More Thoughts on Graduate School


Women students of Tuskegee Institute marching in rows on campus, c. 1910s (from The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture )

I wasn’t really satisfied with what I wrote in my last post, so I decided to put together some more informal thoughts on finishing the degree.

In my previous post I said I avoid the “grad school advice” conversations, but that’s not really accurate. The truth is, I give graduate school advice all the time, and I’m willing to have that conversation with anyone who wants to have it. Giving this kind of counsel is part of my job as a professor. I work as an adjunct now, and in an adjunctified higher education system, I can’t tell my students to go have those conversations with their “real professors.” We’re the only “real professors” that our students are going to get most of the time, and that means being involved in all sorts of informal academic and career advisement, including writing recommendations and serving as references. And if I’m eventually fortunate enough to land a position where I advise graduate students, I’ll have these conversations with them as well. I’m far from the first person to point this out: we academics are now in the awkward position of having to discourage students from following in our footsteps. We can’t in good conscience tell them that there will be adequate jobs with adequate pay if they enter the profession now.

That said, I also agree with Tressie McMillan Cottom when she wrote that the “Don’t Go to Grad School” advice shouldn’t apply to everyone. As bad as the academic teaching market is now, college enrollments are still up, and students are still going, and there is still a dire shortage of women and faculty of color in academia. I see this reflected in the institution where I teach now, where the majority of students are black and brown. But the faculty? Well, not so much. It was a bit jarring in my first few weeks there to be repeatedly mistaken for a student when I walked into faculty spaces. And I ain’t that young anymore. That seems to happen less now that I’ve taken to wearing a jacket and tie regularly. But then that decision has led to a couple of weird encounters with an older white female colleague who seems to think that my wearing a blazer and a tie is somehow an invitation to come up to me and start patronizing me about my clothes and then complaining about the style of dress and habits of the students (again, most of whom are black and brown). Remember, I’m from Mississippi, so I’m well-schooled in the ways of white folk when it comes to pitting black folks against each other. Her unsolicited comments reminded me why I always count the Battle Royale scene in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man among the most powerful literary allegories for black politics in America.

What I really meant to say in that last post is that I tend to stay away from conversations about grad school advice online. Conversations in this medium tend to devolve into arguments with pompous douchebags bloviating about “choices” and “supply and demand” and “the market.” And, just as often, those conversations also involve listening to academics whose politics I mostly agree with, but who also portray themselves as pious, innocent victims in a way that I’m not entirely comfortable with either. Maybe I don’t want to be that innocent. Maybe I really did “get over” by going to grad school. Maybe I like the fact that academia has afforded me a chance to do work that I actually enjoy doing (some of the time) instead of working at some soul-sucking job that I hated (all of the time). And maybe even with some debt and terrible job prospects, the Ph.D. has put me into a career that has, thus far, allowed me to live peaceably with the world, particularly given my own less-than-outgoing personality. Maybe, unlike some of my colleagues whose families are littered with advanced degrees, it means something to me to be the first Ph.D. in the family. Maybe I figured out, from experience, that all work sucks anyway (ALL.OF.IT.) and that work is a curse (hey, it even says so in the bible, Genesis 3:17-19), and so I’d rather work at something in the long run that gives me some pleasure and meaning in my life, even if it means making a little less money and being a little less respectable in the eyes of my hot-shot corporate classmates from undergrad who are making five times more than I ever will.

I went into this with very different personal expectations about what kind of life I would have with a career in academia, particularly going into English. I figured that for me, the house-car-2.5kids-retirement-in-Florida thing probably wasn’t going to happen anyway, and that I probably live more frugally now than most people are willing to live. I’ve scraped through with adjunct jobs and walking tours, and not everyone can do that. And I also happen to be the kind of queer who identifies with the old school queers who saw getting off the path of respectability as one of the benefits of queer life, instead of all these gay assimilationists now who want to get married and be monogamous suburbanites. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)

I’ve also been the beneficiary of sheer dumb luck. I happen to have parents who have remained financially stable and healthy into their later years. (A teacher and a mechanic used to be able to do such things in America). I don’t have children to provide for, or other family members in dire need of support. It’s just the roll of the dice. One catastrophe could have changed all that. I say this because I hate listening to pretentious jerkoffs giving advice to other people without taking into consideration that other people may not be leading such a charmed existence, and might have responsibilities which limit the sacrifices they can make for their profession. I’ve been able to be responsibly irresponsible only because I haven’t had those kinds of responsibilities forced upon me by the circumstances of life. Getting the Ph.D. was a calculated gamble, and there’s still the possibility I could lose big. And there are times when I do regret not being able to do certain things for my family that I might have been able to do had I gone into a different line of work.  But I don’t regret the last few years either.  I’ve been able to do the kind of research and writing and intellectual engagement that I’ve wanted to do, and I do believe that I’ve put myself in a position to do more interesting and worthwhile projects that will pay off in the future.  But there are no guarantees.

