What They Didn’t Teach Me in Graduate School

When I was in graduate school for English, my professors focused on teaching me content, as I’m sure almost everyone’s graduate program did.  I wish I could say they taught me to write, but they really just assigned writing instead of teaching it (that’s a subject for a different post, though).  They even talked about the profession: attending conferences, doing research, being a part of professional organizations.  My Master’s program was actually better at that than my doctoral program, but they were better at pretty much everything for a reason that I hope will become clear as this post goes along.

Not surprisingly, my doctoral program was designed for people who were ultimately going to work at a similar school, a research institution.  Thus, the focus was on writing papers that one could present at conferences, then turn into publishable articles.  When I was in the library doing research for my papers, I often saw the professor who ultimately chaired my dissertation committee there doing his.  In fact, I saw him in the library more often than I saw him in his office (or home, as we met there one time before I graduated).

I do not spend much of my time doing research for papers I plan to present at conferences or try to publish.  I do spend some of my time doing that (I just had an article on David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas accepted for publication, for example), but the bulk of my time centers around teaching my classes.  Actually, I’m not sure even that is the bulk of my time, if I’m honest.  I don’t spend the majority in committee meetings (thankfully; I hate meetings).  No, I spend the majority of my time doing things I never thought I would be doing and that graduate school definitely did not prepare me for.

Let’s start with an extreme example:  On Saturday, we had nine students over to our house for most of the day.  They were using our kitchen to make 70 pies they were going to deliver on Monday as part of a fundraiser.  We’re going to the Sigma Tau Delta (English Honor Society) convention in Albuquerque next month, and we’ve been trying to raise money to go.  I didn’t help bake the pies, but I did go in and out and talk to them, and we certainly let them use anything we had in the kitchen that would help them along.  Last semester they made under 40 pies, and it took them all of one day.  They nearly doubled that because they could have more people help because they were able to use our space.

Not only have we allowed them to use the kitchen, but I’m the one who’s been managing the budget, booking the hotels, and ordering plane tickets.  I still have to calculate the parking and book the shuttle from the airport to the hotel in New Mexico for when we arrive.  Certainly, these are skills no one teaches in graduate school.

I also lead a trip to England every two years.  Thus, I have to calculate that budget, book all the hotels, reserve tour spots at a variety of locations, and buy the plane tickets for twenty students, two faculty members, our spouses, and my colleague’s son.  Oh, and I have to teach two classes associated with that trip.  Note that the class part often feels like the section that is added on.  It’s almost as if I’m a travel agent who is called upon to teach for a couple of weeks.

I also help with Admissions at our university.  I don’t travel to help recruit students, but I do work our recruitment events on campus.  Sometimes, when prospective students want to meet with a faculty member, Admissions contacts me and sets up an appointment for me to talk to them.  Lately, I’ve even been calling prospective students who have been accepted and talking with them about our program.  Granted, this borders on the creepy, but someone has to do it, and I seem to have developed an ability to do this.

I have done surveys of alumni to see what types of jobs our graduates actually get with an English major (the age-old question of our discipline), and I have presented that material to our current students to give them ideas of what they can (did that this past week, actually).  I have worked with students to try to set up internships for them.  I talk with students about their future and graduate school and whether or not it’s worthwhile for them to pursue that route (overall, it’s not, but it’s difficult to convince them of that).

I definitely did not learn any of this when I was working on my doctorate, but note what I said about my Master’s program being better than my doctoral program.  I had several professors at the Master’s level who had their doors open on a regular basis, and they talked with me about my future.  The graduate director had workshops on presenting at conferences, but he also talked about the field in other ways, showing us other avenues we might pursue (Rhetoric and Composition was just becoming well-known at the time, and he had a new hire come in and talk about it).  They might not have had me over to their house to bake pies, but they were certainly concerned about my life outside the classroom.

In fact, when I was hired for my first job, a private high school, my dissertation director was not happy.  Even though I was graduating into the second worst job market in higher education, he was not pleased I had gotten a good job because it did not match his vision of the profession.  The three most influential professors from my Master’s program were all quite happy for me.

Perhaps I’m wrong.  Perhaps I learned more about my current job and the wide variety of things I do for and with students in graduate school, just not at both of the graduate programs I attended. The difference between the two is clear: at the lower level, the professors cared about their students as people who would go on to do a variety of jobs; at the higher level, they expected us to follow in their footsteps and be just like them.  I’m glad I didn’t follow that route.

