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Archive for the ‘Pontificating about The Profession’ Category

So, of course everybody was linking to this Slate essay a few weeks back, and then Karen Kelsky responded, and I also read this response that I thought was really excellent, and now Karen Kelsky has another response up by a guest blogger.

This post isn’t so much about responding to any of the above, except for that I wouldn’t be writing it if this conversation weren’t happening through all of these pieces.  It just occurred to me, as I read the latest installment, that people who earn tenure don’t actually talk very much about what that’s like.  I know when I was on the tenure-track, I was all, “I must speak the truth of what this is like!”  and I was like that because I felt like Nobody Ever Talked About That To Me!!!  (In hindsight: people did talk about that to me, but I never saw people talking publicly about it, and it’s one thing to read something and it’s another to have one off-the-cuff conversation with a mentor.  So.)

I think something similar motivates the pieces that appear, with some regularity, about the horrors of the job market.  I don’t think it’s really that everybody was ignorant until it happened to them, but rather that there is something important about seeing such things discussed in a more formal way. (Aside: I think something similar motivates “Mommy” blogging.  It’s not that nobody talks about what it’s like to be a mother, or what it’s like to parent, but it can feel like one is alone because those things don’t make it into public discourse in a consistent and thoughtful way (consistently thoughtful way? maybe).)

But so what happens after you earn tenure?  (Assuming you got a tenure-track position in the first place, assuming that you didn’t get denied tenure, obviously.  This is not a post about denying the reality of the horrible job market, nor is it about denying the fact that getting the tenure-track job isn’t the end of the road.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about what having tenure is like, because some people do end up in that position.)

First, the necessary caveats: I am in a mid-sized metropolitan area in a geographical region that doesn’t suck for me (the majority of my family is within an afternoon’s drive, I actually like living here).  The cost of living is reasonable, and while I left graduate school with debt (around 20K in credit card debt, around 70K in student loan debt), I was able to eliminate the credit card debt while on the tenure track, and I have a VERY low interest rate on my loans, and I can afford to pay more than the minimum every month.  Oh, and also, I am one of the rare people who got my job offer ABD, so I don’t have years of job search  plus moving for postdocs or temporary positions expenses on top of the grad school debt.  In other words, my situation is unique, not bad at all, and ultimately, better than the situation of many people.  Even with my tenured job at a not-so-great institution with a 4-4 load.  Oh, and let’s not forget: I don’t have kids, or a spouse, to support.

But so what is my life like after I earned tenure?

  • During the academic year, I work about 40-60 hours a week, on average, when all is said and done.  In April?  Yeah, it’s like 60 hours a week.  But at the start of the semester it’s not that.  I’ve developed my assignments, I know how to manage my service commitments, and I am no longer (most semesters, though this one was an exception because I made some decisions about incorporating new texts) teaching material I’ve never taught before.  Yes, I did work those 70-80 hour weeks during the academic year before tenure, but that was because I was inventing everything from scratch.  Now, I’m not.  And I’m not a professor who phones it in and teaches from yellow notes.  But there is a difference in one’s workload when one has got some things down pat.  And there is a difference in the administrative parts of the job when one knows all the ins and outs versus when one is trying to figure everything out.
  • I am not worried about money.  This is not to say I’m out of debt.  I’m not.  I’ve got a mortgage, and I’ve got student loan payments.  But the bump that came with tenure and promotion meant that I don’t need to be as careful about money as I used to have to be.
  • While I no longer have pressure to perform individually that I felt prior to earning tenure, I now feel a lot more collective political pressure, in my department, college, and university as a whole.  On the one I feel pressure to contribute, and on the other hand I feel the pressure that comes from contributing and then getting blamed for the contributions that I make.  (If your dream of academic life is that you won’t need to work collaboratively with others, or that you won’t need to meet demands from some administrative higher power, then please do understand that academia does not afford you those things.)
  • The thing that initially drew me to a career as a professor was the research that I could do, the ideas that I could have and disseminate.  The further I get from graduate school and from my pre-tenure days, the more I have to fight to do those things that drew me to the profession, to carve out time for them in spite of other more pressing demands.  I used to judge people whom I perceived as “dead wood.”  Now I understand how they got there.
  • I feel a lot more pressure now to seek outside funding.  Even in a humanities field where that isn’t the norm, the reality in these budgetary times is that what money there for new ideas goes, and should go, to people pre-tenure.  In order not to become dead wood (see the last bullet point), I need to find a way to support my ideas that doesn’t depend on my institution or department.  That is very clear to me.  It’s challenging, exciting, and exhausting.
  • Whereas before I felt pressure to jump through hoops, now I feel pressure to sustain myself.  This sounds easy, but it’s hard to be motivated to keep on keeping on.  Now that there are very few hoops left, it’s hard to write, to think, to innovate as a teacher.  This is it.  Is this all it is?  Probably.  And it takes energy to make that new again for oneself, and to be excited.  And if you’re going to do your job well, you’ve got to find a way to do that.  If at first you don’t succeed, try, and try again.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

So, yeah, that’s my professional life these days.  And I am in a position of incredible and total privilege, and I get that.  I am not, actually, whining in this post.  I have a pretty ridiculously good life, in spite of the challenges.  But, for me, this is what tenure is like.  It’s not some nirvana wherein I don’t have to worry about doing a good job, and it has not granted me total freedom to pursue my bliss, and it doesn’t make me all that different from my colleagues who are grad students or pre-tenure or off the tenure track.  What’s good about it is that I don’t have to worry about paying my bills.  I don’t discount how good that is: that shit is good, and it’s a privilege.  But once you get tenure, well, maybe that is the brass ring, but it doesn’t mean you get some kind of get out of jail free card, or a get out of work card.  In fact, even though I work fewer hours now, I would say that I do more – and more different kinds – of work now.  I’m happy that I am in a position to do that work, because I’m a workaholic.  But it is still work.  And I don’t love a lot of it.  Short version: Tenure doesn’t make your life perfect.  No, none of us thinks it will.  Except for we all kind of do.

