Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Learning Curve: The Confidence Game

*This post is part of a series in which professors reflect on the practical lessons they have learned in the transition from graduate school to employment.

By Richard Newton

I have yet to see a job posting that indicates “no teaching experience necessary.” Stranger things have found their way into the guild’s employment pages, but academic employers are reticent to say they will accept someone with no teaching experience.

This is a rather ingenuous practice as there was a time when every hire once lacked teaching experience. There was a time when that CV line was not. Perhaps as your career advances, you begin to think that your pedagogical prowess came from nowhere. That same“rememory” would then enable you to expect the same of the up and coming teachers who—if hired—would inevitably replace you. Robyn Faith Walsh put it nicely. “If I have observed one thing during the past 18 years, it is that the goalposts for the traditional path to becoming a professor are constantly changing.” It seems worth asking whether employers rarely would hire their former selves.

Meritocracy is neither what it used to be nor something that ever was. With the increased emphasis on professional development for college educators, I’ve wondered whether the ardent search for best practices has bequeathed a bourgeois academic smugness. This assessment culture—designed to help teachers improve—may have the secondary consequence of naming effectiveness almost solely in negative terms, like we are creating a world where the new teacher is never good enough, just not as bad as expected. It’s no wonder then that academic success is typically seen as acquiring a position where how bad of a teacher you are no longer matters.

There’s a confidence game afoot where graduate students are getting played. 

There are master classes on this at the school of hardknocks. If you’re working multiple jobs to get the food, shelter, and clothing you need so you can take that degree, then I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. And you already understand that there’s a lot of fine print that would follow any suggestion I have regarding the so-called transition from graduate school to employment. All I can offer is a teaching that has been reinforced by my time on the tenure-track. So here it goes: You, too, can play a confidence game by acting the professional part now.

Professional Asceticism

Confidence games are an ascetic practice. You have to know that there’s a sacrifice involved. The con artist is committed to making the sacrifice worthwhile. When I was working (and crying) on my dissertation, I stumbled upon some remarks by Ira Glass, host of the successful This American Life radio program.In the video he revisits his early, painful attempts at telling human interest stories. Now a master storyteller, Glass pleads for artists to hold fast and just produce. Get all of the flawed drafts and ineffective lessons out of the way so that you can embrace the good that you trust will come of it.  File this under “keep on keepin’ on.”

Embrace Your Skills

Confidence games are also a matter of skill. There comes a moment in graduate school where you look around and realize that you don’t’ get stickers for being good at school anymore. Similarly, being smart isn’t enough to advance in or even toward the workplace.  Your employment culture expects you to further their scholarly mission, so the best practices are the ones where you get the most return for your investment. Skill is the knowledge to capitalize on that dynamic. I’m inspired here by actress JadaPinkett Smith’s advice for breaking into any industry.

The trick is discerning the most profitable investment. And what I started realizing in my classroom is that my skills look a lot like my interests. I like having fruitful conversations about religion, culture, and teaching. Beyond articulating my own ideas, I want to learn with others interested in those matters. And damn if I don’t have fun doing so online. It was a no brainer then to start a blog in 2006. Sowingtheseed.org became a digital representation of those interests, and I’ve tried to nurture it from an online master’s research project on the Parable of the Sower to my web portfolio during my PhD years.

Rather than dismissing it as a one-time student’s (over)eagerness, I’ve reclaimed it as a venue for my students to do what I had wanted to do from the get go— exchanging with professional scholars. I won’t claim that I’m great at web design and critical writing pedagogy. But it’s something I work toward because it works for me.  Find what is working for you and ramp it up. We haven’t seen anything yet because your best is yet to come.

Be Social

Similarly, remember that a confidence game is a social activity.  Academics in our field are tutored in the art of independent scholarship. There’s something to be said about individualism but efficiency is rarely one of them. I’ve found that if you frame your work as something for others to believe in, then possibilities of your contributions increase in turn. Without the support of student services at my institution, I, as a junior faculty member, would never have been able to bring in an award-winning writer-historian,host an innovative filmmaker, or launch a classroom-based research project—all this year. Dream the big dreams with the librarians, center directors, deans, and administrators at your school.

From Failure to Happy

My last gleaning has to do with happiness. Be confident in your sense of frustration because class time is too short to do anything otherwise. I’ll admit there’s a level of double-talk between this and my first point. The difference I’m at peace with is in distinguishing between labor and toil. Labor’s like the pivotal lecture that can’t be made fun. Toil is drudgery with no pay off in sight. I get this cerebrally, but I have to work through a lot of baggage to admit that a lesson has failed. But I’ve not once regretted stopping a class and making a course correction. Confidence can even make that look good.

Put simply: There’s no substitution for doing you.  Your honest worst is better than your faking someone else’s best. And the tenure-track is a place where you’ll need to remind yourself of this and other basics.

Richard Newton is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College. He studies scriptures in religion and culture, curates Sowing the Seed: Fruitful Conversations on Religion, Culture, and Teaching; and hosts the podcast, Broadcast Seeding: Future food for Thought.

No comments:

Post a Comment