Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The ivory tower's back door

I find that I rarely address my academic work directly here, beyond remarks about its plenitude or the stress it causes me. It is true that school, despite the intensity of my program, is not my highest priority and that I view the PhD I hope to earn more as a means to an end than as an end in itself. But that doesn’t mean that I give no—or even just a small amount of—thought to my field and its expectations.

I am on the literature side of the Humanities and work in different languages, though I will not be any more specific than that. And I have studied towards a PhD before. Managed to get my MA along the way, but found personal reasons not to stick around. Several years ago I carefully weighed the choice of returning for my PhD or becoming a teacher at the junior high/high school level. I explored the student option first, spending a day at a nearby campus with a program that was quite well respected in general and in my field. I called Trillian on the drive back home and informed her I’d be getting my resume together for the teaching job search.

That visit reminded me of many of the reasons I had disliked graduate school previously. The seminars I sat through were utterly boring, even though both were examining authors I had previously studied and enjoyed. One involved deconstructing a poem to the point that its original content was no longer recognizable. Every student said something, if only to have said something. Little of substance was uttered, and I am not convinced that the time in that classroom furthered anyone’s knowledge or understanding of that poet and his poetry. The other seminar was given by a recognized expert on that author—and consisted of an hour and a half of his lecture on the poem assigned. No student input, no guided discussion, a lot of repetition of the notes on the poem that were part of the text assigned. The point of both classes seemed to be a formal exercise: make your appearance, jump through this hoop over here, dot your i’s.*

But that’s not even the moment that sealed my decision. No, that came in the graduate student lounge. I was chatting with the students who were around when the resident career student—you know the one, into the eighth year of studies, working on the dissertation for four or so, the de facto head student—pulled her little power play. Turning to me, she asked, “So what do you want to do with the PhD? Become a professor?” The correct answer, as I well knew, was a resounding “Yes! I can’t imagine anything I would like more than that!” But I had left a PhD program a couple years before precisely because I didn’t like that answer, I could imagine doing other things with my life. So I responded honestly, “That or teaching in a high school.” She drew her breath in sharply, (mock) horror on her face, and drew in close to advise me: “Oh no, you should never say that. Even if that’s what you think. But you just won’t be taken seriously if you say that.”

And I was reminded of what I have seen as a great hypocrisy in my field. Show any significant talent, and you are immediately counseled into a doctoral program and groomed to become a researcher and professor. Teaching at a small liberal arts college would be a compromise, a step down, since you’d lose out on the big name of a tier-one research university. High school—that was for those who just couldn’t handle rigorous academics. Never mind that these same high-minded individuals could, in the same breath, deplore the quality of students’ high school preparation: “They’re never ready to produce work at the level of our expectations.” Amazing how such intelligent people could ignore the connection between high school teachers who are especially knowledgeable in and enthusiastic about their subject area and well prepared and eager students.

In the decade between my first foray into a doctoral program and the beginning of my studies here, at least a little has changed in my field. While the primary push still tends to be research-oriented, there is finally recognition that teaching ability is important too. Even in my department, filled with scholars who are important in their various areas, teaching experience is considered to be a crucial component of our training. The time that I spent in the wilds of junior high and high school is seen as a distinct advantage. There still is an assumption that the best and brightest will head off to be leading researchers at other big universities, but it is not presented as the one goal with all other achievements classed as some form of failure. There’s still a tightrope to walk, however. A friend a couple years ahead of me and I both seem to be on the department’s list of “those to be groomed,” but both of us are aiming for a small liberal arts school where teaching is emphasized over research. We both like the idea of working closely with students, helping them develop a broad and solid foundation; we both want to have time outside of work to make family a priority. This is a discussion we have had with each other, but it’s not something we have specified to our supervisors—time for that when we hit the job market, right?

*While I still do not thoroughly enjoy my classes, a couple things are different now. It helps that seminars here are not generally run as at the other university. I also have gotten to a point where I can look past the moment to the ultimate goal, something to be chalked up to increasing maturity.


Suz said...

I spent some time in the academic world and, yes, did find it full of that type of hypocrisy, even more so because the "research type jobs" for which the "serious students" were being groomed, didn't really exist as such. Most of the folks who graduated from my program, if they got positions at research universities, did so for a year. They worked really hard for little pay and then moved a rung down. The lucky ones got jobs at the small liberal arts colleges like the ones you describe.

Yes...I graduated, but I'm doing something completely different with the degree, straddling the corporate and academic worlds.

Mad Hatter said...

It's funny but back when I was in a PhD program so many of the grad students did not want careers in the colleges b/c the teaching load was unbearably high (not b/c they didn't enjoy teaching). They hoped for balance in their lives rather than having to grade papers non-stop--morning, evening, night and weekends. Now I am married to a professor at a small university. In the end, I don't know if there is balance to be had on either side of the fence. It is my understanding though that at least in Canada colleges have adjusted their course load requirements over the last decade or so such that the teaching/marking load is not quite as overwhelming as it once was.

Oh and catching up here: love the cake.

Lisa b said...

This got me thinking about the very bad experience I had with grad programs in the sciences. I won't even get started other than to say my advisor FREAKED when one of his grad students applied to teacher's college.
Now I am really sitting on the fence wondering if I am cut out for Phd work. I am lucky that I get the best of many aspects of what you describe as I work at a private high school where many of the teachers have Phds. There are pros and cons of working everywhere. I hate it when profs, advisors etc act like one lifestyle is right for everyone.

Mouse said...

I'm definitely not blind to how work loads get shifted depending on your location. I suppose one thing that predisposes me towards the smaller schools, and even back into junior/high school, is that I really thrive on student interaction and would rather spend my time going over their work than my own (obscure) research.