After teaching summer school, I was left with five long, dull weeks before fall started. So I rewrote my CV into a résumé, contacted two local temporary employment agencies, went through a barrage of tests, and came out the other side as a competent office worker. For my first position, I was asked to replace a receptionist at a local firm for three weeks.
One day, when I tried to log on to the company account online to send an overnight package, I realized that the password I had been given wasn't working. A co-worker then told me that she had replaced all the computer passwords. Her reason, she said, was that an ex-employee had been suspected of fraud. As I sat with an overnight envelope in my hands, she leaned over and signed on, allowing me access to the online shipping program. Smiling, she said, "Just call me if you need to ship anything. I'll be glad to help." Surprised, I realized that I was not going to be trusted with the new password. After all, I was just a temp.
That afternoon, I started to reflect on another time that I found myself feeling like "the outsider." Before I landed a full-time contract teaching position, I supported myself by working as an adjunct for six years at a total of eight different college campuses. Although it was the best formative teaching experience I have ever had, there were lessons to be learned:
People may judge you based on "snapshots." As an office temp, I often feel that not only am I being watched, but also that those watching judge me based on what they see in one moment. The co-worker who passes by my desk as I make the one personal call I will make that day may think I am a slacker. In the same way, I often felt I was being examined while adjuncting. The colleague who watched me accidentally jam an original with a paperclip in the copier's automatic feeder may have walked away thinking that I was "challenged" when it came to office equipment. And I was scared to ask my department chair for a particular schedule one semester. Why? I sensed that administrators would see me as a troublemaker for the remainder of the time I worked there. Ridiculous? Probably. But realizing that one moment could create an impression that might last a long time, I couldn't help but try to be on my best behavior at all times. Unfortunately, this left me feeling disconnected from my co-workers and exhausted at the end of a teaching day.
The person you replace may resent you. At my temporary position, the receptionist is training me as she prepares to be on special assignment upstairs. She is surprisingly cool toward me, sometimes criticizing me for spending too much time trying to assist callers rather than simply dumping calls into voicemail. I suspect that she resents me.
In the same way, adjuncts are often asked to replace instructors who are specialists in their discipline. Whether it is an attempt to lessen costs, or "un-stick" a course that has gotten stale, those being rotated out or those new Ph.D.'s who often can't score a position because jobs aren't being created for them often resent the new adjunct. At one community college, the department chair assured me that the past professor would be very helpful in getting me up to speed. He also told me that class materials and curriculum for this course were not proprietary, but developed with more than one instructor over the course of many semesters.
Oddly, the professor who had taught this course for years never returned my calls or e-mail messages begging for help. It was only when the department chair demanded action that the professor dropped a computer disk in my campus mail slot without comment. I had to remake the course according to vague departmental guidelines. Incoming students experienced a "drop out" in information flow because there was no communication between instructors and I felt frustrated. I have heard this is not always the situation. Often, instructors are happy to prepare the new worker to deliver information well. But as a hard-working adjunct, I realized it was smart to be prepared for the worst when taking over a course that another professor has taught.
You will subjugate your needs. Knowing that I am only there for a short time, I'm willing to put up with a lot of nonsense on any job. At my current temporary position, I sit between a young woman who has a heater under her desk and a blanket on her legs and a woman who wears short sleeves and has a fan under her desk. The younger woman often plays post-Seattle angst rock on her radio, but complains if the other woman plays country music. If this were my permanent job, I'd feel as if I were in hell. As it is, I know this is a short-term problem. I just think about the long-term and try not to get anxious about my circumstances.
The same often applies for adjuncting. If I know I am simply padding my CV with a semester or two's worth of teaching experience, I don't make waves. I ask few questions and do all I can to keep the status quo. At one private university, the list of approved textbooks was two levels below what was appropriate for that level. If I followed my department chair's advice, I would be teaching 10th grade English composition to freshman university students. Although I was shocked, I realized the alternative was even worse. Making a stink with administration would do nothing but get me fired and leave me without an income for four months. So I went on to teach three very "soft" sections of composition, knowing that students there would not be prepared to do anything other than fill out a simple application after graduation. I prayed that the academic universe would forgive me.
Although adjuncts are often criticized for having "short-timer's attitude," the administration and senior faculty often do not help these part-timers see the context that surrounds their work. Many colleges do provide orientations and training sessions for adjuncts -- but these are not always scheduled at a time when part-timers can attend. And a refusal to financially compensate adjuncts for attending often results in a poor turnout, which perpetuates a cycle of detachment and disinformation.
Don't feel surprised if you isolate. Although co-workers at my temporary assignment offered me a beer at closing time last Friday, I turned it down. I really felt like an outsider, so socializing with people I was going to know for three weeks didn't sound very relaxing. In the same way, I may have sometimes been a bit standoffish as an adjunct. First, I was only on campus for hours rather than days. I physically did not have time to cultivate contacts and network. Next, I had no way to know where to place my trust. Should I soft-soap the departmental secretary with whom I had very limited contact? How about the tenured colleague who was always pulling out of the parking lot as I pulled in? Should I throw in my lot with the other adjunct who eats lunch alone in the cafeteria? I had no background on other instructors; without knowing their capabilities and history, I often couldn't tell who might make a good "adjunct buddy." And as a part-timer, I had very little insight into my department. I had no way to know where the political splits were, if there were any, and if my alignment with any one individual would "taint" my association with the campus administration. With all these roadblocks, I often felt it was safer to stay to myself.
Unfortunately many adjuncts feel the same way. To combat this, my current university not only invites adjuncts to departmental meetings, but also holds faculty events where adjuncts are encouraged to participate. Free food may be the call that fills the room, but lounging with other instructors (full- or part-time) becomes an important way for adjuncts to collect information and navigate departments. Other campuses I have worked at have a formal instructor-mentorship program to give adjuncts direction and help them form academic partnerships.
