Sunday, January 31, 2010

Academic ambitions

Last week was my first of the new semester. We did the usual getting-to-know-each-other exercises, which in my undergraduate classes involves having my students get into pairs, "interview" each other according to a few questions I've typed up, and then introduce their partner to the rest of the class.

One of the questions asks what the interviewee would like to be doing ten years from now. There are always a range of answers, including the jokey, the fanciful, and the bizarrely self-effacing, but I was struck, as I so often am, by the number of students who identify "college professor" or "teaching college" as their goal.

I wonder what to ascribe this ambition to. It's almost never a realistic one: the people in question are often among my more participatory and cheerful students, but they're rarely my smartest or even my most diligent. Much of it, I'm sure, is that my students simply don't have any idea what college professors do outside of the classroom, or what the training for such a career involves; they probably realize that it takes a lot of time and schooling to get a Ph.D., but without any sense that the work is meaningfully different in kind from the work they're doing now.

And I wonder, too, whether this is a function of (lack of) cultural capital. At the big urban institution at which I was a lecturer, I also had quite a lot of students expressing a desire to teach college. I didn't teach enough students at Instant Name Recognition U to notice or remember whether the same was true there--but my hunch is that it would not be.

Partly, I think students at INRU imagine a wider number of possible careers than my students here do. They may not be any more realistic about their abilities, but they're probably less likely to see "teacher" (of any description) as the default path for an English major. I also suspect that more students at a school like INRU have some sense of what academia involves, and that might make them less likely to blithely announce it as a career path. And even those who don't have a clue about academia--well, I was one of those students, but I was so awed by so much of my college experience that being a professor seemed like an entirely different order of existence.

It isn't, of course, and academia would be the better if more talented graduates from schools like RU were in it. But sometimes the disjunction between my students' apparent conception of my job, and the reality, is startling.


midwinter said...

Considering the representations of English professorness in the movies, I'm never surprised when my students don't know that I work on things that are vastly different from what I'm doing in the classroom. But that's one of the hallmarks of English professoring, innit? That unlike loads of other disciplines, what we do in our classrooms often doesn't have much to do with what we do in our offices?

Lucky Jane said...

It would be really interesting to use the same exercise over several years, if only to track the sorts of students RU is attracting/recruiting. I've taught at a pretty wide range of places: grad school uni where everyone shat ice cream, slacker slac, swotty slac, and my current institution, a diverse, proletarian place that I suspect is much like the big urban institution that employed you as a lecturer. Across those institutions, it has always been only the most serious students, with credible skills and the potential for monk-like devotion, who have approached me about grad school. I cannot recall a single exception.

Part of me wonders how sincere your aspiring professors are. The exercise sort of puts them on the spot, and "teaching" sounds much more credible than "I dunno." Repeat it enough, and voilĂ : vocation. Perhaps they want to ingratiate themselves to you, too. And I don't doubt that many of them see you as someone to emulate.

Your point about students—even English majors—at elite schools being able to imagine wider opportunities is probably right on, not least because of how they've been socialized, which might also make them more likely to share their ambitions with their famous professors than their lowly TAs. The few students for whom I wrote references as a grad student are stockbrokers, surgical residents, and members of Oprah's army.

I've sometimes wondered if my own decision to become an academic resulted from the same failure of the imagination you observe among some of the mediocre students. Indeed, I didn't even think of doing this until a professor suggested it. That's worse!

Terminal Degree said...

There are always a few students in my classes who catch me by surprise when they tell me they want to be profs, because I've seen their transcripts, and they aren't pretty. I think some students just believe that grad school is "six more years of college" rather than a whole 'nuther way of learning and contributing.

What really amazes me are the students who are making Cs or Ds in my field...who then tell me they want to make it their area of study. There's a big disconnect there.

Flavia said...

I should have emphasized that context matters a lot here. The students I'm talking about are rarely those who actually apply to graduate school, or if they do, it's to an M.A. program with the intention of getting their permanent public school teaching certification knocked out right away. Indeed, I've sometimes had these students in classes in successive semesters, and have noted that, as they've gotten older, their stated ambition becomes "ninth grade teacher," or something like that.

