Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Advice to Would-Be Academics

Today’s online site for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s The Ticker features an article entitled “Academics’ Advice to Young Scholars Has a Familiar Ring to It.” It begins with a report on a column by Fusion website writer Felix Salmon in which he advises budding young journalists not to go into that profession if they can help it which resulted in an avalanche of tweeted responses. That, in turn, prompted a Twitter storm of commentary on the topic #AdviceForYoungAcademics.

In both cases, the advice is pretty brutal and the overall outlook is decidedly grim.

Why do you need to be a lawyer?

I’ve long been infamous in our department for being the recovering lawyer who tries to talk would-be attorneys out of going to law school. Of course, that’s only half true. My goal has always been to provide starry-eyed Boston Legal wannabes a reality check on what they’re actually getting into before they sign the dotted lines on their student loan papers.

I inevitably tell such students that I do not doubt their capacities to become attorneys. Smart people can do a lot of things but that doesn’t mean they should. What they should do is what they are called to do. And that takes a lot more soul searching than achieving high scores on LSATs and following a litany of advice from parents and friends who have always said some version of “Child, you’d argue with a fence post. You should be a lawyer!”

What my young legal eagles don’t know is that it’s a lot easier to walk away from law school prior to entering than once a student is there and has invested more than one pound of flesh in time, energy, agony and money.

Truth be told, I’ve written a number of letters of recommendation for those students I couldn’t talk out of law school to help them get into the profession they appear hell-bent upon entering. In virtually every case, I have felt the student had the promise of becoming a fine attorney. As I provide their recommendation, I inevitably tell them, “All right, now go be a good attorney. We need good attorneys.” And in virtually every case, they have performed brilliantly in law school and many now serve admirably as attorneys across the country.

Let’s hear it for Jedi Nation!

 But the article prompted me to think about the advice that I give my young would-be academics. I’ve taught many students who clearly were natural teachers and whose gifts are badly needed by a largely ungrateful public. I have never hesitated to make my observations of their talents clear to the student and to encourage them to come talk with me about the possibilities of a life in academia.
 But the fact that I admire and care for these students prompts me to pause in my encouragement of their vocations. Given the state of academia today, am I really doing them a favor by encouraging them to enter it?  

My Advice

My first attempt to articulate a response to this question came to me this morning as I read the many brutal tweets reported in the Chronicle story. Dear Lord. I’m glad none of these folks were my advisors in undergraduate. I do think the realpolitik element needs to be faced by would-be academics. But it’s simply not the whole story.

So here is the response I finally submitted to the Chronicle site:

My advice to a potential academic would be to follow your dream. Do not be deterred by naysayers. But also do not enter the arena unarmed.

Academia is a vicious, hypercompetitive arena populated by intellectual gladiators with thin skins and super-sized egos. Its operations are increasingly dictated by the shallow values of the corporate world and its classrooms are increasingly populated by consumers, not students.

Money is the bottom line. Never lose sight of that reality. And never labor under the misapprehension that your position there is secure. It almost never is.

Cherish collegiality where it might be found because it is an endangered species. The inevitable effect of corporatization is to pit workers against each other in a race to the bottom line.

Don your bullshit repellent raincoat to endure the torrents of self-serving PR designed to maintain a superficial "brand" that will be thrust upon you and, like the emperor’s new clothes, must never be questioned, at least not in public. Put on your hip-waders to deal with all of the mind-numbing assessments that will produce mounds of meaningless data that allows the ever increasing army of technocrats to sleep well at night. And get ready to serve on search committees that will reveal the real soul of your department with all its warts and will grease the wheels of underpaid and perennially job-insecure teaching staffs with the blood of ongoing human sacrifice of contingent labor.

In short, prepare yourself to work like hell, to receive little reward for your labors - either monetary or moral -  and to be criticized, often unfairly, on consumer surveys, faculty evaluations and by self-serving politicians.

Do not be deluded by dreams of Plato’s Academy. *This* is what you are signing onto.

But there will be rewards as well. You will meet some of the most interesting people you've ever met both in the lectern and in the seats of your classroom. You will learn some of the most interesting things you've ever known, particularly if you do not fall into the trap of specialization which condemns you to a confined life of defending a small patch of intellectual turf with a limited shelf life while ignoring the rest of the world.

You will have opportunities to travel and attend conferences where new ideas and new faces are presented. Take them without hesitation and do not fall into the trap of believing that your students or the bureaucratic duties thrust upon you cannot live without your presence. They can. And you will need the time away if for nothing else than to catch your breath.

Look at this whole picture with open eyes. See it in all its potentials, both good and bad. And if you still feel you are called to a life in academia, go for it. The world still badly needs true scholars unencumbered by debts to outside “sponsors.” And teaching remains a noble profession even as its beneficiaries – which ultimately includes all of us - regularly fail to demonstrate gratitude for the indispensable services teachers render.

Autumnal Advice

Of course, I offer this advice in the late autumn of my career as an academic. The light is beginning to appear at the end of the tunnel of my time in academia and I’m increasingly hopeful it is not an oncoming train.

My guess is that I would not have given such advice as little as five years ago. While I would not necessarily see myself as an optimist, I have long been an idealist. As such I’ve been willing to remain hopeful that the best potential of any of the institutions in which I have served (educational, legal, religious) could still be attained despite their inveterate inclinations to succumb to the entropy of the lowest common denominator. All that is ever required is a clear vision of where change needs to occur and the willingness of the human agents of these institutions to engage the hard work of living into that potential.

But much has changed in the past five years, not just in my own life but in academia at large. Change always has the potential for living into the sage vision of our Framers of “a more perfect union” even as we recognize that perfection itself will inevitably elude even its most dedicated seekers. But while evolutionary advances are one possibility in such changes, a degrading devolution is also possible.

The trends that are clearly dominant in academia today are alluded to above – decreasing public support, increasing corporate values replacing the classical value of the pursuit of knowledge and the devolution of students seeking such knowledge into hordes of consumers seeking satisfaction of entitlements. The results are fairly predictable: increasingly contentious relationships among peers, ever growing class loads, ever increasing technocratic micromanagement and the Niagara of managerial duties increasingly descending upon instructors under the rubric of an open-ended job description. And that’s all before one even gets to the wrestling over grades and course requirements with one’s customers.

Not surprisingly, all of this most often and most directly impacts the contingent labor providers least capable of defending their own interests. And in reality, it is precisely the contingent labor force where most would-be academics are headed these days. Would-be academics deserve to know this before they leave the Shire to take their Hero’s Journey.

Increasingly these days, the Dragon wins.

Yet, we need good teachers. And the world needs good scholarship without which we simply cannot hope to contend with the plethora of serious problems facing the human race today. As deeply as I feel my need to fully inform those who would enter lives of public service of what they are getting into, I feel just as deeply the need to encourage them to engage those sorely needed lives of service.

 Venerable Voices

So what advice can I give these young minds I have come to admire and love?

I think I would begin with Thoreau who would say:

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”

But I would quickly follow up that noble exhortation with the cautionary tale of this 1st CE writer:

“Be of a sober mind, ever vigilant. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your calling, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.”  (I Peter 5:8, adapted)

Both have valuable advice. And my young would-be academics will need both the hermeneutic of generosity and the hermeneutic of suspicion they provide if they are to navigate the shoals of academia.

This is the best I can offer you, young Jedis. Godspeed. Remember that I believe in you. And drop a line from time to time to let me know how you are surviving.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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