Every workplace is different. Not surprisingly, co-workers at my current temporary job are not interested in how we did business at my last office. They don't care about the sizes of envelopes that we used in the mailroom, or what kind of copy paper we purchased. What they care about is that I am working for them now. They are not interested in any suggestions I may have to "improve" workflow at their company. I am simply a pair of eyes and hands to them.
Being an adjunct is different in that I am being hired for my specialty -- teaching. I have some autonomy in how I achieve a department's course goals. But it is the same in that I need to follow their procedures while working and use their curriculum in drawing up a course. One campus will suggest certain textbooks; another will approve a completely different list. As an adjunct, I feel compelled to follow protocol established at that campus. And although my past teaching experience has always made me a better instructor, I sense that each campus I work at does not want to hear in detail about my experiences on my last campus. It's a bit like dating someone who describes their last dating experience in detail -- you can't help but wonder where your new date has been -- and why he or she has chosen to go out with you.
You will find what you are made of. The good news about temping is that it can be a defining experience. I sense that working as a receptionist in this small industrial office will give me a better inside view of the people in this town. I am stepping outside of my "academic mind" to remember what it's like to work a 40-hour a week job that may demand less intellectually, but is tiring all the same. I hope it will help me visualize my students' struggles as they balance their load. After all, many are working part- or full-time. Here, more than 80 percent are first generation college students with working parents.
The good news about adjuncting is that these years really helped me to find out what I could endure -- and focused my teaching. I started to see how different student populations responded and what I could do to engage them. My idealized view of what a classroom "should" be like started to fade. And my teaching improved a great deal. I started to find what worked -- and what didn't. It wasn't as if I couldn't push my students. I could and did. But I also got to experience a range of responses and came to be more prepared, and less sensitive, when faced with my own internal constructive criticism.
For me, working at two or three campuses was demanding. During that time, though, I learned to focus on teaching three different student populations. Not only did I gear my lessons to fit those three groups, but I also learned to switch methods to teach more effectively. In a short six years, I would like to have said that I had seen everything -- though I'm sure I hadn't. At one large urban campus, two mental patients got into a fistfight in the hallway just outside of my class. I called campus security and waited patiently by the classroom door. At the time, I did not feel nervous. I felt confident, though irritated at the loss of class time. That was when I started to realize that all this experience -- all these crazy individual experiences, really, were shaping me to become more tolerant. And, I might add, better at troubleshooting.
For two semesters, I taught at an urban community college three days a week, a suburban community college one day a week, and a suburban university three counties away for another two days a week. I was constantly exhausted. Every mile I put on my tired 11-year-old subcompact was etched into my tailbone. I knew every mile of asphalt, every gas station that took ATM cards, and every drive-through restaurant within a hundred-mile radius. I can't say that I did a stellar job teaching five courses that year -- but I prepped for four different courses, read three new textbooks, and put together some fresh assignments for every one of these classes. Tired as I was, I felt proud. I was not going to give in and go back to private industry to escape the pressures and demands of the academic life. I would survive and take all I could from it to become a better instructor.
After a grueling summer, I was able to cobble together enough work to move closer to the highest paying part-time positions and drop the most troublesome assignments. But having to go to such lengths to stay in the business and support myself as a college instructor showed me how much I loved the craft. Feeling insecure about one's abilities, dealing with politics and personalities, and putting one's career above all things -- these can be draining. Yet they can also be the experiences that show us what we are really capable of doing. By the time I gave notice to my three part-time teaching jobs and planned my move across the United States, two-thirds of my adjunct colleagues had gone on to full-time teaching careers. One has told me that he finally feels as if he's "landed." Two have gone on to do research they had dreamed about for years. One has married her high school sweetheart and bought a small home. Another has started to publish. It's a rewarding future. For all of us -- adjuncts and full-timers alike.
Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.
Submitted by Alex Golub on September 19, 2006 - 4:00am
The letter said: "The College of Social Sciences has embarked upon a mission to foster a vibrant academic climate for our faculty and provide an excellent education for our students. The coming years should be stimulating and creative ones as we continue to translate the mission into academic plans and programs. The Department of Anthropology wishes to invite you to join us in our quest for excellence in the college."
It was an offer letter.
An offer letter. For a tenure-track position. At a large state research university with an international reputation for research in my area of expertise. Where my wife also has a tenure-track job. I have been unbelievably lucky this month to have made the transition from adjuncthood to a tenure-track position just four months after earning my Ph.D.
Of course, it wasn't only luck. I did manage to marry a brilliant scholar whom my university wants to keep around, and I spent the last two years feverishly writing articles and presenting papers at conferences. My wife and I were lucky to have good personal "fit" with our two departments' interests and personalities, and both of our chairs were supportive and encouraging and had clout. And so on and so forth.... There's no doubt that any hire relies on the good will of many people and a concatenation of fortuitous events. But these days in the academy it seems conditions both necessary and sufficient must be accompanied by the correct alignment of stars and a bit of pixie dust if things are ever going to come to fruition.
Taking one's first steps on the tenure track can be a little strange. The result for me has been a strange sense of dislocation and culture shock. It is not that I am unfamiliar with universities, of course. On the contrary, my choice of profession seems far more preordained than my actually being hired. My father is a professor, my mother is a professor, my wife is a professor -- it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see where I was headed. But it is in fact exactly the fact that I've spent my whole life at universities that makes coming to work for one seem so strange.
My appointment at a large state university is, if anything, a strange sort of recapitulation. After going to a picturesque liberal arts college and a graduate school complete with Gothic quads, I find myself being confronted with a campus redolent with the smells and textures of my childhood. I have no idea how much time I actually spent on my father's campus when I was a child, but memories of it still loom large in my mind, however fragmentary they may be. Now, surrounded by the realia of my job, I keep on finding them wafting slowly up into my consciousness. The unimaginative concrete modernism of the buildings, cool tiles floors, the industrial heaviness of the doors, the brute utilitarianism of the massive metal filing cabinets and cinder block walls -- all of these things remind me of the dark, silent halls I would explore when my father went into his own department during the weekend and bought me along.
