Sunday, March 30, 2014

Anticlimax and Discomfort as Doctor

On Friday, I defended my dissertation. It's the end of a journey, and I've struggled to process it. I'm writing this post to share with you two unexpected feelings in my first days in the liminal space between dissertation and life post-doctorate.

The most frequent question I have received in the past 48 hours is: How do you feel? In truth, I feel rather as I do any other day. Despite the fact that I just reached the summit of a major academic mountain, the whole process has been anticlimactic. When I finished writing a full draft of my manuscript, I took a breath, looked around to see if anyone else was present to share the moment, and, realizing I was alone, closed my laptop and walked away. There were no fireworks and no high-fives. Friends and family members, of course, were fantastically supportive and happy for me, but I didn't feel as though a weight had been lifted or some milestone had been achieved. On that day, just as I had done many of the preceding days, I wrote until I ran out of things to say. I didn't feel different.

My oral defense was similarly mundane. I presented to my committee and sat in front of them as they asked me questions and argued amongst themselves. I answered their questions and, generally, experienced little pressure. It was like a dinner conversation with academics. Though I knew in the back of my mind the full implications of the conversation, there was nothing ceremonious or dramatic about the process. I was in a classroom where just a year ago I had taken a course, not some concert hall in front of demanding audience. After the question and answer period, I waited a few moments in the hallway. My advisor asked me to come back into the room, before congratulating me and shaking my hand. That was it. Years of coursework and hundreds of pages. Sleepless nights and meager paychecks. All to end with a handshake.

I went out to dinner with my family and friends after the defense, and it was a wonderful time. There were a few toasts, and I was glad to share this experience with them. What I did not foresee was how uncomfortable it made me to hear them say they were proud of me. Perhaps because of how anticlimactic the defense was, I didn't feel as though I had done anything special. My response to being called "Doctor" has been even more visceral. Although I have completed all of the requirements of my degree, I have not reached a place where it feels appropriate to be Dr. McClure. Perhaps comfort will come with time. At the moment, I am haunted by an all-to-familiar feeling in academic life: Am I a fraud? What all of this may boil down to is feeling guilty. Guilty for being celebrated, when I'm not convinced yet that what I accomplished merits such praise.

I suppose on some level I wonder if others have likewise had conflicted feelings after reaching the finish line. Happy on the one hand, and relieved to be done, but uncertain of how to digest what it means on the other. I have been striving for so many years, counting the requirements to reach this moment. Now that the moment has come and gone, I have to reorient my life. I need to fill the void left by my finished dissertation. And, by all accounts, I should be happy. Yet what I feel isn't quite happiness. It's something close to happiness, with a twinge.

I don't at all expect that other PhD students out there will feel that same things that I have. However, it's worthwhile to prepare for a rather complex response to completion.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Suffering PhD: Should We Care?

*Note: Upon further reflection, I realized that I failed to make a distinction in this post. There is a difference between mental illness during doctoral training and emotional issues as a result of doctoral training. I'm referring to the latter in this post, and my thinking remains under construction.*

A recent article in The Guardian called completing a PhD "one of the toughest tests anyone can face in academic life." It noted that several countries are more closely monitoring the experience of PhD students, and raised important issues that merit consideration, including widespread feelings of isolation, perfectionism, stress, and imposter syndrome (or fear of being a fraud).

It is important to pay attention to these issues and talk about them openly. Too often, PhD students compete against one another and avoid (or feel uncomfortable) sharing their personal struggles with anyone. As a graduating PhD student, I appreciate the concern for how my peers and I are faring. Nevertheless, I can't help but ask whether the plight of PhD students really matters. Should we care that some PhD students are suffering? For me, the answer is: it depends.