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We’re Not Making Mini-Mes

Most of us of a certain age remember the Austin Powers movies.  The second one introduced mini-me, that genetically reproduced, yet smaller, version of Dr. Evil.  You might not remember that Dr. Evil already had a son, Scott, whom he did not appreciate.  He wanted Scott to be like him, but Scott wanted to be his own person.

I was thinking about that idea this week after I had a conversation with a student who was struggling with what she wants to do after graduation.  She had already talked to two professors before coming to see me, and that was the problem.  Both of them, with nothing but good intentions, I’m sure, had encouraged her (rather strongly) to pursue the fields they are interested in.  Even though she is finishing her junior year, she was talking to me, her advisor, about double majoring, which won’t be possible without adding on another year.

When I asked her what she wanted to do after graduation, she admitted that she doesn’t know.  She just likes both of these fields, but she knows she can’t do both of them.  I encouraged her to get some experience with the one she was thinking of adding, which would help her make a decision over the summer, as she’s planning to go to graduate school in one of these two fields (which she feels compelled to do immediately after graduation, a decision I think is a poor one, but it is hers to make; my job is only to offer advice, then support her in getting where she thinks she wants to go).

I’m frustrated by professors’ tendency to push students into their field, even if that’s not in the best interests of the student.  In my first year of college teaching, I did the same thing.  There was a student who was thinking about attending law school, and he was considering English or Political Science.  When I talked to him, I talked about the amount of writing one does in law school and how the thinking that one does in analyzing literature is almost identical to the thinking one does in analyzing legal documents.  He told me that he had been talking to a Political Science professor who told him almost the exact argument about Political Science.

It dawned on me, then, that neither I nor the other professor really had this student’s best interests in mind.  All we wanted to do was recruit him to our major.  One more major meant another student in several of our classes, which would make our enrollment look better, after all.  In a competitive university environment, every student counted, we knew.  Given life in universities after 2008, that competition is even more fierce.

However, I choose at that point never to do that again.  I am happy to talk to students about all our major has to offer, but I’ll also encourage them to explore other disciplines they’re interested in.  I tell them to take introductory courses in a variety of fields to make sure they know what they’re getting in to and what their true interests are.  I try to give them a neutral place where they can talk about what they feel called to and help them figure out where they really need to be.

This is especially important for those students who want to become professors.  The make up of higher education has changed so much over the past twenty to thirty years that we cannot continue trying to graduate students who want to attend graduate school to become professors.  If a student, after all of the warnings about the job market, wants to try to become a professor, it is our job to help him or her as much as we can.  However, it is not our job to try to crank out people who follow the same path we followed.

There’s a Buddhist saying that doesn’t make much sense to those of us in the West (as most of them don’t).  It says, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.”  Christians, for example, would never use such a phrase to talk about Jesus.  What they mean by that, though, is that practitioners of Buddhism cannot simply do what Buddha did to achieve enlightenment.  Everyone must find their own path.

The same is true for our students.  Our paths and our stories can give them ideas and inspiration, but they should not serve as blueprints.  Our students need to find their own paths, and it is our job to help them find those paths, not to push them down the same ones we traveled.  I understand that it is difficult when you love something not to want everyone to love it, but students can love something without making it their life.  I hope my students love reading the literature I teach for the rest of their days, but I don’t want all (or even most) to make a life out of it.  There are too many other great pursuits out there, and I want them to explore as many as they can.

Teaching Them a Lesson

I hear some version of the comment, “I [or we] just need to teach them a lesson” on a regular basis.  Someone will say, “Well, they just need to learn [or realize…” or even “They just better wake up and see…”  Sometimes such comments will even come out of my mouth.  It’s often not clear exactly what we’re trying to teach students in those situations, but I think it’s one of two things, both of which are problematic.

Before I talk about the problems, though, let me say that I do agree that we should teach students more than the material in our classes.  I’m a rather strong proponent of that, actually.  Given that I teach a number of first-year students, for example, I believe part of my job is teaching them how to be students in college, so I talk about behavior in classes and meeting deadlines and the like.  Thus, don’t hear my comments below as evidence that I would argue that my job is solely to teach them English.

The first thing I think we mean when we say they need to learn a lesson is that we want them to behave the way we want them to behave.  I don’t mean that we want them not to text in class or something, but that we want them to think and act like us.  That could be political (I’ve written about that here), but it could be much broader than that.  Especially for those of us who teach in the liberal arts, we want to push our students to think outside of the bounds they used to think.  We like that approach until they start thinking in ways that are bothersome, and we really don’t like it when they start rebelling against us in the same way that we had been encouraging them to rebel against other ways of thought.

