clydesdales in the stable

When you go on the market as an English PhD (or ABD), it’s good to have a little perspective.  A little mental space around your dissertation.  Search committee members will ask you questions about your teaching philosophy and the state of the academy and your values in the classroom.  They will lean subtly back in their hotel suite chairs and gaze up at the ceiling to appear thoughtful and searching while asking these questions, and this is the cue that you are expected to draw from some hidden reservoir of Deep Thoughts to produce a Brilliant Answer.

Deep Thoughts are really hard to come by when you’ve spent months and months on one hopelessly specialized project.  How am I to consider the current direction of children’s literature studies when I’ve spent hours dissecting a Tom Thumb story that’s four pages long?

But I know that these Deep Thoughts will be expected of me again this winter, so I have begun writing them down as they come to me, building what one of my dissertation readers calls a “stable of anecdotes.”  Your stable of anecdotes is a mental catalog of seemingly off-hand but really painstakingly-plotted examples of Why You Do What You Do and Why You’re Good at It.  It includes heartwarming stories of pedagogy and research that will convince the iciest of department heads that really — you are supremely hire-able.

My most recent Deep Thought is about academic responsibility.  Not my own.  I’m worried about the academic responsibility of my students.  Namely, that some of them don’t really have any, and not because they’re not smart or don’t care.  I don’t think that colleges and universities are really teaching it very well.  And I include myself among those not teaching it.

What I mean is this:  Students have a hard time thinking that what they write has a consequence beyond their grade in this particular class.  And if their writing is really so inconsequential, why should they exert themselves to produce something complex?  Why should they consider a topic in its entirety when it’s so much easier to achieve the required word count and call it a day?

When I try to start a conversation about this at the writing center, students get frustrated.  They shift in their chairs and make small, shallow breathing sounds to remind me that this paper?  It was due twenty minutes ago.  Can’t I just tell them where to put the commas?  Can’t I just provide the proper MLA format for this Wikipedia article?  And do these look like one-inch margins?


Really, this is a perfectly reasonable reaction.  Twenty minutes past deadline is hardly the time to begin a conversation about things like the forethought and academic rigor required to build a really convincing argument about hate speech in public schools.  This is not the time to start in on a mini-lecture on the ethical responsibilities of a paper on human trafficking.  It’s not that these aren’t important topics, because they are.  I’m just beginning to realize that, as a tutor who can work with a student for maybe forty-five minutes at a time, I’m not in the ideal position to teach this particular lesson.  So I’m filing this concern away, hoping that someday as I’m teaching my own comp class I can figure out ways to make it part of our weekly discussion.

At first I thought that this was perhaps an obsessive graduate student concern.  After all, the only people who will read the essays written by students seeking help at the writing center are their professors or, perhaps, one or two fellow students.  But it’s not about the particular requirements of one assignment.  It’s a bigger issue.  It’s the important realization that what you write matters, and that misrepresenting the complexity of an issue — and misrepresenting it for any reason, whether it’s because it’s easier to leave out all of the knotty parts or because you only have one afternoon to write a ten-page research paper or because you aren’t sure where to find the right information — is not only a little lazy but also irresponsible.

This turns into a really practical skill.  If, as you write, you’re paying attention to your responsibility to the topic at hand, you’ll pay more attention to the mechanics of putting together a paper: time management, reputable sources, and even sentence-level issues like word choice.  Because it matters when you toss around a phrases such as “human rights” or, God help us, words such as “humanity.”

Searching Wikipedia for quotable information on the abortion debate for a paper due in twenty minutes will hopefully seem ridiculous.


So this is too long to fit in my stable.  I have the facilities for Shetland ponies, and this is a Clydesdale.  Or some other big horse.

I’ll edit before MLA.


3 thoughts on “clydesdales in the stable

  1. I think you’re on to something, but the issue is larger than academic responsibility. There is a lack of critical thought in this generation. In the age of spell check, people expect others to think for them. They simply choose which thoughts to parrot, without thinking anything through themselves. I encounter this constantly with some of my junior-level colleagues and it’s frustrating (then they wonder why they’re still “junior-level” even though they are older than me). The superficial treatment the news media gives to issues just exacerbates the problem. I think our responsibility is to encourage the people we encounter to challenge their own thoughts and perceptions, so they can grow in the process.

    • July 10, 2009 at 4:46 am e

      Really this is probably part of a host of bigger issues. I’m really troubled, for example, by the way many people* understand higher education. Students should never be called “customers.”

      But I also don’t think we’ve fallen from some academic ideal. While there are definitely problems unique to our generation — like the spell-check problem — I know that there have always been issues like the one I describe above.

      I’ve been trying to think of ways to address this in the classroom without sounding preachy or disgruntled. For example, I’m thinking that it’s important to repeat back to students what a reader who didn’t know anything about their topic (if that is supposed to be their audience), would actually understand about the issue when done reading their paper. Most students, I think, would be surprised by the misconceptions they’re communicating in their writing.

      I also think it’s important to help students find something that really is exciting to them intellectually, for a paper and, in the bigger picture, for their career. That always helps.

      * And it’s not just “the public.” It’s people inside the academy, too. There was a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education noting that Texas A&M was considering adjusting professors’ pay in accordance with student evaluations, which I think is a really dangerous thing to do.

      • I don’t necessarily think “customer-focused” higher education is a bad thing… If some colleges want to do that and others not, that’s fine. (As long as it’s not all of the academy.) People can choose what they want. The traditional institutions can tell people how the others are short-changing their “customers” with this new approach.
        If professor pay is to be based in part on student evaluations, the students should be required to submit their evaluations BEFORE receiving their grades!

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