November 11th, 2008

Academic Fit


Here’s an interesting book: Academic Cultures: Professional Preparation and the Teaching Life. It isn’t one every faculty member should read even though the point is relevant to all academics.

The book, edited by Sean P. Murphy and just published (by the Modern Language Association and available online at is a collection of essay by liberal arts faculty (mostly those teaching English and foreign languages) about teaching experiences in places where they never expected to be teaching.

The book’s basic point is this: graduate school (mostly completed at big research universities) does not do a good job preparing new faculty to teach at the places where they often end up. It’s not just that most graduate students still don’t learn a lot about pedagogy and so start with nascent teaching skills. It’s that graduate education shows preference for a particular kind of academic culture—one where students specialize, focus on research and grow used to having colleagues with the same unique areas of interest. They end up teaching in places without those colleagues and in jobs that ask them to be generalists more often than specialists. They also find themselves at places low on the institutional pecking order and in locations very different than what they prefer.

There’s a chapter by an English faculty member who got a tenure-track position at a tiny, tiny regional campus in the middle of Montana, a gay foreign language teacher who arrived at state university campus in the middle of Michigan, and another English person who ended up at a very conservative Christian college. Most all the chapters are extremely well written and recount in vivid ways the struggle to reconcile first teaching experiences with expectations. Not all of these faculty members remained in these first jobs; a surprising number did. Even more surprising (almost inspiring) are the testimonials they give that defend the missions and roles of these various kinds of institutions. These are places faculty have learned to love and places that have offered rich and rewarding careers.

I would strongly recommend that any soon-to-be-faculty member read the book. It’s good to start thinking about where you might be going before you go there. The point relevant to all of us is this consideration of fit, of finding that academic culture that aligns with who we are, where we can contribute, be productive, and feel fulfilled. Many of us have spent and are spending careers in places where we really don’t fit. That’s a recipe for disillusionment and despair. True enough, given the reality of the job market in many fields, finding a job, any job matters most. And once at a place, it isn’t always easy or possible to move. But the point still stands. An academic career will be most satisfying if your style, your philosophy of education, your goals as a teacher and academician fit the culture and mission of the institution where you find yourself.

—Maryellen Weimer