I once aspired to become a university professor. I graduated from college with a BA, went to a theological seminary and on to graduate studies. After the nearly twenty-year odyssey, I did not land an academic position. What then?
Now I’m reliving my higher-education choices from another perspective, that of a father who’s daughter Catherine wants to go to college. In fact, she’s already in college, a participant in Washington State’s fabulous “Running Start” program: local school districts pay tuition for promising high-school juniors and seniors to take courses at the local community college. Running Start is not what worries me. It’s the next step.
Catherine wants to become a published writer of fiction, and in order to develop the necessary skill-and-knowledge base to accomplish this, she’s planning to major in English.
Now this might work, or it might not. One thing that’s certain is that a BA is not a necessary credential for successfully authoring fiction. I say this on the narrowest of samples: my son Joe, ten years Catherine’s senior. Joe was a terrible high-school student (in fact, a terrible K-12 student). He wanted to play role-playing games as soon as he could talk. His early sketches were all of pirate ships. As he grew older he created what he called “boffer” weapons—lengths of PVC pipe surrounded with padding secured by duct tape—so he and his friends could do battle without breaking bones. He passed standardized tests, and failed his classes. After years of exasperation we entered him into a high-school completion program at the local community college, where he finally got on track, earning both a high-school diploma and an AA. His “major”? Theater, although he failed some of those classes, too.
Despite the world urging Joe to buckle down and conform, he has relentlessly pursued his own interests. He married a girl he met at a Christian camp at age 15, and with whom he carried on a trans-continental romance. She’s an accountant with an excellent job. Joe, meanwhile grew more and more serious about swordplay, exchanging plastic-and-ducttape for steel blades, and taking classes in fencing and sword-fighting. He was also committing some of his stories to written form. One of his fellow sword-play enthusiasts turned out to be a well-known fantasy and science-fiction writer. We told Joe, “Tell him you’re a writer; maybe he can help you out.” Joe wisely demurred, and after several months said writer turned to him during a workout and said, “Joe, you’re a writer, aren’t you?” Joe was invited to submit a writing sample, and then he was invited to join the writing team for a new fantasy series, The Mongoliad. Eventually Amazon bought partial rights, and Joe got a real paycheck. Joe now has an Amazon author page. And he’s still managing online role-playing games.
Working on The Mongoliad has provided Joe with an experience surpassing a graduate course in writing and publication, and he has earned remuneration. So my question is: how will Catherine fare pursuing the more “normal” route, paying for a four-year college education? Will her professors be able to teach her how to write?
Perhaps, perhaps not. Professors are particularly good at being professors, i.e., analyzing other people’s work, and teaching students to do the same. I’ve run across two pertinent articles making this point, both linked by Alex Tabarrok on the blog, Marginal Revolution. The first, “The Magic of Education,” by Byran Caplan, deconstructs the pretenses of higher education by pointing out that professors are isolated from The Real World.
Most professors’ experience is almost as narrow as mine. If you want to succeed in academia, the Real World is a distraction. I have a dream job for life because I excelled in my coursework year after year, won admission to prestigious schools, and published a couple dozen articles for other professors to read. That’s what it takes – and that’s all it takes.
The mechanism by which what students do in college translates to good job performance is essentially magic, or more technically, “signalling”:
According to the signaling model, employers reward educational success because of what it shows (“signals”) about the student. Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist – three crucial traits for almost any job. When a student excels in school, then, employers correctly infer that he’s likely to be a good worker. What precisely did he study? What did he learn how to do? Mere details. As long as you were a good student, employers surmise that you’ll quickly learn what you need to know on the job.
Fine, if you aspire to “a job,” in which your job is to learn tasks, which you will then repeat for the rest of your life. But successful fiction writing requires more than an ability to “quickly learn what you need to know on the job.” It requires the curious combination of imagination channeled by self-discipline, in a word, creativity. Most of the professors under whom I studied throughout my two decades of higher education wrote for other professors. An English professor might write a treatise on Chaucer or Longfellow, but write a short story or a novel? I don’t remember any. So as soon as I can pry Catherine away from the movie she’s watching at the end of a straight-out 12-hour day, I’ll advise her to find out who the English professors are at the colleges she’s considering, and then do an author search on them to see what they’ve written. If they haven’t published fiction, they probably can’t teach her how to write it.
Seth Roberts responds to Byran Caplan with a critique of professional academia’s myopic focus on IQ and “brilliance.”
At Berkeley (where Bryan went and I taught) and universities generally, the highest praise is brilliant. Professor X is brilliant. Or: Brilliant piece of work. People can do great things in dozens of ways, but somehow student work is almost never judged by how beautiful, courageous, practical, good-tasting, astonishing, vivid, funny, moving, comfortable, and so on it is. Because that’s not what professors are good at. (Except in the less-academic departments, such as art and engineering.) To fail to grasp that students can excel in dozens of ways is to seriously shortchange them. To value them at much less than they are worth — and, above all, to fail to help them grow and find their place in the world after college.
The exception Roberts notes, particularly art, has been crucial for both my kids. Catherine’s been involved in the local community college theater program for many years. Academic theater is a different animal from academic English. In the theater department you learn how to do theater. You also learn theory and analysis, but the main thrust is to learn the theater production enterprise from the inside out. You learn how to act, how to stage manage, how to construct sets, by doing it. And the professors are people who in their spare time do theater.
Roberts goes on to describe an open assignment he gave to one of his classes, in which they could do anything, so long as it did not involve the library and was off-campus. He was most impressed that one of his students gave a lecture to a high school class. Why? She had paralyzing stage fright, and decided to overcome it. This completely transformed his own perception of her.
Yes, Roberts says, people who succeed in college tend to be more successful in society. But the people who study such things have
failed to see the possibility that the whole world had been shaped to reward the things that the people in power (i.e., they themselves) are good at. Not because those talents work (= produce a better economy). But because they are easy to measure (by college grades). The glorification of IQ has had a solipsistic aspect and has ignored what should be obvious, that diversity of talents and skills promotes innovation. Without a diverse talent pool, any society will do a poor job of solving the problems that inevitably arise.
In my short experience as a college lecturer, I quickly realized how easily I could reward the wrong things. I realized that if I required a hand-written essay during an exam, I was privileging those students whose penmanship flowed from their hand, and whose thought processes were linear. These attributes had nothing to do with the content of the courses I was teaching. Examples abound.
My hunch is that successful fiction writers don’t flow out of college English departments. My hunch is that the broader one’s life experiences, and the more fervently one pursues one’s own interests, the better writer one will become. College can facilitate and enrich this development or hinder it. As long as Catherine continually bears in mind that professors are, for the most part, principally good at being professors, she’ll be fine. I hope.