In Labor Economics, we often talk of education as “human capital investment.” A person attending school of some kind is seen as making decisions similar to the investments made when people purchase capital, usually in the form of machines or equipment, for their companies. I found myself thinking of this recently when I read an article in which a former teacher suggested that young people not go into teaching. As someone who wants the best teachers possible for my daughter, I cringed at some of what it said.
While that article was aimed at young people who might want to teach in high school or below, I found myself remembering a conversation I had with a former professor years ago. Excited about the possibility of joining the professorate, I could not contain my idealism as I told him, one of the most idealistic teachers I knew, of my plans. Surely he would share my joy at the future that lay in front of me! Instead, he grew very serious and warned me that the life of a professor was not all that it appeared. A lot of work went into preparing for classes, work that was not always rewarded, he warned me. And “tenure” could be a very difficult hurdle to get past. Of course, at the time, I had no clue what life might send me, or that my health would fall off a cliff the very first day of my first tenure track job. Surely, I, who had done well in school all my life, would be able to navigate the tenure process without difficulty. I thanked him for his thoughts, but I did not change my plans.
However, I still thought that maybe I would have him write one of my letters of recommendation when it came time to apply to graduate school. Alas, I never got the chance to ask him for that letter of recommendation, as he died before I filled out my first application. He was forty-four years old when he was taken from us, but his dedication continues to influence my teaching to this day.
I find myself thinking of what kind of an essay I might write to students who might be considering a career in the academy. I would be more encouraging than was the author of that article who wrote to potential teachers, even though I recognize the areas that provide particular difficulties for modern professors. There is the drive to do away with tenure, the difficulty in finding a full time job in the first place, and a push to think of student success in terms of standardized tests. However, despite the challenges, it is still the only line of work I can imagine for myself.
I would point out that this is a job that lets you think for a living. Even the most scripted lecture can present challenges as students ask questions, sometimes questions that you never considered before. It is a job where relationships are important, where valuing students is encouraged, and where you can see the difference you make in students as they grow from nervous first year students to confident graduating seniors. And you get to cheer them on as they walk across the stage at graduation.
This is a job where you don’t have to accept the status quo as it is, but can work towards changing it by investigating causes of, and potential answers to, issues facing society. Although you will likely not find great fame, you can be part of a long line of scholars that become a small part of the conversation. And, someday in the distant future, a new scholar may happen upon your work and read it as if it was written just yesterday, saying and perhaps writing you name in the process. The ancient Egyptians felt that immortality was found when your name was not forgotten. However small your contribution to the great academic discussion might be, it is, in a sense, a way to touch that immortality. And that idealistic professor? His name was Michael Foley.
What would you say to students interested in becoming professors?
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