Sunday, November 29, 2009

Follow-Up: Some Things about Academic Employment

FrauTech left a lengthy comment to my ranting post about tenure and adjunctification, and I wanted to respond, if not to each and every point, point by point, then at least in a general fashion to the comment.

Before I begin, let me put the caveat in place that I'm definitely talking from my experience at a regional, non-selective, primarily undergrad-focused university. All of this stuff is not one-size-fits-all, and it's important to acknowledge that. Also, I think it's important to acknowledge that things vary by discipline, and they vary by status within the academy (adjunct vs. full-time contract lecturer vs. t-t vs. tenured). So I'm very much talking as a person in a humanities discipline, at a non-selective state school, who now has tenure but who recently was yet to be tenured. And yes, I think all of that matters.

So, FrauTech writes,
"Implying that faculty would not devote anything on contract would be implying that ALL the employees of for profit and non-profit companies in at will states are not contributing anything or innovating anything. Which is patently untrue. The pay gap is not so large as to explain this discrepancy (unless you mean a paygap between humanities in industry, b/c i'm not sure where outside of academia that is a viable career)."

Ok, so here's the thing. I was totally ranting in my post, and when I get on a rant, I oversimplify. I become sometimes stupidly polemical. So let me be clear: I do not think that people on a contract would not devote anything to their jobs. Rather, I think that tenure allows us to, and encourages us to, particularly in those fields that are not so much about professions for students but those that are about a broad, liberal arts education, devote ourselves differently. It's not that contribution or innovation are impossible when one does not have the security of tenure. If that were true, then I'd not have contributed or innovated anything in the past 6 years. But I do think that this is where discipline matters. FrauTech is in engineering. This puts one in a very different position from a person who is, say, an English professor. First, in a discipline like engineering, there is an outside market value to ones labors. This matters. This is not to say that there is not value to the skill-set that I possess, but rather that the particular skill-set that I practice day-to-day within my job as a professor does not really translate in an obvious way to employment outside the academy. Now let me be clear: this is not because I'm not qualified to do other jobs. But, whatever those jobs might be aren't in one-to-one relation to the degrees that I hold. An English degree, in itself, qualifies a person for no particular profession. A journalism degree does. An engineering degree does. A degree in, say, marketing, does. And the longer that I stay in academic employment, the less employable I become outside of the academy. Because what I do in my academic job is so different from what I might do in another job, this makes me less amenable to the idea of academic employment without tenure. (And I'm not just saying this because I've now got tenure - I felt the same way before I had a tenure-track job, which is why I was resistant to adjuncting. This is not to cast aspersions on those who do adjunct or who have adjuncted, but rather to say that for me, it always felt like a path that wouldn't be good.)

But so if I don't mean that employees without tenure (whether they are in a "permanent" position or whether they are on semester-long contracts) contribute nothing (to their institutions, to broader knowledge, whatever) then what do I mean? I mean, and this is coming from a very field-specific place here, that what one contributes depends on the conditions of one's employment. (We were reviewed each and every year toward tenure, which may make a difference here. In other words, the way tenure works at my institution, I could have been fired at any time pre-tenure - it wasn't like I had three years to prove myself before I came up for a contract renewal.) Example: pre-tenure, I did not serve on potentially contentious or political committees, regardless of their import. This is not to say that I did not do service - I did service in spades. But, and I'd say rightly, I did not put myself in a position to make enemies when it came time for review. So I "served" my institution, and I contributed to things, but I did not risk my neck. I did not risk my livelihood or my professional future. (I've only started taking risks since the tenure binder was in.)

Similarly, my research agenda was shaped by the fact that I didn't have a stable position until this year. Don't let the fact that I published a book obscure that fact - that happened only because I wrote a very-close-to-book-manuscript dissertation (with the aid of my diss adviser and readers). I did not need a book for tenure. What I needed was a couple of journal articles and a number of conference presentations. And so, that was where all of my "new" research energy was focused. Now, did those articles contribute to my field? I hope so. But I'm in a "book" field. The fact of the matter is, one cannot embark on a completely new book project pre-tenure, devote oneself to that, and hope to get tenure. Because the reality is that teaching a 4/4 load, with no pre-tenure sabbatical, means that it is very unlikely that one would finish the book before one went up for tenure. And so one can't, in my field, reasonably expect to make the kind of scholarly contribution that is most valued while being secure in one's job. (This is not to say that people without tenure don't write books: they do. But it is to say that spending one's time on a book that doesn't find its way to a contract can get people fired. It's also to say that the only people I know who have managed to produce books not related to the dissertation without stable employment (i.e., tenure) have done so because they were not the sole breadwinner in their household.) This is not to say that those writing articles aren't contributing to broader knowledge, to their institutions, to the profession. They surely are. But it is to say that the contribution is different, and differently weighted, than if those same people were writing books.

Finally, I do think that one's teaching, in those disciplines that serve general education requirements, is intimately tied to one's employment status. If one is adjuncting 4 courses - let's say two sections of comp and two sections of intro to lit- at 2 or three different institutions, each about 30 mins. away from one another, that is going to affect the way that one chooses to teach those four courses. In contrast, if one is on the tenure-track, or tenured, and teaching those same four courses, but at only one institution, and if one knows that he or she will also teach upper-level courses in his or her specialization in a subsequent semester, he or she might choose to teach the course differently. This is not to say that adjuncts are sub-par teachers. They're not. It is just to say that one's choices as a teacher are affected by the conditions of one's labor. If I didn't have my own office, I would be much less likely to hold mandatory individual conferences with my students. If I were teaching across two or three institutions, I would be less likely to develop content suited to the student body at one of those institutions in particular. Now, you might say, but what about those full-time "permanent" faculty without tenure? I will say that the teaching of those faculty members tends to be much more parallel to the ladder faculty, in that they do have more commitment to the institution, to its students, and more commitment from the institution. But, if you're never teaching a course outside of gen-ed requirements that relates to your own specialization, then your teaching is going to be much less linked to your own intellectual life and to your own area of expertise. When I was a student, I know that I responded much more to those faculty who were passionate about the content that they taught. And passion isn't something that happens by accident, or something that is just magical. It's something that is totally affected by the conditions of one's working life. Again, this isn't to say that there aren't great part-time and full-time adjunct instructors. There are. And it's not to say that none of those people have passion when they teach. They do. It's just the conditions of their labor do not inspire that. And thus, we can't expect inspired teaching from those people. If they offer up inspired teaching, that's a bonus. It's not part of the job that they've been hired to do.

Finally, a last thing about "permanent" contract people. The reality in academic hiring currently is that when budget cuts happen, "permanent" people without tenure are let go. This has happened to a number of my "permanent" colleagues in the past two years. Not because they did something wrong, or because they didn't fulfill the duties of their jobs. Just because there were cuts, and somebody had to go. Sure, in theory, the decision was made on performance. But in reality, none of those people were let go because of performance: they were let go because we were told from on high that we had to eliminate x number of instructors. This had nothing to do with the teaching needs of the department (our enrollments have increased, not decreased), nor with the performance of individual people. That's the reality of that kind of contract. Those people's courses are now being taught by part-timers, because part-timers cost less.

FrauTech also writes:
"Faculty DO benefit from a flexible schedule, whether they are tenured or adjunct. This is not disimilar to exempt employees hired, again, At Will by private industry. Yes you end up working a lot more than 40 hours a week. Give it up, everybody in this country except the unemployed are working those hours. And b/c they are exempt, they also are only paid for the 40 hours a week."

You know, I've got to say, this whole "academics benefit from a flexible schedule" argument is something that always irritates me. On the one hand, it's true: we're only in the classroom for x amount of hours, which is much fewer than a person would be in a cubicle in a 9-5 job. But let me talk about my own experience a little.

I am in the F2F classroom this semester for 9 hours per week. In theory, this would mean that I am flexible for 159 hours per week. Sounds grand, right? Who wouldn't want that schedule? But let's consider further. I've also got 3 office hours per week, plus 3 hours of committee work per week. This puts me at 153. Take into account 3 miscellaneous hours in any given week (meeting with my chair, other committee meetings that don't happen weekly), and we're at 150. Ridiculously flexible, right? I've also got to spend at least 6 hours a week dealing with email. That puts us at 144. And then let's consider my online class. I'll generously estimate that this takes but 4 hours a week. So we're at 140. Oh, but prep and grading. Let's minus approximately 15 hours per week, although that assumes I'm not reading anything new, which puts us at 125. That's 37 hours per week. Oh, but I've not counted any sort of research in there. And research is required by my job. Let's lump any reading for class in with research-related stuff, and let's put that at about 15 hours per week, which leaves us at 110, and then let's add in writing letters of recommendation, being a good department citizen by attending events, etc., and let's say that's an extra 3 hours per week in a given semester. This puts us at 107. This means that on average, I'm working 61 hours a week. And let's note that I was being generous in my calculations.

First, let me say this: I'm not saying that people in other professions don't work a similar amount. But many people, even in this current economy, don't. My friend who's a director of annual giving at a non-profit? Doesn't. My friend who's a high school English teacher (who actually makes a comparable salary to me?) doesn't. My friend who's a photographer for a university? Not so much. My friend who works in the insurance industry (and who makes a gajillion dollars more than me)? No dice. My parents don't. My cousins don't. My aunt, who works for a medical school as a high-level administrator, doesn't. Nor does her husband who is a union negotiator. I know lots of people who make good money - and some who don't make great money but who are doing just fine, thanks - who totally don't work more than 40 hours a week, as a rule. Now, is this to say that I shouldn't work more than 40 hours a week. NO. This is just to say that an incentive for me to do so is tenure.

