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Local: Education

The allure of becoming a college professor

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Local,Education,Erica Jacobs
Tenured college professors have been the subject of many satires and numerous diatribes against their privileged position in society; yet many students aspire to that position. The ivory tower, the life of the mind, the ivy-covered buildings where students hang on your every word: It sounds like a glamorous lifestyle.

Students, however, come up against sobering realities in graduate school and in the process of applying for academic jobs. There are many applicants for each position, and sometimes their own professors -- whose jobs they covet -- do an inadequate job promoting their candidacy or letting students know what the job is really like.

This weekly column will look at lists of books kids are reading in various categories. Information on the books below came from Amazon.com's list of children's best-sellers; they are listed in order of popularity.
What kids are reading
Books on college professors (adult and young adult)
What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain
The Secrets of College Success (Professors' Guide) by Lynn Jacobs and Jeremy Hyman
The Student Body: Short Stories about College Students and Professors by John McNally
The Adjunct Professor's Guide to Success: Surviving and Thriving in the College Classroom by Richard Lyons, Marcella Kysilka and George Pawlas
Getting the Best Out of College: A Professor, a Dean & a Student Tell you How to Maximize Your Experience by Peter Feaver, Sue Wasiolek, and Anne Crossman
One-Party Classroom: How Radical Professors at America's Top Colleges Indoctrinate Students and Undermine our Democracy by David Horowitz and Jacob Laksin
The Art and Politics of College Teaching: A Practical Guide for the Beginning Professor by Hostetler, Sawyer, and Prichard
"Stepping On My Brother's Head" and Other Secrets Your English Professor Never Told You by Charles Schuster and Sondra Perl

Grad school is a world unto itself for many: a cocoon that removes students from the real world for both good and ill. During the years I was working toward my M.A. and Ph.D., we used to gather daily to swap horror stories of hostile acts by dissertation advisers and others on whom we relied for encouragement and future jobs. Misery loves company, and although much of our coursework was exciting and stimulating, the nurturing aspect of the process -- especially for females (this was the 1970s) -- was often missing.

Perhaps it was a good thing that my fellow grad students and I had few illusions about the glamour of the profession since most of us didn't get tenure-track jobs. The job market then was very grim; the current academic market is similarly devoid of job openings. Yet many of us stayed on the periphery of the profession in adjunct and part-time positions, or jobs that involved teaching on a nontenure track.

My career has included four years of full-time, nontenure-track college teaching, decades of part-time college teaching, and 23 years of high school teaching (my only job with an adequate salary and benefits.) So I have taught close to a hundred college classes without ever having a "real" job as a college professor. My career path is not atypical.

Despite discouraging job prospects, many students earn Ph.D.s, hoping their hard work will be rewarded with a college position. The contemporary equivalent to my gripe sessions in grad school are online cartoon spoofs that poke fun of students' plights. Xtranormal, a company that allows students to create their own animated videos, has many Web satires of academia including "So You Want to get a PhD in the Humanities," "What English Professors Talk About," and "So You Want to be a Journalist." The medium of satire is a more constructive way to vent frustrations over discouraging advisers and job prospects than the whining jam sessions I was part of.

Yet students still want to be college professors -- even when faced with the realities that most grad students drop out before earning Ph.D.s, and those who make it to the end rarely get tenure-track positions in institutions of higher learning. They are persuaded by the myth of invulnerability surrounding the title "professor."

Ironically, the tenured professors I know don't feel the slightest bit invulnerable. They are just as harried and insecure as their graduate students. Yet still the myth of the tweed-clad intellectual professor endures. Why the myth remains might be the subject of a future column!

Erica Jacobs, whose column appears Wednesday, teaches at George Mason University. E-mail her at ejacob1@gmu.edu

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