Post Academic

The Five Stages of the First Day of School

Posted in First Person by Arnold Pan on September 3, 2010
Tags: , ,

"First School Day" by ERWEH (Creative Commons license)

I’ve been taking note of all the back-to-school status updates from my Facebook friends, which don’t exactly make me envious, though maybe a little nostalgic.  We’re still about 3 weeks from the start of school here on the quarter system (yay, summer!), though I’m entirely sure if anything changes that much for staff.  Anyhow, I was recalling what that first day of school is like from one stage of my academic life to another, starting with college up to being an adjunct.

1. College: There was definitely a palpable excitement for the first day of classes, since I was definitely a little bit of a self-defined geek going from high school to college.  It wasn’t just the thrill of living somewhere new with lots of interesting new people, but there was a sense of exhilaration in getting to choose what I wanted to learn for the first time ever.  I loved leafing through the newsprint schedule of classes, then slowly whittling down all the candidates for the courses I wanted to take into my schedule that quarter, leaving a little wiggle room for the “shopping” period to make my final decisions.  The first day of classes was just a fulfillment of all the planning, though maybe an anti-climactic one in the end.

2. Grad school: I experienced something of the same thing on my first day of classes in grad school, only it didn’t feel like such a watershed moment.  Rather, I went about starting grad school with a more practical — and perhaps cynical — perspective: Things needed to get done, such as figuring out what the other folks within what was going to be a very insular grad school social circle were like and gauging the competition among my classmates.  The latter wasn’t exactly front-and-center in my mind, but it was definitely something I was thinking about as I started to make my flawed and judgmental judgments way too early.

The first day of school gets less and less looked forward to, below the fold…


How to Avoid Student Loan Debt

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionIf you insist on taking out a loan for graduate school, remember …

Don’t do it. That’s the easiest way for potential grad students to avoid student loan debt.

But who are we to get in the way of a career dream? So, if you insist …

Don’t take out anything more than you think you can make in the first year. Assume that you’ll be employed at a state school, not at a private school. Visit sites that list the salaries of state employees, and look up the salaries of people you know are assistant professors in your field. (It’s a lot more polite than asking people what they make.) Type in “state employees salary database” in Google and see what comes up. Many newspapers keep a database for muckraking purposes. If you’re in California, start here:

Get federal loans at a fixed rate. Perkins or Stafford loans, for example, come from the government, and they have a fixed rate. You don’t want to get a private loan with a variable rate. That variable rate might seem low when you first get the loan, but it can go up based on market whimsy, and the market has been unusually whimsical as of late. At least with a fixed rate, you will have an easier time setting a budget.

More after the jump! Cover of Bleak House from Wikimedia Commons. (more…)

Treating Teachers Well, Part 2: The Slacker Professor Straw Man Problem

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionSo why aren’t teachers treated well? The ghosts of the Slacker Professor and the Slacker Teacher have a little something to do with it. These straw men have been used as an excuse to make cuts in public education and slice and dice good teachers for far too long. Even if charter schools succeed and education (higher ed or otherwise) is privatized, the employees are still going to be there, and they still deserve to be treated well. Yet it seems that teachers are treated like crap and excessively punished for the few slackers in their ranks.

As I’ve written about before, treating teachers badly, slashing their budgets, and busting their unions is a continuation of the weird impulse to destroy a whole system to root out a few slackers. So you don’t like the fact that there’s a bad teacher who has been relegated to the “rubber room” and is still getting paid. C’mon. Haven’t you worked with someone who did a bad job but who was relegated to the hamster-world equivalent of a “rubber room” because the company was afraid of getting sued?

The simple fact of the matter is that, once you hire someone, whether you are union or not, it is difficult to fire them, and you better have a bloody good reason to fire them. It’s the law, and unions won’t make that go away. Yet politicians and parents seem to lash out at teachers when they don’t realize the exact same thing is happening in their own workplaces.

More after the jump! Image from the Bundesarchiv on Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license. (more…)

Treating Teachers Well, Part 1: Why You Should Respect Teachers

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionA recent post by Teresa Ghilarducci over at Brainstorm deserves your attention because it shows how teachers are treated differently from other employees:

Let’s say you’re advising a business with varying quality and you want to improve performance. Would you ridicule the workers publicly; cut their pay and benefits; say they are the sole cause of the problem, and that you want brighter younger replacements who will work overtime and weekends? No new CEO would adopt this as a strategy for success. Attacking your workforce is not an effective way to improve quality, produce a better product, and attract top talent — a bright young replacement would notice the disrespect.

So why do people think attacking teachers is a route to education reform?