I also know how to distinguish my own individual reasons for going into academia from the bigger picture about the academic labor system.  The professoriate in the American higher education system is sickeningly exploited through and through. From the conversations I’ve had with my own students about adjuncts, I know that  few of them even knew what an adjunct was before I told them. Now they know. And every student who comes through any class of mine will always know, because they deserve to know the truth about their own educations, and because this should be a part of their political literacy.

So, yes, I always advise people to tread carefully when it comes to grad school, but I don’t always say “don’t go.” That’s the irony I was going for with the theme of “over-education” in my dissertation. As black folks we’ve been “over-educated” since the first ones of us learned to read and write. And as of now, there are nowhere near enough black PhDs and professors to tell black students not to pursue a career in higher education. (The same goes for other minority groups as well.) Even some of those white academics you see online snarking about academia are at least lobbing their insults at the academy with degrees in hand.  And I’d even say that to students from  all backgrounds. Maybe academia really is the right fit for you if you’re passionate enough about it and willing to fight for it, and if you can find a way to do it responsibly without bankrupting yourself.

Yes, it’s a tough racket, and it will probably mean not living like a baller. And if you have family obligations, you do have to take those into consideration. And yes, you do have to be careful because your love for your discipline and your commitment to teaching and your loyalty to your students WILL be abused by the institutions you work for again, and again, and again, and you need to be prepared to push back against that abuse when it’s necessary.

My grad school advice is more along the lines of Charles Bukowski’s advice in “So You Want to be a Writer.”     

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
don’t do it…

It shouldn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t take that kind of reckless sacrificial commitment to be a teacher. I wish we lived in a culture where the citizenry actually supported education and believed it was worthwhile to pay educators a fair wage, instead of believing in the cynical politicians who have turned teachers and professors into boogeymen. I wish the institutions that hire us now actually gave us the resources to do the jobs that we are asked to do, instead of expecting us to go above and beyond as the norm. But that’s not our reality right now.

I also know that the situation will never change without people getting involved on the inside, doing whatever we can in order to try to create something different, by whatever means are necessary.  Sometimes you really do have to be in the game to change the game.


Well, I figured it was about time I announced this on my blog (though now that I’ve added the Twitter widget to this site anyone could also have seen it there).  On Friday, April 4, 2014, I successfully defended the dissertation. Finally.  By Wednesday it will be deposited and I will officially have the rank of Ph.D.

I thought about doing some grandiose write-up about my experiences in this Ph.D. program, and the reasons why I did it, and the reasons why it turned out the way it did.  But then I remembered that I tend to avoid the graduate school advice conversations because I admit my reasons were not altogether financially and professionally sound or responsible.  And probably that’s because I don’t think that everything we do in life must be subjected to a cynical cost-benefit analysis.  And then I end up sounding like some kind of naive idealist, and who the hell needs those in today’s corporate education system?

So suffice to say, it is done, and I’m glad it is done.  For now my plans are to continue working on my topic and adding more content to this blog.  I am also working towards building a book on this subject, and I know that’s going to take a lot of time and effort over the next few months.

In the meantime, here’s the abstract:


The Over-Education of the Negro: Academic Novels, Higher Education and the Black Intellectual