There are other, less nostalgic dislocations as well. For instance, the other day a student worker moved some bookshelves around in my new office. The strange thing about the experience, of course, was that I wasn't the student worker.
Oh yes the office -- did I mention that when you become a professor they actually give you an office? This is the first time in my entire life I have actually had an office. The experience is, frankly, breathtaking -- and not just because I finally have a place to hang up all the videogame posters my wife has vetoed off the walls of our apartment. An office means you actually have a door, and have to make the critical choice that you spend hours pondering while waiting outside your advisor's office for office hours -- am I going to be one of those people who tapes up New Yorker cartoons outside their office and prominently displays postcards from remote locations sent by colleagues and students? Such are the things that a career in academia is made out of.
Actually to be honest I did not like my office at first. Being a grad student sucks in an extremely large number of ways, and about the only solace you can take in the experience is the assurance that you are living in some sort of incredible authentic hard-core life of the mind that few others have the integrity to endure. As a result my initial reaction to having an office was a Holden Caulfiedesque sense that I was somehow turning into a phony because my living space and working space were now separate -- as if not having to search amongst the waffle iron and muffin tins for my copy of The Nuer somehow meant that I had sold out. This sense pretty quickly evaporated, however, when I realized the incredible convenience of having an office where your library at your fingertips instead of in your bedroom.
The flip side of this is something that I never anticipated about professordom -- your inability to nap. As a graduate student I understood that once I became a professor I would no longer be able to do my job unshaved and in my bathrobe the way I could when "my job" was rolling out of bed and working on my dissertation. But last week when I was totally exhausted from teaching, I experienced the rude shock of realizing that I could not just get up, leave my office, walk into the next room, lay down in my bed and take a nap. Partially this was because the next room is no longer my bedroom, but a colleague's office. But mostly this is because I can't just get up in the middle of the afternoon and go home whenever I feel like it. I am expected to be in my office during working hours, desire to nap or no. Perhaps this changes after one gets tenure? It certainly explains the high cost of coffee on campus.
But overall this month has been an incredible one for me -- an opportunity for which I'll forever be grateful to my university and my department. Even the vertigo of being hired cannot replace the incredible sense of opportunity that comes from becoming, at last, a professor.
Six weeks ago, President Ronald D. Liebowitz of Middlebury College announced the establishment of a William H. Rehnquist Chair in American History and Culture. The announcement stirred considerable controversy on the campus. Some students and faculty members claimed that honoring the late Chief Justice Rehnquist by naming an endowed chair for him was an act of "symbolic violence" that betrayed the college's commitment to diversity.
Endowed chairs have a long tradition in Anglo-American higher education. In England, they go back to 1502, when Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, established the Lady Margaret Professorship of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. In America, they predate the Revolution, going back to 1721, when the Hollis Professorship of Divinity was established at Harvard University. But this has been an unusually troubled year for endowed chairs in American higher education.
The collapse of Enron several years ago, followed by the conviction on conspiracy and securities fraud charges, and the death in July of Enron's chief executive officer, Kenneth L. Lay, set four institutions to reviewing named chairs. At the University of Nebraska, Omaha, Mark Wohar was the "Distinguished Enron Professor of Economics" until July, when he became the "Distinguished UNO CBA Professor of Economics." That's Distinguished University of Nebraska, Omaha, College of Business Administration Professor of Economics. Since it was endowed in 1999, the University of Missouri at Columbia, has tried to fill the Kenneth L. Lay Chair in Economics. During that time, three candidates declined the university's offer of the chair, which is said to pay between $150,000 and $200,000 annually. The university resisted Lay's requests that it redirect his gift of $1 million in Enron stock, which it had sold before the corporate collapse, either to Katrina relief or his own legal defense.
Despite calls for a redefinition of the purpose of the endowed fund, indications are that the search to fill the chair continues this fall when several guest lecturers are being considered for offers. What it will be named remains to be seen. At the University of Houston, Bent Sorensen is the Lay Professor of Economics, but Keith T. Poole, who was the Kenneth L. Lay Professor of Political Science, has left for the University of California at San Diego. At neighboring Rice University, Simon Grant holds the Lay Family Chair in Economics, but plans for two Enron chairs in Rice's Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management and a Ken Lay Center for the Study of Markets in Transition collapsed when the corporation went into bankruptcy.
The controversy at Middlebury is one of several recent echoes of the culture wars, closely monitored by higher education's critics, left and right. If naming Middlebury's new chair for Rehnquist is controversial, the Enron/Lay chairs and other endowed chairs elsewhere might be more obvious targets of criticism. There has been a "Richard M. Nixon Chair in Public Policy" at his alma mater, California's Whittier College, since the 1970s. According to the college catalogue, it honors a "distinguished public servant." The Nixon chair has never been more than a one year, visiting appointment and, in more recent years, its endowment has subsidized guest lecturers.
At Southern institutions, schools and endowed chairs memorialize many defenders of the old order. The Harry F. Byrd School of Business at Virginia's Shenandoah University is named for the Old Dominion's architect of massive resistance. The name of his distant cousin, Senator Robert C. Byrd, the former Ku Klux Klan member and porkmeister supreme, seems to be on everything in West Virginia. In August, a blogger in Huntington, noted that Senator Byrd was to dedicate the Robert C. Byrd Institute of Biotechnology at Marshall University. It gave him a vision of the future. "In the morning, I would drive along the Robert Byrd Blvd. to work, pass the Robert Byrd bridge, drop off my kids at the Robert Byrd Elementary School, stop by the Robert Byrd Nestle Café for a cup of coffee, then I would head towards the Robert Byrd Center of Instructional Technology," he wrote.
He continued: "I will then schedule a meeting with the Robert Byrd Professor from the Robert Byrd Department of English. After work, I will go to the Robert Byrd Square to watch 'Everybody loves Robert Byrd' with a big basket of Robert Byrd popcorn. If I happen to see someone who asks for directions for a particular institute, I would ask him to close his eyes and walk in any direction. He is sure to see a Robert Byrd Institute when he opens his eyes at the first wall he bumps into."
