Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Raining on a Snowflake's Parade

Today was the first time I've ever done something I never thought I'd do. I discouraged a student from going into the professoriate. Between her grades and the dismal job market, it was the only ethical thing to do.

Above Average Alice was a student in three of my classes. She was the classic CC success story: a mom dumped by her cheating husband who returned to school online and at night while working 40 hours a week in a local factory to support her kids. She graduated with her associate's degree, transferred to Local State U, and graduated from there as well. 

Alice hates her factory job. She dreams of being a professor because she loves the English language, hopes to teach lit and writing to others, and wants to have time in her life to write. Her kids are grown and out of the house now, so she has some mobility. The problem with Alice is, well, she's just above average, AKA the B student.  She made B grades in all the classes she took with me. This was not due to her lack of intelligence but her insistence on not following rules for assignments. It even became a running joke between us because some of her other proffies would excuse her from departmental requirements since they liked her and she was so damned smart. I was one of the few in English who didn't, but apparently proffies in other fields had similar inclinations as she made it out with a 3.0 GPA and brought that up to 3.25 at State U.

Now Alice wants to go to grad school, straight into a PhD program. She's already been rejected by one of the top R-1s in our state, but that has not dissuaded her.  Her State U mentor had already told her not to take the proffie path. She didn't believe him and asked me for advice. I told her frankly, if she could get into a grad school, she should do it only because she loves English. I explained about the job market, the retirees' positions being replaced by adjuncts, the life of the freeway flier, and the insane number of PhDs looking for work. I told her she should become a technical writer since that's the only field I know of that has somewhat high demand that meets her requirements. 

Alice didn't like my answer either and has now moved on to talking to her favorite counselor from her CC days.  I hope he has the good sense to give Alice the same answer. At least that way if she pursues the proffie path, she does so with fair warning from three fronts.


  1. You made a mistake. You should have told Alice to go into rhet/comp or teacher ed. She would be the the cream of the crop in an education doctoral program. She'd have to probably get a Master's in teaching and teach a bit, but then she'd be set.

    You don't have to be that bright and you can get a great job. If she loved English let her get her MA in ed, teach for a couple of years, and finish up with a Ph.D. in English. That would set her up even more.

    But if she wants to teach literature all the time, yeah, she's doomed. You can't convince some people. They have to find out for themselves.

  2. I think it is good that you were honest with Alice. Proffies often make a mess of people's lives when they thoughtlessly repeat obviously false nonsense, such as, "The good ones will still make it."

    I tell students who come to me expressing an interest in astronomy that one can make more money for less effort in just about any job in the world other than astronomy. I keep repeating this until they yell at me to stop. Then I stop. I do acknowledge that astronomy is very cool, and a great way to spend one's life, if one can get the work.

    If anything you can possibly say will dissuade Alice, academia is not for her. I was treated with comments such as "An astronomy degree? What are you going to do with THAT?" about nine billion times between when I decided to become an astronomer (at age 5) and when I got my Ph.D. I wondered it to myself about as many times during 14 years of chronic anxiety between when I got my Ph.D. and when I finally got tenure. Non-fanatics need not apply. Orphans preferred.

  3. Oh, no...please don't tell Alice to go into technical writing. Tech writers need to be anal-retentive about rules.

  4. Would a MFA in Creative Writing be possible for her? It's a terminal degree that could open doors for teaching positions. In the meantime, she could start a writing career.

    If she starts talking about going for a Master of Library Science degree, discourage her! There are no good librarian jobs out there and the market will continue to be sour for years to come barring the return of the Black Death lowering the population size.

    1. Interesting you should bring that up, Ripberger (and what an interesting moniker). Last semester I shocked myself and my office mate by discouraging a student who started talking about becoming a college librarian after I discouraged him from planning to teach college-level Hamsterology.

