Archive for April 2012
In the next few posts, I’m going to explore some of the intricacies of academic culture that I have grown to hate.
Scene: undergrad university, circa early 2000s. Home to a decent education and some weird topiary that resembled balls.
int. tiny windowless office, framed pictures propped up against chairs as all walls covered with books.
My Favorite Undergrad Prof: (wearily) they’ll try to take it away from you.
me: (unfortunately dressed in sweatpants) what do you mean?
MFUP: your love of english, of books. It will be all you have left and they’ll try and ruin that too. Don’t let them.
Even though MFUP tried to warn me, it was pointless as I didn’t fully grasp his meaning. And to be fair, he was kind of enigmatic. I thought he meant that graduate school would be a lot of work. That I’d feel crushed under the immense weight of all the intellectual shit I was asked to do. And since I pretty much knew everything at 21, I figured I could handle that.
I had no idea he was referring to the soul crushing death of my ego that was about to occur, for reasons not directly linked to assigned readings or papers.
(I should also say that my undergrad experience was precisely the reason I fell in love with english as a subject. Small classes, professors who nurtured your interest and skills and wanted to discuss literature and books with you in their office hours. We did mostly close readings from a historicist perspective.. no freudian analysis of Bronte or anything like that. Of course I loved it and wanted more. But my experience left me completely unprepared for the realities of academic culture.)
So off I went to a top program in Non Native Country, populated with students from across the globe. My culture shock was not unlike that of that of Bill and Ted upon meeting Socrates. Some of the other students were nice people who kept their heads down and did their work. The majority of them were sycophantic blowhards who both spoke and wrote in jargon and openly sneered at anyone without a similar academic pedigree to themselves– public boarding school, oxbridge etc.
Those first months I cried a lot. I felt lost, alone, and moronic. Why hadn’t I read Foucault and Derrida? Why had I not picked up on those obvious Freudian tones in Bronte??? What the hell was I doing here as I clearly wasn’t smart enough to make it?
Then after another miserable night at a party where these public school boys got drunk and threw around 10 syllable words and names of obscure philosophers, I had an epiphany. What made all of these people necessarily smarter and or more deserving of a graduate education than me? Verbal obfuscation and being boring drunks? Why was I worrying about not being able to play their game, when the more basic tenet was that I didn’t want to play in the first place?
It was with that realization that I grasped what MFUP tried to warn me about the previous year. Once I decided not to assimilate, life became a bit easier.
I went about things kind of backwards, teaching for a few years before starting the phd. I’m grateful for all of this real life experience. I feel a bit more balanced because of it. So when I see people around me busting their asses for the slim hopes of obtaining one of these jobs teaching Basic English Classes 101 to a gaggle of apathetic students who Do Not Want to Be There, I don’t feel so sure that it’s something I want for myself.
(for some context, let’s go back back in the wayback machine.)
At the age of 23, by some fluke or another, I landed a full time job at a four year college. I thought I had hit the fucking jackpot. And in a lot of ways, I had. I was fresh out of my masters program, already (so I thought) disillusioned with academia and ready to get into the classroom and do some Important Work. My duties would include teaching 5 freshman comp/intro to literature type classes a semester, serve as ‘academic adviser’ to 20 odd students (this involved schedule making and asking 20 year olds why they didn’t do their homework or failed the midterm), and some committee stuff. The salary wasn’t great, but it was my first proper job and it was more money than I had ever seen. Also, I was being called ‘professor’ by people only a few years younger than me. It was a mindfuck, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me feel kind of awesome.
If you’ve read any other academic blogs and/or been inside a college classroom in the last 10 years, you probably know what’s coming next.
The majority of the students were forced to take my class due to liberal arts requirements, not some Dead Poets Society burning passion for the written word. I had a few students who were conscientious, and it was a privilege to teach them and know them. There were a few memorable classes where the chemistry was just right and we had a great time while getting stuff done.
But I also had some real fucking jokers who made lewd sexual remarks in class, threatened me, threatened each other, disclosed stuff in essays that had me running for the school counselor with questions of legal and moral responsibility.. and then, of course, the more benign fuckers who just slept, texted, and never did the reading. or even brought a pen with them.
I struggled a lot in those first few years with taking things personally. When a student plagiarized or when an entire class showed up without having read the 5 page story assigned to them, I felt like a failure. If I had somehow been better or done something different, they would have put the effort in. I know now that this was a waste of emotion and many sleepless nights on my part. Some of my students, nice people but who never did any of the required work, asked me, ‘why are you so upset? why are you taking this personally?’
Maybe because of my own internal work ethic. The fact that I went to college and took it seriously. That I never had the balls (or desire) to show up for a class without having done the reading. I was also angry- I felt like I worked hard to earn my undergrad degree. I went to a decent university where I thought the coursework was fairly typical- many of my classes required me to read a book a week, or failing that, at least 50-100 pages of reading. And here I was asking these students to read a 2 page essay, or a 5 page story, and that was beyond the realm of possibility. It rarely happened that even 50 percent of the class would show up prepared. I tried many things to change this pattern but nothing worked.
Perhaps the bigger part of the story(and again, no surprise if you read any number of news sources), is that the majority of my students showed up on day one completely unprepared for college. Many of them were first generation college students. Many were functionally illiterate, and a large handful did not speak English well enough to even understand basic classroom conversation. My class was not a remedial class, and there was no other place for these students to go. And to make things a bit more complicated, there were two or three truly bright students in almost every class, so I didn’t want to bore or insult them by slowing things down too much. All I could do for the students who weren’t ready was offer to work with them one on one in office hours. 99.9 percent of them never did.
Additionally, I think a lot of the students were misled by the recruiting people and school literature.. this place sold itself as being hands on and vocation-ey, but despite glossy brochures filled with students in labs and operating fancy equipment etc, it was still a liberal arts degree they’d be earning. So finding themselves taking the liberal arts core requirements made a lot of them pissed off.
Basically the rubix cube of failure was aligned perfectly to ensure a miserable experience for both students and faculty.
This place I worked at might be an extreme example, but my experience appears to be in line with other accounts I’ve read and heard. So why teach college? There are plenty of other jobs out there (so I hear) that are more rewarding, or where you don’t have to grade thousands of pages a semester, or pay more fairly. Why don’t I get one of those other jobs? Uh and why am I doing a phd again?
After approximately 2.4 billion years in school, the end is nigh. Whether that is due to me completing and defending my thesis or some kind of icelandic volcano that mysteriously erases all of the information off all the computers in the world, that remains to be seen. This blog will look backwards to try and make sense of the events that led to me moving to Non Native Country (NNC) and undertaking a phd in the humanities. It might occasionally contain some bitching about my current situation and general thoughts on the Ponzi scheme that is higher education. And more positively, I’ll be planning some great future career for myself that doesn’t involve being an indentured servant reading text message essays for peanuts. So watch this space.