So, yes, of course, the University of West Virginia has Robert C. Byrd Professors. These are endowed chairs on the cheap, however. Over a period of 16 years, 16 professors will hold four year appointments as Robert C. Byrd Professor and receive $5,000 annual salary supplements.
Further south, Alabama has community colleges named for George Wallace and his first wife, Lurleen, with locations in Andalusia, Dothan, Eufala, Fort Rucker, Greenville, Luverne, MacArthur, and Selma. Apart from the racism, for which he's most commonly remembered elsewhere, Alabama dots the countryside with memorials to his populism. Elsewhere, North Carolina's Wingate University has a Jesse Helms Center, which houses the former senator's papers and sponsors conferences sympathetic to his perspectives. The University of South Carolina has a Strom Thurmond Chair in History or Political Science at its branch campus in Aiken and an underfunded Strom Thurmond Chair of Law at its main campus in Columbia. At the University of Georgia, Edward J. Larson holds chairs named -- not for one -- but for two of the state's most powerful 20th century racists. He is the Richard B. Russell Professor of American History and the Herman Talmadge Professor of Law.
It's almost enough to make you wonder if the name of any chair would cause a self-respecting person to refuse to sit in it. Discussions of the Lay Chair at Missouri led a wagging lawblogger to ask "which endowed Chairs (if any) would law professors refuse? The Martha Stewart Chair in Business Ethics? The Fred Phelps Chair in Family Law? The Roger Taney Chair in Law and History? Would [someone] take the Michael Hayden Chair in Privacy Law? What if it came with a fat salary, no teaching requirements, and a guarantee to increase blogger readership ten fold?"
Jesting aside, however, distinguished work can bring honor to dubiously named chairs. Larson's is an example of that. In 1998, his Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion won the Pulitzer Prize in History. That recognition came after two prior books, Trial and Error: The American Controversy Over Creation and Evolution and Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South; and it has been followed by a half dozen additional books, on subjects ranging from a narrative history of the constitutional convention based on the notes of James Madison to a casebook in property law. His many dozens of articles and reviews have appeared in important newspapers and historical, legal, and scientific journals, both in the United States and Britain. By any measure Larson's professional work has been exemplary.
In September, John J. Miller's article, "Sounding Taps," for National Review launched a widespread discussion. Ten years ago, Miller pointed out, the historian Stephen Ambrose donated $250,000 to endow a chair at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. The chair in American military history was to be named for his mentor, William B. Hesseltine. Subsequently, Ambrose urged others to contribute to the chair's endowment and, before his death in 2002, he contributed another $250,000. Ultimately, the chair was renamed the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair and it is endowed at over $1 million. Yet, charged Miller, the University of Wisconsin's history department has dragged its feet in conducting a search to fill it. That story, he said, demonstrated the hostility of historians, generally, to the field of military history and contributes to its general decline in American colleges and universities.
Ohio State's Mark Grimsley charged Miller with crying "Crocodile Tears" over military history's grave. Miller was primarily interested in scoring points in the culture wars, said Grimsley, and the field is more robustly healthy than Miller allowed. His own department, for example, will fill two newly endowed chairs in military history in the next five years. Grimsley's reply to Miller touched off further discussions in the blogosphere, with theaters at Grimsley's Blog Them Out of the Stone Age, the historians' group blog, Cliopatria,National Review's Phi Beta Cons, Eric Alterman's Altercation, and The New Republic's Open University. Those discussions of military history and the academy extended beyond Miller and Grimsley to include many others. The fate of the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair at the University of Wisconsin was largely lost in the broader discussion of military history in academe, but the discussion may have prompted its fate. In response to Miller's questions, a spokesman for Wisconsin's history department admitted that some of his colleagues were still less than enthusiastic about filling the chair, but denied that there was any hesitation about filling it because of the charges of plagiarism in Stephen Ambrose's work. The department, he said, was committed to filling the chair in the future.
Missouri's experience with the Lay Chair and Wisconsin's with the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair are comparable. They are comparably endowed; and the names of both chairs carry some stigma. While Missouri had aggressively sought to fill the Lay Chair, however, Wisconsin had been slow to fill the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair. Miller's article and the subsequent widespread discussion of military history and academe may have prompted the issue in Madison. Last month, Wisconsin's history department began advertising its search to fill its endowed chair in American military history.
As for Middlebury, it announced that the first person to hold the William H. Rehnquist Chair in American History and Culture would be James R. Ralph Jr. Already a member of the history department at the college, Ralph is an expert in the history of the American civil rights movement. He is the author of Northern Protest: Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago, and the Civil Rights Movement, a well-received monograph on the subject. We've come a long way since 1964, when William Rehnquist began his career in public life by challenging the rights of ethnic minorities to vote in Arizona.
It's unlikely that any American institution will ever have to decide whether to create the Adolph Hitler Chair in Holocaust Studies and even more unlikely that it ever would. Far short of that, institutions ought to hesitate about creating endowed chairs or institutes with money that has too many strings attached. Having said that, few institutions have the luxury of choosing their benefactors or their benefactors' wishes. Endowed chairs can create the conditions for the University of Georgia to keep an Edward J. Larson or Middlebury to retain a James R. Ralph Jr., on their faculties. If their chairs are named for William Rehnquist, Richard B. Russell, or Herman Talmadge, it seems a small price to pay for that institutional capacity. I wouldn't say, "Take the money and run." I would say, "Take the money and put it to good work."
Ralph E. Luker
Ralph E. Luker is an Atlanta historian and a blogger at Cliopatria.
Submitted by Alex Golub on January 12, 2007 - 4:00am
"So ... what do you study?"
This question has become harder for me to answer now that I am a professor.
