More Than R1, One Year Later

Lake at University of Richmond

University of Richmond lake.

Last year, I wrote blog posts recounting my experiences on the academic job market and the ultimate decision to accept my current position. The job search was tough, as it is for any job candidate. But, I had the added stress of being pressured to pursue jobs at research-intensive universities or, more colloquially, to “go R1.” Now, one year later, I am content with my decision, and am optimistic that I will love my job once the adjustment period has ended. But, it has not been a “happily ever after” fairytale (yet).

The Job Search

As a rising high school senior, I had my heart set on attending a small liberal arts college (SLAC) within my home state. On a tour of one campus, my mother teased me about wanting to be a “big fish in a little pond.” But, as she saw the small scholarships that these expensive schools offered, she began encouraging me to look at state schools. I resisted initially, but fell in love with UMBC and the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which offered a full scholarship. I decided to attend UMBC, becoming a medium-size fish in a medium-size pond (or, so it seemed from my perspective). I tucked away my liberal arts dreams for future chapter of my life.

As an eager, yet naïve first-year graduate student, I announced my plan to become a professor at a liberal arts college to an advisor. I was encouraged to “aim for R1” instead because that career path would be the hardest to obtain; if I changed my mind, other paths would be easily pursued. After a couple of years in grad school, I learned such a strategy was not enough; one also had to keep liberal arts dreams secret, for some advisors might invest less time and energy into your training. The more I opened myself up to research-intensive training, the more I felt favored by the faculty, and the more doors opened to me in the department and beyond. At times, I was convinced an R1 job was best for me, even if it meant being miserable, unhealthy, overworked, and devoting my energy on research at the expense of teaching and advocacy.

When I successfully pushed to go on the job market, I was asked, “you’re not applying to liberal arts jobs, right?” The possibility seemed quickly and offhandedly dismissed. By that point in my training, I had become so successful at conforming that I meekly responded, “right.” But, when I secretly applied to a liberal arts job, which erroneously automatically sent requests to my advisors for recommendation letters, my interest in liberal arts schools was outed (again). I was hesitantly allowed to apply to liberal arts schools, then to interview with them.

By November 2012, the call with the offer for my current position came. Once I was off of the phone with the dean, I paced around my apartment, crying happy tears, tears of relief, and chanting, “omigod omigod omigod.” This was my first job interview, and I fell in love with it on the campus visit. But, the celebration would have to wait. I was encouraged to meet with each of my four advisors about taking the job. Their advice ranged from “do what you want, it’s your damn life!” to “decline the offer” in hopes of something better (i.e., an R1 job). I had to go to family and friends if I wanted to share my excitement about landing the job that I wanted.

Am I A SLACer?

In addition to the pressure from my department to continue my search in hopes of an R1 position, I found little help in assessing if a liberal arts position would be a good fit for me. It seemed no one could tell me what working at a liberal arts college would entail, except the potential risks: becoming irrelevant in the profession; slowing down on research; and, being at a disadvantage if I applied for an R1 job later on. I struggled to find role models and stories of sociologists who worked at liberal arts colleges, particularly those who remained productive as researchers and visible in the discipline. How could I justify accepting my current position without having attended or worked at a liberal arts college in the past? What made me think I was a SLACer at heart besides my college dreams as a naïve 18 year old?

Fortunately, I found a few blog posts that helped me to make my decision. I found that research actually does occur at liberal arts colleges! But, many of these stories and essays hinted that some scholars know deep down in their heart/soul/mind that they are a SLACer. I have to admit, I did not feel naturally inclined toward any particular career path, whether R1, liberal arts, or maybe even applied jobs. I applied to both liberal arts colleges and research-intensive universities, as I assumed most candidates did in this tough job market, and entertained the possibility of shifting to applied jobs if tenure-track positions did not pan out. It seemed that so much stock has been placed in a R1/liberal arts dichotomy, but I could not find a professor who was truly an R1er at heart.  Maybe most people follow the expected R1 path without questioning it, or accept other positions if an R1 job does not come along?

Personally, the R1/liberal arts distinction was an inaccurate way of categorizing job possibilities. I was pretty damn sure that working at an R1 meant continued mental health problems, feeling disconnected from the community and advocacy, and working in a cut-throat and competitive climate. But, I was open to an R1 job that would afford a sense of synergy between my teaching, research, and advocacy – the qualities that attracted me to my current position. And, I needed to be in a place that, at a minimum, would not force me to hide that I am a blogger. I doubt I would ever find a fitting R1 job, but I am also aware that not ever liberal arts job would be a good fit either. In other words, there are so many other factors that make up “fit” other than, or maybe even instead of, the R1/SLAC distinction. Ultimately, I made a relatively blind leap of faith, resigning myself to the possibility that this would be my mistake to make, if it were a mistake.

