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

Last week, Dr. Jeana Jorgensen officially joined the Conditionally Accepted blogging staff, moving from guest blogger to regular contributor.  Below, Jeana offers the first installment of her four-part blog series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore.”  Tune in next week for Part II.

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I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore

Photo by Erik Mayes

Photo by Erik Mayes

This is a multi-part blog post chronicling my journey from “ac” to alt-ac or post-ac, wherever I’m at right now in my tenuous relationship to academia. I find writing therapeutic, and I also hope that others will benefit from seeing me work through some of the personal issues accompanying the structural ones that plague us as professional scholars.

“But wait,” you might be saying to yourself while reading this account: “Jeana is a folklorist – and haven’t folklorists always had options outside the academy?” Yes, we have… but I’m not trained for them, and I don’t want to do them anyway.

First I’d like to note that I’m not just telling this story because it helps situate my own trajectory as a post/alt/whatever-ac person. I feel as though it’s important to lend a perspective to the alt-ac and post-ac conversation beyond the standard narrative of “I got my PhD in XYZ prominent/established field and was unable to get a job as a professor, so I’m leaving.” Don’t get me wrong, I think that narrative is an important one, too, and very relatable for many. I get a lot out of reading quit-lit and related genres of academic blogging. I’ve found solace in their structural critiques, their practical advice, and their rage. The multiple metaphors of academia being a bad relationship that is hard to end or a cult, or an addiction, have also resonated with me. I’ve forwarded many of these links to friends and family members so that they can gain a little more insight into what I’m going through. So I’m definitely not knocking this narrative; I just want to add some nuance based on another field’s specific issues.

So, a brief history lesson: the discipline of folklore studies (or folkloristics) had its inception in Romantic-era Europe. The Grimm brothers and their contemporaries in other countries hopped on board the nationalistic agenda sweeping Europe at the time, hoping to demonstrate links between the various folk cultures, languages, and histories of Europe. Folklore studies scholars have always had close ties with philology, linguistics, anthropology, and religious studies. In fact, the American Folklore Society was founded in 1888, making it the elder sibling to American anthropology (the AAA was founded in 1902). While you used to find folklorists at lots of different universities, working on varied topics from ballads and fairy tales to foodways and folk belief, and working in various departments (since we’re super interdisciplinary), there are only a few academic folklore centers these days.

Folklorists who don’t work in standard academic positions as professors or lecturers often work in the public sector. We called this public or applied folklore. I have colleagues who work in museums, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, for city or state-level folklore councils such as the Philadelphia Folklore Project or the Brooklyn Arts Council, at archives, in libraries, and with other organizations to document and preserve cultural heritage.

I’d also like to note that the transition from ac to alt-ac in folklore studies is one that has an established path: get your MA or PhD at a university that specializes in public folklore, and then get to it. Other people fall into public folklore jobs without the academic training for it. My field can be a bit more porous than most. But, this is not to detract from its academic rigor, but rather to acknowledge that, as in any field with a more activist or applied branch, you’re going to find people who got sucked into the work and learned the theoretical/academic side of things through practical experience rather than an academic program.

In theory I could, with my academic folklore background, apply to public folklore jobs, and use my knowledge of the field to start acquiring the various skills and competencies I’d need for the job. I’d need to make up for lost time in some ways, but I’d be ahead of the game in others.

But that work holds little appeal for me, even if it’d mean staying in my field. I’m an introvert who loathes the people-wrangling and delegating aspects of event planning. I don’t see myself excelling at applying for grants or working as part of a team to document a given tradition. While I want my scholarly work to have impact and relevance for the greater public, my methods of engagement don’t generally align with those of public folklore. It’s work that I’m glad someone’s doing, but it’s not work I want to do. (Similarly, at my blog, I dispel the falsehood that I should write children’s books with my folklore degree).

What I hope to have done in this post is to not only lay the groundwork for the remainder of my “I don’t know if I want to be a professor anymore” blog post series, but also demonstrate how it’s possible to be alt-ac in one’s field by actually following an established career track. But it’s also possible to not want that career track, despite it being a way to stay active (and employed) in one’s field. Not every job is for everyone.

