“Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg:” Finishing a Medievalist Dissertation under the New Graduate School Paradigm

As I was re-reading earlier Chequered Board posts by my colleagues and friends both here at ND and abroad, looking for inspiration and guidance on how exactly one does this “blog” thing, I found myself distracted by the dates attached to each post. Each one reminded me of an important upcoming date: 31 May, 2017.

It’s not a date of excitement or performance anxiety. It’s a date of uncertainty and dread.

11 weeks left. That’s approximately how long until my final student stipend paycheck from the University of Notre Dame. My health insurance – to the best of my knowledge – continues until mid-August. Although I have three more years of tuition waiver, my institution will provide no further stipendiary assistance because I am reaching the end of my sixth year here.

It’s been an amazing six years. My first year in the Medieval Institute passed in a blur of fascinating courses taught by brilliant professors and the mandatory “Orientation to Medieval Studies,” which threw us into bibliographies of nearly every medieval topic under the sun with diverse faculty personalities. The Latin Exam haunted me, but also led to some of my closest grad student friendships here at ND with people who actually know Latin instead of hiding from it. The myriad lectures (attendance obligatory but never begrudged) exposed me to Gothic Architecture, French Romances, Paleography, Carolingian history, and more. The following year, dominated by the now-defunct 2nd Year Project, provided me with a new advisor and the glory of not being a first-year student. In my third year, I served as MI student representative and learned exactly how *not* to study for your comprehensive exams, while navigating the loss of our director, Remie Constable, whose sudden, premature death rocked our community. Afterwards in my fourth year, I began mucking around in the swamps of my medieval wetlands dissertation, and last year I was on a Fulbright student research scholarship in Uppsala, Sweden, learning the landscape of environmental humanities from a network of European scholars.

During these years, I’ve had the pleasure of being part of a robust medievalist community. Each time someone presented at a conference, published an article, received a grant, defended a dissertation or found a job, we all celebrated. New faces – faculty, staff, students, and visitors – have taken the place of those who once seemed bastions of the MI, but the medievalist community survives. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Only some things have significantly changed. The academic job market, though not nearly as bad as it was, has never and will never recover to its previous levels. The shift to adjunct faculty has radically altered the landscape; short-term postdoctoral fellowships and Visiting Assistant Professorships have replaced the tenure-track Assistant Professor positions on the job boards in ways that seem exploitative of a large pool of qualified candidates.

The expectations for grad students have also increased. ABD students and newly-minted PhDs need at least two articles to be considered seriously as job or fellowship candidates (I’ve even heard as high as four!). We must maintain a social media presence, have solid teaching records in our fields, and demonstrate involvement in non-academic outreach and planning. Even winning a widely recognized grant like the Fulbright or DAAD is not enough to merit a second look at your CV. Regardless of job market uncertainty, universities are pressuring students to finish faster (The University of Notre Dame, for example, began a new 5+1 program in 2016 with the help of the Arthur W. Mellon Foundation).

This poor state of affairs is exacerbated by the political state of affairs. Whatever your political leanings, it must be acknowledged that the current administration is anti-intellectual, and the new Secretary of Education isn’t invested in spending more on higher education systems she considers over-regulated and her approach to the massive student-loan debt problem is vague at best.

“How do we get through this?” I wonder almost daily. Not just for myself but for the peers who have shaped my graduate education perhaps even more than any individual faculty member. The refrain from the Anglo-Saxon poem Deor seems apropos, that “Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg” (“that was overcome, so may this be”).[1] The poet, who gives his name as Deor, wrote six strophes that allude to individual or collective suffering that was eventually overcome, even if the denouement was not all sunshine and roses. Deor relates his own misery in the final stanza, that he has lost the coveted position of scop, a type of court bard that provided joy in the hall.[2] Parallels to the medieval graduate student experience include the traditional role of learning and reconstructing the stories of the past (as the Beowulf-poet says, wordum wrixlan, l.874a) combined with the collegiality of the academic environment; this makes it easy to relate to his sense of loss when Deor is no longer welcome in that hall. Our modern hallowed halls are no longer able to embrace and welcome the PhD graduates, who would be delighted to continue in the academic tradition.

The horizon has changed for the humanities and a consolatio refrain like Deor’s will not help us. We have convinced ourselves that a self-perpetuating cycle of academic mentoring of future academics was our highest goal, yet this approach has left us isolated in an ivory tower and our graduates ill-equipped to transition to non-academic positions. Recent initiatives such as the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program attempt to provide firsthand experience for recent PhDs in alt-academic positions. Despite this we still create hierarchies of success based on the proximity of our post-graduate-school life to the academic world. This does a great disservice to essential humanistic emphasis on understanding ourselves and our place in this world.

A close friend recently suggested that the core of the new humanistic engagement is retheorizing ourselves as academics regardless of where our pathways lead. The whirlwind meanderings under my professors’ rigorous watch during the last six years have provided me the necessary skills to continue in an academic career, should that prove feasible. As that eleven-week deadline marches closer, I continue applying to academic positions, but also university administrative positions, local off-campus positions that allow me to stay near my academic and social community, and cultural-engagement positions that would utilize my “extra-curricular” skills: project management, library sciences, professional development training, event planning, database management, community outreach, and cultural diplomacy. All of these so-called alternatives are not failures; instead they embody the essence of the humanities.

We humanists do ourselves a great disservice when we fail to maintain our own value. The humanities has the most to offer in the face of anti-intellectualism and resistance to human rights. If we are like Deor, lamenting a lost place in the king’s favor, we have missed the point. Our songs and stories, our research and engagement, our inquiry and curiosity are the most valuable things we have. External realities are outside of our control. Engaging in exploitative labor as an adjunct or full-time instructor is not justified by a love of our subject, commitment to students, or access to the scraps under the university table. We must recognize the equal validity of academic and alt-academic positions and reorganize our graduate programs to prepare students for a broader range of career pathways through service obligations, internships, or even dissertation alternatives that integrate the project management skills that employers seek.[3]

Although I initially intended to write about my current research project on medieval Icelandic water laws and contemporary debates on US state, regional, and federal jurisdictions, this post represents instead the opportunity to articulate what more often frames my discussions with my colleagues who are finishing or recently finished their dissertations: the economic and career uncertainty that encapsulates our lives. We can overcome the challenge individually, but our field will continue to suffer until we decentralize the post-baccalaureate training model from the ideal of a tenure-track position.

Mae Kilker
University of Notre Dame

[1] For an overview myriad attempts for translating this line, see Alfred Bammesberger, “The Old English Poem Deor: Its Structural Units and the Grammatical Analysis of Its Refrain,” Anglia 133.2(2015):322-26.

[2] “Sum sceal mid hearpan æt his hlafordes / fotum sittan, feoh þicgan, / ond a snellice snere wræstan, / lætan scralletan sceacol, se þe hleapeð, / nægl neomegende; biþ him neod micel.” (Fortunes of Men, l. 80-84)

[3] On the disconnect between skills employers seek and graduate school training across disciplines, see Denecke et al., Professional Development: Shaping Effective Programs for STEM Graduate Students. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.

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