Chapter 3 -- The Lean Years: Apprenticeship | Pierre van den Berghe

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The most casual observer of the American campus notices that its inhabitants belong to two widely different cultures---that of professors and that of students, or more specifically of undergraduates. The two cultures are not only different; they are to a large extent antagonistic, a fact only recently discovered by student radicals. The undergraduates are the proletarians of academia---affluent proletarians to be sure, but nevertheless the large, anonymous, disenfranchised mass. The view that colleges exist for students is another of those astonishingly successful myths which professors have propagated for their own benefit.

The campus is a government of professors, for professors, and by professors.[4] Every campus has, of course, a parallel body known as "student government," but clearly the term is a misnomer. Student government is mickey mouse stuff, as any politically conscious student well knows. Student elections are even more ritualistic than their adult counterparts on the national scene, and are about as meaningful (but not nearly as much fun) as football rallies or panty raids. Students do not rule themselves much less their college or university. Much like native under a colonial administration, they are paternalistically ruled by the campus bureaucrats acting supposedly in loco parentis, but in fact on behalf of the professors. [Author's Note 4: It may be argued that administrators operate the colleges and universities, and to a large extent it is true that the mass of professors are content to let administrators run the show. However, the administrators themselves are in large pan drawn from the ranks of the teaching staff, and their actual powers vis-à-vis their teaching colleagues are circumscribed by custom, the threat of resignation and protest, and other effective devices. It is best to view the administrators as a subgroup of professors, or, in Marxian terminology, the executive committee of the ruling class.]

On large campuses, the sham of the "big happy family" and the "community of scholars" myths is becoming increasingly apparent. Students are more and more class ­conscious and alienated. In the small liberal arts colleges which, in exchange for high tuition costs, still put up a half-way credible show of interest in students, the classically Marxian nature of the class conflict between professors and students remains hidden behind the facade of “faculty-student contact." But in fact, the smaller a school is, the more tyrannical and restrictive the authorities are toward the students who are much in the position of workers in a small, paternalistic, family firm. In the large urban campuses, students can stage a sit-down strike in the administration building; on the small, isolated, bucolic campus so dear to the academic romantics, the students are even more powerless and atomized than in the state multiversity.

Relationship to the means of production determines both class position and class conflict. The key means of production at a university is knowledge, or, at least, that which passes for such and is tested in examinations. The commonly accepted proof of knowledge is the diploma. If this were true only within the university, professors would not have much power over students. However, in our highly technocratic society, professors have been extraordinarily successful in convincing almost everybody in the larger society that college and university degrees are the best proofs of knowledge and ability that exist, and furthermore that professors are the best possible arbiters of who should get diplomas. Any American who aspires to something better than pounding away at a typewriter for $300 a month, or manning the cash register at the corner supermarket, must have a college degree[5], and college degrees (of vastly varying quality) are given exclusively by professors. [Author's Note 5: A significant exception is the labor aristocracy of skilled trades; but then, many labor unions are much more difficult to enter than colleges.]

Professors, in effect, have a tight control over the life chances of the top third of the nation's manpower. While that power is diffused between hundreds of thousands of professors and thousands of schools, the knowledge factories and their professional "owners" exercise a collective monopoly of the most important means of production in "post-capitalist" societies, namely technical skills.

Young men, at any rate the vast majority of them, attend college in order to get a degree that will in turn land them an upper-level job. Young women go to college, in large part, so as to find a college-educated husband with good prospects. Educational endogamy makes it difficult for the non-college-educated girl to find a "good" husband, as any coed knows. Professors frown on such mercenary and matrimonial motives, and try to convince students that they should be interested in knowledge for its own sake. Amazingly, they are successful with a minority of students who in due course become professors themselves, after a lengthy and painful process which we shall presently describe.

The two hostile classes, professors and students, meet physically in the lecture hall, but their minds and their emotions remain poles apart. The student wants to get his degree as painlessly as possible. He wants small steady cuds of easily digestible knowledge, which, in the manner of ruminants, he can regurgitate at examinations. This he wants to do in a minimum of time so as to have enough leisure to play sports, make love, or indeed---all too often---earn the money necessary to keep him in school so that later he will have an easier time earning money.

The professor, on the other hand, wants to make learning as difficult and traumatic as possible so as to restrict production of diplomas and keep up the value of his product. And the most effective device to traumatize students is to tell them that they must think for themselves, something they have been conditioned not to do since their infancy. Like the rat which suddenly gets an electric shock instead of a food pellet after pressing on the right lever, the student is shocked into not giving hitherto expected answers. Of course, students quickly learn that most professors do not really expect them to carry independence of mind to the extent of disagreeing with their mentors, but occasionally a peculiarly sadistic professor does actually penalize his pupils for agreeing uncritically with him. So the poor student never quite knows where he stands, a situation which, among laboratory rats, leads to experimental neuroses.

