Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I Should Try This the Next Time I Teach Historical Methods

I just finished teaching Historical Methods at Messiah College.  Though I did not use the same "scare" tactics employed by Amanda Seligman at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I can fully understand her approach.  I will let her explain:

Professor Seligman, you scared the hell out of me!" confided "Andrew" as I gathered up my papers, course books, several sample dissertations, and my keys after the first session of my undergraduate course in history methods last January. "I still want to be a professor, but you scared the hell out of me!" he repeated, in case I missed the point the first time.

I had just completed my first-day-of-class warning exercise, which I disguise as a form of acculturation. In a room full of history majors, there are always some students who think that they want to go to graduate school and become professors. Like many of my colleagues in the humanities, I am mindful of the impossibly crowded academic job market, which leaves all too many excellent scholars underemployed as adjuncts, working in jobs unrelated to their training, and so disillusioned and embittered that they denounce higher education to all listeners.

To prevent my own students from drifting off to a doctoral program without understanding what they are getting themselves into, I always take an hour of my methods course to explain what is involved in getting an M.A. or a Ph.D. and becoming a professor. I drop hardbound copies of doctoral theses on the table; talk about the ordeal of the preliminary exam; explain the differences among teaching assistants, adjunct instructors, and tenure-track faculty members; and pull no punches describing the tenure-track market. I was trying to scare Andrew, and the rest of the class.

But if you think that Seligman's piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education is just another screed against sending history majors to graduate school in this economy, think again.  She continues:

Yet just a few months later, I wrote a note to another of my students, "Peter," whose written assignments and class participation had been consistently impressive, and encouraged him to go to graduate school.

How can it be responsible pedagogy to terrify some students away from graduate education and encourage others toward it?

Read the entire piece to learn more about how Seligman sorts this all out.  She wants to encourage "realism without disowning the joys of research and writing."