Who Speaks for Rural Education?

On Fridays this summer, I’m going to be reposting my writing that has appeared elsewhere on the web. This post originally appeared on So Educated.
In my upper division writing classes, we are talking about the current debates surrounding education reform, as well as dissecting the rhetoric curretly being used in the popular media to shape these debates. In class, we watched trailers for the documentaries Waiting for Superman (see below)Race to Nowhere, and Schooling the World. My students, while interested, saw little of themselves in the situations described by the first two trailers. The third, dealing with the exporting of Western schooling internationally, particularly in poor, rural areas, resonated with them in a way they didn’t really understand.

I teach English and writing at a rural state university where the majority of the students come from even smaller surrounding communities. The economy (when there was one) is largely based on argriculture and coal mining. I am in a heart of the Bible Belt as well. My students have come to university with the goal of providing a better life for themselves and their families, to hopefully break the cycle of poverty. These are not students who are over-scheduled and suffering from the pressure of raised expectations. Nor are their failing schools the product of inner-city poverty or unsafe learning environments. Many of my students are caught between two worlds: the traditional one they come from, where hard physical labor, strong family ties, and God are valued above all else, and the more contemporary one they are confronted with when they arrive at university.
This is, admittedly, an entirely new experience for me. It in no way resembles my own experience growing up (middle-class, professional), nor have I taught students with this kind of background before. My experience with non-traditional students has been of the more traditional variety: first-generation, minority students who almost all come from an urban environment. I am, however, committed to helping these students achieve their goals, get an education, and hopefully make a better life for themselves. Hearing about their experiences in high school, however, leaves me wondering if some of them even have a chance.
When politicians and pundits speak about raising standards and educating everyone, they rarely mention those significant parts of the population that do not have access to quality schools because of their isolation and relative poverty. The need is there; Teach for America is hoping to place over 500 teachers in the Mississippi Delta alone. But if you look at the TFA map, the majority of their placements are in urban areas. The best and the brightest are, apparently, not interested in moving to rural, isolated communities. Or, perhaps, the communities are not interested in having them come to teach in their schools.
My university trains and educates the majority of the teachers in our region. Our library, however, has two to three times as many books on issues and challenges in urban and minority K-12 education as they do on rural education. None of the education faculty seem to specialize in issues concerning rural education, either. How are we shaping the future teachers who will be educating the children in the rural areas? What are the challenges unique to rural areas in the United States? Should we be looking beyond our borders to see how other countries have either failed or succeeded at rural education?
I am, as I said before, not an expert. But I hope to learn and share my journey with you. I want to find those voices that I know must exist who speak for rural education. I want to help make those voices heard. I want to educate myself, my students, and the more general public. At the end of the day, I want my students, and subsequently their children, to succeed. My work and writings here on SoEducated.com is one of the ways I am working towards that goal.

New CRW Summer Feature: Bad Female Academic


I have been thinking about this post and summer series for a while now. It fits in well with what I write about both here and for the University of Venus. I was planning on doing these posts on Friday, but it looks like Mondays it is. Makes more sense, as I will have the weekend to write them. Although, over the summer, every day looks a lot the same (take care of kids in the AM, write and research in the PM, rinse, repeat).

What is this weekly feature? Every week, I will look at all the ways I am a Bad Female Academic. Some weeks, it will be about why am I a bad academic more generally, sometimes about how I am a bad female. Other weeks, it will be why I am a bad combination of the two. I specifically want to deal with the ways in which our communities (large and small) try to limit who I am and how I am allowed to view and understand myself. The pressures academia places on me are well-knows, as are larger societal messages about who I am supposed to be as a woman, mother, and wife. When these two worlds collide…

I am inspired by two people in particular: Her Bad Mother and Worst Professor Ever. But unlike Worst Prof (and more like Bad Mother), I tired to leave academia and found myself pulled back in (OK, so once you have kids, you’re pretty much stuck with them, but you get the analogy, right?). In my mind, the work of breaking the stereotypes of what it is to be a “good” mother and a “good” academic (which, in my mind, sounds an awful lot like being a “good girl” – actually, go and listen to the Barenaked Ladies song, you’ll see what I mean). They are chains hanging around our necks and I want to really take a long, hard look at them.

