Monday, September 29, 2008

In Which I Solidify My Reputation as the Gleeful Purveyor of Doom

And no! I'm not even talking about the collapse of the financial world as we know it! See, I stand to lose nothing - I say nothing! - because of the financial collapse because I don't own anything - anything! - because I spent all that time in graduate school. Really, it's a win-win. Sure, I've got a buttload of debt, but who won't after all this shakes out? Nobody! But really, thank goodness I had to buy my car in June, as if I would have had to do it now, I'd have been screw-ew-ew-ed.

No, I'm talking about the way that I interact with students about the state of the profession and the field of literary studies. All students, yes, but our students most particularly. The deal is, they haven't been socialized, in the way that other students might have been, into the culture of the academy and to understand, to totally steal Mark Bousquet's book title, "how the university works." They see the university, as did I when I was a naive lass embarking on my career path, as a way of opting out of how the world works. Opting out of a life of working to live, opting out of shitty bosses, opting out of a life that deadens the mind and the spirit. And so, here I am, no longer naive, the Gleeful Purveyor of Doom. Many of my colleagues might hate me. Many students most certainly do - or at least they think I'm very scary.

Here's the thing. I've said this before, and I'll say it again: it's not that I don't believe in supporting students who want to go on to graduate school in English. Rather, it's that I think that before they make that choice, they should hear the worst of what they might be in for. I believe that they should have as much information as possible before they strap on the costs (emotional, financial, mental, spiritual) of the Ph.D. and profession in this field. If they hear my Gleeful Tale of Doom and Gloom, and they still want it, fine. If they hear it and it dissuades them, well, perhaps they shouldn't go down that road. Not because I said so, but because if their desire isn't up to the information with which I present them and the way in which I present it, then that means something. I do not believe in perpetuating myself by sending students unwittingly into academe. I believe in showing them that other options might be better life options for them. And that it's not a failure for them to choose the life that they want over academic achievement. Unless academic achievement is the life that you want, well, probably there are a lot of other better jobs.

This, perhaps, is one example of the ways in which I'm alienating to students. Oh, indeed, a fair few students find me reprehensible. BFF took a gander at my RMP page this weekend, and she was astonished at the number of ratings I had (upwards of 30 over 5 years, which is a lot for my university), the range of courses represented in those ratings (all of them, nearly, that I teach), and the extremes that those ratings exhibited. Oh yes, I'm one of those polarizing professors whom one either loves or hates. And even the lovers typically leave comments that are less than flattering. Example: one comment with the highest ratings notes that at the beginning of the semester, the student believed I was "bitter and cold" but that after getting to know me, the student realized I was just really "knowledgeable and passionate." Now, I have to say, I think that the dichotomy there is an interesting one - that this student saw those two things as opposites, in some fashion. I could very well be bitter and cold and knowledgeable and passionate, I would think, but apparently no. (Note: I haven't actually looked at my RMP ratings in like 2 years. I learned a long time ago that they would do little more than upset me.)

Here's the thing, and here's why my status as Gleeful Purveyor of Doom relates: I think that learning is sometimes tough going. I think that sometimes being introduced to new ideas and new ways of doing things freaks us out. I think that sometimes hearing the bad news about things we've dreamed about or that we love makes us angry. That doesn't mean that I aim to make it tough going for my students, that I aim to freak them out (except sometimes, in the most fun of ways), or that I aim to make my students angry. I don't. I don't think that it makes me a "good teacher" that students respond to me this way. (I think that part of their response is about my gender and age, and how those relate to the region and the institution, and I think part of it is because sometimes that's just the response that a student will sometimes have to a teacher.) And I don't think that my students suck because they have those reactions, nor do I think it's wrong for them to have those reactions as part of their education. I'm just not sure about what or how those responses mean ultimately.

I'm confident that I believe what I say, that I know about what I say, and that I am educating students. I think that I should be confident in those things, if I'm going to claim to teach. But teaching for me has never been about making them all feel great. And a lot of people would argue (whether students or colleagues) that this makes me a "bad" teacher. I don't think that I am, many former students would not think that I am, and many colleagues would not think that I am. But I do think it's fair to say that I don't necessarily make all of my students feel great, or even good. I don't aim to make them feel badly, but sometimes that does happen. But does that mean I'm a bad professor, if some students feel badly?

I'd say no, but then, I'm the Gleeful Purveyor of Doom. In a lot of ways, I teach to the student I was, and I was the sort of student who'd rather hear the bad news before the good. Because my teaching is structured and informed in that way, I do run the danger of getting extreme responses. And because my approach to advising students related to grad school is structured in that way, I also run the danger of extreme responses related to that. I don't think my fearlessness about extreme responses makes me a good teacher, necessarily, but I do think that it doesn't make me a bad one.

Teaching is so much about who we ourselves are. And maybe who I am, really, is somebody who not everybody is going to like in a medium sort of a way. And so maybe students' failure to respond to me in a medium sort of a way isn't about my ability to teach the material, or about my ability to give good advice. Maybe it is, ultimately, about me. And maybe that has nothing whatsoever to do with teaching or mentoring. Maybe it has nothing to do with those things at all.


Anonymous said...

I have so looked at your RMP ratings :) and indeed, it is very interesting, the responses you inspire.

my current dept. chair is very much of the mind that we shouldn't encourage students too much or, rather, that they should hear the realities of the field. I am in favor of that so long as we aren't also telling students they're never going to make it, which is what I heard as an undergraduate. If you did it, it would be really hard and you might not get a job is different from you should just give up now because you'll never get anywhere.

life_of_a_fool said...

As usual when you're talking about teaching, I agree with what you write here. But, mostly I just wanted to say that I love your title of Gleeful Purveyor of Doom.

Susan said...

Well, when I was an undergraduate at Prestigious U. in the mid-1970s, the first collapse of the job market was underway. I went to see one of my professors and asked for advice on where to apply to grad school. He said "Don't". And only after he'd explained what was going on (he was the dept. placement officer) was he willing to say, well, if you are determined, etc.

I always was glad I had that conversation. And my advisor, when I first met him, said, "And what are you going to do when you don't get a job?" So it was real to me the whole time.

And I think you are right that there is a certain amount of our teaching persona that is us, and that's what students respond to.

Constance said...

Something to consider: I have to masters and a phd (and a tenure track job). I was given the doom and gloom talk by my mentors as an undergraduate. I recognize, now, that that's what it was. But back then, all I heard was "You are not smart enough to go to grad school." So I'd just preface your talk with "I am not saying that you are not smart enough to go to grad school." And maybe end it with that too.

MommyProf said...

I usually end up advising against graduate school for kids who come talk to me. There are jobs in my field, but after I explain that they could start working and making money when they graduate. Or they could take a master's and spend money. At the end of two years, they will end up in about the same level of job.

Yes, you can go on for a doctorate, I tell them. But it is a long, hard row to hoe and if you are not totally dedicated, it is not going to be worth it.

And for most of them, their faces fall.

And, funny story, I run our grad program.

Shane in Utah said...

I've been trying for years to dissuade brilliant students (and some not-so-brilliant students) from getting PhDs in English. I recently bookmarked the comment below from a CHE forum, and from now on, when a student wants to have that talk, I will make them read this post. Then, if they're still interested, we can talk.

It's bracing, but exactly what they need to hear, I think.