Ghilarducci goes into discussing charter schools and unions, but I’ll chime in with my own Hamster World view. Whether employees are unionized or not, you still have to treat them with respect. Busting the union does not let you off the hook.

In the Hamster World, I’ve been treated rather well. I’ve been thanked when I did a good job. In some cases, I even received a bonus, or at least some nice free meals. Nothing fancy, nothing Goldman Sachs worthy, but something that made clear I was appreciated as an employee and my work contributed to the company’s success.

Most employees just want a little respect on top of their paycheck. Most teachers do not get respect, or even decent, regular performance evaluations that let them know they’re doing a good job. Ghilarducci makes it clear–if you don’t treat employees well and fairly, they will leave.
More after the jump! Image of a teacher at work from 1917, public domain on Wikimedia Commons.

The Semi-Notorious New Yorker Cover

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionWow. That New Yorker cover by Daniel Clowes, which depicts a PhD moving back in with his parents and hanging his advanced diploma on the wall hit too close to home. Gina Barreca wrote over at Brainstorm, “We wonder whether the implication is that Ph.D.’s are worth as much as third-place ribbons—and are as easy to obtain.”

Eh. Somehow I don’t envision that New Yorker cover convincing a lot of readers that PhDs are deluded individuals who are doomed to return to Mom and Dad’s basement.

Yes, the portrait creates an unflattering picture of those with advanced degrees, but the reason it stings is that it makes New Yorker readers with PhDs feel like they’re being attacked by their own kind. That’s reason enough to dislike the cover, and I find it annoying because it perpetuates grad student/professor stereotypes. I don’t think, however, that the cover has a strong enough message to convince a person who is on the fence about the value of advanced degrees to dismiss such degrees entirely.

People move back in with their parents all the time because their grand life dreams didn’t work out, but it doesn’t mean there’s a reason to condemn the profession they chose. After all, people still go to the theater and go to rock shows, and for every successful actor or band, there’s probably about 10 people living in their Mom and Dad’s basements.

I posted the image of the New Yorker cover because I’m analyzing it for a semi-scholarly reason. I am fully aware that I’m pushing it with that rationale, so I kept the image small. If you want to see the image in detail, buy your own copy of the magazine.

Why You Should Invest in Computer Books

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionWe’ve already warned you against hoarding books, but you need some computer books for your academic career. Chances are good that you’re here because you have either started grad school or you are concerned about the state of grad school in the Humanities. So why do you need a book on HTML, CSS, or Windows 7?

A little computer knowledge can increase your value in the workplace, whether you wind up in academia or not. Learning HTML in particular expanded my job opportunities after I left graduate school. You don’t need to turn into a mega-hacker, but being able to hop on a computer or build a Web site or a Wiki will save you time and will make you much happier. Why is that, especially when you focus on books and reading?

Your students expect you to be wired. More and more students want PDFs, or they want to visit a Wiki to get course materials. You don’t have to start speaking to them in 140-character Twitter lingo, but you will need to make your coursework accessible in more ways.

Fewer IT resources will be available. As universities cut budgets, the hard truth is that departments will have to share the IT guys. That is not an ideal situation, but the delays you are experiencing now to fix your computer will only increase. It’s best to take charge of the situation and start thinking of the computer tasks you perform most often (Printing? Word processing? Spreadsheets for your grades?) and buy a book or two that can help you deal with these tasks.

Other faculty members will love you. You don’t want to get stuck showing people how to print specific sections of Excel spreadsheets, but being known as your department’s computer whiz gives you an edge.

But how do you get started? Schedule a few hours a weekend to sit down with your computer and learn some new skills. Set a goal first, such as creating a custom grading spreadsheet or building a wiki, get a book on the subject, and get started. If you want any specific book recommendations or have anything you want to suggest, either e-mail us or leave a note in the comments.

Image of a PDP-12 from Uppsala University from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Taking Time Off Before Grad School: Part Two, the Practice

Image SourceI knew exactly what I was doing when I applied to graduate school in English during my senior year of college. First, I wanted to get my letters of reference squared away before my advisors forgot me. Not that I would blame them for doing so. Professors are busy people who are always being asked for references. They’re bound to get people mixed up at some point.

I also wanted to get the testing over with. I took the GRE and the LSAT at the same time while I was in a studying mood.

Sure, if I had taken a year off, my writing sample would have been much better. I know my statement of purpose would have been better. But it’s hard to argue with momentum.

I didn’t want to go to grad school because I had hazy aspirations of a sheltered life in the academy. I wanted to get a job and move somewhere new. I had the test scores, the papers, the references, and a few years of tutoring under my belt. It made sense to go to grad school in English, not to go to some random city where I didn’t have a job and flounder a while until I found myself.

