Myths and mismatches, part 4

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 11, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 4: Structural Faults?

Continuing my weeklong blogging escapade of commentary, today’s “Mismatch” from Jo and Julie is one that relates quite directly to my own research project on governance of universities…

“Mismatch #2: Mismatch of Structure”

Structure relates to the functioning and ultimately to the purpose of the university. Jo and Julie write that the purpose of the university is to “transmit the best that has been thought and spoken (i.e., maintain tradition) and advance the state of human knowledge through novel research (i.e., innovation)”. And they rightly point out that there’s something of an inherent contradiction between those two things, one that is dealt with in different ways depending on things like disciplinary context.

With the changing context of the university as institution comes changes to the way academics are expected to do their jobs, including how they work with colleagues, where their funding comes from and how it’s allocated, how teaching appointments may work, what’s expected in terms of research and “engagement” with scholarly work and life, and so on. Jo and Julie cite the example of interdisciplinary work and the (lack of) institutional structures designed to facilitate it, and one of the ways in which even the best candidates in graduate school can “fall through the structural cracks”.

In spite of what looks like an obvious topic of study (post-secondary education), I’ve found that my own work seems to be pretty interdisciplinary–probably because of my background in multiple areas of study, which in turn is feeding (I think) an existing intellectual tendency. I follow paths that interest me and I’m usually focussed on some specific kind of “problem” or issue. If there’s an answer to my questions in another discipline, then I tend to start extending myself and sniffing around that territory in search of something useful for my purposes. And in the process of this, I’ve realised that interdisciplinary/”innovative” work is or can be fairly unsafe, depending (again) on the environment in which you’re working and on what your goals are. It’s hard to build an academic career in an environment rooted in disciplinary distinctions when you’re not sure which conferences to apply to, which scholarly associations to join, and (my own current problem) which journals would be appropriate venues for your research.

My tactic thus far has been to take “slices” of things and relate them to specific disciplinary areas, e.g. if a particular paper or presentation topic relates more heavily to Communication Studies, then I take that into account and try to tailor it to that perspective. It doesn’t always work, but it gives me something to start with. My hope is that knowing the norms and expectations of this environment will help me to find ways to work within the existing/evolving structure, even as I’d like to be a part of changing it–though as Jo and Julie note, “the university has a lot more inertia than you do” so to expect to make your own “place” within it is to take on a complicated (though obviously not impossible) task.

You may not feel like you really “fit” anywhere, but this feeling can have different causes and implications. It could signify that you’re on the “cutting edge” and doing work that will in time have an important place, but it’ll be a place you’ll have to carve out for yourself. Or it could just as easily mean that you should be looking for a career in some other arena that better accommodates your interests and needs–and as I’ve discussed previously in this series, there’s no reason why academe needs to be the only environment in which you can write, think, and produce scholarly work.

Myths and mismatches, part 3

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 9, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 3: Assessing Your Qualifications.

Today’s “myth” from Jo and Julie is a real classic, something that can be unconsciously inculcated from the moment you enter graduate school-! And it’s this…

“Myth #2: You’re Unqualified to Do Anything Else”

This is the illusion that even after successfully completing a PhD, there’s still no-one other than a university who’d hire you–because what “real-world” relevance is there for your academic training? (And look–there’s that “Real-World/Academia divide again.) Part of the reason for this assumption is that in graduate school, the focus is placed heavily on “content knowledge” and not on the skills and “process knowledge” that come along with grad school experiences. And (discipline-specific) content is generally less transferable to work outside the university.

This is an idea that works alongside “Myth #1”, that “success” after the PhD means becoming a tenured research professor (and that any work outside the university is somehow “lesser” than an academic job). Not only are you unqualified for a job in another field; it would also be an admission of inadequacy to abandon the quest for tenure-track employment. In some cases this line of thinking can be quite potently inhibiting.

As the authors point out, “the reality is that, outside of academia, most jobs are far more about your skills than about your content knowledge – and just by virtue of having been through graduate school, you’ve amassed a lot of relevant skills” relating to research, writing, editing, presenting, organizing, collaborating, assessing, teaching…the list goes on.

I still feel as if I’m simply not aware of most of the job options I have in front of me (but with a much better sense of possibility than I had several years ago). Though I’m in a position where my topic of research is one that can apply in more than one context, I still have so little idea of my own usefulness outside the university classroom–and how to put that to work. I’m fairly sure I still have talents I haven’t yet discovered, and I think that’s been the major lesson I’d take away from the past 8 years or so. After all, when I abandoned my BFA after two years, I never imagined I’d end up studying Communication Studies, Linguistics, and Education (and doing well at it). I know I have a lot of fears and insecurities to overcome, but I think I’d rather feel significantly uncertain than feel as if I’m staking my career on only one prospect.

Jo and Julie also write that “academic disciplines act as though they’re in competition with one another, viciously defending methodological and content boundaries between fields that one might think would have lots of things to say to one another.” I don’t know if it’s my own interdisciplinary background or perhaps a kind of inherent pragmatism, but I’ve never held much to the maintenance of boundaries between different kinds of knowledge. My reasoning is that I’m more likely to be able to address a problem critically if I can do it from multiple angles; and that is a skill highly applicable to the “real world”.

Lastly, there’s “a general denigration of intellectual work” in our culture (speaking broadly about Anglo-America), such that what is “academic” is considered to be irrelevant, disconnected from reality somehow–like academics themselves. This is reinforced by the beliefs we may hold about the “narrowness” of our education, beliefs that can prevent us from seeing our own value in contexts other than academe. They can also prevent us from learning how to communicate the relevance of intellectual work to larger publics, which is a increasingly an expected function of faculty work as well.