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen On Taking A Real Summer Break

Jeana jorgensenDr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, and dancer.  Her scholarship explores fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, gender identity, feminist theory, and digital humanities.  She is a blogger at MySexProfessor.com and on her own site (including many posts on folklore and academia in general).  Be sure to follow her on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

Dr. Jorgensen has kindly shared a post from her blog, in which she declares she is taking a real summer break for the sake of her well-being.

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Summer Break (For Real)

I’ve been talking about this idea to a handful of folks, and now I’m implementing it: I’m taking a real summer break. This has some implications for how I comport myself online and in the rest of life, so thought I’d explain those here.

Like many scholars, I’m a highly-driven, passionate, disciplined person. This can have its downsides, though, like when I work myself into stress-induced illness or don’t make time for the relationships that are important to me. I went straight from high school to undergrad to grad school, and since starting grad school I did “everything right” to try to get a job as a professor, which meant spending almost every waking minute on activities that would enhance my CV. Even after finishing my PhD, I remained in “production mode”: doing extensive research, publishing, and presenting while also adjuncting and freelance writing.

In other words, I’ve never really had a break or a vacation since starting grad school. Even on trips, I had an article to be working on. Or a conference proposal to write. Or a syllabus to finish. Or grading, grading, grading.

This summer will not be the true break I wish it were. I am not going to be doing absolutely nothing (in fact, I fear I am incapable of doing nothing unless forced to by circumstances outside my control). I am going to be nurturing my dance community, visiting my family, maintaining friendships/relationships, and doing freelance writing to bring in some money, because hey, one of the downsides of adjuncting is that there’s no guarantee of summer employment and it’s not like you can claim unemployment either. Like many, I feel that contingent work has begun to make the rest of my life feel contingent too.

Since reflecting on normalized weekend work in academia, I’ve been facing the real prospect of burn-out. What’s the point of working so hard for so little reward, I wonder. I’ve enjoyed the decade+ journey of becoming a professional in my field but I’ve spent 3 years on the job market only landing local contract teaching gigs (which I do find fulfilling; they’re just not full-time work hence not long-term sustainable). I love what I do, but do I love it enough to keep doing it when it takes an obvious toll on the rest of my life? When I find myself writing so many qualifications, so many “yes, buts” when I describe my experience, how am I to deal with this deep ambivalence, this weariness over a layer of hurt/frustration? (Curious why academic rejection seems to hurt so much more than other kinds? Read this crowd-sourced list for some insight.)

I am taking to heart some of Rebecca Schuman’s suggestions about how to recover from academia, including the notion that making space to de-tox might help. And that might involve limiting contact with the kinds of people and pressures that academics normally encounter. If I can’t afford to travel to more than one or two conferences per year, do I really need to be seeing ads for them? If I can’t justify time to work on unpaid academic writing projects because I’m either working on paid writing to bring income to my household, or domestic tasks that I voluntarily take on because I’m not the breadwinner so I feel I should… do I really need to be seeing those CFPs? That sort of thing. And, if I am being honest with myself, I want to be happy for my colleagues that are succeeding in academia, but it just makes me feel bad about my own failures. There, I said it. It’s shallow, and it’s selfish, but every post I see from a recent graduate about getting a job reminds me that I’m lingering in adjunct-land, which is not what I had envisioned for myself. And wondering why they got the job and I didn’t is unproductive, since I won’t ever know.

We all know that the academic job market is cruelly arbitrary, lacking in transparency, cult-like, and drawn-out to the point of making planning the rest of one’s life an absurd impracticality. Describing the hiring process to non-academics makes it sound ridiculous beyond words. Knowing these things makes me feel somewhat better about my “failure” to get a job, but still. I feel pretty crummy about my situation and I’m trying to change that.

To that end, I’m going to remove many of the academics I follow from my Twitter and Facebook lists, unless you’re more on the post-ac/alt-ac side of things, or unless I follow  you because you’re a friend first, and an academic second. It’s nothing personal, and I may restore y’all once the fall semester starts and I’m feeling excited about the course I’m teaching, and once I’m doing… whatever it is I’ll be doing in the fall in addition to teaching. Which is hopefully something I’ll figure out this summer.

Dr. Brent Harger On Academia As A Middle Class “Star Career”

brentBrent Harger is an assistant professor of sociology at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania.  Dr. Harger (which rhymes with charger) teaches in the areas of methods, family, youth, and education.  His research examines the ways in which students and teachers create and maintain culture in elementary schools.

