Paul Graham, generalizer

Paul Graham has an interesting essay entitled How to do what you love. It was posted on his web site in 2006, and this paragraph has stuck with me for years:

This test [would people do it for free?] is especially helpful in deciding between different kinds of academic work, because fields vary greatly in this respect. Most good mathematicians would work on math even if there were no jobs as math professors, whereas in the departments at the other end of the spectrum, the availability of teaching jobs is the driver: people would rather be English professors than work in ad agencies, and publishing papers is the way you compete for such jobs. Math would happen without math departments, but it is the existence of English majors, and therefore jobs teaching them, that calls into being all those thousands of dreary papers about gender and identity in the novels of Conrad. No one does that kind of thing for fun.

Of course Graham is committing the fallacy of generalizing from his own experiences. Graham is a programmer; I suspect that (1) he knows more math professors than English professors, and (2) he has an easier time seeing himself as a mathematician than as a literary critic. It’s interesting to juxtapose this with Graham’s comments in The Age of the Essay, in which he gives his spin on why people write essays and how real essays differ from those that one writes in school. Graham states that literary criticism was born when, in the late nineteenth century, American colleges started to transform themselves into research universities, and as a result the teachers of composition and rhetoric and so on needed something to research. He cites an article entitled “Where Do College English Departments Come From?” (William Riley Parker, College English, 28 (Feb. 1967), 339-351; JSTOR) for this. Graham’s point here is that students in English classes in high school and early in college are forced to write essays about literature when they could write more interesting essays about other things closer to their own experience.  I agree with this, although I don’t know enough about current teaching of English to know if he’s attacking a straw man or not. But he seems to have an axe to grind against academic studies of English.

In What you’ll wish you’d known Graham suggests to high school students the tactic of “staying upwind” — major in math, say, instead of economics, because you can go from math to economics but not vice versa. In undergraduation he suggests constructing the “dropout graph” — field X is harder than field Y if more people switch from X to Y than the reverse. I’d like to see this dropout graph — perhaps the registrar’s office has the data? I can’t tell where English is in that graph — he doesn’t explicitly mention it in either a list of “worthwhile” departments or of “subjects with least intellectual content” — and I’d be curious to know where he’d put it.

Finally, I’ve known grad students in English, some of whom are now professors of English. They seem to be pretty into what they do, and not just because they want academic jobs.

9 thoughts on “Paul Graham, generalizer

  1. It also feels like every noun in that quote should be followed with “here in the USA”. The idea that lit crit started with the birth of professionalized research academia would have been news to Hazlitt. Housman is a later obvious example of someone so compelled by what they valued that he did it while outside the official ivory tower before he was admitted back in. Eric Blair wrote essays on Dickens and Kipling, admittedly for money, but certainly not so he could have something to put in some kind of ‘research portfolio’.

    There is also the false comparison between “work on math” and “publish papers [in Eng Lit]” – rather disingenuous rhetoric.

    Grumble. On the other hand, Mark’s link to that Ceglowski essay, which I’d seen before but forgotten, has brightened my day.

  2. I like the way that since I don’t have easy access to a research library or a research community now that I’ve been squeezed out of the math job market, and I’m spending ten hours a day programming at a real job, and I thus don’t now work on math in my spare time, I was evidently never a “good mathematician”.

    That doesn’t parse well at all, but I think my point is clear.

  3. As for “staying upwind”, I’m glad it was so easy for me to switch from math to any of a dozen other fields.

    Oh wait, no. None of those other fields would hire a mathematician without significant field-specific experience and I was unemployed for almost two years.

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