Saturday, November 13, 2010

So you want to be a college professor? Another approach

by KARL STEEL

If you're making a choice between reading this introductory stuff and watching the video, watch the video. Just watch it.

You've no doubt seen one or more of the cynical/realistic xtranormal videos recently circulated in which a professor vainly tries to shut down a youngster who wants to be a college professor. I've seen one about getting a PhD in English literature (for the video and one take on it, see zunguzungu), others on political science and law, and I understand there's one on history and probably others on any other academic discipline you care to name. Fine. None of our jobs are ideal; not all of our students are ideal; and not all of our students who want to get a PhD have been given or have given themselves adequate preparation (for advice on saying no to students, see Dr Virago).

I confess: I laughed at the English PhD video, and I also thought about how much I'd lucked out by landing a tenure-track position in a major city. "Thank the FSM that's not me," I thought, "but, hoho, some students sure haven't earned their idealism, and, yeah, when I'm grading 50 papers, or filling out paperwork because of a plagiarism case, I don't exactly feel that I'm leading the life of the mind." I also confess that I didn't feel proud of laughing at the video; probably more accurately, I willed myself be ashamed: if the video represented how I felt about my job, I should probably quit, fight harder, or work harder to find people to help me fight to make this job better.

All this is a long-winded way of introducing this video that's come to my attention. Its caption reads: "A well-prepared student and a professor with basic social skills have a detailed but idealistic conversation about the pros and cons of an academic career. A response to a popular video."

Watch it. It's stirring stuff.




18 comments:

Karl Steel said...

The line about unionization makes me pump my fist in the air, and the "I want to live a life of the mind" seriously makes me weepy.

K. A. Laity said...

I must admit I cannot hear or see the words, "life of the mind" without hearing John Goodman scream them in Barton Fink. But I will watch the video and see --

K. A. Laity said...

"You sound like Doctor Who."

One day I hope a student says that to me (instead of the usual, "Dr. Laity, you're so odd!").

Unlikely to go viral, but a nice corrective to the cynical defeatism of the more popular one. Some of us simply can't help living the life of the mind.

Dr. Virago said...

Oh wow, that's wonderful -- and much more like the *actual* conversations I have with students. Though, on bad days, I do have the other one in my head, I must admit.

My two favorite parts: "You are not very funny compared to internet videos" and "You sound like Dr. Who." (Never thought of Dr. Who as a champion of the humanities but he really is -- being a champion of humans and all.)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thank you, Karl. My own nascent cynicism and native idealism have been warring with each other over the past few years. I, too, am tired of apologizing for my enthusiasm.

Now, please excuse me while I go post this on my own blog.

Tom Elrod said...

I also confess that I didn't feel proud of laughing at the video; probably more accurately, I willed myself be ashamed: if the video represented how I felt about my job, I should probably quit, fight harder, or work harder to find people to help me fight to make this job better.

I'm glad to hear you say this Karl, because, uh...I felt the same way, too. I laughed and enjoyed the video at first, but after I read Aaron Bady's piece and thought about it, I felt kind of shameful. Grad school has this weird tension between high anxiety and idealism, so when I watch videos like the original I feel same way I would eating a bag of potato chips: it tastes good even though it's bad for me (it might taste good because it's bad for me) and I'm going to feel like crap when I finish it.

So, yes, this video is much more nuanced and realistic, and it advances the conversation instead of merely mocking it. Now, I'm going to go try to be idealistic this afternoon...

zunguzungu said...

Thanks for that, Karl; it's a small thing, but getting in touch with what motivates us is awfully important right now.

Kit said...

I wasn't really convinced by the other--okay, it's cynical, but what jobs aren't hard to come by? Maybe it's because I grew up and worked before grad school, or maybe my idealism is just very stubborn; I always figured it would take preparation and strategy and luck. But like the girl in the video, I can't see doing anything else. Thank you for posting this. :)

John Protevi said...

Thanks, this is great!

Anonymous said...

But we're all missing the point that in the original video, the student had a C average and no clue whatsoever about what the doctorate requires as a degree or means for people after the degree is awarded. I'm sorry, but that student should be warned and woken up. If she still wants to proceed, great, but she needs to know what she is getting into: demands above her current level of performance, no guarantee of funding, no guarantee of a job, no promise of a job in a geographically pleasing place, and if she gets a job, it will be a job that is currently under attack and in crisis from multiple directions (government, administration, helicopter/velcro parents, etc.).