Graduate students on the job market must know how to answer this question. There are a lot of graduate students out there, and not a lot of jobs. As a result, convincing a department that you are a good "fit" with them is vital. When it comes to fit, what you study is important. But even more important may be how you tell people you study it. Are you the kind of person who can describe their work quickly and succinctly? Are you aware of how much "stretch" is built into your project but unwilling to profess to be an expert in whatever it is a department is interested in? Are you the flame, or the moth?
As a graduate student I had an answer to the question of "what do you study?" Several, in fact. In professionalization seminars and over beer at parties, my fellow students and I practiced the art of "telescoping." We carefully honed our intellectual lives into one-sentence sound bites. (Mine was "I study mining and indigenous people in Papua New Guinea.") I have entire paragraphs -- both academic and for "regular people" -- ready to go on autopilot in case people wanted to know more.
We had other versions as well: the one-page cover letter we sent out for job applications. The 10-page summary that served as the base for our grant applications. The 45-minute talk that was meant to be delivered on a campus visit. But the most extended, un-telescoped answer to the "what do you study" question was, of course, the dissertation itself.
The dissertation is the holy grail of "what do you study." However, none of us are Sir Percival. Writing the perfect dissertation is not the process of obtaining the unobtainable. It is the process of learning to settle for the dissertation you've got instead of That Big Dissertation In The Sky. Remember the scene in Indiana Jones And The Holy Grail where Indy is on the edge of a chasm reaching backwards to the grail just out of his reach, but is gently persuaded by his father, Sean Connery, to let it go? Writing a dissertation is like that.
An intensely narcissistic document, the "what do you study" of the dissertation offers a psychological knot that can never be particularly untied. Isn't what I'm saying obvious? Is it possible for me to say anything new or interesting? Is there an article out there I've missed that has already explained all this? Is my work any good at all?
Now, it's true that some of the old grad student tricks still apply. No one on my dissertation committee coddled me, but none of them were so insane that they revealed to me the heart-breaking truth: The dissertation is actually just the rough draft for your first book. So when asked "what you've been up to" as a young faculty member, you always have the option to just tell people "I'm working on my manuscript."
However, if the life of the mind is a peanut M&M, then the dissertation is undoubtedly the nut. Now that I am a professor, however, I find my intellectual interests have been coated in a thick coating of rich, delicious chocolate. Whereas people once cared about my specialty, they are now much more interested in all of the extra stuff I learned along the way.
The role of the student, I'm learning, is to produce specialized knowledge, while the role of the professor is to pass on general information. People used to ask me what my dissertation was about, but now they want to know how broadly I can stretch in my teaching and advising.
There are many reasons that people are interested in the periphery, rather than the core, of a new professor's stock of knowledge. The first is the inevitable responsibility of all newly-hired profs: teaching intro courses. After five years of extremely dedicated research I find myself teaching intro courses in which I am explaining stuff I last thought about when I was 19. Being thrown back to anthropology 101 is not a bad experience, but it is disconcerting to have to zoom all the way out to the big picture after so many years of illuminating one particular corner of it.
Other teaching responsibilities, while close to the "nut" of what I study, are still definitely in the "chocolate" realm. As a result of my dissertation work I think I could reasonably pass myself of as an "expert" in one or even two ethnic groups adjacent to the one I wrote on. But as a professor, people look to you to teach more general courses. No one wants a course on "Comparative Ethnography of Enga Province." They want courses on "peoples of the Pacific" or "political anthropology" or even "ethnicity". How does living for two years in Papua New Guinea license me to teach a class on a concept that began in archaic Greece and now includes phenomenon as diverse as the Harlem Renaissance and Borat? I feel competent? No. Having focused for so long on the hard center of what I study I have trouble teaching in "my chocolate zone."
I'm not complaining -- I realize that this is just a hang-up that new professors have to Get Over. The ironic thing about the situation is that even as new professors learn to feel comfortable venturing into their "chocolate zone" they must also find its limit. For indeed, every professor must eventually admit that there is a hard, sugary shell beyond which their knowledge does not reach. This is the strange dilemma of being a new professor -- you are simultaneously mindful of the limits of your knowledge and yet always tempted to move beyond it.
People give professors respect. It's amazing. As a graduate student you get no respect. People consider you locked in a state of arrested development, a sort of career limbo. There are many reasons for this, the foremost being, of course, that graduate students are locked in a state of arrested development that forms a sort of career limbo. Moving from this lowly state to that of a professor can be mind-blowing.
Professors are respected and -- most amazingly -- believed. They can opine on topics about which they know absolutely nothing and people will believe it hook, line, or sinker. Or at least they will appear to, since the other feelings associated with professors are fear and boredom. The first inclines students to please professors who have control of their grades, while the second leads everyone to avoid disagreement that may force them to extend a conversation they would prefer to skip.
The intoxicating feeling of being taken seriously is something that the new professor has to take into account. It takes a lot of self-discipline to be modest in one's claims after years and years of not being taken seriously. Are we ever successful? Probably not. And yet it seems to me that we can't do anything else but try.
Beyond teaching there are other situations that force us to find the hard candy shell of our knowledge. Advising graduate students is a good example. By definition, none of your grad students are ever going to write on the topic of your dissertation. They may study topics similar to yours, but not often. Even when they do, advising students requires you to stretch the limits of your knowledge and imagination. What is the role of biomedicine in Brazilian favelas? What forms of subjectivity does obsession with your credit rating generate? Helping students answer these questions requires a willingness to venture outside your area of expertise.
Sometimes you end up working with students for a reason. Since joining my department, for instance, I've been told by a couple of people that one of my areas of expertise might be "youth culture and identity." The reason, I gather, is that I am the faculty member who most recently identified as "young." I thought this pigeon-holing a bit unfair until a female professor reminded me that female social scientists have been labeled as "gender" experts from time immemorial (because "they have it") and if she could take it so could I.