Below, Dr. Harger reflects on the depressing reality that few prospective graduate students will conclude their graduate training with a tenure-track faculty job.  Academic careers may be becoming a privilege afforded primarily to middle-class and wealthy people.

Academia as a Middle Class “Star Career”

The academic job market is horrible. So is academia as a whole. It is nearly impossible to obtain a tenure-track job and even tenure itself is no guarantee that one will be able to keep one’s job. Surveying the landscape of higher education, Fabio Rojas at Orgtheory says not to go to graduate school. So does Rebecca Schuman at Slate. As academics, we know that going to graduate school is not a good idea, especially if you must go into debt to do so. Nevertheless, when students ask us to write letters of recommendation for graduate programs, we tell them to think carefully about their decision to dedicate years of their lives to something that is unlikely to result in full-time paid employment and then we write the letters. After all, who are we (especially those of us with tenure-track jobs ourselves) to tell people not to follow their dreams? Thus, academia becomes a middle class “star career.”

In Living the Drama, David Harding examines the influence of cultural heterogeneity on the lives of African American boys growing up in Boston, MA. Harding argues that the presence of both mainstream and alternative cultural models in poor neighborhoods leads adolescents to switch among competing models because numerous models are available and supported (“I can go to college or become a rapper or become an NBA player”). Cultural heterogeneity also dilutes the information that adolescents need to construct effective pathways toward goals like getting into college and leads to the unsuccessful mixing of various cultural models (“Playing basketball will make up for my low GPA when applying for college; I can make it to the NBA by playing for a community college”).

In a poor neighborhood, then, the idea of a “star career” like becoming a famous athlete or rapper coexists with the idea of getting good grades, graduating from high school, and enrolling in college. Adolescents in wealthier areas were aware of star careers but saw music or sports as hobbies rather than legitimate career options. Many of the parents of poor adolescents could see that a focus on potential star careers might distract their sons from academic pursuits but were also hesitant to tell their sons that their dreams were unrealistic. A focus on a career as a professional basketball player, however unlikely, could also serve to keep students in school and away from danger.

Aside from the income differences between the boys who wanted to become famous in Harding’s study and middle-class undergraduates who want to become professors, there are a number of parallels. Consider the NBA. Over half a million adolescent boys play high school basketball. Of these, an estimated 17,500 (3.2%) will play basketball in college and 48 (48!) (1.2% of college players, .03% of high school players) are drafted annually by the NBA.

If we consider high school basketball to be analogous to obtaining an undergraduate degree, a small number of successful undergraduates will be offered the opportunity to “play” in graduate school. Some of these students will be offered scholarships, others will pay for the costs themselves, but for both college basketball players and graduate students, the likelihood that their training will pay off at the next level is low. Both also have the potential to be incredibly lucrative for their universities, with high-profile college basketball programs bringing in millions of dollars in TV revenues and graduate students providing universities with cheap labor. In the end, some college basketball players and graduate students will have degrees to show for their time as low-paid (or paying!) employees while others will drop out along the way. A few will go on to successful careers as NBA players or college professors, inspiring others to attempt to follow in their footsteps.

As professors who encourage students to follow their dreams of academic lives because we warned them and there is always a chance, we also contribute to the reproduction of inequality in academia. As a graduate degree becomes an increasingly expensive career goal for students to pursue, it becomes more likely that students who will do so will be privileged in other ways. Whether this is white skin and academic parents or a spouse who can support them while they scrape together an income as an adjunct, the risks associated with an advanced degree make it more likely that those who undertake the endeavor will have external support. Because of this, it may be middle or upper class students who are most likely to experience cultural heterogeneity when considering what to do after graduating from college. Those from less privileged backgrounds may be more likely to see academic interests as a hobby that they experience by reading blogs and academic works after their jobs in the “real world.”

Like attempting to make it from high school to college to the NBA, the problems with academia are structural. Budget concerns lead schools to accept more graduate students than will be able to find tenure-track jobs because they provide cheap labor. Students who receive advanced degrees but do not find tenure-track jobs provide further cheap labor as adjuncts. In an individualistic society like the U.S., it is difficult to dissuade students with structural arguments because there is always a chance that they, like Victor Oladipo, will be the exception.

