Across the Great Divide - High School and University

By Peter Hill, Adjunct Professor, UBC                                                   



This is the story of one teacher who is trying to get his PhD while still teaching full time in high school. During that time he experiences the divide between high school practise and university theory. Can he bridge the great divide, or are they two foreign countries never to be reconciled?



Across the Great Divide

I get off the bus at the loop beside the Student Union building. It’s 7:00 a.m. on a dark, wet October morning. I walk in front of the SUB building on the way to the library to pick up a book for my class. I’m laughing to myself. To be in university again, to be getting a book at the library, to be walking in front of the building that was built two years before I came to university in 1972 makes me giddy. Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again, but maybe you can go to university again. I’m back, 40 years after I first enrolled.

            I also feel afraid. I know I can’t get back the passion, learning, love, and sheer fun of those early years, but at least I feel a part of the enterprise again - that sense that doors are being opened just a crack. I know I will be tested, but I come to this endeavor as an older man starting a PhD—not an 18-year old in his first year.

            First, I have to meet my advisor.

            Here are some of the weird things I said to him, “I’d like to stop teaching high school and perhaps pick up the odd sessional course to augment my pension.”

            He basically said, “Don’t do that; your teacher’s pension is better than the professors.’”

            Then I said to him, “I'd like to stop teaching high school and just be a scholar.”

            I had heard of these wonderful fellowships, or SSHRC (Social Science and Humanities Research Council) grants that would pay me $100,000 a year to study. My advisor looked at me somewhat sceptically, “So you’d like to be a scholar.”

“Yes,” I imagined myself deep in a library, smoking a pipe with patches on the elbows of my jacket saying “greetings” to my fellow scholars.

He said, in effect, keep your day job. "Working full time and taking your doctoral studies will take some extra work; you’ll just have to watch a little less TV some nights.”

            That sounded sensible. I'd keep teaching high school and take classes in the evenings. So much for being a full-time scholar.

I started my first class and watched a little less TV. After I got through my first course, my advisor said, “Getting a PhD is like climbing a very difficult mountain. In your case, teaching at a high school full-time and doing a PhD is like climbing that mountain with a series of overhanging ledges.” I thought of the ledges Tom Cruise scaled in the Mission Impossible movies and started to feel vertigo. Which was it? A little less TV or overhanging ledges?

What it turned out to be was 4:30 in the morning and bags under my eyes. That’s what comes from reading, or trying to read, Foucault at that time of day.

            It was a somewhat monastic life. I didn’t smoke a pipe, but I did read new authors and doors were opened, but mostly into empty elevator shafts where my mind fell into the latest educational philosophies. Then people started asking the question.

The Question

“Why are you doing a PhD?” (“at your age” was implied).

I wasn’t asked this question once, but many times—usually by friends, fellow teachers, and younger PhD students.

My answers were flip at first, “For my mother” (this was partially true) or, “Because I get a break in my tuition for sponsoring student teachers and my Scottish blood wouldn’t let that go to waste” (also somewhat true). A truer reason was that I was getting bored as a teacher. I had ten years to go before retirement. 

            I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. I was standing at the chalkboard in my high school classroom writing something I had written many times before. (Was it the definition of a simile, or the semi-omniscient point of view?) I felt the strange sensation of having the wind knocked out of me. This had happened to me three or four times as a boy. Someone punches you hard in the solar plexus and you fall to the ground gasping for air. You feel as if you’re going to die. But my sensation at the blackboard was slower than that. I had a flash from the movie Election (1998) starring Matthew Broderick. He too stands at the board writing, “The executive, the legislative, and the judicial,” over and over. His student, Tracy Flick, played wonderfully by Reese Witherspoon, looks at him with pity. How could he teach the same material year in and year out?

            These things were going through my mind as I wrote on the board.  I didn’t double over in pain, but I felt weak. It was the sense that I had spent 20 years writing these words and had ten to go. My first reaction was, "Get me out of here!" Then, I became depressed, because I couldn’t get out. I had a family to feed, a mortgage to pay. A week later, after being asked persistently, I told my wife what was wrong. “You have to mix it up,” she said,” do something different.” And she was right. I had to challenge myself.

            How I envied the physics teacher that knew every day of the year what he would be teaching. “We can’t have a fire drill that day,” the physics teacher would say, “I’m teaching the fulcrum on March 28th!” I didn’t really envy him though. That approach seemed, to me, to be the death of education. To know every day what I’d be doing made no sense to me. So I had to challenge myself in a different way… why not try to teach some university courses?

            The constant critique of university instructors was that they hadn’t set foot in a high school classroom in decades. They couldn’t say that about me. I had been teaching the metaphor for 20 years. How could they turn me down? (Maybe because I had taught the metaphor for 20 years.) I could offer something to student teachers who felt the university was too theory-based and not grounded in classroom practice.

So the university kindly gave me sessional work in the summer. For which I am grateful. I was able to share my views on teaching and pass on a trick or two. Until one day, I was holding forth about teaching English in front of a group of 35 BEd students, when one student tested my credentials. “Do you know anything about critical theory?” he asked. “What’s your opinion of Foucault?” I told him that Foucault was not important to the high school teacher.