One Year Later

One year into my position, I am definitely content, and optimistic that I will love this job once the adjustment period ends. And, I lived happily ever after…

Well, not quite. The conciliation prize from my graduate department that, “ultimately it is your life,” has arrived. No one has questioned my decision to accept my current position since I began. Well, no one except for me. Every once in a while, I hear my advisors’ voices in my head (which, I heard jokingly stated as a goal of graduate training) saying, “you know, you could still ‘go R1.’” And, when the spring semester ended, and I turned my attention (almost) exclusively to research, those voices grew louder. That is, along side amplified anxiety about tenure expectations and fears that I would not maximize my first summer on the tenure-track.

Unlearning the R1 bias has been a slow process. That question, “are you sureeeeee????” has prevented me from fully appreciated my current position. I am at the start of what ideally will become a very productive research career – shouldn’t I be at an R1, then? Did I take the easy route? What will I miss out on from the R1 world? I hate it, and I am disappointed in myself for letting questions that are no longer asked externally to continue to bounce around in my head one year later.

One mid-summer day, I went for a hike alone. My partner and I had a silly fight; rather than resolving it, I fled to clear my head. I stopped to sit on a rock, either to pray or meditate or some combination of the two. The first thought that popped into my head was to resolve things with my partner. I was being silly and stubborn, wasting time away from rather than with him. Then, I asked, “please, once and for all, let me have some sort of sign that I am on the right (career) path.”

Since I have been so critical of my graduate school experience, am I a coward for choosing against an R1 career, in which I would mentor future scholars? Uh, I have had it with this doubt, and guilt, and bitterness! I opened my eyes, and decided to call my partner to reconcile things.

Belle Isle, Richmond, VA

Belle Isle, Richmond, VA

On my phone, I saw that I had an email from a grad student thanking me for my post, “More than R1,” and being a role model for her and other grad students who hope to pursue liberal arts careers. Wow. I had my answer. I can mentor grad students from anywhere; and, the bonus for me is being able to do so without the departmental constraints, norms, and traditions of a graduate training program. More importantly, if I finally conceded to the pressure to “go R1,” even if only self-imposed nowadays, I would be asking my partner to move and start his career over again. Since he is returning to school this fall, it would be incredibly selfish of me to interrupt his life (again) to appease the internalized R1 bias. There really are more important matters in life. I have a job that I like, in a place that I like.  Why the hell would I walk away from that, especially for a job that I already know will make me sick, dispassionate, and cranky?

So, I do not regret my decision. Unfortunately, I still carry some resentment that my search had to proceed as it did. But, I am working on relinquishing that resentment, and all of my bitterness from graduate school in general, to focus fully on appreciating this chapter of my life. I am fortunate to have a job, a good job, a job that I like. And, I do recognize that I received great training overall, which opened multiple doors to me. I hope, though, that graduate students are no longer pressured to pursue one career path over others, or feel that information about alternative paths is not available to them. We are overdue for becoming realistic about (and better prepare students for) the current job market, anyhow.

I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore (Pt. IV)

Photo by Erik Mayes

Photo by Erik Mayes

This is the fourth and final installment of my blog post series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore.”  In this series, I’ve written about the alt-ac options in my main field, folklore studies (see Part I); the process I’ve undergone of recognizing that maybe I want to step back from academia (see Part II); and the “trying on” of this new identity at a conference (see Part III).

Now I’ve gotten to the point where stepping back to gain some distance from and perspective on academia has seemed like a great idea, even if it’s only for this summer. But where to go from here?

As far as concrete planning-for-the-future type stuff, I’m still adjuncting. I actually really like the school where I’m teaching now, but I don’t like the fact that I’m stuck with the adjunct pay scale, lack of benefits, and inability to plan beyond one semester ahead. But, I’m not taking on a huge course load, so I’ve got time to explore other things that I want to do with my life, potentially as career options. I plan to do more writing, and to build a business as a sex educator. I’m already doing informal relationship and sexuality counseling among my peer group, and teaching gender studies classes on related topics. Might as well give it a go and see if I can get paid to do it, right? Plus it’s the kind of career that I can do as part-time as I want while I’ve got other things on my plate, since it seems to involve a lot of freelancing and getting my own gigs.

I’m in the rare and fortunate position of not needing to be the breadwinner in my household at the moment, so I have more freedom than most adjuncts to poke around and figure out what I want to do with my time (for which I am grateful, very very grateful). I don’t see myself not working for long periods of time. I’m taking on paid writing jobs this summer, despite needing a lot of downtime to recover from near-burnout. But, I want to choose a potential next career with intention and clarity – and that can take time.

Additionally, since I know that I’m luckier than many adjuncts who struggle to make ends meet, or other folks on the post/alt-ac spectrum who don’t have a lot of leeway between ditching the ivory tower and needing another income source, I want to do a little more volunteering. You know, give back to the world, improve my community. Thanks to a Twitter conversation with Jennifer Polk (@FromPhDtoLife) of From PhD to Life, I determined that as much as I make myself out to be a cranky introvert who retreats as often as possible to her hermit-cave, I have a deep need to connect. I need my work to make meaningful contributions to my larger community, not just my academic community. Sex education gives me the chance to do that, especially since I plan to take on some volunteer gigs, both to gain experience in this profession, and because there are a lot of people who really need accurate, thorough sex and relationship education, even as adults.