If a student plays college basketball for four years and does not have the opportunity to play professionally, that student at least has a college degree that provides some job prospects. Graduate programs, though, are like allowing students to major in basketball, leaving them with few options if they do not get “drafted” into academia. In an ideal world, graduate programs would accept fewer students and provide those students with better resources, removing the need for outside support and reducing the number of job candidates after graduation. Fewer excess Ph.D.s would also reduce the number of available adjuncts, causing colleges and universities to rely less on contingent faculty.

All of this places those of us who have been drafted into academia after graduate school in a difficult position. Even from this privileged position, the dangers for others who want to do the same are clear. When a student asks me for a grad school letter of recommendation, then, I will say “no,” detailing the structural dangers and encouraging the student to think carefully about accepting academia as a hobby rather than a career goal. When the student insists that he or she has thought carefully and is willing to accept the risks, I will have no choice but to write the letter. I will add, however, that if accepted, there is no shame in quitting.

“Another Blow” — Essay By Contingent Faculty Member On The Endless Academic Job Search

In the anonymous essay below, a contingent faculty member writes about the frustration of an endless search for a tenure-track position, as well as the financial woes that many contingent faculty are all too familiar with.

“Another Blow”

I guess I could see a case being made for the fault being entirely my own.  After all, I got my hopes up—again.  No matter how much I try to tell myself that this time, when I mail out that cover letter, CV, and scanned copies of my transcripts, I won’t care, one way or the other, I still end up caring. A lot.  Especially in a situation where I feel so perfectly suited to fit the needs of the job.

overwhelmedonlyIn any interview situation, I always feel like the pimply-faced geek asking the cheerleader to the prom.  I never quite feel like I’m going to appear good enough for the position, even though, rationally, I know that I am. I know, in my heart of hearts, that I am a gifted, dedicated teacher; a competent scholar, interested in a wide range of scholarly topics and issues; and a “good soldier” for the department, cheerfully performing whatever tasks are assigned to me.  I can get along with just about anybody. I am not judgmental, confrontational, or hostile, nor do I have one of those “prickly” personalities that takes offense too easily. I am not a plotter and schemer, I am constitutionally incapable of deception or manipulation, and I am not stubborn or lazy.  I have a positive outlook on life and the people around me, always believing that they are basically good. I applaud my colleagues’ successes and commiserate with their losses. I do my work, and I do it well. My students, the vast majority of them, respond well to my teaching and go on to lead happy, successful lives. I believe in their abilities, while holding them accountable for their contribution to their own educations.  I want them to be satisfied with their own learning and their grades, but I do not sacrifice my integrity, or the integrity of the educational process, in order to manipulate that outcome. I make positive, substantive, and supportive contributions to any department and any school I am a part of.  I do not know what more any department could ask of one of its members.

But, the truth of the matter is, for whatever reason, a reason that has escaped me for years and continues to elude me, none of that gets communicated in an interview.  Now, mind you: My mother despaired of me when I was child, because in spite of her best efforts to teach me, in her words (and the words of my grandmother, and probably her grandmother before her), to be “gracious and lovely,” I still managed to come off to others as graceless, tactless, mannerless, blunt, rude, and insensitive. I say stupid things that betray my intelligence. I say the wrong things at the wrong times, sometimes hurting people’s feelings without intending to.  I put my foot in my mouth.  I ask questions that have obvious answers. I come off as clumsy and clueless.  I babble, or allow my train of thought to drift way off topic.  I seem to have no internal sensor, no warning bells, and no internal “mom” who can give me the “eye” from across the room to signal me to stop, go forward, or turn left.  I have no angel sitting on my shoulder, guiding me with gentle persuasion.  I am clueless and guideless.

And if that were not bad enough, I also for some reason that has also eluded me for years, come off to some people as arrogant and self-congratulatory.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I am my own harshest critic, in spite of (or perhaps because of) my lack of internal sensors.  After any interview, I often re-play the entire thing, second-guessing every word, every gesture, every sigh, every ill-advised laugh or answer to a question. Once the hoped-for invitation to join the faculty does not come, then I launch myself into endless rounds of more second-guessing, followed by even harsher recriminations.  It is agonizing.  If I knew what I was talking about, I regret my own confidence, fearing it was interpreted as arrogance.  If I talk about past successes, I review them with a harshly critical eye, chastising myself for presuming to pride.  It seems, no matter how successful I have been in the past, if that phone call does not come, it all amounts to naught but pain, anguish, and intense disappointment.