On a personal level, we should care anytime someone is dealing with emotional distress. Even if depression comes about due to choices freely made, and even if feelings of anxiety and inadequacy have become normalized in the doctoral process, we should not simply accept suffering as natural and unquestioned. Cynics of the academic enterprise will say, "If you feel so lousy, why don't you just quit?" The reality to which many PhD students may attest is that we think about it regularly, but find the decision to be much more complicated. We may have already invested heavily in this path, in time, money, and energy. It is also true for some PhD students that they have trained to be academic researchers, and while I would certainly argue that these skills are broadly transferable, the prospect of finding a job outside of academe can be daunting. So, one answer to my question is, yes, on a personal level we should care if PhDs are suffering.

We should also care on the level of policy-making. PhD students and graduates are vitally important to the global research enterprise. Many labs and research projects are possible only because of PhD students who work hard at extremely demanding intellectual problems for reasonable pay. The work of these teams contributes in substantial ways to economic growth and job creation. Thus, every country and every institution should strive to create an environment where talented people see pursuing doctoral work as rewarding. We should send the message that PhD students will be adequately supported and that failure is not only tolerated, but viewed as essential to the discovery process. Simply put, we want smart people developing their skill set, and we want some of them to remain in academe to train the next generation. Otherwise, we risk alienating our brightest minds. It is smart public policy to pay attention to the experience of PhD students and to cultivate their success.

At the same time, there a few compelling reasons to not pay heed to the suffering PhD. One of these reasons is that, as far as educational issues go, the emotional problems of PhD students probably falls to the bottom of the list. And for good reason. We should recognize that a minuscule percentage of the global population receives a terminal degree. Our attention is more appropriately directed to ensuring that each individual has access to basic education as a human right. A bigger educational issue than PhD anxiety or even PhDs dropping out is persistent inequities by class, gender, and race. It's not that PhD inner turmoil is insignificant. Rather, it is just not as important as other educational issues that I believe warrant greater resources and media spotlight.

And one last point on this: we may elect not to care about PhD emotional health because, in truth, no one needs a doctorate to live a healthy, fulfilling life. In fact, some would argue that if completing a doctorate simply leads to a low-paying adjunct job, there's reason to leave before getting in too deep. While I acknowledge how difficult and potentially devastating the decision to end one's studies could be, there are still many opportunities for a former PhD student to find employment and thrive. In other words, the ramifications of PhD student suffering are not nearly as dire as they are at lower levels of education, where, depending on location, the ability to endure can result in substantial socioeconomic improvements. If we don't care about PhD student suffering, it's possible the world will be perfectly fine.

If all goes well, I will be officially finished with my PhD on Friday. There were many moments when I struggled with perfectionism, isolation, and anxiety. I flirted with quiting many times. I'm happy there were people in my life who cared enough to listen and encouraged me to push through. I'm glad also that my institution prioritized graduate student mental health and provided many reminders of support groups and counseling. However, I don't think my moments of panic and fear deserve more attention than reaching gender parity in basic education. I also know that, if I chose to walk away from it all, I was still far more privileged than many for even having the opportunity to try. Life would be fine if I wasn't Dr. McClure. Should we care about suffering PhDs? It depends.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Student as Customer: More than Language

In a recent opinion piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, David M. Perry cogently argued against the use of "corporate-speak" at colleges and universities. Responding to a job announcement that included the provision of "excellent customer service" as a requirement for faculty candidates, Perry concluded by saying, "Faculty members are not cashiers, ringing up the bill when students check out with knowledge—and not because that would be demeaning to the professor, but because the responsibility of a teacher to his or her students is far greater than the employee to the customer." I agree, but think the argument could be extended beyond language.

It is not just that references to students as customers has infiltrated higher education discourse, principally amongst administrators. Indeed, it is increasingly the case that college and university professionals assume that students are consumers who demand consumer amenities. There is a subtle difference between talking about students as customers and assuming that they are consumers, but it is a significant difference. The logic of student as consumer is powerfully shaping the geography of campuses and college towns. It also influences student conduct in potentially alarming ways.