Further, the "flexibility" of academia is relative. Yes, it's true that I went and got my hair cut on Tuesday morning. I didn't have to be anyplace before noon. Yes, this is a benefit. If I need to take care of banking, or of other errands, I can do so on a weekday afternoon. But this "flexibility" is not all that it seems. The "flexibility" of my schedule this semester means that I'm putting in 12 hour days (on campus) 2 days a week, not by my choice. "Flexibility" means that I'm expected to be at a 9 AM meeting and then at a 2 PM meeting because I'm "free" (I don't teach that day) even if I was there 12 hours the day before. This semester, I've mostly been in the office 5 days a week. Yes, some days I'm there only for a few hours. Yes, I'm not committed to being there from 9-5. But the way that it's working out is that I'm there at least 30 hours a week, for shit that's not my choice, plus working at home when I'm not in the office. For part-time adjuncts, "flexibility" means teaching when you're needed, regardless of preference or of your other needs. (This is one of the most hideous things for part-timers - trying to negotiate schedules across institutions, or with child-care or other commitments. Being an adjunct isn't like this awesome flexible job. Oh, and let's note, adjuncts at my institution in my discipline make around 2K a course. Is this really comparable to salaried employees outside of academe? Really?)

And lastly, regarding flexibility, while there is flexibility in a given work-week, academia is incredibly inflexible when it comes to needing time that is more than a few hours. When my father died, I cancelled but one day of classes. This is not because I was ready to be back in the classroom, but rather because there was nobody qualified to teach the material I was teaching, and had I missed more, I'd have had to cut content from the course. Which would have hurt students. There are no subs in college teaching. There is no "vacation" time and there are no "personal days." I've got a HUGE amount of sick time accrued. You know why? Because I can't get sick. There's nobody to do my job if I do. So yeah, I've got the flexibility to get my hair cut on a Tuesday morning. And this being me, with tenure. But if I really needed time, if it weren't over the 4 weeks over Christmas or over the summer break? If I had a real reason to take some time off? Nah, that shit better happen on the academic calendar.

Here's the thing: I'm not at all saying tenure is perfect, or that this system serves all people equally. It's not, and it doesn't. But I value it (precisely because I have it, I should note. I know that I'm in a privileged position here). Sure, without tenure, people would still strive to do good work. I'm not even saying that good work can't happen without tenure. What I am saying, and what I truly believe, is that work would be shaped by different things if tenure were not in place. What would matter would be keeping one's contract, and that would shape one's productivity - not the higher ideals about what students should learn. People would still make important contributions to their institutions, to their fields, to the profession as a whole. But those contributions would be influenced by the prospect of contract renewal (or non-renewal) at the end of the day. Is that really what we want shaping higher education - as opposed to what we believe is best for students, even if that "best" is not the most economically or politically advantageous?

What I want is what is best for my students, best for my field, and best for my institution. I don't know that I could want those things without tenure. I think that without tenure I'd only think about what was best for me.

(Though maybe that makes me an asshole? I don't think it does, though. I think it makes me reasonable.)

Time to Stop Relaxing and to Head into the Home Stretch

So, I've been basically powered down since Wednesday. The Thanksgiving meal was unbelievable, though there was some drama with my parents which I could have done without. (Long story short: I think that G.'s health ain't great and that he's not taking care of himself properly, but since he likes to be secretive about such things, well, drama.) In other news, I've basically spent the past 3 days resting, watching TV, and napping. I've been disconnected from blogs, from facebook, from the news, and even from the phone, for the most part. I think that this was a much-needed break that will energize me for the coming end of the semester.

So today, I awakened after 10 hours of sleep (that's right - 10) and I've got things to do.

1. Grading.
2. Make list of things to accomplish this week.
3. Finalize a couple of syllabi and send them off to my dept. curriculum committee for review.
4. Scheduled chat with online class.
5. Laundry (though this may wait until tomorrow).
6. Pay bills (probably tomorrow morning).
7. Prep for classes this week.
8. Make arrangements for summer conference (tomorrow morning, most likely).
9. Put up Christmas tree and nativity.
10. Maybe make list for Christmas cards. Maybe.

Oh, and my favorite crap Lifetime movie is airing at noon - A. called this morning to alert me to this. I shall watch it while catching up with grading. Huzzah!

I really can't wait for this semester to be done. I've been in a funk for this whole semester, I feel like, and I'm sick of it. Actually, I'm sick of this whole stinking year. Time for this year to be done and to move on to bigger and better things.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Menu

So I've been busily cooking for the past couple of hours, and I should be done with the do-aheadable stuff (other than the pumpkin pie, which I'll make when my mom arrives later) by 1 this afternoon. I thought you all might like to take a gander at my menu for this Thanksgiving.

  • Golden Delicious Apple and Cheddar Turnovers with Dried Cranberries. Good for breakfast (I should know - I had to "test" one since it was a new recipe this morning), good for dessert. Just plain good. And easy. And even if your turnovers look like crap when you put them in the oven, by magic they look like they come from a magazine when you remove them from the oven.
  • Green Beans and Walnuts with Lemon Vinaigrette.
  • Turkey, obviously.
  • My little grandma's giblet gravy. (Comes out perfect every time! And you don't have to make a roux!)
  • Mashed potatoes. This year I decided to do baby yukon gold and leave the skins on because I didn't feel like peeling.
  • Mashed rutabaga, what my little grandma would have called "turnip" although it's a rutabaga and not turnips.
  • Stuffing. (I don't do anything fancy with stuffing. No chestnuts, no sausage, no oysters, no corn-bread. Just plain old white bread stuffing with some celery, carrot, and onion. Salt and pepper. Chicken stock. Oh, and then there's the ton of butter that is what makes it delicious. And eggs for binding. But I'm a stuffing purist. I don't need no stinkin' pancetta or mushrooms or nuts or what have you in my stuffing.)
  • Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Walnuts and Pecorino.
  • Sweet Potato Gratin.
  • Pumpkin Pie. (I use the How to Cook Everything recipe for both crust and filling.)
So what will you be having?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Tenure and the Adjunctification of Higher Ed

Ok, I had vowed to myself that I wasn't going to enter the fray (or not really enter the fray, even though did, sort of, already). But I can't just let it go (even though I've tried all day, sort of, to let it go, since my initial comment). So, I'm going to write this and get it out of my system.

First, let me state for the record that I'm not saying the hiring structure of higher ed isn't fucked up. It is totally fucked up. The tenure system isn't fair, nor is it about merit, nor does it serve all students or all institutions in the way that it is "supposed" to (however that is). Higher education generally exploits a vast number of people (especially in my own field, English) in order to achieve its ends (giving the largest number of students possible a college degree). This is not because higher education is a meritocracy, in which people who are "worthy" get ladder jobs. This is because higher education is not willing or able, for the number of students it enrolls today, to pay all of its workers a living wage. And it's not willing to do so because it doesn't have to and because it's not feasible within the current structure of higher education to do so.

Here is, to quote a recent post of mine, why I think tenure matters:

"You know why tenure matters? Above and beyond academic freedom in scholarship and in the classroom? It matters because when we don't have strong administrative leadership, and I suspect this happens at all institutions in a variety of contexts at one time or another, somebody needs to be able to speak up, loudly and clearly, on behalf of students, on behalf of faculty, and on behalf of the future of the institution. Tenure has made little difference to me in terms of my scholarship or my teaching. I have never felt in jeopardy in those areas, and I think my institution values my autonomy in those areas. Where tenure has meant the most to me is that I don't have to hold back at all when it comes to fighting bullshit that will hurt my university, my colleagues, or my students. Now, my loud and contentious voice may not make any difference. But at the very least I do have the power to say my piece without fear of losing my job. And since I'm being put in a position where I'm being expected to "participate in" (read: authorize) things that entirely contravene our mission and our values, then I need that power and I need to use it."

But, there are those out there who believe that "THE SYSTEM IS DYING." And their alternative is eliminating tenure in favor of multiyear contracts. And these people believe, when somebody objects to their claims, that those people are clearly "elitists" who don't actually engage with the arguments that they make. So let me try to address some things, which I think are really important in this conversation.

1) I don't think that tenure makes a person "elite" or "elitist." I think that there are lots of different versions of tenure, at lots of different kinds of institutions. At my institution, tenure means no TAs, teaching four courses a semester, teaching composition, teaching general studies lit classes, and maybe teaching one course in one's actual field of specialty per semester, if one is lucky enough for that course to make enrollment. Tenure (or even just being on the tenure track) means immense service obligations. Tenure means doing research above and beyond all of that. Tenure does mean job security, and benefits (and I don't dismiss these as solid, important benefits), but it also means making a salary of, after tenure, someplace around 60K a year, if one is lucky. I've got friends who are ladder faculty who were hired in originally (recently) in the 30s who will be lucky to see 50K at tenure, and this is in higher cost-of-living places than the one in which I'm located. And this is with the sometimes massive student loan debt that going on for a PhD can entail. Yes, named professors do better. But most tenured faculty don't have named professorships. Let's be real about what the realities of what most of the tenured professoriate's job situations look like. Oh, and for most tenured professors, at least in my field - there is no prospect of switching jobs.