Rationally, I know that hiring anyone on the basis of a couple of interviews is a crap-shoot, at best.  Other people seem to have perfected the skill of misrepresenting themselves.  The interviewers must be unable to see through practiced artifice.  They may, in fact, make the worst possible choice, but be unaware of that fact for many months. And then, it seems, it is too late to correct their mistake. And of course, it is entirely possible that they hired exactly the right person, and that was not me.

It is also entirely possible that I was mistaken in my judgment of the job, the department, the school.  I am always reminded of the cliché about being careful what you wish for since you might actually get it.  It is possible that I could have been the wrong choice for them, or they could have been the wrong place for me, after all.

But it is also entirely possible, and highly probable, that I was the person who should have gotten the job. And it is that possibility—coupled with the heartfelt certainty that I am absolutely right, and I have lost out on yet another incredible opportunity because no one can see, or that I was unable yet again to convince the hiring committee of, the “real me”—that haunts me.

And so I remain where I am. In a job I got, most likely because, through a happy convergence of circumstances, I did not have to interview for it.  I had the credentials and needed a job, and they needed to hire an astounding number of instructors at once, and could not afford the time it would take to interview large numbers of people the traditional way.  Sometimes, I torture myself and read the biographies of the tenured and tenure-track professors that are posted on the department’s website, where they talk about their interests and their latest research project.  I then think to myself, in my low-self-esteem moments, “Well, I guess I am right where I am supposed to be: in a low-paying, no-status, work-horse job I have to re-apply for year after year, with no guarantee of future employment, especially if my students suddenly decide to turn on me, since most of our jobs are significantly influenced by student evaluations.”

But in my heart of hearts—that same heart of hearts that tells me that I am great teacher and a good person—I know that I can do better, and that I deserve better.  Apparently, though, what I am really unable to do is convince anyone else of that.

And so I remain in a job that barely pays the mortgage, does not allow for a second car, and that causes tense moments when the student loan payments are due. I continue to write papers and send them out, many being accepted for publication, just because that is positively thrilling to me.  I do not, however, feel any pressure to do so, or pressure to be diligently revising my dissertation and trying to convince a publishing house to take a chance on me. I just write and publish because I like doing it.  I do not have ideas for new book topics on my hard drive, or outlined chapters of those books, or whatever it is that publishing professors do. I have ideas for murder mysteries floating around in my grey matter, along with a script for an updated filmed version of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and there’s that unfinished Star Trek novel, too

I teach my classes and grade my papers.  I do my committee work.  I go to meetings, sometimes.  I speak to the department chair casually, in the elevator or the main office. He, however, does not know me well enough to call me by the shortened version of my name that my friends and family call me—he uses my full name. I suppose I should be grateful that he even knows my name at all.  I continue to get summer school assignments that help with the bills, and I keep getting re-hired. Yay. And my students love me. And I love them.  Thanks be to god.

And so I remain.

 —Anonymous,
toiling in an annually-renewed contingent position
at a Top-Tier R1 institution, year 10;
have stopped applying for other jobs.

“A Good Job? Depends Who You Ask.” By Dr. Leah VanWey

VanWeyLeah K. VanWey is a displaced Southerner who has spent almost a third of her life outside of her North Carolina home.  She has no intention of returning until hell freezes over, AKA North Carolina legalizes same-sex marriage.  Dr. VanWey teaches Sociology and Environmental Studies at Brown University, and researches human migration, agriculture and development, and land use and climate change in Brazil.  She also runs the interdisciplinary graduate training program in Population Studies at Brown, and currently mentors 5 graduate students and 3 postdocs.

Below, Dr. VanWey has offered her reflections on what a “good job” in academia is.

A good job?  Depends who you ask.

Every year the job market comes around and we talk about “good jobs.”  Are there many good jobs out there this year?  Anything good enough to apply for?  Did you/your student get a good job?  I’m a positivist social scientist, so I like to think that I can tell you what a good job is and set up some crisp measurement criteria.  But after doing this for more than a decade now, I am farther from that point than when I started.