So should students go to grad school?  Maybe.  Should grad students seek academic employment?  Maybe.  But at the end of the day, all of these choices are about choosing a life, just like choosing any educational path is, just like choosing any career is.  What I advise my students is that they have to choose lives that they want.  And they have to know what they will give up depending on the choice.  And there are no free lunches.  Not even in academia.

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Dr. Virago has a great post up about feeling that she’s in a “mid-career rut,” and so much of what she writes about is so important, I think, and I think it’s important for those of us who’ve leaped over that hurdle that is “earning tenure” to keep writing about our experiences because, as Virago notes, most of us have another 30 or so years in this gig after we do that.  “Mid-Career” – as I wrote in a post about teaching – is a really freaking long time for most of us, so there are going to be various iterations of what that looks like at different points in that LONG trajectory.

But before I get to some specific points that I want to engage with in Virago’s post, I want to begin with the metaphor of the “rut.”  When we say we are “in a rut,” we are using a transportation metaphor.  It’s all about furrows that develop along a track or road, and at a certain point, those furrows get deep enough that one can’t turn off the track or road.  Things get a little boring, a little rote.  And they also can feel a little bumpy, and you don’t have the luxury of dodging the bumps.  I think it’s no mistake that those of us who’ve been on a “track” for years – the tenure-track, the Ph.D. track, the “accelerated track” in elementary and high school – might find that ruts have developed over the course of that time.  But whereas being “on track” is a good thing – on track to finishing the dissertation, on track to getting a job, on track to earning tenure, on track for promotion – being “in a rut” is a bad thing.

Why?  I mean, I’m really asking that.  Because it seems to me that ruts aren’t necessarily more limiting than tracks.  It’s just that we see being on track as being focused and motivated and making progress, whereas we see being in a rut as being stuck.  Except, actually, both tracks and ruts can be limiting.  Being on track means that you can’t make a random left turn without jumping the tracks.  And both tracks and ruts can be productive, too.  Being in a rut means that you don’t have to plow through obstacles in order to get where you’re going; you can use the rut to guide you and to let you move ahead without having to focus all of your energy on where you’re going.  But the negative connotation of being “in a rut” makes us feel slow or stopped or not engaged, whereas the positive connotation of being “on track” makes us feel like we’re getting somewhere, even though we are no more “free” on a track than we are in a rut.

In some ways, part of what I’ve struggled with over the past two years is learning how to use some ruts I’m in to my advantage, as opposed to resisting them.  And I’ve also been doing a little back-and-forth – reversing and going forward, reversing and going forward, with slight adjustments to the steering wheel, much like when you’re stuck in a snow mound and trying to get yourself out of the ruts in the snow that the wheels have made to get back on the road.  I’m not saying that I’ve done everything “right” or that I’m totally out of the rut that I’ve perceived myself to be in for a bit of time…. but I am feeling a lot more satisfied right now than I have felt probably, well, ever.

So, the first thing that I want to respond to from Virago’s post is this:

So there’s a way in which I’m active in the area that got me the job, got me tenure, and so forth. But I haven’t really produced anything new in it in some time, and I’m frustrated by that. I have something in progress (an article), but I keep dithering about whether to do the relatively fast and easier version of it and get it *out* there in one of the subfield journals, or keep working on the more theoretically ambitious version of it, which involves me learning (or continuing to learn) all sorts of new stuff and would be sexier for the broader medieval and medieval-renaissance journals. The learning part is attractive, but it’s also slow. And I have been sitting on this thing for a long time now because it keeps getting shunted aside.

First of all, let me just note that Virago has accomplished so much since tenure that she isn’t giving herself enough credit for and that probably is propelling her forward in ways that she doesn’t realize yet.  But I also recognize that feeling that I’ve said what I had to say about my last topic, and I have a new idea, but it just seems too gigantic and complicated to pursue it as it should be pursued, properly, and so then other stuff gets in the way of it.

What I’m about to say here is not some edict of How Things Must Be Done, but I’ve come to a perspective in the past couple of years that if I’m going to try to do new stuff, think new thoughts, post-book and post-tenure, then I have to do two things: 1) I have to make those new things my first priority, no matter how painful that is, and 2) I have to give myself permission not to worry about the final product fitting the “ideal” version in my head.

Of course, those two things are also the things that one needs to do in order to finish a dissertation.  At least for me, though, I had to relearn those lessons post-tenure, because the stakes for my “reputation” (ha! such that it is) feel higher.  “I’m supposed to know how to do this now!  I can’t embarrass myself! What if all of the stuff I accomplished pre-tenure was just residual effects of my dissertation work, and thus really about my adviser and committee, and what if I really, in spite of those accomplishments, am still a fraud?”  That’s often been my inner voice post-tenure.  And I’ve had to learn to turn off that fucked up inner voice, because, as I tell my students, new ideas and new projects are supposed to make us uncomfortable!  It’s such an easy thing to say to students!  Why is it so hard to remember that for ourselves?  But, for me, it has been hard to remember.

