Do you remember that commercial a few years ago with the young guy who says he's never getting married, and then in the next scene he's picking out a ring with his fiancé? Then he's saying, "We're never having kids," and then they do. Then, he's never moving to the suburbs, never getting a minivan, never having another kid. In the end, we see him and his multi-child family in their suburban home, a minivan in the driveway. In a way, that was me.
In fact, I was never even going to college; the Navy looked so much more exciting. Okay, so I went to college, but I was never going to graduate school. Then, after a few years in the insurance industry, I got my master's degree... but I was never going to get my Ph.D., that was certain. And then, I changed my mind about the doctorate. But I would never teach at a college! Research at a defense contractor was for me.
Well, so much for all of those "nevers" in life.
A lot of my reluctance about becoming a college professor came from not really understanding what the job was about. As a freshman at Trinity University, a small liberal arts college in Texas, I looked up at my professors and saw brilliant sages on a podium. They seemed to have all of the answers, and I didn't. I couldn't imagine a time when I could reach their level.
Later, as I progressed through my various academic degree programs, I realized what professors really were. They weren't just luminaries on some Mt. Olympus of mastery. What they were, more than anything, were mentors hoping to get students as excited as they were by their chosen fields of study. They encouraged me and spent extra time helping with papers and studying for tests. Most of all, they became interested in what I was interested in.
One of the best lessons I learned from them wasn't even in my fields of specialization, communications and political science. It was in an Asian religions class. I learned about the Hinayana or "little raft," school of Buddhism, by which practitioners sail across the water, reaching Nirvana at the other side. Then there were the Mahayana, or "big raft," scholars. They discover the route to Enlightenment, then leave it behind in order to do all they can to bring others across the water to Enlightenment. I realized that was a lot like what my professors were trying to do; they were giving up some well-paid opportunities in order to help me develop the same passion they had for their areas of study.
In graduate school (Marquette University for my master's in international studies, Florida State University for my PhD in political science), I got to serve as a teaching assistant and a research assistant. Though it was great getting paid to go to college, I derived something much more valuable from the experience: I learned that professors didn't know everything about their discipline, which is why they need assistance. We collaborated on matters grand and mundane, from cutting-edge research to writing test questions.
And sometimes they know what you need better than you do. "I'm writing you a letter of recommendation to Florida State University," my advisor at Marquette told me. "Why?" I asked. He smiled. "They'll teach you all of the statistics you'll need to test those arguments you should be developing." My eyes widened. I was never a great math student — I hated doing timed tests of 100 equations with only numbers — but I did like doing the word problems at the end of the chapter, because I loved math when I could see the practical application. "It's all word problems!" I exclaimed on my first day of Ph.D. studies. Sure, it was a geek moment, but I discovered that I liked the math almost as much as the politics I was studying. For that surprising epiphany, I have my Marquette professor to thank.
I also learned that graduate studies were less about checking off boxes and more about developing your own passion for a subject. One of my colleagues at LaGrange College has a poster on her door that reads "Teaching isn't about filling a bucket, but about lighting a fire." It's the fire that keeps you going through the courses, the comprehensive exams, and the dissertation. By the way, more than 750,000 students earned their master's degrees in 2018-19 while over 180,000 earned their PhDs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). That's a lot of fires to tend.
My passion, it turns out, is for teaching, which I suppose I knew all along. At my defense contract firm, I got to work with some young analysts who were fresh out of college. I would teach them what I knew about statistics, theory, and research design, just as I learned from them what they had picked up in school. When I told them I had accepted a job teaching at a liberal arts college, none seemed surprised. "You always seem to light up when you teach us how to do something," one recent graduate told me.
At LaGrange College—a school rewards teaching and undergraduate research — I try to excite my students about politics, and I collaborate with students on research projects as my professors did when I was a graduate student. That may explain why they've had success getting into law school and graduate school, keeping that passion going.
A month ago, at the end of the semester, I ran into a football player who had once taken my introductory class. He was struggling with a thick textbook. I asked how he was doing; in response, he showed me his anatomy and physiology reading and said: "I just can't get into this."
"You're an Exercise Science major," I replied. "You're into helping people, and that means learning this so you can help someone who gets injured playing sports."
"I never thought about it that way," he replied, then smiled and went back to his reading. A few hours later, I saw him still at it, reading enthusiastically and taking notes. I heard a young woman ask him "You're still here?" He smiled and showed his work. He had found his passion.
A final anecdote: when I received my doctorate, I begged my dissertation committee chair and advisor to tell me how I could repay him for all he had done for me. He had been tough but fair, and at the end of the process, he vigorously promoted my career by writing glowing letters of recommendation that led to some great opportunities. Did he want money? My firstborn child named for him? "Do the same for your students," was his only request. It's a promise I've worked for years to fulfill.
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John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.