Seductions of Sedan Delivery

Neil Young gives inspiration to Claire Potter on the art of writing job descriptions.

August 6, 2010

It's difficult to think about it while we still have three to four precious weeks of summer left. But on behalf of all the people who will begin full time teaching in the fall, I ask you to conjure -- for a second -- a week in mid-semester. Feel the pain as you stay up half the night to grade your papers! Experience the fear as you go into class half-prepared! Recall being fatally short of sleep as you sit, dazed, through yet another search committee meeting, having driven yourself unsparingly through 100 applicant files the day before! Conjure the self-righteousness and hypocrisy, as you lecture students that they could get their work in on time if only they would get organized!

Yeah, baby. The problem is, there is almost no one I know in academia who has a job description that would give them a reasonable sense of where a professor's job begins and ends. Couple this with the reality of being tenure-track (or worse, a full-time visitor), which often seems like an endless exercise in pleasing everybody, all the time, in every way we can. Top it off with the fact that we learn early on not to complain about being overworked because some jackass will look at us piously and say, "You just have to learn to say no to things!" (subtext: say no -- except to me) as if you are overworked because, somewhere along the line, you forgot to say your safeword.

The result is that even many of us who actually have tenure end up hard-wired to do far too much, far more than we really want to do or are capable of doing well, even though we don't really have to anymore. We believe that we are powerless to keep unwanted responsibilities in check, that there are no grounds -- not to say no, but to figure out what and who to say no to -- and the result is a work overload. Inevitably, our health, our peace of mind, our good temper and emotional availability at home, and the pace of our scholarship takes the biggest hit. If you are like me, these marathons of overwork and frustration can produce moments when you start to hear Neil Young warbling:

Sedan delivery is a job

I know I'll like;

It sure was hard to find.

Hard to find a job!

Hard to find!

But never fear. How can this year can be different? How can you create a plan of action that will make this year different? The answer is: Take charge. The answer is: Write your own job description, using these principles.

Knowing your appropriate load allows you to know your overload. In consultation with a senior colleague, figure out what are the minimum number of bodies you are expected to manage, and what the department average is for each category and at each rank of the faculty. In the category of "body management," I am counting major advisees, non-major advisees, enrolled students, honors students, and any other person you need to manage (postdocs, graduate students, other faculty). These categories can overlap -- but count them twice when they do (for example, a thesis advisee who is also a major advisee = two bodies, as these are distinct activities that cannot be folded into the same hour of your time.)

Whatever the category is, count it and stay at, or preferably under, that number. Anyone extra is an overload. This is the basic outline of your job description, because whatever people say, a full-time teaching job is primarily about the students. That said, you have to come up with a strategy for how -- particularly if you are a popular teacher, or are teaching in an underrepresented field (more on this below) -- you are going to say no to students that you don't have time for; and you will send them away to someone whose job it is to help them. Liberal arts colleges have chairs, field advisers, and honors committees whose job it is to help these students; research universities usually have a director of undergraduate studies as well. Whether you are new faculty or a full professor, don't kid yourself that you are turning a student out like one of the little lost animals of FarmVille if you refuse to take hir on as an overload.

If you have a joint appointment, total the activities of each part of your appointment and divide them in half. This means that you don't do all things in either place except go to department meetings, for which you should repay yourself by taking one fewer thesis, or two fewer advisees. You have to figure this out annually, and you must do so with both chairs in the room; if you are tenure-track, your mentor should be part of the conversation. The reason that joint appointments usually end up as more burdensome is because it is often assumed that "full participation" means full participation in both "homes." Not so. It means doing the equivalent of one job in two places. You did not decide the terms of your appointment: the university or college did, and it is up to them to make their expectations clear without, as they say in factories, "speed-up." If one chair needs more participation from you for a reason, the other chair needs to graciously give way. There may also be years when a particularly large amount of activity in one home pulls you away; that can be repaid the following year.

If you are a visitor or a postdoc, do your job well and politely decline to do favors or spend time on anything institutional you have not been hired for. Read your letter of appointment carefully, and have a meeting with the chair at the beginning of each semester to go over your responsibilities. You should also know that most students don't know the difference between permanent and temporary faculty, so that although their desire for your attention is a great complement, it should be firmly and kindly resisted. Don't take on advisees of any kind unless you have contracted to do so; don't go to department meetings, even if you are invited to them (believe me, no one really wants you there); don't agree to meet with job candidates unless they are friends of yours who need the inside skinny; don't get involved in campus or faculty politics; don't let an extra body into your class; don't have unlimited office hours with students who love,love, love you; don't listen to veiled hints that if you go the extra mile for this person or that person that there might be a job authorized in your field this year and you would be a great candidate (this is a lie); and don't bust your a$$ to be the best-est, most creative, Mr. Chips-iest teacher on the planet.