Virago then goes on to talk about two (I think) related issues in her current “rut” – first, that she feels like her field has “passed her by” in certain ways, so ideas she has had aren’t “current” or “interesting” given where the field is now, and second, that while she started on what was to be her Next Book during her 2010-2011 sabbatical, she still doesn’t see the whole project in her head, and she feels like she’s having to learn a whole new body of knowledge, which is slow work, in the interstices of regular professional commitments, like teaching.

If I can talk about the difference between my work in graduate school, which led to my first book, and the work that I’m doing now, I would say that I’ve been forced to learn that I need to be much more efficient – that I can’t expect that I’m going to be able to focus exclusively on the New Idea until it is fully formed, but rather that I need to produce as much as I can when I can and then later hope it will all fit together, and so far that’s working-ish – and also that I need to be much more opportunistic – in the sense that I need to pursue every idea and every opportunity (research-wise) without worrying about whether it’s hip or new or awesome or whatever.  I teach a 4/4 load and I’ve done some major heavy-lifting with service.  The fact of the matter is, I don’t have the luxury to pick and choose between my ideas, nor do I have the luxury of uninterrupted time.  (Though I’m going to say something very different in a bit about taking “every opportunity” – I’m only talking about research here.)  I suppose my point here is, I have taken a sort of relaxed approach to my research in some ways: I figure that if I produce (and produce and produce), I’ll figure out what is “new” or what is “appropriately framed” whether through readers’ reports or editorial feedback or whatever.  I no longer have the luxury of trying to consult with my crystal ball, not while working a full-time job as a tenured professor.  In some ways, frankly, that is liberating.

Then Virago writes:

Half the time I just want to throw my hands up and say, “Fuck it, I’d rather be teaching. Maybe I should move to a 4/4 load and give up research.” Except that wouldn’t make me happy, either. In fact, part of the problem is that I’m isolated in my work and don’t have the stimulation of other people in my field or advanced students working on dissertations to teach me new things and keep me current. Giving up on research entirely would exacerbate that feeling and make my rut deeper (even if I keep reinventing my courses, which I always do). And it wouldn’t be good for the students, because one of things that keeps my teaching from being in a rut is bringing in new ideas from my research and others’ (that often includes new-to-me primary texts — there’s a lot of stuff out there that I don’t know and research of various kinds introduces me to it).

As I noted, I teach a 4/4. And I do research.  So.  But so how do I do that?  Yes, I do it from updating my courses, and yes, I do it through my own independent research.  But, in part, I keep up with the research in my field through the work that my undergrads (and my rare MA students) do.  I assign annotated bibliographies in every course I teach now.  And I make guidelines that require students to include at least a certain number of sources that were published within the past three years.  Those annotated bibliographies have been my savior, frankly, because I don’t have the time to just read journals in my field for enrichment.  I also design presentation assignments and book review assignments and literature review assignments for my students that contribute immeasurably to me keeping up with what’s going on in my field.  (And, frankly, even more generally in my teaching field, because with four courses, 2 of which are typically general education, not all of those students are focused on what I’m writing about right now, but they sure are engaged with my teaching areas.)  Teaching and research, I believe, must be reciprocal.  That means that not only does my independent research inform my teaching, but also that my teaching must inform my research.

I know that isn’t possible in all fields, but I think it’s often possible to find a way to make that happen in some fashion if one is creative about what that means.  (Note: I have colleagues who design assignments that are a lot more “creative” and “fun” than what my students do, but I’ll also say that mine are no less student-centered, in that my assignments tend to be the ones that teach my students those valuable skills that get them into graduate and professional school and into full-time jobs upon graduation.  Do I wish my students found my assignments more “fun?”  Sometimes.  But most of the time I’m happy that they are well integrated into my own intellectual projects and that they teach them skills they need to embark on serious intellectual projects of their own.)

And then Virago talks about isolation.  She writes:

Remember when we used to think romantically how digital communications would solve the problem of the isolation of the single scholar who’s the only one in her field at her institution?  Yeah. Right. Frankly, social media and other digital outlets just make me feel *more* isolated. All I see are the cool collaborations and energetic conversations of colleagues who get to talk face-to-face as well as online, and I feel shut out.

What I say here is going to sound strange, maybe, but this is why I totally don’t do social media in my field or blogs in my field.  And I’ve never even toyed with the idea.  I am Fb friends with some people in my field, which is grand, but that’s because they are my friends.  Just like it’s not good to watch the news 24/7, it’s not good to be tapped into all of the conversations in one’s field 24/7.

What I’ve done instead is to cultivate relationships within my department with people outside of my field about research and writing.  No, they don’t know “all the things” in my field, and I don’t know those things in theirs, but they are my… intellectual reservoir… if that makes sense.  Now, it’s worth noting that I was the only person in my (tiny) grad program working in my area while I was in residence, so I’m used to doing this.  And it would be a hell of a lot harder if all my grad school friends who were local had been in my field: I would have felt a much greater sense of loss upon arriving in my current locale, I know.

