In the latest issue of Perspectives, which is published by the American Historical Association, there is a very disturbing letter from a woman who is close to finishing her PhD, but is concerned about locating a teaching position. Here is a short excerpt from her letter:
I have come to the conclusion, now that I am almost ready to defend my dissertation and enter the academic job market, that this may be a very poor career-path choice. The overall impression I have derived from the various articles is that unless I am a white male graduate of a top-ten school, working in a currently "hot" field, and under the age of 35, my chances of finding secure and long-term employment in a teaching position are slim to none. And should I actually be lucky enough to make it through a job-search experience that is almost universally panned, even by those who completed it successfully, I can anticipate a quite low starting salary in comparison to professions with similar or lesser credentialing requirements. I am forced to ask myself: Why bother?
Now I don’t want to debate the merits of any gender or age bias in the academy because I don’t operate in that environment. What I do know is that I’ve read and listened to a great deal of commentary about the state of the job market and other concerns that go into landing that first job that would make all of the hard work worthwhile. I’ve heard way too many stories of disappointment in connection with those massive job fairs that take place at the annual meeting of the AHA or the statistics that have 150 candidates applying for one job. I can certainly sympathize with the anxieties that go into a job search.
Given all of this, what I don’t understand is why graduate programs in history have not done more to highlight the possibilities of teaching in a private school. Of course part of the answer is obvious: One does not struggle through a PhD program to end up anywhere but in a college setting where there is time to pontificate and publish. There is a stigma attached with settling for anything other than a 4-year institution or a sense that one has ultimately failed. But is this narrow view justified given the state of the job market and other relevant factors? In other words, perhaps it can be argued that this condescending attitude is keeping young PhD’s from pursuing a career that could prove to be incredibly rewarding.
Let me use myself as an example of someone who has learned to balance the demands of the classroom with a fairly successful record of scholarship and service. Please keep in mind that I do not have a PhD, but much of my activity has come to mirror the life of a professor.
I should start out with the challenges that all private school teachers deal with in various degrees. The teaching loads are heavy. I teach five sections (not all on the same day) and have three preps. This amounts to around 70 students, which means meetings, conferences, parents, etc. In short, its not easy. Many private schools also place an emphasis on coaching one of the three sports seasons. The responsibilities vary across the board.
As challenging as the life of a private school teacher is there is much to recommend it, even for newly-minted PhD’s. Most classes are small in size; my largest section is 16 students. Private school students are a fairly obedient breed, which means they can be taught and they will actually do their work. They tend to be motivated even if tends to be focused simply on getting into the right college. Most importantly, as a group they tend to be fairly bright and curious. All of this makes for productive classes with a surprising amount of original thought and dialogue. For those of you out there who abhor the prospects of having to publish a certain amount for tenure and who actually enjoy the dynamics of the classroom the private school world may be for you. If colleges and universities are serious about instilling good teaching habits in their graduate students it stands to reason that a career that concentrates on the classroom should be seen as a serious option following graduation.
But even if you have publishing aspirations there may be a home for you in a private school. Output will certainly be lower than what you will find in the college world, but I assume that many people would be happy being able to publish a few things within a life of teaching. This is where I fall. I’ve managed to publish a number of pieces in academic journals, popular magazines, and one edited collection. There is even the possibility of working on larger projects if you are able to successfully budget the required time. Beyond publishing I’ve been able to attend and present at numerous academic conferences and have served as a referee for three academic journals. My school allows me to miss classes to attend conferences and has even financially supported some of these trips. In fact, I’ve been encouraged to attend conferences since it involves positive publicity for the school.
I am not simply trying to toot my own horn here. The life of a private school teacher can in fact accommodate much of what goes into a university position even if aspects of it are curtailed. Again, I imagine that many graduate students would be happy in a position where they were able to engage in a minimal amount of scholarship in exchange for the joys of the classroom. They should at least be introduced to it as a serious option.
I am not aware of any organized effort on the part of the AHA or OAH in this regard. This is odd given the amount of attention on bridging the gap between professional scholarship and the introduction of that material in the high school classroom. The OAH has made a list of professors available for visits to schools and both organizations have published numerous pamphlets and magazines written for the high school classroom. Finally, high school teachers can attend summer conferences such as the Gilder-Lehrman Institute which are led by some of the brightest minds in the academy. If the AHA and OAH are really interested in bridging the divide between these two worlds than it stands to reason that they would promote the life of a high school history teacher as a viable option. If professional historians can write the curricula material than they should be able to teach it.
I have a feeling that the tendency to ignore the private school route is denying plenty of young scholars/teachers a fulfilling and meaningful career.