Limit the number of recommendations you agree to write, and be clear with students what they need to do for you. Inevitably, we end up writing recommendations off the clock, and you must set aside some time in your schedule after October 1 for getting this work done at the office within business hours. When done correctly, a recommendation takes between an hour and two hours to write; tailoring an old recommendation for a new purpose takes at least half an hour; and uploading a completed recommendation to an electronic system takes about ten minutes for each school. Insist that law school applicants use the services provided by the Law School Admissions Council. It is also worth your while to have a document, either on your web page or that you can send to students, that tells them exactly what you need, what they must do, and what lead time you need to get the recommendation done.

Inevitably, those of us who teach more students and have more advisees end up writing more recommendations too. This is because students have good reasons for seeing us as allies; because they are comfortable asking for something that is part of our job but that many colleagues treat like a favor; and because -- well, pretty much all students need recommendations for something. But the fact that you are already working too hard, and have no time, does not oblige you to write recommendations that you also do not have time for. Develop criteria and stick to them (for example, that you only write grad school recs for people who have done advanced work with you.) Be honest with a student when you have no basis for an evaluation, or if you can't honestly write a good one. Do not write recommendations if you are not a permanent member of the faculty. Do not "feel bad" when you have reached your fixed and immutable limit and must say no: that's what the other faculty are there for.

And here's a nugget of advice: develop boilerplate recommendations for the B.S. credentialing letters that study abroad programs require. All they care about is that the student can pay, and that s/he is not nuts in some way that will cause harm to self or others.

Do not volunteer, stupid. You know who you are -- whatever your biological gender, you are a girl. You are the one who finds the silence insufferable when the chair has asked for someone to step up, and you think it is your job to make everyone feel good again. Why you? And why now? At least go away and consult your job description before you go all Do-Bee on everyone. It isn't your job to see to it that everything gets done -- it is the chair's job, and believe me, s/he will figure out how to do it.

Underrepresented faculty in underrepresented fields have no obligation to extend themselves without end to underserved students. Sometimes I look around me and it is so frackin' obvious why the scholars who are perpetually sicker, angrier, more exhausted, and frantic about meeting deadlines for their scholarship share certain characteristics. We are queer, we are of color, we are international scholars, we are women, we are feminist men. We are the ones who, in order to make space for what we care about in institutions, do it ourselves. We invent the programs, then we chair them. This is what Jean O'Brien and Lisa Disch write about in an article I strongly recommend (and that partly inspired this post) "Innovation is Overtime: An Ethical Analysis of 'Politically Committed Labor,' " We are the ones who advertise our universities' "diversity" when we labor outside the classroom. We are the ones who students seek out to teach the things they never had a chance to learn in high school. We are the ones who students "like us" and the ones who hold similar political commitments flock to in droves.

Face it: certain faculty lines and programs have come into the academy as add-ons, and there is no intention at most colleges to use what we interdisciplinary scholars know to transform the disciplinary paradigms that 95 percent of faculty are hired to support. There aren't enough of us, our faculties aren't diverse enough, and the culture wars of the 1980s permanently intimidated university administrations from appearing to be "too radical" by allowing what we do to impinge on core curriculums. As an individual, you can't fill that dissonant gap even if you worked 26 hours a day trying to do so. It isn't your fault that there are too few classes in x; that the program in y is underfunded; that you are one of three z faculty. You didn't make the decision to grant a line to the underwater basket weaving department for a replacement who will teach 10 students a term in the traditional field of Renaissance wooden needles that the administration just can't conceive of mounting a curriculum without -- while you are faced with sending 40 students away from your Native studies survey. Worse, the generative political urgency in the various fields that make up American studies, women's studies and ethnic studies often moves us to throw our personal energy at immediate needs that are actually the result of long-term institutional dysfunction that our sacrifices help to maintain. Don't make up for the deficiencies of the institution by taxing yourself. Don't. The academic world is littered with broken and bitter people behind who thought that institutional neglect was only temporary.

The best thing you can do for your field is get your damn writing done, get tenure, become famous, acquire influence at your institution in a way that all those suits in the administration understand, and go someplace where the institution is committed to your intellectual commitments.

Which leads me to my final piece of advice for writing your own job description:

Your scholarship is part of your job. Schedule between 25 and 30 percent of the time you allot for work during the week to keeping your scholarship going. You know you should do this -- and yet, many of us see our writing as the thing that we have time for when our family, teaching and committee responsibilities are done. Which means it can get put off -- sometimes fatally -- for months at a time, causing us to get out of touch with projects we care about and go without sleep at various points in the semester to meet a commitment that has now become a burden.

So the next time you get angry about your perception that you are doing more work than other colleagues, remember: their "normal" is guaranteed by your overwork. Write your job description -- write it now, knowing that you will have to revise it and rewrite it as you figure out how to balance your life. Leave some space for things that may, in the end, be necessary tasks -- and if that space doesn't fill, use it for writing. And while you are performing that exercise, listen to this:


Claire Potter is professor of history and American studies at Wesleyan University. Her blog is Tenured Radical, where an earlier version of this essay appeared.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top