I guess what I think, about the whole “I don’t have local people who do what I do!” thing, is that this is ok for me.  But it’s only ok because I have lovely friends elsewhere who talk about stuff in my field with me, and I have lovely friends here who might not be in my field but whom are my intellectual soul-mates: we can talk about theory and the discipline and teaching and service – no, they can’t talk about my specific authors with me in more than a cursory way, but all those other things are so important to me, too!  And also: I am (and always have been) weirdly isolationist in my ideas about scholarship.  I like the idea that I might come up with an idea that isn’t informed by (or indebted to) the current conversation.  Sure, I’ll need to inform myself about that before writing up my wacko idea, and I’ll be excited to do that, but if I waited for being regularly involved in the “current field-specific conversation” to have an idea, well, I’d never have one.

Finally, Virago asks:

What say you, oh wise people of the internet? How do I shake off the doldrums? Do you ever feel like this? What do you do to shake off the Blahs and get out of the rut?

I’ve already responded in some ways to these questions.  But here’s where I turn to the metaphorical rut/track stuff at the beginning of the post.  In some ways, I’ve embraced my rut.  It’s great that people know who I am, how I think, and what I have done, and that I get opportunities because of that.  Am I sometimes bored by being the go-to person about x way of approaching y author?  Sure.  But it doesn’t mean that this approach is boring, and, frankly, isn’t that why we all write a first book?  So those things will fall into our laps?  And it’s nice, sometimes, to write an invited article that is right in one’s wheelhouse and that doesn’t push us into new territory – and doing so can even help to generate a new idea in spite of the fact that it’s just going along inside the rut.

But the way that I’ve approached getting out of the rut has been through pursuing things like grants and workshop opportunities outside of my university.  It has been through being much more selective about service – basically after having been a slave to it for four years, I’ve now realized that it’s not my turn anymore, and I have more important things to do with my energy.  It has been through developing new courses (as much work as that is) as opposed to just redesigning ones in my wheelhouse.

But really, emotionally?  It has been through realizing that tenure means never having to say you’re sorry.  I’m no longer on a track, and that is liberating.  I can pursue an idea that turns out to be nothing, and that is totally ok.  I can try something out and have it fail disastrously, and not only won’t I lose my job for that, but also it might lead me to the next amazing thing that I will do.  I no longer have to be “on track.”  I have earned the right to go off the track.  And sometimes that will land you in a rut, but sometimes it will land you on the open road.

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I’m sure you’ve all heard about the latest salvo in the war against the liberal arts.  You know, I used to get exceptionally exercised about reports like this.  I used to worry that it would mean the end of the world as I know it, the end of the world as I want it to be, etc.

And now I’m tired.  Because you know what?  As soon as some person makes this sort of a claim, there is a huge shitstorm, and then, guess what, it turns out that nothing much changes.

I know, I’m that person who didn’t stand up when the Nazis came for my neighbor next door, and then my next neighbor and my next neighbor and then there was nobody to fight for me when they come for me.  I get it, I do.  I’m supposed to be filled with righteous indignation and rage and all that.

Just like I’m supposed to be all angry because there isn’t a humanities person on the main committee for my university’s strategic plan (though, as far as I can tell, very few – almost no – humanities folks put their names forward, and those who did got put on “working groups” that report to the main committee, which is mainly a clearing-house committee that has to deal with all the things but isn’t actually all that involved in the vision for the plan).

I can’t do it anymore.  The energy that it takes for me to be pissed off about these things actually takes me away from making the liberal arts – specifically the humanities, specifically literature – exciting and interesting for my students.  And nothing much I’ve done to fight the good fight has made much difference in policy decisions, looking back.  Also: my colleagues in Business and Health Professions and all those sexy employable majors really think that their students need to take my courses.  And they are even cool with the small percentage of students that major in English majoring in English.  And my students are alright, because, guess what?  My students, by and large, go on to get jobs.  They teach, they work in offices, they go to graduate school, they start businesses.  No, they don’t have a job that directly links to the English major, most of them.  So it’s not like how if you major in “information technology” you then become an IT guy.  But that doesn’t mean that they are unemployed or that they are a drain on the economy.

Look, I’ve got a cousin who majored in accounting.  She graduated from college this spring, and she was unemployed and just hanging out for four months.  And now she’s working in a job that has nothing to do with her degree.  Yes, that’s a sample size of one.  But my point is this: how is this a “more valuable” major than one in the liberal arts?  That’s right: it isn’t.  A particular major doesn’t guarantee any single student a particular life path or a particular career path.  And you know what?  Since that’s the case, it’s probably a good idea to major in something that is more than a job training program, because it will be easier to adapt if you do.  But the liberal arts, the humanities, or even something as specific as English probably aren’t for everyone, or even for most students.  That is just fine.  It doesn’t, however, mean that those disciplines are without value for those students who gravitate for them.

Here’s a funny thing about the way that I see the work that I do.  I don’t actually strive to replicate myself, and I don’t actually prefer to teach majors.  English majors can be real pains in the ass.  You know what I really strive to do as a professor?  I really strive to teach students that literature and writing and reading are things that have the potential to enrich their lives, no matter what “job” they end up working at.  Because you know what I care about?  I care about educating them, regardless of the major that they declare.  Fancy that.

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So, as a result of this article, lots of people have been weighing in about the “stress” of being a college professor.  This post isn’t really going to try to make a case for how hard we professor folks have it, but it’s also not going to be a “shame on you for being stressed out when you have it so great” post.  Rather, I want, actually, to think about what stress is, at least from my perspective.