While advising students who don't study "what you study" was weird for me at first, I quickly came to appreciate how much advisors learn from their students. If the transition from graduate student to professor is one from specialized to generalized work, then there may be no better way to increase your general stock of knowledge than to advise others who are writing dissertations. As you learn more about their own specialized projects, your own knowledge grows. Suddenly you know a little about early 20th-century shopping malls in Korea, conservation projects in Kalimantan, and medieval heresies in France.
Moving outside the "nut" of your own area of expertise can be disconcerting. But having some sense of the entirety of your knowledge of the entirety of that M&M of knowledge in your head can also be a welcome relief after years of working on the dissertation. It's a transition that all faculty go through, I suppose, and one that, in some sense, you never complete. Is the answer to "what do you study?" one of these 'journey and not the destination' sort of things? Let me know what you think.
Alex Golub is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who blogs at Savage Minds.
The requests begin in August and, mercifully and hopefully, cease in January. The request can be in the form of a telephone call, email, letter, or, in the worst of circumstances, an overnight delivery package. The recipient of such requests should be honored; as such a request signifies one's status in the pantheon of accomplishment in the academy. However, the normal first reaction evokes the Mark Twain story about the man who was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail -- "If it weren't for the honor, I'd just as soon have walked."
And what high honor would most intelligent academics decline? The dreaded request for an external letter of evaluation for an individual being considered by his or her college or university for promotion and/or tenure. I do not know the exact history of the expectation that candidates for promotion and tenure be evaluated by professionals in their field from outside the candidate's university, but by the early 1980s such letters seemed to be a normative component of promotion dossiers. Those who send and receive such letters know the basic format: evaluate the candidate's scholarship, place the candidate among his or her peers in the field of expertise, and state whether the candidate would be promoted and/or tenured at comparable institutions.
It was a combination of the zeal of youth and quest for professional recognition that filled me with glee and self-satisfaction the first few times I was asked to prepare an external evaluation. Twenty years later I view the prospect of "external evaluation season" with the same joy I experience when I go for a root canal procedure.
It is not that the actual task of reviewing a colleague's scholarship and preparing a letter of evaluation is so onerous -- it is not. What I simply hate is the nearly complete professional disrespect that has become a routine part of the process. The following, in no particular order, are my pet peeves:
The unsolicited request. Granted it is not every time, but at least two or three times a year an overnight package arrives containing a letter requesting an external review, a CV, and a four-inch stack of papers, offprints, and perhaps even a book (which I am supposed to then return).
The "do it yesterday" request. From the deadlines that accompany the request, I assume that my colleagues at other colleges and universities assume I am just sitting around reading The New York Times waiting impatiently for the opportunity to evaluate a colleague. Not very likely. It is incomprehensible to me that the individuals who select external reviewers, probably because of some perceived stature in the field, then go ahead and assume such a person will drop everything to prepare a careful and thoughtful evaluation.
Read everything the person ever wrote. The sending along a four-inch stack of reprints is just a waste of your money and my time. Most of us are just not going to read all this stuff, especially if we are given a short time frame. If the candidate is stellar and worthy of promotion, at least to professor, we have probably read the good stuff already.
The "reminder." Sometime close to the deadline, if you have not yet submitted the evaluation, the requestor will inevitably send a reminder that the review is due "Friday." Yes, I know the deadline is approaching. I also know you want it Friday to reduce your own anxiety -- it is not like someone is going to spend the weekend reading my thoughtful prose. But the reminder would not be as aggravating if it were not for...
The complete lack of courtesy after the review has been submitted. Here is my scoreboard for this year. Seven requests for external reviews; five reminders, zero acknowledgements that the review was received (even though all were sent overnight -- granted, because I was at the deadline), zero thank you's; and in most years, zero follow-ups reporting that the individual had been promoted or tenured (I don't expect to hear about negative decisions).
OK, so now I have vented. But that will not eliminate the process of impolitely seeking external evaluations. So, now let me propose some minor suggestions for infusing common, professional respect into the process:
Ask the reviewer if he or she has the time and would be willing to prepare an external review.
Think like an academic. Send the request and set a deadline that fits the academic calendar. Never send a request in November and expect a response by December; never send a request in March and expect a response by the end of the semester.
Prune the pile. Ask the candidate to select no more than three (3) of his or her best publications or the like.
Provide a pre-paid overnight mail label. Hey, if you want me to invest my time to do the review, at least invest $19 so you will get it back.
Acknowledge receiving the review. An e-mail or postcard would be just fine.
Say thank you. A note or even an e-mail would be fine. I will admit that some colleges can go a little over-the top. Years ago the University of Notre Dame paid me $100 for a review. That seemed a bit too much. However, one university just sent a colleague of mine a $20 gift certificate to Borders as a way or thanking her for her review. I believe my colleague will truly now look forward to doing external reviews for that institution.
I would strongly advise universities and colleges that seek external evaluations to consider all of the above suggestions. Otherwise, before too long, your requests will evoke the same response that telemarketers get from most people they call, and your response rate will be about the same as those of telemarketers.
Richard J. Gelles
Richard J. Gelles is dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.
After adjuncting for six years in California, I landed a full-time contract position teaching at a Midwest university in 2005. After nearly two years, I will be relocating for a tenure-track position at a community college for Fall 2007. I have the odd feeling of "going home" -- even though I am not returning to the West. After experience in both academic arenas, I can say with certainty that my skills and background are more suited to a community college system.
Most of my colleagues at the university where I am currently teaching consider work at community colleges as either a stepping-stone to better careers, or as a fallback position during competitive seasons. I see them as my past - and my future with no regret.
When I moved out from my mother's place, the community college was the only system that would take me in. At 16, without a high school diploma, much of society had written me off as a failure. Even though it took many starts and stops, I collected units as several community colleges and finally transferred to a state university. I managed two years on the dean's list and graduated with a B.A. in English in 1989. My two sisters had already graduated from college; one immediately went on to graduate school. We were the first in our family to have completed college.
