Moving Down the Food Chain?

 Posted by on 30 April 2004 at 5:36 pm  Academia
Apr 302004

Eric O’Connor of Critical Mass has some interesting comments on her choice to move from her tenured position as a professor of English to teaching English in secondary school. After lamenting the terrible job market in academia, she writes:

There is one market, though, that is WIDE OPEN for humanities M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s, and that is the independent school market. “Independent” is mostly a contemporary code word for “private,” though it can also mean “charter.” Your Ph.D.–or, if you are ABD, your M.A.–is a very attractive qualification in this market. In contrast to the public school system, it counts as a teaching qualification (thus preventing you from going back to school to get a highly redundant ed school teaching certificate). Independent schools are eager to add people with advanced degrees to their faculty–in part, this raises the profile of the school and looks good to parents and donors, but far more importantly, these schools recognize that refugees from academe can make marvelous high school teachers. They know this to be true because their faculties are already full of them.

The Village Voice piece linked above tells the story of one such refugee, who is happily earning twice what he would have made as an adjunct teaching at a private high school in New Jersey. I’ve met a number of such refugees from a number of schools this year. The schools themselves have been as different from one another as people are–but at all of them, the refugees say, entirely independent of one another, that the work they have found in the world of independent school teaching far surpasses the academic life. All say they are able to do the sort of intensive, personalized teaching they dreamed of doing as college teachers, but could not do in a higher ed setting; all say they feel more intellectually alive than they did in academe; and all say, too, that they have a much greater sense of purpose and of professional satisfaction than they did in academe. They are palpably happy, and the differences they are making in kids’ lives are real and meaningful. They also have summers off and, having jumped the assembly-line production schedule of the academic track, can follow the far more ethical and constructive course of pursuing their own research and writing projects when and as the spirit moves them. The pay ain’t bad, either.

Locating and applying for such jobs could not be easier. There are agencies whose entire mission is to match you with schools that are looking for candidates like you. The agencies are entirely free to the candidates. They are not gimmicks. They work.

Why do you hear absolutely nothing about this career option from within academe? Why do academic departments pretend this entirely dignified and deeply meaningful career path does not exist–even though it could be just what many of their otherwise unemployable Ph.D.’s, not to mention their dissatisfied faculty, are looking for? Why do they treat as beneath their notice a type of work that they ought to be embracing as a seriously significant alternative to the dead-end academic career of the adjunct? Do I really have to ask?

The comments from those who have made such career moves bears out her generally positive assessment of this path. The only downside seems to be the complete lack of respect given to the decision by other academics, even though the terrible job market isn’t exactly a secret. (Such elitism is relevant to those who do not wish to give up their research goals, as it might make publication much harder, if not largely pointless.) Along those lines, Amanda Leins notes:

I have been following your blog off and on over the last year. I finished my PhD coursework in Classics last year, and decided to say to hell with academe for all of the reasons that you have so eloquently placed before your readers. I now teach Latin, History, and Anthropology at an independent school in NY, and could not be happier with my choice. I left the lofty position of my chosen field after 9 years dedication, both as an undergrad and a grad student.

I would like to add another point of view to why these types of jobs are not heralded by the academic communities. In my field, as in others, I presume, teaching at an institution that is not either a college or community is a sign that the person who left “can’t cut it” and his or her work never was and could never be up to the rigorous standards of XXXXX University. From the discussions I had with various members of the faculty at my graduate institution, teaching middle and upper school is really a reflection of the limitations of the person who leaves; there is no personal glory to be earned if it isn’t higher ed! Leaving is perceived as admitting that one is weak/unintelligent/not dedicated/insert other adjective here.

I still struggle with my decision–even though I don’t regret a moment of it. Nevertheless, the stigma of teaching somewhere else besides a university or college is very strong. Am I happier? Yes. Am I doing what I wanted to do all along, namely teach Classical literature, culture adn archaeology? Yes. Do my peers understand? Many of them do not. To them, I am washed up, a disgrace–good riddance! Despite the fact that I received a fellowship at the graduate level that was university-wide and only open through nomination by department, my presence there in that instituion was clearly a mistake made on the part of the administration; my choice to leave proved that.

For a while now, I’ve considered teaching in secondary schools as an option. One obvious reason is the general glut in the academic job market. But I also have some particular reasons for wishing to stay in our present location. Paul has an excellent job that would be hard to adequately replicate elsewhere in the country. Colorado is one of only six states that is not either in or approaching medical malpractice crisis, plus the state offers fairly good protection for gun rights. Colorado is also one of the few climates in the United States amenable to both Paul’s and my tastes. There is also a large contingent of smart, serious, and friendly Objectivists along the Front Range. Leaving Colorado isn’t out of the question, but I’d certainly be reluctant to do it in order to teach at Podunk U. For the moment, I’m simply trying to keep as many options open as possible.

Of course, I can’t expect to find too many openings for philosophy teachers in private and perhaps charter Colorado high schools. To get my foot in the door, I’d really need to be able to teach some primary subject, e.g. math, science, history, English. Without a doubt, history would be of the greatest interest to me. Since the course of history is driven by philosophy, the particulars form a basis for philosophical inductions. My interest is not merely driven by philosophy though, as I do find the subject fascinating in its own right.

So my basic thought is that I might pursue an M.A. in history, likely after the Ph.D. in philosophy is finished. Even if I end up in academia, the extra degree might help my job prospects, particularly if I choose related areas of focus in each. Of course, all of that is rather far off. But if I’m going to keep my options open, then I need to plan for it!

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