It's that time of year. The time of year that students - some promising, some less so - start wanting to talk in earnest about going to graduate school. Now, I'd never suggest that a student should make this decision based on the "bliss" that he or she feels in the study of literature. Others would disagree with me on this. But once again I find myself thinking about how I do approach this issue - in part because I did the radical thing of actually suggesting the idea of grad school to a student (something that I normally would never do) and in part because I've heard from a student of mine who began grad school in English this fall. Also, I attended an event that a colleague puts together every fall to talk about going to grad school with majors in our department. So once again I'm thinking about the ethics of encouraging students to pursue graduate degrees in English (given the glutted market, the years lost to graduate education, the havoc that grad school can wreak on one's personal life), and I'm thinking about my own position on such things, and whether I'm really doing it any better than those that I would criticize.
Now, my general position includes the following tenets:
1) I think that professors need to be very careful about suggesting to any student that he or she should consider graduate school. We have a lot of influence, and to make that suggestion to a student who isn't otherwise thinking about it is a very big deal. We've got to take that seriously.
2) If a student is considering graduate school, it is our responsibility to try to educate them about the realities of the profession and graduate education generally - including the negative aspects.
3) If after getting all of the information a student remains interested in pursuing the grad school path, and if we feel that this student has promise, I do think that it is important that we give the student strong support and good advice toward making the best decisions in this process possible.
As a professor at my current institution, I believe that these things take on even greater significance because of the student population that I teach. Many of my students are in the first generation of their families to go to college. If they choose graduate school they will not necessarily have the understanding and support of their families, and they will face a significant learning curve when it comes to being acculturated into academic discourse and culture. My students tend to think that going to grad school is a "safe" choice - one that will guarantee them stable employment. They also tend to think that the higher the degree that one attains the more money that one will make. They also tend to think that grad school will just be an extension of undergrad, and this is somewhat problematic, especially given their undergraduate experience at my current institution.* Part of the reason that I am sensitive to these issues is because when I started on the path toward this profession as an undergraduate, I suffered similar delusions.
I'd also say, though, that I think that it's important that students from this kind of background do have support in entering the academy if they have the ability and want to do so. One reason that I think that this is important is because students need mentors who understand where they're coming from - if all professors come from professor-families, moneyed backgrounds, etc., then undergraduates can have difficulty finding role models for exceeding the expectations of their families and social circles. I also think that it's important to bringing new perspectives to the research that is produced in various fields.**
But. The important thing here is that the student can't come second to a desire to bring a certain kind of diversity to the profession. And it's important that we don't do a bait-and-switch with students - emphasizing all of the positive aspects of the profession and/or graduate study for them to get a rude awakening when it's too late. Now, students are still going to delude themselves, no matter how much information we give them, otherwise nobody would ever go to graduate school. And yet I do think that being honest about the realities of the choices that they are making will help them once the scales fall from their eyes a few years down the road. At least that's what I hope.
So. As I mentioned, I made the radical decision (not without some angst) to present a current student with the idea that he could consider graduate school. This student is currently an English Ed student, but he's not the typical English Ed student. He is the one student in my survey who chose to write on the "literary criticism" topic for the first paper. In class, he's fairly quiet, but every time he comments, he produces insightful and incisive analyses of the texts under discussion. His first paper demonstrated a considerable aptitude for beautiful academic prose (though he's clearly dazzled his professors before me without really revising, and so he does have some work to do with his writing if he does choose to go on). He earned the highest grade I've ever given on a midterm. In fact, it was the midterm that sealed it for me. This is not a student who is just going through the motions. Nor is this a student who appears to be the typical over-achiever who gives the "right" answers but doesn't really care about what answers he's giving and only cares about the grade. No, this is a student who has a spark of something that tells me he'd really shine if he were able to study literature at a more advanced level.
But. I was worried. If I suggest this to this student, who clearly has a plan to teach high school, am I doing harm? What I decided was that I would give it to him straight. I'd tell him that I do think it's an option for him, but also I'd tell him that it's a risk. I'd give it to him straight, and I'd tell him to come and talk to me about his options. Part of the reason that I felt comfortable doing this, honestly, is because he's an English Ed major. I figured that he does have a back-up plan, which is one of the things that I encourage ALL of my students who talk to me about grad school to have. But I still might have done the wrong thing. I don't know.