I have a good job but not for the reasons I first thought, and not for the reasons you might think.  For those who care about such things (I don’t), I teach at an Ivy League university.  I get to teach about things I love to students who are future world leaders, I do research that I find intellectually stimulating and practically important (even if talking about soybean farms in Brazil is a sure conversation-stopper at a cocktail party), and I can give back to the university through various service work.

But those things aren’t enough.  What makes my job good are the relationships.  I have strong relationships with graduate students, postdocs, and colleagues around campus and beyond.  The one-on-one aspect of these relationships gives me energy and makes me happy, while the broader network makes my job feel more meaningful.  Nothing makes me happier than getting people together and figuring out how the right kinds of relationships make us together more than the sum of our parts.

It took me a long time to realize this was my “good job,” and I was lucky enough to realize it by getting and growing in my current job.  When I went on the job market in graduate school, my goal was a tenure-track job in a top 10 Sociology department.  I wanted to do research and I wanted the prestige of an academic job rather than a pure research job.  I came close to that goal, landing a job at a school that was arguably indistinguishable from the top 10.  I liked my job and my colleagues, but I felt like something was missing and decided that something still had to do with the substantive part of the job.  I left that job in part because my family was not thriving in small-town Indiana and in part because I decided the good job was in a university with a strength in population studies.  The intersection of population center with a place that my family would be happy brought me here to Brown.  This year I received an invitation to apply for what I would have considered a “good job” 10 years ago: higher ranked sociology program, population center, great colleagues, probably a lower teaching load.  I didn’t hesitate in replying that I am in the perfect job for me and I wouldn’t move.

It has also taken me a long time to realize that the “good job” for my students is just as variable and has little to do with the quality of their work or their confidence, and little to do with me.  A colleague recently told me that she thought the way to motivate graduate students to want R1 jobs is to consistently tell them that they are good enough and they can do it.  I have no doubt that any of my current and former students and postdocs are good enough or smart enough, but thus far only one seems poised to follow my path toward an R1 job.  All of the others have said at one time or another that they have watched me and don’t want my job.

This isn’t a failing on my part, nor is it something that I should have worked harder to change.  It is the reality that a “good job” means that something gets you up in the morning even if the day is full of unpleasant tasks, and that something is different for all of us.  For one of my students, the “good job” lets him integrate undergraduates into his community-based research locally and in Brazil.  For another, the “good job” lets her balance quality of life with the opportunity to make one corner of higher education a more diverse place.  Lucky for me, part of my “good job” is working with students and postdocs on the path to find out what makes theirs.  Lucky for them, I’m slowly figuring out how to think about this beyond teaching loads, salaries, prestige, conference money and other easy metrics.

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen Reflects On “Normalized Weekend Work”

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, and dancer (see her full biography here).  Her scholarship explores fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, gender identity, feminist theory, and digital humanities.  She is a blogger at MySexProfessor.com and on her own site (including many posts on folklore and academia in general). 

Below, Dr. Jorgensen has shared another guest post (see the first here), in which she raises the unspoken question about working beyond the 40 hours for which academics are typically paid.  Enjoy!

Normalized Weekend Work:  It Is Basically Like Homework, Right?

Photo by James Mortiarty

Photo by James Moriarty

As I pulled the pile of grading into my lap on a Saturday evening, I paused to reflect on how normal it seems to do work on the weekends, in the evenings, and on the weekend evenings. These are normally coveted times for socializing, relaxing, and even doing unofficial labor like domestic tasks, relationship maintenance, and errands. I didn’t used to have a problem with working on the weekends, but something has changed: my perspective.

I was a student for the bulk of my life, going straight from high school to college, and straight from college to a PhD program (earning my MA on the way). When I finished my doctorate and starting adjuncting, for lack of other opportunities, I thought, okay, I’ll take on some freelance writing work to help pay the bills. Since I was trying to remain competitive on the job market, I also made time to do my own research, which has included publishing articles, presenting at conferences, writing book reviews, and starting to work on my book proposal. Teaching plus freelancing plus researching plus writing plus publishing has led to a somewhat busy schedule, likely to the detriment of my relationships and personal life.

