Academic Bait-and-Switch, Part 7

Brian Taylor

March 25, 2010

Did I belong in the graduate English program at Elite National University? I had the right grade-point average and GRE scores to get in, and I wrote a personal statement about spending a summer reading all of Hemingway's work, which showed my ability to stick with a task. On the basis of all that as well as a writing sample analyzing Richard III and whatever polite exaggerations my recommenders sent, the graduate program admitted me, a hick from Flyover College.

But did I belong there?

Judging by the evaluations my freshman students gave me at the end of my first semester of teaching, I did not belong in graduate school. I received the third-worst rating of all the teaching assistants in the first-year composition program. I know I ranked third from the bottom because the director of the program, "Dr. Dreedle," helpfully posted everyone's evaluation scores on a bulletin board. Although Dr. Dreedle thought it important that every TA know how every other TA fared, the program did nothing to help a poorly rated TA do better. It was as if instructors simply proved excellent or terrible the first moment they ran a classroom, and nothing could change that.

If by posting the scores Dr. Dreedle meant to tell me that my teaching abilities would always be inadequate, I didn't pick up on his message. Since I hoped to work at a teaching-oriented institution someday, I set out on my own to improve my classroom performance, and at the end of spring semester, my rating just made it into the upper half. By the end of my second year, I'd risen even further. I considered that a demonstration of personal integrity, but since good teaching didn't count for much at Elite National U., and since I spent at least as much time on teaching as on studying literature, a person might conclude that I misread the value system of the English profession.

Some professors assume that the most intelligent people will always rise to the top through natural selection, and thus they tell students, "If you're good enough, you'll get a tenure-track position." In my graduate program, that translated into "If you're good enough, you know everything before you arrive on campus," as if students either were born perfect or ought to go home. Some graduate students adopted that belief. The best example was "Antoinette." One day in the student union, Antoinette complained to me about her fellow graduate students in a Chaucer class. "Those people can't understand Chaucer," she said.

I'd taken Chaucer as an undergrad, and I recalled that it took a while to get used to Middle English, so I said, "Maybe this class is their first exposure to Chaucer."

"So what?" Antoinette said. "I'd never read Canterbury Tales before this semester."

"Come on," I said, and recited the beginning of Canterbury Tales from memory. "'Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/The droughte of March hath perced to the roote.' You didn't understand that the first moment you read it."

"I certainly did," Antoinette declared. "Anyone who doesn't understand Chaucer the first time through doesn't belong in grad school."

After that, Antoinette displayed toward me the same disdain she had shown for the struggling Chaucerians. If graduate students had to understand all texts instantly and thoroughly, I should have packed my books and left.

Elite National U.'s graduate English program also assumed that students came to the campus already knowing how to write papers at the graduate level. I had trouble understanding what professors wanted until I asked a more experienced graduate student to show me one of his papers from a previous semester.

But my strategy paled beside that of another grad student, the entrepreneurial "Darwin." At Elite National U., professors placed graded papers in the graduate students' mailboxes rather than handing them back in class. When Darwin knew that a professor had returned an assignment, he marched to the mailboxes, skimmed each of his colleagues' papers, compared their arguments with his own, read the faculty member's comments, and noted the grade. His methodology showed him not only how the professor graded but also how he could outdo each of the rest of us.

Some academics believe they can outdo others because their intelligence alone will open doors for them, and they disparage networking. Darwin saw through that belief as easily as I did. I tried to impress the professors, of course, but Darwin could beat me at glad-handing any time he felt like it. He frequently chatted up the graduate professors, and complimented them whenever possible. They adored him in return. Professors praised Darwin, invited him to join them for lunch in the faculty dining room, and recommended him for awards. Even the irascible Dr. Dreedle, the most difficult person in the department, cheered up when Darwin entered the room.

In any field with severely limited job opportunities, the success of one person depends at least partially upon the failure of others, and Darwin did his best to thin the ranks of his competition at Elite National U. His favorite tactic involved intimidation. For example, one day, when a couple of other TA's and I were in our office, Darwin popped his head in and announced, "'Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean.' Name the author and the title."

The three of us shrugged.

"It's from Swinburne's 'Hymn to Proserpine.' I'm surprised none of you knew that." He then went down the hall and shouted a line of poetry at some first-year students in the next office.

To be fair to Darwin, I should explain that he had a focus I lacked. I came to graduate school with a vague notion about teaching at a liberal-arts college like my alma mater, but Darwin had a sharply defined vision of himself becoming a distant, untouchable genius who published ferociously and never met a freshman face to face. He fixated on studying English and becoming a research-university professor to the exclusion of all else. I certainly enjoyed literature, but I felt equally interested in subjects such as World War I aircraft, black-and-white photography, and the golden age of radio. If succeeding in English meant giving up the other wonders of the world, I couldn't compete with Darwin.

Although Darwin adapted to graduate school more readily than I did, in hindsight, someone might argue that I did belong in graduate school, since I completed an M.A. and Ph.D. in less than seven years and landed a position at a liberal-arts college, whereas my colleagues' adventures went less smoothly. Antoinette never found a tenure-track job, while Darwin, despite his focus on becoming an academic superstar, ended up at a small branch campus of a public university. He stayed there for several years before leaving the profession entirely.

I would like to tell myself that our respective fates indicate that I belonged in graduate school as much as Antoinette or Darwin did, but such flattery collapses when I recall the time that several other students and I got to meet candidates interviewing for a tenure-track position in the department. I enjoyed chatting with each one, but the most intriguing was a man only a few years my senior, the soft-spoken "Dr. Turtle." He'd just defended his dissertation, and revealed that he'd been offered a position at "Gargantuan University," but he didn't want it because that place expected him to lecture to classes of 200. "I could never do that," he declared.

I didn't relish the idea of running a classroom that large, but I knew I would learn to do it if I had to, and could even look upon it as a challenge.

Later Dr. Turtle told us he liked Elite National U. because he could get an acceptable apartment within easy walking distance of the campus library. "I don't know how to drive," he confided. "I never tried to learn. Too scary."

If Dr. Turtle didn't drive a car, what else didn't he do? Did he have interests other than literature? I couldn't be certain from our brief encounter, but I came away with the impression that he focused on research and publication, and nothing else entered his field of vision. Although Dr. Turtle seemed more pleasant than Antoinette or Darwin, I had to wonder whether he represented the ideal toward which all graduate study in English aimed. Did my professors want me to become Dr. Turtle?

When Elite National U. snapped up Dr. Turtle, I decided I had my answer. If I'd known ahead of time that the university expected me to become Dr. Turtle, I never would've applied for admission.

(Editor's Note: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 of this series are online.)

Henry Adams is the pseudonym of a faculty member who teaches at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest.