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From the Profession column of the May 2002 Perspectives

A Profession and a Priesthood

Leonard V. Smith, May 2002

I will confess to divided views on professionalization as you describe it. On the one hand, academia is a profession, in many ways like the others. I think we owe it to our students and to job candidates to admit this. We have more freedom and less money than most doctors and lawyers. But like medicine and law, academia is very much a priesthood, with its rites of initiation and its ferocious practices of inclusion and exclusion. I'm not sure there's much we can or should do to protect students from this. Every year (round about October), I talk to seniors at Oberlin desperate to enter a PhD program, mostly because they are scared of graduating and think it would be a continuation of college. The first thing I tell them is that grad school is much more like law school or business school than college. Generally, I also tell them that the best favor they can do themselves before beginning a PhD program is to take some time off to figure out just what they want to do and why. A developed sense of professional purpose is the only thing that can sustain one, I think, through the long and uncertain trek into an academic career.

But I do take what you said about "fun" very seriously. We have done a great deal of hiring at Oberlin in recent years, and I have read more dossiers than I care to count. I am surprised and dismayed by how few people seem to have had much fun so far in the profession. Dossiers can be remarkably unbalanced between useful material and junk (or worse). The first thing I look for is a good dissertation topic, skillfully marketed to the reader as interesting and important. Very few candidates are able to do this, to people outside their subfield, or even to people in it! I have to wonder whether the problem doesn't go beyond the mechanical techniques of writing a good cover letter. It seems to me that good topics generally exude a certain sense of "fun," meaning an intense and, yes, joyful engagement in the issues at stake. And "fun" happens when one can draw out the larger meaning of one's work, and then convey it to others.

I wonder sometimes if people are unduly led to topics that they think will get them jobs, at the expense of topics they might find more "fun," or that at least can speak to issues of deep interest to them as individuals. "Professionalism," in an opportunistic sense, I think, can lead to great homogeneity in topics, in no field more so than yours and mine, French history.

Another problematic aspect of professionalization these days is what strikes me as an unseemly rush into print on the part of graduate students. It has taken me a while to learn that "publishable" and "good" do not appear to be the same thing. I'm all for publishing, and have done my share of it. But a draft dissertation chapter is a draft dissertation chapter, whether one has found somebody who will publish it or not. Conscientious people on search committees actually read writing samples, not just lines on c.v.'s.

As a reader of dossiers, perhaps the most irritating thing I see these days are the ever-more-massive "Teaching Dossiers." Some materials can be very useful, such as syllabi and indications of specific teaching interests (based in homework on what is already being taught in a given department and what the candidate thinks should be taught). But people cram their files with vacuous statements of "teaching philosophy," which tend to boil down to: "Students learn best when I work really hard teaching them." They pile on course evaluations that mean absolutely nothing out of context. Wouldn't all but the most painfully honest candidates simply remove any bad ones? And who gets uniformly good course evaluations at the beginning of their teaching careers? Candidates often hold forth at great length about their expertise with the technologies of teaching, at the expense of saying much about what is actually being taught.

Perhaps search committees at liberal arts colleges are more deluged with this sort of thing than their counterparts at universities. But past a certain point, it can actually be insulting, particularly if the candidate is unable to explain her or his work, or why we should care about it. Liberal arts colleges are not video arcades, or amusement parks.

Like your alma mater Carleton, Oberlin cares deeply about teaching. But we don't expect fully formed teachers from day one, any more than we expect fully formed scholars. What we look for is actually quite intangible—people who are sincerely interested in teaching and look as though they might be able to have "fun" with it. These are most often people with good dissertation topics, skillfully explained to people outside their particular subfield. Whether they've taught their own seminar or not before they've finished their degree is less important, as is how many solid but uninspired articles they've published from what in several years may become their dissertation.

I guess the challenge, then, is to reconcile professionalization and "fun." Isn't this what happy doctors and lawyers do?

Leonard V. Smith
Oberlin College