I don’t anticipate that this will all be smooth sailing, though. Even if I’m starting to deal more healthily with the emotional fall-out of an unexpected career change that felt like a failure, I’m sure there are plenty of struggles ahead. For one thing, my career trajectory involves writing, and that means facing a lot of potential rejections. I’m still working through what my time seeking academic employment means and whether there was anything I could’ve done better or differently to get a job (imposter syndrome, anyone?). And, I worry that a thoughtless or judgmental word from a colleague could send me reeling. I’m still not sure what this makes me (post-ac? alt-ac? something-else-ac?) and how it’ll influence my relationship with academia in the future.

A lot of my thinking is, unfortunately, cyclical. I hope that I’m not shooting myself in the foot by publishing this kind of blog post online, under my real name. But, would I really want to work for an institution that doesn’t want honesty or critical awareness from its employees? If a university wants someone working for them who’s never questioned academic politics, they’re going to end up with someone who’s naïve, dishonest, or perhaps both.

Another instance of cyclical thinking is that if I’m not feeling passionate about my research right now, I should put it down and come back to it when I’m feeling recharged. But, is walking away for a time going to reinforce feelings of not belonging, and cause me to feel more disconnected? I worry that the more time I spend disengaged from academia, the less I’ll want to return to it, and that’s a bundle of mixed emotions right there, even if I just spent this blog post series establishing that I don’t know if I want to be on the academic career track I’d started out on a decade-plus ago.

I’m no stranger to the cyclical “if they don’t want me, I’m not a good fit for them” line of thought. I’m an outspoken feminist who works on various gender and sexuality topics that some people find off-putting. There are probably some workplace cultures – both academic and not – where I wouldn’t be welcome, whether because I’m a woman, or because I work on these various gender and sexuality topics, or both. I try not to be too in-your-face in talking about sex and, of course, I keep this kind of discourse professional, but there are still places where that’s taboo. And I don’t want to have to hide such a huge facet of my identity or my interests just for the sake of fitting in.

So…that’s where I am. I’d like to thank everyone who’s helped me reach a point where I feel I can step back from a career path that hasn’t been working for me, despite the fact that it’s really scary to do so. My husband, my family, and my dance community have been especially awesome, not only for supporting me through this tough journey, but also giving me constant, joyful reminders that there’s more to life than having my nose stuck in a book.

Preparing A New Course VS. Impostor Syndrome

Ideally, developing a new course will entail excitement about all of the possible topics, readings, discussions, and assignments.  (I said “ideally,” ok?)  It usually does for me, but that little bit of uncertainty, which probably fuels others’ excitement, expands into all out impostor syndrome.  Unfortunately, that leads to a much longer and tortuous process, and sometimes continues to shape the course throughout the semester.  In this post, I hope to offer a few tips for others who may struggle with impostor syndrome, particularly while developing a new course.

The Impostor Professor

First, let me briefly give some personal background.  I taught two semesters, followed by a summer course at another university, during my third year of graduate school.  Thanks to a fellowship, I did not teach again until I started in my current position.  So, that is one year’s worth of teaching experience, followed by three years without teaching; in hindsight, being rusty and inexperienced, while adjusting to a new job and place was not ideal.  I did take two of the three courses that my graduate department offered toward a Preparing Future Faculty certificate.  I dropped the certificate because my plans for the final course’s project fell through, and I found no resistance to giving up all together.  But, I hear that those two courses are still more training that many scholars receive on teaching.  Still, I feel I was not adequately prepared to to hit the ground running in the classroom.

My process for developing new courses has been the same (i.e., a shit show).  I start by panicking — what could I possibly teach about X?!  Then, I collect and scour as many syllabi on X as I can find on the internet and from colleagues who are willing to share.  Using these as models, I narrow down the topics of each lecture, and then the assigned readings, based on what it seems are the core subjects.  In the back of my head, I know that about 25% of the topics have never crossed my mind, so I will have to prepare those lectures from scratch (i.e., learning about it first, then frantically deciding what I will teach).  Indeed, those days bring stress and anxiety right on schedule.  “I do not know the first thing about this subject/don’t care!”  Panic.  Then, search for documentaries; then, relevant activities.  If all of the above fail, I can turn to discussion or group work.  No surprise, these classes are hit or miss.  And, the classes that go ok actually feel as though I got lucky.  Ok or awful, I usually return to my office after class feeling unqualified or incompetent, and may or may not fight the tears that threaten to come.

Source of Self-Doubt

I attempted to change my approach when preparing for this semester’s courses over the summer.  The biggest, semi-successful change was to start course preparations earlier in the summer, rather than waiting until August.  I planned to flip my fall and spring schedules: spend at least an hour on teaching in the morning, and devote the rest of the day to research.  That did not quite happen, but I got an early start.

