Monday, August 18

Just Ramblin, No. 14: Academia; Plurk

In a recent First Person article in The Chronicle, Eliza Peterson, a pseudonym, discussed her coming to grips with having been denied tenure. She describes the tumultous cascade of emotions, the sense of being shunned, the conflicting sensibility of being "dead faculty walking" while also a viable instructor during the oddly yet aptly named terminal year, yet strangely free. Her essay reminded of a recent Plurk discussion about those with doctorates and those without and their respective attitudes and behaviors towards each other.

Academia is a strange place. I'm no longer in that place, but was a resident for about 12 years. I too left under less than auspicious circumstances. I was up for tenure, but rather than deny me tenure, the institution simply chose not to renew my contract. I'm quite certain that had I been at a public university rather than a private one, I would have had far more options than I did. I'm quite certain those who were reluctant to stand with me against what is still considered an inadequate administration would have been more forthcoming in their adjudication process. I did not have the option of a terminal year; the administration could hardly wait for me to clean out my office and, in fact, tried to accelerate that schedule. I took my time and, like Eliza Peterson, completed my year of service with dignity.

The high road can be a very comforting place indeed, but the high road does not pay the mortgage. The choices my former colleagues made still smarts because I believed then and believe now that they were unwilling or unable to do the right thing. I have tried not to gloat even a little bit when certain things have come to light or when I hear bad news about the institution. More often than not I do (eventually) feel sad that the institution that had so much promise seems to have become so much less. I hurt for my friends who remain there; I'm saddened for the students who do and have deserved so much more.

However, in the long run, I was meant not to be at that institution. Though I survived an emotionally and financially painful year, I survived. I still teach one course a semester at a well-respected institution and I do love teaching. Sometimes I miss it and wish I could do more. But what has followed, for this season, has proven to be a much better fit for me than the path of academic administration. I also learned a lot about academics, the people and the arena of academia.

When I finished my doctorate, I was proudly donning my academic regalia for the university's graduation. One of my now former colleagues came over and asked me if my degree was a Ph.D. or an Ed.D. He seemed genuinely miffed that mine is a Ph.D. Over the years, and long before I got my own doctorate, I noticed there was a tension between the Ph.D. and the Ed.D. In the academic hierarchy, the Ph.D. is considered "better" than the Ed.D. I suspect the differences are related to the kinds of hoops one has to jump through to complete doctoral obstacle course. I bet mine were smaller and had more flames, but there is true elitism in academia.

The Plurk conversation was related to the behavior of the decorated (those with doctorates and, therefore, fancy stripes on their regalia) toward the non-decorated (those without doctorates of any kind) and how often the decorated peer down at the non-decorated from their lofty ivory towers and seem to suggest that the non-decorated are somehow lesser beings.

I will admit that getting a doctorate was a lot of work. Talk to anyone who has experienced the rigors of that academic achievement and you will likely get a series of unpleasant and often unfortunate events. It is a tumultuous road fraught with all sorts of hazards. Most from your own committee. Doctoral candidates soon learn that the project that represents the culmination of their academic careers is not really their own work but that of the Committee. The doctoral candidate becomes an expert in negotiation and arbitration, moderating discussions between opposing committee members.

I was at a faculty development conference when one of the keynote speakers, addressing a roomful of doctorates, said that the only thing a doctorate says about you is that you are able to persevere and complete a project and that, for about 30 seconds, you were an expert in something.

The individual with the doctorate has proven what needs to be proven. But too often the decorated are those who remind others they are in the doctoral club. I don't know why some of the decorated consider themselves so special, but maybe my jaded perspective comes from the fact that I never felt completely a part of the world of academic that constantly feels the need to prove itself, even after tenure.

I think at the root of those kinds of insecurities are the standards by which we evaluate faculty: how many projects have been published in a peer-reviewed journal? how many presentation given in how many venues to an audience of how many? The US places so much emphasis on improving teaching for K-12 classroom teachers, but allows some incredible muttonheads to be in front of the classroom in colleges and universities because those individuals have a 37-page CV which includes a list of abstruse publications but in peer-reviewed journals. In their rarefied world, size does matter but teaching, theoretically one of the reasons they entered academic in the first place, places a distant second, even third.

So I think the tension between the decorated and the non-decorated may have something to do with an subconscious understanding of passion and purpose. The individual who lovingly labors to teach with a mere Master's degree probably really loves to teach, and loves seeing personal and academic growth in her students. The individual with the doctorate may have been caught in the "betcha can't top this" competition of research and publications. Perhaps that individual with the doctorate, especially the one who feels compelled to do research more and publish more, is the one who secretly fears she will be discovered as a poser because her focus, her passion and true purpose is not directed towards students and teaching.

Of course, a simpler explanation is that those with doctorates are just arrogant and need to get over themselves. I suspect the truth lies somewhere betwixt, between, and among those polar perspectives.

No comments: