Promoting the Culture of Teaching

When graduate students plot their careers and graduate programs train these students, it's time to broaden the conversation, writes Sean P. Murphy.

October 20, 2008

Lily Tomlin famously quipped, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” While I am loath to think of myself or some colleagues in rodent terms, success (or winning), as popularly understood within the professoriate, exacts a price from those in the race, “winners” and “losers.”

For better or for worse, the goal of the graduate school race, winning a tenure-track assistant professorship at a certain type of college or university, frames the pre-professional experience of most students of English and foreign languages. What graduate programs boast in scholarly training, however, they often lack in institutional training -- that is, in guiding future faculty members to see and experience positively the variety of professional identities rooted in diverse academic cultures, specifically the cultures of teaching-intensive colleges.

New Ph.D.’s in tenure-track positions at teaching-intensive colleges and universities rather unfairly have to learn on the job the role of assistant professor at institutions whose cultures do not mirror those of the Ph.D.-granting universities they just left. Once the elation of securing a tenure-track appointment subsides, the same fortunate minority who emerge from the job crisis having won the race now cope with a second job crisis, one involving the cross-sector transition from research-intensive to teaching-intensive institutions.

The year I completed my doctorate, fall turned to spring, the job market turned from four- to two-year colleges, and I turned into a community college professor, one with few strategies at the ready to brook the physical and emotional toll of a 5/5 teaching load as well as a 2- to 3-course summer load. The word “graceful” does not come to mind when I think of my personal cross-sector transition from graduate school’s paradigm of reflection and knowledge production to my community college’s standard of commotion and spirited knowledge transmission, all in a microcosm, the College of Lake County in Illinois, of a macrocosm in which 12 percent of full-time faculty hold doctorates.

As a minority in terms of degree attainment, the impulse to bring the best of my doctoral education to a community college inspired several projects: an internship program to bring graduate students to our campus before they entered the job market, thereby getting a sense of at least one community college’s day-to-day life; specially designed themed composition courses that moved away from traditional rhetoric to more current theoretical orientations, social-epistemic chief among them; and, perhaps most important to initiating a national dialogue about academic cultures, a collection of essays from foreign language and English Ph.D.’s.

Intuitively knowing I was not the only faculty member struggling to bring humanistic intellectual ideals to a teaching-intensive college, I wanted to read of other Ph.D.’s who became successful public intellectuals in academic settings that, generally speaking, neither afforded them the time nor resources to articulate their stories, to publish accounts of their transformation from “scholar” to “teacher-scholar.”

Thus was Academic Cultures: Professional Preparation and the Teaching Life born. A collection of essays from faculty who have built rewarding careers at teaching-intensive colleges and universities, Academic Cultures creates a space for faculty who often remain silent in academe once they leave graduate school -- again, for lack of time and resources. To be sure, as the job crisis in English and foreign languages continues, we need detailed narratives from people who have adapted their doctoral habits of mind to the needs of schools ranging from tribal colleges, to border colleges, to comprehensive colleges, to non-elite religiously-affiliated colleges, to high schools.

Just as Ph.D.-granting departments depend upon faculty members to design curricula that will meet the needs of graduate students, so do all departments, whether they grant A.A.'s, B.A.'s, M.A.'s, or certificates. Aeron Haynie, a Victorianist at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, a comprehensive university, asks in an essay an important question of professors: “Shall we devote more concern to ensuring that students read certain authors ... or to developing their skills in critical thinking, reading, and writing?” The same question can be asked of professors across higher education, whether humanists or scientists. Haynie concludes that “our profession needs to clarify what we teach and how it might be useful to a larger public that exists in the varied cultural contexts in which colleges themselves reside.” To clarify connections between the humanities and real communities, our profession needs to hear the voices of humanists practicing in all sectors of higher education, especially those colleges and universities with greater ties to the community, with a greater need for public intellectuals.

The K–12 system already links theory to practice, the humanities to communities, because primary and secondary schools are integral parts of the communities they serve . Colleges of Education and state regulations mandate the student teaching experience, in which candidates learn first-hand how to apply knowledge to the classroom, all the while enjoying the benefits of mentors, meetings, and college classes devoted to supporting students as they navigate the choppy waters of taking the lead in a classroom.

Ph.D.’s in secondary schools can take the lead in translating the language of advanced study in a discipline to praxis, as Stephen da Silva does at a private high school in Texas, where he taps into a mainspring of positive challenges. “When I began teaching high school,” Da Silva comments in his essay, “I rather arrogantly imagined that I was regressing. Instead, I have entered a profession that demands that I grow.” Although we do not expect high school faculty members to produce conventional research, the broad community of Ph.D.’s, scholars all, need not accept the silence of those who are busy with large class loads, large class sizes, and community activism. The political stakes are too high.

