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Academic Cultures: Professional Preparation and the Teaching Life

reviewed by Peter Filene - January 16, 2009

coverTitle: Academic Cultures: Professional Preparation and the Teaching Life
Author(s): Sean P. Murphy (Ed.)
Publisher: Modern Language Association, New York
ISBN: 160329001X, Pages: 260, Year: 2008
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This collection of 18 essays seeks to build a bridge across the gap—or more accurately, the chasm—between graduate school and academic employment. Most graduate students are trained to become research scholars who, in the mold of their professors, hope to work in elite four-year institutions and write books. As for teaching, if they’re lucky they receive some experience and mentorship, but teaching is not a criterion for earning a doctorate.  

More than likely, however, their first academic position will look nothing like this model. The vast majority—perhaps as many as 90 percent—of the newly minted Ph.D.s who are fortunate enough to be hired will work in teaching-intensive colleges (Gaff, 2002). Juggling four or more courses per semester, they will have virtually no time or resources for research and publication. Moreover, their students probably won’t resemble the undergraduates they’re familiar with. Many will be first-generation college students, much older than twenty-one, married with children, arriving in class after or before their job, and speaking English as a second language. To put the situation in crass capitalist terms, elite graduate programs are producing SUVs for consumers who require hybrid cars.

In the face of these circumstances, the new Ph.D. understandably will become frustrated, bewildered, and resentful. Little in his or her graduate school training—no seminar, no mentor—has prepared him or her for this outcome. After working so hard to succeed, he or she feels like a failure.

The authors of these essays intend to bridge this chasm between ivory tower and real-world academia. They work in diverse institutions, ranging from high school to community colleges to state universities, secular and religious, rural and urban. (All of them teach English or foreign languages, but their ideas apply across the humanities and social sciences.) In candid, often vivid first-person accounts, they explain how they have not merely made peace with their situation, but thrived. They also spell out ways by which graduate-school professors—the superintendents of the ivory towers—can prepare their students for what lies ahead.   

At first glance, their experiences are so varied that they have little in common. One faculty member teaches German at Central Michigan University, another teaches English-as-a-second-language to migrant farm workers at Arizona Western University. We read reports from a community college in North Carolina, a state university in New Hampshire, and a private Catholic college in Taiwan.

Beneath this heterogeneous surface, though, one finds three persistent themes. Whereas these faculty initially felt burdened by having to teach courses outside their specializations, they gradually welcomed what Mark Long calls an “unexpected gift,” namely “the freedom to determine my own intellectual development and priorities” (p. 126). At Keene State College in New Hampshire, he joined an interdisciplinary task force to create an institute where colleagues from various departments collaborate each summer to develop new approaches to teaching writing. For Nancy Brown, who came to Lourdes College as a specialist in American Romanticism, the gift of freedom meant teaching everything from Composition 1 to Beowulf to Balzac, as well as Literature by Women, while serving on numerous committees (student life, library services, etc.) and performing volunteer work in the town of Sylvania, Ohio. For Ann Green at St. Joseph’s University, it meant creating a writing center that organized students to work as literacy tutors in the community and also sponsored events around writing and social justice. To quote Lynnell Edwards, who worked at a conservative Lutheran university in Oregon, these teachers “delight in being true generalists” (p. 73).

Beyond collaborative, interdisciplinary teaching and community service, these essayists develop a more radical argument. They exemplify Ernest L. Boyer’s proposed redefinition of “scholarship” as more than original research and publication (Boyer, 1990, pp. 17-25). In their teaching-intensive careers, these faculty not only are working creatively to build a two-way bridge between what they understand and what their students learn. They also are placing their specialties into a larger intellectual context, and applying their knowledge to social problems. It’s not scholarship as defined by their graduate alma maters. But without “the one-size-fits-all timeline of promotion and tenure” (quoting Mark Long again, p. 126), they can read in various fields and write reviews, articles and, of course, the essays for this collection.

A third theme has to do with community. The sixty faculty members at Lourdes College, for example, cover a bulletin board in the conference room with thank-you notes, announcements of births and deaths, and information about new colleagues. During office hours at her community college on the Mexican border, Ellen Cohen squeezes into her tiny room not only her students, but also several family members, because family crises often interrupt the students’ class attendance. Think globally, live locally: this describes how many of these instructors function at teacher-intensive institutions. They may not attend the MLA convention or read the latest issue of Victorian Studies, but they are professionals who have planted their roots in their campuses and communities.

The question remains, though: How can Ph.D. programs prepare students for these kinds of appointments? Deborah Gill recommends a kind of cultural-exchange program: namely, invite speakers from local community colleges to speak with graduate students, and in return, establish internships at these institutions. Guilford Technical Community College and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro have done just that. As Jo Ann Buck and McGregor Frank report, their Faculty-in-Training Program (FIT) employs teaching assistants from the UNC-G English department to teach classes, tutor in the Writing Center, and attend department meetings.

A more ambitious model can be found at George Mason University. In allegiance to Ernest Boyer’s redefinition of scholarship, GMU offers several masters and doctoral programs through which candidates develop good practices for teaching in two- and four-year colleges. Students choose a knowledge area (history, for example, or English), take education courses, engage in an internship, and write a thesis or dissertation that furthers the scholarship of teaching—all of this in close conjunction with local colleges.

It is understandable that professors at elite graduate schools want to train research scholars like themselves. That is how they have been trained, after all. And their students understandably adhere to this ideal, in part because the reward structure in academia favors those who publish more and teach less. The rude fact, however, is that most graduates of elite universities are performing a different kind of higher education. If the professors and students at elite graduate schools want to begin finding their way out of this quandary, they should read Academic Culture. Among these 18 essays, they will find fresh perspectives and practical solutions.


Boyer, E.L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gaff, J.G. (2002). The disconnect between graduate education and the realities of faculty work: A review of recent research. Liberal Education, 88(3), 6-13.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 16, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15492, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 11:17:58 PM

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About the Author
  • Peter Filene
    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    E-mail Author
    PETER FILENE is an Emeritus Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Recent publications include The Joy of Teaching: A Practical Guide for New College Instructors (2005) and In the Arms of Others: A Cultural History of the Right-to-Die in America (1998).
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