor of Renaissance Literature with a Ph.D. from Penn, is a fairly recent hire and rising star of the English department.
Nicholson’s epistle gives a close reading of Dr. Anonymous’s requiem for the Humanities Ph.D. — and draws conclusions that are pessimistic and optimistic by turns.
“When I read the blog post you linked to, I feel immense compassion and sympathy for the guy,” Nicholson wrote. “In my view, when he says this — ‘Overall, the getting of the Ph.D. is not the bad part. Who wouldn’t want to spend 6 or 7 years working on a research project of their choosing?’ — he’s both allowing and dismissing something huge: grad school is, on its own terms, a really great opportunity.”
There are two good reasons, in Nicholson’s eyes, to apply for graduate school: “One, you think you might like to teach at the college level some day and have a career as a professional scholar; two, grad school itself sounds like an experience you could enjoy and thrive on, regardless of what professional outcome it produces,” she said. “Now, if all you’ve got is reason one, I’m worried for you — I’d have been worried for myself if that was the case.”
Time will only tell if Nicholson starts a blog of her own, under her real name, and lets people Google-ing “humanities Ph.D.” hear a different side of the story. What with Bromwich’s frequent appearances on The Huffington Post and London Review of Books’s online blog, she would at least have the company of another Yale professor out in the blogosphere.
Perhaps Nicholson is the perfect example of the next-generation professor, the type destined to one day become Sterling professors. Whereas Dr. Anonymous greedily trots out all the material benefits he missed out on (“the basic things in life that most people with a higher education have — a home, a family, a car, groceries, a retirement account, and so on”) by following his Ph.D. dreams down the rabbit hole, Nicholson, with almost saint-like patience and serenity, described feeling as though none of that mattered — as long as she didn’t go into debt.
In their youth, which was practically yesterday, the next crowd of Sterling professors will likely have been as courageous, lucky, and/or ambitious as Nicholson: distinguished enough to land a job in the most catastrophic job market in nearly a century (secondarily); passionate about learning for learning’s sake (primarily). Nicholson knew the laurels of a Yale professorship were anything but guaranteed as she entered her Penn Ph.D. program (which paid her to be a student). There was more than a 50 percent chance she’d have to look for another career and she has yet to face the tenure committee.
But still she said yes.
Correction: January 26, 2011
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Sterling Professor of English David Bromwich ’73 GRD ’77 helped grade papers for students in Sterling Professor of the Humanities Harold Bloom’s GRD ’56 classes when the latter fell ill in 2009.