By Ron Tinsley
I have learned the hard way that not all Ph.D.s are created equal. I went to graduate school dreaming about teaching college. For some reason, no one clued me in to the fact that to teach at major research universities, you need a doctorate. For some reason, I didn’t clue myself in, either.
When I look back on my life, I was a natural teacher amongst my peers. When my friends and I built our Little Rascals clubhouse, I drew the blueprint. When we needed to get out of trouble, I solved the problem. When we wanted to prarchute off of a three-story rowhouse…I…I was smart enough to leave that one alone. Eventually, I began to dread this gift so I started hiding my natural curiosity. Along with increasing community problems, the pressure distracted me and I began to fall behind in my school work even though I was an above-average student.
I was the first to attend college in my immediate and extended family. Even while I was in college, none of my neighborhood friends could remember that I was studying graphic design. Learning the fundamentals of design meant creating patterns by moving black dots around on white paper. This approach is derived from the Swiss design philosophy of learning how to not only see black space as usable, but white space as well. To outsiders, it might look more like a game you use in day care rather than a skill that would get you a job.
I struggled in my humanities classes because…wait for it…I was a poor writer. In my high school, academically, I was a big fish in a small pond. In college, I was a small fish in a large pond with bigger fish. The big fish (professors) scared me, because they were so frank and honest in their critiques. After all, in higher education, teachers don’t get fired because their students are failing.
Proposal after Proposal
When I landed my first job after college graduation, my research and writing skills steadily improved. As Adjuncts By Choice know, in the professional world, writing is valued because it showcases one’s ability to handle complex concepts and ideas. Writing proposals fed my love of logical thinking and research. This translated into stronger oral communication skills. I also spent a great deal of time in the library and started reading academic journals. I was not so sure where all this extracurricular work, so to speak, was taking me, but I soon got published and this was followed by a few awards. I contemplated grad school, but the GRE stopped me dead!
Standardized testing scared me. I’d had a terrible experience with taking the SAT in high school. I was under the mistaken impression that the SAT measured intelligence, and my scores were average. This shook my confidence even though I graduated from high school in the top five percent of my class of 550 students. I put off my dreams of attending graduate school for five years. Eventually, I found a full-time job and my employer agreed to pay for graduate school. Instead of taking the GRE, I stepped sideways and into a grad program. Whew!
May I Teach, Please?
My dream of arguing and deconstructing ideas in Academe blossomed. Was it me, or did scholars seem to always be on the guest list for talk shows and morning news shows to give their thoughts and share their knowledge? From the outside, it looked as though professors had tremendous freedom and respect from society. I figured, it was because they were great teachers. However, after listening to some of my own graduate school professors tell me about the pressures of chasing tenure, I started to rethink my goals.
A Ph.D. & A Side of Fries
When I began to adjunct, I thought deans would somehow magically see my passion for teaching, and allow me to slip in and become tenured overnight. Yeah, right. I talked to several professors at research universities in my area and almost all of them hated teaching. I was shocked. They complained about their students’ lack of preparation, the boredom of teaching the same courses every year, and the poor quality of the work turned in by students. Perhaps they were jaded and simply needed a change? They said they would rather conduct research.
Although I have only been an Adjunct By Choice for three years, I can identify with some of these complaints. (Though I try to remember that I was not an easy student to teach.) I like teaching because I like seeing people “get it”—when the light bulb goes on. I thought of a Ph.D. as some kind of validation that would allow me to teach what I like. This is somewhat true, but I realized that there would be a price to pay, as well. I like to compare it to ordering Cheeseburger Value Meal from McDonald’s even though all you really want are the fries. Research (cheeseburger) is tasty, but I could eat fries (teach) all day long. The pressure on some professors chasing tenure is something I am not sure I want.
George Bernard Shaw coined the popular phrase, “Those that can’t do, teach.” I’m not sure Shaw knew a thing about the rigors of teaching diverse student populations with differing learning styles when he wrote that. In any given class, I may need to be a counselor, social worker, professor and mentor simultaneously. I’ve realized that I can do this without a Ph.D. I may not be able to do it at a well known university, but that’s okay. After all, I like seeing people learn. I still think about getting a Ph.D., but for now, I’m enjoying my fries.
About this Adjunct: Ron Tinsley is a Communications Director by day and an Adjunct Instructor by night. He teaches classes on Urban Youth Culture, Media Literacy and Urban Studies. He has a BFA in Graphic Design from The University of the Arts and a MA in Urban Studies from Eastern University. For the past 20 years, he has worked with children, youth and families from disadvantaged communities. He is nervously entertaining the idea of getting a Ph.D.