Tara Brabazon: Hold it to teach it

Having spent years earning the right to teach undergraduates, Tara Brabazon knows very well that ‘experience’ is nothing like a degree

June 2, 2010

I am worried about our graduates. We can write reference letters for them and pass on job prospects, but this is a bad time to be young, a bad time to look for work and a bad time to build personal relationships, a home, a future and a life.

Some of our graduates are damn angry. They have every right to be. The most aggressive proponents of “dumbing down” or “degree inflation” are often men and women who have not committed years of their life to the completion of a qualification. The only way to justify this attack without credibility is to fill the air with empty words such as “experience”, which is best deployed when describing Jimi Hendrix’s band. It should not be used to justify talking rather than reading.

I understand our students’ rage. Most people my age hold a similar compassion. We were seeking our first jobs in the early to mid-1990s – that other recession. I say early to mid, because I could have left university after my four-year honours degree in 1990, but the economic conditions were so dire that when I received a scholarship for a research master’s, it seemed logical to complete another degree. When I surfaced in December 1992, the economy was still a threadbare carpet that no furniture could cover, so when I won a scholarship for a PhD (here we go again), I decided to continue my research.

Why my story changes from the conventional doctoral narratives is that I wanted a job. Postgraduate study was a privilege and I enjoyed it, but I was desperate to enter the workforce. My generation also faced public ridicule similar to the dumbing-down mantras spat at our students. For my friends the shrill nag was: “What type of job is a bloody arts degree going to get you?” I even overheard my remarkable and patient father whispering to my mother at the start of the PhD candidature, “She’ll never work, Doris. You know that, don’t you?”

For me in my stroppy early twenties, I wanted to show that history mattered, cultural studies mattered, media studies mattered and the joyful, extraordinary and inspirational research I was reading could change the world, one person at a time. Therefore, when a job opportunity emerged during the doctoral candidature, I took it without hesitation. It was the right decision, but looking back at our younger selves often involves amazement at our clarity, confidence and courage.

In my case, a male academic in New Zealand had received a research grant for 12 months. The university urgently needed a short-term replacement to start teaching a large first-year course in modern history. So with my PhD notes packed in a large box, a suitcase of clothes, a large Sony boom box and a collection of mix tapes, I flew to a city where I did not know a single person and started delivering three lectures a week. The university did not recompense my moving expenses. They paid the first month’s salary retrospectively. That meant I lived on boiled rice for three weeks and a bag of carrots for the fourth. Like 2010, it was a buyer’s market in an era of labour surplus. If I didn’t want the short-term contract and to fund the expense of moving, there were thousands of young scholars who needed the work. I took the job, ate the rice and remained in confused if seething silence.

It was – as the self-help literature informs us – a learning curve. New Zealand made me as a person. That post was the foundation of every teaching session, supervision, article and book I would later deliver or write. In pure financial terms, I was $7,000 in debt at the end of the year. It had cost all my savings to fill in for that male academic to ensure that the university could fulfil its teaching commitments.

The job following that post was enlivening and empowering, but financially dodgy. It was another short contract. Having finished the doctorate in New Zealand, I moved countries again, being promised tenure and promotion by Christmas. Neither of those commitments eventuated. I was a young, naive woman who had a tendency to believe people in suits. That appointment dented my faith in the pale, male and stale. But the students were a joy and I learned so much from the staff, most of whom I still know and respect.

While eventually I managed to gain a tenured job following these contract posts, the cost of this “experience” was devastating, being separated from family, friends, home and everything I knew and loved. It took years to recover financially. To this day, I contemplate how different my life could have been. Such reflections are not nostalgic. They summon a bubbling sadness at an alternative life that could have been lived if it was not necessary to move countries twice in two years to remain in employment.

Our students will have similar experiences. They will relocate, make very little money, feel strangling isolation and live off little more than a belief that their life will improve. This is not right. I wanted our students’ careers to be productive and positive. It has not happened. Most of my former PhD students are in academic posts, but too many of them are on “rolling annual contracts”, living their lives breathlessly and anxiously, hoping that each year their position will be renewed to stop a tenuous financial situation becoming critical.

