Dr. Rachel Leventhal-Weiner (@RGLWeiner), a sociologist of education, regularly writes at her blog, Rogue Cheerios, on navigating and succeeding in academia, writing and publishing, and being a working mom and wife. Dr. Leventhal-Weiner has kindly written an guest blog post (below) to reflect on owning her own academic career path — one that does not require the promise of tenure to succeed and accomplish her academic goals.
I’m Not On The Tenure-Track And I’m Not Sorry About It
I am tired of apologizing for having a job that I really love. No job is perfect but after seven years of graduate school, I am so happy to be employed. I have read the job market horror stories of frustration, worry, stress, and disappointment, and I also know that the tenure-track does not guarantee tenure approval. Besides being employed, I have found a job with just the right balance of teaching, research and service. As a sociologist of education, I teach in an interdisciplinary education program and I encourage collaboration between my students and our local public schools. I am actually doing what I always hoped I would be doing after graduate school.
You might be thinking, “So why apologize, then, if this job is so fabulous?”
The job is a visiting position, so it’s a temporary arrangement. I started teaching part time at this institution while I finished my doctoral degree in sociology during last academic year and now I am employed as a full time visiting professor. When I tell anyone about my job, I always seem to be apologizing or downplaying my position, as though I should be ashamed of my job because it’s not a tenure-track appointment. I am doing everything I would be doing if I were on the tenure track at this institution, just without the promise of tenure.
Even though the position is contingent, I feel blessed by many of the benefits extended to me. I have some agency in terms of when I teach—as a parent of young children, this is extremely important for juggling my childcare arrangement and my work life. I have plenty of institutional support for my own research, including grant writing assistance. I am not cobbling together multiple adjunct gigs to make a living wage, and though I am already covered under my husband’s health insurance plan, my institution has also offered me health insurance. If I am still employed there in another year, they will even contribute to a retirement account for me. The institution is close to home and the flexibility of my schedule allows me to stay engaged in the lives of my preschool age children. I am fully aware that this contingent position puts me on the margins of the academy, and yet, the decision to take this position was a calculated conscious one. My job allows for a work/life-balancing act that makes me a better professor, mother, wife, and person.
The main issue with my marginal position is that I feel conflicted and sometimes disingenuous about my relationships with my students and my colleagues. According to all of the advice doled out to early career folks, I am doing everything wrong. (See specifically #6 on this list or #6 and 7 on this list and though I enjoy David Perlmutter’s writing, I feel badly about his caution against commitment). I gladly take on any and all informal mentoring and advising of my students. I spend an inordinate amount of time prepping for my courses because I feel responsible for delivering a quality experience. And I am engaged with campus committees and communities of scholarly teachers because their influence makes me better at what I do. Though the time I spend with my students and on my teaching takes away from my research, it does not mean I am less serious about my research.
Though my position is contingent in name, I have spent the last year building enough social capital that I do not always feel contingent. I was painfully aware of the distinction between tenured and contingent folks recently, though, as I departed campus on the afternoon of the monthly campus-wide faculty meeting that I am free but not required to attend. On this particular day, I had spent two solid days of teaching, meeting with or advising students. As I walked to my car parked for strategic and swift departure on the margins of campus, I passed at least a half dozen “real” faculty members on their way to the meeting in the building where my office is located. The irony of the hour was palpable–my office and my work feel central but my place is really on the margins. Sometimes, though I may feel like an insider, I know that I am an outsider.
As graduate students, our mentors and our larger disciplines have trained–nay, inculcated–us to believe that a professional life in the academy will be a fulfilling life and that it is the only true path. This definition of success in the academic job market is limited. My own professional organization considers the tenure-track position as the only “ideal job.” Even though there are many ways to be a sociologist in the world, including being a critically engaged citizen and parent, my professional success is defined so narrowly.
The emergence of the alternative-academic (#altac) discourse and the inspiring narratives of “recovering academics” eases the burden many of us feel as we consider other paths, even those considered “marginal.” The paths might run parallel to one another, they might cross in places, or they may diverge entirely at their onset. It is delusional to think that the paths are innately different, however, because a professional life in any position–whether in the academy or not–is full of contradictions, challenges, politics, bureaucracy, frustration and stress. The romantic notions of professorial life are best reserved for a movie screen. The real life of an academic is complicated. I am lucky to have found (even if temporarily) a space to do meaningful work, to have great autonomy and flexibility, and to remain intellectually stimulated when I’m on the clock. I am unsure how long this path runs or where it leads, but I’m on it. I am owning my own path.
Beyond feeling blessed about being employed at all, I am really proud of my work. So few folks can say that.
And I’m unapologetic about it.