Different Kinds of Student Success

In the past week or so, we’ve gotten several pieces of good news about current and very recent students, all of which relate to graduate school.  We have celebrated this news, of course, congratulating the students via email, in person, and, more importantly, in front of other students (don’t worry; it’s not like we’ve been bringing them in front of the class or anything, but we sometimes received the news from the student in front of her friends).  This is as it should be, as we should congratulate those students and celebrate with them.

However, I’ve also talked to some other recent graduates in the past month or so, and they are all doing interesting things, as well, but most of them do not relate to graduate school.  We typically don’t celebrate those students, or at least not in the same way.  We don’t make lists of what they do to hand out to prospective students or bring them up at department meetings.  I can’t imagine a meeting where we say, for example, “I talked to Jane–you all remember her, right–last week, and she just got a great job at an insurance agency.  That was great to hear.  She’s going to do so well in that line of work.”  And I certainly can’t imagine someone saying, “I heard from Joe the other day, and he’s moving up the management chain at Target.  I’ve never seen him happier.  We should all be so proud of him.”

Those of us who teach in the Humanities tend to have this type of tunnel vision when it comes to what we consider student success.  Essentially, they need to follow our path (if they don’t go into teaching) in order to be successful.  If they take a non-academic path, we tend to view them as settling for something instead of using the gifts and talents we see in them, as if there is only one outlet for those talents.

What’s interesting to me is that, if we think about it, most people we went to college, probably even graduate school, did not choose the path we did. Out of all the English majors I knew when I was an undergraduate, only two went on to pursue graduate school in English.  Out of my Master’s program, only one person besides me ultimately earned the doctorate and is now teaching college (he was one of the two from my undergraduate, by the way).  I don’t know where people from my doctoral program ended up, unfortunately, but I don’t remember any of them talking about getting a teaching job.  In fact, the ones I knew the best never finished, deciding to do other things (most professors wouldn’t consider them successful, of course).

I had friends who went on to become lawyers, to write for a newspaper, to go into administration in Higher Education, to own a pottery shop, to focus on raising children, to switch fields completely, and on and on.  As far as I know, they all seem quite content with their lives.  Whenever I have asked them if they miss English or wish they would have taken the route I did, they assure me that that is not the case.  Just because that was my path doesn’t mean it’s everyone’s path.

What worries me is that we don’t clearly convey this message to students.  Instead, if they show any significant talent, we push them toward graduate school, as if they cannot use that talent in a wide variety of ways.  Because we only know the one path (most of us were good in school and went fairly directly into our careers), we only encourage them on the one path.  I’ve done some research on our alumni (the first article was published by The CEA Forum and isn’t online, but you can find it at my Academia page, while the second is at Teaching College Literature), and I’ve found that few of them go to graduate school.  Those students should be celebrated, as well.

There are many different paths to success or contentment or happiness or whatever we want to call it that can come from a major in the Humanities.  In addition to teaching my students to think in the way that our discipline does, I want my students to enjoy reading and writing so much that they will keep doing it all of their days, no matter where life takes them after they graduate.  That’s a kind of success I can get behind, no matter what jobs they’re pursuing.


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