I’m not as bad off as some academic overachievers, like this scholar, Kate, who delayed routine health checks only to discover that she had breast cancer.  But the more I think about the situation—what I’m putting in vs. what I’m getting out—the less I’m happy with working on weekends.

The disconnect came when I realized that working on weekends didn’t used to bother me. In fact, back when it was just “homework” I usually enjoyed it (yes, I’m a nerd like that). I have to spend this weekend reading a book? Oh no, how terrible! I can only go to the party after I finish a first draft of a paper? Fine by me, I hate arriving early anyway since it feeds my social anxiety issues. It didn’t seem that bad at the time.

Now, I realize that a large part of the reason I was totally okay with giving up evenings and weekends as a student was that it was supposed to be temporary. Being a student is a phase in one’s life, during which one works very, very hard to achieve the kinds of grades and learn the kinds of skills that will help one land a job or achieve whatever the next life goal is. Then, in the mystical, magical place known as Adulthood, one would maintain sane working hours and actually have something resembling the oft-rumored free time.

jeana

Photo by James Moriarty

Obviously, life is life, and we’ll never have as much free time as we desire. There will always be chores to do, sick friends to bring soup to, conversations about finances to schedule with partners. I balk, however, at accepting that I will always have to work weekends simply because I chose to pursue an academic career. Forcing weekend work on scholars is tantamount to assigning mandatory homework. The amount of labor implicitly present in academic job descriptions is deceptive, and I believe that the unspoken requirement to bring work home infantilizes us, treating us as though we’re still students, as though the institution always knows best, and we must always keep busy.

The blog post, “Perfectionism and Its Discontents,” distinguishes between having (usually healthy) personal standards of excellence and having (usually unhealthy) perfectionist tendencies. What the blogger advocates is that academics have high personal standards, and that these “standards be achievable, that our successes be recognized, and that our mistakes be accepted.” Is a job that implicitly requires take-home work encouraging its workers to subscribe to achievable standards? Will it recognize its workers’ successes?

In my mind, if I am getting paid to do a job, I’ll want to consider, among other factors, the hours involved, and how that correlates to the pay, the prestige, and what sort of good I’m doing in the world. I don’t think it’s unsustainable to expect scholars (or workers in general) to bring work home on some weekends or some evenings. However, it should not, in my view, be the norm without it being crystal-clear in the job description, without additional compensation, or unless the person chooses, without punishment or incentive, to take it on because they’re really, really into what they’re doing. This impulse to go above and beyond could be for institutional reasons (wanting to see a project through because it’ll benefit everyone) or for personal reasons (getting excited about new research).

I know I’m in a bit of a slump, being between research projects, and still trying to figure out how I feel about being in my second year of adjuncting, and attempting to plan my next move. But now that I’ve begun thinking of working on weekends as being akin to homework, I find myself less than eager to do it. Maybe my next exciting research project is just around the corner and I simply haven’t caught sight of it yet. Or perhaps realizing that there are power dynamics at work in how you spend your time is a bit of a disincentive to expending more energy for an institution that isn’t looking out for you. A little of column A, a little of column B?

Once I became more aware of this pattern, I’ve made the following attempts to work with this realization and deal with my resentment over it. Perhaps these strategies will offer you some ideas, too:

  • I log hours like I would for a “real” job, thus letting me see if I’ve put in 8-10ish hours already. Then I might feel justified in calling it quits in the evening (granted, measuring intellectual labor is tough, so I try to use a mix of looking for measurable results, like finishing a draft of that syllabus or those article edits, and simply measuring the time I spend with my laptop or a book being productive, regardless of how much I accomplish).
  • If there’s a non-academic event I’m looking forward to, like dinner with friends or a dance performance I’m in, I will establish in advance that it’s a priority, and that I will put down my work when it’s time to go.
  • If I really must work over the weekend or through the evening, I tell someone about it, so that I can be held accountable for that much work and not more. I’ll tell my workout buddy that I need to finish a stack of grading before we can hit the gym, and if there’s still grading waiting for me when I get back, I feel like it’s reasonable to keep working until the grading is done, and then stop.

What are some of your strategies for dealing with academic “homework” once you’re no longer a student?

