Dear HGSE, You Weren’t All That Bad

Greetings, Internet! The title of this post might seem odd. I did burn my Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) bridge a couple of years ago, so I might seem a tad hypocritical when I say that I’m grateful for what I got out of my Ed.M. degree in Higher Education. Indeed, over the past couple of years there have been times I was convinced that everyone who currently is pursuing a PhD should get a degree in higher education (or a certificate. Or something).

To be clear, I am still not happy with HGSE as a whole. I meant everything I said two years ago, and I am not shy to repeat my concerns with the institution whenever someone asks me about my HGSE experience. I still believe that HGSE predominantly uses terms such as diversity and inclusion as buzzwords, that the curriculum largely fails to represent students with disabilities (as if 20% of the US population is some niche group), and that places like HGSE overall do not and have no inclination to educate themselves about disability (unless it involves asking a disabled person, which, according to whatever it is I learned at HGSE, puts more of the burden on the minoritized group that is now being asked to speak on behalf of the entire minoritized group). There were some individuals who were motivated to learn about disability within education, but this could not make up for what I would consider institutional neglect.

As if you couldn’t tell, I was very angry with HGSE when I wrote that blog post. Livid. But I cannot help but admit that I got a number of useful things out of my degree, much of which I am realizing now that I am two years into a doctoral program and looking at a future career that should take place on a college campus if all goes well.

Even though I didn’t care for what HGSE stands for, there were still a number of professors whose courses I took that I am finding relevant years later. I believe now that a degree/certificate/some kind of background in Higher Education is very useful to anyone pursuing a doctorate, particularly in the humanities. Because I love lists, I’ve compiled five pro-higher-education-background items:

  1. You will learn the history of higher education.
    If you’re going to teach in an institution of higher education, you probably should know their origins, how they work, and how certain departments and curriculums came into being. And if anyone doesn’t think this is important, the director of the graduate history program of one of the PhD programs to which I was accepted literally said to me, “I wish more students took a ‘History of Higher Ed’ course.”
  2. You will learn how the ivory tower actually works.
    What does the university president do? Who is responsible for hiring faculty? What is the relationship between your potential future department and the rest of the campus? And what do universities actually produce? I took classes that added a dose of reality to how I thought of universities, and sure, I was turned into a total cynic, but at least I became prepared mentally to tackle a job market that increasingly prefers adjuncts to full-time professors. Also, it helps that if a future student ever came to me with an issue, I’d know to which office they ought to be directed if it was something I couldn’t tackle. Some university professors may be familiar with the bureaucratic networks of their institutions, but I would guess probably not all (even though they all really should know).
  3. You will learn the issues that will weigh on the minds of your future students.
    There is no escaping the scandals that plague higher education. Your office is not a bubble. If you teach on a campus with a potentially controversial statue, you best be aware of how to discuss it if (nay, when) a student brings it up. Brushing things off is no longer an option. HGSE introduced me to The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, which are two publications that I continue to read to this day to stay informed. If you’re in a graduate program, odds are that your institution has access to the Chronicle. Read it. Stay informed.
  4. You can learn about disability.
    You may have to take a K-12 course on inclusive education to learn about disability, but it’s better than nothing. Heck, my course with Tom Hehir helped me figure out how to write a syllabus and give presentations/lectures for students of all abilities. I am thankful for everything I learned in Tom’s class, and quite frankly, I wish everyone in a higher education program was mandated to take some version of it (alas, Tom recently retired). For those in a program without an inclusive education course (which, wtf, how is your program even accredited without an inclusive education course?), intern at your university’s disability services office. Learn about the variety of accommodations that your future students may need, learn about the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. My time working at HGSE’s disability services office was immensely helpful. You will become a better-informed professor, and your students will feel comfortable requesting accommodations. And you’ll be far less of a jerk than Ari Trachtenberg (apologies, you may have to find someone with a subscription to read the full article).
  5. The job market is awful. Give yourself a slew of backup career options.
    People say “administrator” like it’s a bad thing. I recently was in a research seminar (the one where my cohort was told that plagiarism is bad) where my cohort essentially agreed that you cannot trust administrators with certain matters. Now, I was in a cohort at HGSE full of administrators. I have friends who are higher education administrators. They know what they’re doing.
    If you don’t agree with how something is run in higher education, what’s so wrong with abandoning your adjunct position to participate in an administration? If you are someone with a doctorate along with an advanced degree in higher education, you could someday become a dean. Or become another type of administrator. You know what deans and administrators have that adjuncts don’t? Full-time salaries, health insurance, paid vacations, and, oh yeah, weekends. Yes, we all want to become academics. But higher education is too dependent on adjuncts, to the point where they’ve become an underclass of academia. In other words, it’s a trap. Use your higher education degree to get yourself some job security, and use those free weekends to continue to publish your scholarship if you’d like. A study recently came out that shows that many of those with doctorates don’t follow a linear career path anyway. Embrace the chaos of the doctorate life.

There are other reasons for getting a degree in higher education, but those are the top five that spring to mind. It is, despite my complaints, a highly useful degree. I wish all doctoral programs had at the very least a certification program for higher education, or a requirement that students work in administrative offices in lieu of teaching for a semester, because most of these doctoral programs currently train students to fight for a decreasing number of tenure-track positions. Some background/experience in higher education will make graduate students better-informed and more flexible candidates for any position on a university campus.

But if you stay informed about all the main higher education issues, shouldn’t that make you a viable candidate for anything outside a teaching position anyway? Well, this is higher education, and institutions of higher education like degrees (or equivalent work experience). Being a woke bae might not help you in this regard.

Am I concerned that writing this may one day screw me over when I start applying for tenure-track positions? Perhaps I should be. After all, I’ve just called adjuncting a trap. But I’m also letting future hiring committees know that I’m a rather pragmatic future job candidate. My syllabi will be constructed with universal design in mind. My classroom environment will be one in which students won’t be afraid to hand me a letter requesting accommodations from a disability services office. I will meet with students and offer to mentor those who come from underrepresented backgrounds to ensure that their retention rates match those of students who come from more privileged backgrounds. My degree in higher education has shown me what equity could look like in a classroom, and has given me a competitive edge on the job market. I’d recommend that others who aim to pursue a doctorate also pursue that edge, if not for your future CV, then for your future students. And if I can’t land a tenure-track job anyway, I’ll be just fine.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to have more of the ramblings of a wheelchair-using PhD student in your inbox more regularly, then feel free to subscribe!

Val

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