Thursday, October 26, 2006

"Following Your Bliss"

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.


D.B. said...

As my undergrad advisor told me, there are middle-class ways of going about graduate education. A place that will pay for a master's degree, for example.

Not that parental approval will immediately follow. My family has been college-educated for a few generations, and my parents still think I'm wasting my time in grad school.

aqua said...

"learning the language of performing one's intelligence" -- beautifully said. You are a thoughtful and caring advisor. Your (professional) kids are very lucky.

Xhevahir said...

I directed him to my website, where I have links to things about making the decision to go to grad school.

Shouldn't Invisible Adjunct be on your blogroll?

Dr. Crazy said...

xhevahir - I directed him to my professional website and not to my blog (which obviously I write under a pseudonym, so that would be counterintuitive). My blogroll is reserved for active blogs - or at the very least tries to be.

I'll admit, I also don't direct students considering grad school to IA. I direct them to 3-4 articles, most notably this one that appeared in The Chronicle

Maybe I should be directing students to IA, but I feel like to do so might be overwhelming to them (in no small part because of the volume of the posts). Ultimately, that blog is her story, and I'm not entirely sure that it would be useful for students trying to make a decision for themselves - at least not initially.

MommyProf said...

I work in a field with a clear professional tie-in and studenst are prepared to enter the profession by the time they get their BA. I try to actively discourage two types of kids from grad school: those who are just putting off getting a job for a while longer and those who are looking at it because their parents think they should. Honestly, I tell them, you can go get a job or you can spend two more years in school. You will be in the same place career-wise either way, but you will MAKE money with the job.

I feel a little guilty discouraging most kids from grad school, since I work with grad students at PrettyGood. But I also honestly feel that most kids are not interested for the right reasons.

Dr. C said...

I have to say that I think you're doing right by your students. When I was applying for MA programs I just didn't get the guidance that I needed (however, I did get more when it came to applying for PhDs). Being honest with your student(s) about the job market is important (I didn't get that until I was in my MA). But, being supportive can make all the difference as well. It took a while for me to find the support, but once I did I appreciated it even more. I applaud you for what you're doing.

Artistic Soul said...

Very insightful...I've been talking with students about grad school during advising week and I always struggle. The ones that are easy are the ones who want to go into business or professional fields...they think getting an MA automatically means more money if they do that. So it's easy to say, no, you need 3-5 years of experience before anyone would take you seriously. But the ones that would be good professors? Those are always harder.

Xhevahir said...

Ultimately, that blog [IA] is her story, and I'm not entirely sure that it would be useful for students trying to make a decision for themselves - at least not initially.

But aren't other people's stories just what the student needs to hear--and lots of them? Without websites like IA, I don't know where else he would hear about the failures. If the adjuncts are invisible, those who are out of the academy and toiling in retail are even more so.

I'm glad to hear that you pointed him to that column in the Chronicle of Higher Ed., although the author is irritatingly naive about the prospects of liberal arts graduates in a way that's very typical of his college--if I had my way, professors in the humanities would deliver admonitions like this to their undergraduates:

Xhevahir said...

I almost forgot about the companion article:

Dr. Crazy said...

Hmmm. Well, I'd agree that students need to get a variety of perspectives. In the chronicle article that I link to (I think), as well as in a couple of the other articles I link to (I know), IA is mentioned, and I also tell students to read around on the Chronicle of Higher education forums and just the CHE in general. If they are interested, they will find these voices. BUT, for initial advice-giving purposes, I try not to overwhelm them with the "you will end up a slave with no health insurance" narrative. 1) That totally sounds disingenuous coming from somebody who did exactly what they are expressing a desire to do and did not end up a slave with no health insurance and 2) I also think that the whole "your education is worth nothing" narrative comes off as really condescending - i.e., your education is worth nothing but MINE was worth LOADS.

I guess what I'm saying is this: as a professor, I think it's my job in some respects to distance myself a bit and to present them with information. I also think that students tend to listen more when that information comes from recognizable sources (i.e., the CHE; the NYT; etc.) that are fairly easy to process - at least during their initial thinking. At the end of the day, I don't want to alienate them by presenting them with the darkest possible picture and ONLY the darkest possible picture because if I did that, the likelihood is that they'd never discuss the issue with me again but would go ahead anyway without strong mentorship (which is what I did). I'd rather be a bit more moderate in my approach and keep them under my wing so that I can steer them in a decent direction while at the same time emphasizing what they need to do in order to make the best decisions not only for their educations but for their LIVES. At least that's what I try to do. And if I'm on a soapbox about how they are doomed to fail, I don't think that I'd really be doing it FOR them - and they really should be the point.

Estrella said...

Regarding your promising English Ed student:

I'll be graduating in May with my Education degree. While I could (and would like to) go to grad school, my current plan is to gain experience in my field for a few years first. This way, I'll have a better idea of which special area in my field I'd like to focus on for my graduate studies. Plus, I'll have added quality field experience to my resume and earned enough money to start paying off undergraduate student loans.

