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Author Topic: Academic metamorphosis  (Read 8163 times)
janewales
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« on: May 19, 2013, 3:46:56 am »


It's currently behind a paywall, but Rebecca Shuman's latest, My Academic Metamorphosis, in the Observer section, made me unbearably sad. It wasn't in fact her current situation that got me, though of course I am sympathetic. It is her description of her graduate school experience, her obvious, palpable misery. I just didn't recognize the life she described at all.

I know she'd say that I'm in the "cult" of academe and so can't admit that what she says is true, but honestly, I had the most wonderful time in grad school. And though I'm also in literary studies, her description of the field also doesn't reflect my corner of it. 

I guess I wonder a bit about the genre of the column of disillusionment/ discouragement. I'm not at all Professor Sparklepony; I tell starry-eyed undergrads just exactly how unlikely it is that they'll end up with an academic job of any sort, let alone one like mine. I point them at the Chronicle, at the "Just don't go" columns, and yes, at columns like Shuman's, too.

The problem is, though, that because we don't want to lead undergrads down a path to disappointment and unemployment, we never counter the characterization of academe in general that appears in columns like this one. And while I have no doubt that Shuman's experience is true for her, I know from my own experience and from reading these boards that it's not the only kind of academic experience.

We don't describe the positives for fear of encouraging the next generation, but silence means that only the most despairing, negative voices get to characterize higher education for the general public. All education is presented as an arcane hazing ritual; all professors as petty tyrants and narcissists; all grad students as cringing sycophants. If this is how university life is presented to the world at large, it is perhaps not surprising that it is becoming increasingly difficult to insist on the value of what we do.

No solutions, really; I'll keep telling students not to go. But I don't do it because grad school is hell, or because my job is awful. Grad school was the time of my life, and my job is wonderful. The problem is that almost no one is going to get to repeat at least the second part of that experience.
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verstrickt
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« Reply #1 on: May 19, 2013, 7:52:04 am »

I definitely experienced the bullying and hazing aspects of graduate school, and I certainly relate to the disillusionment and discouragement in Schuman's writing. She is at a very distinct stage in her career that is often characterized by these feelings. My friends who left academia or have alt/ac careers have lost that and now are happy, fulfilled, and proud of their degrees. It doesn't make either experience wrong.

It is important to talk about the importance of higher education in this era of decreasing public support, but that's not the same thing as talking up the experience of being a professor. That is glorified and romanticized in every Hollywood movie that features tweedy professors with mahogany-paneled offices and miles of bookshelves talking about literature, inspiring undergrads to realize their own potential, and never attending a soul-sucking department meeting.

These "misery memoirs" of higher ed flourish both because they sell and drive page views and because they are a corrective to the dominant portrayal of higher ed in the media. We know how inaccurate those images are, and we know that, while some academics have fairly privileged lives, most are overworked and underpaid, with some of them severely exploited, yet we still have far more people who want to enter into our profession than we have jobs for.
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Again, if you want mercy, find religion, as you won't find any here.
polly_mer
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Have you worked on that project today?


« Reply #2 on: May 19, 2013, 9:05:43 am »

I can't get to the original article, but I wonder how much of this is the transition from "I've very good at doing what I'm told, so I want more of that reinforcement from an authority figure" to being treated as a peer who will get some harsh constructive criticism because the point is to be great on an absolute scale, not a relative scale, and nearly everyone starts near the bottom.

I remember that aspect of undergraduate being very tough (but I'm a great writer who always gets praised!?  Design a solution to an open-ended problem over the course of a whole semester?  C'mon, let's just do some textbook problems that look a lot like the examples.  I'm great at that!) , but since I transitioned in undergraduate, graduate school was fabulous other than the brief period where I changed fields and ended up taking classes for which I was completely unprepared.

Indeed, my life now is pretty fabulous other than dealing with some students who don't want to learn, but only want an A for showing up and going through the motions and I am junior faculty who was hired TT last year.  On the other hand, I did shop around to be sure that I was getting a job that was more like the Hollywood portrayals of faculty as well as my favorite mentor and less like what I know is the case for some of my colleagues at other schools that are known to the public, but tend to have the problem of overworked and underpaid.
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I've joined a bizarre cult called JordanCanonicalForm's Witnesses.  I have to go from door to door asking people things like, "Good evening, sir!  Do you have a moment to chat about Linear Transformations?"
dr_prephd
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« Reply #3 on: May 19, 2013, 9:09:19 am »

OP, any chance you could post an excerpt or a thought-provoking quotation or two?

I'll say that my grad. school experience was pretty free of hazing, but quite full of disillusionment.
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lottie
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« Reply #4 on: May 19, 2013, 10:37:09 am »

You can get behind the pay wall by clicking a link to the article that was posted on th chronicle twitter account.

I did not care this article. Fugue state, really? I find it hard to believe that she can't remember her name.
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tuxedo_cat
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WWW
« Reply #5 on: May 19, 2013, 11:09:28 am »

I think we can request the mods to provide access to the article for this discussion.

http://chronicle.com/article/My-Academic-Metamorphosis/139123?cid=megamenu
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nescafe
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« Reply #6 on: May 19, 2013, 11:24:44 am »

Bookmarking because I would very much like to read this article. I will reserve full comment until then, but I can say that I've seen and heard some things that could qualify as "hazing" or "bullying." But I gather that my grad school experience has coincided with a time of institutional upheaval here at MyUni.
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lyndonparker
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« Reply #7 on: May 19, 2013, 1:33:04 pm »

I can't get to the original article, but I wonder how much of this is the transition from "I've very good at doing what I'm told, so I want more of that reinforcement from an authority figure" to being treated as a peer who will get some harsh constructive criticism because the point is to be great on an absolute scale, not a relative scale, and nearly everyone starts near the bottom.


