What Makes a College Education Valuable?

Over the weekend, I saw the documentary, Ivory Tower, and was prepared to be completely depressed.

Going in, I knew the documentary was about student loan debt; the trailer for the film revealed that the amount of student loan debt in the United States is now higher than credit card debt. This is a terrifying fact, of course, and one that has led news pundits, columnists, students, parents, and even scholars to ask, “Is a college education worth a lifetime of financial struggle?” What is the “value” of a college education?

As a college-educated, PhD-pursuing individual, I often recoil from questions like these. Of course a liberal arts education is valuable. Of course we’d all be better off if we had the kind of education that would make us effective communicators, critical thinkers, and stronger problem solvers. College is of course the place to do that. Where else do students have a safe and protected space to experiment with ideas and be in a community of supportive individuals who have devoted their lives to scholarly pursuits?

The more I think about my initial reactions, however, the more defensive I realize I can be. My bias is clear: I’ve invested my 20s in staying within an academic institution. I love the work I do and I want others to see the value that I think is to be gained from writing in a formal setting, in reading literature that’s challenging (and new), and learning how to read with an understanding of historical contexts, theoretical frameworks, and audience differences. I think school is a great place to do that because – well – that’s where I learned to do that. As a college student, I was lucky enough to have fantastic mentors.

I can still remember sitting in the office of one of my college mentors, crying after I was rejected from a fiction workshop I applied for. He was sympathetic without pandering to my needs; he offered to read my fiction for me the next time I applied for a workshop and later, even suggested that I try something new: poetry. Having a mentor to help guide my choices, to steer me in productive directions, and to help me move forward from failures was, in no hyperbolic terms, life-changing. I felt empowered by a mentor like this; I saw that I could change directions in my work and find new opportunities for success.

Throughout my college education, I was lucky enough to attend classes (at a large public research institution!) that frequently had fewer than twenty students enrolled. This might have been a result of the fact that I majored in English – a relatively small degree program – but it was within the context of those small seminars with faculty who I knew were invested in my education and writing that in many ways inspired me to go into academia. Of course, I can’t ignore the influence supervising a large writing center and conducting my own research had on my choices either, but the point is that I think the formal community I was a part of and the encouragement I received within that protected community gave me greater confidence in my skills and affirmed within me my interest (and I hope talent?) as an astute reader, writer, teacher, and researcher.

I think these kinds of institutions and structures are still important; where else can learning for the sake of learning be protected from diverging interests?

When I walked out of the theater, however, the thought that loomed for me was: “We need better college teaching.” I know that my college education wouldn’t have been nearly as valuable for me had it not been for the professors I had who were not only fantastic researchers, but were above all, mentors and educators. A student going into massive amounts of debt for their college education gets little out of the experience of sitting in a large lecture hall and passively absorbing a “sage on the stage’s” experience.

As a PhD student, I’ve received very little teacher training. Before I was a TA as a first-year graduate student, I attended one three-hour workshop on “teaching” that wound up mostly being about how to report student plagiarism and what to do if students get hostile or violent. While I’m glad I was prepared for an emergency situation, I learned very little about pedagogy until I took a writing pedagogy course in the last quarter of my first year. While that course was useful, I know that I could have used more training about classroom management, lesson planning, and mentoring from the day I stepped on to Davis’s campus. I was not totally unprepared to teach since I had received ample training as a writing center tutor and supervisor, but without that experience, I would have been completely lost.

Nothing can replace individualized education, and the whole reason we have institutions of higher learning is for people to connect, interact, and collaborate. Without that connection, there is no reason to fork up thousands of dollars. Sure, universities can offer networking opportunities and resources for professional development, but what I remember most from college are the small interactions I had and the opportunities to learn within smaller groups and  directly from faculty.

As someone who has designed and taught in hybrid (i.e. partially online) learning environments, I also see potential for capitalizing more on this technology and allowing students greater “flipped” learning experiences. But I think that this doesn’t replace good teacher training and opportunities for professors and professors-in-training to know what it takes to engage and motivate students to push themselves and their thinking even more. Working in groups and communicating is key no matter what profession students enter into, and college can be a place to cultivate those skills in a safe space.

With that said, these kinds of interactions are not for everyone, and I also think that high school students could receive greater guidance on whether college is even the right choice for them and their ambitions. Every student should have the right to an education, but every student should also be educated on whether higher education is right for them. Greater financial literacy and an understanding of the effects of loans and debts on a student would be incredibly valuable.