I think that stress for most people* originates from two general sources: 1) lack of certainty and 2) lack of control.  As a tenured professor, I believe that when I feel stressed out, it is almost always because of one or both of these factors.  And that is me speaking as a person with tenure – people who work in contingent positions or who have yet to earn tenure although they are on the tenure track feel even greater uncertainty and even less control.**

So let’s talk about the “lack of certainty” thing first.  One of the things that people outside of academia often envy about the job of college professor is the autonomy that comes with that job within a seemingly very certain structure.  Here’s what I mean: I get to decide (to some extent) what my schedule is like, the activities in which I invest my time, and the ideas that I pursue.  Yes, there is a structure – I must teach my classes, attend meetings, do research, etc. – but within that structure there is a great deal of freedom. That seems like a luxury, right?  Well, yes, of course.  But it also means that there is a lot of uncertainty in whether I am doing the “right” thing within the structure, particularly when the goal-posts seem often to move from one semester to the next, from one academic year to the next.  When I arrived at my job the “big initiative” was public engagement. By the time I went up for tenure, the big thing was “internationalization.”  Now, all the upper administration can talk about is “student success.”  Combine with those shifting priorities the fact that within individual departments senior faculty and department administration aren’t necessarily on the same page with upper administration, and it can seem like there is no “right” way to proceed, or even if you do determine a “right” way in one semester, that path might turn out to be wrong within six months.  So autonomy is a luxury, but the cost of that luxury is that one can never be sure that one is doing a good job or how one’s job will be measured.  And that’s stressful.  And as far as I can tell, my experience here isn’t terribly unique: it seems to describe a college professor’s life across institution types and across disciplines.

Now, is that the end of the world?  No.  Does it mean that I don’t like my job and think that I do valuable work? No.  But I can also tell you that this type of stress was not something that I experienced when I worked in other environments, even if those environments did produce other sorts of stress.  While it might be mind-numbing and terrible to work in a cubicle watching the clock and waiting for the end of the day, there is something satisfying about having specific, repetitive tasks that one must complete, and there is a sense that one knows exactly what one must do in order to earn one’s paycheck at the end of the week.

The “lack of control” stress source might seem contradictory to the “lack of certainty” one.  But I also think that there is a component of the job that is all about not having control.  We can’t control our students, as just one example.  I mean, sure, you can write the most legalistic syllabus in the world, attempting to plan for every possible situation, but crazy shit will happen that you didn’t plan for.  We can’t control whether the state will slash our budgets, or even expect us to give allocated money back after we’ve already received it and used some of it.  We can’t control whether the classes that we were assigned will actually make their enrollments, and since we can’t control that we might get assigned a brand new class right before the beginning of a semester.  We can’t control our schedules in the event of family emergency or personal health crisis.  I’m not saying that this is unique to academia, or that it’s the worst thing in the world.  But is it a source of stress?  Yes.

So here’s the thing (and yes, I know this wasn’t the point of the original article): I don’t think it’s useful to hold the Stress Olympics, just as it’s not useful to hold the Oppression Olympics.  But I also don’t think that it’s productive to indicate that if we feel stress in our jobs as professors that those stresses are self-created, or that it means we aren’t in the right profession.  A better conversation, probably, would be to talk about ways to productively manage the stresses that are in our jobs, to look at the causes and to look at ways to manage if not eliminate the stresses that result.

 

 

*In other words: I am not trying to compare the stress of people’s jobs who involve life and death decisions and consequences with the stress that most people feel in their day-to-day lives.

**I’m going to talk from the perspective of having tenure in this post; I welcome others to give their thoughts from contingent/untenured perspectives in comments.

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So, a few months ago, I sent a version of a chapter of my book out to what is one of the most selective journals in my field.  This week, it was rejected.

Which, yes, of course, I didn’t like or anything, because who likes to be rejected?  But.  It does occur to me that these rejections sting a whole lot less these days than they did only a few years ago.  And actually, this rejection was very, very productive.

So why does the rejection sting less?

On the one hand, both of the readers’ reports were actually very positive about the submission, for rejections.  They offered really helpful suggestions for revision, ones that confirmed what I’d suspected about the essay in the first place, and which will contribute to my revisions for the book manuscript (from which this article was excerpted… which let’s note was part of the problem – that this was an excerpt).  Neither was like, “Oh, this is garbage!” but rather, “this article just isn’t where an article for this particular journal needs to be.”  Frankly, I’m not sure I’ve ever received more constructive or positive rejections of my work.  To get two rejections that include very strong compliments about the loveliness of my critical prose (which, you know what? is totally lovely), the incisiveness of my close readings of the literature, and the idea itself?  Yeah, that’s pretty cool.  The problem was in the execution of the argument through my close readings and in situating the argument theoretically, which I thought might be a problem when I submitted it in the first place. But submitting it meant I could move on to other writing things this summer, which I really needed to do.  And hey, now I’ve got great feedback, and it’s going to make this stronger, in the end, and will enable me to place the article elsewhere (a) and will make the book chapter stronger (b).  So thank you, anonymous peer reviewers!  Your generosity and careful attention to my article is going to make what I do better, and I am so appreciative of that!