I just read this, and I think Polly hits on what is, for me, a recurrent theme in this genre of articles. Many people who pursue doctoral studies have no idea what they are doing. They don't understand how the study will be different from their undergraduate experiences, they don't comprehend the dismal job market, and they are very poor at self-evaluating their work and making choices that are good for their careers.

Part of me feels terrible for these individuals. They are sad and disillusioned and hopeless. That being said, part of this is the fault of graduate programs that take in countless candidates for fields that have been dying for decades. (German? Really!). But part of the blame also attaches to the candidates who blithely pursue their studies oblivious to how this will end for most of them. Part of the fault also attaches to the rest of us who insist that doctoral studies lead to the acquisition of other transferrable skills. Really? I don't see it. I mean, I am sure that one gains certain perceptions and experiences, but one would do that working the counter at a McDonald's.

These candidates need to move on--after trying for three years on the market without success, the writing on the wall is pretty clear. Life is also about learning that certain things don't work out.
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Lyndon always has such a nice succinct way of putting things.
scampster
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« Reply #8 on: May 19, 2013, 1:45:51 pm »

I think this link should work (from Twitter).

In case anyone didn't make the connection, this is the same person who wrote an article in Slate about this as well recently.
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When you are a scientist your opinions and prejudices become facts. Science is like magic that way!
pigou
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« Reply #9 on: May 19, 2013, 1:52:45 pm »

From the article:
Quote
And so we do what we've learned: We publish. We attend conferences as sycophantically as possible, going to panels at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday so that we can sit in the front row where Bigwig Who Wrote His Paper on the Plane can be sure to see us laughing at his jokes. We (ludicrously) expect a job, then we just hope for one, then we stop hoping, but keep acting sycophantic on the off-chance that someone, somewhere might hire us. And if we have a word to say about the entire process that is anything short of adulatory, we say it under a pseudonym, like an alarming portion of the contributors to this very publication.

The Chronicle uses so many pseudonyms for a damn good reason, which ties into the final way in which academe resembles a cult: abject terror of being shunned. We low-ranking academics believe we will be shunned if we dare offend the sensibilities of someone who might be in a position to give us a job or tenure someday—you know, everyone. Shunning would mean the irretrievable loss of our entire selves, because our identities are now inextricably wedded to our academic worth.

My field may be different, but I've never self-censored around "famous" people. In my experience, the ones who really are brilliant have no problems with (fair) criticism and being challenged. I also wouldn't hold back on publishing controversial research pre-tenure. Citations count for something and if all you publish is yet another boring application of the least controversial method in your field... who cares? I'd take pages of criticism, scathing op-eds, and even shunning over "who cares" any time.

I recall one of the blog posts by "The Professor Is In" which said that one of the biggest mistakes people on the job market make is acting like a student, rather than acting like a peer. I wouldn't at all be surprised if this contributed to the author's lack of success on the market.
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diamond_day
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« Reply #10 on: May 19, 2013, 2:01:54 pm »

This just makes me happy that I chose an applied field for my PhD and abandoned any hopes of going after the humanities at an early age. Don't get me wrong, there was plenty of angst to be had in my grad school experience, but none of it was at the level described in this piece. I think the experience varies tremendously by field.
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spork
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« Reply #11 on: May 19, 2013, 2:39:39 pm »

I don't get it. She didn't like her job at Dance Teacher, but instead of going for a job in Proctor & Gamble's European marketing division, she enrolls in a doctoral program in German? Hindsight bias can be a wonderful thing.

This one is written much better:

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/08/2012820102749246453.html
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a.k.a. gum-chewing monkey in a Tufts University jacket

"There are no bad ideas, only great ideas that go horribly wrong."

"Please do not force people who are exhausted to take medication for hallucinations." -- Memo from the Chair, Department of White Privilege Studies, Fiork University
nescafe
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« Reply #12 on: May 19, 2013, 2:59:31 pm »


I appreciated that one, Spork, even if her conclusion saddens me:

Quote
In May 2012, I received my PhD, but I still do not know what to do with it. I struggle with the closed off nature of academic work, which I think should be accessible to everyone, but most of all I struggle with the limited opportunities in academia for Americans like me, people for whom education was once a path out of poverty, and not a way into it.

Coming from a poor family in a poor region in the US, going the grad school was certainly about "escaping" the socioeconomic conditions of my environment. Now, I have not road-tested enough on the market to confirm whether this escape has been successful. But the idea that a good education creates social mobility (whether a fading reality or a cozy idealism) seems to be dying. For now, I'm happy to no longer be bar tending.
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zyzzx
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« Reply #13 on: May 19, 2013, 3:01:52 pm »

I found the comments pretty entertaining.
I also found the sycophantic bit unrecognizable. Like pigou, maybe it's just my field, but I can't recall ever self-censoring or being sycophantic around the big shots. And I'll b*tch about job searching to anyone who will listen.

Maybe I'm just not angsty enough, but I just don't get these sorts of articles. "Shunning would mean the irretrievable loss of our entire selves." Really? The loss of your entire self? Irretrievable? Because you offended someone and the oh so monolithic academy magically decided to close ranks and shun you? I can safely say that worrying about such a thing has never even crossed my mind. 

At the end of my third failed year on the market, I get that the job search process can be a long hard depressing frustrating slog that might (probably will) lead to nothing at the end of it, and that leaving academia can be hard. But things like this just seem so freaking over the top that it's hard to take them seriously.
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erzuliefreda
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« Reply #14 on: May 19, 2013, 3:30:16 pm »

Wow, the comments are a trainwreck worth reading while cringing. Professor Mayhew demonstrates a CHE fora-worthy level of tonedeafness to the time and place of his critique of the author's critique. Ugh.
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