Graduating Into Ambiguity

Forty years ago Dustin Hoffman in the title role of “The Graduate” got single work of what we, in the wised-up audience, knew to be idiotic career advice:

The advice giver, if memory serves, got justly punished for his bourgeois  irrelevancy and dismissive attitude toward young adult angst. He got cuckolded by his wife, iconically played by Anne Bancroft, who seduces Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock.

Mother Nature doesn’t like it when you make fun of her, as a commerical told us once upon a time. And youth doesn’t take kindly to being mocked by middle aged guys whose wives could be fair game.

All this is a long way around the barn to make the point that Benjamin’s plight the summer after his college graduation has much in common with the anxieties of today’s college grads. I should know. I’m a college professor.

I should know — but that’s really less than half the story. I should be able to help them. I try. Sometimes I succeed — although the success is not mine, of course, but theirs. They do the heavy lifting. They get the informational interviews (“Sir, as you know, I’m not here to ask for a job because, as you’ve told me, you’re not hiring. What I’m here for is to learn about your company and your industry. To do the kind of research that will help me put me in position to be a strong candidate when the economy turns around.”)

Then they follow up. Make lists. Get referrals. Take punches to their emotional solar plexus. It’s not pretty out there when the recent grads hit the street and the Internet to strut their stuff.  For one thing, there’s just too much stuff on the street already.

I get emails from anxious students. I get emails from excited students who’ve landed a real job interview. I get messages posted on my Facebook wall from students seeking advice, registering complaints, feeling deflated. Sometimes I get texted by recent grads who are jumping for j0y in 140 characters.

Did I mention ambiguity? Or have I just buried it way down here? After four years of higher education, students who have majored in anything from sociology to communication to English to history are prone to suffer from not having the confidence to tell the  world they’re this rather than that. They want to world to tell them who and what are. Not all of them, but many of them. “I want to be “in” advertising or publishing. “But I don’t know as what, exactly? What’s on the menu? What do you think I should be, having known me for all of l5 minutes?”

Ambi-this, ambi-that. Ambivalence.

Of course, there are the just-graduated who come on very strong. “I’m an actor,” she announces with second-nature gender neutrality. Or “I’m a musician — I play guitar (rock, soul, techno) — and bass.”

But it’s a lot harder for  just-grads to say with a straight face, “I’m a broadcaster.” Or “I’m a writer.”  Or “I’m a director.”

As for me, I didn’t stop at GO — I went straight to graduate school, where I was trained to parse novels, plays and poems for their meanings or to discover how I myself was reacting to them. But my real reward would be the doctoral degree that was intended to qualify me to compete for a job as an assistant professor.  I didn’t get very much training to do the kind of work assistant professors actually do, which is teach and try to understand students and help them survive in a world of ambiguity. To do that, I needed to stop being an assistant professor and get what academics laughingly refer to as “a real job”. Out in the ambiguous world. Where I felt plenty of ambiguity — enough to drive me back to academia after more than a decade earning my living as freelance writer, magazine editor, corporate speech writer, marketing manager and PR agency account executive.

As one of those tenured professors — and months away from applying for Medicare — my professional life is nowhere nearly as ambiguous as it was when I was a corporate middle manager or freelancer in magazineville. But I’m glad for the time I served in the trenches of ambiguity because unlike some of my colleagues — academic lifers — I have the kind of experience of, and connections with, the ambiguous world that causes my just-grads such anxiety.

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