A. Lavelle Porter

Advisor: Robert Reid-Pharr

This dissertation focuses on the academic novel – a literary genre which fictionalizes the lives of students and professors in institutions of higher education. In particular this project focuses on academic novels written by black writers and which address issues in black higher education. This dissertation has two concurrent objectives: 1) to examine the academic novel as a particular genre of literature, and to highlight some specific novels on black American identity within this genre, and 2) to illustrate the pedagogical value of academic fiction. Through the ancient practice of storytelling, academic novels link the travails of the individual student or professor to a bigger story about the history and origin and purpose of colleges and universities. The “Introduction” provides a basic overview of the academic novel, the black academic novel, and an analysis of the history of black higher education through discourses of over-education. Chapter One, “Toward a Theory of the Black Academic Novel,” provides a literature review of criticism on academic fiction and makes connections with black literary criticism in order to create a framework for reading black academic novels. This chapter also includes a historical survey of black academic fiction leading up to the three novels in the following chapters, which were written after the 1980s, and which are framed by discussions of culture wars and capitalism. Chapter Two, “Culture Warriors,” is an examination of Ishmael Reed’s Japanese by Spring (1993) in the context of the “culture wars” and the development of multiculturalism in higher education. Chapter Three, “When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong,” examines Percival Everett’s Erasure (2001) and the politics of authenticity in black literary and cultural production. Chapter Four, “Homo Academicus,” is an interpretation of Samuel R. Delany’s The Mad Man (1994:2002) as an academic novel, showing how the novel articulates a queer black intellectual practice as a challenge to discourses of respectability, particularly during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The “Conclusion” speculates on the future, and possible obsolescence, of the novel (including the black academic novel) as a literary form, and the role of black intellectuals in the digital humanities.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Samuel R. Delany


You may have noticed that Ta-Nehisi Coates has been on a tear lately. If you’re in any kind of black studies networks and you’ve been on the Internet in the past week then you’ve probably seen posts about his exchange with Jonathan Chait. Coates’s most recent response, “The Blue Period, An Origin Story” posted yesterday on April 1, is devastating, inspiring, uplifting. I want to take time to read it again, carefully, and also to listen, carefully, to the Nell Painter video that he posted with it. The article really resonated with me as someone whose first academic training was in history. I recognize many of the sources that he cited and wrote about.  I too have been trying to make sense of this same history, to try to cut off at the pass these cynical arguments about black progress and the imperatives to be “optimistic” (which is less about real optimism and more about alleviating other people’s discomforts).  Every college educated black person has heard some version of what Chait threw at him in their exchange.  We’ve had people tell us: Hey, you and your colleagues seem to be doing just fine. Why are you so angry?  We’re making progress here in America.  When are you going to let go of this bitterness and resentment?

But what really struck me about Coates’s piece is that he so eloquently grapples with the prior gaps in his own knowledge.  I’m impressed that he’s clearly been engaged in a serious study of black history, and American history, and slavery, and the place of America in a global culture and economy. And he clearly understands that education is always a work-in-progress. And he also understands that there are people on the Web now looking to build their brands off “social justice” and sell themselves as “experts” instead of seriously engaging with the meaning of this history.

I think now, four years after watching that video, and having read A History of White People, that I am a writer. And that is not a hustle. And this is not my “in” to get on Meet The Press, to become an activist, to get my life-coach game on. I don’t need anymore platforms. I am here to see things as clearly as I can, and then name them. Sometimes what I see is gorgeous. And then sometimes what I see is ugly. And sometimes my sight fails me. But what I write can never be dictated by anyone’s need to feel warm and fuzzy inside.

The whole article is a breath of fresh air in a cultural moment dominated by the wunderkind.  The web is littered with stories of 20something millionaire app developers and programmers and pundits and bloggers.  I just saw another one of those “30 under 30” articles flash across my twitter feed yesterday.  And last weekend Twitter was dominated by a non-troversy started by a 23 year old social media “activist.”  Why are we even listening to these twits?  Coates’s article is a lesson in the true humility of education. Nobody who is that young has it all figured out, not even the smartest and most accomplished ones. Learning takes time, and effort, and more time, and more effort.  It takes life experiences, it takes getting kicked in the ass a few times, and it requires constantly revisiting your prior ignorance and revising the things that you once believed to be true.

Yesterday, April Fools’ Day, was also Samuel R. Delany’s 72nd birthday.(Delany was a prodigy himself, having published nine science fiction novels in his twenties.) I’m looking forward to celebrating with him next week at Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia.  Coates’s piece actually reminded me of a passage from Delany’s excellent book About Writing, and I wanted to share it here:

“To learn anything worth knowing requires that you learn as well how pathetic you were when you were ignorant of it. The knowledge of what you have lost irrevocably because you were in ignorance of it is the knowledge of the worth of what you have learned. A reason knowledge/learning in general is so unpopular with so many people is because very early we all learn there is a phenomenologically unpleasant side to it: To learn anything entails the fact that there is no way to escape learning that you were formerly ignorant, to learn that you were a fool, that you have already lost irretrievable opportunities, that you have made wrong choices, that you were silly and limited. These lessons are not pleasant, The acquisition of knowledge – especially when we are young – again and again includes this experience.”   – Samuel Delany, About Writing, pg. 34-35