Aparecium Deletrius Legil
Join Date: Apr 2007
Location: The Soprano State
Don't Be Naive
Starting Over, With a Bad Attitude
Let me be clear. I am A.B.D. in my discipline of art history. I did not finish my dissertation. I had a horrible adviser: a noncommunicative boozer and a womanizer, with no voice mail or e-mail, who didn't care much for me. I was 25 when I began my Ph.D., and instead of being lauded for my pluck and verve, I was eyed like a fresh piece of meat that he wanted to devour.
To make a long story short, I left after my coursework. I figured, what the hell? The job listings always say employers want three or more years of teaching experience beyond the teaching-assistant level. If I wanted to be a liberal-arts professor at a small, quaint college, I was going to have to get that experience somehow, even with a Ph.D.
So I started teaching at a community college. Though I got the job just to pay my teaching dues, I discovered that it suited me. I love teaching, unlike many academics who loathe having to leave their research caves to serve the undergraduate masses. I thought: "Hey, this isn't bad! Tenure after four years, no publications, an administration that actually wants you to focus on teaching. ... Easy Street, baby."
But I soon realized that teaching at a community college is far from Easy Street. I work at a McDonald's of higher education, where most of the students treat faculty like we are cashiers to their customers. Administration in turn treats students like little dollar signs that fill out our enrollments, so for heaven's sake don't drop them, even though they are far from college-ready. I was trapped in the business model and couldn't get out. Where is the life of the mind that I was so eager to live?
Instead of spinning into a spiral of self-loathing and institutional hatred, I thought: "What can I do to get out of this predicament?" I couldn't go back to Boozer U. (a state research university), where I did my graduate coursework. That tie was long severed, and the credits from my coursework had expired.
What about Local State U.? Its reputation isn't so bad. Maybe I could get a doctorate in education. That's very trendy in community-college circles. And maybe I could finish up my art-history degree while I was at it. I'd be a doctor twice. Pretty cool.
I checked out the college's Web site. I couldn't help but laugh. The art-history department eloquently explains how the program is research-driven and teaches you to analytically apply your knowledge to primary documents. Good God, when was the last time I saw a primary document? I'm usually buried in administrative paperwork or grading.
And neither art history nor education gives a placement rate. The site doesn't mention that maybe one of the 12 students in a class will get a liberal-arts or research post, and that most graduates will wind up at community colleges and never be required to do research. The site also never mentions the worst option: graduates who will be lifelong adjuncts with no benefits, security, or respect.
This disregard for the reality of job placement is a fact of academic life. No one talks about what the hell you are supposed to do upon graduating from the life of the mind. And when you are ingenious and chart your own destiny, as I've tried to do, no one is all that impressed. When I told my adviser at Boozer U. that I was being interviewed for the job I currently hold, he said, "Well, that's nice, but it's just community college." Ouch. So much for being a beacon to other graduate students, proof that it's possible to get a job.
Beyond the ridiculous rhetoric and the falsehoods regarding job prospects, there was another side to returning to graduate school that worried me: Could I take it seriously, knowing what I know? I wanted the degree, but could I sit through another seminar on Lacanian interpretations of Duchamp's oeuvre without laughing (bitterly) and pointing out to the other fresh-faced students that they should enjoy this level of intellectual discourse now, because it's going to come to a screeching halt when they are teaching five classes of "Art Interpretation for the Nonmajor" at Small-Town Community College?
I remember my misplaced belief that I was going to be a scholar. I would teach in New York City and run a gallery while collaborating on performance-art pieces at PS 1! Thank God for the idiocy of youth. If not for that, I probably would never have plunged in.
I admit that now, at 35, my shininess is wearing off a bit. I'm starting to get cynical about the system I'm stuck in, the hick town I'm shackled to, and the other indignities I feel the universe has lobbed at me. My life was not supposed to be this way. I went into academe to escape small-town West Virginia, only to wind up in small-town Florida. In a way, I've come right back to where I started.
To some I seem blessed, but I often feel conflicted, lost, and confused. Should I share that with my potential new grad-school cohort and possibly shatter their world? Or will they appreciate my honesty and the fact that I'm trying to spare them from future pain brought on by naÔve idealism?
And returning to a classroomódon't get me started. Could I allow the professors to run the classes? Could I be a good student? I used to be an awesome student, pencils sharpened, the reading done and meticulously analyzed. I lived for round-table discussions on intellectual theories of the day.
But now I've taught classes of my own for eight years. Would I be able to let a professor speak without constantly interjecting? I can imagine being that annoying know-it-all who everyone wants to kick in the face. Now that I'm a professor myself, could I become just a student again?
Don't get me wrong, I love to learn. I can't get enough of TED lectures, smarthistory.org, and art21 videos. But I guess I'm feeling jaded about formal education on some level. I don't know if I'd be able to take my assignments seriously this time around. I probably won't be asked to improve my core discipline, but I'm sure I'll be asked to learn new teaching fads. I've seen how my administration has fallen prey to rubrics and student assessments, how group work and "active learning" have displaced the role of a good sage on the stage. So why does it matter if I learn some new theory about art history? No one cares.
I don't feel the joy I once did in teaching, but I know that's not about me but about the system. Could I unleash that attitude on a roomful of Ph.D. candidates without inflicting irreparable harm? I don't know if I can suppress it. It's bound to come up when I'm asked why I've returned to grad school.
It's like knowing the end to a bad movie and being forced to watch it anyway. I know my classes will never bring up the important stuff, like how to really teach. The first time around, I didn't find that odd. I just watched my mentors and worked out my style as I went along. It was a little like informed improvisation. I mean really, how many of you (except for education majors) had a class on syllabus construction while doing your graduate work? Or one on disrespectful student behavior and how to handle it? Or one on how to construct a rubric? But that is what I deal with every day, not "Paradigms of the Other in New Liminal Postcolonial Spaces."
So, can you go back? Can you start over? Can you smile and pretend enough to get your means to an end?
I don't know. But I guess I'll start filling out that application now.
Jen Robinson is an associate professor of art history at Tallahassee Community College.
this further reinforces my argument with my friends about this subject when we talked about careers and colleges.
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