2) While it is true that "it's easier to get out of a bad marriage than to get out of a bad tenure decision" I would also argue that since you have six years before you give a person tenure, during which that person is on probation, then if a bad decision is made, given that time-frame, it's probably the fault of the tenure process at the institution. (And I'd argue that more bad tenure decisions are made in the negative - in terms of not granting people tenure who deserve it - than the reverse.) The whole point of the tenure process is that it's a vetting process. In theory, the tenure process should ensure that you don't hire anybody on long-term who would be a shit employee. If you do, that's not the fault of tenure - that's a fault of the process at a particular institution. I mean, seriously - if you can't figure it out in six years, then how would you be able to figure it out to fire people on a 5-year contract cycle? Unless, of course, the idea is to fire people who are old. 'Cause you know those old people are obviously deadwood. (Though let me note that one of the most productive and active in all areas people in my department has been around since the early 1970s, but obviously, the point here isn't productivity or activity - it's the corporate bottom-line.)

3) If one thinks that somebody on a 5-year teaching contract is going to give a shit about the institution and its future, then they are either woefully naive or actively stupid. If I were on a 5-year contract, I can tell you with utmost certainty that I would not have invested what I have done in curricular development, in service to my university's campus community or community generally, in directing undergraduate research. I'd do what I needed to get the best teaching evals. possible and I would be busting my ass on research, for I'd need to be ready if my institution screwed me to go elsewhere, and research is what allows a person (at least today) to go elsewhere. The fact of the matter is, the work of ladder faculty that is most important, given the adjunctification of higher ed in the past 20 years, is not teaching, nor is it research. It's service. The only incentive for that service, as far as I can tell, is tenure. Tenure binds a person to an institution and to that institution's community. You want to pay me by the hour for the non-teaching and non-research work that I do? Rock on with that. I'd be making more than I currently make. But until and unless that part of my job is acknowledged, I'll take tenure, thanks. Tenure makes it reasonable for me to give a shit about the institution. Without tenure? I'd be stupid if I did.

4) If you want to reduce the number of adjuncts, the first step is in looking at curriculum. If you insist on a curriculum that you can't staff, you're going to have a large percentage of adjunct (or grad student) faculty. If you make a curriculum that you can support with ladder faculty, then that problem becomes smaller (if not disappears). This might mean that not every breathing American can attend college.

5) Graduate schools need to admit fewer people, if what we want is a fairly compensated professoriate. When I enrolled in my well-respected Ph.D. program in the 90s, my entering cohort had a number of 7. They'd already made the choice only to admit those they could fund, and those whom they could ostensibly ensure would get jobs. That's where we start to deal with the problem of hiring in higher ed in my opinion - not with doing away with tenure.


Here's the thing, if getting rid of tenure could (a) definitely ensure more people a living wage and benefits, (b) ensure faculty governance within universities, (c) ensure the birth of new ideas, original research, and a safe space for politically volatile areas of inquiry, and (d) ensure investment on the part of faculty members in the mission of their respective universities, there wouldn't be a problem. The issue is, for me, is that those I've heard argue on behalf of getting rid of tenure have not addressed a, b, c, or d. Address, those, and I could well be your champion. For now? I think you're construing the work of professors as being only the work that they do in the classroom. If that were the only work I did, fine. But it's not. Let me state this clearly and for the record: I'm in the F2F classroom a mere 9 hours a week, in the online classroom a mere 3 hours. On top of that is grading and prep - let's say that accounts for another 12 hours, which adds up to 24 hours a week,. If we count my other work though - writing rec. letters, serving on committees, doing research, keeping myself abreast of what's happening at my institution and within my field of specialization - I'm working probably 60-80 hours per week during the academic year (which, let's note, is all that I'm paid for).

I love my job. I love my university. I love my students. But the reality is, if I didn't have tenure I'd not invest anywhere near as much. Who would? For this salary? And you'd have to hire somebody to do all of the shit that I do that isn't related to teaching and research. Because, seriously? You really think I'm going to give all of that away for free? Even though I'm an English professor and the market is glutted and whatever? I'd temp first. I'm not saying that for rhetorical effect: that's exactly what I did rather than adjuncting full-time when I ran out of funding in my PhD program. It paid better.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thinking Positive Thoughts on a Monday

This week is all about detachment, for me. After a few days of decompressing, it occurs to me that it's time for me to take a step back, to stop being stressed out about things related to work, and to revel in the short week that lies ahead. Indeed, perhaps it is a time for giving thanks, what with it being nearly Thanksgiving and all. Indeed, I'm going to get all Gratitude-Journal-y and shit. So what is Crazy thankful for?

  1. That I am not in the middle of some stupid internet brouhaha. It's that time of the semester, kids, but all of my focus on real-life brouhahas has kept me out of the fray on teh internets. Ah, it is a pleasure to be basically irrelevant. (And I'm not linking because I am really staying out of it. I'm a casual and disinterested bystander. It is glorious.)
  2. I'm glad that I have played and continue to play a positive role in curricular development both within my department and across my institution. Yes, it's been painful, but it's also been very rewarding. And now the bulk of my work is done with that stuff (though there are some loose ends to tie up).
  3. I'll see my parents this week! Yay Parents of Crazy!
  4. I had a great happy hour phone date with my dad's sister last night. I'm so glad that she and I are back in close touch again.
  5. The semester is almost over! Only a few more weeks and it will be winter break!
  6. I heard from a former student who had been considering grad school in English, and he's decided not to go in that direction! Hooray!
  7. I've completed nearly all of the Thanksgiving shopping, and I'm looking ahead to a day of working on recommendations and taking care of some things around the house.
All in all, lots to be thankful for. (Don't worry, I'll get back to my regularly scheduled whining as soon as something irritating happens. I'm not like a whole different person or something.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

In Which Facebooking Elevates the Content of the Blog (Only to Make the Facebook Content Lame)

Alright. So in two particular ways, I do think that my participation in Fb has been good for the content of this here blog.

#1 Facebook takes care of my need to take quizzes, as well as of my meming needs. No longer do I litter up this space with quiz results or with memes.
#2 A lot of my general complaints now get sent the way of facebook status updates, as opposed to making it onto this here blog (I'm not Fb friends with immediate work colleagues, which contributes to this).

Except, apparently over the past few weeks, I've become a Facebook Vortex of Negativity. On the one hand, I don't think that this is necessarily a bad thing. It's a way for me to get the negativity out without devoting much time or space or thought to it. On the other hand, it really sucks, as it means that all many people (aunts, cousins, friends from elementary school, high school friends, etc.) hear from me is bitching. That's not really on, I'm not thinking. On the other hand, perhaps it's better than uber-positive updates about knitting projects and other erstwhile accomplishments, which annoy the fuck out of me when I read them in my own newsfeed, if they're not also tempered with things that aren't like "hey, look how great my life is! I'm so great! Can't you tell how great I am from my status updates!" which I read as disingenuous.

What's sort of interesting is that while there is some overlap between my blog audience and my Fb audience, there's also a lot of disparity. This disparity makes for some of the reason why I post some things here and some things there. Weirdly, I'm more public on the blog than I am on Fb, even though my name is not technically linked to the blog. I think that more people know who Dr. Crazy is in real life than are my friends on Fb. In fact, I know that's likely true. So the persona on the blog has in fact, since Fb, become more of a persona, whereas the real shit is obliquely and yet more accurately recorded through my Fb status updates. The result, however, is that real life people are worried that I'm super-duper stressed all the time, perhaps in part because they don't have access to the blog. Fb has become my dumping ground, whereas I think about a wider range of things on the blog, or at least a less immediate range of negative things.

So. I think I'm going to try for the next while not to be a vortex of negativity on Fb, while at the same time I don't let my negative feelings bleed over in stupid ways onto the blog. This is not to say that I won't feel the negative things, for clearly, that would be fucked up, to shut off the negative things that I genuinely feel. But rather that I won't poison other people so much with my negative things, whether on Fb or here.

Look, it's the end of the semester. I'm tired. I've applied for a ton of things for the coming semester and year (sabbatical, summer fellowship, course release, other monies) and I know about none of those yet. The only one I feel fairly secure in is sabbatical, and even that I wonder whether I'll get it, because I feel so downtrodden and abused lately. And I've been working like a dog. I'm pissed off, pretty much all the time. Not because of students or because of my job itself or even most of the time because of colleagues. It's just that I've been working so hard and I need tangible, concrete acknowledgment and reward for the work that I do. I know raises aren't happening anytime soon, and I know that times are tough. I know that nothing right now is a done deal, regardless of merit. But I've worked so hard and I've sacrificed so much and if none of my ships come in? Seriously? Who knows how I'll handle that. Because I need at least one of these to happen, I need at least some acknowledgment that somebody at this institution gets how much my work means. Especially since I recognize that I'm basically stuck here for the duration, given the economy and higher ed funding and the fact that I'm a tenured lady and given my field.

Here's the thing: I've got a lot of colleagues, senior to me, junior to me, across the university and within my department, who know that the work that I do matters. I got a lovely email from my chair today, even, complimenting me on my hard work. All of these people give me tons and tons of praise. And that means so much, in its way. But none of that is acknowledgment from the institution. Sure, I got tenure, and maybe I should be happy with that, but I'm not. Tenure here doesn't necessarily mean that upper administration gets it. Let's face it: tenure here is sort of a de facto position. It only means that you didn't suck enough to be denied. I want acknowledgment beyond my award of tenure. And maybe that makes me greedy, but that's how I feel. How I feel is like I need more than tenure. I need funding, I need time. I need the support to do the things that I can potentially do. And if that support doesn't come? I feel like I'm very close to giving up. I feel like I'm very close to checking out. I feel like I'm very close to becoming the kind of professor that I despise.

