“You’ve inspired me to want to become a professor.”
This is what one of my students recently told me, in front of the class. He is a student with whom I have developed a friendly relationship outside of the classroom because (in part) we have both lived in Southern California. He asked me, point blank, if getting a PhD and becoming a professor was a good idea. Visions of the Humanities PhD and Political Science PhD videos flashed in my head. But he looked so earnest and eager. What subject are you interested in, I asked. Economics, he answered.
Whew. I dodged a bullet on that one. Yes, I said, go for it.
I was at once flattered and horrified. Flattered, because what person doesn’t want to hear that they have inspired someone to be like them? I have obviously achieved my goal of changing the lives of the students I teach, or at least the life of one student in particular. Horrified, because, really? As the professor/administrator says in the video: Do you not see where I am teaching? I told him point blank that I don’t have tenure, nor am I on the tenure-track (“You should get on that,” he said). Do I really represent the epitome of your hopes and dreams?
This seems to be happening a lot lately. When my post about how academia makes most things meaningless was picked up by another education blog, I suddenly became a kind of minor folk hero, worthy of emulation. Not one, but two other higher education bloggers (here and here) quoted my post and reiterated how I was showing another way for aspiring academics.
When I started my blog nine months ago, I had a few goals in mind: create a “brand” for myself, stave off boredom and insanity, and start really writing again. I took a chance, and kept taking chances, like starting to write for the University of Venus. But mostly I was trying to make up for what, I thought at the time, were some of the most ridiculous mistakes someone could make on their quest to win a tenure-track position, the ultimate goal of the aspiring academic.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. That girl in the Humanities PhD video? That was me. All naïve and hopeful and completely clueless. I was a terrible student as an undergrad; I got good grades, but I was more interested in partying than I was handing in work on time. Why my professors agreed to keep me on for another two years to do an MA is beyond me. I stayed on because I liked literature and I liked where I was living. I was actively discouraged from doing a PhD, but decided to do so anyway. I chose the institution for my PhD for the adventure of it. When I was gently (and no so gently) coached to change or modify my PhD topic, I stubbornly refused. When it was suggested that I change supervisors for both political and academic reasons, I once again refused. I gave up a tenure-track job to be with my husband and family.
But now, I guess I am a role model of sorts. As I wrote last month, perhaps the tenure-track appointment isn’t the be-all and end-all of someone looking to become an academic. Many other people, in private, have told me how brave they think I am, or how they are envious of my current success. I am doing things differently. I am helping to redefine academic and professional success within higher education.
It is far from ideal. I am still uncomfortable about being a part of that 60% who describes themselves as being happy off the tenure-track, a number so often used to justify the university’s ever-increasing reliance on contingent faculty. Perhaps my happiness is just an illusion, as one of the commentators suggested on my last post. But it is no more an illusion than the actor, writer, contract worker, artist, or freelancer who is moving from job to job, contract to contract, doing what they love and doing what they have to do to survive.
I have, apparently, against all odds, become a role model, in both the traditional and non-traditional sense. I asked in another previous post what kind of role model I was going to be for my children. The answer would appear to be, a good one.
Lee Elaine Skallerup has a PhD from the University of Alberta in Comparative Literature. She has taught in two Canadian provinces and three States, and is now branching out as an Edupreneur. You can visit her blog at collegereadywriting.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter (@readywriting). Lee is also a regular contributor at University of Venus.