Friday, June 10, 2005

Mentors, mentors all around, or What did you learn in school (pt. 1)?

Thoughts upon a quick read of Hall (just got back in town and retrieved my book):

Hall complains early on that the 4-4 loads that come with many available jobs "were never even mentioned" (uel sim.) by grad school professors. While I take his point that grad school professors implicitly or explicitly train their students to replicate their own research careers and that grad school typically offers little direct preparation for teaching-intensive jobs, I'm flummoxed by the notion that one could get all the way to the job-search stage of a PhD and have no idea what was out there waiting. Did Hall pay no attention at all to the job searches of those a few years ahead of him in his program? Did he have no contact with alumni of his program? Were his interactions with professors limited to those old and sheltered enough not to have passed through less glamorous jobs on the way to the the exalted positions in which they were privileged to teach the (no doubt extremely irritating, if highly self-motivated) Mr. Hall? (Sorry, I'm getting a little crabby here.) In my experience, some of the most important mentoring in grad school came from the community of students, especially those five or six years older, who were finishing when I was starting and whom I could watch moving through the early stages of their careers as I approached going on the market myself. And while a significant number of my profs were people who had been hired in the 60s and had only ever had one job, there were plenty of others who had had a variety of kinds of positions before landing at Provincial Flagship R1. You'd have to be living under a rock not to be aware of new hires in your program and both the accomplishments and job-search vagaries that allowed them to move into R1 jobs, people on temporary contracts, late-stage grad students adjuncting all over the metro area, etc., etc. Big universities come equipped with the full range of kinds and stages of academic careers. For someone who is so interested in social structures and networks and is so organized about (micro)managing his own career, Hall seems (rhetorically, at least) to have moved through his own PhD experience in a very blinkered way.

Moreover, few students spend their entire academic careers in the same type of institution all the way from undergrad through PhD. Whether you started out in a liberal arts college or a branch college of a state system or whatever, you're likely to have been taught by people with careers more like the ones you're contemplating as a new PhD than like those of your grad school mentors. I know from personal experience that most undergrads are clueless about the status and workload of their professors, but surely students who are contemplating academic careers look about them and make inquiries and learn something about the profession. If they don't think to do it earlier, the topic surely comes up when undergrads talk to their (usually non-R1) mentors about recommendations for grad school. I know that when my students at a regional liberal arts college come to talk to me about grad school, the first question before they're even all the way in the door and in a chair is about what kinds of jobs one can get in what fields and with what kinds of degrees. They're clueless about the answers until told, but they're not at all clueless about what questions to ask. I know that when I was an undergrad, my favorite professor was on a series of one-year contracts and he didn't hesitate to talk about the trials of being on the market every year. His job at my undergrad school didn't turn tenure track till after I graduated. He was one of the luckier survivors of the dismal job market of the late 70s, and he was very up front (i.e. discouraging) about what lay ahead for his students contemplating grad school.

Indeed, I think the influence of our undergraduate teachers on how we ourselves teach and as models for what an academic career looks like is seriously underestimated in most discussions (laments) about the inadequacy of professional mentoring.

(Enough screed for this morning. I have more thoughts about the Hall version of what you learn in grad school, but I'll save those for a separate post.)