I often listen to books on tape. The ones you pay for generally have excellent readers, like the magnificent George Guidall. But the free ones (e.g., through LibriVox) are of uneven quality. I am in the midst of listening to a famous Victorian Era novel through LibriVox, and some of the chapters are read by a woman with such a thick accent and poor command of English words and cadence that I keep laughing because her rendition reminds me of this Monty Python sketch.
But it’s no big deal. People can certainly read the book on their own if they don’t like someone else’s reading, and she’s not harming herself. She’s a volunteer doing something she finds intrinsically enjoyable in what I suspect is her retirement. Indeed I get the sense she really admires the author of the words she is mangling.
But it makes me think of a situation I and many other professors encounter where the stakes are much higher, namely when someone is at the beginning of their adulthood, and just not that good at what they want to do in their career. What is my or any other faculty member’s responsibility to the pre-med student who dreams of being a surgeon but is better suited to being a barber? What onus is on the high school basketball coach to tell his star player that he’s never going to be an NBA player, so he should focus instead on doing well in math, science and language class?
This is a very un-American topic to raise. “Gotta have a dream” American movies are a dime a dozen, and virtually all of them feature a scowling older person who tells our young hero/ine that s/he’s never gonna be a movie star/top athlete/brilliant scientist/successful musician etc. Most professors don’t want to be that scowling figure; it’s easier to tell everyone to go confidently in the direction of their dreams, even when we suspect it’s going to be a train wreck (Food for thought here: I never should have followed my dream).
A couple years ago I was talking to a high-ranking professional staffer at one of the country’s leading universities. I asked him how he chose his career, and he said he owed it all to the mentor who told him in graduate school that he was never going to achieve his ambition of becoming a chemistry professor at a great university. His mentor told him, compassionately, that he didn’t have the scientific chops or drive it took to make independent research breakthroughs, and that he would probably end up at a community college or low-tier 4 year college where he would be required to teach all the time (and he didn’t like teaching). He dropped out and is now in a very different but well paid and meaningful line of work. His tribute to his beloved mentor stayed with me: “Thank God he didn’t believe in me”.
I don’t claim certainty about how faculty can know in advance for which mentees unwavering support is the right medicine and for which it is cruel. But I do feel pretty confident that American academic institutions tend to worry less than they should about leading on optimistic, unrealistic, dream-chasing students.