My undergrad advisors had warned me the job market was tough. They warned me not to stay in the same place where I did undergrad. One of them even told me straight-up not to go if I didn’t get funding. That advice was a real jolt, but it was the best advice I ever got. A program accepted me, I got funding, and I started my MA in the fall.

The point of all this? Undergrads are not necessarily lost if they tell you that they want to go to grad school. Many of them have thought out a plan. Many of them have back-up plans. Just tell them the truth about the market, the funding, the job prospects, and the placements–especially the placements. If you tell the truth and they go anyway, they can’t blame you if they don’t get a job in the end. I sure don’t blame my undergrad advisors for the fact that I decided I didn’t want to be a professor after all.

An image of the game Irides, an abstract strategy game designed by J.C.Tsistinas. Image from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

Taking Time Off Before Grad School: Part One, the Theory

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionTenured Radical champions the notion that undergrads should take some time off before entering a grad program. They’ll gain focus and experience, and maybe they’ll find a career so swell they won’t need grad school:

Regardless of whether you like this or not, or whether it seems fair, it is simply a fact that actual graduate school admissions committees at select schools will regard your application more favorably if you take a significant amount of time off. Two to five years, I would say. Want to do labor history? Be an organizer; spend one of those years as a day laborer or a factory worker. An anthropologist? Leave the country and learn a language. Learn two. Cultural studies? Try an advertising agency or tending bar on the Lower East Side of New York.

This makes perfect sense. Life experience can add dimension to a dissertation, and students will professionalize themselves in ways that will help them on the market. But I almost wish that Tenured Radical just uttered the Pannapacker Doctrine: “Just Don’t Go.”

Saying “just don’t go” sounds extreme, and it is, but at least it admits there’s a problem with the grad school system in general.

Maybe the real message is that people shouldn’t go to grad school until the big problems–namely the lack of jobs and the unwillingness of the program to help current students with back-up plans–are solved. If that’s the case, then people are going to need to take a whole lot more than two to three years off.

So, tomorrow … why didn’t I wait a few years to go to grad school?

Student teachers practice teaching kindergarten at the Toronto Normal School, Canada, 1898. Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Adjuncting and High School Teaching: Adventures in Post-Gradland

Adventures in Gradland (a great blog, FYI) is doing a series on based on a roundtable talk on Post Academic careers. The first article in the series is on what life is like as an adjunct, while the second is on high school teaching. Many PhDs in the Humanities work as adjuncts to fill in the gaps as they try to get a tenure-track job, while there are also those who work as much as full-time tenured brethren as “freeway flyers”–just without the benefits and perks. While it is often said that grad students are treated like cheap labor, this post suggests that adjuncts may be treated worse.

I recommend reading the whole thing, but the post’s bottom line stuck with me:

… don’t adjunct while you’re ABD unless you’re able to teach only one or two courses related to your dissertation, don’t adjunct for more than a year or two unless you want to be labeled a “generalist,” find out what course credits you need to teach high school so that you have a back-up plan, and get familiar with new technologies and online learning. And urge the MLA and the AAUP to start fighting for the rights of adjuncts.

One woman in the audience who had worked as an adjunct for several years made an impassioned plea–don’t adjunct, period. You’ll be exploited, you’ll ruin your chances of a secure academic career, and you’ll contribute to an exploitative system.

You may need to adjunct at some point because that’s what you’re qualified to do, but don’t overdo it. The cycle of exploitation is dangerous. You’ll expend so much energy on teaching that you won’t have the time to train for other careers if that’s where you suspect you’re headed in the long run. At the very least, you should be figuring out how to teach high school. High schoolers aren’t that scary, and the benefits are way better than what you would get as an adjunct.

Speaking of which, Arnold picks up the coverage of what the Gradland blog has to say about high school teaching below the fold…


Don’t Be the Van Wilder of Your Grad Program

Posted in Housekeeping,Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on May 12, 2010
Tags: , ,

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionI recently met a PhD student from a large, well-respected program. He stands a good chance of getting a job, and I asked him what his program was like. He said that the program has started pushing people harder to finish on time.

While there are definite financial benefits to lingering in a grad program, which Arnold has mentioned, grad students can gauge the health of a program not only by how many people get jobs but also by how quickly people get done. Shorter time-to-degree indicates the following:

1. Advisors that help move you along.
2. Enough financial support so you can focus on your research and finish the dissertation.
3. Respect for the future, not to mention the sanity, of grad students.

More after the jump! Image from the 1909 Tyee (yearbook of the University of Washington), public domain, Wikimedia Commons.


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