Scholars could be a part of this conversation to educate college students. Much of the “humanities crisis” has revolved around the question of articulating the worth of our studies. However, I think scholars from every discipline could do more to articulate in concrete terms what their studies provide and communicating the value of their work to a broader prospective audience. I’ll admit that I occasionally still struggle to articulate clearly and concretely why my work matters; this is something I hope to get better at in the years that follow.

So, I still don’t if a college education is worth financial burden for every single student. What I do know is that as educators, we can make a college education worthwhile for our students if we continue to value our students, their contributions, and their learning. The more respect we maintain for our students, the more we can work with them to help them grow and make their experience meaningful.

How I Read for Fun

Perhaps one of the most common questions I get asked as an English grad student is, “So, do you still like to read? For fun?”

When I tell people that yes, I promise that studying books and words has not soured them at all for me, they’re usually a bit surprised.

I remember a common complaint from high school students I used to work with was that analyzing books “ruined” them.

This always saddened me to hear, not because I think the absorptive, entertaining power of books needs to be preserved no matter what (I don’t think that literature is only entertainment because art needs to be provocative, troubling, unsettling, etc; if you care at all about books, you’e heard this argument before, so I’m not going to rehash it), but because I think reading critically can be fun in the same way that, say, taking a run can be fun or cooking an elaborate meal can be fun.

There are parts that are frustrating and maddening. It can feel like all hope is lost when cramps start to slice through or when all of the rice in the pot bubbles over.

The first response to immense running discomfort is, of course, to double over and heave great, large gasping breaths to regain a steady heart beat and collapse on a couch. When a recipe goes awry, the impulse may be to throw it all in the garbage, pop in a frozen meal, and think, “Well, calories are calories.”

When people read critically and face a road block, not identifying anything beyond the literal or hitting a road bump in finding evidence for a particular argument, their response might be similar to the runner who has quit or the failed chef. Yet sitting often makes the running feel worse (the cramps can heighten, the dehydration can settle in and manifest) and throwing away a full meal (no matter how gross it may seem) turns into a pretty big waste. Cramps are typically alleviated by changing position, jogging with arms angled behind the head, and most botched recipes can be resurrected (haven’t you tried just pouring hot sauce on everything?).

Similarly (and I know, I know, too many metaphors here), I think most challenging reading can yield productive results. It just might require looking at a text from a different angle, taking a new passage, trying to imagine how someone else might read it, or how it might be framed within a certain critical or philosophical tradition. This is a sophisticated thing to do, but that frame of mind is, I think, what can make critical reading really fun and consistently engaging.

I wish I had concrete tips for how to do this exactly. It would make me a better teacher and probably a more interesting person if I did. But I think that learning how to think through the eyes of others is a skill that must be personally understood and that must be discovered through individual inquiry. I wish I could tell you to make things easier for you, but the process of learning how to read for yourself, of learning how to ask questions of yourself through the perspectives of others is, I think, different for everyone. Knowing how to ask questions or to imagine yourself in the place of someone else works differently for each person.

This is a cop-out answer. I know. But being able to see reading in conversation, rather than an isolated vacuum, is really what makes it fun for me.

Of course, I think it is important to shift out of the constant re-positioning and re-thinking that comes with reading critically. Reading passively and for entertainment is still important to maintain and sustain if only because being entertained and finding ways to experience leisure is an important and special pleasure in life (if you’ve got the privilege to find time to be entertained and to enjoy stories for the sake of enjoying stories. I know this truly is a privilege).

I can appreciate something like, say, The Hunger Games, much more when I’ve decided that I’ll read The Hunger Games passively. I could have never read the series in a matter of days if I had my analysis hat on; I’d have stopped at lines to read and re-read, to take notes and to put those notes in the context of other readings I’d done.

Most importantly, I read The Hunger Games passively because I wanted to read those books for the ride, the absorption, that engrossing “books-can-take-you-places” feeling upon language arts classroom posters. I was in for the absorption factor. And I had a great time.

This approach occasionally backfires. To use another popular YA example, I tried reading Twilight in this way, interested in the hype (is Twilight actually still a thing?). However, the moment I tried to get lost in the story, the analysis hat kept creeping in, and it didn’t help that the protagonist is bizarrely weak and simple-minded. In other words, I couldn’t get absorbed in the novel because the characters were so artificial; their strings were showing and I couldn’t ignore the puppet show with my attention that I knew was happening. So, that was a failure.