Lately, all of these feelings are very evident in my Fb updates, though I've been trying (though not always successfully) to keep this crap away from the blog. It's not good reading. I think that perhaps some positive thinking is in order. I think that perhaps giving in to the negativity will produce negative results.

Friday, November 20, 2009

MLA? I Know It's Early But....

We need to organize a meet-up, people! If you're interested, email me at reassignedtime at gmail. I feel as if it will happen on the evening of the 27th, if only because that will conflict with no one's real life plans. Whatever the case, drop me a note, and then I will organize shenanigans :)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sick? Tired

So, yesterday I thought I was coming down with something, but I think I had given myself a psychosomatic illness because I'm just freaking exhausted. After 10 hours of sleep, I seem to have recovered.

In other news, I also got an acceptance to a conference today (huzzah! Fun times with BFF and FBA!). There is a large part of me that is embarrassed by the topic of this here conference paper that I shall now have to research, to write, and to present, but I really do think that it will turn out to be grand. I also love that I got the acceptance of it today, for the fact that it came on precisely today really does speak to the universe making things happen in ways that seem fated and perfect.

I also attended a meeting (painful in many ways, but not regarding what follows) and the revised major - my baby - has passed! 'Tis reality! 'Tis happening! One of the things that makes me most happy about this is that somehow we (not knowing what the future held at the time regarding the general studies curriculum) built something in that makes our new major perfectly suited to what is happening at the university-wide level. It also does a good job of limiting the amount of turf-establishing within the department both in terms of the major and in terms of general studies, and since I hate the whole turf thing, this pleases me to no end. ( I think my hatred of the turf stuff makes me a weirdo. But seriously: I believe that students will take my classes not because they have to but rather because they either are interested in the material (a) or because they want to take a class with me (b) or some combination of the two (c). I feel like if you need to require your shit to make your courses make enrollment means that you're probably a bad teacher. Let's note for the record that I teach a lot of stuff that is not exactly intriguing to the uninitiated, so this isn't a feeling that I have because I teach something students just love without reservation or initiation. Let's also note that some of the turfiest people I know teach shit that on its own is a lot more accessible than what I teach. And I'm a mean lady, so it's not like people take my classes because I'm easy. Whatever the case, yay for making the whole "turf" thing less of an issue!)

In other news, all of my rage of the past week seems to have born fruit and to have positively influenced the direction of some Very Important Things, in spite of the fact that I didn't make some Grand Proclamation at today's Meeting of Pain about how I Hate Everything. I think everybody gets the sense that I hate everything, though, which does please me. I somehow walked that fine line between "Contentious Bitch" and "Team Player" and while I never thought I would successfully walk that line, indeed, I seem to have managed it.

So, those were and are all my things for the moment. And I am so looking forward to the weekend.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Former Students

So I saw BES this weekend, and she told me a funny little story. Ok, so once upon a time, BES was a new major, and she was in a class with a student who was about to graduate. He was odious to her. Just odious. To her and to the rest of the class, but to BES in particular. BES had yet to encounter me as an instructor, and thus her naturally enthusiastic spirits had yet to be dampened by the harsh criticism of Dr. Crazy. (Never fear, she retains her enthusiasm, only now she understands that enthusiasm is not all that matters in academic work.) And so she hated with a fiery passion this Odious Nemesis, who looked upon her and her enthusiasm with hipster derision.

So last year, as BES was finishing up her thesis, we were hanging out and I was giving her feedback, and the conversation turned and she told me about her hideous class with Odious Nemesis, and her description jarred something in my head, and I exclaimed, "OMG! BES, are you talking about One of My Best Students Ever?" Indeed, she was. (I may have posted about this before, but I can't easily find the link, so bear with the repetition if this is sounding familiar to you. I promise, this isn't just me being repetitive. Scroll down a paragraph or so if you don't feel like reading the recap.)

Now, I have no doubt believing that OMBSE was indeed, odious when she encountered him. He was the sort of student who, well, let's just say that he took himself a bit seriously and he was indeed very, very bright, and let's just say he wasn't one of those bright, generous students, but rather of the sort who lacked generosity. I suspect that he would describe his demeanor as something along the lines of "I don't suffer fools gladly." And yes, some of his pompous assholery had to do with gender privilege, and some of it had to do with arrogance, and some of it was just that he can really be insufferable. BUT. He was a student who did indeed rise to the occasion in my classes, going above and beyond in his efforts to please and to turn in excellent work. And he took three classes with me, and with direction, he was not a jerk in my classes. (He was also the sort of student who needed to be kept on a bit of a short leash or he'd take advantage of other students' weaknesses in class discussion. My sense is that the instructor of the course that he had with BES did not keep him in check, and that he was disrespectful not only to the other students but also to the instructor, at least from BES's report. To be fair, I never experienced any disrespect from him when he was my student.)

But so anyway, BES hated him, and when she told me her tale of woe about him, I was sort of shocked. How could two of my best ever students hate each other with a hate so pure and true? But likely they'd never see one another again, and I'd not heard from this student in a year, and so that was where it was left.


Recently, BES was out with some friends for a night of 20-something revelry. And a friend of hers shows up with his "new friend" OMBSE in tow. BES's friend introduces him to her, and her jaw dropped. She knew him. He was the Odious Nemesis. And as the night began, he exhibited many of his more odious qualities (they were out playing trivia, and well, he's the sort of guy who will argue with a whole table about their hideous lack of knowledge of all things.) But as the night went on, and when trivia was over, he apparently acted like a normal person. Indeed, he was even sort of cool and nice. And so he and BES got to talking, and the subject of Dr. Crazy came up.

Aside: I hate it when I suspect (or know) that students of mine are comparing notes about me. What are they saying? Would I be mortified if I knew?

Anyway. So at a certain point, during their discussion of me, he said something that does indeed mortify me. Apparently, the conversation was going on as normal, and he prefaced the mortifying remark with how I was one of the best professors ever, yadda yadda yadda, "but sometimes when Dr. Crazy would read passages in class, it was, like, sexy."

Ewwwwwww!!!!!! NOOOOO!!!!!! STOP THE MADNESS!!!!! Now, of course BES told me this because she's my friend and because she knew I would be totally freaked out, and it amuses her to freak me out, as it should for we are pals. And also I know it is unreasonable that I would have any sort of extreme reaction , because a) I do read some sexy things aloud in my classes because that's what we're studying, and b) because it's entirely normal, within a classroom situation, for there to be a little transference in the student-professor relationship. I intellectually get that it's not really anything to do with me, for I was once upon a time on the other side of that dyad.

And it's not like I don't have suspicions about the fact that students in real time sometimes do this - they're the ones who hang around over-long standing in my office door during office hours, often accompanied by blushing and shifting their weight from one foot to the other for they've been there so long but they won't sit down, when they've got no reason to be there, for one example, or the boys (no female student has ever done this) who want me to read their poetry when I don't actually specialize in teaching, or write (as far as they know), poetry, for another. I suppose why it weirds me out to hear this long after this student is gone is because I so do not think, when I'm in the moment of teaching, that I do, will, or can produce this response. Because issues of gender and sexuality are so central to my intellectual work, I've become somewhat desensitized to those things when I present them in a classroom or research situation. In my head, it's all part of the work that I do. It's compartmentalized. It's not a sexual thing at all. And I'm a person who maintains professional boundaries, even with students with whom I'm friendly. So when the "sexy" thing comes up, it always makes me feel like, "Oh my god! Did I go too far? Did I unconsciously overstep some boundary?" Even though I know I did no such thing in reality, if that makes sense.

(To be fair, this problem has also come up in research settings. This isn't just a student thing, where people are all, "Dr. Crazy talks about the sexy stuff," and while it's not so much an issue for me now that I'm professionally established, research-wise, it was something that caused me no small amount of discomfort when I was a grad student or an undergrad. The thing is, I'm seriously like a Victorian Miss when it comes to my actual self - I get affronted when a stranger approaches me in a bar, for Chrissakes! I want a freaking letter of introduction and references before you talk to me! - but I just so happen to specialize in things that don't necessarily communicate that.)

But so anyway, whatever. Apparently, as the night went on with BES and OMBSE, and as OMBSE got drunker, he totally started hitting on her and trying to Make a Move at the end of the night, if you get what I'm saying, and she rebuffed him. Which for her was like this totally triumphant moment, for indeed, he was the Odious Nemesis of years gone by, who now was all "I'm drunk and I think you're dreamy." I think we've all had that moment one time or another, and to reject that Odious Nemesis is sweet, sweet revenge. Yay, BES!

