I Love School; or, the Bird Has Not Flown

As part of my transition out of graduate school, I’ve been working occasionally for a test prep company. Last weekend, I met my class in a local high school. It was a great autumn day–literally, there was a bright golden haze on the meadow.

I’m not in high schools when I teach, usually, so I was kind of shocked by it. And moved. And here’s the reason why.

It was an English classroom, obviously—I could tell by the posters on the wall. George Orwell. Virginia Woolf. Shakespeare, sitting and holding a quill. (And an oddly technicolor rendition of the Globe, his theater.)

The shock and the emotion emanated from the same place, I think. So often, discussions about education and the younger generation assume a kind of “everything is different now” stance. You know, the young have Facebook. They are digital natives. They face enormous challenges—environmental catastrophes, rogue states, a refugee situation that may remake the face of the globe. And that’s just for starters.

But not everything is different now. There was hardly a single thing in that room that wouldn’t have been there when I was a student. (And I’m midlife, remember, so we are talking decades.) It was startlingly the same. Steinbeck. A poster about Of Mice and Men. (Yep, the very one I’m picturing here!) Tennessee Williams. of mice and menAdvice from Winston Churchill on prepositions: “ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.” Dickens. London buses, double decker.

Even the few differences echoed the situation when I was a student. There was a colorful poster of the Khmer Empire. (We worried about Vietnam.) The teacher’s painstakingly annotated copy of Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying was on the desk. (We carried around his Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.)

Yes, yes, I know that knowledge is culturally constructed and this cannot be said to mean that the experiences of reading and writing in an English classroom is timeless. (Although I have to confess that it felt that way.) But I did feel I was in a great and good place—where emotions are discussed, thought is encouraged, and empathy holds sway.

Also, it illustrates how much we embrace the shock of the new concept to our detriment. It’s a commonly used frame that often just doesn’t get it right. What we often have is the commonality of the old.

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The Case of Philosopher W, Part I: A Teachable Moment

If you follow academic news at all, you have probably heard the tale of W, the philosophy PhD who was offered a tenure-track position at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, negotiated her offer, and, as a result, saw the offer very quickly rescinded.

I’m going to use this case as a teachable moment in this post, but before I do, let me sketch in the background. Briefly, she asked for a raise beyond the first offer, a reduced teaching load, a sabbatical prior to being granted tenure, a year off to complete a postdoc, and maternity leave. (Non-academic readers scratching their heads at 4/4: it means teaching 4 courses each semester. In small liberal and community colleges, the standard is 4/4; in larger research-oriented institutions, the standard is 3/3, with concomitantly higher demands to publish research.)

Because this event is so unusual (rescinding an offer almost never happens) and so public (W, rightly perceiving its academic interest, posted the e-mails), it created a firestorm of commentary among academic media (Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed). But it also attracted attention from the larger media world, because of the attendant issues. Was the offer withdrawn because W was perceived as an uppity young woman? Are women who negotiate perceived as overreaching or overly aggressive? Is the advice promulgated by books like Lean In setting women up for failure by urging them to always negotiate? Was it part of the power differential in academia generally, where the low number of available tenure track jobs has created a buyer’s market to beat all buyer’s markets? (To quote the wonderful Rebecca Shuman’s summarization of buyer’s market attitudes: “In this market, if a university wants her to wade around in pig crap, her only counteroffer should be: ‘Should I bring my own snorkel?’”) Did it reflect the divisions between larger research institutions (who may have more negotiable goodies) and small colleges? Lack of job market acumen on the part of advisors, who may not advise on how to negotiate? Was it ethical to rescind a job offer to a candidate? Should the institution have counteroffered or discussed the matter with W, rather than simply grabbing it back from the table? (There is so much commentary, in fact, that rather than link to all of it here—my preferred educational method–I’m giving links to Philosophy Smoker, a blog about the philosophy world, which carried the story, posted W’s thoughts about it, rounded up and linked to the commentary, and responded thoughtfully.  (These posts also contain the original e-mail and response, plus a lot of comments from the field.)

However, when I read these original e-mails on Philosophy Smoker recently, what struck me most forcefully was the bare bones, list-y quality of W’s e-mail. The English teacher in me rose much more mightily than the feminist, the grad student, or the job-seeker. (Not that these are entirely separable categories within me, mind you, but you get my drift). Like most English department PhD candidates, I spent a number of years as a writing instructor to college students. The foundational triangle of college writing? Purpose, audience, and genre. Think about your purpose in writing, we urge. Do you want to persuade? Inform? Analyze? Entertain? Think about your audience, we entreat. Appeal to their interests. Their concerns. Find the commonality between your interests and their concerns. Think about your genre, we say. A research paper is very different than a blog post. They require a different voice, different levels of evidence.  So my teachable moment is to point out how much this e-mail could have benefited from focusing on purpose, audience, and genre

To get the bare bones quality across, I quote the e-mail in its entirety:

“As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier.

1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.

2) An official semester of maternity leave.

3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.

4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.

5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.

I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.”

It’s just a…list. There is no attempt to contextualize why she wants these things or to explain how a negotiable point might contain potential benefits to her future institution. For many of these points, it seems to me that the articulation of benefits would have been pretty easy to do. For example, would the postdoc completion allow her to have publishable research already in the bag (so to speak) when she arrives on campus? (Which many small colleges would greatly love, despite the emphasis on teaching.) Is the sabbatical request to do further research, ditto? Is the 3-course teaching load so that she can teach the best course ever on ___, which the college currently has no offerings in and which students love to learn about, if only they can benefit from her methods? And so on.

Some of them (the higher salary, the maternity leave) don’t have specific benefits to the audience. But there would also be no harm, folks, in letting them know that salary survey X indicates an assistant professor’s salary is on average Y (so please meet that average) or that guaranteed maternity leave is standard at Z% of institutions (if it is, of course).

A counteroffer (I’m back to genre here), whether delivered by e-mail, letter, or phone call, to be persuasive (purpose), has to take into account the benefits to the audience. The search committee itself has to be persuaded by the research and the justification.

In a sense, a counteroffer is a type of thesis statement. Like many English PhDs, I spent years telling students that each thesis statement has to be supported by reasons, and the reasons, in turn, by evidence (facts, research, examples, case studies, etc., etc.). A thesis analogy might have helped W make her case.

In my next post, I’ll talk about women and negotiations, the other part of this case to particularly interest me.