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.