The other change was to devote at least some time in the course on topics I study, find interesting, and/or am passionate about.  I did, but, because I still started out using textbooks and others’ syllabi as my guide for the core subjects.  Half of the first draft of my syllabus for my Medical Sociology course contained subjects I know/care little about.  When a colleague challenged me to focus more on the course I want to teach, two sources of my self-doubt were revealed.

First, which I have already noted, is setting a standard that my new course must meet.  I start the preparation process by letting others’ expertise (or so I assume) dictate what I should teach.  Thus, I create a challenge for myself to push my expertise to reach others’ standards.  At an unconscious level, I fear that others will look at my syllabi and deem them unacceptable or sub-par, and dismiss my expertise on the subject.  I never start out asking my own expert self, “what should I teach — what are the most important topics and what skills do I want my students to learn?”

The second source, which surprised me, was a fear that letting my passions and interests guide the preparation would lead me to a course deemed biased or “too activist” by other scholars.  For my Medical Sociology course, I initially hesitated to give more than a day to LGBTQ health because no other instructor or textbook gave even a passing reference to LGBTQ communities (though, maybe in their coverage of HIV/AIDS).  Could I justify a lecture on sexual orientation and health, and another on transgender health?  My colleague reminded me that, if I decide against covering trans health in my course, my students will likely leave college never learning about it (or trans communities in general!).  I am guilty of letting what I deem as the mainstream standard trump my interest in teaching students about LGBTQ issues, and intersectionality, and fatphobia, and sexual health, etc.!  If including these subjects is “too activist,” then excluding them is reproducing the status quo of higher education.  It is my duty, in my humble opinion, as an educator to introduce my students to these systematically overlooked communities and issues.

Excusing Impostor Syndrome From Class

From my inexperienced, still self-doubting perspective, I offer the following tips for developing new courses:

  1. Remember that you are an expert.  At a minimum for some instructors, this means finding confidence in knowing that you know more about the material than your students.  Even if it is brand new to you, you have developed skills to be able to teach anything (within reason)!  In a pinch, you probably have a few tools in your teaching toolkit: class or small group discussion, activities, in-class assignments, documentaries, relevant current events, etc.
  2. Start course preparations from your expertise.  Academic freedom, y’all!  That is, assuming you were not assigned to teach a course that is far outside of your expertise.  One approach that helped me as I finally crafted a Medical Sociology syllabus that actually reflected my areas of expertise was to jot down all of the topics that I knew I could teach at that moment with little preparation.  My list did not exhaust the number of days in the semester, but it came pretty close.
  3. Be practical — start choosing readings from what you have already read.  One mistake I often made was searching for the readings — what are the articles that I kept seeing on others’ syllabi?  Sure, there may be some classical pieces that you really should assign.  But, the others could be contemporary examples, or counterarguments, or even personal narratives.  By letting others’ models dictate what I should assign, I added to my frantic lecture prep days the task of reading all of the articles that I assigned that I had never read before.
  4. Start course preparations from your passion.  Let go of the myth of the dispassionate, objective instructor.  Embrace what you know you could talk about for 75 minutes straight.  Your passion may rub off on your students, and their piqued interest will further fuel yours.  If not, at least you will avoid the combination of not caring about the topic and seeing bored faces before you for 75 minutes.
  5. STOP using others as a model, at least from the beginning.  If you can, maybe check out what other instructors cover if you are stumped on the last few topics to cover or readings to assign.  If many instructors go through this same fumbling, impostor syndrome-fuelded course preparation process, we probably cannot trust others’ courses to serve as a model.  One major mistake I made was to attempt to replicate the breadth-focused approach of courses taught at research-intensive courses; my institution would prefer I cover fewer subjects, but in-depth.  Another mistake I have made is using seasoned scholars’ courses as a standard to achieve — people who have been teaching as long as I have been alive, with ample opportunities to perfect their courses.  It is a simple (and expected) fact: this new course will be shitty the first time, but I can improve it in future semesters.  Finally, I do myself and my students a disservice by using “traditional” (i.e., exclusive) approaches; I have an opportunity to model for my students (and maybe other instructors) that certain topics are relevant and important for a course.
  6. Ease up on self-evaluation.  Course evaluations come at the end of the course, not the beginning.  And, yes, while they are imperfect (and somewhat biased), their purpose is to give feedback to improve the courses for the next time you teach them.  It will not be perfect the first time — or ever, really.  And, improvement as an instructor is valued (e.g., tenure and promotion)!  Hopefully, you will start out with your own syllabus and setup an exciting semester, with room for improvement in following semesters, rather than setting up a test of your qualifications.
  7. Become a better teacher.  At a minimum, ask a friend or trusted colleague to observe one of your classes, and offer feedback afterward.  In turn, attend her class so that you can see another model for teaching.  (It seems what makes this hardest is that we teach in a vacuum, never seeing what other people do in the classroom!)  If you have to be observed for formal evaluations, plan to have someone who will not evaluate you observe your class before these formal observations.  Attend on-campus workshops about teaching and pedagogy, as well as local and national teaching conferences.  It can be refreshing to realize so many instructors struggle with self-doubt about teaching.

