Taking a long view of a humanities Ph.D. career (opinion) | Inside Higher Ed

In another life, I taught students how to write, and by that I mean how to hold a fat blue pencil between thumb and fingers, set the graphite point on a pulpy sheet of newsprint, and make marks resembling the 26 letters of the alphabet pictured above the green chalkboard at the front of the classroom.

We began with a lowercase l, because what could be more straightforward than a single line stroked vertically, top to bottom? But if you’ve never written a lowercase l before, you might — why not? — place that fat blue pencil on the page and draw the line upward, stopping after a reasonable distance. Even now, millions of l’s since that first formal entrance into written English, you might be someone who begins from the bottom and works their way up. Hell (a word in which l plays a crucial role), you might not have written any letter by hand since the day your fingers first touched a keyboard.

Knowing where to begin — in writing, or any endeavor for that matter — might not be as elementary as it sounds, but it can certainly help get things moving. As a first-generation college student whose make-ends-meet family perceived higher education to be a path for the wealthy rather than a route to opportunity, I had little knowledge of a future direction other than that I loved reading and writing, and that my heart longed for a life beyond what I could then imagine.

Luck is another word that makes good use of l, and mine came in the form of admission to a public university on the other side of the mountains from where I grew up. A patchwork of scholarships, grants, loans, work-study and summer jobs buoyed me through graduation, as it does for so many students, first generation and otherwise. As luck would have it, that bookish heart also proved a reliable professional navigator, leading to a financially stable and personally rewarding career as an elementary school teacher.

The portable classroom where those pencil-wielding first graders showed me what it meant to be an educator was more makeshift trailer than ivory-towered edifice. The aluminum-sided structure sat on eight heavy wheels about four feet off the blacktop playground and was accessed by a utilitarian metal staircase. Every morning, the students would line up at the bottom step, and I would open the door to greet them. Every morning, we’d climb those stairs together to enter the magical threshold of language.

When I veered from K-12 education to accept a scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. in creative writing and literature, I had little notion of where I might be headed, only that my heart was, once again, directing the compass. Now, nearly 30 years after stepping into that first-grade classroom, I find myself starting out again, this time at the top of the academic ladder — a word that, whatever direction you take, also begins with l.

What the range of education looks like from this particular rung is a letter for another day, but in terms of career path, the view is alternately expansive and cloudy. This is true for many Ph.D.s, particularly in the humanities. Maybe because I earned my doctorate at an age when many are setting their sights on retirement, this truth is not quite as bewildering as it was when I drove to that first postcollege job interview in a borrowed skirt and blazer. I arrived in the nick of time after a wrong exit on the freeway brought me to the overwhelming vastness of the Pacific instead of the friendly yellow school building where I spent the next two decades of my professional life.

Am I worried about where I’ll land next — and whether that career move will come with a livable wage, health insurance, retirement benefits? Absolutely. As a woman in her mid-50s, I may be more educated and experienced than I was when I began working, but age and gender discrimination are still alive and well in the marketplace, and academe is certainly not immune. Even for those positions inside K-12 education, where the picture is more female and grayer than ever, a veteran educator with a doctorate can easily be viewed as an expensive hire rather than a valuable resource. Factor in an economy still reeling from pandemic-related job loss unequaled since the Great Depression, and the scene can look grimmer than you know where. Which also turns out to be the exact spot where knowing how to write an l pays off.

In his own midlife journey, Dante begins not at the top, but in the soupy thick of things — not unlike the letter l itself, located in medias res of the alphabet, where what comes before bridges into an ever-mysterious L-M-N-O of possibility. As with the childhood song, we forge ahead in a twinkle-twinkle-little-star kind of way, not exactly knowing what we are singing, nor where we are headed — only that the familiar tune will carry us along, its concluding line inviting yet another round: “Next time won’t you sing with me?”

The ladder Dante ascends to reach the stars of Paradise is more golden staircase than portable classroom steps, but maybe most important, he doesn’t travel alone. The older, more experienced poet Virgil appears as initial guide, and of course our pilgrim meets many others along the way. Some serve as cautionary tales, but all have something to contribute in reaching that place where desire and will turn like a wheel “all at one speed, / by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.”

It’s only natural to imagine a person who earns a Ph.D. in the humanities wants to be a professor, but whenever anyone asks what age I like teaching best, I find myself at a loss. The truth is, my students over the years have ranged from younger than 3 to older than 80, and while the content may vary, the process feels much the same. To learn something new takes desire and will. It also takes something harder to articulate. Some might call it curiosity or interest; others might say patience or persistence. In my experience, all of the above (and more) play into the mix, for both learner and teacher. At this vantage point, I’m going to name it love, because no matter the level, love is the element that’s moved me most from unknown to by heart.

What that means for the next job is anyone’s guess. Whether inside a K-12 classroom, somewhere in higher education or another scenario entirely, it’s certain I’m in the same unknown woods as my fellow humanities Ph.D.s, wanting to put their education and experience to good use while also supporting themselves and their families.

But I can tell you this: the elementary school principal who became my direct supervisor for the next 20 years hired me against the recommendation of my then adviser — something I only found out about well after the fact. When I asked why she’d given me a chance, she admitted it had more to do with heart than with anything else. Certainly, I’d trained in the same program as other candidates and earned the necessary certifications, but what can look right on paper doesn’t always translate in life. “You just wanted it so much,” she said. “I believed you would do whatever it took to do a good job.”

Every first-year teacher I’ve ever known has worked harder than anyone can imagine, which is to say, the woman who trusted in my future as an educator may simply have been making an educated bet. But from where I’m standing now, it’s clear it wasn’t my desire, will — or anything else — that moved things along as much as those young students, carefully penciling their l’s, top to bottom, bottom to top, teaching me what love looks like — then, now and in the years to come, wherever they may lead.

And the first letter I’d write from there? A simple postcard with a forwarding address: “Whichever direction you take, should you find yourself at an unexpected edge, go ahead and give that ladder a rest. Dip your toes in the water and look out over the vast expanse. You just might see a bridge to another shore.”

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