I applied to a master's program at the same university where I'd received my undergraduate degree. When I received a letter of acceptance, I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn't think they'd accept me. I walked away with a master's in English in 1993. In 1998, psychologically weary from a decade in advertising, I started teaching part-time at a community college.
I had finally found my real career. I did everything I could to teach more courses; in 2000, I gave up my day job in advertising and worked for several community colleges and universities at a time to make ends meet. Although I was often physically exhausted, I was never intellectually bored with teaching. And because of my working class background, I felt a close tie to the community colleges that had supported my own education. Although I took part-time positions at universities, I knew that I was simply offering myself as a "bread and butter" instructor. No matter what I did there, I could never be considered as anything other than a fill-in.
Over the years, I started to realize that no matter how much hands-on experience I had teaching at the postsecondary level, there would be times that I felt "less than" the new Ph.D.s working in adjoining offices. I simply did not have the contextual framework to view my own teaching strategies and define what had shaped my beliefs. Luckily, some of the colleges I worked for made professional development a priority; I eagerly attended workshops and training sessions on everything from using rubrics to online grading systems. I was often offered a mentor. I started to make use of them to read up on the profession -- and later, on my discipline. Some of the gaps started to lessen a little. I felt a bit more confident in the classroom. And like any good instructor, my teaching philosophy shifted and changed as I gathered more information and gained more experience with different student populations in the classroom.
Later, my university contract position allowed me to travel to my first conference. I was startled to learn that this was where some of the real research in my profession was unveiled. I trotted from room to room, taking notes faster than I'd ever done before. I smiled, shook hands, talked to strangers in elevators, and felt exhilarated. During breaks, I would fill a plastic bag full of every bit of paper I could find -- an addendum to the conference schedule, catalogs of newly released textbooks, simple fliers advertising positions-and run back to my hotel room to shuffle through them, empty them into my carry-on and return for more. On the flight home, my head ached with ideas. Thoughts about long-standing splits in my discipline, concepts that could shape my teaching, and hands-on strategies for teaching. I revised my syllabus for the next semester; although the changes may have looked minimal on the surface, my underlying concepts were shifting.
I'd always been focused on teaching. And now, in the last few years, I'd become more and more convinced that there is more here than meets the eye. Different populations faced different obstacles: developmental students, first-generation students, non-native English speakers, students with families and jobs. And there was overlap. Some students were overcoming multiple difficulties in order to reach their goal. Although I was there to assist, I could not water down the curriculum to reach them all. I had to find ways to appeal to students in what seemed like a widening set of circumstances.
At the community college level, I had faced this before. Here at the university, I was seeing the deeper implications. I was also seeing the end result for many that entered education: the levels of critical thinking necessary to succeed, the ability to write across the curriculum, and finally, the major that would sustain or inspire them. I feel grateful to have seen the future for these students; this will shape my teaching at the community college level.
Because of my background, I am a very pragmatic instructor. I will always be thinking of how to present a concept in a different light, how to break up another lesson into smaller pieces that incorporate a feedback loop, and how to use a different example that might appeal more to my student population. When a university colleague accused me of "pandering" to student interest, I simply smiled and nodded. Yes, it's true that I had supplemented some of the textbook lessons with current news. I had allowed students a choice of three different topics for their first essay. And I had devised some lessons that had incorporated a short three-minute video segment, a handout with exercises, and a set of flashcards. At the university, these techniques may have been seen as a form of overreach -- of not trusting the students' ability to stay the course and learn that concept. At community colleges, however, the ability to appeal to many different forms of learning worked in capturing a student population that was much more varied in background and ability.
During my first year at the university, I realized that I missed this particular challenge. The constant need to evaluate methods and measure outcomes may have seemed troublesome at the community colleges where I'd taught -- yet this same work was what had stimulated me and kept me growing as an instructor. For those with a terminal degree, of course, research at the university and publishing would be the place to stretch one's limits. As an instructor whose primary area of interest was teaching, I sometimes felt a bit underutilized. Teaching at the university level was challenging -- but I was used to a bigger teaching load, a more varied student population, and an administration and faculty that was often toe-to-toe battling over dollars and programs.
I did miss the variety of students that I worked with at the two-year college. In the first few seats of my classroom, I might have a 22-year-old returning student in a clerical job with no future, a confused 64-year old who'd been let go because of a factory slowdown, and a 33-year old single parent of three who hated anyone knowing he or she was on welfare. And I loved teaching them. I learned about motivation first hand -- and found that many students would rise to the challenge if I approached them in just the right way. Each student seemed to require a slightly different mode of persuasion. The end result was a great deal of success. True, the universities did have students from different backgrounds; but here, the variety was much greater and my skills were tested with every single class session.
In the end, I'm most interested in outcome. Although the journey may be something I reflect on or discuss with colleagues, my main concern is that students leave my courses with the ability to write well. Because I've drawn my textbook choice and syllabus according to my department's curriculum guidelines, I feel confident that have the raw material to deliver what is expected in my courses.
I've been reading a more for myself lately. I picked up Tate, Rupiper and Schick's A Guide to Composition Pedagogies again. This time I kept a notepad close and outlined the eras that shaped my discipline. This made a handy "tip sheet" so that I could talk "smarter" while interviewing and, more importantly, helped me start to fill in some gaps in my knowledge.
I feel as though I am finally dedicating myself to this profession more completely. I'm not sure why this surprises me. Perhaps I felt that the early 40's were going to be the same struggle that my 30's were. I'm not under the false impression that I am reaching a plateau. Because I will be more invested, I will find some of the struggles even greater than the ones I'm experiencing now. Still, I'm grateful to have found the career to which I'm most suited. And I'm excited about the bar being raised. I sense that these next few years will be both exhilarating and exhausting. I'm up to the challenge.
Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.
