It's funny because it's true! Plus some thoughts on mortification practices outside of graduate school.

Don't ask.

Wasn’t that an old Homer Simpson line or something, “it’s funny because it’s true?”  Anyway–here’s something I found pretty funny, although some of the commenters don’t seem to get the joke.  Actually, I think the author, Daniel J. Ennis, gets it right:  the oversupply of Ph.D.s is due to the satisfactions of smugness:

I don’t spend much time on The Outside, but I meet nondocs in the grocery, and at church, and at unavoidable family gatherings, and I see them struggle to achieve the smug. So much alcohol, so much philandering, so much striving for promotion to V.P., attachment to sports teams and political parties, time lavished on soup kitchens and animal shelters, on raising kids and caring for the aged, so much windsurfing and cross-training … so many airy castles designed to prove that there are good lives to be lived without that ne plus ultra of credentials. We were acquainted with those people before we went to graduate school. As Bob Dylan (honorary doctorate, Princeton) put it, “All those people we used to know /they’re an illusion to me now.” The nondoc trades thousands of dollars and hours for an uncertain shot at self-satisfaction. The person with a Ph.D. has a lifetime supply.

.       .       .       .      .       .      

While there is nothing more miserable and annoying than a doctorate-in-training, once that little sucker breaks out of the cocoon she can beat her wings like the butterfly she was meant to be. In mixed company (i.e. groups of doctorates and nondocs) she can let slip “when I was working on my doctorate” and the room becomes hers. In mixed marriages (distasteful, perhaps, but sometimes useful to pay for life’s little necessities, like health insurance), the Ph.D. can be the ultimate weapon in a decades-long struggle for emotional dominance. Nobody argued with The Professor (Ph.D., Botany, UCLA) on Gilligan’s Island. All those marooned nondocs depended on his serene intelligence when the chips were down.

I’ll admit it–this partially explains my attraction to graduate school.  I don’t come from a wealthy or prominent family, and I was the first person in my family to earn an advanced degree.  I was just lucky to finish my Ph.D. 14 years ago, when there was a brief break in the clouds through which many of us of that generation ascended into tenure-track jobs. 

Another reason Ennis’s article makes sense to me is that recently, I’ve been mulling over the problem of self-mortification among religious women in the early modern era.  All of the literature suggests that the new, Reformation-era orders like the Ursulines, with their apostolic missions, were encouraged to leave behind the tradition of self-mortification that contemplative orders engaged in.  And yet, there is evidence that it continued in European as well as New World convents from Mexico to Canada, and that Indian convert women adopt the same practices.  (They weren’t just improvising with cedar branches–someone, after all, was supplying appliances like “iron girdles.”)  I think Ennis’s approach to this problem is correct in that he asks what are people still getting out of a Ph.D. given that they can’t count on a job at the end of the line.  So in exploring what mortification practices did for religious women, it’s useful to ask what value was there in inflicting pain and irritating open sores on their bodies?  What did they get out of it?, not Why did they sacrifice their comfort and health?  When we ask the first question, we open up the possibility for new answers.

32 thoughts on “It's funny because it's true! Plus some thoughts on mortification practices outside of graduate school.

  1. Are you drawing a line between Fasting Girls of the 19th century, and vegan PhD students of today?

    There’s certainly a moral superiority evident among some PhDs, precisely because their vocation is not remunerative. I don’t think they would see it as mortification, so much as simple disregard for the material in pursuit of a higher cause.

    I know because since I got my PhD, I’m practically Buddha I’m so enlightened.


  2. I will never forget that as a newly minted PhD, struggling to find a TT job while working at a crappy, dead end position, I saw a fellow PhD Candidate at the grocery store … I asked how it was going and she rolled her eyes and told me how BORING it was … she finished and immediately got a very desirable SLAC job …


  3. Regarding female self-mortification practices: Hells to the yeah, Historiann! My typist went to grad school because she was too tall and wide-hipped for ballet. Didn’t you guys see “Black Swan” over winter break — Or were you too busy snow-shoeing your way through the remote woods of the high desert to catch this twisted, toe-shoed psychodrama? Gotta say, it made me grateful for every preening, self-important prof I ever endured and every incoherent paragraph of undergrad prose I’ve ever read. Oh, and it affirmed my decision to avoid eye make-up, too, another form of self-inflicted irritation I’ve never really understood.