Myths and mismatches, part 2

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 8, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 2: Time, Place, and Opportunity.

“Mismatch #1: Context”.

It’s a great idea to address conflicts of context, the “external circumstances” that have an effect on our career successes, because a lot of self-destructive psychological baggage can come from the idea that one’s “failure” is entirely one’s own fault. And while it’s important to take responsibility for your own decisions, just as crucial is the ability to recognise when your (lack of) “success” is being influenced by factors beyond your control. These factors can include anything from personal issues with health and family, to a simple lack of appropriate positions or an over-supply of candidates in your particular academic field; they are “more about timing and luck than […] a comment on your worth as a person or quality as an academic”.

In spite of the sense of it, I feel quite ambivalent about this point. because if I looked at the list of contextual factors in my own case, I’m pretty sure I’d pick another path to follow. That’s not meant as a comment about my own capacity–more as a point about the nature of the academic job market, which has declined considerably in the past 25 to 30 years. One reason for this pinch is that the “production” of PhDs has increased; and another is that simultaneously, the proportion of tenure track academic positions has actually decreased as universities have come to rely on short-term contract faculty (or “adjuncts” as they are referred to in the U.S.).

So I do feel uneasy about the context in which I’m finishing my own PhD, one that I think is becoming more evident to more people, though I don’t recall that there was ever a frank discussion of prospects and odds during any of my graduate courses. While the PhD is not just about “getting a job”, I think career-development should be emphasised from the beginning in a more well-rounded fashion so that by the time students reach year 3 or 4, they have a better sense of their options and a balanced idea of what factors they can “control” in terms of later employment options. This could be seen not as simple “job training” but as a reasonable/thoughtful process in which to engage considering the significant commitments of time, effort and resources that are required to complete a PhD, and the shrinking chance of achieving a tenure-track faculty position. It could also help graduate students to develop awareness of their strengths and capacities, and to build the resilience and adaptability that help with creating and navigating through a professional career (in whatever field).

Myths and mismatches, part 1

This series of posts was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches“. According to Jo and Julie, the “goal with this series is to help you understand your experience [in academe] as both personal and structural.” This was a helpful series for me, since I was in the process of thinking through the implications of seeking a tenure-track job (hence the in-depth blog responses).

Here is the link to the original post, from January 8, 2011: “Myths and Mismatches”, Oh My!

Over the next week or so I’ll be blogging my responses to “Myths and Mismatches“, an e-course by Jo Van Every and Julie Clarenbach. The goal of this series is to bring attention to a number of “myths” that can get in the way of making “conscious career choices” in the academic environment, particularly for those who are feeling “dissatisfied” with academic work.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately (and blogging about it too), since I need to make decisions about “where to go” next, and I find the options overwhelming. I thought it would be interesting to think through my responses to Jo and Julie’s course by writing about each of them as they arrive in my inbox.

“Myth #1: The Life of the Mind, or, Academia Is the Only Game in Town”

The first post refers to a misconception about the nature of academe, the idea of the “Ivory Tower”–one that is perpetuated by media images of university life. Jo and Julie advise us not to fall into the trap of imagining “academe” as a cloister into which one can retreat from the Real World whilst pursuing one’s ideas in peace among like-minded colleagues (and as far from possible from demanding undergraduate students, for example).

I would say it’s no coincidence that this concept of the Lone Scholar is reinforced by the ideal of the tenured research professor, which we’re generally encouraged to think of as the norm or the goal. If this utopian environment/position ever came close to existing, it was a characteristic of the traditional “elite” model of university education, something I’ve written about in previous posts.

The point here is that given the current context, you’re certain to be disappointed if you see this as the ideal, since the job description for professors includes juggling not only research but also teaching, committee and other “service” and administration work, student advising and mentoring, attending and planning events and conferences, and and array of extra-curricular work/activities. In fact the trend is for professors to be more “engaged” with audiences beyond the university because ultimately, public communication is what strengthens and smooths the relationship between universities and the communities/contexts in which they operate.

In terms of my own experience, I don’t think this idea of the “life of the mind” has ever been one to which I’ve had much access; and as wonderful as it sounds, I’ve also never really expected to be able to participate. Jo and Julie make the point that the mythical Great Solitary Thinkers were all men, which is only one part of that equation; there aren’t too many role models to emulate. I also don’t come from a particularly privileged background (economically or culturally), so my expectations have been different all along. I certainly never imagined I would end up doing a PhD at all. Since my undergrad years I’ve talked a lot with full-time faculty and had a good look at what happens in the day-to-day life of tenure-track professors (and part-time/contract profs as well). Probably the combination of these factors is why I’ve always felt ambivalent about the idea of trying to become a professor, as a specific career track. The increased competition in recent years has only made me feel less certain.

Jo and Julie point out that the flip side of “academe as intellectual cloister” is that the “world” outside the university is a barren and banal place, devoid of intellectual engagement. I think the myth of “real world” vs. “academe” is quite destructive, including that of a corporate/business world that’s somehow inherently unethical and opposed to academe. It simplifies the problems faced by universities, often reducing them to an “us vs. them” argument, and it precludes the possibility of meaningful engagement across boundaries. This kind of belief also seems to entail that academe is somehow more ethical than other environments. But to cling to that idea is to set oneself up for a despairing fall–academics are no more (or less) inherently moral or “good” than other groups.