Saturday, December 18, 2010

Loving Teaching, Hating Education

In my previous post I admitted to advising a student interested in journalistic creative non-fiction (feature profiles, biographies) that he might be better served by interning and working as a writer and reporter for some years instead of pursuing a graduate degree in writing. I am going to clarify this a bit, I hope, and explain why I think this advice, while not ideal in my "dream world" of education, does represent the current realities of higher education.

In the late nineteenth century, progressives (both left and right) believed that science and technology were key to improving not only the United States, but the world. As a result, the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 declared that our public universities should focus on "practical sciences." Over the next century, our scholarship shifted from conservation of knowledge, history, and values to a production model. A good scholar didn't merely study the past, he or she was supposed to create new products. This production model  underlies a tenure system based on research output instead of teaching and mentoring.

We have hyper-specialized in our disciplines, including rhetoric and composition. We study small slices of our fields so we can claim expertise and produce scholarship. There are thousands of journal articles and conference papers produced annually, most of which have minimal influence on other scholars. It's all about producing more and more. At least some of the scholarship descended into minutiae over the last quarter century.

This focus on "shiny new theories" in the humanities does parallel, loosely, the demands on science and engineering schools to create marketable intellectual property. However, no university makes money selling the ideas of rhetoricians or composition instructors. You can't compare creating Web browsers (Univ. of Illinois), Unix utilities (Univ. of California), or new drugs (numerous universities) to creating a "new" approach to teaching writing or public speaking.

I love writing. I love teaching about writing. I am always trying to find better ways to teach students, better ways to share my love for words in all their forms. I'm passionate about visual design, because printed words are an art form. I'm passionate about film and stage, because the visual expression of words goes beyond the page.

But, I am never going to "create" new words that earn a university millions of dollars.

Yet, though you cannot compare directly what I do or my colleagues do to the output of other departments, it is as important — if not more important — to cultivate cultural history and an appreciation for communication in a democratic society.

The problem is that the emphasis on producing scholarship often takes us away from the art of teaching the liberal arts. Instead of teaching writing and reading with a passion for the past and the future, we are forced, by the nature of higher education's production model, to focus on theory production and the scholarships of minutiae.

So, I told an aspiring writer not to go directly to graduate school. I am not suggesting he, or others like him, never go to graduate school. However, I fear our methods and focus on production of scholarship means that we (universities) would not help this young writer gain the life experiences and appreciation for other writers that is so key to being a good communicator.

In other fields, in which the profession is as product based as the university model, graduate school offers the same or even better access to experts in the field as work experience. But, in journalism and some forms of creative writing the best mentors are out in the field, working at newspapers, magazines, and (now) online publications.

An exception to the theory-overload in writing studies can be found within some MFA programs. Nearly all MFA programs, and many undergraduate creative writing programs, do base their courses on workshops and their graduation requirement is a creative publication. Though this is still a "production" model, it is much richer than the theory-based world of Ph.D. and general master's degree programs in rhetoric, writing, journalism, et cetera.

However, we must admit that many MFA programs are expensive and the value is more personal enrichment than professional advancement. If you do pursue an MFA, be certain there will be mentoring opportunities and genuine professional and literary guidance. Understand, it is valuable, but the "return on investment" might not be financial.

If scholarship leads me to be a more effective advocate for words and writing, great, but I also recognize that the demands to produce output, as if we are factory workers, has negative consequences. If I have to publish an article or two a year and a monograph every four to five years, that is a significant drain of energy. That's not necessarily bad, but it is important to understand the trade-offs and potential costs to students of the humanities.

I'm not claiming production is good or bad, but that it does mean shifting time from teaching and mentoring students towards research and scholarly output. As a result, many graduate programs are places where scholar/researchers teach courses focused on their research interests in an attempt to consolidate their commitments to research and teaching. The "price" to teach is research. (Though I do know many people who feel the price to conduct research is the annoyance of teaching. That's sad.)

Writing is not like designing new medicines. You don't need a huge lab with millions of dollars in equipment. You need nothing more than a pencil and paper. For hundreds of years people have written great works without pursing graduate educations. So, my advice stands. Go and be a writer, journalist, poet, screenwriter, dramatist, et cetera.

At some point, you might want to learn some of theories and scholarship. That's wonderful. But, don't make the mistake of assuming all graduate programs that study rhetoric and writing are meant to help you become a better writer. Some are and some are not. And, the "value" of such an education resists quantification.

NOTE: If you really, really want to pursue a graduate program in writing, I suggest considering MFA programs at state universities. And make sure the program hosts as many writers throughout the year as possible. You learn about writing from reading and talking to writers, including the other student-authors in an MFA program. There are some Ph.D. programs in creative writing, but that means more time and money. A Ph.D., by definition, is about the "philosophy" of a discipline, the theory.

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