Saturday, February 07, 2009

Nobody knows anything

By "nobody," I don't mean the estimable Dr. Crazy, New Kid, and Sisyphus, all of whom have excellent posts (responding to Thomas Hart Benton at the Chronicle) about the wisdom, or lack thereof, of attending grad school in English, with New Kid emphasizing that the often-offered panacea of teaching at a community college isn't one and Crazy rightly protesting that Benton's formula would have only the super-privileged continuing to be the super-privileged. They know something, all right: that the job market is terrible and that getting a Ph.D. in a humanities discipline is risky.

But when those eager undergrads come to us holding out a dream that goes "I want to be a professor!" we ought to be able to do something more productive than smash it. What are the alternatives?

This is why I say "nobody knows anything." We gesture toward some alternatives, sure, but what do we know about them?

  • Law school? But there are a lot of unemployed or underemployed lawyers out there. As I understand it, the law profession has been undergoing the same adjunctification, if that's a word, as the academy, with big firms scooping up fully qualified attorneys and paying them a pittance without the prospect of being an associate or making partner (equivalent of t-t and tenured).
  • Tech writing? Yes, this is a good option in normal times. But in a job market where even the mighty Microsoft is laying off employees, is it a realistic one? What are the prospects out there?
  • Foundation work and grantwriting? Again, communication skills are important, but what are the prospects like in this economy?
  • High school teaching? I tell my students (truthfully) that high school teachers are better paid than professors, but they still would need to get certified, unless they're willing to teach in a private high school. If the "want to be a professor" dream is really about wanting to teach, this would be a good option. But several states put caps on the number of teachers that can be trained, so this could be a limited option.
  • Going into another field--science, maybe? It's not as farfetched as it sounds. If the student is generally strong academically, apparently medical schools are looking for people with varied backgrounds, as long as the person can also pass organic chemistry or whatever. And if it's research that attracts the student, why not get a Ph.D. in nursing? The desperate shortage of nurses is due in part to a lack of faculty, since practitioners can make more than Ph.D. nurses who teach, so there's a growth industry.
If you look at a list of what English majors do when they graduate, it's really eclectic. Some go into their family's business, or go into sales, or work as a tech writer, or teach, but the paths that take them there are individual paths. But I don't think it's enough when they come to us about wanting to go to grad school and we say, dramatically, "Do something else, anything else." That's probably the same advice they're getting from their history, art history, and languages teachers.

The question is this: what do we (the academy) tell them? I don't know enough. Do you?

Nobody knows anything.*

[*For the record, this is William Goldman's famous quotation about Hollywood in Adventures in the Screen Trade. I'm stealing it but didn't want to plagiarize or anything.]


Anonymous said...

Well, one of the things I tell history students is that they can satisfy their desire to learn and do history without going to grad school--they can attend public lectures, work at a local museum/historical society, read a lot of books--and ask them whether that might be enough.

That's sort of the opposite of what you asked, though.

Anonymous said...

This is exactly what always disconcerted me about trying to advise history majors - *I* went straight to grad school, what do I know about how they should get other jobs?? History is just like English, in that majors tend to go on to a wide eclectic range of jobs, acquired in very individual ways. It was tough.

Anonymous said...

Let me tell my story (please):

The first time I ever met my high school guidance counselor was in the last semester of my senior year. "What are your plans?", he asked. I responded that I had been accepted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "Oh, no, no. That's no good." He told me I should stay home, major in business, then do art when I retire.

Still to this day, I remember that guy as a total dick.

I've never been wealthy. I've weathered some tough times. But, I've seen and done some incredible things. My life didn't evolve much like I would have predicted when I was 18 (or 22), but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

If a professor had tried to steer me away from my passions, I would have ignored him/her just I had nearly every other adult I knew as a teenager.

My take is that it's much better for a professor to support students as they develop their dreams by sharing our knowledge and experience without telling them what they should do. All but a rare few young people have lives full of people who think they know what's best for them. They don't need another one.

Besides, if a student is energetic and driven, he/she will find a life is fulfilling to him/her, even in the likelihood that it doesn't go according to plan. That's why English majors end up doing cool things all over the place.

Bardiac said...

We talk about this sort of thing a lot at my school. The dean's a big fan of the AAC&U work on the values of a liberal arts education in teaching students all sorts of skills employers want. The key seems to be to help students develop those skills well, and then be able to talk about those skills in whatever fields they're looking at for jobs.

undine said...

Dance, it may not be a profession in history, but I think that's a great answer. I know that real historians despise the History Channel and the rest, but it seems to me that it may help people channel those desires into the kinds of things you're talking about--going to lectures, volunteering, and so on. History can be a passion without being a profession.

New Kid, that kind of advising is tough for the reasons you say. If only we could give them a clear path--but there isn't one.

meteechart, you're right:"All but a rare few young people have lives full of people who think they know what's best for them. They don't need another one." I think the frustration is that we think they want us to solve something for them. It's good to hear that you ignored the guidance counselor. That's sort of horrifying, to be told that you should ignore your passion for the next fifty years and put your real self on hold until then.

Bardiac, I think everyone would put good writing and critical thinking at the top of that list of skills.

Anonymous said...

Undine and commenters, thanks for this. Just to pick up a couple of threads from many, we don't get a lot of grad school ambition around here, and other than project calm confidence that grad school is available to any student who thinks hard and works smart, I don't do much to encourage that ambition.

We also talk some in our history department about attracting more undergrad majors, but I'm not sure why. The ones with meteechart passion for the field will find us, as will the ones with a clear career path in mind. The others I'm doing no favors, because I don't have any better answers about what to do with a B.A. in History or Literature than Undine.

As for that meteechart passion, my observation is that it's quite the thing and works just as he says. But I know very few people who are passionate, energetic and driven like that. Many more of us find a thing that works ok and we go with it. For those students, advising them as if they're going to drive themselves to a good outcome no matter what is a bad recipe.

Professor Zero said...

Well it just proves I was right when I was 17. I wanted a B.A. in forestry, then an M.A. in environmental engineering and a Ph.D. in agricultural economics. The concept was to get into a position to be able to push for green agriculture, fixing the world food situation, conserving or not destroying water resources, combating desertification, etc.

The family freaked out because it was science and science departments eat up the money "our" departments - humanities - also deserve. I was going to go and work for the other side, and I was going to do it before even studying the rise of western civilization. And I was going to dirty my hands with money.

So I ended up majoring in my hobbies, Comparative Literature and Linguistics, and doing research in those, which I don't mind since of course all research is fun. But the people in Ag Econ get to travel as much or more, and more interestingly, than the lit people do, and this is something my family, who freaked out when I proposed that career path, did not realize ... they warned me it would mean I could never travel again.

I still want that degree, and it is surely too late, but it's good to know at least that I was right.

Professor Zero said...

"Well, one of the things I tell history students is that they can satisfy their desire to learn and do history without going to grad school--they can attend public lectures, work at a local museum/historical society, read a lot of books--and ask them whether that might be enough."

This is fine if they just want history as an interest or hobby, but not if they want to be scholars or researchers. Autodidacts are, with the few exceptions that prove the rule, generally insufferable, unrigorous, and not as well informed as they believe themselves to be.