Thursday, February 19, 2009

Academic Scrap

100. Academic Scrap
by Larry M. Brow
copyright 2007

In any manufacturing process there’s a certain inevitable amount of material that falls to the side as scrap. These bits may get used elsewhere in the process, or recycled into new material, or just thrown away. They are the cost of doing business and while it makes good sense to reduce the amount of scrap you produce you can’t eliminate it all. Even in the virtual world and the realm of creativity some ideas and some impulses turn out to be useless and must be discarded.

In Academia, the idea of wasted material (and wasted time) is much more problematic. The primary raw material of colleges and universities is people.

Everywhere in higher education there are people who are thriving, people who are just getting by, and people who just aren’t getting it. Even the process of going off to college leaves a certain number of people behind. At this stage, those individuals may not mind. They are making other choices and embracing other pleasures. They may even be educating themselves further in fields that simply aren’t taught on campus. The directions they’ve taken their lives do not make them failures. In fact, some of them are on their way to making a comfortable living with enviable families in idyllic communities.

College students, however, have chosen a different path. Whether you believe that they compete against each other, against their own ignorance, or against the inherent difficulties of their coursework, the college student is competing. This competition can be stressful, and for most students it’s at least a four year commitment.

Statistically, most college students succeed, if we measure success in terms of graduation. However, many do not. At some institutions the non-completion rate defies explanation. What insidious combination of poor preparation and poor habits, recreation and recreational drugs, financial stress and financial incompetence could possibly explain the failures of so many undergraduates? Whatever the reasons, some students move up through the system and others merely move on, perhaps discovering the same joys and successes as those who never attempted the academic life.

So, you’ve graduated and now you’re one of the few, the elite, moving on to graduate school. Will any graduate program do, or are your sights set on one of the “elite” programs? Elitism can be fun, particularly when you’re winning at it. At every level you can think of yourself as doing better than those who have given up, dropped out, tanked their grade point averages, or made less prestigious choices.

Unfortunately, the creation of scrap continues still at these elevated levels. Even tenured professors can be scrapped out by exhaustion, collapse, or a fundamental change of heart. How do you cope at that most heartless of stages when you are trying to turn your brand new terminal degree into full time employment? When you know that there are too few jobs openings for all the fresh-faced academic “elites” on the market, how do you avoid thinking about the “scrap?”

For academic scrap there can be a variety of fates. Some find new uses for themselves taking jobs they hadn’t previously envisioned, in administration, or academic support professions, or business – adapting their skills and aptitudes to new requirements. Some refuse to take a “terminal” view of their own educations and carry on in some new field working towards new goals. Some marry well, or make other arrangements with the universe. And some just melt down.

Don’t self-destruct. And don’t lash out. At every level the decision-makers are not acting to disrespect you or scrap you out. Their mandate is only to elevate the few they have spaces for and most need. That extra candidates must look elsewhere is a simple, emotionless reality. They are not putting you down. Only you (and your family) can do that. Refuse to permit it.

You were happy when the system was working for you, when you were winning. Perhaps, now you will have to use some cleverness, creativity, patience, and tenacity to re-invent yourself or to just keep putting yourself forward. You will always have choices and opportunities, if you have the humility to re-examine your expectations of purpose and reward. Be your own inventor and nothing goes to waste.


ReversedCircle said...

Pop-culture is an easy culprit. Maybe I've never understood slackers. Too, there is a misassociation with being uncompetitive and being "yourself" that thrives in pop-culture and shitty pop music. Personally, I prefer to watch movies and read books in which the characters are larger than life, ambitious, adaptive, rich, and cutting-edge. Though I would have to disagree going as far to say that 4 year college defines the elite. The bachelors degree is the new highschool diploma. Often in creative writing workshops I had a tendacy to subtly vocalize the students who should not be allowed to create. In other words, I believe in the filter. Moreover, the university pumps english majors through its system for the money. Also I question the caliber of the instructors. Then again, I often felt that I never had peers or instructors who could ever match me.

Larry M. Brow said...

And yet you've written of your mentor, with some respect, and as if the relationship is ongoing.

And what do you mean by "vocalize the students?" We all get to create. But people who are making mud pies, should know it and admit to it.

Of course, giving ourselves stature by comparing ourselves to others (rather than the challenges of the problem) is inherently suspect. I refer to it as, "making yourself look taller by standing on someone else's corpse.

Never really praiseworthy.