But so anyway, to conclude with some navel-gazing: I really think that part of the reason I've been able to get away with teaching the explicit things that I teach at this particular institution in this particular part of the country, especially before tenure though now this is not such an issue, is because I'm young for a professor, straight, and female. If I were older, if I were gay, or if I were a man, or some combination of these, I think that I'd be perceived by students (or by people across the university) as a threat. If male colleagues of mine read some of the stuff I read aloud in class, in the way that I read these things, I think that it would very easily make students uncomfortable (I think wrongly, as the point isn't who's doing the reading but rather what's in the text). I think that if I were older woman , or if I were a woman but out and gay, that students might interpret my reading of some of the stuff that I read aloud as "aggressive" or "inappropriate." In many ways, I know that I trade on the fact that I'm a youngish, straight lady. Because as a youngish, straight lady, I'm completely harmless, right? And while I still have gotten some small number of ridiculously misogynistic course evaluations over the years, I do believe that I get fewer of those, even with the content that I teach, because I inhabit the non-threatening identity that I inhabit. So it's not that I'm unaware of the identity that I perform, and the ways in which I use it in the classroom. I think the thing is, at the end of the day, that I do sometimes forget that by using that identity in order to deliver content that I think is important, I sometimes may invite a certain kind of response that I don't consciously perceive as appropriate or even an option, if that makes sense.

And finally, dude, I really do think that the way that I read may be the center of the problem. Being a good reader is a good thing, surely, and I wouldn't and won't read aloud any differently than I do, as it does really get students to understand the literature in a deeper way. Hell, the way that I read aloud helps me to understand the literature in a deeper way. But perhaps I need to be more aware of the fact that if you read things in the way that I read them that it gives off a certain impression that may be, well, sexy, even if that's not the point.

Monday, November 16, 2009


So, the reading marathon has reached its completion, and it was truly awesome. I'm so excited that I got the opportunity to participate in it, and that so many of my students (from over the years) participated in it. For the conclusion, lots of people were there, including BES and her parents, some of my favorite colleagues. It was just so energizing and fun.

After, I went for a beer with BES and her most recent suitor, and that was a good time, too. She's just finishing up her grad school apps, so while there was some talk of academia, it was not the primary thing that dominated the discussion.

All in all a very good weekend, indeed. And now time for bed.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Reading Aloud

I first read aloud, in a way that was recognized in a truly congratulatory way, in church. See, I was a "good reader" and this meant that I was called upon (in my Catholic grade school) to do readings in church. I remember being coached by teachers and nuns about how to do a reading well. I remember being given readings in advance in order to practice them. I remember practicing.

I did one of the readings at my first communion. I did one of the readings at my confirmation. I read at countless masses that had no such great significance. I remember being annoyed that I was never chosen to bring forth the wine and hosts for offertory, as I had to be "a reader." But I've been reading, publicly, performatively, since I was a child.

And I really like reading publicly, performatively. It's something I know how to do, and it's something that I've grown to really enjoy doing.

But it's weird, because how many people, and how many jobs, count "reading aloud" as a skill?

In my last super-serious relationship, we read aloud to one another. Indeed,that's how I experienced the bulk of Infinite Jest - my boyfriend would read until he was sick of reading and then I would read. Let's note that this was his idea - that we'd read aloud to one another - not mine. But it was lovely. When we stopped reading, the relationship was over.

And here and there I've read a passage or there to various suitors, though never so much as I did with my last super-serious relationship, and never because I was telling a suitor a story as I was with my super-serious person, but rather because I read something with an agenda or seeking a reaction. When a girl like me selects a passage for you, she does it with intent. That's not the same thing as reading a story.

Today I participated in a reading event. This event was organized around a Great Work of American Literature which it takes 24 hours to read aloud. I arrived, I watched, I read my 20 minute segment, and I hung around for hours, being read to. I have to say, the portion that I ended up reading was absolutely perfect for me, and I did well. And much of what I heard after was read in a lovely way - it showed me this novel in a way that made it matter to me, made it matter to me in a way it would not have if I'd read it silently on my own, and has not done when I've tried to read it on my own.

I guess this experience made me realize, though, how much I really miss it when somebody is just reading to me. And I miss being read to and having it mean something specific. I miss reading to another person and having it mean that I love them so irrevocably.

Yes, I've got a job where I get to read aloud, where I get to feel aloud through words. I get a job where I get to practice this talent. And the fact that I get this? It's irreplaceable. But I wish that I had someone to whom I felt compelled to read, and someone who would read to me. I wish that I weren't just... outside of stories with happy endings.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


If faculty governance and faculty contribution to a university community is going to work properly, it won't just do so by magic. Because here's the thing: groups of people can only come together to work effectively if they have structure, guidance, and information. There needs to be a person who takes responsibility for creating structure, for guiding decision-making processes, and for disseminating information in a way that is responsible, transparent, and coherent.

In other words, we need administrators. Faculty can't do their jobs unless they have effective administrators to create an environment in which that can happen. Left to their own devices, to piece together information by happenstance and to have discussions and to make decisions without a clear structure, clear goals, and clear guidelines, faculty will most of the time fail. That's right. I said that. Faculty can't just run the university by committee.

Now, faculty members are smart folks. They can do a lot of things well. They can achieve a great deal for a university - above and beyond their individual teaching and research - with strong leadership. With charismatic and strong leadership, they may even be able to achieve this great deal and feel proud of it and like what they're achieving.

But also, faculty members are smart folks. They know when they're being given the run-around. They know when the rhetoric doesn't match the substance. They know when the hundreds of hours they've put into something to make it great have meant nothing, and when that something is being gutted. And once they know these things, they are going to stop being so interested in cheer-leading, in taking one for the team, in doing their jobs well. This is not because faculty members are selfish or scattered or lacking in commitment. It's because they are smart folks, and they know that to be smart means not investing one's time in something that has clearly become totally fucked. They know that being smart means not letting themselves get fucked.

Strong leadership means:
  • Knowing how to run a meeting. If you're sitting at the head of a table, and if you're putting yourself in a position of authority over a group, you also hold responsibility for keeping the group on track. You hold responsibility for focusing the discussion, and for explaining why the discussion is being focused in the way that you choose. You hold responsibility for stopping people from talking over one another, and you hold responsibility for managing the personalities and interests around the table in order to keep the conversation civil and productive. (This is not unlike managing a classroom well, incidentally.) If a meeting is going on for 2 hours and there's no end in sight and people start leaving before it's over? You don't know how to run a meeting.
  • Answering questions honestly, even when the honest answer may not be to everyone's liking. Spin is not strong leadership, particularly when you're expecting a group of people to do the motherfucking dirty work for you.
  • Taking ownership over your role in a particular process. If the travesty that is driving the process is your idea, at the very least you can admit that it was all your idea and explain why. Speaking in the passive voice "it was decided..." "people have agreed..." "it is the case that..." is disingenuous at best. Dude, if you're behind the steering wheel, admit it. Be responsible for it. Take the punches that you fucking deserve for it. You can't keep your hands clean and be a strong leader.
  • Understanding that you don't get to decide things in a vacuum only to force faculty to come together under false pretenses to ratify your decisions.
  • Asking for input before decisions are made, not after. (I suppose that's the same thing as the last bullet, only stated differently.)
  • Realizing that getting people to buy into a process isn't a matter of making decrees or coercing people through scare-tactics (ahem, did we learn NOTHING from the Bush presidency?), but rather about persuading them that their investment in the process actually means something and that it will have tangible, and hopefully positive, results.
  • Making friends with people who have big mouths and getting them to use their big mouths to support you rather than to fight you. And if you try to persuade them and they aren't buying it? Maybe you need to listen to their objections and really take them to heart. And maybe even try to address them directly, rather than just responding with fucking sound bites.
  • Inspiring trust in those whom one expects to do the heavy lifting.
You know why tenure matters? Above and beyond academic freedom in scholarship and in the classroom? It matters because when we don't have strong administrative leadership, and I suspect this happens at all institutions in a variety of contexts at one time or another, somebody needs to be able to speak up, loudly and clearly, on behalf of students, on behalf of faculty, and on behalf of the future of the institution. Tenure has made little difference to me in terms of my scholarship or my teaching. I have never felt in jeopardy in those areas, and I think my institution values my autonomy in those areas. Where tenure has meant the most to me is that I don't have to hold back at all when it comes to fighting bullshit that will hurt my university, my colleagues, or my students. Now, my loud and contentious voice may not make any difference. But at the very least I do have the power to say my piece without fear of losing my job. And since I'm being put in a position where I'm being expected to "participate in" (read: authorize) things that entirely contravene our mission and our values, then I need that power and I need to use it.

But you know what I want? I want a leader. I want a person who will make it unnecessary for me to feel enraged and to go into battle mode. This is not to say that I want a leader who agrees with me in all things or who serves my interests above all others. No, that wouldn't be a good, strong leader. I want a leadership that has a vision, that articulates it clearly, and that doesn't try to pass things through under the radar. I want to be able to be a team player, even if I don't entirely agree, because I trust the ones leading me. I want to feel secure in my leadership's intentions, and I want to be reassured that I don't need to raise hell if I disagree with something because even if I express an objection quietly and civilly that it will be taken into account. I want to be confident in my leadership, knowing that it is making decisions with students, the faculty, and the institution as its first and most important priority. I want leadership that does not betray me, that does not use my hard work to advance a policy or program change only, in the implementation phase of that change after it has been approved, to strip that change of any value or meaning. I don't want to feel as if my leadership is taking advantage of my initiative, abilities, charisma, and intelligence. I want to feel as if my leadership values those qualities in me, respects them, and uses them to initiate positive change.

Look, I believe in compromise. I believe that it's impossible to make all people happy all of the time, and I believe that it's not my leadership's job to make me happy. But I also believe that if you expect people to serve, if you request their service, that you should value that service when it is given. And you should honor the spirit of the final product that those people produce.

I've had two experiences with leadership this week. One of those experiences was exemplary, in terms of demonstrating exactly the qualities that a strong leader has. The other, not so much. Tragically, the lack of leadership that I experienced this week is going to affect every single student at my university, and just about every single colleague of mine within my college.

