Alumni Profiles Series: Abby Seeskin
Abby Seeskin received her Ph.D. in English from Duke in 2017. For the past three years, she has been an Upper School English teacher at Greenhill School in Addison, Texas. In July 2021 she started a new position as an Upper School English teacher at Cary Academy in Cary, North Carolina.
What led to your decision to pursue teaching high school English?
As I got further in my graduate program, I saw how many people were having a very hard time landing a stable job, and how that was really impacting their quality of life, which, I realized, was not something I wanted for myself. Another realization I had was that teaching got me much more excited than research. While I liked research, I found the long days in the library very lonely. I liked the social component of talking about ideas with other people, and teaching felt like a natural fit for me in that way. I had gone to an independent school growing up, so I was familiar with that world. What is nice about independent schools is that they are much more willing to hire Ph.D.s even without a teaching license or a degree in education, though you have to prove to them that you are actually interested and not turning to high school teaching as a last resort.
What experiences prepared you for teaching high school?
To demonstrate interest and knowledge in working with high school population, I spent a few summers teaching for Duke TIP. I also mentored a high school student through her senior year of school through the Elizabeth Fellows program. I finished my Ph.D. at the end of my sixth year and applied to a couple of local jobs but had no luck due to my lack of experience. However, I kept in touch with one of the schools, Durham Academy, and was able to work for the school as a substitute teacher while another teacher was on maternity leave. I kept looking and did a nationwide search—and there are firms that can help you with this—and found a wonderful, progressive, K-12 school in Texas, where I ended up working for three years.
When the pandemic hit, I realized that I missed being close to family and friends, so I looked again, and looking for a job this time was much easier. You are a very desirable candidate when you have a Ph.D. from Duke and three years of experience. There are some aspects of classroom management that you can only learn through hands-on experience, that are very hard to learn in advance.
What are some key differences between high school and college teaching? What do you enjoy about working with high school students?
I love working with high school students. In terms of intellect, they can, in many ways, match college students. Where they are different is in their maturity. Also, when you teach college students, you are not allowed to talk to their parents, because of FERPA. In high school, you are required to talk to parents, and some parents really want to talk to you. That was a major adjustment for me. With high school students, you see them every day for an entire year; they might be in your classroom again next year. So I have gotten to know my students very well, whereas, with college students, I never felt the same level of closeness, as you teach them for a semester, twice a week, and then never see them again. High school students are very busy—they are booked all day with school, sports practice, homework, and more—and there is a level of baseline fatigue that your students have that you have to coach them through, and have a lot of compassion for. It definitely feels like my job is part teacher, part customer service (for the parents), and part counselor. You fill more roles at once with your students.
What are your favorite memories of Duke?
What was great about being at Duke was that it had such a strong reputation, and had many very cool programs that came through. I loved attending the Feminist Theory Workshops. I also loved attending Duke Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies’ Graduate Scholars Colloquium, where I got to hear about other people’s works. I liked hearing about what people were thinking about in more informal settings.
Do you have any advice for current graduate students?
If you are someone who—as I did—finds graduate school and the possibilities of academia to be dire-feeling, your best chance at building the life you want rests on being open to things that are not academia. I’m not saying don’t try if an academic career is something you really want to pursue, but if you think you might be interested in something else, then do something else.
I’ve seen very talented people not get jobs. It defies logic. I never went on the academic job market, but I’ve seen people go on it year after year, and get nothing. It’s very hard for that to not totally erode your sense of self-worth. And you should never lose a sense of self-worth. This is something I’ve really learned through teaching, and something I try to help my students with: you all already have an immense worth already, because you are you.
Ph.D. candidate, English
Catherine Lee is a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in the English department. Her dissertation, Romantic Humility: Literature, Ethico-Politics, and Emotion, 1780–1820, examines a form of secular humility that does not focus on self-abasement but on selflessness, that arises as a “mood” (Stimmung) in literary writings from the Romantic period.