An Adviser Without Advice

She graduated a year ago with a major in English and a minor in information systems. Now she works as a cashier. She wore a red smock and a little plastic nametag with the word “Target” on the bottom.

Pampers, VeggieTales videos, Harry Potter paperbacks, and kitchen utensils designed by Michael Graves rolled by. My former student scanned and bagged the objects as if she was running on a treadmill. She recognized me, and I tried to return her nervous smile. We each asked how the other was doing and said “good.” I swiped my card, and she gave me a receipt. There were bored people all around, and the whole conversation was understood in a few embarrassed glances.

“Good to see you,” I said, leaving. “Yeah, you too, professor,” she said, flatly. I saw her feigned cheerfulness droop a little as she turned to the next customer. –“Thomas H. Benton” —An Adviser Without Advice (Chronicle)

I’ve been very fortunate in the academic job crapshoot. All of us who advise undergraduates do so from the same position of privilege. I admire “Benton” for his frankness. I can permit myself to dismiss some of the observations made by outsiders, and thus wave it away with a nervous laugh. But this was written by an insider, which makes it more painful.

Last term, while talking with a professional outside academia, I came up with this forumua. I can prepare students to be competitive when it comes to getting an internship, and the internship can prepare the dedicated student for a job in the real world. While many of the students I teach are English education majors, who are in fact pegs being groomed to fit into a very specific hole, that grooming happens in their education classes, not in my English classes.

Since I advise the student paper, I am involved in training students for a particular trade, but many of the students who work on the paper aren’t planning to be journalists — they just like doing it. I tell my journalism majors, and high school students who are considering Seton Hill, that if they expect a piece of paper to get them a job after four years, they should consider a full-fledged journalism college, or something like education or nursing.

An article that Benton wrote a few years ago, “A Superhero’s Perspective on the MLA Convention,” has deeply affected the way I advise students who are considering (or in) grad school. When I first read it, I was on the job market, and things were actually going pretty well for me, but it kept me humble: “[T]his is a conditioned response from people who reacted to schoolyard taunts by winning the praise of teachers. But, as one advances and ages in the profession, there are fewer and fewer teachers to please.”