I am angry, I am demoralized, and I am in no way going to shut the fuck up about the latter of the two experiences. Maybe my angry outcry will make no difference. Probably it won't. But I want it made very clear that I do not endorse what is happening, especially since when everybody was busy trying to get the thing support in the first place, I was the motherfucking spokesmodel.

Lesson learned.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I'm a Professor, Not an Administrator

As a professor, I value a lot of things. I value helping students to learn. I value ideas and research. I even value the service that one performs - participating in important conversations about curricular development, policy decisions, etc.

And as a professor, I'm a very hard worker. I put great effort into the work that I do, and I want to take pride in doing my job well.

I am not an administrator. And the more administrative duties that somehow land in my lap, the more I have to pick and choose which parts of my job I will do adequately and which parts of my job I let slide. Notice that there is no pride in doing a good job in this scenario, because it's pretty much impossible to do a really good job when you're being pulled in about a thousand different directions. Especially when some of those directions in which you're being pulled are into doing administrative bean-counting that has nothing fucking to do with being a college professor.

And here's the thing: I have no administrative ambitions. I want to be a professor. According to my contract, that is what I have been hired to be. So you know what? I really wish that people who are administrators would take care of the administrating, and let me do my job.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

RBOC: It's Tuesday

  • I was late for every single thing today. Late for a meeting (15 minutes); late for both of my classes (5 minutes for each).
  • I am so freaking done with this semester. Who's with me?
  • I found out that one of my bright and most darling students was accepted into Teach for America!!!!!! I'm so happy!!!!! I'm so proud!!!!! I'm so excited!!!!!
  • The above excitement is only magnified by the fact that this student had been toying (in an ambivalent way) with pursuing grad studies in the field in which we are currently hiring. Remember that song in the movie Heathers? Teenage Suiciiiiide - Don't Do It! Well, I would like to do a version of that song called Grad School'n Engliiiiiish - Don't Do It! I mean, the quality of our candidates is so. freaking. awesome. We have our pick. And we are so not that great.
  • Deliberations about job candidates were interesting today, mainly because of the varying perspectives of my colleagues. It is so interesting how different the perspectives of people who've been around for 20+ years are compared with the perspectives of those who've been around for 10 years or less, and then compared with the grad student on our committee (who is learning LOADS). At the end of the day, I'm very pleased with how things are going, though interviewing at MLA will be interesting, given the fact that I'm interviewing with a colleague who... well, let's just say that our perspectives about what counts in a candidate are not identical. This actually is probably a really good thing, in that it means the initial interview process will really reflect the two ends of the spectrum in my department. On the other hand, dude. I sort of wonder how a candidate is going to be able to process the two of us in the same (bed)room. (I get along with this colleague just fine - this isn't about tension between me and the colleague. It's just, wow do we see the profession and our institution differently. And I'm sure that will come across in interviews.)
  • I love T.S. Eliot. I mean, it's not true love or anything, but it's definitely some sort of love. And I don't get why students find him so repellent. I mean "Tradition and the Individual Talent" is pure critical gold. "But of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things." Genius.
  • I also realized that I have an unhealthy love for D.H. Lawrence. I've suspected this for some time, but seriously, Lawrence is like the boyfriend you have who is a bad decision. He has a bad attitude and he treats you like crap, but he is compelling in a way that those nice boys who have good qualities that you really should seek out just aren't. And sure, he's annoying, too, and a little creepy. But yet, he is so freaking cool. Really. This is how I feel about the Lawrence. And yes, I recognize that this is a personal problem.
  • Speaking of boyfriends who were bad decisions, a pseudo-ex of mine has been commenting on my Facebook status updates, always with comments about how books are obsolete. I don't get why he wants to be my Pretender to Illiteracy Friend on Facebook, but I feel that his reappearance in my world is perhaps indicative of New Things To Come. I hope that these things do not involve illiterate wankers, though he may indeed be the harbinger of such.
  • In other news, what's with high school boys who were never boyfriends or pseudo-exes or even bad decisions (for they were busy going out with "cool" girls while you were editor of the school newspaper and singing in choir) but who indicate that they want to read one's book (although they are not academics) and then perform a massive fail by going MIA immediately after one sends them some chapters of said book in PDF (for one was never going to send an actual copy of the book)? And then you admonish them after like a week of radio silence along the lines of "um, dude, I sent you chapters of my book and you've not written back" with "please be patient, hon! I'm on vacation even though I haven't had a job in months. I want to devote proper time and attention to your brilliant ideas." A. He called me "hon." As my high school best friend quipped, "Who does he think he is? Flo from Mel's Diner?" B. Who gets a vacation when they're not motherfucking working? I mean, dude, I don't get "vacations" and I work like a dog. Look, I understand that nobody really wants to read my book. But if you pretend you do, and you convince me enough that I scan some chapters to send to you, you're obligated. And in a timely fashion. As I noted "I'm an impatient person." The fact of the matter is, you insisted and I relented. You owe me a motherfucking email, stupid boy from high school who claimed to have a crush on me once upon a time. If your crush was pure and true, you'd at least respond when I bestow my book upon you. And you probably wouldn't call me "hon." Because that's just gross.
  • FB is ignoring me. I'm not entirely certain about why, though I do have some ideas.
  • I am so. freaking. tired. Seriously: is this semester not done?
  • I feel that the above is all for now. More in the coming days, I'm sure.

Monday, November 09, 2009

I Hate That This Is Still Something That I Am Dealing With

Remember that university-wide curriculum thingumbob I had something to do with? Well, it's passed our university curriculum committee and our faculty senate, and you'd think I'd not have to deal with it any longer, and yet, here I am. A) I hate people, B) I hate this thing, and C) I hate the fact that I allowed the "final" proposal to go forward with something that is totally freaking stupid because I was "picking my battles." Let's just note, re: C, that the people who I appeased are no longer dealing with the thing, and so I should have just alienated those people and steamrolled them in order to make my life easier now. So much for compromise. Compromise is for losers.

Narratives of "Deserving" and Morale

I had a conversation with a colleague last week, the sort of conversation that often will happen around this time of the semester when everybody's feeling overwhelmed and stressed out and like the semester can't end quickly enough. It wasn't a significant conversation in itself, but it's had me thinking about two things that I've connected periodically over the last year throughout discussions about budget crises, curriculum, faculty workload, etc: questions of "deserving" and of "morale."

I'll take the second part first. Morale. There have been a lot of discussions over the past year or two at my institution about faculty and staff "morale" - or, rather, not really discussions. Really, the "discussion" amounts to, "Oh, morale is so low. I've never seen people with such low morale." And then that's pretty much the end of it. Sure, people might go on to cast aspersions on the administration, to bemoan the quality or behavior of students, to question policy decisions, or whatever. But the foundation of those comments is always this issue of "morale" as if it's some uniformly problematic thing and as if it is evidence that All Things are Wrong in the World.

Look, I'm not going to pretend that I'm always the most positive, shiny, happy employee - you'd all know that's not true. We all get disgruntled from time to time. What gets me about the turn toward talking about disgruntlement in terms of "morale" is that it's a way of flattening out the issues and of stopping conversation - and that's whether it's a term engaged by faculty and staff or whether it's a term engaged by administration. Instead of talking about specific, practical issues that we can address, we instead talk about how everybody's in a bad mood, as if all bad moods have the same root causes, and as if just solving the "morale" problem would make the practical problems go away.

Except "morale" is a large and unwieldy concept, and what may improve my morale may not improve everybody's. So the more we reduce our conversations to the narrative of "low morale," the more time we take away from actual problem-solving, or so it seems to me.

Because, here's the thing: "morale" seems to me to be bound to people's personal ideas about what they "deserve." When people don't believe they are "getting what they deserve," then morale is low. But, see, this is the weird thing about "deserving." "Deserving" implies entitlement. And the people I know with the lowest morale seem to characterize their complaints in terms of this sense of individual entitlement, and they don't seem to think about the big picture very much. I don't say this to dismiss individual concerns - and I don't say this to indicate that I myself haven't fallen prey to characterizing my own experience in exactly the same way. But. I question the utility of approaching one's working life from that perspective.

Does this mean that I think people don't "deserve" things? Well, not exactly. It's just, you know where we also see these narratives of deserving? On reality television. Pay attention the next time you're watching some ridiculous show. "I deserve to be here." "I didn't deserve to be eliminated." "I deserve to win this challenge." "I deserve that money." I deserve, I deserve, I deserve. And I know when I see Robin on Top Chef, for example, talking about how she "deserves" to remain in the competition, I think she's a total and complete idiot. It seems to me that when we enter the narrative of "deserving" that it's just not a terribly compelling narrative.

Or let's think about a closer-to-home example. A student who has earned a C on an assignment comes in to complain that he or she "deserves" an A. How much credence does that complaint have, 9 times out of 10? Does insisting that he or she "deserves" that A really make the argument more compelling? How often does the word "deserve" get used when what we really mean is "want"? And sure, none of us likes it when we don't get what we want, and sure, we may see not getting what we want as unjust. But just because we wanted something and we didn't get it, it doesn't mean that saying, "But I deserved x,y,z!" will make the outcome any different. Neither narratives of "deserving" nor narratives of "morale" seem rooted to reality and practical solutions. Both seem most frequently to be narratives of unfulfilled desire. How exactly can we practically address unfulfilled desire, whatever the objects of desire are?

