Essay: Whither Teaching in the University Novel?

Now that I have converted my doctoral thesis into a book, my critical work is moving in two directions. One looks at the questions raised during my first project, mostly related to how power, pleasure, play, and pedagogy overlap in James Joyce’s work. (Yes, I do have an alliteration problem.) The other direction considers pedagogy in other texts. It is this latter line of inquiry that led to “Whither Teaching in the University Novel?”, which started with the question of why direct representation of classroom teaching is so limited in university fiction. The article has been published as part of a special issue of American, British and Canadian Studies Journal on academic fiction, and you can read it in full at http://www.degruyter.com/downloadpdf/j/abcsj.2016.26.issue-1/abcsj-2016-0002/abcsj-2016-0002.xml

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Why Melania Trump’s Plagiarism Matters

Should coverage of Melania Trump’s plagiarism outweigh coverage of the racism, misogyny, and other bigotries on display at the Republican National Convention? Probably not, but it does have a deeper relevance than its function in further exposing the absurdity of the Trump candidacy.

Let’s start here: intellectual communities build themselves through acts of citation. Bloggers link; scholars footnote or in-text cite. In some non-western cultures, writers may include passages in ways that western scholars would view as plagiarism, but I believe that this generally occurs in cultures in which an educated person would be expected to recognize the sources without a citation. It functions similarly to allusion and is considered a way of showing respect to the original writer. In context, Melania Trump’s appropriations show disrespect for word work (and play) and thought—more evidence, as if we needed it, of anti-intellectualism.

But it gets worse with Republican National Convention chief strategist Sean Spicer’s defense of Melania Trump’s speech, and I’m not talking about the strangeness of appealing to My Little Pony (though the willingness to admit that convention speeches have no more complexity or thought to them than a children’s show is striking). Instead, I want to focus on this claim:

I mean if we want to take a bunch of phrases and run them through a Google and say, ‘Hey, who else has said them,’ I can do that in five minutes.

Well, yes. That is how someone lacking access to an automated plagiarism checker might go about finding copied or patchwritten material, but Spicer seems to be suggesting that such a procedure will uncover levels of copying similar to Melania Trump’s in any speech or text. Besides being demonstrably false, this claim suggests a rejection of the possibility of creative thought, as if new ways of speaking and thinking beyond “common words and values” cannot exist. And I have to wonder if that represents the way Spicer believes the world is already or if, instead, it demonstrates the way the Republican leadership would like the world to be.

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New Humanities Ph.D.s Should Leave the Country? Not So Fast.

Is the grass really greener on the other side of the ocean? Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece advising new Ph.D.s to seek employment overseas. I made that choice a few years ago, and while I don’t regret it, I can tell you that it isn’t right for everyone, and the Chronicle piece elides the very real challenges of taking work overseas.

Travel is costly and time-consuming. International airfare costs more than domestic airfare and travel takes more time. Going back to the U.S., for me, starts with a five-hour flight to Hawai’i that arrives at 3 am, so onward travel has to wait a while. I’m planning to attend a few conferences in the U.K. this summer, which is going to mean a couple days of travel each way. Unless there are conferences on your subject in the region where you are going to work, you will not be able to attend any conferences during the academic year. You won’t be visiting your family on long weekends. Scott T. Gibson, the author of the Chronicle article, points out that, in areas with a lower cost of living than the US, you can live a comfortable life on a modest salary—but that doesn’t help pay for long-haul plane tickets.

Marshall Islands Locator Map

Marshall Islands Locator Map via Wikipedia

You will experience culture shock in the classroom. Even after three years in the Marshall Islands, I can’t always predict what ideas or examples my students here will be familiar with. Finding new ways to explain concepts can be a stimulating intellectual challenge, but it can also be stressful, especially during busy times of the semester when you don’t have the time to conduct extra research.

In many cases, you will also have to adapt your pedagogy to suit the needs of students who speak English as a later language, though this has not been especially challenging for me, as I taught ESL and EFL prior to returning to school for the Ph.D.

The one-body and two-body problems can be exacerbated. It depends where you go and who you are, but moving overseas can mean a smaller dating pool. For those already coupled, the odds of a spouse finding work can be greatly reduced, assuming their visa allows employment at all.

You may not be able to get the healthcare you need. In some countries, healthcare is better and more affordable than in the U.S. Where I live now, it is certainly less expensive, but the hospital regularly runs out of basic medications. Machines break and aren’t fixed for months. If I had any kind of condition that required ongoing treatment, I wouldn’t be here.


Corals

Coral near Eneko, a Small Island within the Atoll where I Live Now

Despite these challenges, I am happy here. I work with students who are capable of tremendous growth and who have as much to teach me as I have to teach them. They have whole worlds that, as yet, I have only glimpsed—and I have worlds to offer them. I’ve also learned to SCUBA dive, which I don’t think I’d have done at home.

My point here is not to advocate against Ph.D.s seeking work in other countries. Rather, I want to present a more balanced look than the Chronicle does and to argue against the idea of seeking overseas work as a solution to the abysmal academic jobs market. Emigration can bring rewards, but the challenges are enough that no one should be driven to it by the increasing casualization of labor within higher education. The only real solutions to the crisis of academic poverty are systemic ones.

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