That isn't to say that some of my students who apply to grad school don't have unrealistic expectations of their own, but they are still, generally, much stronger students with much more potential. And when counseled and steered right, the best of them can get into and thrive in a Ph.D. program.

So what I'm really talking about is what seems to me to be the semi-idle fantasy of a significant subset of my English majors--virtually all nice, personable kids, who obviously really like being English majors, but whose actual skills often aren't much above the class average.

I'm guessing that it's born of an enthusiasm for reading, combined with the inability to think of a viable career path other than teaching--and a vague sense that teaching college must be what people who really like school do, rather than teaching high school.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I had an undergraduate volunteer that she was "on the college professor track" on the first day of class, and I don't even ask students things like that. She clearly wanted to make sure I knew. And I was immediately struck with the guilty question: when and how to discuss The Facts of Life with a student like this?

Moria said...

Interesting, and weird. Had I been asked that question at the start of a course - knowing as I did, I think, from maybe mid-sophomore year, know very strongly where I was going - I think I would have completely clammed up and been unable to state it. It would have felt presumptuous, somehow, or pretentious. And then I would have felt that I had to live up to something of which perhaps my work in the course would fall short. It always surprised me when my professors reacted to my confession that I was thinking about grad school with total unsurprise. A self-awareness failure, to be sure - but perhaps also the other side of the cultural capital coin.

Flavia said...


In my original post, I actually had a paragraph talking about my own college-self's unwillingness to seem presumptuous--even if I had been surer than I was that college prof was something I aspired to (it was on the list, but certainly not at the top, and not anything I felt a vocation for at that time), I'm quite sure I would never have articulated it for just the reasons you suggest. (Though I think my own college profs never pegged me as the kid in the class who'd go onto and thrive in a Ph.D. program.)

But I took out the paragraph, because I couldn't figure out how to fit it in without implying that I think my students at RU are being presumptuous in their stated ambitions, which isn't the nature of my feeling of surprise at all.

Perhaps it's this: I think all college students have a certain fear of seeming pretentious or presumptuous, but the things that fear attaches to are different depending on social and cultural context. You or I (or, for that matter, those of my RU students who have a real shot at getting a Ph.D.--most of whom DO NOT express this desire in the open or casual way I'm describing) might have felt presumptuous about claiming we wanted to be college professors, because, being more deeply invested in what that meant, and with at least some sense of what it entailed, we feared not being good enough, or having our self-conception shattered. It felt personal/.

The students I'm describing, I think, see "college professor" not as deeply reflective of their own self-image, but basically as a job, and probably not much different from being a high school or middle teacher--though I'm sure they see it as more prestigious, better-paid, etc.

It is, of course, a job. And I actually rather like the fact that a certain number of my students treat academia so casually--without all the mystification and longing and whatever that many students burden it with. But it's definitely foreign to my own experience.

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm not sure you should be so self-effacing about not boldly asserting your professorial goals early on. Presumably if you thought of it as one option among several, you also entertained some excitement about the other options at that time. It seems perfectly reasonable and appropriately humble not to go around announcing one's intention of claiming so-and-so's named chair when one is 18. Maybe you were just being practical and foresighted rather than un-self-confident?

Isn't saying, "I will be an English professor 10 years from now" like saying, "I will be a CEO 10 years from now"? The only thing you've deigned to leave out is "in the Ivy League" or "at a Fortune 500 company." Only blowhards, people who have been told that single-mindedly "pursuing your dreams" at all costs is the best course, and people with no realistic conception of these professions do this (the last being a category that sometimes overlaps with the first). Everyone else says, "I would like to work in business."

Or maybe you were just exhibiting the failings of women, who have so far failed to adopt the behavioral standards of blowhards.

Rufus said...

I don't know if I ever saw professor as a likely destination, and I certainly don't in this job market. But I think the love of the subject often overrides the innate feeling of inferiority. I've always thought that, okay if not academia, it would be nice to teach at a prep school that would like to have a PhD on staff.

That said, I don't know that I've become smarter in grad schools, so much as more professionalized in my thinking. It's really more a matter of getting your scholarly ducks in a row. I do often wonder just what I had in mind when I decided to pursue this five years ago! But the shift to thinking like an academic was more about thinking like a professional, which I suspect happens to most people after they get out of university.