We go into academics for lots of reasons. Besides the draw of the academy and a fondness for the university system, there’s the desire to make a difference. Our friend Christina came to our home on Friday night for a visit, for some dinner, and for some advice. She wants to go to graduate school and join the academy. Like many before her, Christina wants to make a difference, one that would be more far-reaching than would be possible by continuing to be an elementary teacher. At a university, in a scholarly position, she perceives the potential to bring scholarship to teaching practice. She wants to study policy and was asking about specific programs and what I knew about schools, programs, and individuals. I could tell her what I know, what I’ve seen and where I’ve been myself. Ultimately I handed her the AERA program from the 2010 conference — all 400 pages — which to her looked like a buffet of possibilities. She seemed grateful, even excited. But I was worried about the infinite confusion I was getting her into.
My hesitation about giving Christina advice about graduate school goes deeper than just feeling like an inadequate guide. I worry more about what I’m doing to the rest of the world by helping her pursue her personal ambitions. As a favorite first grade teacher in our household, Christina already has changed lives. She’s taught children to read. She’s made them see the wonder in a blade of grass. She’s taught them to recycle. She regularly ends a day of class with “wishes and stars,” in which children debrief about their day, their emotions, and how to deal with the dramatic swing of events that can transpire between recess, spelling, lunch, and arithmetic. What could be more important?
Of course, there are personal drives in all of us. It would be hypocritical for me to second guess Christina’s bold new route. It’s the one that I’ve taken, after all. But for me and my daughter who was given the gift of having Ms. C as a first grade teacher, there is no question that this person is making a difference in the world already. Grace learned self-worth, long vowel sounds, and how to how to get along with others. What bigger difference could Christina, or any one of us, make in a person’s life? In our university settings, we teach about Dewey and dynamics, Eratosthenes and ecosystems. But this is practically trivia compared to the impact of classroom teachers. And yet, we still believe that there is a difference to be made by packing bags and books for graduate school, finding the right advisor, writing the dissertation that will change the world. We have to believe, don’t we? If we don’t hold onto this thread of faith, then we may as well just cash in our souls right now.
Frankly, I’m still looking for the dissertation that will change the world. I was unable to write one. And, by their own admission, none of my friends or colleagues seem to have done any better. So there must be something else. We find employment in university positions because we love to teach, we love the scholarship, and we probably function well with the amount of independence that the academy affords us. We get to do the things we really love — at least it should be this way, so if you don’t love what you’re doing as a faculty member you should find another orange to peel — so we should be contributing something really worthwhile in return. We should be providing at least as much to the world as Christina has been as a first grade teacher.
As I’ve been working on a bigger writing project (another one that probably won’t change the world), I’ve been reading about the history of the university in the United States. The role of these institutions has changed dramatically and relatively quickly over the past few centuries. I can also see that there are new challenges and changes that the university system and its faculty must face. As Christina embarks on this new path, she may be leading us into a new era for the university. What is it going to look like? What is the difference that we will be making? And how is it going to be done? In all likelihood, the paradigms of traditional scholarship aren’t going to have the impact that they may have in the previous century. Moreover, such a model isn’t going to have the same impact as teaching a single 6-year-old to read. I’m not going to tell Christina not to follow her academic ambitions. Rather, I need to ask the rest of us: What is the academy going to look like in the next century? More responsibly, what role will I play in moving it in those directions?