But mostly I’m just tired of all the things I should or shouldn’t be doing, worrying about what everyone else thinks, and just be who I am, which is, apparently, a Bad Female Academic.

The Real World: My Pre-Academic Jobs

There is a persistent image that many undergraduates (or, more accurately, the public at large) have about professors, that we, locked away in our ivory tower, have no idea what it is like in the “real world” where people really work (as opposed, I guess, to pretending to work?).

There has also been quite a lot of talk recently about the value of internships, especially the kind where students have to pay to participate and don’t see any money in return. And, as college admissions seasons have came and went, there has been a deluge of hang wringing about how high school students can no longer afford to work, lest their college application not reflect the right kind of values and experiences.

I have been working since I was 10 years old (crap, here she goes). I started with a paper route (mind you, it was only for our weekly local paper, but still) that I inherited from a friend. I moved on to babysitting, found through hand-made fliers that my mom graciously copied at work (I colored them afterwards, too). These jobs didn’t pay much, but they were enough to keep a 10-13 year old in Tiger Beat magazines and cassettes. 

I also did some unpaid work at that time, via a quasi-internship program run by the city, Leaders in Training/Leaders of Tomorrow. I wanted to be a lifeguard, and this was how the city (who ran the pools) helped prepare us for our eventual job as lifeguards (or park attendants). Basically, we got to do all the nasty jobs (like clean out the gutters) that the lifeguards didn’t want to do. It was sort-of terrible, but that was outweighed by the fact that it meant you got to hang out in the office with the lifeguards who were all older and impossibly cool. That was worth a lot of dead bugs.

Now, a few words on lifeguarding, my first real job. To all those college admissions people who think that lifeguarding equals lazy, I’m here to tell you, you’re dead wrong. At least where we grew up, lifeguarding meant not only sitting on a chair in the sun, it also meant that you had to coach a water sport (diving, swimming, synchro, or water polo), teach swimming lessons, organize the competitions for the sport you coached, and organize community events to be held at the pool. Sometimes, we also had to do fund-raisers. At the age of 16. No one working at the pools were usually older than 21 or 22, and they were manager. These were not insignificant jobs with no responsibilities. And, trust me, when the patrons weren’t happy with the job you were doing, they let my bosses at City Hall know (being how my salary was paid by their taxes and all that).

But even if lifeguarding only consists of sitting up on that chair, know that that job is one that is a matter of life and death. If someone is drowning, has a stroke, a heart attack, has a severe allergic reaction, etc, it is our responsibility to save them. We’re trained to do that. It’s one of those jobs where it doesn’t look like you’re doing much until you are called upon to act. And then, you’d best act. I’ve had to clear the pool for one spinal (which is stressful because one wrong move and the person could be paralyzed), and it was frightening. We might not always have to put our knowledge into practice, but if something were to go wrong, lifeguards (at least the ones I grew up with) are professional, capable, and still in their teens.

Kids, you can quote me on that one, too.

I learned some valuable lessons. I had to show up for work, on time, or suffer the consequences. I was once suspended for a week because I missed staff training (this precious little snowflake simply forgot). And so, I didn’t work for a week, lost the wages, and had to deal with the ire of my staff-mates who had to make up my shifts. I learned how to deal with the public, think on my feet, and get my head out of my own ass. I remembered how much I looked up to the lifeguards who coached me, so I knew the responsibility I had to my swimmers. I’m not saying I didn’t do stupid things, but I owned up to them, took my licks, and moved on. I also learned that it is really, really hard to work with friends, especially when they are your boss.

When I went to university, I chose my program, in part, because built into the program were paid internships. Our tuition money paid for an entire department devoted to finding related and relevant jobs and job experience. They had to be directly related to our major (professional writing) and they had to pay. We did pay a nominal amount of tuition during our work terms, but it was nowhere near full tuition and was easily covered by the salaries we were earning. I had applied and been accepted into a much more prestigious journalism program in large part because I wasn’t about to work at unpaid internships.