            But he kept at it. He saw my weak spot right away. I kept saying that the names he was bringing up were never mentioned in high school. But then I wondered . . . And a huge gulf opened before me. Who were these people? Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Bakhtin? I really had no idea. I knew some were in a group Harold Bloom had termed ‘The School of Resentment,’ but what they actually thought was beyond me. And there lay the great divide; a yawning gulf between what the average working teacher in the classroom knew and what was taught at university.

            In effect, the student who questioned my knowledge of Foucault was engaging in a kind of resistance. He scared me into my PhD. I couldn’t fake it anymore. In a power relationship where I was supposed to have the power, I felt challenged enough to alter the direction of my life for the next five years.

I didn’t know who these important, mostly French, philosophers were. I can’t say that I understand it all now, but at least I fake it better. Because of that student, I decided to try bridge the gap between the high school teacher and the academic - the great divide.

            There is, of course, some veiled antagonism between these two groups. Prior to beginning my PhD, the common talk in the high school staffroom was that the higher the degree, the more ineffective the teacher. A familiar comment was that someone with a PhD is stupider than your average teacher with a BEd. A teacher with a Master’s degree was tolerated as long as s/he didn’t talk about it.

Why this friction between town and gown? It’s not as if being a high school teacher with a PhD is the same as becoming an administrator. The money doesn’t get better. You certainly don’t have more power in the school. In some cases you have less. The suspicion is that one only gets a PhD to escape the classroom and enter the cushy world of sabbaticals and teaching one class a week. So, to announce that I was going for a PhD at that late stage in my career was deemed suspect by my high school colleagues. In a way, it was traitorous.

            Meanwhile back at the university, it became common knowledge that I had retired, even though I hadn’t.

“Now that you’re retired, what do you plan to do?” they asked.

“But I haven’t retired,” I told them, “I’m still teaching full time at the high school and I’m taking my studies after school.”

“Why are you doing this?” they asked.

This was not going to be easy . . .


Brave New World

I entered a world I didn’t understand. It took me a while to make some sense of it. I took my first course, and everyone seemed to put up with me. But, by the second course, I put my foot in it.

            It was one of those typical late afternoon classes at the university. I had taught high school all day and was trying to shake off the residue of my two grade nine classes. The sense of being shut-in permeated the seminar room and I wondered what the professor would do next. She told us of an exercise she had done with an earlier class. She had taken a short story, cut it up by paragraphs into many pieces and made multiple copies of each cut-up. Then she put her class into six groups and asked the groups to reorganize the paragraphs into a kind of form. The results were interesting in their variety, as many groups put together the paragraphs in different orders creating a wide variety of new stories. I was a big supporter of this kind of participatory exercise and immediately thought about how I could adapt it to my own classes.

            Showing my age, I raised my hand and asked a foolish question, “Did any of the groups get it right?” I asked. There was a scary quiet.

“What do you mean by ‘right’?” the professor inquired. Even at this point, I felt the eyes of the mostly younger students swivel in my direction. “You know…,” I stuttered, “….th…the..the way the author wrote it.”      

At this point, it seemed as if the air was alive with electric energy as two or three students said in a kind of unison, “There is no right way! What the author intended is of no consequence.” 

            Chastised, I let out a short “ Harrumph” and settled back in my chair. I felt like an old man who had been told that we use cars now, not horses. 

            The professor kindly sent along the famous tract “The Intentional Fallacy” (Wimsatt & Beardsely, 1954). The theory seemed suggest that the author’s intention had nothing to do with the text. Text should be analysed by looking exclusively at the words on the page. Who the author was, or what the author wanted to get across, was not allowed.

            We took up the topic again the next class.

            Having had time to think about my public scolding, I came up with an analogy that seemed to work for me. This is the way I saw it:

Imagine you are invited to a meal. You go to the dinner and the food is exquisite. You look at your plate filled with wonderful colors, textures, and tastes and you allow yourself to slowly enjoy each bite. Would you not, at some point, turn to the chef, (the cook, your partner, wife/husband) and say, “This is the most wonderful meal. How did you do it? What are the ingredients? “

Wouldn’t you give credit to the person that put it all together?  Even in the event that the food tastes bad, wouldn’t you blame the person that put it together, or would you merely blame the taste and texture on your own palate? Even if this person wielded some power over you, say a parent, wouldn’t you still try to give him/her credit or blame?

The other students looked at me. I looked at them. Again, the divide opened before me.

            After class, I offered one of my fellow students a ride home. We chatted about the class and my faux pas. She laughed at my error, but then said she didn’t believe in that, “‘Death of the Author’ bullshit.”  I felt momentarily relieved.

Then she asked why was I doing a PhD (at my age).

 At this point, I began to realise the futility of bridging the great divide. In reality, we never bridge the great divide, we cross over it. We go over the Rockies and the rivers start to run in another direction. Perhaps this is also true for high school and university. We visit that other land where the rivers run West to East, then we cross back and the rivers run the other way. It’s not the divide that’s important, it’s what we learned while experiencing the strange customs of a foreign land.