Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Yet Another Assignment: A Prospective Essay

I feel really bad about this--but I keep on merely posting my assignments! However, it is my blog, and perhaps a few of you are interested in my grad school doings (and this is a blog about grad school, at least in part), so I continue posting.

I will get around to writing about Salman Rushdie soon. I adored his presentation.


Jenn Miller

Professing Literature

David Jolliffe

April 25, 2007

Reuniting Academic Siblings: A Prospective

I miss teaching. Though my experience was limited—one college seminar, one high school writing class, a one-family Spanish group, and writing/speech tutoring—I loved teaching. I enjoyed leading discussions, showing students where they could strengthen their writing, and creating assignments to enhance student learning. It was fun, challenging, and intellectually stimulating. I regretting turning down my graduate assistantship offer at the University of Arkansas because I wouldn’t have the chance to be in the classroom. It was my desire to teach that led me to graduate school to pursue the professional goal of literature professor—or to be an English teacher in a college setting.

In pursuing this path, I have begun to learn the true nature of my chosen profession. Having a Ph.D. implies a pursuit of personal scholarship over the education of university students. A professor of literature (or of any discipline in the academy) is instructed that research is her primary goal; teaching is just something that has to be done in order to be able to do that research. Research is supposed to feed the soul of the individual, while teaching is mere drudgery. However, I do not mean to imply that all academics think this way, as Gerald Graff comments in Clueless in Academe:

The view that academic writing is necessarily insular and obscure props up the overdrawn opposition between research and teaching. We are so used to opposing research and teaching that we overlook the fact that good research is itself pedagogical, often drawing on skills of explanation, clarification, and problem-posing—of asking, “So what?” and “Who cares?”—that are central to good teaching. Indeed, as many academics testify, teaching often helps us sharpen our research writing and thereby advance our careers, a fact that refutes the renunciatory view of teaching that sees it as necessarily sacrificing professional self-interest. (10)

Thus, my prospective goal as I prepare to lead life as a member of academia is to bring my scholarship and teaching into the same realm and demonstrate through example that they are not as separate as one might believe. Teaching is vital to my desire to participate in this profession, and I do not want to see it relegated as a secondary (or even tertiary) consideration in my career. However, scholarship is part of the profession and cannot be neglected—or relegated to the back burner if I am to get tenure under the current system—and can also a rewarding part of being a literature professor.

Fortunately, I know I’m not the only one who is growing tired of the separation of our teaching lives and our scholarship—Robert Scholes, Gerald Graff, Kathleen Yancey, and countless others are striving to unite their scholarship and teaching, even going so far as to focus their research on—shall I say it?—pedagogy. These scholars are writing articles and books directed toward the professorate which emphasize the importance of teaching the next generation of scholars and improving the academy. Scholes would go so far as to declare that we would be bad academics if we were not doing our damnedest to make sure that we were helping form citizen intellectuals or educating young people in such a way as to form active participants in society.

Still, teaching seems a dirty word. As a former secondary education student, I was told repeatedly that I was “too smart” to be a teacher. My retort was usually that wouldn’t you want someone intelligent teaching your children? though they remained unconvinced. The “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach” mentality still pervades much of the attitude toward teaching, pedagogy, and education. I believe this prejudice extends into higher education, where teaching is just something you do, and you don’t have to worry about being better at it. The smart kids will get it, the dumb ones won’t, and at the end of the day, you can go back to your isolated tower and do your real work. Studying and researching pedagogy is for the non-academics in the College of Education, and if someone in English attempts to claim that it is real research—woe to them. This mindset, though it is beginning to lose its hold, is still present throughout the academy. Academics do not want to be equated with high school teachers (or worse, elementary teachers) who, in their minds, teach because they can do nothing else.

This attitude toward teaching trickles down even to the students as they are choosing their future careers. The low pay, mediocre benefits, and little hope for (much) promotion lead young people to shy away from the education profession unless they feel particularly driven to teach. And the quality of individuals who do enter education is generally not high; I remember listening to my classmates in my education courses and thinking to myself How can these people be the teachers of our future citizens? Of course, there were also intelligent, capable people in those classes, but they were the exception rather than the rule. And they are the ones more likely to leave the field after dealing with administration, No Child Left Behind, and the apathy of students and parents, not to mention curricular constraints. I elected not to sign up for my internship and student teaching after growing weary with jumping through all the hoops required to be in the education program, especially as I was uncertain whether I even wanted to deal with all that goes along with teaching at the secondary level.

So perhaps a place to start to bring teaching and research together would be to work against the prevailing stereotype that pedagogy is for non-academics. Perhaps it is a stereotype that should be addressed throughout all levels of the education system: in elementary school through college. If we, as college English teachers, were to strive to improve the quality of our teaching and enhance the importance of pedagogy in our research, then perhaps we could start a paradigm shift, where teachers of all levels would be prized and appreciated for their skills and for working to improve education. Maybe a little idealistic (especially in the age of No Child Left Behind), but it could be a place to start. We need to lead the way in changing the way education is viewed and assert that teachers should be intelligent, capable individuals that are worth respect and better compensation—and that includes adjunct professors and graduate assistants.

Not only should we strive within the profession to place greater emphasis on teaching and encourage academics in all fields to pursue research on pedagogical topics, but we should also seek to introduce our research into our teaching and into the classroom. On the one hand, academics should strive to improve their teachercraft and bring teaching into their research; on the other, allowing research to have a place in the classroom is another way to bring the two aspects of our profession together. Academics feel the need to shield their research from their students for various reasons: perhaps because the think that undergraduates won’t have any interest, perhaps because they think their students won’t understand, or perhaps because they are afraid to be critiqued by their students. Or it could just be that scholars like to separate the two areas of their profession—it keeps things tidier if research is located in one area, and teaching in another.

However, sharing our research and our own writing can be a beneficial process for both us and our students. If I were working on an article about a novel I was teaching in a class, wouldn’t it be useful for students to see a piece of current research by their professor? The students could then get a glimpse into the other side of being an academic, and also their comments could help me to improve my own writing. I do not want to be one of those scholars whom Terry Eagleton blasts for being obscure for obscurity’s sake, and I want to take pride in a good piece of writing and scholarship. Students’ “review” of the article would prove beneficial because I would have feedback from a non-specialized audience on the clarity and readability of my article. Also, it’d be interesting for the students to either agree or disagree with my stance, so it could also function as a teaching opportunity on argument and criticism. In such a way I can enhance my own research and hone my writing skills, and I can also let students in on the inner workings of academia instead of obscuring it as Graff claims that we often do.

Teaching and research should not have to occupy separate priorities or realms of our professional life. Research is how we get tenure and earn promotion, but perhaps less emphasis should be placed on publication as a measuring stick for our worth as an academic and more emphasis put on our teaching. Changing the tenure system is more than any one person can handle, though speaking up and working with others toward change is certainly feasible. Another option is working with the English professors who are trying to change the stereotype of pedagogy and pedagogical research. On my own, I can focus my on uniting the classroom world with scholarly world. I can allow classroom experiences to influence my research; I can use scholarship as an access point into better teaching. Only when we can see that pedagogy and scholarship can work together effectively will we be able to release ourselves from the quandary of choosing between our “real” work and good teaching.

1 comment:

Kathryn said...

How the heck do you have time to write all this? Do you even sleep? I need to spend as much time on my homework as you do. ;)