When I was 14, my parents divorced. I still swam competitively, and much of the costs became my responsibility. I loved lifeguarding, but I needed to work in order to pay for swimming and any other activity I wanted to do. University was no different; I was paying my own way, and I couldn’t afford to take summers or semesters off to get coffee and not make any money. While I understood that an unpaid internship was a “foot in the door,” if there was an option on the table where I would get paid, well, there really wasn’t a choice.

And this is where the discussion about voluntourism, unpaid internships, and the college admissions game gets me really, really rilled up. While I am fortunate that I never had to work retail or in fast food, I nonetheless had to earn my keep. I had to work (although I would have anyway, probably). I think, as valuable as unpaid internships may be, they are exploitative and unfair because they favor those students who can afford to not make any money. Summers in the developing world building houses is great, but that wasn’t going to pay for school.

I think that the people who are disconnected from the “real world” aren’t academics, but the people who think that unpaid work and luxury volunteer opportunities are what build character. I think the same people who think lifeguards are lazy are the same people who think academics are lazy. My real world is a lot more real than you think.

More Thoughts on the Standardization of Higher Education

My post on the standardization of higher education from earlier this week was a hit, so to speak, driving traffic and stimulating some interesting discussions on Twitter. I’ve decide to address some of these concerns and continue venting on what I think is going to be the undoing of higher education in this country.

I received two tweets (one from @qui_oui and another from @rwpickard) about how a certain degree of standardization is necessary for transfer and the like. Look, I’m all for standards. We should all have a clear idea of what a 100, 200, 300, or 400 level class should contain within a discipline (how much to read, write, and the level of ideas/concepts expressed). I also understand that in other disciplines, you need to know a certain set of skills or concepts before moving on to the next level; I completely understand that Cal I has to come before Cal II, and that there has to be some standards in order for a student to make progress in their education. But, these standards would seem to grow organically from disciplinary requirements. Sometimes they are imposed by professional organizations, but often in the name of safety; I’m glad that my nurse has a standard set of skills that are required of her before being accredited.

It’s when we get into the “softer” disciplines, like English, where I live, that things get dicey. I have written already about my experience teaching an upper-division Modern Literature course. I appreciated the fact that, within a set of clear guidelines (400-level class on English literature written during what is known as the Modernist period), I had the freedom to teach the texts that I wanted to using the approaches that I thought would work best. I was able to “create” arches, comparisons, contrasts, and evolutions with the works we studied. Modern literature is a huge field (much like any field in English) and each professor will teach the course differently, according to their biases and expertise, but also based on the make-up of the student body and institutional culture. What works in a Modern Literature course at Yale won’t necessarily work in a Modern Literature course at Regional State U. But we can safely assume that given the guidelines and descriptions, a student coming out of an upper-division Modern Literature course should be able to do a certain set of things, from identify the major authors and features of the movement, as well as write a lengthy, in-depth research essay on a work from that period. How we get there will vary wildly.

And it should. Some may point to my characterization of the class as a disaster as a reason why we need more, not less, standardization. The argument goes that I was not to be trusted with coming up with the class, and instead I should have been given the syllabus and reading list to teach in a prescribed way (hey, just give me the script while you’re at it). I say that my failure is an indication that the institution needs to invest in professors, not temp workers, to teach class. If the administration continues to undermine and devalue what goes on in the classroom, no amount of standardization and accountability measures are going to improve student learning. Saying that we should teach all students the same things in the same way, all in the name of accessibility, is not the answer.

Which brings me to the next point of contention. Faculty, then, should then take it upon themselves to develop the accountability measures. We do already; it’s called the syllabus and grading. Apparently, that’s not good enough anymore. But is that the faculty’s fault or the fault of an administration that continually undermines the classroom experience (and professor’s authority) in the classroom? I just came across this essay about how we, the faculty, are increasingly pressured to let learning slide in the name of “customer service”:

Faculty members were being asked to be responsible for students instead of creating a system within the classroom that makes the students responsible for themselves.

This is what I am talking about when I say that the administration often don’t support what professors and instructors are trying to do in the classroom, but then blame us when learning doesn’t happen. Students are seen as tuition machines, and we are told they are to be retained, at all costs. When a student isn’t happy, we hear about it and need to adapt to keep the customer satisfied.

I say, get our backs, get out of our way, and let’s see what happens.