      This was a student in our disabilities program taking my Intro class for the third time and having a failing grade at mid-semester -- in other words, on the material he'd already had twice before. Now we're all about student success, but I laid it on the line: "This is the third time you've taken this class, and even though you keep coming in for help, you're failing again. Something has to change. What are you going to do differently this time?"

      "I didn't fail it before. This is my third attempt; the other times I had to withdraw."

      [Captain Subtext: But you withdrew with a D both times. Do you think it's going to get easier when you get to the part you haven't had yet?]

      So when he said that maybe he could "just" be a librarian instead, I almost choked on my tea. Did he know that meant he'd have to earn not one but two masters' degrees?

      "No. Well, that sounds like a lot of work."

      Yes indeedy.

  5. You did the absolutely correct thing. Too many students who don't have (1) the skills and (2) the disciplines are coddled by prof-flakes who are either too weak and squeamish to tell them the truth or too blind by their own uniqueness to see it.

    You saved Above Average Alice disappointment (if she takes your advice) and preserved possible mentors and colleagues from the frustration of working with someone who is lacking the requisite abilities and will.

    I teach at a third-tier state institution where most of our students are first-generation college students. Many of our above average students see our lives (OUR LIVES!) as charming alternatives to what they have known. Because I will actually tell them the truth about the horrors of the market, the challenges of graduate school and the mind-numbing nature of the job at the end of the obstacle course, I have become the opposite of what I thought I would be: popular for telling the truth.

    That's right. I am now the (recently tenured but still young enough to be 'credible' and 'real') prof who gently breaks their hearts.

    Don't feel guilty. It's not you. It's her.

    1. Your students' sweet longing for what they perceive as the Good Life reminds me both of Tess McGill's dreams in "Working Girl" and Seymour's aspirations in "Little Shop of Horrors." Both titles seem apt here.

  6. Maybe somebody needs to tell her that if writing is her calling what she really needs is a sinecure--a routine nine-to-five job that pays the bills, not terribly demanding intellectually and with reasonable security, as far from writing as possible. Teaching doesn't fit the bill, nor does technical writing (too much work). There are few jobs that do these days. She could try something trivial and quantitative (like business statistics, or taking the actuarial exam). Working at some bloodsucking insurance company would even provide her with writing material. Or take the public service exam, work for the feds (even better writing material). The method should be: identify the target sinecure, and then the master's degree that leads to it. And be quick about it; nobody hires "old people" (35+).

    1. A friend who teaches occasionally for the University of Phoenix says it's a great gig if you can just shine on the whole "rigor" thing. That could be a sinecure.

    2. Neither business statistics nor the actuarial exams are trivial. Basic statistics can be, but enough to be useful to businesses as an in-house operations person is not. The public service exam is also kind of tough to pass.

  7. I, too, was thinking that she sounds like an ideal candidate to be a high school teacher (well, except for that whole "not following directions" thing. That wouldn't go over well, at least in most public high schools. She might find an independent school where her style fits the culture.)

    An MFA in Creative Writing might, indeed, be a good fit, and would serve as a teaching credential. She still wouldn't get the best grades (because such programs, at least the ones I know, are quite rigorous and require stuff like experimenting with genres and approaches other than the students' favorite ones), but she'd get good training and feedback, and come out with a college teaching credential (but yes, she'd end up teaching freshman comp., probably as an adjunct, because that's where the jobs are.)

  8. State U where she attends now is known for being one of the best for creative writing MFAs. She wants nothing to do with it. She wants to write about literature, and the only way she knows of to make a living doing that is being a proffie. She has no idea that even if she were of good R-1 caliber, getting a lit prof job with a light teaching load that requires little teaching is roughly comparable to getting a job on a top-of-the-line sports team's starting lineup.

    I actually did recommend an MSEd program with teacher certification as an alternative as well, which she also rejected outright. Part of what she asked me for was "a good English PhD program where they will teach me how to teach college." Diogenes probably had more luck with his lantern quest. By Peter K's standards, she's already screwed anyway as she was well over 40 when she studied with me two years ago.


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