Tuesday, December 02, 2008

RBOC: Still Sick, But Feeling Like Posting

  • I'm really proud of how far I've come with the paying off of credit cards this year. (Yes, I just paid bills.) I'm not out of the woods yet, but you know things are heading in the right direction when paying bills doesn't send you into the depths of despair. IF I get a grant I applied for, I will be credit-card-debt free and will have actual thousands of dollars in the bank by the end of summer teaching.
  • I've been thinking a lot about a comment left to this great post over at Historiann's. A commenter (Matt L.) suggested that it's patronizing for professors to tell students not to go to grad school in the humanities. (I'd quote the whole comment, but I'm sick and lazy. At any rate, that's the gist. If you want to read the comment, head on over there.) You know, I see where that perspective comes from, but I think that I disagree, kind of. It may be because I teach first generation college students, but typically professors are the only people who are in a position to talk about the opportunity costs of pursuing grad school. The problem is, we're all people who've "made it" and so that would mean that we shouldn't tell them not to do it because it's like saying we're better than they are or something and that would make us bad mentors. But the problem as I see it is that most of my students have no clue that I was freaking lucky and that I'm the exception, not the rule. See, all of the people who they know who've gotten Ph.D.'s and who mentor them were successful. That kind of sends a distorted message about the likelihood of "making it" in a field like English. So is it patronizing to tell students that choosing grad school is in many respects a really bad idea? I don't know. Would it be patronizing for somebody who won a million dollars at a casino to say that it's a really bad idea to dump all of one's money into gambling? I feel like that's a pretty good analogy for what choosing grad school in English is. Sure, you might win the big one, but you also might end up destitute, depressed, and having wasted a lot of time and money when you could have been slowly making yourself happy in some other way. This isn't to say that I don't encourage students who insist on the path - I do - but I'm pretty brutal on the front end of the conversation when they first bring up grad school. Maybe that is patronizing. But I also feel like it's me being a responsible mentor - something that I didn't really have, and something that could have turned out horribly. Who knows.
  • Another colleague congratulated me today and was genuinely tickled to see the book. Maybe people aren't that jerky after all. Well, except some people are. But not all people.
  • I am actually feeling a bit better after resting all evening. Will take drugs soon and sleep the sleep of angels.
  • You know, in spite of my crankiness in my past few posts, I'm actually really happy. I have lots of good things in my life right now. And it's not lost on me how lucky I am to be in this job and smoothly sailing toward tenure in this market. I'm sending good vibes to all of you who are on the market this year. The timing of this economic crisis just sucks for those who started their Ph.D. programs years ago. Yet another thing I can mention in my Tale of Gloom that I like to tell students who are interested in grad school.
  • I have just realized that I actually care who Paris picks to be her BFF. Lame. Apparently I'm rooting for Brittany, who everybody thinks is just using Paris to become famous.
  • Ugh, I think it's time to rest again. I may have overdone it by paying bills and then writing this post.


David said...

One way to mitigate the challenge of the students wanting to follow the successful faculty is to have them chat with the adjunct faculty in the department, whose lives may point to the most likely future. I imagine there are plenty of adjuncts floating around.

Anonymous said...

I might object to being used a cautionary tale. I don't plan to adjunct forever, nor do I think I'm unsuccessful because I am, at the moment, not "real" faculty. Someday, I won't be wooden anymore.

Meanwhile, I think there's a difference between giving students a straight story on the uncertainties and the difficulties and telling them they can't do it.

My undergrad adviser told me I couldn't do it. You'll never make it. First of all, you won't get it and if you do, everyone there will be a lot smarter than you are. You'll never get through it.

That is patronizing.

Now, some of my master's professors told me something slightly different. You're really bright and you have what it takes intellectually. Are you sure you want to do this? Because here is the reality. Admissions are a crap shoot--if you apply, apply to more than one place and don't take it personally if you don't get in anywhere. Don't go if you don't have funding. Be sure you have some ideas about what you might do instead, in case it doesn't work out or in case you can't get a job because the market is really tight.

Discouraging? In some ways, yes. And yet, realistic without resorting to "Hello, you are deficient and will not be able to hack it."

Big difference there.

Dr. Crazy said...

What you said, A., about using adjuncts as a cautionary tale..... Asking them to talk to students about their exploitation (uncompensated) to me seems like adding insult to injury. I suppose if there were an adjunct who *wanted* to do that it would be one thing, but I don't know any who have the time or the inclination.

I usually give the adjunct/underemployment side of the picture by sending them to Mark Bousquet's youtube videos and to his blog, as well as sending them over to the Chronicle forums to the job searching area.

And A., you're so right about the difference between patronizing advice and solid, if discouraging, advice. The one caution I got against grad school was when I was an undergrad and it came in the form of the first version you describe. Obviously, I just dismissed that out of hand, because I was being dismissed by the person. The kind of brutal advice I give students *always* comes in the second form. I talk about institutional structures of the profession, about my experiences and my friends' experiences, and about challenges they will face, but I don't say that they won't get in, that they can't do it, etc.

Belle said...

