Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Who Will Be Our Future Professors?

This post originally appeared on So Educated.

A video has made the rounds online recently, a hysterical and painfully accurate description of the future that awaits a student who is interested in getting a PhD in English. Another -- less popular, no less hysterical -- concerns the probable future of a student wanting to get a PhD in Political Science. On The Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas H. Benson has written about how students looking to do a PhD in the Humanities shouldn't bother, unless:
  • You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.
  • You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.
  • You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.
  • You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.
In the face of all of this negative rhetoric surrounding getting a PhD and aspiring to become a professor, I ask, who will be teaching my children (currently aged 3.5 years and 21 months) when they are ready to go to university (if they chose to go)? Who will be teaching any of our children? What if, as the advice tell us, we opt out?

This is particularly troubling when we start to think of the situation in terms of minority or non-traditional students. The number of undergraduate students who fall into those categories is increasing, but it doesn't look like that the number of people representing those groups in the professoriate will be increasing at a comparable rate. And, as studies have shown (at least in STEM fields), race matters. And if we truly value diversity, what does it say to our students when the professors teaching them come from an incredibly small (and, one would imagine, fairly homogeneous) part of the population?

But it also matters because of the message we're sending the best and the brightest minds: don't aspire to become a professor. If you have a passion for the humanities or social sciences, either channel it in a different direction or try to find another one. Do we not want the best and the brightest teaching in our institutions of higher learning? Who do we want teaching our children: those with privilege or those with passion? The two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but nonetheless, it would seem that the small number of the former would lead an even smaller number in the latter.

This impacts every level of education. It is our universities that train and educate future K-12 teachers, administrators, and, more importantly, future elected officials, leaders, and CEOs. Who so we want educating our leaders, decision makers, and policy shapers? Do we allow the dangerous image of the spoiled and pampered university professor to continue unabated? Do we participate in the active discouragement of an entire generation of young people who may serve to inspire and innovate, shape and motivate through the universities?

We cannot give up working to change higher education. I refuse to see an entire lost generation of potential (and passionate) academics.


  1. I saw that same post in the Chronicle and dismayed as I was, refuse to give up hope for an academic position. I am a doctoral candidate finishing my proposal in international education with a secondary concentration in teacher education. I have 15 years experience in secondary classrooms but would like to move to higher education because I have a research agenda in an area that is extremely untapped and only a few people in the world work in this area at present in education. As I have been completing my studies and starting work on my dissertation proposal I have been generating a list of future research projects for myself and looking for opportunities to work in my area. Someone will have to be in higher education to teach your children and I want to be there. I'm hoping my research agenda and combination of skills will eventually put me there.

  2. Quote from my undergraduate English senior seminar class: "The future is bleak. Think about advertising."


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