These profound conflicts in values and in interests between professor and student express themselves symbolically through totally different cultures. Almost everything that professors admire and like, students sneer at, and vice versa. Thus the football hero of the 1950's who was tackled by hordes of adoring coeds was seen by his professors as a primate specimen to be kept in a cage. When professors liked Bach, students studied square dancing; now that students can buy Vivaldi records at $1.98 [Editor's Note: $12.00, in 2015], professors turn to folk music. In the 1950's, when students wore crew cuts, professors had long hair; now something close to the reverse is true. In the 1950's "liberal" professors espoused the cause of downtrodden blacks against conservative fraternities; now the same liberals are fighting against black students on the same campuses. The twain seldom meet.

Occasionally they do, however. Sometimes the professor in a flash of narcissistic recognition, sees in the chosen student a younger image of himself. The occasional student who shows a genuine or affected respect for knowledge for its own sake (knowledge being personified, of course, by his favorite professor) has virtually ensured himself admission into graduate school, provided he is not an out-and-out moron.

Once the student, armed with his B.A., has crossed the threshold of the graduate school, he has passed the great divide between the two classes. True, his status is ambiguous; he is still called a student, but as a research or teaching assistant he has some of the obligations of the staff (though as yet none of their privileges except the somewhat dubious ones conferred by the library). Graduate school is a no man's land between the two cultures, a purgatory before the scholarly heaven, a testing ground before admission into the priesthood. Yet, the gulf between the undergraduate and postgraduate world is much greater than between the graduate student and the professor. For though the road before him is long and arduous, and though he may fall by the wayside, the graduate student is in every respect an apprentice professor.[6] [Author's Note 6: Of course, I am not speaking of graduate students in professional schools like Law and Medicine, which do not typically lead into academia.]

There are basically two sets of things that a graduate student must learn if he is to conquer his Ph.D. First, he must acquire the baggage of knowledge or pedantry that his professors regard as essential for admission into their august fraternity. Second, he must learn the culture of academe. This second task is fully as important for success as the first, and fully as difficult because he has not yet been initiated into all the mysteries of the cult.

Acquisition of higher knowledge is the avowed aim of graduate school, the ostensible object of the rites of passage through which the student goes in his pursuit of the gold tassel. The pitfalls are numerous, the competition is acute, and the rate of failure is high. Only a little more than one undergraduate in ten receives the call to enter graduate school; and of those who enter, only a tenth get their doctorates. The vast majority of those who enter graduate school get an academically worthless master's degree, which entitles them to teach 15 hours a week at Pocahontas State Teachers' College.[7] In fact, at many good schools, the master's degree is a consolation prize for flunking the Ph.D. examinations. (This is referred to, in somewhat sinister analogy to cancer, as a "terminal master's.") [Author's Note 7: See footnote 2, in Chapter 2.]

Most graduate departments subject their neophytes to three main spells of hazing, spread over a period ranging from three to seven or more years. These tests decrease in severity but increase in ritualism as one progresses through them. First, after one or two years, students generally take a set of preliminary or qualifying examinations where there is a substantial rate of failure, or, what amounts to the same, of diagnoses as "terminal master's." At that stage, the student has typically not yet had time to establish a personal relationship with a staff patron, unless the student happens to be a sexually attractive and aggressive girl. Consequently, the student is still evaluated on criteria that bear some relationship to his intellectual potential.

Once the student is over that first hurdle, he can be nearly assured of success if he exhibits some perseverance, humility (affected or real), and understanding of departmental politics. From there on, the student will no longer be judged primarily on merit, but on his attitudes and conformity to academic culture. By the time he is ready for his second set of exams---the comprehensive or general ones at the end of his third or fourth year---professors have usually made up their minds in advance whether he should pass or fail. Generally, the cards are stacked in favor of the student who now has attached himself to one or two "major professors." These mentors now feel that the student represents a considerable investment of their precious time. In the best cases, they have a deep enough emotional commitment to the student to feel that any attack by their colleagues against the student is an attack against themselves. In most instances, this will result in the restraint of criticism, although this situation can also lead to the student becoming the innocent victim of a quarrel between his professors. We shall deal with this pitfall presently.

When the student passes the second hurdle, he has got it made, provided he still has enough energy left to throw a thesis together, and does not antagonize his thesis director. The first draft of a thesis may be returned for revisions, but seldom is a thesis rejected outright. The final ritual of the oral defense of the dissertation is a foregone conclusion, although it affords the committee members a final chance to make the student (and indirectly his thesis director) look silly. Even if they do, it scarcely ever prevents them from granting the candidate a doctorate, and therewith a membership card into the academic fraternity.

The specialized knowledge in a discipline, which a graduate student accumulates, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for academic progress toward the Ph.D. He must also convince his teachers that they are not wasting their time with him---i.e., that he is properly motivated and committed to the discipline, and that he will be a creditable member of his profession. In sociological jargon, he must be "acculturated" into academia and "socialized" into the norms of his professional group. The first rule of survival for the student is to size up his department, to learn its micropolitics. He must quickly learn who its influential members are; who sets the examination questions; who likes and hates whom; who the cantankerous isolates are; who derives a sadistic pleasure out of flunking students; and who the kind-hearted father figures are.

