Monday, March 18, 2013

Essay on impact of being first generation college grad when one joins an academic department | Inside Higher Ed

I am only an acquaintance of David Beard, and I'll admit we don't share a general perspective on politics or life. I, too, am a "first-generation" faculty, first-generation college student, first-generation graduate student, et cetera. I remain much closer to my family and the community from which I came than to the beliefs or perspectives of the university faculty where I have studied and worked.

A bit of Beard's introduction and a link to the entire essay:
First-Generation Faculty
March 4, 2013 - 3:00am
By David Beard

I've been reflecting on my spectacularly unsuccessful ethos as a professional within my department.

I write "within my department" because I think that the ethos that carries me far enough in the field is one I'm thinking doesn't work well in a departmental context. And to be clear, I've been a faculty member in two departments, so I'm not complaining about my department.

A colleague-friend once pointed out that I'm basically a puppy dog in my local professional interactions -- eager to be liked. I think there's a limited accuracy to that statement, so I'll accept it but add a little nuance. My attitude is not a desire to be liked; rather, it's a desire not to be disliked, which stems from being a first-generation college student.

Context: Like many of my colleagues and friends in rhetorical studies, I was a first-gen student. I am only the fifth person in my entire family to make it past middle school. And like a lot of first-gen kids, I experienced substantial dislocation from my family. As a kid, my great-grandparents and my grandparents and my great-aunt lived together in a three-bedroom house. Some were retired, some worked part-time, and some did the early shift, the end result being that we always were home together by 4 p.m., in time for late afternoon game shows and dinner by 4:30. (It was years before I learned that most people eat after 5 p.m..)

[…]

I think I have discovered three things that I would share with an academic son or daughter, were I to have one:

1. Transparency doesn't work with people who presume that other people are not transparent.

2. Maybe "family will relate to you consistently because they know who and where you are," but so will colleagues, and they will be able to outthink you all the time because you are on their map and they are not on yours.

3. Expertise is never recognized locally, whether you argue from it or not. Expertise is often recognized across the discipline, but only sometimes within the department.

Read more:
Essay on impact of being first generation college grad when one joins an academic department | Inside Higher Ed
I have admitted on this blog and elsewhere that I find I "fit" much better outside the humanities than within. My economic views ("freshwater" with an Austrian School bias), my political views, and how I have interpreted my life experiences do not align with many in the humanities. Having been poor, having lost everything, living daily life with disabilities, and so forth, I feel quite confident when I reject what I view as naïve idealism and group-think within academia.

Maybe my mistake was going back to graduate school after a life in business and years of volunteering with various groups. By the years of  36 to 42, when I completed my master's and doctorate degrees, you have established a worldview. Yes, it continues to evolve, but I don't understand how you can work in the non-academic setting and trust large organizations, private or public, to do the "right" thing.

Many people I've met in the humanities, including those within rhetoric, composition, and communication, have deeply held beliefs — and not always enough job or business experience to understand why those beliefs might not work for students preparing for non-academic paths in life. Dare to ask some questions of the academic community, and you will be met with disdain. (Though some call it "pity," it is disdain.)

Think about what Beard has written. Academics, at least in some disciplines, assume all people are hiding something. They don't believe in transparency. They've been so stuck in the notions of "persona" and "ethos" that authenticity seems impossible. You can't possibly be who you are all the time — there are many "yous" each tailored to an audience. What a way to go through life. Maybe accurate, since we do play to audiences, but can we be authentic "bits" of ourselves? I certainly believe so.

I don't care to be "outthought" by colleagues playing stupid games. I've found academia to be anything but cooperative and supportive. Forget collaboration — we all want to get our articles and books published so we can earn tenure! And our articles will complain about the horrible nature of those competitive capitalists. Yes, you try to figure out why the most competitive, cut-throat places I've worked are universities — where many faculty gripe about the competitive nature of the business world. I'm sorry, but I've had competitors treat me much better than colleagues. That's something I hope changes, but the "rules of the game" in academia seem to contradict the beliefs expressed by scholars.

As for being an expert or not in anything, I'm back to letting the free market decide. As I posted recently, the fact rhetoricians aren't able to persuade people of their value is disheartening. I'd sure like to believe I can sell the value of better communication to students, parents, and employers. But, I also don't speak in the language (code, or jargon) of my discipline. I speak like an entrepreneur and think like an entrepreneur.

So, I am more like my family. I don't trust academics to be realistic or all that wise outside their narrow specialties. I trust some fields much more than I trust others. Give me a STEM expert any day — I'll generally trust, respect, and be wowed by the science and tech people. Admittedly, I'm not impressed by my own field — I respect my colleagues, but I'm seldom "impressed" by them in the way I'm impressed by a quantum physicist or infectious disease expert.

Why am I not a scientist or engineer? Because I want to help future scientists, engineers, programmers, and business people communicate more effectively. I want to broaden the experiences of the "tech" people, and help them communicate with the majority of people who are not experts in the hard sciences and applied tech fields. I happen to believe my goal is quite respectable, and that's sufficient for me.

I'm not going to be embraced by most in my field. I already know that my departments did not embrace me. I've accepted that I'm an outsider within my discipline. And that's just the way it is. Maybe that is because I'm first-generation, and maybe it is because I took a different path into academia. Whatever the reason, I'm not going to change to make my colleagues like me.

Agree or not on some issues, I will definitely defend David Beard and all other professors who want to be true to themselves and their origins.

What I fear is that Beard and others start to see themselves as somehow "better" than the "uneducated" family members that made our journeys possible. We can claim to always love and be loved by family, but what happens when we start to think of them as not part of our culture? Personally, I prefer the culture of my family (generally) over that I've encountered in some academic departments.

I should never have to remind myself that a Ph.D. simply means I spent a lot of years in school. It doesn't mean I am smarter or wiser than people without advanced degrees. If anything, I've found that the smartest men and women I know don't have credentials… they have experiences.

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