In case it wasn’t clear from my last post, our family has been having some work-life balance issues. I was incredible moved by how the post seemed to resonate with many other academic couples/parents. It’s a constant process of negotiation, re-evaluation, and compromise for many of us. I’m not sure if it reassures me to know that our family is not alone in our struggles or saddens and angers me to know that there so many of us sacrificing so much for an academic job.
This week, my husband, who is also an academic but who, unlike me, is on the tenure-track, was besieged by professional responsibilities: candidate dinners, night grad classes, faculty senate meetings, social gatherings that represent important opportunities to network and appear like a good member of the “community.” To make up for the lost time, he woke up earlier than usual to go into work and prepare for class. Many weekends every semester, he is also away at conferences.
Addendum: After I finished writing this, I was completely emotionally drained. My two-year-old son woke up early from his nap and we were able to spend an hour together, snuggling in his bed, reading together. Sometimes all it takes is just an hour. I still stand by this post, but today I feel a lot better than yesterday.
I’m going off my blogging schedule. This might turn into a longer, more developed post for uvenus or elsewhere, but I need to write this and put this out there right now. While I’m angry. And reeling.
I received an interesting set of questions in the comments on my last peer-learning post:
I’ve read Cathy’s piece in the Chronicle of HE. I hate to be a bit of a wet blanket but having had some experience of designing, leading and being part of peer driven teaching and having been an early member of the so-called ‘anti-university’ set up in London in the late ’60s– I have a few questions that I’d need to know in order to determine if this is an idea that can be realistically applied and allow students to graduate with some kind of marketable qualification (however and whoever determines the ‘market’).The type of class isn’t clear. Are they postgrads/post-experience/mature/straight from secondary school? Are they doing an elective or is it a compulsory class?Will their grade make a difference to their degree and does the degree have to meet any institutional or external (eg professional/regulatory body accreditation criteria)?In fact, what does the grade signify? Is it simply a metaphorical ‘fig leaf’ to cover your back or is it a rigorous measure of the learning and self-instruction?
I’ve been wanting to do a post since the beginning outlining all of the ways my peer-driven class is different from Cathy Davidson’s classes. I could point “anonymous” to my previous posts on my peer-driven classes that outline more carefully what the purpose of the class is, etc. But, just to reiterate, the class that I am reformulating as being peer-driven in ENG 200 or Writing II. This is a required course for all students, regardless of major. They have already taken ENG 100 or traditional freshman composition. Our student learning outcomes are essentially to have students read primary sources from across disciplines, discuss, and write about them. We have a choice of two almost identical textbooks to assign to them, and a list of required assignments, both large and small. At the end of the day, if the students are using the textbook as a guide, they will be fulfilling the requirements of the course. Most of my colleagues that I’ve told that I am letting the students decide what they want to read from the textbook have shrugged their shoulders; any readings from the book will be challenging and stimulating.
There are some very important differences, of course, between my course and Cathy Davidson’s course. While Cathy Davidson seems to have had a weekly schedule that students followed (more or less), my class has been shaped exclusively by my textbook, which we would never be able to get all the way through. Both my classes are completely different in terms of our assignments and week-to-week layout. One class is much more “traditional”; the students have picked the readings, but we are working on them together, as a class. The other class has broken off into groups and will be teaching their own two-class unit, complete with a project based on their readings/lesson. It’s early, but each class is having some good results.
My students didn’t “chose” to take me, specifically, for this course. Sure, there are a handful who had me last year, but most of the students selected my sections of ENG 200 because it fit their schedule. They certainly had no idea that I was going to turn the tables on them. I have a higher cap in my class (18 students sounds like a dream) and no TA. I don’t have tenure, and I am teaching three other classes on top of the two peer-driven courses. Our college has a high number of first-generation college students, as well as a poor graduation rate and low ACT scores for incoming freshmen. The majority come from our service area, which is largely poor and rural. If one of my classes is less ready to embrace peer-driven learning, I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. Actually, that one of the classes so readily embraced the format is perhaps more surprising.
I don’t have a ton of experience being an “innovative educator” nor does what I write about or do in my classroom cause our PR office to have palpitations. Thanks to Cathy Davidson, turning your class over to your students isn’t met with hang-wringing and fainting (seriously, read the first chapter of Now You See It to see how much negative national press Cathy Davidson has inspired). Or, thanks to the fact that I toil away at an out-of-the-way university insulates me from any notice. I’d say it’s a bit of both. I help create one of the most exciting and innovative (to me at least) academic programs/organizations (HASTAC), so I’m starting from behind, so to speak, compared to Cathy Davidson. I’m still learning to let go and embrace all of this.