That is all I have for now.  Please offer other teaching suggestions either as a comment, or even a guest blog post!

I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore (Pt. III)

Photo by Erik Mayes

Photo by Erik Mayes

This is Part III of my four-part series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore” (see Part I and Part II). With all the processing I’d done to reach the point where I felt somewhat comfortable stating “I don’t know if I want to be a professor anymore,” and all of the specific ways in which my field can accommodate alt-ac work, I set out to try on this new identity at a conference.

Luckily, I picked a pretty fitting conference at which to do so: the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA). Since I got roped into going by a bunch of fellow grad students at Indiana University a number of years ago, I’ve been a regular attendee at this conference on sci-fi, fantasy, horror, comics, film, fandom, the visual arts, and practically any other aspects of the fantastic mode that exists. And it’s truly an international conference; I see some of my favorite Scandinavians there.

In addition to ICFA being a conference where I feel as though I’m coming home each year I attend, it’s particularly well-suited to these kinds of post-ac/alt-ac conversations. While it’s an academic conference, wherein presentation submissions are refereed before being admitted, it’s not just professors and grad students in attendance. Many of the presenters are alt-ac in some sense, whether they’re trained in a different field than the conference theme, or actually employed outside the academia but attending to do the scholarship they love. The fields of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror studies are interdisciplinary, and have always had elements of a fan participation. And at ICFA, we have a number of guest artists, authors, and editors in attendance. Their presence as participants in the media we study makes for rich and lively discussions, as well as a conference program that includes more than just scholarly presentations. I got to meet author China Miéville and ask him about how he incorporates folklore in his writing, for instance, which was wonderful and fascinating.

I decided that ICFA was the perfect place for a soft coming-out for two reasons: I’m comfortable there, having attended for nearly a decade and built so many friendships and collegial relationships there, and it’s already a mixed group of academics in varying relationships to institutions as well as non-academics. That, and the processing of my academic angst had reached critical mass by the time the conference occurred, and I really wanted to talk to people about it. I felt ready to start moving in a new direction or three, and I needed to know whether all of my colleagues would suddenly hate me. The fact that fantasy studies isn’t my main field, though it overlaps with folklore studies in some areas, particularly areas in which I work, would also soften the blow if things went poorly.

Upon arriving at ICFA this past March, I told everyone whom I talked to that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a professor anymore. Depending on how long I’d known someone, and whether it was looking to be a brief “get to know you” conversation or a “let’s talk for ages” conversation, I went into varying amounts of detail about my reasons for reaching this decision. I outlined some of my plans for the future and asked for feedback where appropriate.

The experience was wonderful overall. Everyone was very supportive and encouraging. Most of the folks I talked to knew of the troubles with the academic job market, and it was interesting comparing notes with my colleagues from other countries. I had to fill them in on some of the specifics of our job market and, in turn, I got to learn about some of the reasons things are difficult in other places.

No one berated me for my choices or my experiences. But, I did get a few of those annoying “just hang in there” talks, which I guess are meant to be helpful, but miss the point that one can only “hang in” so much when one is struggling on various levels, including emotional and financial.

I found a lot of solidarity with people who are in similarly liminal situations, regardless of whether they had an academic career in mind. For instance, I talked to Kathryn Allen, who blogs at Bleeding Chrome (check out this great post on embracing ambition after a PhD), and she was really understanding and wonderful when listening to me rant about my career-shift ideas. And there are others whom I won’t name because not everyone’s out about their various career moves… but you all are awesome. Our poolside chats and discussions over drinks made me feel accepted, loved, and as though I am not alone in this struggle.

Getting to “try on” the new identity of post/alt/whatever-ac was a transformative experience for me. It demonstrated that people whose ideas and work that I respect still find value in me even when I am distancing myself from the institution and career that we’re all indoctrinated to venerate above all else. My precarity wasn’t seen as a personal failing, nor as a factor in evaluating the worth of my ideas.

I was a bit worried about whether I’d get very emotional about this topic (since my career angst has been tugging at my heart for a couple of years now), but things went pretty smoothly during the conference. I might’ve also been envisioning my time at ICFA as though I were playing a new character in a role-playing game, but that’s not terribly out there given the content of the conference. So I’ll go ahead and call it a success. (of course, it helped that I had a successful conference on a professional level, too, receiving many compliments on the research I presented and chairing a session that went wonderfully)

Tune in next week for the final post in this blog post series, which will address the “what now?” of coming to terms with the “I don’t know if I want to be a professor anymore” experience.

What Diversity-Related Resources Have Worked For You?