For the most part, though, I find that if I can put myself in the right frame of mind, the “magic” of reading experiences is not lost for me. The magic just looks a little different and it takes on other forms.

Maybe I should turn that slogan into a poster, and it would absolutely have to feature giggling children atop a magic carpet riding over a rainbow. This is the only way to portray reading’s joys, after all.


The #alt-ac Conversation I Wish We Could Have

“You know, what you really want to do is create a personal brand,” the career counselor announced, a PowerPoint display glowing behind her with the image of a man in a suit shaking hands with a woman in power heels. I looked at the audience members around me, and I saw eye rolls, wry smiles, and head shakes. I heard groans, whispering. We were an audience of humanities PhD students, attending an event on non-academic career paths, a hot topic given the changing academic job market and its move towards privatization and “adjunctification.” In this moment, looking around the room, it was clear to me what the problem was: this counselor did not know her audience.

After all, this was an audience intensely critical of corporate models and language; we’re inclined to critique and unpack phrases like “personal brand” and its neoliberal implications. We’re also an audience that has a “personal brand” already; we’re scholars and instructors. That’s how we’ve identified for years. We didn’t want to be in power heels and suits. That wasn’t the point of getting a PhD.

And yet here we all were, wondering whether we were looking into a future of hand-shaking in power suits. Certainly not all “alt-ac” conversations are about branding and marketing, but I’m increasingly aware of how many seem to elide what seems to be a central issue: how does a group of people whose identities are so enveloped in their work, change their work, and consequently how they identify themselves?

So, I want to propose some points of conversation that I wish #alt-ac communities could have. Personally, I’m excited that there’s so much open conversation about pursuing alternatives to academia with PhD, and I feel comforted knowing that it is possible to pursue stimulating work using the immensely valuable skills I’ve developed in graduate school. With that said, I still have questions…

  • How do I prepare myself for multiple careers without going crazy? There’s a large part of me that thrives off of doing a several things at once. I currently manage a UC Davis undergraduate student blog, teach, and consult with graduate student writers while – you know – preparing to write a dissertation. Frankly, I couldn’t be happier; I love everything that I’m doing and in a perfect world, I think I probably would want my “ideal job” to be something that combines all of these interests. With that said, I don’t quite know how to be a “perfect” academic alongside all of these other interests too. How do I churn out articles, attend conferences, and network in several industries at the same time? Is it possible? Somehow, I feel like that’s what I’m expected to do, and I’m not sure if I can actually meet those expectations. I’d love to hear if anyone else had insight on this.
  • What industries value the PhD in the humanities? Where can I go to avoid “PhD stigma?” I find myself continually troubled by the stigma I experience when I tell people I’m getting a PhD in the humanities. I’ve been shocked by a lot of the backlash I’ve received when I’ve explained my choice to people; responses range from mocking derision (a smirk and a statement like, “Good luck with that”), to confusion (“What are you going to do with that?”) to dismissal (“Oh, so you’re going to become a teacher. Great.”). I know these attitudes are pervasive and, like all stereotypes, they are rooted in some truth. That said, I have no regrets about going to graduate school. I know that I’m a better project manager, communicator, and collaborative worker than I ever was as an undergraduate. My perspective on communicating with different audiences, of refining my writing for different purposes, and of working in teams has deepened considerably. That’s not to mention how positive my work environment has been; I’m constantly inspired and motivated by mentors and colleagues who are engaged, positive, and thoughtful. So, where can I go in the future, who can I talk to about these immense skills I’ve gained, and perhaps most importantly, who will actually listen?
  • How do I find ways to re-identify? I’ve always thought of myself as a student and writer. My work has always been really enveloped in my values. There’s not much I enjoy more than hashing out ideas with another writer, working together to clarify their thoughts and deepen their insights. Though I know that I am more than my work, my work – as an instructor and as a learner – is largely how I self-identify. So, choosing a career beyond academia seems challenging in some ways because it forces me not just to look for new forms of income, but also to identify myself differently. So, how do we shift our expectations? How can we find some ways to maintain that core of who we (think we) are while still being able to – well – eat and pay rent?
  • How do I remain part of an academic community even if I’m no longer in academia? I’ve found that I really enjoy being a part of academic communities; I feel like I’ve found “my people” in many ways. I know that I always want to surround myself with people who value academic thought in the ways that I do. Are there ways to identify without feeling like an outsider or a fraud?

So, I’m aware of the number of resources out there, but it’s worth unpacking questions about identity and work and how we – well – can view work positively without being delusional. There’s a goal!