This is a guest post by Kevin Brown, a professor of English at Lee University. His article, “That’s Not What Happened to Me,” appears in the online version of the January-February 2014 issue of Academe.
I do a fairly decent job of keeping up with higher education news, especially as it relates to my discipline. Thus, I’ve been reading about the controversial resolution on Israel from the MLA convention that just recently ended, as well as all the conversations about the job market that might never recover. I’ve seen the discussions about the lack of information on placement rates from graduate programs and the effects that lack have on students pursuing advanced degrees, including the continuing rise of the alt-ac movement. Related to that problem is the rise in the use of adjuncts, an issue that has been a regular point of debate since I was looking for a job in the mid-1990s. I have even seen a consistent rise in articles about finding jobs teaching in community colleges.
While all of these are worthwhile issues, certainly, what I have not seen, though, are articles or blog posts that talk about my situation and the realities I face as I begin my twenty-fourth semester of teaching full-time at the university level (which is why I wrote “That’s Not What Happened to Me” in the first place). No one writes about what it is like to teach, in the same class, a student who will attend graduate school at an Ivy League institution and another student who is unable to identify a work of literature on the exam because that student cannot tell the difference between poetry and prose. I do not read articles about how one manages a teaching load of six preps a year (at minimum) ranging from two sections of freshman composition to a sophomore-level Western literature course to a senior-level class in the American novel.
While other people are talking about placement rates for graduate students and telling undergraduate students that they should not attend graduate school at all, I’m trying to figure out what I should tell undergraduate English majors to do. If they do not want to teach and graduate school is out, why should they bother with a major in English at all? Telling someone she can get a job in a business doing public relations or technical writing does not satisfy her urge to talk about Henry James for the rest of her life. And no one talks about how their field relates to a sense of calling or vocation, let alone any sense of a moral purpose in life, while those of us who teach in religious institutions spend a large portion of our time talking to a student who believes he should teach English in Africa because it will give his life meaning.
I understand that I, and many professors like me, are the minority. However, most of what is written about higher education would convince us that we do not exist, that we are a figment of our own imaginations. Toni Morrison commented on the writing of her first novel, The Bluest Eye, that she “was interested in reading a kind of book that I had never read before. I didn’t know if such a book existed, but I had just never read it in 1964 when I started writing The Bluest Eye”; she had never read a novel about someone like her, so she wrote it instead. When I and others in similar situations do write about our experiences, the comments immediately reflect a narrow focus, a point of view that cannot see beyond the person’s own situation. The comments almost always talk about how their institutions, their tenure review process, their experiences are not the same, so our institutions and experiences must not be valid.
In a recent TED talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of the single story. She says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” In the same way, those who write about higher education should remember that it is a broad world, and one story can never hope to contain all of us involved in this endeavor. Instead, we should find as many stories as can, from those who teach at community colleges to those who work at private, religious liberal arts institutions to those who teach at state universities to those who work at research universities to those who are unable to find jobs at all. We should share those stories with one another, bearing witness to all the challenges and all the joys of what we have chosen to do with our lives.