Money is being invested everywhere on campus except in front of the classroom, illustrated by increasing class sizes, the increase in online education, and the over-use of adjunct faculty. Students get the message; the professors (and learning) are the least important component on campus.

And even when faculty are involved in developing the accountability measures, it is usually because they are being required to do so and have to follow narrow guidelines with the demand for very prescriptive (and arbitrary) outcomes, in order to feed the data machine. Yes, cosmetically, faculty came up with the measures, but our hands are tied, impacting the results. Rather than having measures and standards that are organic to a given discipline, we have data driven measures that give us stats, but little else.

Time and resources are also a factor. Often, it is an already over-worked tenure-track faculty member (or committee of tenure-track faculty members) who is tasked with coming up with the measures. Those measures are then imposed on even more precariously positioned instructors and adjuncts, who are already burdened with the demands of teaching intensive introductory courses to larger and larger numbers of students. But none of that comes into the minds of the administrators requiring the extra work from their instructional staff (tenure-track and contingent). There’s no course release, no reduction in class sizes, nothing. Something has to give, and it is either dropping other elements from the syllabus or devising the “easiest” measures to implement.

There’s a win-win situation for student learning outcomes.

The Standardization of Higher Education = #FAIL

I was at an institutionally-mandated get-together for those instructors who taught the various developmental classes (math, reading, writing) at our institution a few weeks ago. We were hearing about the educational technology the math department was using to get students up to college readiness when the instructor presenting told us a disturbing little anecdote about how she caught a cheater last semester. “It was just like Big Brother!” she exclaimed excitedly. Ugh.

Now, I’ve already voiced my thoughts about our over-reliance on ed tech as the savior of education, but this statement made me think about one of the unintended (or intended) consequences of the move to standardize higher education, heavily facilitated by educational technology: the constant monitoring of all activity of both instructor and student. If we can standardize and record every instance of learning in a student’s academic career, then we can certainly pinpoint where learning failed, exactly which teacher or advisor is responsible for derailing a student’s career.

The more we standardize, the more we continue to infantilize our students and undermine our faculty. We are basically telling students that they aren’t responsible enough to learn and professors can’t be trusted to teach. Think about that for a second. Students can’t learn, and we can’t teach, so you need to be constantly monitored to make sure that these things happen.

How does this move towards standardization and assessment actually help students? What happens when institutions and accrediting boards rigidly dictate when and where learning happens in higher education? When instead of facilitating “informal” moments of learning, the university is required/requiring rigid reporting/return on investment data on campus talks, meeting spaces, and optional (but really mandatory) activities? Or that students (and eventually instructors/professors) measure success exclusively through test scores?

How do we teach and learn through experience, experiment, trial and error, and failures when Big Brother is always watching us? Does $44 billion really buy the Federal government the right to dictate to us how and what we teach, or how and when students can learn? As I put in the comments of Mary Churchill’s post “Can We Afford to Play,”

As we discover with young kids, we can spend all the money we want, but at the end of the day, all they want to play with is the empty cardboard box. I think the same thing goes for higher education, especially on the side of the professors. If professors didn’t have to worry as much about constant accountability measures, measurable outcomes, and reporting, we might be more likely to relax along with the students. If more people in front of the classroom had job security and more time, they may be more invested in the students outside of the classroom. If it didn’t feel like Big Brother was constantly monitoring all of us, we might relax, let loose, and really, really, learn.

At a certain point, the institution needs to get out of the way and just let learning happen. I have been critical of the type of “leisure” that takes place on (or rather off) campus, but is this behavior a result of the high states, high pressure environment we’ve created on campus? Most faculty and students can’t wait to get off campus at the end of the day; why is that? Universities have invested billions in creating “spaces” for students, faculty, and sometimes even community. Some have been very successful, but I wonder how many of them developed organically, and how many of them were responses to accreditation board requirements (having gone through two at two different universities, this is an important component for any re-accreditation)?

We may end up passing whatever tests they put in front of us, delivering more mandated content in increasingly rigid ways, but at the end of the day, we have failed.