Just this week, a student performed an act of petty rebellion.  It really didn’t have much of an impact on anyone or anything, and only about four of us professors even noticed it (probably about 10-15 students knew about it).  One of my colleagues was shaking her head about the decision, and I simply commented, “Well, we want to teach them to think for themselves, but we don’t like it when they don’t think like we do.”  It’s at these points where we often decide to teach them a lesson, and that lesson is that they shouldn’t think for themselves; they should think how we want them to think (see this Zits cartoon for what we’re really thinking).

The other, more common, use of teaching them a lesson is when we want to talk about “the real world.”  We say things like, “When they get in the real world, they’ll learn how it really is” (I love the circular logic there, by the way).

First, I find it interesting that we don’t believe our classes exist in the real world.  That means that much of our lives is also not spent in the real world, though we would never argue that.  I would disagree with the majority here and argue that my classes are very much a part of the real world.  I and my students bring our real world problems, and we try to connect the literature we read to the very real world lives we lead.

Second, and more important, most of us have never lived/worked in the “real world” we talk about.  We tell students that when they’re in the real world, employers will do x, y, or z, but we were never employers in that real world.  Many of us went straight from college to graduate school to a job teaching.  We might have taken a year off here and there or we might have worked part-time jobs along the way, but we never had a career in that real world to know what we’re talking about.

I have a colleague who went to college later than most of us.  Before that, he served in Vietnam, and he worked as a motorcycle mechanic.  He’s clearly the exception to the traditional academic path.  I have never heard him talk about teaching students a lesson nor have I heard him tell a student about the real world.  Those who did live in the real world know that it will teach whatever lessons it needs to teach whenever and however it needs to.

Last, whenever we talk about teaching students a lesson, it’s almost always some sort of punishment.  If a student is turning something in late and we’ve decided that this is unacceptable, we say that we’re going to teach that student a lesson.  That lesson, I suppose, is that the real world does not accept lateness, and they need to learn that now rather than later.

It’s true that punctuality is important, and students should learn to do things in a timely manner.  I would agree that is a lesson we need to teach, and I enforce deadlines in a rather strict fashion (though I do so for reasons that have nothing to do with the mythical real world).  However, the real lesson we’re teaching here is that the world does not have mercy.  That’s not only a lesson I disagree with; it’s a lesson I don’t believe is true.

Again, let me say that I agree that punctuality is important, and I enforce deadlines.  However, there are times where mercy is the better response, and, even when we are having to exact penalties for late work (or whatever lesson we’re teaching them), we can do so with kindness, not with the idea that we are teaching them a lesson.

My few forays into that real world have shown me that people there are kinder than in academia.  I received mercy on a regular basis from people I worked with and for, even when I was late.  Sometimes, the rules were enforced, but sometimes they weren’t.  They taught me the real lesson that people are sometimes quite good and kind, so I should hope for such treatment and treat others that way, but not always, so I shouldn’t count on it.  Perhaps that’s the lesson we should teach our students.

Types of Jobs

I read Gregory Semenza’s essay arguing that job seekers should not look for (wait on) jobs that focus on teaching over research (or don’t require research) this week.  He argues that “Those jobs basically don’t exist and haven’t for some time.”  He does admit that “some professors out there will tell me I’m wrong, that they managed to secure just such a job, maybe even recently.”  Not surprisingly, he argues that “their experience is extremely far from the norm, and you need to realize that your chances of duplicating it are extraordinarily small.”

I am going to disagree, but, rather than write a post about this, I’m simply going to link to an essay I wrote for Academe seven years ago.  The statistics I quoted are out of date, but, at that time, I wrote, “According to the 2005 Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, only 6.5 percent of all colleges and universities are research institutions, while master’s colleges and universities make up another 15.1 percent. Other types of institutions account for the remaining 78.4 percent of U.S. colleges and universities.”  I also wrote, “There are, for example, faith-based colleges; institutions that focus on particular ideas or serve particular regions, such as Berea College in Kentucky, Sterling College in Vermont, and Evergreen State College in Washington State; and colleges and universities geared toward the arts. Schools such as these make up 36.5 percent of the four-year institutions in the United States. Our graduates who pursue careers in higher education can just as easily end up at one of these institutions as at a research or master’s college or university.”

I’m guessing that Semenza, a professor at the University of Connecticut doesn’t have much interaction with professors at these types of schools, so he doesn’t know how common we are.