As past director of the Writing Center at Concordia University of Oregon, Lynnell Edwards makes literal da Silva’s growth metaphor in the title and content of her essay “Grow Where You’re Planted.” She candidly articulates both the nourishment offered by an evangelical institution’s call to community as well as the deprivation that comes from wondering “more than once whether I keep this position simply because it is a full-time job, something more and more scarce in the humanities, or because the work I am doing here matters at some level beyond my own intellectual and professional satisfaction.” Grappling with the dissonance between the institution’s values and her life’s work remains a paradox that Edwards finds vitalizing. “Ultimately, having had to reckon with the dilemma is what gives meaning to the life.”

Others find work in contexts with more harmony between their personal beliefs and professional practice. Keene State College professor Mark C. Long, for example, acknowledges those, like himself, who “have managed to make satisfying professional lives in less than ideal circumstances by setting aside the conventional narrative of the profession.” That conventional narrative, shaped as it is by expectations of moving from the position of a student at one Ph.D.-granting department to the position of an assistant professor at another Ph.D.-granting department, excludes faculty members who consider it their good fortune to have traveled between and among diverse academic cultures.

How can we broaden notions of career success beyond the hierarchical Carnegie classification system of colleges and universities, research-intensive or not, to include considerations of the social impact of an institution, of the extent to which a work life fulfills professors, or of the match between the talents of Ph.D.'s and the needs of certain college, university, and/or community constituents?

Indeed, narrow definitions of career success limit professors’ self-definitions and their potential as public intellectuals. Humanists have devoted too little attention to the relations among the profession, higher education, and society. As Vladimir Lenin noted, “One cannot live in society and be free from society.” Demands from external stakeholders for accountability in the professoriate make active teacher-scholars a necessity for the future of the humanities.

Time and again I find colleagues like Robert Chierico, Fabiola Fernández Salek, Evelyne Norris, and Virginia Shen, who demonstrate to Ph.D.’s the meaning of accountability: teaching, service, research, and public outreach. They live in society, creating innovative undergraduate foreign language programs at Chicago State University for an urban student body consisting of “more women than men, many part-time students who work full-time, many students from low-income backgrounds, and a good number of returning students.” Echoing the themes of professors as change agents, of colleges as fundamental elements of communities, this team of professors works toward enabling student success by “delivering a high school–to–college transition program for minority students, providing special Spanish courses for native speakers, ensuring a strong study-abroad program, and offering a complete range of foreign language [courses], including ... Chinese and Arabic.”

As future faculty members prepare for the job market and as their professors who know best the rigors of research-intensive careers consider the market into which they are sending students, I hope they regard diversity in postsecondary education as a strength of the system rather than a problem to redress. Discussions with future English and foreign language faculty should include all the academic cultures in which professors establish gratifying careers. Listening to practitioners from teaching-intensive academic cultures (tribal colleges, community colleges of all sorts, art schools, baccalaureate colleges, and master’s colleges and universities) unsettles the provincialism of professors inhabiting different academic cultures, exposing them to a rigor unknown within the doctoral department.

My intended audience for Academic Cultures -- graduate faculty, doctoral program directors, and graduate students -- will find expressed in the essays of this anthology the unifying foundational ideals of higher education, albeit with different context-dependent definitions: teaching, service, and scholarship. While unity expressed in diversity is noble, change in graduate education is nobler.

Research is important, as is the dissertation. Teaching fellowships and assistantships serve graduate students well, on balance. But a physician would not dream of practicing medicine after having spent time in one medical school and one portion of the medical system. Much can be said for rotations, and doctoral candidates might do well to follow the medical school model by teaching at a range of institutions during their course of study. Graduate coordinators or directors can facilitate partnerships with local colleges and high schools, which would entail giving up some graduate student labor but gaining intellectual breadth.

If faculty members and administrators from different sectors of higher education communicated more systematically across academic borders to express distinctive features of their institutions, we might progress toward Ernest L. Boyer’s goal of “ diversity with dignity in American higher education,” thus affirming the various ways Ph.D.’s express their intellectual leadership within their careers and, of great consequence to the public intellectual, to their students and home communities.


Sean P. Murphy is professor of English and humanities at the College of Lake County, in Illinois. This essay is adapted from his introduction to Academic Cultures: Professional Preparation and the Teaching Life, published by the Modern Language Association.


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