In my long-term plan, I definitely want to teach~ K-12 (my certification) or possibly in Higher Ed (in a teacher-training program). I'm not sure what your student's goals are.

helenesch said...

I think it's wonderful not only that you talk with your students so honestly about the ups and downs of going to grad school, but also that your students feel comfortable sharing their personal backgrounds and worries with you.

One thing I've found is that many students from working-class backgrounds (as well as many others who just don't have professors as parents) have no idea that many students pursuing PhD's in the humanties receive funding and a tuition waiver. Granted, it's not really much money, but it's possible to almost get by on this, at least if you're childless and willing to "live like a student" until you're done. So this is one piece of information (along with the more negative pieces) I am sure to tell folks who're considering grad school.

Not that the job market is any worse, but for my philosophy students, there is even *less* option to leave the field with a back up plan. As much as I like teaching, I realized that with a PhD in philosophy and concentration in women's studies, if I failed to get a job after grad school, teaching high school wasn't going to be an easy shift for me.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks to Helenesch and to the rest who've complimented me on how I handle this. Again, I don't know that my way is THE WAY - and I do second-guess myself - but I do try to be thoughtful about how I advise them about these things and your support means a lot.

As for them feeling comfortable sharing their backgrounds/worries, I think a lot of that has to do that I'm very open with them about my own background and some of the insecurities that I felt as a student. They tend to open up a lot more once I tell them that my mom, who was one of ten kids, was the only one of her brothers and sisters to graduate from high school, that there are people in my extended family on welfare, and that I'm definitely a weirdo in my family (even amongst my generation of cousins) for having achieved the level of education I've achieved. Being able to share that experience really does make a difference, and it's one of the reasons why I think it's important for people from a range of backgrounds to enter the academy.

Also, H., you are SO RIGHT about needing to tell students that there is money to go to grad school (though admittedly not much of it). This is one of the things I always talk about with students, who often will ask questions about how much tuition will be.

(Incidentally, to Estrella: the student to whom I spoke who is the Eng. Ed. major seems to be very intrigued by the idea of grad school and not particularly committed to high school teaching, but felt that even to dream of grad school was beyond his reach because of the expense. I did advise him, though, that there is no reason why he needs to make this decision before graduating and that he may want to try a job teaching high school first as he can always apply for grad school a few years out once he sees what that is like.)

And yes, you're right - students who pursue Philosophy do have even fewer options outside of academe, or, rather, they can have fewer options. The thing that's important with English is to develop a range of marketable skills while one is doing one's grad work so that one does have options if the academic route ends up not working out. That's something I talk about a lot with students considering grad school - how to develop skill sets that will allow them to have a range of options during/after their grad education. (Actually, it's something I talk to undergrad students about a lot, too, now that I think about it.)

Jenny said...

I think you're approach to this is fantastic, Dr. C.

I'm an undergrad considering going on with grad school when I finish, and I mostly just get smiles and nods whenever I mention that to anyone - by telling these students what's possible, warts and all, you let the tentative dreams become more solid and real, and most of all reachable. But you seem to be careful enough about it that you don't promise wonders for the future that aren't going to be there.

Sounds like you're a fantastic support for them both, whether they realise it or not. Good on you!

Dr. Virago said...

Dr. Crazy, once again you've written a post I was planning to write! Damn you! ;) (Just kidding.) Seriously, our student populations are similar and you've given me some useful perspective for the next time I arrange an "applying to PhD programs" workshop. I just did two this last week, with two other faculty members in each, and I started each session by playing "bad cop" and giving them all the scary statistics. Now I think maybe I hit those scary statistics *too* hard (though my colleagues did their jobs well playing "good cop"). And I don't think any of us made clear that most/all of one's program will be paid for by fellowships and TAships. Gotta remember to do that next time. And I think I was guilty of hitting the "you'll end up an adjunct" button too much -- so much so that one of my colleagues thought I was making the adjuncts themselves (rather than the jobs) sound second-class. Oops.

But still, they need to know the realities. And they need not to enter grad school all starry-eyed, thinking it's a glorified book club. Plus, many of my students think that professors a) have it easy, and b) make serious money (as you pointed out, they assume more degrees mean more money). They need to know how hard it is to get in and through grad school and how hard it is to get a job and be an assistant professor, and for what relatively little pay (compared to other professionals) before they put all their misguided hopes into being a prof and have them dashed at various stages. Besides, telling them these things is also good for us -- students will have more awareness of what it takes to *be* us.

But. Yeah, I think I hit those points too hard and scared away potential new blood from a profession that could use their insights. Next time I'll reel it in a little!

Dr. Virago said...

Oh -- you know what else students like ours don't often know? They don't know that Ph.D. programs accept people with BAs. They think they need to get an MA elsewhere first before applying for the PhD. There's a *lot* they don't know.