Through the dark nights and early mornings at this time of the year when most of us have a couple of hundred papers to mark by…well…yesterday, I often wonder if we are making any difference in our students’ lives. What have the learning outcomes, the transferable skills, the placements, the internships, the quality assurance, the second marking, the moderation and the external examination accomplished?

During such disquieting dusks and dawns, I put on a podcast from the late Howard Zinn or find a paragraph written by Henry Giroux. They help me remember why we are teachers. They show why education – and our commitment to it – is worth the loss, the moving, the hoping and the struggle.

For those who attack the value of degrees, I had a great moment of revenge this week. One of my (former) PhD students is applying to a distinguished Australian university. It is a junior lecturer post, but tenured and with a good future. It was the first time he had filled in an online application form, so I looked over his shoulder to offer supervisory support.

The first screen proceeded as normal. Name. Address. Email. Telephone number. This is going well. We will rip through this process. Click enter. Move to the second screen.

Screen two. Just one stark question…

Have you completed a PhD or have a date of conferment? (Two options).

Yes or No.

My former student clicked “Yes” and moved on to the next screen. His Generation-Xer supervisor sat in wonderment through the rest of the process. At the very point that so many (too many) British universities are populated with people without doctoral qualifications, an Australian university – for a low-level lectureship post – ranks a PhD as so important that it is the second screen in an application process. The question left no room for gonna/coulda/shoulda statements about “it is nearly finished” or”‘it is in the final drafting stages”, or “I need another coffee”. Instead, the candidate either had a doctorate or a date of conferment, or had to answer “No”. Those without a PhD excluded themselves from proceeding with the application.

This single screen renewed my faith in qualifications. I have seen and heard too many horror stories about underqualified academics offering “advice” or “commentary” about doctorates when they – to be frank and stroppily Australian about it – have not earned the right to speak. I am amazed when academics without PhDs brazenly counsel or admonish doctoral supervisors or disrespect students who have exhibited great courage to commence a candidature.

There are many silent and worrying stories in British universities at the moment. We in this country – right now – employ staff who do not hold a three-year bachelor’s degree, yet are teaching on a degree programme. I know of two cases in the past six months where a staff member without a PhD examined a doctorate. My mantra is stark and clear. You have to hold the degree to teach it. You have to hold a degree to supervise it. You have to hold a degree to examine it.

“Experience” is not enough. I saw a document last week that assists admissions tutors to assess equivalent qualifications to British undergraduate degrees. This is a precise and difficult process. It is necessary to research international contexts, curricula and standards. Instead, this document reported – without any cited evidence – that a four-year Australian honours degree is equivalent to a three-year British degree.

Those who mark, assess and exam beyond national borders may chuckle at such statements. But these documents confirm the benefits of academics moving around the world to teach, research, write and think. The greatest lesson of a mobile working life is that judgements about international standards must be based on fact and research, rather than the residues of colonialism.

This careful and responsive knowledge is increasingly important as British universities – for financial stability – must attract international postgraduates. As these students move away from their family and friends, the teachers and institutions that understand how to translate nationally divergent educational systems into a new context will add great value to the sector. To paraphrase one of my prospective MA students who contacted me this week: “Tara, can you translate ‘honours degree’ into American for me?” It was a privilege to do so, but this careful process of translation, negotiation and intellectual migration requires expertise, respect and awareness of how scholarly differences transform education.

There was a moment of intervention on that second screen for an Australian lectureship post that provides a flicker of opportunity for our new graduates. Degrees matter. For our former students confronting such a screen, they will be able to click “Yes”. No more excuses. No “I have experience.” No nonsense about dumbing down or degree inflation.

One of the great strengths of online forms is clarity. Yes. No.

Our students will have an arduous five-year period in front of them. At least we – their teachers of a certain age – know that if we can stay with them, offering advice and opportunities, that when they are asked about whether or not they have a degree, they can nod and discuss it. Experience matters. But the only way to ascertain the difference between a good and bad experience is to possess the expertise to judge it.

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