What is College For? Spring Break Vs Reading Week

In Canada, because spring comes around so much later, we call the week vacation that occurs during the semester that occurs during the first months of the calendar year Reading Week. I still call it that, out of habit. My students here, they have no idea what I’m talking about. Spring Break, I say, it’s what we Canadians calls Spring Break; it’s just cruel to say spring when there’s still three feet of snow on the ground. But, I also think that it’s a reflection of a different attitude Canadians hold towards higher education. 

I asked one of my developmental writing students what he was planning on doing for Spring Break. He’s off to Florida to party. This particular student has missed a great deal of my class because he had strep throat (yes, he had a doctor’s note). This student is also repeating the class because last semester he partied too much. If anything, I was hoping that the student would take this week off to rest, recover, and catch up in his classes. But no. I probably won’t be seeing him for an entire week after Spring Break because he’s recovering from alcohol poisoning, lack of sleep, proper nutrition, or any combination of the three.

I know that this student is not an exception. Many of my students, in fact many of my students who are the most vulnerable in terms of their grades, will be spending the week off unwinding in unhealthy ways on “SPRING BREAK!!! (copyright MTV).” I understand that students (and their instructors/professors) need a break. What I don’t understand is how students can justify the time and cost of 5-9 days in Florida/Mexico/wherever. My students constantly complain that they have too much work, no money for food or for printing their papers. And yet, March rolls around and suddenly, there’s money to be had and time to be spent.

(And no, I never did Spring Break. The one year my friends went to Florida, I was stuck on a work term. My other trip to Florida in college was for a training camp, which was subsidized by the school; we swam or worked out 4-5 (or more) hours a day. If we had been out drinking, it wouldn’t have been pretty the next morning at practice.)

This attitude is not limited to Spring Break; many of my students consistently show up hung over (or still drunk) on Friday mornings, but complain that I am asking too much of them to buy a 45 cent folder for their essays. Students, studies keep telling us, are studying less and less, but seem to be partying just as much as they ever have. College now is about the experience, and the experience is everything and anything except what happens in the classroom. Which is fine, but I tell my students that there are way better ways to spend the tens of thousands of dollars they are currently spending on their college “experience.”

There was an essay recently that extols the virtues of learning through hanging out. But when I ask my students what they do when they hang out, they admit that it often involves getting pass-out drunk or stoned out of their mind. What, then, are they learning by “hanging out” that they couldn’t learn while not also paying college tuition? Drinking, drugs, and sex are acceptable behavior in college; kids of the same age who are engaging in this kind of behavior and are not also college students are considered deadbeats. What’s the difference? Tuition, and a couple hours of courses a week that the student may or may not attend. For some students (and I include myself in this), they can get away with this and still come away with their degrees (and futures) in tact. But for the majority of my students, they can’t get away with it; they don’t graduate, can’t get a job, and are left in debt.

Personally, I wish I had been encouraged to save my money, work, and get the parties out of my system so that I may have actually benefited from my education. It’s what my husband did, and it benefitted him immensely.

In fact, the university encourages this kind of laissez-faire attitude towards the educational purpose of college by consistently investing money in the “experience” side rather than in the classroom (for example, building stadiums and then increasing class sizes, hiring adjuncts instead of tenure-track professors).  Why should students take me seriously when the university doesn’t, either? So, enjoy Spring Break. Just don’t expect me to cut you any slack when you’ve forgotten everything you’ve learned; I spent my break reading.

March Madness and the Hypocrisy of Academia

“Hey, people will finally know where we teach!”

