Myths and mismatches, part 8

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 15, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 8-Are You “At Home”?

My series of responses continues today with one of the most crucial issues you might end up facing as a graduate student or as a professor…

Mismatch #4: Mismatch of personality

Every workplace, every university department or academic “unit”, is more than the sum of its walls and windows, its rules and regulations. It’s a place that emerges partly from the interactions of the people involved, i.e. faculty, staff, students, and so on; “the basic personality of departments, not to mention universities, is a conglomeration of many factors”. These include institutional orientation (e.g. research or teaching); departmental divides along theoretical, methodological or generational lines; and “the particular configurations of personalities that just don’t work well together”.

You’ve probably noticed after spending years in university environments that you feel more at home within some of these spaces than in others–and you might have identified some of those factors that “work” for you. But it’s really hard to tell what a “good fit” might be from only brief interactions with place, and with people and institutional structures. I’ve often felt afraid of making the wrong call on this point, since “much of this personality […] isn’t apparent at first glance”. And it feels even more important when one thinks about applying for faculty positions; as a student there is always the option of switching programs or institutions, but faculty need to be able to fit in eventually with their colleagues and with the university in the long term.

Jo and Julie argue that when a “personality” disconnect occurs, “the problem isn’t you–it’s just the mismatch between what you need and what they offer.” You can work with compromise up to a point, but you need to recognise if and when “you just don’t fit the culture of the department or institution”.

Myths and mismatches, part 7

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 15, 2011:“Myths & Mismatches” Part 7: How to Apply Yourself.

Closely tied to the idea that “Academia is the only game in town” and that “You’re not qualified to do anything else“:

“Myth #4: School is the only place for smart people.”

Jo and Julie pose the question, “why are we telling ourselves that if we’re smart, we must necessarily go for the highest degree possible?” One answer would be that this is how the system works; certainly Ken Robinson makes this argument, that the entire educational apparatus is designed to perpetuate itself by allowing those most successful to ascend to the level of Professor. When or not one agrees with the rest of Robinson’s theses, this point is useful because it highlights the process of replication that becomes especially important in graduate education. This can be stultifying; not only is the government agenda to push PhDs out of the university, but “if the last twenty years have taught us anything […] it’s the power of smart people outside of school”.

Not only is “school” the only place for intelligence, there’s also a hierarchy of knowledge. I know when I was considering doing my PhD in Education, I was advised not to (by more than one person) essentially because the discipline wasn’t respected; this seems to relate to a long tradition of Education as a research area being perceived as less valuable and prestigious than other disciplines (for some history on this, see “An Elusive Science” by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann). I’ve also heard of top students being advised not to apply for their B.Ed, for the same reason–teaching as a profession isn’t respected the way law, medicine and engineering are. The irony is that we need teachers to be the smartest people we can find, since they’re the ones preparing the future generations who’ll be running this place when we’re all too old to participate. Seems straightforward enough to me.

To be considered very smart and to do something other than remaining in academe is to violate expectations; after all, academe is supposed to be the one place where intellectual merit is rewarded most highly. But “what if we could bring our smartness to bear on whatever it is that makes us passionately, excitedly happy? For some people, yes, that will be academia. But not everyone.” I think this summarises my attitude – I want to be as effective as possible at something, given my own abilities and limitations; I need to feel like I’m doing something towards whatever my goal is (though the goal itself is evolving, and has always been so over time).

For myself, I do think it’s reasonable to view a university career as a good fit if I can engage in the things that are meaningful/productive to me (such as teaching, writing a book, being around other intellectually engaged people, communicating/engaging with different “publics”, and so on). I like the structure of the academic environment because in spite of its flaws, it helps motivate me and at its best it gives a kind of institutional form to practices and values I find important. And I think the university should be a place where new ideas can be tried out – where faculty also have a responsibility to voice critical viewpoints, to “engage” with larger audiences. Knowledge is political, that’s one of the things that draws me to this career; and the university is an ongoing project in which all members have some role. I find the perverse balance between tradition and innovation to be at the heart of the university, and rather than destructive I think this struggle is its very reason for continued existence over thousands of years.

But all this is about more than being “smart” or a good writer – it’s about negotiating the whole package, warts and all, and that’s part of what this whole series of posts has been about. You can be smart and do a hundred other worthwhile things, it’s just that this isn’t necessarily the message you’ll get while you’re at university, particularly in graduate school. If the whole package doesn’t end up working out, there are other, equally meaningful forms of employment to which you can apply your considerable skills and training.

Myths and mismatches, part 6

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 14, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 6: Getting Priorities Straight.

“Mismatch #3: Mismatch of Priorities.”

As discussed in a previous post on the “Life of the Mind” and pointed out by Jo and Julie, “structurally, if not ideologically, academia still takes as its ideal employee the gentleman scholar”. This means that if you have commitments to anything other than work, you’re implicitly being considered an exception to the ideal. And while this is more or less obvious depending on context (and has been mitigated over the past half-century), in general academic institutions continue to be built on the assumption of this invisible ideal (which is similar to the assumption of a certain kind of student).

I think I also previously linked to a blog post about this, but the gentleman-scholar “model presumes that someone else — let’s call her a wife — is doing all of the other work necessary for a life”. This would be the person who tends to all the details of everyday living that are presumed not to trouble the solo academic, including of course domestic duties such a housekeeping and child-rearing. This stereotype is still quite real; consider the phenomenon of the “faculty wife” (written about here and here), while the “two-body problem” is encountered by partnered academics moving to new institutions. [Update: here is a new post from Jo Van Every on the same topic.]

We all have other things in our lives beyond our jobs, and these can be accommodated with varying degrees of success depending on context. The problem arises when we cannot reconcile academic life with other parts of life, because of the nature and demands of successful full-time university work.

Jo and Julie note that “a mismatch of priorities is often read as a lack of commitment — if you really cared about this profession…” I want to point out that this problem is likely to be gendered; for example, women are the ones who take leave during a pregnancy and after children are born. Male academics are far less likely to have their tenure time-line affected by this, while women may be viewed as “less committed” to work if they choose to start a family.

I’ve definitely questioned my own priorities in light of the above assumptions. If I “really cared”, I’d be willing to go anywhere to find the right academic job. If I cared enough, I’d take contract teaching work while applying for every tenure-track job of relevance that came up. Or I’d have had five publications by now. But I know I’d rather find a job in another “sector” when my PhD is finished, if it seems that there’s no chance of getting something worthwhile at a university–which of course means I’m not “committed enough” to academic life.

I don’t know–maybe that’s true, but the most important thing is that I’m committed to my life.