Before this blog turned into all-ed tech, all the time, I wrote a lot of posts about academic labor issues. To me, the question of whether to go to graduate school in the humanities falls into that category since the issue of whether you can support yourself when you’re done is probably the best reason to avoid going. Unlike Chronicle columnist William Pannapacker, I have never told a student, “Don’t go.” I have nonetheless always tried to explain to potential history grad students the economic realities they will face when they’re done. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t.
If you read the same stuff I do online, you’ve probably seen Pannapacker’s latest in Slate. However, you may not have seen this eloquent response to it by an underemployed English Ph.D named Jonathan Sench. Don’t get me wrong. I think I’m on Pannapacker’s side in just about every facet of this issue, but stuff like this just gets me all choked up:
Then in the fall of my junior year, the director of the college honors program – who’d accepted me into the program as a sophomore – called me to his office and asked me what I wanted to do when I was out of school. I told him that my plan had always been to become a high school English teacher. He asked me how that was going. Well, I said, my preparation was going along well, I’d spent a lot of time in classrooms becoming prepared and I found the coursework a little too easy.
He asked me whether I found it satisfying. This was the first time in my life that anyone had ever asked me whether the work I was doing was satisfying. There’d been jobs that I liked, like delivering flowers. There’d been jobs that paid well, like construction. There were jobs that didn’t pay well and that I didn’t like, like washing dishes. But no jobs were ever particularly satisfying to me. I didn’t know how to respond to this question about my chosen profession. My idea about teaching was that it could be satisfying and that it was within reach. I’d seen people from my church or my mom’s friends’ kids go on to be teachers. I’d imagined that one day being a teacher would allow me to stop working with chemicals and heavy machinery, to read, to influence children positively, and to live a life that involved owning a house. But was I finding it satisfying? Was that even a rabbit hole worth going down?
If there’s anything I disagree with Pannapacker on, it’s his notion that getting a tenure-track job in the humanities is like winning a lottery. Winning a lottery pays a lot more. I do, however, find being a professor to be extremely satisfying, which is precisely why I am now convinced that I will never teach online. [You just knew I’d get around to that eventually, didn’t you?]
I remember when speaking in front of a live audience made me nervous. It still does under certain circumstances, but never in front of students. I particularly enjoy leading discussions because you never know where it’s going to go or what the next question is going to be. Spontaneity is key to a good discussion. Perhaps my fondest teaching moment was when one of my students threw a Coke can at another because she was so mad at something he said about the history of slavery.* I enjoy lectures precisely because, like a stand-up comedian (which I am not) I can see how they react to what I’m telling them. For that to happen, I have to be able to see the whites of their eyes.
Yes, I’ve seen the claims that online classes are better for shy students and I don’t buy it. If someone is afraid their ideas are stupid, why would it make a difference if they’re written down rather than spoken? I know plenty of people who talk far better than they write. What advantages do online classes offer them?
Certainly, online classes offer plenty of advantages to the university. Besides being cheaper to put on, they allow your employer to expand the potential labor pool to just about every underemployed Ph.D. on earth. I live in Pueblo, Colorado which has many good qualities, but alas there aren’t a lot of Ph.D.s walking its highways and byways. Send my courses online, and it doesn’t matter whether the professor is situated in Pueblo or not.** The more people willing to do your skilled job for less, the less money you’ll make doing it. And like I just said, winning the lottery pays a lot better.
Besides, I spend to much time in front of a computer as it is. Why on earth would I ever want to spend more if it gives me no satisfaction?
* Don’t worry, she missed. It was the thought that counted.
** The professors are in one place, the students are in another, the administration is in a third place counting all the money. Sweet deal, no?