There are times when – typically, in the evening, at the end of a day especially filled with frustration on multiple fronts – StraightMan and I look at each other and sigh a single word: “Thwarted.”
It is a word that StraightMan and I not infrequently use.
While it can apply to parenting (e.g., our plans to enjoy a deliciously spiced dinner become thwarted by our daughter’s preference for plain butter pasta with anything and everything else on the side…), we typically use it to describe our teaching and especially our scholarship. As in: The lecture and discussion that we have prepared meticulously and even enthusiastically for a reading that especially fires our ire become thwarted by the fact that the sun shining this afternoon means that too many students will have skipped their assignment for the next day. Or as in: Our goals to prepare an article or a book chapter or a research grant become thwarted by everything else.
On days of thwart, StraightMan and I frequently follow our sighs with a question: “What happened?”
By which we mean: What the hell are we doing, mucking around in the trenches of Higher Ed? By which we mean: Were we not trained – nay, formed – for the idylls of Academia?
StraightMan and I teach, respectively, at a small, private liberal arts college of which neither of us had heard until he applied for the job, and at a middle-sized public comprehensive college that until recently had been known primarily as a party school.
I will take the risk of sounding arrogant: I confess that these were not necessarily the kinds of jobs that either of us had imagined for ourselves. I see this now not so much as hubris and more as naivete. StraightMan and I met in the final days of our senior year at a small, private liberal arts college that appears regularly at the tops of lists that “rank” schools. He and I received our PhD’s from the top programs at private (his) and public (mine) research universities. At such places, one is sheltered - and one feels, rightly or wrongly, that one is being cultivated for Academia.
So, this is not a complaint about the quality of our colleagues or even our students. At our respective institutions, StraightMan and I have colleagues with impressive credentials as scholars and inspiring gifts as teachers. (Then there are the ones whose retirements are awaited eagerly, I acknowledge.) We have students whose parents I hope to meet because I wish to congratulate them on raising such thoughtful, kind, motivated, and diligent children - and ask them how they did it. (Then there are the ones who make us mutter darkly about the good old days when a high school diploma might have sufficed.)
I could be describing almost any college or university in America today.
Sitting in my Ivory Tower, I had little inkling of the existence of Higher Ed until I began to work in it. It is a lot harder work than anyone in Academia ever advised me.
This brings me to a recent post on the anthropology blog, Savage Minds, which muses on what happens now with the contraction of Academia / Higher Ed:
One concern that I’ve heard which seems almost equally universal is that in a shrinking job market the most likely people to get shafted are the newly-minted Ph.D.s from ‘not-the-top-schools’. I’m not sure this is exactly true.
The blogger then describes where the jobs are - or rather, what the jobs are today: Not Academia, but Higher Ed.
Now, I am not sure that I am right about all this, but if I am then I think we can see what the implications are: although Top Schoolers might be best positioned for jobs in terms of their cultural capital, the best people to meet the demand for new jobs might be the Second Stringers of people who come from perfectly decent but not spectacular schools.
Leaving aside any distaste or disagreement with the blogger's terms themselves, I see the issue as less about Top Schoolers and Second Stringers - and more about underestimating and under-appreciating the skill required to be effective, productive, and successful in Higher Ed.
Not to mention - dare I even say it - the skill required to be happy.
On days of thwart, StraightMan and I occasionally invoke the names of Academics we have known, either as our teachers or as our fellow students. Most of them, we figure, never could do the jobs that we do in Higher Ed. Or be happy.