This is what my husband said when our school’s team “shocked the world” (or at least over 95% of the people playing online bracket games) by beating a much higher (and more well-know seed) in the first round of the NCAA March Madness Basketball tournament. No one ever knows where we work; now everyone knows at least the name of our college, and which state it is located. If nothing else, this saves us a lot of trouble when it people ask us what college we teach at. Maybe they won’t look at us with as much sympathy now, thinking that at least we have a good basketball team.
I have very mixed feelings about college sports. I’ve coached Division III swimmers at a school (actually, schools – three of them) that takes academics VERY seriously. The swimmers (and other athletes I met) were smart, hard workers, and generally upstanding citizens. Yes, there were exceptions, as there always are, but generally, these kids had to be pretty outstanding to get into the school to begin with. The swimmers knew that this was a highest level they would ever achieve in their swimming careers; the Olympics, or even Nationals, weren’t in the cards. But the chose to go to our particular school in no small part because they would be able to continue swimming. 
On the other hand, I know how much our program must have cost the school: coaching, travel, facilities (which were very modest). The school could have probably hired another tenure-track faculty member with the money saved. You can’t argue that the programs were money-making, as they didn’t even charge admissions to see any of the games. It may have a positive impact on alumni giving, as they fondly remember their experience at the school as student-athletes, but other than that, I can’t see any benefit of having formal, organized, athletics on camps. 
It must seem hypocritical of me to question the value of athletics on campus so soon after writing about the importance of physical fitness to mental fitness. But does formally organized sports team really encourage physical and mental health, especially when the programs aren’t open to all students? Could we instead put the money in the classroom, maintain the facilities, and encourage students to create their own leagues, clubs, or teams to compete (or not) at any level they want? Inter-murals, club teams (non-NCAA sanctioned sports), and even Masters teams exist all over the country. Why does it have to be organized and sanctioned by a massive governing body, especially when the students aren’t even receiving athletic scholarships for their participation in the sport?
Which brings me to Division I sports. Many argue that the scholarships represent an opportunity for students to attend a school (or a better, more expensive school) than they would be able to otherwise. As I’ve said before, how is that an argument for athletics and not an argument against how we currently admit and fund students? Watching the documentary on the “Fab Five” or “Pony Excess” (both on ESPN), I marvel at the blatant hypocrisy of a system that makes millions and leaves athletes starving. University Diaries is tireless in her effort to expose all of the other ways that major college athletics are sustained on a laundry list of dishonesties, hypocrisies, and outright fraudulent behavior. Why, then, is a school like UC Santa Barbara (a school that is already one of the most popular choices for California students), in the face of massive state budget cuts, still looking to move into full NCAA Division I status? And why is it that we, the faculty, keep on keepin’ on, as if nothing is happening?
I think it comes back to my husband’s comment. We all love prestige. And if that prestige can’t come from historical sources (Ivies, for example), then it’ll come from the one other thing all Americans care about: sports. Having lived in California, I know that UCSB doesn’t have the greatest academic reputation among the UC schools; I’m not really sure how having a great Div I program changes that, but it would seem to be the thinking. Sure, we’re a party school, but we have a fantastic basketball team, so please take us more seriously. We can’t honestly think that the money that is supposedly generated by these programs is finding its way into our classrooms and research funding, into increasing the number of tenure lines, or improving the over-all quality of our undergrads. As a contingent faculty, I know all too well how insecure my position is, and I thankful that I have never been on the receiving end of any pressure, directly or indirectly, to pass or give a higher grade to an athlete. But have we, the faculty, lost so much control over the institution that we cannot stop what is going on on our own campuses? Have we given up trying? Or do we just not care? 
I’m not really sure which option is more depressing.

The Emperor Has No Clothes (And No Shame)

We all (should) know the tale of the King who was taken by a sweet-talking tailor, convinced that the “clothes” he was wearing were invisible and magical and valuable. When the King goes out to show off his new suit (aka his Birthday Suit) the only person in the crowd who has the courage to say what everyone else knows to be true (or because he doesn’t know any better) is a child. There are lots of morals to be taken from this tale, but I think we all need to think about how we, as academics, play the role of the silent crowd in our own tale of the decline of higher education.

I am far from the only one who has pointed at the naked Kind and declared him to have no clothes. We’ve had videos, long series of essays, shorter missives (and another), and entire blogs all devoted to exposing the fact higher education is not what we think it is, especially as idealistic graduate students, indebted but proud parents, and even professors and administrators. I think that as we keep splitting finer and finer hairs when it comes to our roles, we no longer are able to see the forest for the trees; perhaps for most of us, we just see a naked foot or a flash of genitalia, but nothing to get too worked up over. Besides, it’s the life of the mind!

I do not regret my education on most days. But some days, the really bad days, I remember that ignorance can sometimes be bliss. Wouldn’t I love for my faith, and really, my only faith, in an institution that I love so much to return? For many of us, the university is our secular church, the place that we turn to for stability, security, justice, and answers. But our faiths are eroding, the cracks and inconsistencies are showing, and the corruption is seeping through. Too many of us hold our noses and keep returning day after day for service, because if we don’t, what is left? Perhaps a weak or corrupt faith is better than no faith at all? Is this why we keep talking around the problem or burying our heads in the sand?

Or, maybe we’re in awe of the King, able to walk around naked without a care in the world. When we discuss the economic realities of doing a PhD in the humanities, most prospective students think either a) it won’t happen to them or b) it won’t matter to them. When you’re in your early twenties and all of your friends are broke and working for little to no money, grad school life doesn’t seem that bad. Nor is it easy to see yourself ten years later, when your friends are all making more money than you are with less debt and are getting on with their lives. The life of the mind is, indeed, an excellent and noble life, but is that really all you want for yours? The King running around completely naked is a sign for us all that it is possible, no matter how shameless or corrupt (but who cares, he’s in power!) and if we just leave it alone, maybe someday we can run around naked as well.

What perhaps scares me the most, however, is not that we are afraid to say that the Emperor has no clothes, it’s that we truly don’t believe it will make any difference. The emperor has no shame, and we don’t have any interest or motivation in instilling some in him. It’s as if when the child points and says the King is naked, we collectively shrug, pat him on the head, and tell him that if the King wants to believe that he is indeed wearing an expensive, magical outfit, then we’re just going to humor him as long as he leaves us alone. Besides, it won’t make any difference anyway. 
We are the ones who should be feeling shame. We know the truth and we refuse to do anything about it.

Talking about the Economic Realities for a PhD in the Humanities

I am depressed. I am feeling this way for a few reasons. The first is from a conversation I had with a student yesterday. I mentioned in class, while we were talking about education and personal economic benefit, that anyone who was considering doing a PhD in the humanities should come see me ASAP. At the end of class, there was a student. She wanted to go to a large private university in California where she could do a joint program where she would be working towards a law degree and a PhD in history. Her ultimate goal was to get into entertainment law, “but I could become a professor making $100k if I end up in a crappy firm.” 

WHAT? Who told you that? A professor I know. She could see that I was…disturbed by the news that a professor had told her that a) you can make $100K as a history professor and b) then didn’t reveal that this eventuality was the exception rather than the rule. I told her that while I had no doubt that that professor made $100k, it wasn’t the reality for most PhDs in history (just as the professors at our college). And, you will probably have to live in a place like this (small town) if you want a tenure-track job. You will find yourself 10 extra years behind your peers in terms of career advancement and most certainly more in debt. Chances are, you’ll be adjuncting for a long time before even securing a tenure-track job, if you don’t give up first.
If you want to become an entertainment lawyer, then focus on that and become the best entertainment lawyer you can be. Don’t distract yourself with a PhD. 
Students from my next class had begun to file in. Many of them heard our discussion, where I frankly and honestly described my own situation (in my 30’s, just starting to pay off my debt, no TT job, no pay raise anytime soon, I live here, etc). One of them is planning on going into education and didn’t want to hear about my economic situation. Don’t worry, I told him, you’ll make more money than I ever will, with better benefits and more job security. But you have a PhD, he exclaimed. I sighed audibly. Yes, I said, I know. Why did you do it, he then asked. 
Because I did love the research. I knew what my PhD dissertation was going to be on while I was still finishing my BA. I also wanted the intellectual challenge; I’m not going to lie, I felt like I hadn’t really pushed or challenged myself when I was done my BA. Part of it was my own fault, but part of it was that most of my classes really didn’t challenge me. At the time, that suited me just fine, but when I was finishing up, I asked myself, is this it? So I went to grad school. And I did get the elusive tenure-track job but keeping it meant sacrificing my family. 
And now I make less than a high school teacher who has less education and less debt. Reason number two.
The next reason is that I am not alone. I had my first “girls’ night out” in a long, long time last night. All of the women were either tenured or on the tenure-track at the same university where I work. And they had the exact same difficulty making ends meet as my family does. We all are a part of duel income homes, but they only had one kid each, as opposed to my two. I know they make more money than I do. I know they are paying half as much as I do for child care (our kids all go to the same preschool). And yet, we all got boneless wings, not because we particularly wanted them, but because it was boneless wing night and thus cheap. 
At first, it was comforting to know that I am not alone in my financial struggles. We were able to commiserate about our students, our kids, our husbands, and everything in between. But when the buzz had worn off, I was faced with the sobering reality that the tenure-track job doesn’t really solve anything, at least financially. I guess part of me was still deluded, believing that even though I have given up on the tenure-track job, it could maybe ease some of the financial burden.  
Apparently not.
So to all you professors who are still telling students that they can earn $100k being a history professor, please stop, or at least give your starry-eyed students all of the information. To my younger self, please rethink the importance of being intellectually challenged (even though you’d never trade your husband and kids for anything). And, to all of my colleagues out there who struggle financially even though we hit the proverbial lottery of getting a tenure-track job, you are not alone. As depressing as that is for the health of our profession and the institution that we (once) loved.