“An Academic Foster Child: Life as a Visiting Assistant Professor” – By “Jan In The Pan”

Jan In The Pan

Jan In The Pan

I recently discovered the very insightful, honest, and simply amazing blog of “Jan in the Pan” (a pseudonym), The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.  “Jan” posts great pieces of reflection, advice, and even simple practical matters that many academics may find useful. 

“Jan” has kindly allowed me to share a post from March on life as a visiting assistant professor (though now “Jan” has a tenure-track job). 

Enjoy!

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An Academic Foster Child: Life as a Visiting Assistant Professor

Like many recent PhDs, the process of getting a tenure track job was not what I thought it would be. While working my way through grad school, I watched newly minted PhDs ahead of me move from grad school into their “forever” jobs. Naturally, I assumed that if I played my cards right (network, publish etc.), I’d follow the same track. But I happened to finish up the year after the economy tanked– just in time for budgets to be slashed and positions cut. The number of positions plummeted. After two years on the market, applying for dozens of positions, and I ended up in a VAP.

Success.

And I’m lucky that it was a great VAP. I had healthcare, a travel budget, and I wasn’t paid slave adjunct wages. My colleagues were nice and my teaching load was reasonable (2/2). It was the ideal place to spend a couple years learning how to teach, learning that I loved teaching (I didn’t do much teaching in grad school), and getting acclimated to post-PhD. But I also hated the professional limbo of VAP-hood. I had to keep applying for jobs, finally revamping my application materials to reflect someone no longer a student. And I hated having that “visiting” label tagged onto my email signature and business cards.

I received lots of advice about being a VAP from mentors near and far. They told me to keep working for my next job, not to spend time serving a college that hasn’t made a commitment to me.  Not to settle into the area too much (hard to do when it happens to be your home state). That I should always keep one foot out the door, using whatever resources are available there for my career. But, then others would tell me that if I wanted a shot at a TT job there, I should ingratiate myself with them– attend student and faculty functions, work closely with students, develop the courses they need etc. Don’t be invisible. Make it hard for them to imagine life without you, I was told. But, if you’re the inside candidate for a TT job there, things will be awkward to say the least. They’ll believe in you– that you can be successful, but not there. Someplace else. In face, one piece of advice that really stuck with me, although I tried to pretend it wasn’t always the case, was that:

[VAP] hiring is often decided based on personal relationships, but tenure track hiring almost never is. Tenure track hiring is absolutely cutthroat, and is dominated by an ethos of “desire for the unattainable.” This means that the unknown, who promises seemingly limitless possibility for achievement and contribution, will almost always prevail over the known.

[…]

In short, the tenure track search is about making THEM want YOU. If you pander to them, cater to them, overtly appeal to them, and try to play off of pre-existing personal relationships and your ethos of “giving” to the department, you are defining yourself as, fundamentally, NOT TENURE TRACK MATERIAL.

So I was there, but temporarily. I kept one foot out the door– genuinely enjoying my students and teaching, and continuously applying for other jobs. All while I tried to ingratiate myself and be what they needed, just in case that coveted TT line opened up in my area.  Because in spite of all the advice I received to the contrary, I planned and plotted to make them want to keep me forever. I liked the area, and didn’t want to go through the hassle of moving again. But all along, I knew that even pandering to their needs might actually work against me. I tried my best to balance on that undefined line in that liminal space of VAP-hood for 2 years.

In reality, I was only an academic foster child. They paid/fed me, sheltered me, and welcomed me into their fold, to a degree. But, I was, by very definition, temporary.

I didn’t see that for what it was until recently, now that I’m settled into my shiny new, completely wonderful “forever” TT job. A job where they wanted me– and would love to have me stay and build my career there permanently. The differences are startling. I have the space, freedom, and encouragement to develop my own teaching, scholarship and service. Having that support and encouragement actually makes me more productive as a writer and researcher. Instead of living year, to year, job app to job app, I can shift my plans to real short term and long-term goals. I’m a nester. I can settle in and organize my time around what I want to write and where I want to go with my research. I can begin to think about developing courses that I want to teach that fulfill area requirements at my school. I can contribute to shaping something larger than myself. It’s fantastic not to be a foster kid any more!

I recently asked my mentor why she thought I needed that VAP for two years. Yes, the VAP shielded me from the bad job market and gave me teaching experience. But what was the larger point of all that living in limbo? She answered: “So that you would appreciate what you have now.”