My job, as I understand it, is to help students become better writers but also more independent learners. I want them to becomes 4-year-olds again, where the world was exciting and new and they wanted to learn about everything. I want them to learn how to create a community, to support one another in their education, and just think differently about anything I can. I want to help them think more critically about their world and how they fit into it. These are my goals regardless of how I teach, but I think teaching this way will be more successful. Even if the rest of their educations are “by the book” both literally and figuratively, I hope they will take what they have learning in my class beyond university.
Is it sustainable for every single program on campus? I don’t know. I’m not as optimistic as Cathy Davidson, although I’m getting there. I’ve said time and time again that it’s my own failure of imagination that I cannot think about how to do my class or university differently. But I know I am doing something right as my class buzzes with excitement and begin to come up with their own innovative and creative ways of looking at their readings and the issues they bring up. I can’t measure that.
I’m not sure if I want to.
I think I’ve finally over-done it. I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. After a summer of fabulous productivity in the writing department, I’m spent. I know I wrote basically the same thing exactly a week ago, but it seems that Thursdays, I hit a wall. Or, more accurately, Wednesday I hit a wall, but habit dictates that I face this reality on Thursdays when I try to write my Thursday night post for Friday.
well said, it’s a completely pernicious system in which everyone higher up the pecking order is incentivised to exploit those below. at the end of your piece i was wondering though – why DO you do it? possibly you will say, because you love it. I’m wondering when the tipping point comes : when love of one’s job becomes the privilege of those who can afford it?
These are two questions that I have addressed in the past (why I came back to teaching and who will be our future professors). I wrote the former post almost exactly a year ago, when I was about to start teaching again, full-time, after a year of under/unemployment. Many reasons I outlined there haven’t changed; I still need the money and there are very few employment opportunities where I am currently living. Why not move? My husband and I decided, very early in our relationship, that if we were going to decide to be together “forever” that we were going to be together. So I am still place-bound and limited, therefore, in my employment opportunities.
But, and Worst Professor Ever is going to be mad at me for saying this, capandgown is right insofar as that I love what it is that I do. I am invigorated and excited to have the opportunity to completely reimagine and reformulate my classes. I have written elsewhere that it is liberating to “only” be an instructor, and I wonder if I would have had the courage or conviction to do what I am doing this semester if I was on the tenure-track. This job still has something to offer me (other than money), and me to it.
I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. And, that might be the problem. I’ve spoken before about my failure of imagination when it comes to how I see and understand my classes. I have the same problem when it comes to my career trajectory. For so long I could only see myself in front of the class, in higher education, eventually moving up the administrative ladder. Of course, that vision has shifted somewhat, but not much. Maybe it’s in part because of where I am living, with limited economic opportunities. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been particularly entrepreneurial. Or, and I think Cathy Davidson would agree, the vision I’ve had for my life has never really been seriously disrupted enough for me to take a step back and really rethink things.
When I say that my job still has something to offer me, I mean that it allows me to go outside of my comfort zone, even if it’s only in the relatively safe confines of the classroom, a place where I feel most at home. Maybe these small steps I am taking to change the way I look at the educational experience will help me build up the courage and the vision to look at my own career trajectory differently. Four short months ago, I was lamenting my inability to radically change the way I teach. Now, I’m making it happen.
Eight months from now, maybe I’ll see more things just a little bit differently as well. Until then, I’ll keep doing what I love and what challenges me. I’m pretty lucky that way.
(See what I did there? That’s the second post in a row where I’ve come up with a clever title with two possible meanings, both in the traditional academic sense and in the socio-economic sense. Anyone? Anyone? Alright, I’ll get on with it.)
I was all set to write a post about how we remain obsessed with the Ivies and those top, elite colleges, to our own detriment. And I’m not just talking about how families will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get little Jimmy and Suzy into Yale or Duke, but how we, in academia and the media, keep pushing these colleges as the standard, for better or for worse. Three items:
- In Forbes, Why Trying To Learn Clear Writing in College is Like Trying to Learn Sobriety in a Bar. College, of course, is limited to Brown, elite MBA programs, UCLA, and…that’s it.
