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Graduate school, is it the right path?

December 31, 2009 1 comment

An article from The Chronicle of Higher Education poses some thoughts for me about what I am doing with my life. Thomas Benton examined the continued encouragement of professors to students to enter graduate school. Now, when I was an undergraduate, my advisor encouraged me in my desire for graduate school, but stressed that law school was a better option. He felt this way because a law degree offered a better chance at gainful employment, along with a better salary. While there are times I have thought what might have been, I am not unsatisfied with my choice. However, I have to agree with Benton’s overall analysis of the situation.

The job market in academe is tight and there are an overabundance of Ph.D’s out there all looking for the dream job. While Benton advocates avoidance of graduate school, I would say that one can still pursue a graduate education in humanities, but with a little awareness. I offer my tips for those thinking about graduate education in the humanities:

1. Be realistic. Do not get sucked into the tenure-track trap. By that, I mean that you must not go through your graduate school experience thinking that you will get that tenure-track position straight off your Ph.D. Benton correctly assesses the job market and notes that only a lucky few get that position on their first try. You must be prepared to be on the bottom, as with any profession. Benton, I believe, incorrectly characterizes the adjunct situation, as while schools are more willing to use the adjunct system more to save money and exploit labor, such beginner-level experience does matter. Keep in mind, which I believe the article fails to do, that despite having an advanced degree, you still have (for the most part) no job experience, and very little life experience. If you love your field enough, which you better, if you devoted so many years of your life to it, you should take any position in it, if it is what you love and strive to gain experience and set yourself up as a strong candidate for future positions.

2. Do things during your graduate education to provide flexibility. While I would like to teach college, I also am pursuing work in Public History to prepare myself to potentially run a museum, or do other historical work outside of strict academic history. Doing such things that prepare you for other careers within your field. History is good for this, while English may not be as suited (those of you in English programs are welcome to enlighten me) for such flexibility.

3. Love what you study. Don’t pursue an advanced degree for the sake of avoiding life. I am not pursuing my degree simply to get a job in history, as while that would be nice, I love the study of history enough that I want the credentials to do it on the side and be taken seriously. Plus, I see the Ph.D. as the culmination of personal educational achievement and if I get a job in the field, all the better, but if not, I still have the highest degree possible in a field I love deeply. Graduate school is a serious committment, as you begin to engage others in a scholarly research and debate, and should not be a side trip in life.

Overall, if considering graduate school, make sure you are doing if for the right reasons. Be aware that the job market is tight and positions may not be what you want. Make sure you love what you do if pursuing study. I look forward to interacting with all of you entering the historical profession and wish you luck in your studies. Have a Happy New Year everyone.

On handling student emotions

December 31, 2009 Leave a comment

The Chronicle of Higher Education had an informative article dealing with how faculty should consider students who cry when meeting with professors. While I have not faced this yet, I did find the article revealing both about how I should handle such a situation and what this says about both today’s students and the pressures of college. Having faced the ups and downs of graduate school, I am secure enough in my masculinity to admit shedding some tears, mainly due to holding in my emotion for much of the day to maintain a strong front, only to collapse once in the privacy of my home or with family who cared deeply about me. I feel emotional reactions are not a bad thing, when such displays are proper.

What would be examples of proper displays of emotion on the part of students? Well, if a student is being unduly threatened or abused by a faculty member that can put their success in jeopardy for no good reason, that student crying in front of a professor would not be out of place. We wrap so much of our success in life around our careers and today’s market requires a college education for most positions, meaning that many students’ futures depend on earning that degree. Some face uphill battles in this, which creates a great deal of emotional turmoil.

I reflect on a period during my senior year of high school when I had a brief period of uncertainty. I had my heart set on a military career with the Air Force, but was denied due to poor eyesight. This left me with a feeling of now what do I do with my life. I decided that I needed to go to college to get ahead, and here I am going on eight years later.

The article cited examples of students crying over their grades, specifically one young man who, despite help from the author, would be unable to pass the class and broke down. The student in question needed the class to graduate. The professor noticed that the young man’s crying was similar to his own young child, which caused him to reevaluate his outlook on crying from students. He reflected on how he would want his son’s teacher to treat his child and found that faculty can and should display compassion,  and that this can be done without a reduction of standards.

The issue with student crying in front of professors takes a more negative turn for many teachers when the student is crying over a fractional difference in a grade. The article addressed the concept of “grade-grubbers”, students who must receive a certain grade, regardless of the effort put into the course by the student. Such displays make me think of examples of people crying to get out of a ticket when they were clearly violating a traffic law. In this case, it does not work for me, as if you make clear the expectations of a course, there should be little questioning when it comes to a grade received.

College life is stressful beyond classes. We are taking (not counting non-traditional students) kids 17-19 years old, who have likely never been away from their home and parents, and trying to prepare them for the increased expectations of the adult world. These young people are trying to find their place in the world and who they are as individuals. While they should rely on parents and family as much as possible, we should be there to guide students as well. Colleges used to have policies of in loco parentis (in place of parents), which resulted in very restrictive environments. Those days have largely passed, but the idea of being in place of a student’s parents, at least partially, is a good way for faculty to approach students. We should play a role in guiding students, as we interact with them in early professional ventures. We are going to be their first professional references and will influence their professional adult lives. Guiding them, as parents guide children, is a small, but I believe, important part of being a college professor. Sometimes emotions take over and students will cry when upset and we should evaluate each situation individually and consider how we might want our children to be treated when faced with pressures and having emotional meltdowns. We have all been young once and should remember what it was like when dealing with today’s young people.

I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, and I’ll see you in 2010. Have a Happy New Year.

End of the semester

December 22, 2009 Leave a comment

Sorry folks for not posting lately, but I have been quite busy finishing work for my classes and for North Dakota History. We ended Hist. 220 around 1960, with students being responsible for readings dealing with post-1960 North Dakota history. Overall, it was a good class and I feel much better prepared to handle my own class in the fall. I will be working with Dr. Porter again this spring and we will be joined with another TA, which will be great and help me with the workload.

I enjoyed my class on Coyote Culture, which I did not post much about here, but the subject was quite interesting and I was able to read works that opened up an area of history that I was only vaguely aware of. The added advantage was the online nature of the course. My other class is done and that is all I will say about that right now.

I am enjoying the warmer weather in southern Illinois visiting my folks. I am also looking forward to catching up on some pleasure reading and a little personal reading for my blogs, as there are reviews to finish. I may post a couple items up while I am here, especially any reviews. I will return back to Grand Forks in early January and look forward to getting back to the stuff of history again. Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year if I do not post this next week or so.

Help the History News Network

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