I think my answer to that question is that we can't. When I think about my colleagues who sing the "bad morale" song, these are people who, even if their every desire was fulfilled, would still be dissatisfied. This isn't to dismiss legitimate concerns about workload or policy decisions, but rather to note that the people who talk to me most frequently about the "low morale" problem and about how faculty/staff aren't "getting what they deserve" also tend to be the people who opt out of the heavy lifting required for change. In fact, I think people often address their concerns about this stuff to me because I'm a heavy lifter by nature. I think they figure that if they complain to me that I'll get my hands dirty fighting their battles, while they get to sit back and complain about how I do so. (This isn't generous of me, but this is how it feels.) And the fact of the matter is, even if I did go to bat for all of these people, and even when I have on occasion done so, these people still aren't happy. So is the institution responsible for that? Trends in higher more generally?

Look, there are a good many things that I'd like to change at my institution. And let's note for the record that I've been very active in working to change a good number of things, particularly since receiving tenure both at the department and university levels. I'm not this stupid, foolish Happy Camper who doesn't see problems. I just don't see how it helps anything for me to be miserable and to spread my misery around to other people by bemoaning "low morale" or whining about how I "deserve" better. That's what I'd characterize as a waste of my already limited time and energy.

I guess the bottom line is that I want to change the conversation from one that centers on something I can't control - like morale - to one that I can do something about. And I'd like for the people who want to list their litany of complaints to me when they could be helping to make things better to stop doing that. I mean, seriously.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Long. Motherfucking. Day.

I awakened this morning around 7. I then proceeded to drink coffee, to read blogs, to write a blog post, etc. I then, at around 8:30, decided it was time to shower. Tragically, I could not shower as the water in my neighborhood was shut off because of road resurfacing. Thus, I had to brush my teeth with water from the refrigerator and perfume and deodorant it up and hope for the best. Gross.

I then proceeded to a 9:30 appointment which took an hour. I then graded for an hour and a half, and then I met with a student for about 45 mins. I realized it was unrealistic to think I'd finish grading. So I went off to teach my class. My students, well, they looked wiped. about 5 people are out with a flu-like illness, and the rest - dead tired. Given my own state, I said, "students, I am not this sort of professor, but I shall take pity on you. Go. Use this hour wisely."

I, however, did not get an hour to use wisely or otherwise. For one of my students asked me if I would talk to her about options after graduation. Apparently, her adviser is "weird." I don't know who it is, but whatever. She's a nice student and I was happy to help. I then found a request for a recommendation for Americorps in my in-box, for a former student who's great but dude. I have no time to deal with it. I then stopped in to talk to my chair, and then I went off to the curriculum committee mtg. At which time, two things happened.

Remember how we were working on revamping our major requirements? Like a gajillion years ago? Well, the first (and most important) part of those changes have passed, passed, passed! Huzzah! I then somehow ended up volunteering my services for yet another fucking committee that grew out of the 3 committees I've been on since July. Never fear: this one shall only require some emailing and one meeting. I suppose I could have not volunteered, but really, I needed to do so.

That meeting done, I went back to my office to finish grading. Then I taught my grad class (which went pretty well, all things considered), and then I gave them their proposals back with an hour left to go, and then met with each of them individually, which ended up taking an hour and a half and not an hour. In between students, I advised BES about one of her statements of purpose. And then I was free to go home.

So now I'm home, I'm drinking a glass of wine, and I am looking forward to a day tomorrow that shall involve my kittens, my pajamas, and my couch. This week was brutal. This day was the most brutal of the entire week.


My Grad Class

Enough about the search committee posts as I've now made my way through the ~150 applications we received by the deadline, I've made my long short list and checked it twice, and now I just need to wait to see how committee deliberations next week (4 hours of meetings scheduled! Fun times - not) go. From this point I will not post anything much about the search, for this is where things get more specific and I don't feel like posting further would be appropriate for the blog.

So, let's change the subject. I want to write a bit about my grad seminar that I'm teaching this term. Our MA program is basically brand spanking new, and while at first I had concerns about us starting such a program (who needs another MA program in English?) I actually see that we are fulfilling a need in the region, and so that's fine. That said, well, I got seminar paper proposals in from my students who remained in the course (lots of attrition from my initial enrollment, which I had expected would be the case, and which I'm ultimately fine with) and I am... how do I put this?

Well, let me back up. When I designed this course, I was very clear about the fact that I could not just put together a course that would have passed for graduate-level in my own experience. Most of our students are working full time, and they just don't have the time to devote to reading or the sense of graduate-level expectations for workload that I had in my own grad experience. So, in thinking about the course design, I very clearly wanted to set up a schedule that pushed the students but also that gave them a lot of milestones throughout so that they could chart their progress.

So, whereas in my grad work, where the reading expectation was something like 1 novel per week plus secondary readings and theory, in this course, students are reading about half of the amount. I'm ok with that, as I'd rather have them do all of the half amount of reading rather than none of a larger amount of reading. And whereas my seminars with rare exceptions had a grade breakdown of 80% seminar paper (with no proposal assignment or anything folded into that) and 20% a presentation/discussion-lead and participation, my course has more bites at the grading apple. Presentation; Participation; Proposal/Annotated bibliography; Reading Journal; Seminar Paper, with percentages distributed more evenly across assignments (though the seminar paper is still the largest percentage). Again, for my student population, I think this makes sense. In my grad programs, the expectation was that you'd be doing things like a reading journal, refining a topic and doing research, participating, without instruction. My students, for the most part, did not enter this program with a level of preparedness that would indicate that they would do these things without them being assigned. I don't think that it's a bad thing for me to make these requirements explicit, given my context, so that's fine, too.

What concerns me is not the structure of the course or my level of expectation. I put a lot of time into designing the course, and I think it's a good one. And, for the most part, the students are bright and enthusiastic, if perhaps a bit lacking in maturity and seriousness compared with grad students at research-heavy institutions. But.

I was totally shocked by the quality - or lack thereof - of their proposals for their seminar papers. (In general - some proposals were alright, I suppose.) Here is what surprised me:

  • Quality of writing. Poor word choice, lack of clarity, failure to proofread.
  • Failure to comply with the required topics that the proposal assignment indicated that they should address. Because that's the thing: I didn't just say "hand in a proposal" - I gave them an assignment that broke down explicitly the information such a proposal should include.
  • Lack of specificity. This goes along with the first two bullets, but it's also a distinct issue. Ultimately, I don't think the majority of them actually revised the proposal before turning it in.
These three things shocked me, not in the least because I spent a good hour of a class session discussing the proposal assignment and its link to the final paper in class (something that also never happened in my own grad career).

I mean, these are graduate students. Not grad students in a top program, surely, but still: why would a person pursue a graduate degree if one didn't intend to do one's best on all assignments? I just don't get it.

I mean, I get it when undergrads don't necessarily apply themselves on all assignments. It's not what I'd wish, but I understand it. This, though, I do not understand.

Also, let me be frank: most of my undergraduates who are majors in upper-level courses produce better topic proposals than what I got from my grad students. At the very least, they follow directions. But more often than not, a good number actually have really interesting ideas above and beyond meeting the basic requirements of an assignment.

So I guess what I am, beyond anything else, is disappointed. I'm going to force some of them to redo the assignment before I'll pass it (something I'd never imagined I'd have to do) and I think I'm going to take time in class tonight for them to workshop their proposals with comments and to meet with them individually while they do so. I feel like this is a freshmen comp style thing to do, and I think it's infantilizing, but I think they all will benefit from it. I'd rather infantilize them and help them to do well than to treat them like grown-ups and have them all tank the paper.

It does suck, though, that this is where we are at this point in the semester. I'd just expected so much more from them.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

More on The Search with WAY Too Many Applications

I thought since I'm such a crappy blogger lately that I should turn my response back to recent comments into a post. I know. Lame. But what can I do? I'm swamped with stuff right now, and all I want to do is whine. I think Facebook has become my whining place now, and so that leaves me silent on the blog more often than has historically been my norm. But seriously, people, I feel like I'm going to collapse on the spot. Between teaching and mentoring and grading and committee work and showing up at things and yadda yadda yadda, I ain't got no ideas at the end of the day worth blogging about. I'm just fried.

But so anyway, to get to some things that showed up in the comments. First, the easy one. A number of people have marvelled at the number of applications I described as "strong" in my previous post. Let me clarify: that percentage was not about perfect fit. That percentage was about "strong candidate who could easily do a tenure-track job, who's got the package of research and teaching and all that jazz and who has the degree (or will have by date of appointment) and who is in the general area in which we are searching. " Having looked at more than 125 applications now, I would still say that about 75% of those fit that bill. But. That doesn't mean that 75% of those are *ideal* for us specifically. Just that let's say it were the apocalypse and all of those who were *ideal* were washed away in a flood. We could easily come up with 10 candidates who would do from the survivors, and we could hire one of them, and it would likely be just fine. Now, in terms of applicants who hit the sweet spot of multiple of our preferences, and whose letters I liked and who sounded interesting and cool and like they'd actually be into working here, I'd say that we're looking at more like 15-20%. In order to get to a reasonable interviewable number, we'll need to get rid of about 2/3 of the people from that long short list.