On the other hand, what made this rejection sting less (every time I think about the sting of rejection, I hear this in my head) is the fact that I now regularly serve as a peer reviewer for journals.  This is only something that has begun to happen in the past 5 or 6 years with any regularity, and it’s changed my perspective about reviewers’ comments.  When I peer review, I take that job very seriously.  I really am trying to help the author – even when I really hate what the author writes – to make the article better.  Ironically, I was writing a recommendation to reject an article at the very same moment that I got my own rejection.  Did that change my comments on the article that I was reviewing?  No.  Instead, it made me read the reviewers comments to my own rejected article with generosity.  Because none of this, when it works properly, is personal.  It really is one of the rare instances where what we do is about the scholarship, and not about networking or self-promotion or the “game” of academics.  I used to take every criticism of my writing or my scholarship as “personal.”  I realize, by virtue of the fact that I’ve been on the other side, that it really isn’t.

Now, that isn’t to say that one might not disagree with a reviewer.  Of course one might.  One does.  I do.  But when I got rejected this week, I didn’t take it as a verdict on my intellect, or a verdict on my ability to make a contribution to the scholarly conversation.  I took it as an honest commentary on what I submitted, and as something that I can then use to improve what I had submitted so that it will find a home someplace else.  Does it suck that I have to do the work to incorporate that feedback?  Sure.  But I can do that with a few days of solid work, and it will be worth it.  And it’s not about me sucking – or even about what I submitted sucking: it’s about making something that is beautifully written and which has many strong points infinitely stronger.  In this case at least, it’s not about scrapping everything I’ve already done.  It’s about building and refining, which is always a good thing.

But what all of this leads me to thinking about is my students.  The problem with being a student (well, one of them) is that your work is so connected to you, individually, and not to a broader conversation.  And I think that this is a problem that we as professors exacerbate in some ways, in that we don’t necessarily offer constructive critique to out strongest students – we let them believe that everything that they will do will garner praise.  And then they go on in their lives – whether in a conventional job or in graduate work – and people criticize them.  And, oh, does it sting.  Because they think it’s all about them.  I know I did.

And while I try with my students to emphasize that they are part of a broader conversation and to give them criticism toward that end, one of the problems is that they don’t get that effort from every professor.  If they get it only from me, then I’m a bitch.  If they get it only from me, then it is personal, between me and them.  And then the word gets around and a lot of students avoid that bitch Dr. Crazy.

And sure, my students come back, say, a few years later, to tell me that they appreciate me, but wouldn’t it be better if all of us were sending them a uniform message the whole time – not waiting for them to get to law school to send an email into the ether that pushing on their writing helped, or waiting for them to get into a graduate program to send an email into the ether that forcing them to have their own ideas and develop their own topics and to write in clear, thoughtful, deliberate prose helped?  What if we taught them that “rejection” wasn’t a failure, and what if we taught them that saying something wasn’t good enough wasn’t saying that they aren’t good enough?

What if it wasn’t about “grading,” in the sense that we usually do it, which is fairly individualized and which doesn’t relate a hell of a lot to the way that we ourselves are evaluated, and what if instead we really thought about the students’ contributions to a world of ideas?

What if students learned that you can be doing A work and still have it not be good enough?  Wouldn’t that be preferable to students thinking that an “A” meant perfection?

Am I sure of how to achieve that?  No.  Do I try every day to achieve that?  Yes.  But that’s also why a fair few students avoid working with me.  It only works if we all do it, and we all don’t.

Whatever the case, it’s been good for me to learn that one can be rejected and still be great.  And I hope that the students who take courses with me or work under my direction learn that, too.  But I’d much rather that this approach wouldn’t be all about me and my grand ideas: I much rather that this approach were the norm rather than the exception.

 

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A new commenter, Fubecona, left an impassioned comment on this post yesterday, and I was just going to comment in response, but then I realized that it was probably better to make this its own post.  Up front, I just want to say clearly and for the record that this I am only speaking from my experience here – I’m not some sort of spokesperson for all institutions or all tenured faculty members or some bearer of The Truth about How All Hiring Committees Work and about How All Hiring Decisions Are Made.  But as much as I’m only one person, with my own perspective, I still think it’s worth it to discuss these issues in a public forum, as honestly as I can – mainly because I think that it’s not helpful for tenured folks to keep quiet while a whole separate (and oftentimes not entirely informed) conversation happens amongst people who are off the tenure-track.  If it’s true that we’re all colleagues (and yes, this is what I believe), then we should be talking to one another and sharing information as we have it.  So this is my attempt to foster that conversation.

So, I wrote this in my previous post: “When we hire for the t-t, we aren’t interviewing somebody because they’ve already had a crushing workload, so there is no BENEFIT to doing that to yourself.”  I suggested that one could look equally good to us as a teacher by just keeping one’s hand in by teaching one class a semester and working at some other job that would give one benefits and money – a day-job if you will.

Fubecona responded:

“Do these hiring committees ever stop to consider that adjuncts do this so they can feed their children, pay their rent, buy their children clothes for school, pay for gas etc.? People who are adjuncting at 3 or 4 schools and teaching 5-6 courses aren’t doing it because they want to have a “crushing workload” or think it will look good on their resume. They are doing it out of economic necessity plain and simple. And why should that be a negative? Also, getting a “day job” in the current market isn’t any easier than getting a TT position, so the assumption that a person can just easily switch to another field and cut back to one course a semester is a naïve one. Oh, and on that point, is it really better that a person leave academia for a “day job” and only teach one class, than for them to plug away at 3 or 4 adjuncting positions? Why does that make a person a better candidate for a TT position than adjuncting? Isn’t it better to have a person dedicated to teaching than someone who treats it as a side job—or if not better, at least just as valuable? I don’t understand that one.

