My Road to the Ph.D.: A Wrong Turn?


I feel disappointed in many regards that my posting this summer has been so minimal.  It’s hard to keep a record of something if you don’t write things down, right?  Still, it’s been a busier and far more frustrating summer than I was hoping for in many ways.  I think, under the auspices of ‘If you can’t say anything nice…’ I was aiming to simply not write anything at all.  Still, I’m nearing the end of my second summer, as well as the tail end of my doctoral coursework, and I thought it’d be a good idea to jot some thoughts down.

First off, I’m beginning to think I’ve taken a wrong turn in pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism.  Yes.  You read that correctly.  I’m thinking the degree I’m pursuing is not the right course of study for me.  Pretty hard lesson to learn after already having secured over $20k in loans and when my wife will have invested over 20 weeks of single parenting once this summer is done.  I should explain this a bit.

Where to begin?

I guess I never really saw how isolated many professors in the field of English literature are from their students.  Let me ask a question and see if this puts things into perspective.  What sort of job do you think the overwhelming majority of graduate students who are getting a Ph.D. in English will do once they receive their degree?  While I’m sure there are other options out there… I can’t think of anyone who isn’t looking to secure a position as an English professor in higher education.  Realizing that this is the direction that (more or less) all of us will be going, why then don’t we hear about how we can use the specific course content within a classroom setting?  And while I’m only talking about doctoral students here, I can tell you a large number of English majors from my undergraduate and master’s programs were all going into teaching (at some level) as well.  The question remains: Why don’t the vast majority of professors take the time to incorporate pedagogical elements into their classrooms when they should know that’s where we’re all going?  I’ve had the experience of attending a private four-year school, a public state university, and a research-level 1 university, and I can only think of 2 or 3 professors that have ever dealt with this issue directly, and only 1 who made it an explicit part of the course (and her course was an elective–not a required part of my program of study).

This leads me to a few conclusions.  First, it confirms to me that my passion is continuing to cool when it comes to literature.  While I don’t mind talking about books and picking them apart, I see this is more of a leisurely experience with little practical value when done in isolation–as I often see happening in college classrooms today.  What I find much more fascinating and worthwhile is seeing how these activities can serve as vehicle for developing critical thinking and hone one’s ability to communicate with the written and spoken word.  I think it’s amazing when we look for ways that we can take texts and help students connect them to their own experiences, which can then help them find words and experiences to help shape and give voice to ideas they might not otherwise have been able to articulate.  But knowing how to create these experiences with our students and these texts–many from different periods of time and different cultures–can be very challenging, especially for teachers who have not been in the field for as many years.  This is the direction we as a field should be taking, and I don’t see anywhere near enough of this taking place.

Furthermore, I sometimes feel like there is an actual resistance to this movement towards making texts teachable.  While this might sound ludicrous (and I hope it does!), I’ve personally seen it this semester from both students and teachers–though fortunately less from my classmates.  Some time back, I had someone actually tell me teaching some groups of students was a waste of time (see one of my blog entries from last summer).  Even this past summer I had a fellow student say in class that we shouldn’t always have to worry about whether we can teach this book or not.  Then why the hell bother with it?!   I’m willing to concede that some books can be artistic and do not lend themselves to instruction.   Further, I fully understand that art and literature are not always meant to be utilitarian in nature, so we shouldn’t expect everything to have a practical, teachable use.  I get it.  But when I suggest that one of the strengths of a novel is that it seems very teachable and I’d be interested in discussing how others might consider using in their classes, I’m not sure why someone else would openly state total disinterest in classroom application?  Why such hostility towards finding ways to improve what we spend 10 months (or more!) out of the year doing?!

While there are certainly good, pedagogically-oriented English teachers out there, I guess I’m finding that between my own experiences and discussions with colleagues these rare and exemplary people are the exception–not the rule.  And frankly, if the field of English literature cannot more readily embrace the concept of relevancy in the classroom, then I am openly embracing the already increasing trend of the disappearance of the field altogether.  That’s right: I’m all for letting the field die.  And you know why?  Sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom before one figures out it is time to do something different.  It’s what Milton referred to as the “fortunate fall” and it’s what Bruce Wayne was told as a child–we fall down so we can pick ourselves back up.  Maybe this field needs to fall even more, be further abandoned enmasse as it already is by undergraduates left and right.  These students who fully recognize that this is a field of study that does not want to meet them where they are, but instead, wants them to scale the mountain and learn from the “masters.”  Maybe it’s time we come down off the mountain ourselves and find ways to make this wonderful body of knowledge relevant to the world today.  I still believe there is a place for the classics and I count it a disservice to students when we remove Shakespeare from the curriculum; however, if we fail to make this relevant to them in a real world fashion, then it’s a pointless exercise.  And really, who has the time to commit to studying this stuff if the teacher can’t bother to connect the students to the reading.

But I don’t see that happening any time soon.  And so, I’m left feeling like I’m on the wrong field of study.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to get this degree because whether I like it or not, teaching in higher education often requires those funny little letters at the end of one’s name.  I also think that maybe years from now, I may try and work some change from the inside.  But for now, I’m much more interested in learning how to become a better teacher of writing, reading, and critical thinking.  I’d rather spend my days helping students develop and better navigate the world in which they live–something I’m just not seeing enough of in classes today.  I do find myself thinking perhaps getting my doctorate in education would have been more relevant than literature, but at the end of the day, it’s less about the funny letters at the end of your name and more of what you do that counts.

