So let’s talk about humanities grad school

Warning: introspection ahead. But also pictures of dogs!

Hey, There,

So let me start by telling a quick story about myself.

In 2013, I was working for the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities, and one of the benefits was that you could take classes for free. I was worried that I’d backed my way out too far out onto a career limb; my job was managing the content of a website, and this was after doing technical stuff at museums and freelance writing on the side, and I thought that all of my skills were too specialized. So I figured I should get a Master’s in software engineering from St. Thomas, and that this would open up a lot of new career options for me. I even—and I cringe to remember this—went around saying something like “for the past 15 years I’ve been so focused on creative stuff that I’ve really drifted. It’s time to focus on practical career stuff!”

I basically learned one thing in my one semester in that software master’s program: that my time on earth was limited and precious and that I didn’t want to spend it taking software engineering classes.

These newsletters just read better with images, don’t they? So here’s a portrait of a dog in the style of a Byzantine mosaic. I promise this’ll be relevant by the end!

Still, I figured it was a waste to have free grad-level classes just sitting there for the taking and not actually take any. I’d worked for museums for over 10 years, and had really fond memories of the art history survey class I’d taken my senior year of undergrad as pass-fail padding while trying to cram an entire English major into 5 quarters.* Why not try an art history seminar and see if it was my kind of thing?

*Long story, but let’s just say that grad school wasn’t the first time I went into an educational institution with STEM plans and walked out with a humanities degree.

A few years later, I had an M.A. in art history. It had started out as a thing I was doing for fun as a fringe benefit to a job I liked. By the time I was done, it was a primary-focus thing I was working towards, with expectations that when I was done, I was going to be trying to work in the field. I’m not entirely sure why that switch in outlook happened; I think part of it was that I was pretty good at it, and was getting a lot of encouragement from professors. A second thing was that, over the course of the degree, my work situation had changed, to where I was working at a job that I was kind of conflicted about but wanted to hold onto until I finished grad school.

And here’s where it gets sticky: I finished the degree in May of 2018 and immediately started applying for arts jobs, to no avail. At that point I was working for a for-profit education company whose CEO was very prone to saying that the only measure of a degree’s worthiness was its ROI (return on investment); hearing that while trying unsuccessfully to use my own hard-won degree to get a job was a pretty reliable way to feel awful.

And so I guess this brings me to the main point: by the standards of ROI, my degree is worse than useless. It didn’t help me get a better job; during my current job search, it doesn’t appear to be helping me get any job at all (the situation might be different with a Ph.D. instead of a master’s, although the friends I have in academia definitely don’t paint it as a land of milk and honey). And I have it in me to feel pretty crummy about that from time to time.

But at the same time, I don’t think I’d trade the experience. That first seminar was maybe the most profound learning experience of my life. It was on how art in Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil had been influenced by slavery and colonialism, and I think that particular seminar did more to expand my capacity for empathy than anything else I’ve ever done. I literally learned more about what it means to be a human being with different types of experiences than I ever had before.*

*A wrinkle that interests me: my wife is taking classes about art evaluation. Her courses are very practical and focused on real-world material conditions, and have almost zero overlap with what I learned, which was almost all about how to extract meaning from works of art.** And I don’t think one direction of study is better than the other; I just think that talking to her about what she’s learning really highlights to me how little “practical” info I covered in my program.

**By the way, my program didn’t even include much in the way of “memorize the things you need to recognize that a work is by Brueghel the Elder” exercises, although other art history master’s programs do; I think the opinion of this program is that you’ll just naturally develop connoisseurship in your area of specialty. Really, I think I kind of half wrestled my degree into more of a general cultural history direction, which was intellectually very satisfying but probably didn’t help grease the slide towards a fancy museum curatorial job.  

And the rest of my seminars were like that, if not always so intensely. I was fascinated by the subject matter. I loved the discussions. I loved the reading. I loved it all. I made some great friends. It made me a more empathetic, more knowledgeable person. I learned about the way power structures work in society; I learned about the way every society has built-in prejudices around what it considers the default way to be a human (a lot of what’s going on in America right now, I think, is a bordering-on-violent resistance to the steady move away from white, straight maleness just being the unspoken default way of being an American). I think, for what it’s worth, that you get the same type of enrichment studying literature, or writing, or history, or any of the humanities.

The experience also made me a better writer, which I guess is the most tangible practical benefit, and is nothing to sneeze at; this newsletter exists as a way to keep that knife sharp. The only other directly tangible benefit so far is that exposure to Roman art led me down the artistic pathway to doing portraits of people’s dogs in the style of Byzantine mosaics, which is a lot of fun and which people seem to like.

And so here’s the crux of it: looking not just at art history but at any graduate degree in the humanities, how do you evaluate an arduous, multi-year undertaking that enriches you as a human being without bringing in any money whatsoever (dog portraits excepted)? Especially when said undertaking can be expensive as hell to pursue? My natural reaction is to say of course it’s worthwhile, our humanity is all we have, and anything that burnishes it is the most worthwhile thing you can do. But I also recognize that there’s a lot of privilege baked into that statement; it’s an easy thing to say when you were able to swing the program without a serious financial hit, but maybe it’s kind of cruel to say that someone should cripple their future for it. Or maybe it’s not cruel… they’d still have a great experience and come out of it with their humanity burnished.    

I guess I don’t want to subscribe to any view of the world where the things that the humanities teach you don’t matter and aren’t valuable. I have a lot of trouble with the way American society evaluates things right now. I recognize that people’s time, effort, and resources are finite quantities, and we need to take that into account when we figure out if something’s worth doing. But we’re terrible about attaching any importance to effort put into being a better, more interesting person. But on one level, our humanity is all we have, and I think it’s worthwhile to work on it.

And life rarely proceeds in easily predictable straight-line causes and effects. Just because you study X and don’t immediately get a job in the X field doesn’t mean it didn’t open some windows for you. I didn’t start this program expecting to come out doing dog portraits, but I get a lot of joy out of them.

Right on. Stay safe.


OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.

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