- In the Chronicle, Academic English is Not a Club I Want to Join (sorry if the link doesn’t work or is behind a paywall). A little more variety, but still, big, public, elite, R1 institutions.
- In Slate, the response to William Pannaker’s essay, a laundry list of self-important success stories from Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Syracuse, and the Ohio State.
So, class has been on everyone’s brain lately. Not the kind of class that is about to start in less then three weeks (I really need to get on that), but the kind of class that involves money, social mobility, and how to properly “fit” into higher education. I want to start with a little bit of a roundup of recent posts that are either explicitly or implicitly about class issues. If I’m missing any, please let us all know in the comment.
- I ask, in response to Pannapacker’s original Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go post, Who Will be Our Future Professors? I explicitly address the issues of diversity in higher education given Pannapacker’s advice.
- Mary Churchill and Mike Brown debate How Our Educational Values Reveal Attitudes About Class and Social Class and Critical Education. So much of what Mary has written has helped refined my own understanding of race, class, and gender attitudes in higher education, as well as sharpening my resolve to stop being silent about it.
- Over at Speculative Diction, Melonie Fullick writes about how important it is that graduate students (and aspiring faculty) know their value, pointing out how much money and sweat equity a student puts into building a career in academia, and how challenging that is for students coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
- After Pannapacker hit the big-time in Slate, some hand-wringing about how successful and aware working-class PhDs are and how wrong Pannapacker is. And then, how those critics of Pannapacker don’t take the issue of gender into consideration.
- Worst Professor Ever shares her view on class issues in higher education, and then my own Bad Female Academic take on the whole thing (written before the whole Pannapacker in Slate thing blew up)
- Over at ProfHacker, they’re asking about “fit” within academia.
- James B. Jones shared this book with me, Reflections from the Wrong Side of the Tracks. Yet to read it, but I’m really interested.
- Kathryn Allan, over at her blog, also comments on class issues, which don’t seem to be all that dissimilar in Canada: Refusing Polite Conversation.
- Finally, the essay that, for me, started it all. A professor at Dartmouth asks, At What Cost? Her story resonated with me because she’s successful, but drowning in debt. Is this my future?
Who in the heck are these people who are forcing and enforcing a very clear and distinct set of class values on us? Seriously? Who are they?
Because it’s not the majority of people that I’ve met on my path to where I am right now. Maybe it’s because I’ve never attended an “elite” institution, either as a student or a professor. Maybe it’s because I self-selected the people I hang around with, naturally drawn to those with similar backgrounds to my own (my husband, for example, who is also an academic, is from the same socio-economic background as I am). Or maybe, like so much of what we believe about higher education, it’s all just a massive ruse that we’ve been blindly perpetuating.
I still remember being put in my place when I was an MA student by one of my professors. I was commenting on a novel we were reading, saying that it was written for “them” and not for ordinary people (or something like that). She took great offense to that, outlining all of the ways she was not one of them, in terms of her background. It was the first time I really took a step back and looked at the people in front of me and around me. Now, we did have a professor who was a stereotypical professor, in terms of both his class and attitude, but it was only one. And, I don’t remember one of my peers in the program who came from anything higher than lower-middle-class.
It was the same for my PhD. There was, again, one professor who was clearly “one of those professors” (he came from a very wealthy and influential family, apparently, and my colleague of mine was horrified when I revealed, no, sorry, never heard of them), but the rest of the professors were largely from working-class and immigrant families, as were my colleagues in the program. I’ve taught at four different universities in two countries and three states, and I have to say that the majority of my colleagues come form backgrounds similar to my own.
So why then does this obsession with class markers persist? Did we all get into higher education so we could be snobs? Really? And why do we keep requiring that aspiring academics perform tasks that we know they can’t afford? Go to conferences, work for peanuts, receive little institutional support both before and after the tenure-track job. Take on more and more debt, shop at the right stores, live in the right neighborhood, go to the right shows, the right conferences, etc.
We’re suffering in semi-silence. I can’t believe that, despite all of these voices speaking out, we can’t change higher education, if not structurally, then at least culturally. I refuse to meet certain cultural markers. I’m not good at “passing” (as Dr. Crazy writes about) and, judging by the comments and traffic my blog post has received, I’m not the only one who is either incapable, unwilling, or just plain burnt out about the whole thing.
I am serious, though. Where is this pressure coming from? Because, from where I’m sitting, there are more of “us” than there are of “them.”