'The PhDictionary'

New book decodes key terms for academic life, from A to Z.

April 21, 2016

From ABD to P&T, higher education has its own language (and we’re not even talking about discipline-specific jargon or academese). Most Ph.D. hopefuls become fluent via the immersion method (aka graduate school), but what if there was a dictionary of sorts to help out along the way? Now there is. The PhDictionary: A Glossary of Things You Don’t Know (but Should) About Doctoral and Faculty Life (University of Chicago Press) decodes -- in alphabetical order -- 149 key terms for academics. Beyond basic definitions, author Herb Childress, co-founder of the consulting firm Teleidoscope Group and former dean of research and assessment at the Boston Architectural College, illuminates each term with stories about his own off-the-beaten-path journey through graduate school and the professoriate.

Case in point, the entry for “first generation,” or the first in one’s family to attend college, reads, in part, “I graduated with my undergraduate degree in 1989, at the age of 31. Had I come from a college family, I’d have finished my Ph.D. by the time I was 31; had I come from an academic family, I’d have had half a chance at being tenured at 31. But it was OK. I had a bachelor’s degree in architecture [from the University of California at Berkeley], and a deep longing to be adopted into the community of scholars. I knew what the holy land felt like, knew where I wanted to live.”

Spoiler alert: Childress’s journey doesn’t end with that elusive tenure-track job. But it does involve meaningful work at various stops along the way. While Childress is honest with readers about their relatively poor chances at a landing a tenure-track position, he offers himself and his experiences up as guides to those who would tread the graduate school path anyway. The result is an unusually hopeful addition to the literature on graduate school that makes pursuing a life of the mind -- even if the end state isn’t a professorship -- seem worthwhile. (Caveat: Childress doesn’t advise going to graduate school if the only way to do it is to take on debt.)

Childress agreed to a Q&A with Inside Higher Ed. Here are some of his answers.

Q: There a quite a few recent books on the graduate school experience (managing it, ways to not to “screw it up,” to name a few). What does your book contribute to the growing genre?

A: Most of what’s been done has fallen into the general how-to mode. They generally take a chronological sequence starting from some beginning state (for instance, star undergrad preparing to apply to grad school) and carrying through to some desired end state like successfully defending a dissertation. I felt that one of the missing elements was simply a good description of the aspects of academic culture that the unsuspecting new student or new faculty member will face.

I also tend to distrust linear, recipe-style reductions. Complex, contextual worlds just don’t fit into simple, reliable sequences.

Q: How did you decide on the glossary concept?

A: I don’t think I decided, so much. I’d just left higher ed for private practice and a happy home life -- I’d been working four hours away from home, commuting to work and my Medford [Mass.] apartment on Sunday night and then back home to Vermont on Friday evening. And I realized that I had a lot of stories that had been both funny and useful to my students and colleagues. So I started to write some of these tales, and they started to coalesce around core concepts.

Q: There’s so much bad news about graduate school, at least in terms of tenure-track job prospects thereafter, and you do warn students that the odds are against them. Yet the book as a whole is somewhat lighthearted. Why?

A: I’d once been one of the final two candidates for a great job, and I sat in the final interview before about 20 people. A very good friend of mine who was part of the hiring committee told me that he watched me lose that job during that interview. “They wanted answers, and you gave them stories,” he told me.

That’s just been one of my fundamental ways of engaging the world, that kind of storytelling that reveals something unexpected, a shift from one context to another that might illuminate something about both. That’s why I went into ethnography; that’s why I studied the details of lives of teenagers in one small community rather than a statistically generalizable but bloodless overview of “adolescent spatial life.” Details of lives matter, and detailed lives are tragic and funny and way more engaging to me than concepts. No little kid ever climbed into to bed and said, “Explain me something, Daddy.” It’s always “Tell me a story.”

As you say, doctoral and faculty life are serious topics. I’ve gone through my own grief about not being part of the world of the faculty, and I don’t use the word “grief” easily here. But I also like to make people laugh. I think our culture is a little overstocked with irony and snark and outrage; I’d like to bring a little generosity and encouragement to a journey that’s already fraught with ways to become curmudgeonly. I still think the college faculty is a club worth joining, even if I didn’t get in myself.

Q: Talk a little bit about your own journey to graduate school and into the professoriate, perhaps starting with your professional bowling aspirations.

A: I went to college in 1976 for no meaningful reason except that I could, and my mom had aimed me at it for years since she hadn’t been able to go herself. That first foray lasted two years, at which point I got married and dropped out. What I really wanted, and had since I was grade-school boy, was to bowl. I didn’t want to be famous and didn't want to be rich -- which is good, because bowling is a poor strategy for either outcome. What I wanted was to do this complex, difficult thing as well as I possibly could. I could go on for hours about just how complex bowling is -- suffice for our purposes to say that it was a rich enough physical and intellectual endeavor to keep me captivated for almost 20 years.

Once I left that behind, knowing that my capacities had peaked and would never go beyond that particular threshold, I bumped along for a few years in retail and finally went back to college because I was bored and because, at that point in the mid-1980s, I could afford to. I’d never have gone back if it were last year -- the financial risk would have been way too much. And I discovered a new set of complex, difficult things that I wanted to do as well as I possibly could.

I grew up on a block of identical houses, built all at once in 1946. I watched people do little modifications here and there, saw that they were matching their houses to their ways of living. And because of that, I’d always been interested in why people built what they built, and thought of architecture as a way to follow that interest.