  4. Clearly, I need to see Black Swan! (I did hear about some pretty gruesome scenes of that pretty little girl’s feet.) I never have heard before about Moose’s ballet ambitions, but it seems like she made the right choice.

    Mostly my comparison of graduate school and self-mortification was unserious, although I think asking “what is there in this that I can’t yet see?” rather than “why the hell would anyone do that?” is a good way to flip the question and find some new answers.


  5. On the topic of women religious and self-mortification, I would recommend Rudolph Bell’s 1985 book “Holy Anorexia,” which mostly deals with fasting practices, but also other forms of “discipline.” Also, I’d suggest Anne Baldwin’s 1987 biography of Catherine of Sienna, which addresses the question you’re asking here, namely which needs (psychological and/or spiritual) are being met by these practices.


  6. There is also an article coming out in April in Women’s History Review by Jo Royle on Christina of Markyate, the 12thC saint, which explores how she actively fashioned herself as a saint through her life choices. It doesn’t explore the inflicting of pain on her body per se (although she was a hermit for a time), but it is an interesting discussion on why she chose to model herself as a saint and what she gained from it as a woman (authority mainly!).


  7. One of the interesting puzzles I like so much about this blog is the seriousness the blog and most of the commenters appear to walk around with.

    My question, typically, is not addressing “nondocs” but rather addressing the wannabe docs. I never recommend doing a PhD unless you have the fire in the belly. My department graduates without docs make around $150,000 after about 10 years of experience. Jobs are in good supply even these days. (True mainly for the DC area.)

    One of my best docs ever makes close to 7 figures as an employee on the West Coast. His doc notwithstanding; he is simply great and drives a Camry; he is the salt of the earth guy.

    The question to the wannabe docs is: do you have the brain horses to pull it off? Self-whatever never gets into the discussion; giants are rare. (As my son says about one of the Nobel laureates in Economics: he isn’t Nobel dumb, he is simply dumb.)


  8. I second the *Holy Anorexia* rec. That book came out the same year as Bynum’s *Holy Feast, Holy Fast,* which you probably already know. Because Bynum’s book was so successful, Bell’s was overshadowed, but it does make some interesting points. The title is also unfortunate, IMO.


  9. Thanks for the bibliographic references. I will check out the 1980s titles Minerva & Squadrato suggested. It’s interesting that there has been so little done on this stuff since the 1980s, when I guess the connections to the eating disorders was irresistable (plus Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s books, which made the connections explicit). And I have found very little scholarship on inflicted wounds/injuries/flagellation, as opposed to fasting/starvation. (Diane Rapley has a conference paper on it and addresses it in her second book, and Bynum has more recently published some interesting stuff on beliefs about blood theologies, but there’s just not that much out there that I’ve found. Again, any other advice anyone has will be most welcome!)

    One book just came for me from ILL, a book called Holy Tears, Holy Blood about French religious women in the 19th C, as I recall.


  10. I have to say that I’m not a fan of Bell’s book. I don’t like the psychoanalytic approach and find the anorexia business anachronistic. But, H, these questions have been widely discussed in my field and I could give you some references if you were interested in some historiography from the other side of the pond. Yes, authority/power! Space. An audience. Influence. Followers/fame. Autonomy. And in many cases, certain religious practices are at least partially the result of a specific spiritual goal. Meaning, Catherine of Siena might not have just been working out her mommy abandonment, but full of a desire for a certain kind of spiritual experience (for its own sake), which given her historical context directed her to certain practices.


  11. I’m in the middle of Lester Little’s Religious Poverty and the Profit Motive in Medieval Europe, and there’s an entertaining bit in there where 12th century scholars express horror at the idea that their students might be going to school for future monetary gain. That’s all I could think about reading this article- that there’s a little bit of the medieval professor in each of us, pitying the poor burghers who work for filthy money.