On the one hand, this is an embarassment of riches. I think in part it's because we wrote a strong ad that really did communicate what we needed and really did narrow the pool. (If we had sent off the original draft of the ad without making it more specific, I truly believe that we'd have gotten like 7,000 applications.) While there are a some folks who are really trying to stretch in ways that would win them the title of ultimate Twister player, for the most part, we're getting applicants who do have business applying for this position. Also, in part, I think this has to do with the fact that we are in what many would consider a pretty decent location. On the other, the fact that we've got so many people who we could reasonably interview/hire makes the whole process, as Hylonome wrote, "exhausting and, at times, devastating." We are not just trying to find 10 qualified people to interview. We are in a position where qualifications are so totally beside the point. Instead, this process is going to be about splitting hairs. And with that being the case, it's not about qualified or unqualified - it's about whether the people seem to "get" us - whatever that means. I guess I'm so insistent about this because saying "Oh, only 10% of applications are really on target or really are qualified" I think really perpetuates the myth that if one just applies to the jobs for which one is "really" qualified, that one will get a job. I think we all know that's not necessarily true. An applicant may be qualified, and an applicant *still* may be passed over. In fact, that's actually a strong possibility. Because we're going to have to kick a lot of "really" qualified folks to the curb - even before we get to the point of interviewing.

I also want to note that this job is not in one of the most totally glutted (ahem, 20th century anything) fields. I'm in one of those fields, and seriously, serving on this search has made me more committed than ever to advising my students NOT to do my field UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES if they insist on pursuing grad school, which I hate, but which really is how I feel. Because if this is how it is in a less popular field? Jesus. I don't know how anybody gets a job in the more popular ones. I don't know how I got my job, really, looking back on it all. Or, I kind of know specifically what contributed to me getting an offer, but the reality is that I was motherfucking the luckiest girl in the world. Not because I'm an imposter or I'm not smart or I wasn't qualified. But rather because I know they looked at about the same number of applications in the search for me and the fact that I made it through the various cuts given what the applicant pool probably looked like is astonishing. I'm seriously astonished that anybody gets a job, seeing what I'm seeing from this side of the table.

Also, I feel like I should note this. The applicants that I feel sorriest for are those whose dissertations really fall smack in between two hiring fields. Those people who are neither one thing nor the other. Their research sounds fascinating, but seriously: if I need to know that you can teach and advise MA theses across a hundred years of literature in a particular national tradition, if you only hit 30 years of that in your research and teaching, you're not a contender. And so I repeat the advice that I got from my dissertation adviser when I was embarking on coming up with my dissertation topic, just in case anybody is reading for whom it would be a help: a dissertation is, first and foremost, a job-seeking document. So while you may be passionate about crossing period boundaries or national traditions or genres or what have you, save that "it doesn't really fit anyplace neatly" project for after you get a job. Write a dissertation that clearly demonstrates your immersion in a hiring and teaching field. A dissertation shouldn't be the last major research project you ever do. It should be the first.

But so now on to the more difficult question that (not) just another girl posed in a comment:

you note that people need to find the time for research, but please help me figure out how the hell to do that while teaching 5-6 courses at 2 or 3 different schools a semester, and still having to pick up some kind of temp work to make ends meet. or am I, as I suspect, completely screwed and I might as well give up now, even though I've only had my degree a year.

A full time, decently paid 4/4 load with health insurance seems like the freakin' holy grail right now.

I really feel like this deserves an answer, and I am going to try to answer it as honestly as I can. First things first: I don't think only a year out of a degree is the time to give up. I do think, however, that one needs to be realistic about how long one can reasonably do the adjunct thing and remain human. Personally, I had always planned that three job market cycles would be my maximum. Again, I was totally lucky and so never had to put that plan into action, but that was my plan. I can also see 5 as being a reasonable number at the outside, if one is more patient than I am, and particularly given the funding/hiring situations at universities right now. More than that, and I say get out. Your life is more important than this profession.

But now for the actual comment. Let me note that this is only one person's (my) perspective, and other people may have differing opinions, and I'm coming at this after having reviewed all of these applications over the past couple of weeks. YMMV.

1. I really don't believe that anybody should be adjuncting teaching 5-6 classes a semester (whether at one university or multiple universities) plus temping to make ends meet. The reality is that at a certain point, more teaching experience does absolutely nothing for you, particularly if you're not getting the opportunity to develop courses in your hiring field. If my department is hiring a person to teach Medieval literature, say, the fact that you've taught basic writing, comp, technical writing, creative writing, intro to lit, the survey, and an American novel course does not do anything to assist your application. Nothing whatsoever. My impulse would be to say that it would make a hell of a lot more sense to adjunct just one or two courses per semester (to keep your hat in the academic ring) and to temp full time (which ultimately can lead to being able to buy health insurance once you've clocked a certain number of hours). On the weekends, you can work on research, which will add to your marketability in ways that teaching until your head falls off won't. And yes, that course of action sucks mightily. How do I know that? Because I temped full time the last year of my PhD program. Was it fulfilling and good and did I feel like I was using my education? No. But I paid my rent. And my fees for still being in the program. I didn't go into (much) further debt. And sure, I hated my life, but I'd have hated my life if I were adjuncting to pay the bills, too. And the adjuncting would have taken a lot more time and energy. And temping to pay the bills didn't stop me from getting an academic job.

2. Showing that you're a consistent researcher need not mean racking up publication after publication, not for a job at a place like mine. The point is not the length of the publications portion of your cv, or even quality of venues, but rather consistency. I can say this. The baseline for me in evaluating applications has basically been that a person has to have at least one or two publications. They need not be fancy, but they should be original articles and no merely encyclopedia entries or reviews. "Under review" doesn't count. "In progress" doesn't count. "Revise and resubmit" is slightly better, but it's not a publication. "Forthcoming" is grand. I want to see that you're getting your own ideas out there. If you're adjuncting, I don't expect you to be racking up publications, necessarily, but I do expect that you'd attend at least one local (or close to local) conference a year during that time if at all possible. And I'd hope that you'd gotten at least one article to publication during grad school, and attended some conferences during grad school. Again, the publication(s) could be in an essay collection, a mediocre journal, a conference proceedings. But if you've done NOTHING other than your dissertation, with the applicant pool that we've got? Well, we don't need to take a chance on you. That's the cold, hard truth.

3. You know, a 4/4 job, t-t, with benefits, is kind of the holy grail. But it's not heaven or nirvana. The fact of the matter is that in a 4/4 job, while your teaching would decrease, and your security would increase, and both of these are substantial and not-to- be-sneezed-at gains, your teaching wouldn't decrease that much, your research expectation would go from zero to not zero (even at a place like mine, where you only need a few articles to be totally sure of getting tenure, there would be external pressure there that doesn't exist if you're not in a t-t position), and at my place, your service expectation would be through the roof. In other words, while you'd have security, and more money, and slightly less teaching, you'd also have a fuck of a lot more you'd be expected to do and a fuck of a lot more riding on it. If I take into account the service and teaching portions of things, during the academic year I'm working - even now, with many courses "in the can" and a system and being all acclimated to the institution and such - an average of 60+ hours per week. Yes, I do not have the anxiety of not having money. Yes, I have job security (now nearly total since earning tenure). Yes, I have benefits. Yes, I have the holy grail. But if I want to do research, I have to make the time for research. (Which I'll note I've not done in the way that I need to since summer.) This job, my job, is not like skipping through fields of flowers and devoting myself to a life of the mind. If I get the sense from an applicant that this is their vision of what working here will be, I am immediately turned off. Why? Not because I'm personally affronted or something but rather because I think that they are completely clueless about, and thus would never be able to handle, the demands of this particular job.

4. The thing that I think is most insidious about adjunctification is that it makes applicants conceive of themselves and identify themselves as less than because they are adjuncting. Look: I've read applications from people who are part-timers, full-timers (non-t-t), VAPs, Assistant Professors - hell even a couple of associate professors who are willing to give up tenure to get out of their current situations. I've read applications from ABD folks. The fact of the matter is that my cream of the crop includes a range of folks. What matters to me isn't where you work - it's what you do. It's how you fit what we need to hire. It's whether you seem confident in your abilities, instead of beaten down by your obstacles. The fact of the matter is that adjuncting doesn't taint a candidate. What taints a candidate is whether they appear to be sucking on the lemon of adjuncting (or any other circumstance), as opposed to making lemonade out of it. And yes, this does come through in people's letters of application. I don't want to work with somebody who's all "my life's so hard," because you know what? Your life's going to be hard when you get this job, too. Even if you think now that it won't be. I want a colleague who can see the silver lining to a dark, gray, hideous cloud. I want a colleague who's excited, and positive, and who has Big Plans, in spite of obstacles. Because there will surely be obstacles here, and you'd better have the fortitude to handle them if we hire you.

But with all of that being said, I just want to note for the record that I answered at such length because I felt like the question deserved it. Adjuncting sucks. This profession is fucked up. It is totally ridiculous that I'm disqualifying people from my interview pool, at this particular university, because they don't have publications or because they aren't just exactly my fantasy candidate. But the reality of my applicant pool is that I don't have to be kind and I don't have to make any concessions. I suspect that's the reality at most places. I mean, I'm joyfully tossing aside candidates with Ivy PhDs, candidates with motherfucking books out. Because they're just not "us." And I can totally do that because I have such a huge amount of great candidates from whom to choose. It's not fair, and it's not a meritocracy. Not because our candidates that we will pick don't have merit. But rather because, in this situation, so many have merit that I don't have to bother with the ones who don't intrigue me. Whatever their pedigree, whatever their accomplishments.

And I think that's seriously the reality of the job market.