Granted, if someone had had the first video conversation with me, I probably wouldn't have been fazed by it. That at least assures me I'm where I'm supposed to be and stubborn as hell. But as I look at some students and former grad cohort members... I can't help but think some would have been better served if they HAD heard the conversation. And I wonder if it isn't irresponsible of me NOT to have such a conversation about the real, problematic state of our profession with the promising students I know who are planning to go to grad school. I hate feeling cynical, but I hate it even more when my cynical feelings are proven justified.

Karl Steel said...

In re Anon:we're all missing the point that in the original video,
I don't think we're 'all' doing anything, and the original video had many points. Not least of all it sought to inspire a sense of superiority in we the disenchanted faculty. I do know students should be advised about the state of the profession, and the video I posted does that; I've been told that we as humanities scholars should think more about professions for humanities PhDs outside academic, and I'd like to see a video that does that; AND I know some students shouldn't be going on to get a PhD because for whatever academic reason they probably won't finish: that's why I wrote "not all of our students are ideal; and not all of our students who want to get a PhD have been given or have given themselves adequate preparation" But there are some students who do wow us, not only with their academic chops but also with their awareness of what they're facing as potential humanities PhDs. This video, in part, addresses those students.

Karl Steel said...

I also want to direct you to this post by Adam Kotsko.

Karl Steel said...

Not least of all it sought to inspire a sense of superiority in we the disenchanted faculty
*us, not we.
Duh.

Anonymous said...

(diff. anon. poster)

I have had professors who have been completely demoralizing and professors who have inspired me and invested time and energy into helping me to succeed. The cynicism and defeatism of certain academics hasn't deterred me from continuing my education, but it has affected my confidence.

Browbeating students into submission or resignation doesn't always get rid of them. Sometimes it just produces a crop of timid and insecure grad students who might contribute to the conversation in a more meaningful way if they had more confidence in their ideas.

And no, I am not a 'C' student.

Anonymous said...

Please excuse my subject-verb agreement error in the first paragraph. That'll teach me to add an antecedent . . .

irina said...

I suspect that reactions to the video have as much to do with whether the watcher is deeply cynical or not. And I'm not. I'm too much of a realist to be deeply cynical or deeply idealistic, two sides of the same coin. If I view the video with any wryness, it has to do with this: the professor is really damned either way. If she doesn't discourage the student, six or seven years down the road, that same student (or even the A+ version of her) will be complaining that no one told her the job market was miserable, that she had no way of knowing this terrible fact, despite the fact that it's been bad for the last forty years. If the prof does tell her, then she's trying to protect her turf from competition. Either way the prof is guilty -- and that, my friends, has as much to do with graduate student desires to see themselves as passive objects of fate and authority as anything else.

This is why I just gave an extremely promising student "the talk." I told her all the bad things I could think of about the job prospects, effect on family life, etc. I told her she can have a happy life, and a life as an intellectual, without grad school. And then I gave her all the advice I could about getting into a fine grad school and making it work for her, and told her I would do everything I could to help her get there if she wanted to. Secretly, it would probably break my heart a little if she didn't do a PhD, but I couldn't live with myself if I didn't make a good case for the other side too.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you're right. I do think there might be some variation among grad student attitudes, however, and possibly different approaches on the part of professors to delivering the bad news.

irina said...

Erg -- I had a lot of trouble posting last night, wound up having to cut my post into two, and the first part got lost. Well, the gist of it was:

I watched the video, laughed, watched it again, laughed again, and did *not* feel guilty. Because it's satire. Not that satire shouldn't be taken seriously, but it does demand its own reading practice. Getting upset at this is like getting upset at "A Modest Proposal" because of its horrific suggestions for dinner.

That, and the reader-response interpretation in the Bady piece was so, so different from anything I experience watching the video that I have a hard time buying his critique of it. I do identify with both characters -- that much is true. But I do so in the sense that I recognize parts of myself in the student, and naive as they are, I still cherish those bits; and I recognize the bewilderment of the prof, though I wish I had the courage more regularly to say what she says in such clear terms. I more often find myself tiptoeing around the harsh realities for students who already seem clueless -- it's the most promising ones who get the unvarnished truth, at least for me.

Anyway, this is why I wrote that I think reactions depend on the person watching. The contempt and defensiveness Bady sees in the piece (and I can understand contempt, but the prof really has nothing to fear from a C student) has, I think, as much to do with him and his feelings about the profession as it does with the video. And while I have more admiration for Karl's sense of shame, I don't think it's warranted either. I think it's possible to satirize, and to enjoy biting satire of, a job, a life, a society you deeply love. Think of what happens to Belinda's lock at the end of Pope's poem -- sure, it's trivial and superficial and silly, but Pope still puts it in the stars.