A friend of mine has asked for some help in compiling a list of resources related to diversity in (and diversifying) academia, especially among faculty.  I have put some time into creating lists of resources that have been useful for me and/or colleagues, specifically related to race and ethnicity, gender, social class, LGBT issues, weight, and disabilities.  But, these lists are by no means exhaustive!

What diversity-related resources, particularly for the recruitment, retention, and promotion of faculty, would you recommend?  This could include websites, blogs, job banks, job fairs, professional organizations, books, journals, archives, services, etc.  You can leave recommendations as a comment below, tweet us at @conditionaccept, email us at conditionallyaccepted [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment on our Facebook page.  I am happy to add recommendations to our list of resources, as well!  Thank you in advance.

Advice On Surviving Conferences From Dr. Wendy M. Christensen

Wendy ChristensenDr. Wendy M. Christensen is an Assistant Professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ.  Her research focuses on how inequality shapes political participation.  In her free time she loves reading feminist theory and mysteries (and feminist mysteries!), running, and drinking beer.  You can learn more about Dr. Christensen on her website and on Twitter at @wendyphd

How To Survive Academic Conferences

Suddenly it’s August and the American Sociological Association (ASA) annual meeting is right around the corner! That means I need to prepare physically and mentally for the whirlwind of activity and socializing ahead!

I attended my first academic conference during my first year in graduate school. I decided to take advice about networking very seriously. I decided to go to the ASA meeting. I’ll admit that I was beyond miserable at that first conference. I only knew a few people in my department, and even fewer of the people from my school in attendance. I roomed with older grad students who were too far out of my own area of interest to introduce me around. Out of the 5,000+ people there, I felt as though I didn’t know a single person. I wandered around for days without any familiar contact. It was pretty terrible and mentally exhausting. I’m surprised that I actually stayed in academia after that.

Since then, I’ve been to dozens of conferences. And with some reservations, I actually love them. Conferences are still stressful and exhausting, but they also serve as a reminder of the excitement that I have for my discipline. And conferences give me a chance to see a lot of the wonderful friends I’ve made over the years at conferences—the result of successful networking! And now that I’m out of grad school, conferences give me a chance to see my grad school friends and mentors.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the years about attending conferences without losing my mind.

  • Think small. If you’re at a huge conference like ASA, try to attend a smaller conference happening at the same time (SSSP, ABS, SWS). A lot of smaller organizations run their meetings concurrently, either in the same hotel or in the same area. They might have their own receptions, workshops, and hospitality suites. It’s a lot easier to get to know a smaller group of people. And if they’re people who are either similar to you (SWS feminists!), or who study the same thing you do, it will feel much more familiar and give you more to connect over.
  • Try not to be afraid to meet new people. It’s easy to sit in a ton of sessions and never meet anyone as panels and lectures are not very interactive. Attend some informal events like workshops and interest-meetings (focused around students, for example) where you’re likely to talk to people. Try to find a buddy and go to some of the section receptions together. Don’t be afraid of meeting scholars whose work you know, either. If you’re feeling shy, ask a professor or mutual friend to introduce you. I scan the program for scholars whose work I use and then attend their sessions. I make sure to go up and meet them afterwards and I’ve found people are usually always gracious and friendly in these circumstances.
  • Don’t be upset if people you know ignore you. If someone from your department blows past you without acknowledging your attempt at a “hello,” don’t take it personally. It’s not you. They’re trying to juggle presentations, meetings, workshops and all sorts of other stuff on bad hotel coffee. Unless they’re really rude (which I guess might be the case in some situations), just assume they’re busy and try to grab them again when they look less busy. Keep in mind that people, even those who have been to tons of conferences, are probably just as stressed out about them as you are.
  • Take advantage of hospitality suites, media centers, wifi spaces etc. to hang out and work at during the conference. These are great places to catch your breath and meet new people. And they often have free coffee and snacks!
  • Select roommates wisely. It’s great to save money by rooming with a bunch of people. I always do this at SWS conferences, which I think of as a big feminist slumber party. I’ve actually met bedmates in the middle of the night when they got into bed with me (hey, don’t get the wrong idea, folks)! But it’s also nice to room alone sometimes, if you can swing it financially. For the upcoming conference I found an AirBnB boutique hotel room for the same price that I would have paid sharing a room at the conference hotel. It’s a couple blocks away, and it’s good for me to be able to escape the crazy activity of the conference when I need to.
  • If it’s going to be a really busy conference map out your schedule ahead of time. I use the color-coding function in my calendar to note which events are mandatory (e.g., a meeting I’m running, my own presentation) and which events are optional. That way, if I decide to wander around the book fair longer than I planned, it’s clear to me at a glance that I’m not missing something important.
  • Be selective about the sessions you attend. I spent a few years of meetings going to sessions because they sounded interesting and I ended up bored more times than not. Maybe I’ve had bad luck, but I find a lot of presenters don’t prepare and do little to try to make their talk interesting. To avoid getting stuck in a snooze-fest I do a couple things:
    • I search the program ahead of time for names of people whose work I know and make it a point to go to their sessions.
    • If I do try an unknown session, I sit in the back so I can duck out, if it’s not what I thought. I only duck out between papers, though, not during someone’s presentation. Don’t be rude.
  • If you’re presenting, think about your presentation like teaching. I’ve seen some truly terrible presentations (and some really fantastic ones). There is already lots of advice out there on this, and there are some disciplinary differences (I guess in History they read their papers– I can’t imagine what that’s like). I would stress these:
    • For the love of Karl Marx, do not read your paper. Please. I don’t care how entertaining you think your voice is. It’s not.
    • Do use visual, selective, and appropriate PowerPoint. Pictures! Graphics! Short videos! Stand out!
    • If you use PowerPoint, bring it on a flash drive, email it to yourself, and try it out ahead of time to make sure there are not technical issues.
    • Do not cram 8 million words onto your slides. Do not use small fonts. The same goes with tables.
    • Do not spend more than a few slides or 3-4 minutes (in a 15 minute presentation) getting to your data and findings!
    • No surprise endings. Walk your audience through your argument, but tell them where they’re heading up front.
  • Do some serious networking! Meeting people and networking really are the most important part of conferences. Yes, it happens at sessions, in the halls, and at receptions. But you know where it really happens? Over drinks (coffee or alcohol). In bars, over dinner, out, late after the conference ends. “Networking” = drinking. Have a drink. Bond with people. Dance. Laugh. Make friends. BUT:
    • Don’t get drunk. This isn’t a night at your apartment playing Apples to Apples with your best friends.
    • Don’t bitch about anyone. We all need to vent about professors, colleagues, students, department chairs. etc. But, everyone in academia knows everyone. This is not an exaggeration. You never know who is at the next table. Never bitch about someone using names or other identifiers. Basically don’t ever say anything you wouldn’t say in a mixed-department function anyway. Just be smart about it.
  • Do something local. After going to great new cities where I never left the hotel, I try to always do one thing that’s local – try a local restaurant, explore an interesting neighborhood, or go to a museum. I’ll at least take an afternoon, or an extra day to explore. As a result, I’ve been to plantations, historic attractions, museums, swamps, canyons, ghost towns, markets, and landmarks that I might have never gone to otherwise. It’s definitely worth it and makes the conference experience much more fun!