What’s so disturbing to me about all of these discussions about how hiring committees choose their new hires is the seeming lack of humanity. It’s like they’re searching for a robot that they can program to their own specific needs and that was “built” following a very specific blueprint (no deviations from said blueprint allowed). If you have had the misfortune of life getting in the way of your career goals, as it sometimes does, it seems you’re screwed.”

First things first: I need to clarify what I was saying (inarticulately) in the initial post, and what I wasn’t saying.  What I was saying is this: at my institution, which is teaching-focused, when we hire for the tenure-track, we are not just looking at teaching.  Why not?  Because, regardless of what the faculty handbook says about teaching being 50% of one’s workload on the tenure-track, the reality is that it’s probably more like 30% of one’s total workload.  And teaching will not get you tenure.  Not even here. And when we hire for a tenure-track position, we hire with the tenure process in mind.

For this reason, while teaching is one piece of what we’re looking for, and it is important to demonstrate that one won’t be at a loss when one enters the classroom, a candidate can do that by having a consistent record of teaching, which doesn’t require quantity.  At a certain point, accumulating courses taught on one’s cv has diminishing returns in terms of marketability.  Teaching more and more and more classes doesn’t make a candidate look like a “better” teacher (and teaching multiple sections of comp semester after semester, for example, doesn’t do anything for a candidate who is applying for a literature position), and it can get in the way of the other essential qualities that successful candidates possess, like strong scholarship and the ability to do administrative and service tasks.  Not because teaching a lot of classes in itself means that you can’t do the other stuff – just that teaching is intense and exhausting work, work that is made even more difficult when one is in a contingent position without adequate resources.  If teaching is going to get in the way of publishing, or if it is going to get in the way of developing the administrative skill set that you will need to succeed in the job, then doing more and more teaching is not going to make you a stronger candidate.  It might make you a stronger candidate to work at Starbucks and teach one class a semester to keep yourself current with teaching, if that means that it allows you to be innovative in that one class that you teach, and if that means that you can attend to the other parts of your application in a more focused way.

What I wasn’t saying: I at no point said that we did not give equal attention to applications from candidates whose cv includes a lot of adjuncting.  We do, and when appropriate, those candidates have been invited for first-round interviews and campus visits, and they have received offers from our department.

But this gets to the “humanity” issue.  When we choose candidates to interview, no, we aren’t thinking about anything other than the application materials in front of us, and how well those materials match what we ask for in our advertisement.  Which, frankly, I think is appropriate.  We are trying to hire a colleague, and we need that colleague to do a particular job.  It would be unethical – and potentially in violation of laws about equitable hiring practices – to let factors beyond the application materials influence hiring decisions.  Does that hurt some candidates?  Probably.  But it also helps some candidates who might otherwise face discrimination because of some aspect of their personal-life profile.  Finally: I don’t know of any job in the world in which humanity is a primary factor in the hiring process.  How would you judge whose life circumstances count more than another person’s?  And if those criteria were primary, how would that relate to getting a candidate who will do the most effective job completing the work of the position, which, after all, is supposed to be the point?

Let me be clear: I am not in any way disparaging part-time faculty or saying that teaching part-time disqualifies a person from a tenure-track position.  And I agree that my part-time colleagues are, for the most part, incredibly dedicated teachers, and that they do their jobs often in the face of incredible adversity.

But at the end of the day, let’s say I’m on a search committee, and I have to evaluate, say, 200 applications for just one position.  It’s likely that at least a quarter of those applications will come from candidates who are adjuncts.  So let’s say that we throw out everybody who’s not a part-timer.  That still would leave us with 50 candidates for just one position.  What criteria am I going to use to narrow the pool from 50 down to one?  I’m going to look at innovation in teaching in the field in which we are hiring (not the number of courses taught); I’m going to look at consistency of scholarly engagement; I’m going to look at the person’s ability to carry the very heavy administrative and service load that goes with tenure-track employment at my institution.  And 49 adjuncts will still be left out in the cold.

The hiring process is brutal.  And even if we disqualified recently degreed folks or folks who somehow escaped freeway-flying (which, let’s note, is “offensive” and “appalling” in the opposite direction), that would not mean that every candidate who meets the minimum qualifications for a job ad would ultimately get hired on the tenure-track.  The jobs just aren’t there.

So, finally, I want to object to the implication that tenure-track faculty are awful gatekeepers who are trying to deny access to the privileges of tenure-track employment, that we are trying to reinforce a caste system in the academy, with haves and have-nots.  I mean, maybe some people are like that, but I don’t know any of them.  I would love it if we could hire enough tenure-track faculty – or hell, even full-time lecturers along with tenure-track faculty – to staff all of the courses that my department offers, not in the least because it would help to ease the service and administrative burdens that distract me from my teaching.  And we ask for lines each and every year, in the hope that maybe sometimes we will get a line or two, even while lines from our department have gone unfilled and are “redistributed” to other units on campus, and more often than not the answer is a big fat no.

Tenure-track faculty and adjunct faculty are on the same side, or at least they should be.

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First of all, I’m exhausted, so I’m going to be a lazy linker.  But the latest news about the Gigantic Kerfuffle regarding the Colorado State English Dept. job ad has apparently resulted in a change of language (which I think is infinitely preferable to their original ad).

Lots of people have already written about this, so I’m coming in late with some reflections, in no particular order.