It turns out that architecture school is possibly the worst possible venue to study that interest. Architecture faculty were artists, large-scale sculptors with absolutely no knowledge of or interest in everyday human life. But I discovered architectural history, the study of buildings as evidence of culture and motive, and I was hooked. Along with the standard “greatest hits” survey courses, Berkeley had a remarkable two-semester course sequence in American vernacular landscapes taught by Paul Groth, a cultural geographer who became my foremost intellectual mentor. And Paul encouraged me to think about entering the world of scholarship myself.

I knew I’d stay at Berkeley for my Ph.D., but thought I should have a backup school and discovered this program in environment-behavior studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which seemed like a related body of interests. After I was accepted at both schools, the people at UWM were nice to me and seemed to think that my research interests were valid, and the guy who will remain nameless at Berkeley said that my research interests were stupid but that they thought they could make a decent historian out of me because “you seem alert.” So again, just the simplest of human interactions had a profound effect on my career paths.

[Milwaukee] was awesome, but nobody really ever talked about academic careers. They were masterful at the content, but not at preparing us for how to play the game, how to network and position ourselves and realize that entering the faculty is a team sport, not an individual sport. So my time on the market was isolating and shame filled and grossly unsuccessful. And I was in my 40s by then, working in well-paid professional positions that made absolutely no difference in the world. Duke University took a chance on me as a postdoctoral teacher of writing, God bless them, and I hope they feel that risk paid off. I took a 50 percent pay cut to go there. But that was a limited-term position, and I left them at age 48 to become the director of liberal studies at Boston Architectural College. I understood and believed in liberal education; I’d done programmatic assessment; I understood architectural history and theory. I was a good fit for them, and I was good at the work. I brought them into doing the kinds of academic assessment that schools 10 times their size and a hundred times as wealthy never even try.

But that was administrative life, not teaching and research. It felt a lot like living next door to your old girlfriend: you got to see her every day, but you were always reminded of the life you'd never, ever have. Administrative life was easy to leave behind, and the writing has emerged, as it always has for me, as a way to teach myself something about the world.

Q: How did you collect your entries, and do you have a favorite?

A: There are 149 entries. The first 50 or so grew from personal stories of things I’d learned the hard way. The next 80 or so were more deliberate, once I knew that this project really was a project -- they mostly came from a decade of being part of the Council on Undergraduate Research, hanging around with department chairs and deans and provosts from across the entirety of academic disciplines, and having to learn that language quickly enough to be a productive member of that community. I was amazed at the breadth of things I’d had no contact with, like [promotion and tenure] procedures and the IACUC [institutional animal care and use committee] and open-access journals and the daily travails of the provost.

Once the book was in production, my editor at Chicago, Elizabeth Branch Dyson, suggested some other nominations for glossary terms. I took most of her recommendations, but only the ones for which I had anything meaningful to offer. Basically, if I didn’t have some personal connection to it through my own experience or the close-at-hand experiences of friends, I didn’t include it.

Favorites? Probably the ones that gave me the greatest emotional range. First generation, interdisciplinary, teaching, meritocracy, emotional balance, the two-body/two-career/trailing spouse problem. The ones where the issues of our personal identities within academic culture were most forward.

Q: You note in the book that at one university, at least (Duke), a surprising number of your postdoctoral colleagues had parents who were professors, and that that kind of background was totally foreign to you. Do you intend this book for first-generation Ph.D.s or those who otherwise consider themselves graduate school "outsiders"?

A: Yes and no. Certainly, we pay almost no attention to the phenomenon of the first-generation student beyond their undergraduate years, even though a fair number of us do well in college and want more. And coming from a blue- and pink-collar family, I just had tons of things to learn about navigating the white-collar world in general. Not a lot of lawyers’ sons aspiring to become professional bowlers, after all ….

But in a fundamental way, the shift to faculty life is uncharted waters for anyone; we’re all outsiders. Someone completing a Ph.D. has been in school for 20 years, and they’ve learned how to be a stellar student. They were the best student in kindergarten, they were the best student in fourth grade, they were the best student in high school, they were best in their class at college, and they may even have been the best student among their doctoral cohort. They’ve mastered the strategies that allow them to be rewarded, as individuals, for individual work. The closed world of a single classroom is a relatively pure meritocracy, in which I can demonstrate that I’ve done some work more thoroughly and with more élan than everybody else. A venue in which the work that others do is utterly independent from the work that I do, each judged on its own merits.

The shift to the faculty is fundamentally a shift from individual to collective effort, and that’s a transition that we rarely make explicit. The PhDictionary is intended to help people understand a culture, and to know that being the best individual player isn’t sufficient to enter the orchestra.

Q: Do you think a tenure-track job is the ultimate graduate school reward, or are there other, equally rewarding outcomes?

A: That’s a question with huge personal variation. I have colleagues who’ve done Ph.D.s in order to better position themselves within their professional communities as consultants. I have colleagues who’ve done Ph.D.s because they already have faculty lives on the basis of a terminal degree in their field -- a master of fine arts or master of architecture degree, for instance -- but felt that their academic career paths would be eased with the larger credential.

My own dissatisfactions with the world of professional life -- and I include higher ed administration within that -- is that they aren’t effective venues for curiosity. The professional world is about expertise, about packaging that thing you know how to do and being as efficient and streamlined as you can be in doing it. My interests in the academic world were about not knowing, about entering a murky and difficult circumstance and taking whatever time it took, using whatever tools I had to manufacture, to come to some compassionate and generous understanding of it. Higher education is one of the few arenas in which that attitude -- fundamentally the attitude of liberal education, after all -- is allowed room to flourish.

As higher education itself becomes more committed to the corporate-productivity model, what [Jean-Paul] Sartre named as the intellectual who busied himself with service to power, even that oasis of open-ended thought is drying and shrinking. It’s our own form of climate change, in which the habitat is less friendly to its once-native species.


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