  12. “I was just lucky to finish my Ph.D. 14 years ago, when there was a brief break in the clouds through which many of us of that generation ascended into tenure-track jobs.”


    I hate to quibble, but you and I are part of the same generation so I can tell you with some certainty that there was never any break in the clouds. The academic job market stinks more now, but it stunk then too. What’s happening is that the top secret plan to replace us all with adjuncts that was hatched sometime in the 1970s is now kicking into high gear. It’s been operational though for a very long time.

    By the way, do you remember the c. 1990 study by former Princeton President Bill Bowen which claimed that there was going to be a Ph.D. shortage the end of that decade? Good times. Good times.


  13. Jonathan, I don’t quarrel with your overall analysis. I don’t have any of Robert Townsend’s job market charts in front of me, but it seemed to me anecdotally that things loosened up in the mid- to late 1990s and in the early 2000s. People might have adjuncted or taken VAP jobs, but they were eventually getting tenure stream offers. That’s what seems to have solidified in the last decade–the adjunct rut is more difficult to get out of.

    And rustonite, I’ve always wondered what Lester Little wrote about (for obvious reasons if you know my surname), and now I know, so thanks! (I agree with your point to some extent, but I think that’s usually a matter of having to make necessity (relative poverty) a virtue rather than us turning away piles of money on principle. I’m all for piles of money–as soon as I can figure out how to make money on a no-advertising, non-commercial blog!!!


  14. asking “what is there in this that I can’t yet see?” rather than “why the hell would anyone do that?”

    This is, I think, the only way to find the answers. The first question is about empathy and maybe also discovery, the second is about othering and maybe also judgement.


  15. Brad Gregory’s “Salvation at Stake” is a great, synthetic consideration of early modern martyrdoms, Catholic and Protestant. By bridging the theological divides, I think he comes closest to answering some of the broader questions of motivation behind the public, extreme positions willingly taken by many of these people.

    Returning to “The Simpsons”, however, I will say that, as a Ph.D., I opt to tootle about in “a go-cart, powered by my own sense of self-satisfaction.”


  16. Lester Little also has written about ritual maledictions. They’re quite entertaining! I have one lecture where I read part of a monastic malediction out loud: the students are amused and amazed by the nastiness of it.


  17. Is a malediction some kind of curse? (I’m thinking that it’s the opposite of a benediction?) They sound a whole lot more fun than most sermons or homilies. . . priests should start doing these again, to build up the flock.

    And Janice–thanks for the suggestion. That’s the kind of thing I’m looking for.


  18. Yes, a malediction is a curse: there are lengthy ritual curse-forms that were written out for monasteries to use in case the monks were treated unfairly by local Lords. I think they start appearing in mss. around the 9C- and last through the 12C-, though I’d have to recheck the book to be certain of that chronology.

    They call down extensive curses on the offending individual (the formulae have a space where you insert the person’s name) that are spectacularly complete: “May he be cursed standing, may he be cursed sitting, may he be cursed sleeping, may he be cursed eating, may he be cursed drinking, may he be cursed riding, may he be cursed inside and out-of doors; may he be cursed in the fields and in the garden; may he and all his family and all his animals and all his possessions be cursed until he is thrown into the fires of Hell….” Sorta like that (I’m paraphrasing from memory).


  19. I don’t know if this makes me smug, but I’m really glad I went to graduate school. I don’t have a job yet, so there’s no telling if I’ll end up in a TT job or not. But graduate school opened up doors for me that wouldn’t have been open otherwise given my family’s socioeconomic situation: I moved to a different part of country, lived in a large city for the first time, and lived in a foreign country for the first time. I also feel much more confident of my abilities to read and write critically. Even if I end up leaving the academy because of the lack of career options, I think I’ll still be glad I entered my graduate program. (I should add, in case anyone contemplating graduate school is reading my comment, that I have been very lucky in my funding for graduate school. I think I would really regret going to graduate school if I were currently looking at huge student loans. I don’t want to come across as too rah-rah about graduate school, not at all.)