Anyway, he (shyly) came to talk to me about it yesterday. It's the first real conversation I'd had with him. He's in the first generation of his family to go to college. He's very concerned that his family will not have the resources to help him, and he was most interested at first in just finding out whether it could really be possible for him to even think about doing this thing. He then expressed concern about how his family would take the decision. (I remember this was something that plagued me, too. I was really concerned that my family not think I had "wasted" my education and think of me as a "lifetime student." They thought those things anyway, but I had to come to terms with it before I changed my major to English. I remember a particularly emotional conversation with my mom, and I remember worrying that she'd be disappointed that I wanted to keep going to school.) I talked to him about my own background, and I talked to him about the fact that I did not think anyone should pursue grad school unfunded. I talked to him about the length of time that it would take, and I talked to him about the horrible job market. I directed him to my website, where I have links to things about making the decision to go to grad school. And that's where the conversation ended. So for now, it's up in the air. I wonder what he will do. But I think all in all I'm glad I put the idea in his head. Even if he chooses not to pursue it, I think that it was a nice compliment to pay him, to give him the option. I think that if it were me, I would like that someone had expressed that kind of confidence in me, even if I chose not to pursue the option.
Now today I heard from my Favorite Student Ever, who began a very good MA program this fall. This student has kept in touch since graduating in the Spring, and I have really high hopes for her. That said, it's been interesting seeing her transition into grad school. I don't know a whole lot about what's happening with her, but I do sense that she's going through a bit of culture shock. First, she's young. And she's been thrown right into teaching. (Again, not unlike my own experience.) I heard from her at the beginning of the semester, and she emailed to ask me why people in her teacher-training program "couldn't just spit it out" when they had questions or comments, but rather went on and on using a bunch of jargon. This is something I'd forgotten about: learning the language of performing one's intelligence; demonstrating that one "belongs in the club" by refusing to speak plain English. At other kinds of institutions, students begin to learn this as undergraduates. Not so here. So this has been a challenge for methodical, straight-forward FSE. (Aside: FSE refuses to call me by my first name, even though I tried to explain to her that she's my colleague now :) I wonder if she'll ever do it, though I did tell her that when she gets her Ph.D. if she still persists in calling me Dr. Crazy that I will insist on calling her Dr. FSE.) In her email today, she expressed concern about her comp. class. First of all, she's really been thrown to the dogs. She's got a 7:30 AM class, at least 75% of the students are male, and those students are primarily engineering majors. Oof. They're not coming to class; they're pissed off that she's not using rubrics for papers; basically (though she didn't say this) I sense that they are totally challenging her authority. Nothing prepares you for that. And in some ways it's just something you have to get through. I tried to give her some advice that I thought might help. (Actually, I wondered whether I should reveal my blog to her, as I think she might find it helpful, but I ended up not doing it. Maybe I'll tell her someday? Or just direct her to some other blogs in our little circle?) So it sounds like she's having a bit of a rough entry, but it also sounds like she's doing well. I'm trying to encourage her to go to her first conference this summer. We'll see if she's up for it.
So I don't know. Am I doing the right thing by these students? Should I be more discouraging? More encouraging? It's easy to figure out what to do with students who don't seem like they could make it. What's hardest for me is figuring out what to do with those students who seem like they maybe could.
But in any case, choosing this path is not, as far as I'm concerned, about "following your bliss." It's work. It's hard. It separates you from your origins, and it really can fuck with your sense of yourself. If things go well, yes, you get to pursue ideas that are interesting to you; you get to spend your life doing something that is meaningful to you. That's a pretty big pay-off. But that's if things go well, and we all know that things don't always go well for people who take this path. And so it's hard, as a professor for whom things have gone well, to know how best to help one's students navigate these dangerous waters.
*I do believe that students get a decent education here, but it isn't as rigorous as the education they might receive at other institutions. They don't tend to read as much as students at other institutions; they don't tend to have the experience with research writing or with critical theory. This doesn't mean it's impossible for them to do well in graduate school, but it does mean that it will challenge them in a way that students in other departments may not be as challenged.
** But part of these views may be my own narcissism. I feel like I add something to this profession because of my decidedly outside-the-intelligentsia upbringing, so I'm not sure how much validity my claims here have.
6 years ago