Creativity, Disruptive Behavior, and Higher Education

My kids are playing with play clay while I type this. It’s amazing how a simple thing can keep my almost-four-year-old and barely-two-year-old entertained for, well, an hour, tops. But the different things they can come up with to do with or imagine the play clay as being is amazing. It’s a wonder to watch; my mind can’t get around how they can keep themselves occupied with a pile of mushy stuff. 

And therein lies the problem. I’ve always considered myself a bit of a child at heart, but my children have taught me that there is a big difference between being a child and being childish or even immature. My kids are open, honest, imaginative, and inquisitive. Having fun, for my kids, is serious business, and they can concentrate quite hard and find great pleasure in a task as seemingly mundane as putting a cap on a marker or rolling out a piece of play clay.
This, of course, is nothing new nor revolutionary. No less than The Chronicle have featured academics who are looking to save childhood and play. But it is interesting to me to see where my kids may end up in 15 years. Rather, it terrifies me. 
I teach college freshman and sophomores. With my 200-level students, we talk about education and education reform. To kick things off, we watch Sir Ken Robinson’s animated video “Changing Education Paradigms.” He talks about, among other things, divergent thinking and how it is a skill that we lose the older (and more educated) we get. He asked the questions: How many uses can you think of for a paper clip? At this point in the video, I pause it and ask the students to offer their answers. The looks I get range from bored to mildly exasperated to outright hostility; the students are being asked a question with no direct application nor clear right answer. It is both unfamiliar and wholly unexpected. We’re lucky, as a class, if we come up with 15. 
All save for one student last semester. He kept yelling out uses, even after we had moved on to watching the video again. This was a student who was constantly pushing and provoking me, either by saying outrageous things or asking what he thought were awkward questions. I welcomed his prodding as long as it didn’t become disruptive which is never did. He was a smart kid hiding behind a smart-ass attitude and a heavy Southern accent. Every single one of his suggestions was a way he had used a paper clip to disrupt his high school classroom, drive his teacher insane, and mostly kill time and try to assuage boredom. 
I now use him as an example; what do you think, I ask my students, the reaction of his teachers were? He is disruptive, he is a nuisance, he is a trouble-maker, he is not school material. In other words, dumb. But this is obviously a smart and industrious kid who was bored out of his mind and found a way to make the time more enjoyable. Imagine, I tell my students, if a teacher had found a way to harness that creative and restless energy in a more productive way? Make something, as Sir Ken Robinson would say, that has value. What if he had listened to his teachers who told him that he didn’t fit?
I equate it to George and Fred Weasley from the Harry Potter books; their pranks and tricks were ultimately useful and effective at fooling the Death Eaters. But they had to drop out of school in order to really achieve their goals. They really excelled at divergent thinking, but it was seen as disruptive behavior. I enjoy my disruptive students because they push me, they make the class lively, and they always make me smile; they approach learning with the abandon and enthusiasm of a child.
My classes this semester could use with a little more disruptive behavior. And I struggle with how to encourage divergent thinking in my own children without them being labeled as trouble-makers or disruptive influences in class. I want to support and help guide disruptive behavior because I don’t want my kids to be staring at their writing prof like my students stare at me. I want my kids to remember that there is more than one use for a paper clip.