Whereas the customer exchanges one type of valued good or service for another, the consumer buys an identity, or a sense of middle class belonging and comfort. As noted in a rejoinder to Perry's article, colleges and universities should not have to build their service delivery model around customer demands, but they do need to be sensitive to providing high quality products and pay some attention to satisfaction. Yet what does it mean for colleges and universities to assume that students are consumers who demand consumer amenities? It means, for one thing, creating opportunities for students to express their identity, and hopefully their affinity to the institution, through spending on consumer goods. The manifestation of such opportunities would most obviously be the outrageously priced campus book store, where students can proudly advertise their achievement through sweatshirts, hand bags, and bumper stickers.

Moreover, it means allowing, and sometimes encouraging, students to buy the consumer goods that cultivate a sense of belonging and comfort. This means setting up places where students can purchase all of the accoutrement that signals their membership in middle class America. It should come as no surprise that there is a strong cultural link between higher education institutions and middle class status, as colleges and universities have long been considered an essential pipeline to upward mobility. Evidence of encouraging consumerist behavior can be found in the agreements many schools establish with Apple, making it possible for students to easily purchase iPhones and iPads. It is also why Starbucks has become ubiquitous on college campuses: the white Starbucks cup with the brown sleeve is about more than caffeine. It says something about being able to buy a fairly expensive cup of joe and to be seen drinking it. The meaning attached to Starbucks is why there are so many imitator white cups and brown sleeves. It has little to do with coffee and everything to do with symbolism.

When college and university administrators think of students as consumers, they encourage students to spend their way to feeling normal and accepted at a time when many struggle with self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and the exclusivity common to institutions striving for selectivity. The implications of this orientation extend beyond language to the physical constitution of campuses and outlying areas. As I have previously argued, many colleges and universities are now partnering with private industry to create mixed use housing and retail developments. I call these concentrated campus-based consumption areas, as high end student apartments are fused with Chipotle, Starbucks, and other businesses to which students flock. The quaint college town and the brick and pillar campus is slowly being replaced with every variety of space dedicated to consumer capitalism. When higher education spaces as transformed into concentrated campus-based consumption areas, what happens to student behavior?

Quite naturally, those who can, spend freely. These trend-setters and norm-makers tend to be those whose parents provide plenty of discretionary funds, recharging student ID/campus debit cards as needed. Less well-off students seek to emulate their upper crust peers and follow suit by finding ways to spend in similar fashion, sometimes working jobs in order to have the disposable income required to sustain an active consumer lifestyle. No student wants to feel outside the norm, so on campuses where spending dictates belonging, the assumption of students as consumers can shape behavior, yielding a vicious cycle. Perhaps more alarmingly, it can alter student subjectivities, such that one only feels like a true college student if they buy the UnderArmour hoodie, live in the luxury student apartment high rise, surf Facebook on a MacBook, and patronize Starbucks.

In other words, for all the reasons cited above, our sense of outrage should not stop at the encroaching dominance of "corporate-speak," however damaging such public discourse can be. We should challenge the prevalent logic that students are consumers who demand sites of consumption in order to attend this or that higher education institution. It is true that faculty are not cashiers, but language of students as customers is simply one byproduct of an entire logic system that has found traction in higher education. If the college experience, and campus geography, is increasingly dictated by the swipe of a card, it will be difficult to suggest that education is somehow different from anything else or outside the realm of consumption.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Academics: The Next Generation

This blog, which started as gymnasium for thought exercises, may actually outlive my doctoral training and dissertation. I recently accepted an assistant professor position, and writing is built into my job description. This is exciting for a number of reasons, including the fact that I love to write. In deciding to go the academic route, I seek to follow the example of a few others (here’s an example from David Perry) who have worked hard to ensure that they apply their training to issues outside narrow specializations and write for broader audiences. My hope is that this blog may continue to evolve—and improve—in order to serve as a launching point for strong writing about important issues. Ambitious though it may be, I am setting a goal to write one post a week.

When I received my informal job offer letter, the dean of the college remarked that he was excited to share that I will be joining a strong cohort of in-coming assistant professors. I started to speculate about who these other neophytes might be and how we might relate to one another, if at all. Inspired by the Beloit College Mindset List, I started thinking not just about my soon-to-be colleagues, but also about the characteristics of all new assistant professors. What might be the defining experiences of my generation of academics? Here are a few predictions, based entirely upon my own opinions and stories from few friends who recently started gigs at colleges and universities. Empirically-driven? Not at all. The hop from “generation” to “generalization” is a short one.