    PS — Historiann, you’ve got a lot of books to read but just to throw another log on the fire: have you read Anne Schutte’s _Autobiography of an Aspiring Saint_? It’s not about mortification per se, but it raises lots of fascinating issues about femininity and sanctity.


  20. Thanks, Squadrato. Sounds like malediction forms would be really useful when asked for some letters of recommendation! (Kidding!)

    Meghan, you give a really nice description of why grad school is worthwhile outside of the professional preparation, and all of the things you cite are good for young people to do, even if it doesn’t lead directly to the kind of job you trained for. Your experiences sound a lot like mine. I guess I could have moved to a big city or to another country and just have looked to live life’s experiences in my 20s, but I wasn’t really looking for “adventure” per se and liked the formal structure of grad school. And, hey–getting paid to read and write from ages 22-28 isn’t all that bad a deal, even if the money isn’t great. (Like you, I avoided debt and lived on my TA-ship, which is a good thing about not being an adventure-seeking person! I really wasn’t interested in the adventure of student or consumer debt. . . )


  21. I actually went to grad school for the money. I’m serious. The money and the health insurance. I had a humanities B.A. and hadn’t been able to find one of those excellent, remunerative bourgeois jobs that are apparently out there in great quantities for anyone not too smug to take them. (I had a miserably paid office job, followed by a more miserably-paid semi-volunteership, followed by a lot of short-term gigs, if you’re curious.) The “smugness” of grad school has mostly been a welcome alternative to suicidal depression (and in that respect, it probably has made me more employable in the non-smug sector). Not that I’m not academically motivated, or devoid of great pompous visions for improving human understanding. But I honestly don’t think I ever wanted it so much that I would have walked away from a secure, middle-class job to go.

    I’m sure I’m in a minority, but I bet it’s not a minority of one. Don’t grad school enrollments track economic downturns pretty closely? I’ve often thought that people discount the short-term benefits of the small stipend, the usually decent insurance, and the soothing social legitimacy of grad school (versus the litany that ends this paragraph), as goods in themselves regardless of the academic job market and all the competing ideologies. It beats unemployment, Starbucks, unpaid internships, temping, data entry… so many unfortunate things that draw in so many unfortunate recent college grads.

    And a totally off-topic question — sorry to do this! — as long as I’m addressing this knowledgeable group of people: has anyone ever seen recent literature on the comparative debt loads of male and female college grads, perhaps compared with starting salaries or 5-year avg earnings after graduation? I’ve been wondering a lot about this lately (mixing news memes: our colleges are full of girls! + our colleges are full of debt! + wage gap persists!), but I haven’t turned anything up. Thanks much in advance for any pointers, and for reading this lengthy comment.


  22. @ upthread: R. Townsend’s first-ever quantitative analytic piece in AHA’s _Perspectives_, about 1995, I believe–and with a pretty primitive methodology but a somewhat clear-headed analysis–suggested that between 1985 and 1995 the average history department that listed itself in the AHA _Guide to Departments_ (certainly not every department, then) had increased its size by one tenure track position. Hardly robust growth, perhaps not even sustainable growth, but also not really evidence of a concerted effort to adjunctify the profession. What happened after that, of course, is that rather than circling around the ice field to pick up people clinging to debris or drifting in lifeboats, most departments with Ph.D programs speeded up the effort to ramp those programs back up with new admissions. So I’d lean toward Historiann’s “break in the clouds” metaphor, on balance.


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  24. I am an ABD. I taught for 37 years at a community college, and nobody cared about degrees, except for the few with Ph.Ds, whom the rest of us ignored. I’ve been part of the New England Quaker Community for about 40 years, and nobody has cared about my lack of a Ph.D. So my experiences are not yours.


  25. It seems it is expected to sacrifice comfort and health. I don’t believe in this but I do see that other people do. It proves dedication, intelligence, commitment, and so on, they appear to feel.


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