The task is by no means easy, because the graduate student typically enters his department in a state of naive ignorance and idealistic misconception about academic life. Furthermore, "professional ethics" (the rules of secrecy used in all professions to protect the members' interests against laymen) will often cause his teachers to be tight-lipped about factionalism and conflict within the department. The most worthwhile informants for the new graduate student are obviously his senior fellow students, who are no longer direct competitors but not yet full academics. Such senior students generally love to impress the younger ones with the depth of their knowledge and cynicism.

Graduate students in the same or in adjacent years are fiercely competing with each other for their professor's attention, favor, and esteem. Most professors being males, female students have an obvious advantage here, and they should make the most of it because this is the last occasion where being a woman in academia is an advantage. Generally, the academic world is strongly antifeminist, not to say misogynous. Male professors love female graduate students who pay them homage, but dislike female colleagues, especially if they are brighter than themselves. Even the female graduate student must be careful to appear bright enough to appreciate the subtleties and witticisms of her professors, but never to show any signs of outshining them. (This applies to all students, but even more to women.) The best thing that the unmarried female student can do is to become the mistress or wife of a professor, but then to drop any pretense of real academic competition with him. In most cases "nepotism" (in effect, antifeminist) rules will prevent her from doing so anyway. Many universities do not hire both husband and wife, at least not in the same department. In practice, it means the wife gets no job, or one that is clearly inferior in status to that of her husband. And when he changes jobs, she has to follow him, almost never the other way around.

If the student follows a few simple rules of conduct, his chances of survival through graduate school will be enhanced:

1) In seminars, cocktail parties, and similar occasions where groups of students meet with professors, ruthlessly repress any temptation to remain silent. Even if what you say is stupid, there is still the possibility of its appearing profound.

2) Even though all fellow students in your class are your competitors, refrain from criticizing them in front of a professor, because this behavior is almost sure to boomerang against you and to make you extremely unpopular. Try if you can to have the professor criticize your rival. This will be much more effective anyway.

3) Ask your professor penetrating questions, preferably based on books not on the reading list, but make sure that he knows the answer before you ask. Always resist the temptation to expose your professor's ignorance, especially in front of fellow students.

4) By all means, engage your professors in friendly arguments, but always leave them the last word. Try to gauge accurately how far you can push the argument so as to appear at your brightest and enhance the professor's final triumph.

5) Learn the jargon quickly, use it abundantly but accurately, and drop names of authors so as to seem well-read. But be careful whom you quote, and make sure that you know your professor's opinion of whomever you quote. If you do not know his opinion, ask him, but make sure that he has at least heard of the author.

6) Choose your professors with the greatest care, especially your major one who may later become your thesis advisor. More specifically:

a) Avoid cantankerous isolates, unless they hold positions of exceptional eminence and power, which is seldom the case. Even then, be prepared to be rebuffed.

b) Try to take at least one seminar from most senior professors, whether you are interested in the subject matter or not. But make sure that you know their factional alignments and their relative intellectual position. Until such time as you do, only mention your professors to their colleagues in the most neutral terms.

c) Among your professors, choose as your major one the man who combines the qualities of power in the department and lenience toward students. If he also happens to specialize in an area of interest to you, you are really in luck.

d) As a corollary of the foregoing, choose your area of specialization according to your professors, not your professors according to your intellectual interests.

e) Avoid the all-too-successful and popular professor because the chances are that you will seldom see him, and because, if he has too many students, his ability to be of use to you will be diluted, and the competition within his coterie of clients will be intense. However, if you feel confident that you can outshine your competitors, then attach yourself to the star anyway.

f) Cultivate the attitudes, norms, values, and mannerisms associated with your chosen discipline, but do it with finesse. Uncritical agreement, slavish imitation, and blatant sycophancy will stamp you as a dull, mediocre chap. For example, share the political liberalism of your professors, but disagree on points of detail. Remember that disagreement is itself one of the norms of academia. Indeed, most scholarly reputations are made disagreeing with the right colleagues at the right time. Flatter your professors, but never in direct, clumsy fashion. E.g., never say: "Hey, professor, that was a good article you wrote in the Micronesian Journal of Politics." Rather, say something like: "Why don't you write a rejoinder to X and put him in his place?" or "Y really made an ass of himself in his review of your book."

7) Cultivate departmental secretaries. Unless some professor hit on the idea before you, you may find it rewarding to take them to dinner and bed, but be discreet about it. Secretaries are often the best informed persons about departmental affairs---amorous, political, and scholarly. They can even wield considerable influence over department chairmen and other powerful figures. Never presume to be of higher status than they are. Remember that for your professors, secretaries are far less dispensable than you are. Consequently, treat them with punctilious courtesy. Who knows? One of them may even type your thesis someday.

8) Accept offers of research or teaching assistantships from your professors, even if they do not seem intrinsically attractive. Remember that a good letter of recommendation from a senior professor when you seek out your first full-time job is worth a couple of hundred hours of slave labor. And if it makes you feel better, call it good experience.

Once you get your Ph.D., the lean years of apprenticeship are over. You have been admitted into the professional priesthood, and you have acquired the privilege of initiating your own novices. By now, you should have "internalized" the norms of your profession and made them your own. You should feel quite comfortable in academe.

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