On 6 November 2017, Mark Celeste’s “Dungeons & Dragons & Graduate School” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article is, in essence, a comparison between Celeste’s experience of a graduate English program and playing the primary example of tabletop roleplaying games, and Celeste’s points are generally correct. That does not mean, of course, that there are no points of concern, but there are comments made that are well worth considering–and repeating.
As far as points of concern go, perhaps the most prominent is that the comparison between graduate study in English and D&D is that of trivialization. To be fair, I’ve spent a great deal of time playing roleplaying games, including D&D, and I pulled from that experience while I was teaching (which I note), so it is with some sense of irony that I make such a comment. But D&D is a game, and it is one with a particular history of regard–not only the “bunch of guys and gals sitting around in their mom’s basement drinking Mountain Dew, eating Cheetos, and telling warlock jokes” Celeste mentions to lampshade the issue, but also one that has engendered (admittedly undeserved) fear and revulsion. (An older piece by one arkelias comes to mind as having explanatory power.) While it is the case that views are largely changing (as witness the fact that my high school has a D&D club now, whereas having dice on campus was actionable when I was a student), they are not wholly changed; some will still view D&D and games like it as iterations of evil, while others will take the comparison between English graduate study and gaming as yet one more indicator of the uselessness of that study. And while it is not the case that Celeste’s article appears directed toward arguing to outside readers that English graduate study is worthwhile, it is also not the case that the article will be used only for its “intended” purposes.
Again, however, there is quite a bit of good in the article. For one, as noted, Celeste’s points of comparison are generally correct; the identified parallels are, in my experience and in the experiences of others with whom I’ve discussed the matter, well, parallel. (Yes, I know “the plural of anecdote is not data” and all, and I’d be happy to see a citation to “more rigorous” scholarship on the matter, but until I see something that disproves my prior understanding, I’m going to continue with it.) I might also add that I, and no few others (again, going from discussions I’ve had with others), come to their chosen discipline through D&D and similar games, at least in part, so it makes sense that there would be connections to be found–aside from those, such as Daniel Mackay and Gary Alan Fine, who make formal academic study of such things.
For another, and more important, there is Celeste’s assertion that he doesn’t “think you can get through grad school without a dedicated hobby or two.” I’ve known people who have done so, certainly, but they have not been happy people, even if they have perhaps been more likely to land one of the few and coveted tenure-line jobs with which graduate students continue to be teased despite the ongoing contraction of that particular area of employment. Graduate work, particularly in the humanities, is traditionally isolating, breeding myopia that accounts in large part for the oft-cited chasm between town and gown, and getting outside that work, having a reminder that there is more to the world than the project being pursued, is helpful. For me, the reminders were judo and, yes, tabletop roleplaying games. For others, the reminder’s been visual art, or music, or something else entirely. (Sometimes, it’s less good.) The medium matters less than the message, though; finding the outside interest and engaging in it is helpful to getting through graduate school–and many other things, beside. And it may be the case that the connections formed through those outside activities come to bear when, at length, the search for tenure-track work fails, as it does for far, far more than succeed in such seeking.
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