That’s it! What are your tips for surviving ASA? And if you see me at the conference, say hello!

I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore (Pt. II)

Photo by Erik Mayes

Photo by Erik Mayes

This is Part II of my four-part series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore” (see Part I here). Now that I’ve given some perspective on where I was coming from in my disciplinary background (folklore studies), I’ll talk about the other factors influencing my decision to maybe, kinda, sorta, not pursue a career in academia anymore.

In the past, I have blogged here at Conditionally Accepted about gauging internal and external ways to validate my work as an adjunct, as well as how identifying patterns of normalized weekend work in academia has led me to reevaluate my working habits. On my personal blog, I’ve written about how my experience of academia has oscillated between potential career and very expensive hobby. I’ve ranted – a lot – to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, both online and in person, about the uneasy fit between my experiences of academia and the narrative I’d swallowed in grad school. And finally, I’m able to put some of it into a coherent format.

But first, a word about how academia’s cultural practices complicate the personal/structural binary that runs throughout my piece. As grad students, we’re taught to link our professional career to our personal identity, which can be problematic when the number of jobs dwindles, simply making it a fact that most of us will not get to do what we love or what we’ve trained to do. There are “approximately 36,000 new PhDs each year, and only around 3,000 new positions created.” And yet, PhDs who “fail” to get jobs are facing damaging and misguided rhetoric, such as the idea that “The best students will always succeed” and “The problem isn’t that there are too few faculty positions. The problem is that more students and postdocs are CHOOSING not to become faculty.” Rebecca Schuman’s outraged response mirrors mine, in that I’m appalled that the dominant response to those leaving academe has been so disdainful and out of touch with the reality of the academic job market and adjunct working conditions. Those who are stubborn enough to stick it out may eventually win a TT job, true, at which point the exploitation and abuse they’ve endured transmutes into praise for their dedication. This is such a bizarre system that I don’t think I’m alone in wondering whether I want to stick around for that outcome.

The metaphor of “a thousand cuts that kill” describes my experience of alienation from the academic career track pretty well. There are lots of individual aspects of academia that I love, but the things that have worn me down and hurt me have begun to outnumber them. The things I enjoy are often concrete experiences I can easily point to and describe, whereas the things that detract from my enjoyment and my sense of integrity are more abstract, and hence more difficult to discuss. But hey, that’s why I got an advanced degree, so that I could describe the difficult-to-describe, right?

