Note: I wrote this piece about three or four years ago, and it has been sitting in the queue here since then. I have not altered the text since I initially wrote it, and that is purposeful. Hopefully this post will help someone who reads it.
Lately, I have been thinking about my educational and professional path from my undergrad education to today. I’ve been thinking about this partly because of the readings I am doing for my history of higher education class. However, I have also been thinking about my educational and career trajectory because it has been a long trek, and it is far from over. With that said, today I want briefly trace how I have gotten to this stage in my life, doing what I love to do.
In all honesty, I have no clue how or why I ended up at my undergraduate university, a regional school about 100 miles from my hometown. One day, I pulled up, unloaded my stuff, and moved into a dorm room. I had no motivation. I went because that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? I wanted to be a marine biologist. You know, be on Shark Week swimming with massive animals that could tear me in two. This, really, was not a good choice for a land locked school. I was naive, yes, and I had absolutely no clue how to navigate the university. No one warned me about studying, what classes to take, or other aspects of university life.
Fortunately, I roomed with a friend from home that first semester. Unfortunately, he dropped out after the first year. During that first year, though, I got plugged in to campus groups. This, I believe, helped me tremendously because if I did not find people to interact with, I would have probably left and never looked back. We did not have First Year Experience classes at that time, so I had to go out and find my own group.
I went through undergrad not really caring about classes. I never partied, but I hung out late with friends and put off studying. I worked jobs here and there, but mostly I played in bands. Chemistry kicked my butt, and after failing that class, I changed majors to education, a degree which I never ever thought about before. Education, for me, was an odd choice because I never saw myself as a person who could stand in front of people and talk, let alone teach. For all my exuberance, I am pretty introverted. Yet, there I was, taking education classes.
I ended up graduating with a degree in secondary science education. I had to have a minor, and since I had already taken some English classes, I decided to minor in English. All well and good. I went through student teaching, which is another story entirely. Finally, after five years, I walked across the stage to receive my diploma (in the mail of course). I barely passed. My undergraduate GPA was only 2.51, just enough to graduate. I didn’t care though, I graduated.
After graduation, I started teaching high school: biology and English. It was at this point, after teaching in two districts, that I decided to go back to school for my M.A. in English. This time, I knew why I wanted to go to school, yet looking back, I did not know how to navigate looking for graduate schools. Essentially, I spoke with the department head at my undergraduate university and enrolled there. I completed the program in about a year with a 3.8 GPA. I chose, stupidly, the non-thesis route.
I knew, from the time I graduated with my M.A., that I wanted to pursue a PhD. At this point, I understood I had to look around at various schools. I did that. While I applied, I taught full-time at the regional university where I got my degrees, and, to make ends meet, I waited tables on the side. Even with my full-time position, I worked because, as a lower middle-class student, I had accumulated countless student loans.
I applied to PhD programs for five years. Let me repeat that, five years! I applied to a handful every year. Never more that 12 I think. While I knew about the tier system, I did not really think about it when applying. So, I applied to a lot of top tier programs. This, I think, was a mistake. During those years, I worked hard to increase my credentials and to make myself a viable candidate. Eventually, I got an article published on Dante’s Divine Comedy and Sepultura’s Dante XXI.
The next year, when I applied, I got offers from about three schools and wait listed at three good schools. Only one offered me funding, so I took it. My PhD experience was great. Even with funding, I still had to take out loans, increasing my debt astronomically. Like my undergrad university, the university where I received my PhD was a regional school. There, I continued to work tirelessly to succeed. I got involved on campus through the Graduate Student Union (GSO), even serving as president for my last year. This position allowed me to interact with administration and to participate in some of the inner working of the university.
Along with my work with the GSO, I served as the graduate assistant, and later Interim Director, of the Ernest J. Gaines Center. This position taught me a lot about archival research, administrative work, grant writing, public scholarship, and much more. Truthfully, I think this was probably the best part of my PhD work and the first year after graduation. I graduated in 2014 and served as the interim director until July 2015. After that, I worked as an adjunct for a year carrying a 6-4 load across two schools. In fall 2016, I started my current position which has provided some stability.
Ever since the fall of 2013, I have been applying for permanent Tenure Track and some administrative positions. Seriously, I have lost count of how many applications I have submitted. Roughly, I would say the number resides somewhere around 500. This has been the most stressful part of this journey, the uncertainty. To succeed, one needs stability. While Tenure Track jobs do not provide that stability exclusively, they provide better stability than adjuncts or instructors get.
The job search has been disappointing, and sometimes I question whether or not I still want to even do this. Truthfully, I do. So, I have worked diligently to overcome the hierarchical tier system that privileges some institutions while diminishing countless others. I think about Rosa Maria Pegueros who writes about her experiences at the University of San Francisco then UCLA. When Pegueros told one of her teachers at USF she wanted to attend graduate school at Yale, he laughed at her. She writes,
I was completely ignorant about the hierarchy among colleges. I had never heard of Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. In my naivete, I thought that by going to USF I had “made it.” I didn’t understand that even though its tuition seemed almost prohibitive to me and though it produced San Francisco’s mayors and police chiefs, in the estimation of those in the ivory towers of academe it was a third-rate school. As a junior, I told Father Albert J. Smith, a Harvard alumnus and one of my mentors, that I wanted to go to do graduate work at Yale. He laughed.
Like Pegueros, I did not understand the hierarchy that existed within academia. If I had, my decisions about what university to attend may have been different. Being a first-generation college student from a lower middle-class background, I did not know anything about college except that it was the thing to do. No one, as I said earlier, guided me in my journey. No one guided me towards the M.A.
I had an expectation that after graduation I would have a Tenure Track position. I had an expectation that after I served as he Interim Director of the Ernest J Gaines Center and received a $196,000 NEH grant, I would have a Tenure Track position. I expected, after I published numerous peer-reviewed articles in top journals, I would have a Tenure Track position. I expected, after I started doing public scholarship, I would have a Tenure Track position. I don’t.
I am not writing this to gripe and complain about my position. Honestly, I enjoy where I am and am thriving. I write this to point out that we need to educate students, especially first-generation students, on the structure of the university and the hierarchies that exist. We need to provide them with support, not just campus groups, to navigate these spaces. We need to help them through the transition from high school to higher education. We need to be realistic with them when advising them about their possible plans for graduate school or employment post-graduation. We do not need to laugh at them. We need to encourage. Some provided this for me, but not enough.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.