Yes, content is important but I think using content to help our students become more aware of themselves and the world they live in can be a far more valuable approach.  Failing to bridge the gap, I think this field is going to continue to be in trouble.

First off, I’m beginning to think I’ve taken a wrong turn in pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism.  Yes.  You read that correctly.  I’m thinking the degree I’m pursuing is not the right course of study for me.  Pretty hard lesson to learn after already having secured over $20k in loans and when my wife will have invested over 20 weeks of single parenting once this summer is done.  I should explain this a bit.

Where to begin?

I guess I never really saw how isolated many professors in the field of English literature are from their students.  Let me ask a question and see if this puts things into perspective.  What sort of job do you think the overwhelming majority of graduate students who are getting a Ph.D. in English will do once they receive their degree?  While I’m sure there are other options out there… I can’t think of anyone who isn’t looking to secure a position as an English professor in higher education.  Realizing that this is the direction that (more or less) all of us will be going, why then don’t we hear about how we can use the specific course content within a classroom setting?  And while I’m only talking about doctoral students here, I can tell you a large number of English majors from my undergraduate and master’s programs were all going into teaching as well.  The question remains: Why don’t the vast majority of professors take the time to incorporate pedagogical elements into their classrooms when they should know that’s where we’re all going?  I’ve had the experience of attending a private four-year school, a public state university, and a research-level 1 university, and I can only think of 2 or 3 that have ever dealt with this issue directly, and only 1 who made it an explicit part of the course (and her course was an elective–not a required part of my program of study).

This leads me to a conclusions.  First, it confirms to me that my passion is continuing to cool when it comes to literature.  While I don’t mind talking about books and picking them apart, I see this is more of a leisurely experience with little practical value when done in isolation–as I often see happening in college classrooms today.  What I find much more fascinating and worthwhile is how these activities can serve as vehicle for developing critical thinking, honing one’s ability to communicate with the written and spoken word.  I think it’s amazing when look for ways that we can take texts and help students connect them to their own experiences, which can help them find words and experiences to help shape and give voice to ideas they might not otherwise have been able to articulate.  But knowing how to create these experiences with our students and these texts–many from different periods of time and different cultures–can be very challenging, especially for teachers who have not been in the field for as many years.  This is the direction we as a field should be taking, and I don’t see anywhere near enough of this taking place.

Furthermore, I sometimes feel like there is an actual resistance to this movement towards making texts teachable.  While this might sound ludicrous (and I hope it does!), I’ve personally seen it this semester from both students and teachers–though fortunately less from my classmates.  Some time back, I had someone actually tell me teaching some groups of students was a waste of time (see one of my blog entries from last summer).  Even this past summer I had a fellow student say in class that we shouldn’t always have to worry about whether we can teach this book or not.  Then why the hell bother with it?!   I’m willing to concede that some books can be artistic and do, not lend themselves to instruction.   Further, I fully understand that art and literature are not meant to be utilitarian in nature, so we shouldn’t expect everything to have a practical, teachable use.  I get it.  But when I suggest that one of the strengths of a novel is that it seems very teachable and I’d be interested in discussing how others might consider using in their classes, I’m not sure why someone else would openly state total disinterest in classroom application?  Why such hostility towards finding ways to improve what we spend 10 months (or more!) out of the year doing?!

While there are certainly good, pedagogically-oriented English teachers out there, I guess I’m finding between my own experiences and discussions with colleagues that these rare and exemplary people are the exception–not the rule.  And frankly, if the field of English literature cannot more readily embrace the concept of relevancy in the classroom, then I am openly embracing the already increasing trend of the disappearance of the field altogether.  That’s right: I’m all for letting the field die.  And you know why?  Sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom before one figures out it’s time to do something different.  It’s what Milton referred to as the “fortunate fall” and it’s what Bruce Wayne was told as a child–we fall down so we can pick ourselves back up.  Maybe this field needs to fall even more, be further abandoned enmasse as it already is by undergraduates left and right who fully recognize that this is a field of study that does not want to meet them where they are, but instead, wants them to scale the mountain and learn from the “masters.”  Maybe it’s time we come down off the mountain and find ways to make this wonderful body of knowledge relevant to the world today.  I still believe there is a place for the classics and I count it a disservice to students when we remove Shakespeare from the curriculum; however, if fail to make this relevant to them in a real world fashion, then it’s a pointless exercise.  And really, who has the time to commit to studying this stuff if the teacher can’t bother to connect the students to the reading.

But I don’t see that happening any time soon.  And so, I’m left feeling like I’m on the wrong field of study.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to get this degree because whether I like it or not, teaching in higher education often requires those funny little letters at the end of one’s name.  I also think that maybe years from now, I may try and work some change from the inside.  But for now, I’m much more interested in learning how to become a better teacher of writing, reading, and critical thinking.  I’d rather spend my days students develop and better navigate the world in which they live–something I’m just not seeing enough of in classes today.  I do find myself thinking perhaps getting my doctorate in education would have been more relevant than literature, but at the end of the day, it’s less about the funny letters at the end of your name and more of what you do that counts.

Yes, content is important but I think using content to help our students become more aware of themselves and the world they live in can be a far more valuable approach.  Failing to bridge the gap, I think this field is going to continue to be in trouble.

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About fhelvie

I live in CT with my wife and two sons. I am also writing my doctoral dissertation, which is focused on the relationship between American literature and comic book superheroes. I have served as a panelist at a number of conferences discussing my research in comics, medieval literature, and pedagogy. Most recently, I had the good fortune to present at the New York Comic Con. In addition to my work in comics scholarship, I'm also a full-time professor of developmental English.
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