#1 We won’t be called professor. I’m not referring to whether our students call us Dr. X, Professor Y, or just plain Z. Rather, trends tell us that very few of my generation will be on the tenure-track, and given the inability of academic reward systems to recognize the plurality of scholarship, many of us on the tenure-track will struggle with being evaluated by the standards of the older generations. Not only will few of us be called professor, but virtually none of us will bear the adjunct title. Instead, institutions will respond to the growing ranks of non-tenure-track faculty (both instructional and non-instructional) and develop new titles that reflect the diverse and sometimes specialized job responsibilities of these hardworking friends and colleagues.

#2 We’ll complain about work-life balance. But we’ll have no idea how to achieve it. This is a generation that highly values careers that bring us meaning, and we wholesale subscribe to the idea that work should not conflict with our ability to be well and have a family. And this is a good thing. However, we are also a generation that has been competing in a Darwinian model of academic meritocracy for years. We are hard-wired for achievement and striving for success. Although we will constantly bemoan the difficulty in finding enough time for work and outside life—and frequently blame our employers—we will come to realize that our expectations and goals are the biggest impediment to balance. This realization won’t come until after a long period of talking and writing about the topic.

#3 We’ll teach courses online. Not because this is necessarily our preference or because we are advocates of some innovative revolution in higher education, but because we were hired into departments or programs that were structured around online teaching. We want jobs, so online we go. My generation will largely be responsible for answering lingering questions about quality and scalability in online teaching. We will also be the generation that contends most frequently with the matter of ownership over courseware and other instructional materials designed in the process of teaching online.

#4 We’ll write for popular online publications. Academic publishing is rapidly changing, and my generation will approach the dissemination of our scholarship in novel ways. We are a generation rather accustomed to having a public presence through social media, and we devour listicles and online journal articles with addict-like ferocity. Look out for a generation of academics who are more interested in publishing for Slate, The New Yorker, or The Chronicle of Higher Education than an academic journal. This is not to say that we’ll abandon more scholarly publication outlets—we know we’ll need peer-reviewed books, chapters, and articles to earn tenure. But when we are in charge of departments, we’ll vote to broaden the umbrella of appropriate means for sharing scholarship.

#5 We’ll have less power on campuses. Sure, faculty on some colleges and universities will unionize. However, the power of administrators will continue to grow, and my generation will be ill-equipped to retain the faculty voice in decision-making or protect institutions of shared governance from being hollowed out. We are not a generation of activists, and we express our outrage through Twitter and Facebook, not sit-ins and picket lines. Given the high salaries of administrators compared to faculty, many of us will be motivated to assume administrative roles. This is not a bad thing, but the demands of running complex organizations usually require acquiescence over civil disobedience.

#6 We’ll completely reinvent the academic conference. With a few exceptions, academic conferences are astoundingly out of touch with how my generation communicates. We will work to make academic conferences more developmental and experiential. I’m talking about the death knell of PowerPoint presentations and the excommunication of whomever decided that reading a paper word-for-word constitutes an engaging way of sharing your life’s work. Picture, instead, TED talk-like presentations, more interactive workshops, and partnerships with local communities. And we’ll stop wearing those plastic name badges—just because.

Some of these predictions capture unfortunate new realities in academic life, and I don’t particularly welcome those changes. However, some of them are remarkably exciting and provide opportunities for my generation to translate our work in new, more accessible ways. I look forward to thinking about this list and adding to it. More importantly, I can’t wait to see if my predictions materialize in the future.

What would you add or refute?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Tyranny of Trajectory

I had already spent a few months on the job market, when I received my first call to phone interview for a tenure-track faculty position. After applying to a few schools, I had become accustomed to the sound of crickets. Given that this was my first interview of any kind for a coveted faculty position, I could feel my heart rate almost instantaneously flare. Blocking from my mind the full implications of those thirty minutes, I developed a simple plan to research the university and talk with my advisers.

