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Thursday, April 29, 2004

Graduate school and high school

There’s a very interesting post (and a couple of interesting comments) over at Critical Mass, Erin O’Connor’s blog, responding to this Village Voice essay on the rotten state of the academic job system, and this fascinating essay on the Invisible Adjunct in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Anya Kamenetz’s Voice essay opens with a dazzling pitch for graduate study in the humanities:

Here’s an exciting career opportunity you won’t see in the classified ads. For the first six to 10 years, it pays less than $20,000 and demands superhuman levels of commitment in a Dickensian environment. Forget about marriage, a mortgage, or even Thanksgiving dinners, as the focus of your entire life narrows to the production, to exacting specifications, of a 300-page document less than a dozen people will read. Then it’s time for advancement: Apply to 50 far-flung, undesirable locations, with a 30 to 40 percent chance of being offered any position at all. You may end up living 100 miles from your spouse and commuting to three different work locations a week. You may end up $50,000 in debt, with no health insurance, feeding your kids with food stamps. If you are the luckiest out of every five entrants, you may win the profession’s ultimate prize: A comfortable middle-class job, for the rest of your life, with summers off.

Sounds great, no?  And even this description is a bit too rosy:  after all, the “for the rest of your life” part depends not on getting one of those increasingly rare tenure-track jobs but actually on getting tenure, and let’s not even broach the question of how many of those tenured positions are not merely comfortable but positively enjoyable (for their intellectual rewards, brilliant students, lovely region of the country, or what have you).  I got one of those jobs fifteen years ago, but I’ve never been so delusional as to think it was simply a question of merit; on the contrary, with each passing year I’m more amazed at my sheer dumb luck.  I can be specific about this:  I earned my Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in what turned out to be the most fortunate year since 1970 for English Ph.D.s (1989, when the number of Ph.D.s awarded in English hit its lowest point since the 1960s and the number of jobs available briefly spiked over two thousand before crashing again to half that level in the early 1990s).  I applied to 73 positions; I got one job offer.  Three or four years later, and I might well have gotten one fewer job offers.  In 1989, 25 Ph.D. candidates from the University of Virginia racked up 175 interviews at the MLA; only a few years later, 40 candidates landed 36 interviews.  As the saying goes, you do the math.

Anyway, Professor O’Connor responds by (a) announcing that she’s leaving her tenured position for a job teaching high school, and (b) asking,

Why do you hear absolutely nothing about this career option from within academe? Why do academic departments pretend this entirely dignified and deeply meaningful career path does not exist-- even though it could be just what many of their otherwise unemployable Ph.D.’s, not to mention their dissatisfied faculty, are looking for? Why do they treat as beneath their notice a type of work that they ought to be embracing as a seriously significant alternative to the dead-end academic career of the adjunct? Do I really have to ask?

These are good questions, and certainly O’Connor deserves all kinds of kudos for giving up a job in a profession she no longer respects.  But at the same time, I wouldn’t say that you hear absolutely nothing about teaching in high schools when you go looking for discussions of the structural crisis in graduate labor.  Perhaps that’s true in the precincts Professor O’Connor has inhabited thus far-- Berkeley, Michigan, and Penn-- but it’s not true across the board.

In fact, if you look carefully you can sometimes find people advocating

“strengthening the ties between the M.A. and high school teaching-- not only in the sense that we should try to offer the degree to more high school English teachers, but also in the sense that we should try to imagine the teaching of high school English as a worthy and appropriate career for mid-level graduate students.”

The rest of the passage both confirms and contests O’Connor’s account:

“In my experience, suggesting to students that they might teach in secondary schools has been a little like nominating one’s colleagues for early retirement:  here’s the M.A., students hear, and here’s the map out of town.  Don’t bother thinking about the power and prestige of being a college professor-- here’s your free pass to Central High.  To students who regard high school teaching as something unspeakably worse than college teaching, I have shown the following job announcements, all of which, happily enough, appeared in the same issue of our departmental newsletter one fine spring day:

College of Lake CountyTenure track position to teach English composition and literature.  Course load is 5 sections per semester.  Position begins fall 1995.

Gustavus Adolphus CollegeSeeking a person to teach from September to February as a replacement for a professor on leave.  The individual will teach three courses (Creative Writing and Ethnic American Literature) in the fall (Sept. to Dec.) and one course in the January term.

Lincoln Land Community CollegeFull-time tenure-track position to teach five classes.  Should have experience teaching the writing process at different levels to both traditional and non-traditional students and should be able to teach the full range of the lower division curriculum.

“These cheery notices were soon bested by another local school, which advertised a position that would carry tenure without promotion for a salary in the low 20s:  to the lucky candidate, a lifetime instructorship without hope of further professional reward.  I show students these notices not merely to frighten and depress them (though this works like a charm), but to make a more important point, namely, that some opportunities in high school teaching can offer greater professional autonomy, more substantial intellectual rewards, and better pay than teaching at the college level.  As Alison T. Smith, a 1994 Ph.D., writes in the 1996 issue of Profession, secondary school teaching is ‘still an ignored market’:  even though her own experience teaching high school ‘proved one of the most rewarding I ever had,’ still, her colleagues warned her ‘not to stay there too long lest I be labeled a high school teacher, which would forever destroy my prospects of getting a serious job at the college level’ (69-70).  Smith now teaches at the Hill Center in Durham, North Carolina, a high school for students with identified learning disabilities, and reports that ‘the salary, benefits, and level of respect I receive from colleagues are better than what I found at the university level’ (72). 

“Alison Smith’s experience, as former graduate students can attest, is not unique.  Indeed, for every student who resents the advice to seek a high school job, I wager, there are ten more who wish they’d heard that kind of advice six or seven years ago.  Nor is this strategy merely a matter of cutting our losses; on the contrary, it could be a strategy for dramatically expanding our potential public constituency.  The profession as it now operates seems much more interested in producing volume after volume of criticism and theory for faculty and graduate students than in disseminating some of that criticism and theory to undergraduates and high school students.  Well-trained, unembittered, comparatively unexploited M.A.s might perform a crucial function in serving as liaisons between graduate programs and public and private secondary education. . . .  It is true that secondary education is not considered to be one of the profession’s more glamorous constituencies; but then it is also true that there are few constituencies more important to the long-term health of the humanities in the United States.”

Now, I grant that the argument here involves “mid-level graduate students” rather than new Ph.D.s, adjuncts, assistant professors, or tenured faculty.  But I’m guessing that the author of this passage imagined that his or her proposal would also help to address the question of the “overproduction” of Ph.D.s, as well as the dreary fact that most of the isolating and embittering aspects of graduate school are associated with writing that 300-page document less than a dozen people will read while teaching introductory courses for rather less than $20K a year.  Anyway, that’s not the important thing about the argument.  The important thing in it is the Alison Smith essay, “Secondary Education:  Still an Ignored Market,” Profession (1996), pp. 69-72.  Definitely get a hold of that short essay and distribute it to clueless faculty members near you.

And best of luck to Erin O’Connor, wherever she goes.

Posted by Michael on 04/29 at 09:31 AM
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