For whatever reason, most of our majors do think about grad school of one sort or another. And they migrate to my office to talk (until this year, I was the most recent survivor of the experience). I try and listen more than advise - ask questions that make them articulate what they think it will be, what their goals might be. Not that I had any of those figured out, but we already know I'm weird.

This year I have Fab Student, who is facing two choices: law school, for which his parents will pay app costs, and archaeology, where his heart is. In both places, he'll likely get a full ride. We should all have such students occasionally, as they make the screw-ups bearable.

Bardiac said...

An aside: congrats on the climb out of debt! It's so hard, especially with loans and such, and not great faculty salaries, so congrats on the near accomplishment!

And on the book :)

David said...

I don't want to be an adjunct forever either, but I find it valuable when teaching upper division courses to share with the students the difference between my life as an adjunct and that of the tenured/tenure track faculty they have. They are nearly always quite surprised as the degree of difference. I'm also pretty sure that the current financial straights will likely be as bad the closing of the job market from 73-85 that many liberal arts faculties never recovered from.

I came through one of the big state schools in NW Ohio as an undergrad and had the opposite experience that some have had. I guess was probably the big fish in the little pond. Never paid a dime for 12 years of higher ed in the state of ohio.
Nobody ever really shared how miserable the grad life would be, though one history faculty encouraged me to get a job as security guard in grad school.
Every time I tried to move in a more pragmatic direction (in undergrad/grad) my advisors redirected me toward most traditional paths to academia.
I try to speak whenever possible to those who are plenty bright enough for grad school, but don't really have the internal engine/drive to really think twice about heading in that direction.

Dr. Crazy said...

See, here's the thing that I'd say though, David. It's one thing if an adjunct chooses to advise students in that direction on their own, if they're in the position to do so. At my uni, in my discipline, no adjuncts (or even full-time lecturers, with benefits) teach upper-level students. They are relegated to the lower-level courses. And if I were to direct students to random adjuncts or lecturers for advice, when those people are already doing labor that is barely compensated, I would feel like it was an imposition, first, and like I wasn't doing my job, for which I am adequately paid, second. Because here's the thing: I'm PAID to give students advice. Adjuncts just aren't. Just as they're not paid to do service in other forms. I feel really strongly that in my position I should do my best to mentor non-t-t folks out of that position (not out of the academy, necessarily, but rather to agree to observe classes and write letters of rec, or to protect them from the bureaucracy that would trap them here, or to agree to read stuff they're working on, or whatever) and to mentor students in ways that allow them to make the best possible decisions (which means demystifying academia as a profession, and which means encouraging paths that don't necessarily lead to literary criticism).

Again, it's not that I won't support a student hell-bent on pursuing grad study - I support those students heartily - but I also want *all* of my students to know it's not the only option, and I want them to know that the traditional path isn't necessarily the best life path for them. In other words, I feel like, given the state of the profession today, that it's *unconscionable* to be like those mentors of yours who steered you toward the traditional academic path. Not in a way that belittles students or that makes it about their abilities, but rather because *even if they are great* they still might not get jobs. And the reality is that people need to work and make a decent living. And even if you do something outside of academia, it's possible to do that and to have a vibrant intellectual life.

Anonymous said...

how strange...adjuncts don't teach upper level courses at my current institution, either.

This semester, I was asked to come in and speak to a senior seminar about pursuing graduate study in my field and I agreed to do it primarily because I like my chair (who was leading the seminar). It occurs to me, though, that she asked me very carefully, gave me every possible out, and made sure she thanked me copiously and publicly for my time. I know this has to be because she *knows* that I am not paid for this in the way she is, just like you're saying here. I am barely paid to teach. And she knows that. She says that. This is why I like her a great deal in spite of the fact that my job hugely sucks in some ways.

you know, I'm pretty sure my students think I'm the equivalent of a high school teacher anyway.

I totally agree with you, Dr. Crazy. Honest if discouraging advice that is not about student drive or ability is a good thing. And I would never suggest that you're meting out the "you'll never make it cuz yer dumb" variety. I know you better than that.

David said...

I'll quickly note all my upper division adjuncting has come on an emergency basis - prostate surgery 3 days before classes start and similar crazy events.
I certainly agree as well with the sort of advice that needs to be given. I guess I'd retreat to saying that the letting students know what the context of their own education actually is, would be valuable. If one teaches at university where the student probably didn't have more than half their classes from t-t professors then that would perhaps make them feel very different about what the grad school world ends up creating and what college actually is.

Oddly enough, I have had very few adjuncts throughout all my schooling. Some AP and being in the Honors College will do that. To sort of go off Anastasia comment, the worst part about adjuncting is that one develops very little in the way of relationships (either with students or other faculty, even the secretary). It would have been nice to have a permanently faculty acknowledge my existence beyond a weird look in the copying room. I don't necessarily want to do advising, but I'd love it if a t-t faculty invited me to have coffee and perhaps chat with a student thinking about grad school.

Quick caveat - my adjuncting has been highly mobile. I haven't become the regular adjunct at a school, yet.

I hope I'm not being obtuse. Can you tell I'm procrastinating on my dissertation.