If I were to make a list of pros and cons of being a career-path academic (from my perspective), the shortened, blog-post-palatable version would look like this:

Pros:

  • I love teaching, research (both textual and ethnographic), writing, and presenting.
  • I excel at these tasks and have been recognized in various ways (yay external validation!), such as receiving fellowships, publishing many articles in peer-reviewed journals, and having multiple “this class was awesome and/or changed my life” conversations with grateful students.
  • Having a flexible schedule and the option of having summers off is great for me, plus I love to travel (like for conferences and research).
  • I need intellectual engagement in my life.

Cons:

  • I had inflated expectations about being able to get a job right out of grad school, so spending 3 unsuccessful years on the job market has been emotionally painful for me.  (For more on why academic rejection hurts so much, see Rebecca Shuman’s post, gathered from the responses she crowd-sourced here).
  • The nature of the academic job market is needlessly expensive, time-consuming, and exploitative (see Jennifer Guiliano’s suggestions for a more humane job market), and I’m not sure how long I can keep it up.
  • Spending the last few years adjuncting has opened my eyes to the exploitative nature of university work, and I can’t say I really want to be a part of this system in such a way that I structure my identity around it (and even should I land a TT job, I would be implicitly endorsing this hierarchical structure by participating in it).
  • I am close to burning out and no longer wish to work evenings and weekends on research that would help me stay competitive on the job market.
  • Getting tenure no longer seems to guarantee job security, so why struggle to get a TT job and subsequently overwork myself to have a shot at a vanishing dream?
  • Even if I did get a job, I’m not sure that I could, in good faith, mentor students.  (See this blog post for another perspective on advising grad students in good faith).
  • I’m at a point in my life where I want to prioritize my family and my relationships with others, so academia’s culture of overwork is less appealing to me than it was when I was younger, single, and itching for something to be passionate about.
  • I tend to struggle with anxiety and self-worth issues, and the culture of overwork in academia has not been good for my mental and emotional health.
  • The longer I work for exploitatively low wages, in order to have a shot at the hypothetical “it’ll all be worth it” outcome of a TT job, the more I question the wisdom of this plan despite the sunk costs and investments over time.
  • The longer I work for exploitatively low wages, the more I feel like I’m not contributing to my household financially (because, truly, I’m not, and even though I got a decent funding package, I still graduated with student loans).
  • The longer I work for exploitatively low wages, the more I want to use my time to do other things, rather than work for an institution where students are paying the same tuition regardless of whether a part-timer or full-timer is teaching their classes.  (Hm, where is that extra money going?).

Lest anyone reading this think I wasn’t good enough to get a job, let’s all remember how arbitrary and flooded the academic job market is. I’ve got similar amounts of publications and other accolades as my colleagues who have found TT positions.

Regarding those last few bullet points, obviously it’s not all about the money. But when you’ve spent the last decade-plus believing that you’re laboring intensively to build the skill set to land you a given career, and then you learn that you likely won’t have a shot at the full-time version of that career unless you labor under exploitative conditions with no certainty of renewal… it’s tough. From another perspective, I experience cognitive dissonance about the pay scale because in other communities (like the performing arts), working for so little could be perceived as undercutting one’s competition. Except, in academia, it’s almost the opposite: because we adjuncts are willing to labor for so little, we are enabling those in pay scales above us to continue to do what they do at the rates they get paid. A little odd — isn’t it?

Even though this list is a rough approximation of my experiences of the last 3 years on the job market, simply weighing these considerations has been helpful for me. I’ve come to see that, while I enjoy and am good at many of the localized tasks involved in being a career academic, the overall culture has been toxic for me.

I’m not used to making big life decisions based on how I feel. (This should tell you what a great track record I’ve had in relationships). So it’s really weird for me to say that, despite being a competent scholar, and despite all signs pointing to me eventually being able to land a TT job someday, I don’t feel happy doing this work anymore. I just don’t. It doesn’t excite me, it doesn’t fulfill me, and those fleeting glimpses of joy simply don’t make up for all the frustration, anxiety, misery, shame, and other negative emotions and experiences that have come to comprise my attitude about academia. I know not everyone is in love with their job, and I’m not trying to be a special snowflake who deserves more happiness than everyone else. I’m just trying to relate how my negative experiences and feelings are making this job not terribly worth doing, given the other unsustainable aspects of this gig. And yet, like Elizabeth Segran, I fear that if I leave, I won’t get to do what I love anymore, so that’s another factor in my thought process. The “do it because you love it” rhetoric has always been problematic for educators (and really, everyone), as pointed out in this excellent Jacobin article.

So there’s been a fair bit of cognitive dissonance involved in reaching the point where I can say I don’t know if I want to be a professor anymore. Note that there are a bunch of vagueness modifiers in this sentence; it’s not that I’ve completely ceased wanting to be a professor (I might want to take a job if I can find one that’s a good fit for me). And it’s not that I’m absolutely positive that I will never work in this profession ever again; the right circumstances could lure me back, and I’ll likely continue to do this kind of work, just with different expectations and goals.

Now that I’ve reached this realization, though, how do I act on it? That’s what my next blog post in this series addresses.