Thursday, March 11, 2010

Academia's own Catcher in the Rye

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a five part series on being an English graduate student at a prestigious university, entitled "Academic Bait and Switch". The author, the university, the people mentioned in the articles, are all pseudonymous (what are we, the DC press corps?). I wanted to talk about the parts of the series that I think were important, before I talk about what bothers me about this series.

The article talks about how graduate students are thrown into the position of educators with little help or guidance. This is doubly problematic if, like the author or myself, you come from an undergraduate education without TAs and with relatively little understanding about how their role is in a classroom. One example the author gives is when he has a student who is clearly struggling in his class, despite working very, very hard. When he asks one professor what to do, the professor indicates basically he should fail him rather than help him. The author thought this student needed to go to the writing center for tutoring, but he had given them the max referrals (which is itself rather odd). Now, it is unclear, but it sounds very much that if we have a bright student who works hard and cannot get things like grammar, we are probably dealing with some issue of learning disability. Now, universities have people hired to deal with learning disabilities, to get extra tutoring help, and other help. However, such bureaucratic navigation is not provided to almost any graduate student.
Moreover, the bias against pedagogy and educational theory and practice that is obviously held by the professor charged with teaching these graduate students how to teach is a disgrace.
I was lucky in that I both grew up in a family of educators and had a small background in teaching before I started teaching classes as a graduate student. I was further helped along by having an adviser that took my questions about pedagogy and bureaucracy seriously. I agree with the author that universities need to take actually educating students more seriously, and part of that includes proper support for TAs.

Many of the other complaints seem to focus on the petty personal power politics, the fragile egos, the backstabbing and sucking up, and the general mendacity that seems to define any culture of a hierarchical institution. I guess it is important to understand that the academy is just as bad as anywhere else with this sort of thing.

However, the series in general really annoyed me. And it wasn't just the anonymous nature of it all (seriously though, anonymous rants are meant for your personal blog, not trade journals). But the real annoyance with the series is I feel that the pseudonym shouldn't be Henry Adams, but should rather be Holden Caulfield. Seriously, we have five parts, coming in at around 7,717 words, and everyone described in it is a phoney, a jerk, a sycophant. In his entire time at grad school, he never had a professor that he found insightful? In his years teaching undergraduates as a TA, he never had a student that who surprised and delighted him? I'm glad that in general the author seems to like several of his fellow graduate students (though they are often too sycophantic for him. He remains the only truth teller, the only academic dare devil), and most of the positive intellectual benefits you get out of grad school comes from your peers.
I don't want to go too far into all of this, but I think it's all rather distorted. Phoney, if you will.