The learned and daedal Eudaemonist, in a comment to a previous entry, has linked to a funny and saddening Letter from Yale (printable version here), in which novelist Helena Echlin eviscerates the Yale graduate program in English. She begins:

I am sitting in a windowless conference room. The walls are lined with sets of leather-bound books with gold-lettered spines. ‘The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism,’ a young man is saying. He pauses for a long time. Underneath the table, one leg is twisted around the other. A stretch of gaunt white ankle shows between trouser and sock. ‘In order to approach participating in.’ He pauses again, his body knotted like a balloon creature made by a children’s entertainer. Finally, in one rush: ‘The unity which is no longer accessible.’ My fellow students utter a long soft gasp, as if at a particularly beautiful firework.
‘Brilliant,’ says the professor. ‘Very finely put. But I didn’t quite understand it. Could you repeat it?’ I write the sentence down in my notebook, like everyone else in the seminar. The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism before it can approach participating in the unity which is no longer accessible. When I have pieced it together, I realise he is talking nonsense. I am struck by the thought that literary criticism – at least as it is practised here – is a hoax.

Yes, yes, old news (and the essay itself is several years old—as usual, I’m the last to know), but you won’t often see it so well presented. And she doesn’t stop with the easy target; she moves on to the reasons for the appalling obfuscation, which are part and parcel of the larger crisis in academia:

But the problem also has its roots in the crisis in the job market. Research done by the Modern Language Association indicates that fewer than half of those who earned PhDs in English in the United States between 1990 and 1995 found full-time tenure-track positions teaching English within a year of receiving their degrees. The number entering English PhD programs has risen rapidly – between 1952 and 1972 it escalated from 333 to 1,365. Now the number is in the thousands. The market for PhDs is saturated.

Faculties have begun to rely increasingly on part-time lecturers and on graduate teaching assistants, instead of offering full-time positions. Professor Ruth Yeazell warns us what to expect: though Yale has cut its graduate numbers, even those who have been admitted will have to fight hard for jobs….

In seminars, it is now impossible to have an interesting discussion because each student there is struggling so hard to impress the professor. No one listens or responds to other comments. They are too intent on framing what they will say next.

As the number of PhD’s increases, and as theses crowd onto library shelves, there is increasingly less new ground to cover. There are now more than a thousand articles on the Wife of Bath’s Tale alone. Yet tenure-track positions are still awarded for original articles and theses. As a result, the young man who delighted in the joy of analysis decides to write a dissertation on the image of the pin factory in the work of Adam Smith – its significance and influence. I leave without finishing my PhD.

She nails the obscene groveling in which professors wallow (“At Yale, professors are revered. I am accustomed to calling my teachers by their first names, but in graduate school I learned to call them ‘Professor’ – even when they are not, in fact, professors”) and offers sensible recommendations:

Professors do not deserve this kind of worship. Why don’t we give all great teachers the same admiration and pay, whether they work in graduate departments, colleges or even in high schools? The number of people doing PhDs should be cut to a fraction of its current size. The people who put so much into PhDs should do a general MA, then hone their teaching skills for high school students and for college undergraduates…. And among those few who do do PhDs, there should be room for generalists as well as specialists. The concise introduction and the extensive survey should be rewarded, as well as the occasional dissertation on Wordsworth’s thumbnail or Shakespeare’s big toe.

Until changes are made, as she says, “Yale will continue to be the place where language goes to die.”

I do have a bone to pick with Ms. Echlin. In her quest for a striking analogy, she hits on this (doubtless succumbing to Orwell’s irresistible appeal to Brits looking to score points):

In Keep the Aspidistra Flying Orwell’s hero takes up a career in advertising and makes his fortune with the marketing of PPP, Pedic Perspiration Powder. Smelly feet do exist of course, but do we really need to combat the problem with a medical powder?

I’m afraid this says more about the English than about criticism. Bad teeth do exist of course, but do we really need to combat the problem with visits to dentists? Bad conditions at clinics and life-threatening waits for medical care do exist of course, but do we really need to combat the problem with reform of the health service? The monarchy is a ridiculous institution that eats up public resources for no discernable gain, but… well, you get the point. Yes, Helena, it is indeed a good idea to do something about smelly feet.


  1. It is begging to be some blog’s tagline: “READIN.com — traversing the problem of solipsism since 1999″

  2. I agree with your last point, languagehat, but — and here, let me first state that I haven’t read her essay in full and that I am not arguing against your point … well only insofar as I am playing a bit of a devil’s advocate — it may well be that Ms. Echlin was confusing categories in her analogy. Perhaps, her point — and I may be reading intent in her text where none exists — was that smelly feet were best treated with better hygiene, rather than with the proper medical intervention … and this she meant, perhaps, putatively to make her case about hype in academia. Anyway, to put it more simply: I think she failed to recognize the medical roots of smelly feet for which soap is an inadequate solution…. Analogies are tricky beasts, aren’t they?
    Thanks for posting about this essay. Your response is an instructive reminder to writers when they get too carried away with rhetoric!

  3. Maria: Well, that did occur to me, but by then I was too pleased with my own extension of her rhetoric to bother being fair. However, I’m sure she was equally unfair to Yale, so it all balances out.

  4. Well, you can’t be the last to know, because I’d never read that article before. But I enjoyed it thoroughly. I especially like her suggestion that people who want to teach undergraduates should be allowed to simply take the MA, especially in the humanities. Perhaps that will become the norm as a result of the decreasing number of tenure-track positions in the academy…

  5. Good piece, good analysis (including of the smelly feet!).
    This line — “At Yale, professors are revered. I am accustomed to calling my teachers by their first names, but in graduate school I learned to call them ‘Professor’ ” even when they are not, in fact, professors” — reminded me of one place where I worked where the grad students not only called their professors “professor” and “doctor” but at one dinner — in the students’ honor — also stood up when their professors came near their tables. This may have been genuine respect, but I’d never seen that before and it had a whiff of the rote about it. The professors I was with all treated this as perfectly normal. (This was one moment when I was glad to be a part-timer and therefore “unworthy” of having grad students of my own.)

  6. Listen, at Yale (for I too did time in their grad school) I knew a woman who was telephoned early one Sunday morning by her dissertation director and “asked” to come over that afternoon and help him prepare for a little dinner he was giving that evening—and she did it. We’re way beyond reverence here, all the way to insane self-abnegating worship. If Yale professors demanded their grad students sacrifice their firstborn, not only would they do it, they’d go out and beget a firstborn to sacrifice if they didn’t have one.

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