What I most wanted to know from my advisers was what kind of questions to expect. Their answers varied. “Be prepared to talk about your teaching philosophy,” said one. Another recommended finding other faculty members with whom I might be interested in collaborating. The one common denominator in their suggestions was that I should be able to explain my research “program,” “agenda,” or “trajectory.”

I sat down prior to the interview and typed out a teaching philosophy. I searched for faculty members who shared my interests and wrote their names down on a legal pad. Each time I confronted the question of my “trajectory,” I paused and, sensing no forthcoming inspiration, moved on to something else. 

What exactly was my trajectory? Looking at my CV, it would be difficult to discern. I suffer from what one might call academic ADD. Try as I might, I can’t seem to stay focused on a research topic for more than two years. As I became increasingly frustrated with crafting some magic bullet that could connect what a search committee might characterize as a meandering mind, I saw that the ramifications of trajectory ripple quite broadly.

One the one hand, I recognize why a department would be interested to learn what it is I hope to examine in the future. Offering a job to an assistant professor is rather like making an investment, and this notion of trajectory is one way to determine the returns. Yet how does one really evaluate trajectory? It seems partially predicated on sameness—how many pieces of scholarship are related. After all, I doubt that someone would look at CV with four journal articles about four different topics and conclude the scholar has a clear trajectory. If sameness is not, in fact, important then surely trajectory is evaluated through the extent to which a scholar shows some sense of direction. Setting aside the fact that neither means of evaluation are particularly scientific, criteria like sameness and sense of direction raise questions that merit scrutiny.

My objection to sameness is not that it is boring. Rather, sameness does not afford much possibility for a young scholar to decide his or her research is old news, ill-suited to the big questions de jour, hopelessly flawed, or perhaps even irrelevant. Radically re-routing is an important part of scholarship, but fear of appearing unfocused may force a young scholar to remain married to untenable projects. Worse yet, it may encourage job-seekers to mine the same data over and over to produce the highest quantity of papers or presentations. Although this tactic may ensure an applicant conveys trajectory, it may be a poor indicator of quality.

Sense of direction is problematic in situations where a researcher is inspired to pursue several directions—to explore the problems that keep them awake at night and embrace the inherent multiplicity of knowledge. Diving deep into a topic, developing expertise, and creating scholarship based upon that expertise over a long period of time has become the norm in academe. Of course, there is good reason for encouraging the pursuit of a single pathway, as expertise can inform teaching, generate grant money, bolster promotion, and produce breakthroughs.

However, the pursuit of a single pathway can also stifle innovation. This point was reinforced in a TED talk upon which I recently stumbled, featuring Liz Coleman of Bennington College. Speaking about the liberal arts, Coleman declared, “The expert has dethroned the educated generalist to become the sole model of intellectual accomplishment. Expertise has had its moments, but the price is enormous.” 

Indeed, it could be trajectory that has led academic work down a never ending tunnel of greater specialization. In order to demonstrate expertise, all of my publications should uncover the minutiae of an issue and analyze every angle of an argument. This hardly seems useful to the public and could render scholarship bereft of meaning for the young scholar.

In the end, I took the advice of a professor with over 20 years in the game. He told me to stay true to myself, as the search committee saw my record and were no doubt aware of my dabbling in many areas. I didn’t search for a magic bullet to connect my work, but rather talked about the evolution of my thinking and the publications that best reflected my diverse interests. This strategy paid off, and I was offered the position. This could, in part, be attributed to the type of institution, a teaching-oriented university, where the “educated generalist” is highly valued.

At least I hope this is the case. I will likely face questions about trajectory again when I come up for tenure. In my previous work in faculty affairs, I saw tenure candidates denied at a research university simply because their research program lacked trajectory. Of course, this is not the sole criterion in tenure decisions, but its influence should be reduced. As scholarship becomes increasingly collaborative and non-traditional, and as many academic seek ways to link their research to community needs, trajectory either needs to be redefined or erased in the assessment of scholarship.