First, on the ad itself (both in original and revised forms):

  • I never thought that the original ad was a “lawsuit waiting to happen.”  It’s worth noting that I might resist at first blush any claims about “lawsuits waiting to happen” that I hear, mainly because in my neck of the academic woods, the people who like to utter that phrase tend to be Super Paranoid Miserable People without Law Degrees.  It’s like this crazy threat that academics (without law degrees) like to throw out there when they’re too lazy to articulate what are actually ethical, political, or moral objections, not legal ones.
  • That said, I was totally disgusted by the original ad (which said it wouldn’t consider applications from people who earned their degrees before 2010), mainly because I felt like it came off as a very “let them eat cake” moment.  Everybody knows that when the market crashed in 2008 it left a lot of great people without the potential of gaining tenure-track employment.  We still haven’t (will we ever?) recovered from that.  To assert that the only people out there seeking entry-level tenure-track work have only gotten degree-in-hand within the past two years?  What planet do these people live on?!?!  That wasn’t even true before the market crashed.
  • I was further disgusted by the original ad because if their aim was to limit the number of applications (and I have to think that this was at least in part the case), then they could have done so by narrowing the field of their search, as opposed to saying “pre-1900 American Literature,” which, let’s note, is HUGE and covers like three different fields in the discipline.  So not only was the original ad offensive to people off the tenure-track, it was also lazy as hell.

But so now, after the massive public shaming, the language has changed, and it’s less offensive.  So far so good, right?  But that doesn’t mean much, at the end of the day, because at the end of the day, lots of departments won’t look twice at an application from a person who is more than 3 years from degree.  Or, to be less cynical than that, they may look twice at that application, but that application is going to have more items on it that give them a reason to rule a person out.  And, frankly, that is true whether one is applying from a tenure-track position or whether one is in a contingent position.  I don’t think it’s actually, at least in my experience, about discriminating against people who’ve been working as adjuncts.  It’s about experience.

“Experience” is all well and good, but your experiences can make you not “fit” with the hiring department’s imagined ideal of who they will hire for that position.  Because the more classes you teach, and the more articles you write, and the more books you publish, the more it’s clear who you actually are.  Now, sure, you might be the exact perfect person that every person in the hiring department has been waiting for all his or her life.  But probably?  That ain’t going to be so.

Why not?  Well, because hiring departments, especially big ones, like my department with around 30 full-time people, have lots of different personalities and lots of different ideas about their One True Colleague.  I got the offer for my job when I was ABD (though I had degree in hand when I started).  I was like a tiny precocious baby, who clearly could teach the classes that they wanted people to teach in my field, but who, primarily, was adorable.  Like a baby who can sing her ABCs.  But let’s say I’d have applied for this job when I was three years out – with those presentations, publications, and newly developed courses on my cv.  Would I have gotten the job?  Maybe, but I think not.  Because what I did in that three years gave a hint to the sort of colleague I actually am, which is a hell of a lot less accommodating than the eager beaver I was when I had yet to defend my dissertation.  When they hired me, they could imagine who I’d become, who they would shape me to become.  After a few years?  Yeah, it must have become pretty apparent to some people that they’d made a giant mistake about what sort of colleague I would be.  Oh, I’m exactly as “energetic” as they’d thought I’d be, and I work hard, and I care about teaching and do a good job with it, and I’m fun to have a conversation with in the hallway.  That’s all fine, which is why I was able to earn tenure in spite of the other things that I revealed.  They certainly didn’t expect all my opinions.  They certainly didn’t expect that I’d keep publishing 1-2 things a year, plus a book before tenure.  They didn’t think that I’d be… as vocal and as insistent as I’ve become.  When I had yet to earn my degree, I seemed like I’d be “fun” and “engaging.”  And, sure, I am.  But I’m also a pain in the ass.  And, frankly, that is clear from how my cv has developed, both in terms of the courses I teach and in terms of the articles and book that I’ve published.  Sure, there might be some department out there that would see that cv and think, “You complete me!”  But not most.

I don’t say all of this to be defeatist to those still on the market after a few years, nor do I say it in order to provide some sort of alibi for search committees that discount experience in favor of the shiny new thing or who discount those applying from contingent positions in favor of those applying from “good” jobs or from Fancy Graduate Programs.  I say this because this is the profession as I’ve come to know it, at least in English.

Now, that being said, we’ve hired “old” PhDs in my department in recent years, because we felt like they would be a good fit for our students, because we felt like they’d be promising colleagues.  That said, they didn’t come in guns blazing about how much “experience” they would bring us, or how they “deserved” the job (although they did).  And, though this probably seems counter-intuitive to the advice that most people get, they had weak publication records.  See, regardless of the requirements for tenure here, we are a “teaching” school.  Show too much interest in research and there are some people who will question your commitment to teaching.

Basically, the bottom line is that the market sucks and it’s not fair.  It’s not about merit, or accomplishments, or experience.  Does that mean that the hires that we’ve made since I’ve been here have been “bad”?  No.  But it does mean that a lot of people with great CVs who’ve been out of the PhD for a while will always be in danger of seeming like a “bad fit.”

So while I thought the CSU original ad was disgusting, I think it did reveal some hard truths about who we are and how we do business.  Yes, your PhD does have an expiration date.  Mainly because when it comes to hiring, most universities (maybe not all, but most) would rather imagine what you might become than know what you are.

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