In a memoir on Susan Sontag in a recent issue of Salmagundi, Sigrid Nunez writes at one point as follows: "[S]he never pretended that a person's success did not depend -- and to no small extent, either -- on being connected, or that she didn't know what Pascal meant when he said that being well-born can save a man 30 years." Once, Nunez adds, Sontag declared about a woman who asked her for a recommendation letter concerning a certain fellowship: "She'll never, ever get it -- not because her work isn't good enough, but because she just doesn't know the right people."
Nunez neglects to mention if Sontag wrote the letter anyway. If not, that's her difference from academics. Sontag, proudly, wasn't one. Therefore, she didn't have to write letters of recommendation. Better yet, at least from her point of view, she didn't have to acknowledge that a letter from her might alone constitute an example of knowing the right people -- and so, according to her own convictions she is almost obliged to produce the requested recommendation. Unless of course the fellowship was so lofty that even she herself was not worthy to breathe its air.
That's the trouble with "networks." They exist. Everybody knows they exist. Moreover, everybody knows knowing "the right people" can be absolutely decisive for extra- or inter-institutional activity -- getting selected by organizers for a panel, getting a publisher at least to pay attention to a submitted article or book, or getting hired by a department for a job. (Networks of course matter intra-institutionally in much the same way. But on a small scale they're not nearly so interesting to consider.) What nobody quite knows is how to define networks in the first place.
How permanent are they? Does it just depend upon the individuals? Are networks institutionally rooted? (But are you somehow automatically a member just because you're a graduate? See Alex Golub's column in these pages on how difficult it is merely to stay technologically connected.) How equivalent are the criteria of membership in a network to common identities of class, gender, or even race? (Or are any of these usually trumped by something else entirely, such as having the same dissertation adviser?) There is no easy or even coherent answer to any of these questions.
Common understanding seems to go roughly like this: Once there was something called an Old Boy network. This was in the days -- 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s -- when boys could be boys because there were virtually no girls. Then there were girls -- beginning in the 60s. What happened to the Old Boy network -- beginning in the 70s -- was one of two things: either it expanded to include the girls (albeit on the same terms as the boys) or -- by the 80s -- it was paralleled by a separate Old Girl network (albeit on the same terms as the boys). Now -- since the 90s -- nobody is really sure if any of this remains true anymore.
Or, more radically, if any of it was ever quite true. Networks don't offer themselves as objects of study. In order to be networks, they abide in informal ways, through casual word of mouth (or e-mail), unspoken assumptions (reinforced at conferences), and shared values that may not be shared at all (anywhere) if they have to be fully articulated. How do these values come into being? My own feeling is, through institutions. Their values, in turn -- ranging from how to dress or how to speak to what political or social attitudes to have -- are most akin to those of class.
The Old Boy network was -- and to the degree it continues, still is -- the product of the best universities in the country, which continue to be the best because they can perpetuate their wealth and prestige through ... networks. (I will set aside their additional, subject-specific, nature, assuming it goes without saying that all disciplines at an elite university partake of its status in the same basic way.) Everybody, top to bottom, knows this, and is stuck with a maddeningly circular argument if forced to try to explain it.
Example: a friend who lately applied to a department at one of the best liberal arts college in the country. (Names have been suppressed to protect the guilty.) Her doctorate is from Pittsburgh. Pretty good. But not as good as Stanford or Yale, which is where everybody in the department has a degree from. "I won't get in the door," she moaned. "No matter how many publications I have, they'll see I'm not one of them." Perhaps in this instance she won't be right. Enough doors can in practice swing open to make it seem like most are not effectively closed. And yet who among us is going to maintain that the department's search committee at this particular college is not going to judge job candidates on whether or not they are, in the vulgar phrase, "our sort"?
This was the most decisive consideration during departmental deliberations at the second-rate state university at which I taught for many years. For most of that time, the odd application from Cornell would send the search committee into a tizzy. ("Is she aware how much comp we teach?") Shortly before I left, the situation changed. There were many reasons, beginning with the job market itself. (At the M.L.A. a decade or so ago I met a recent Ph.D. from Harvard who wailed that he couldn't get a job. "Why else did I go to Harvard?") At the present time, "our sort" -- whatever the sort -- constitutes probably a less stable, more mixed consensus than it has ever before.
But this is not to say that the judgement doesn't continue to be made, every day, in myriad ways. All these are not explicable by the notion of a network. (Any department can certainly be forgiven for wanting to adhere to its own idea of itself as a social unit, and to fear how just one additional person could disrupt it.) But many judgments are. Inquire into any one personal contact, for example, and I believe you usually find a broader base than a single individual, who chances to know another individual known to you. In turn, this base is often united by the structural and organizational protocols we commonly assume when we speak of a "network."
Again, we return to the difficulty of stipulating precisely what these protocols are. Perhaps it is helpful to compare the example of another country. In my own experience, none suits like Japan, because atop its academic summit stands one radiant institution: Tokyo University. None compares to it in presumed excellence or actual prestige. Every other institution is inferior to Tokyo. Whether or not this is in fact so is beside the point. The point is that everyone believes it to be so. Tokyo in U.S. terms is a miraculous fusion of StanfordYaleCornellHarvard.
What astounded me during the time I taught in Japan was how Japanese academics genuflected before the hierarchical fact. The graduate director of my department assured me, for example, that a flagrant case of dishonesty which I knew to be true was "absurd" because "such a thing could never happen at Tokyo University." End of discussion. This same man was an Anglophile, as so many Japanese academics are, part of the reason being that they can convert England into Japan, through substituting Oxford or Cambridge for Tokyo. The common idea is: We know there is hierarchy because of the one lofty example bestowing the idea of distinction upon all other institutions below.
Such a single, or dual, example is harder for Americans to believe in. In many ways higher education in the United States is actually more like Japan, with a bewildering array of public and private universities, each subject to fine status discriminations among themselves. Yet there remains one huge difference: the United States lacks Tokyo University. Thus, in a very real sense, because of this fact alone, the very idea of hierarchy here becomes more problematic, and the reality of networks (whether involving students, faculty, or administrators) more elusive and diffuse. Often, for example, graduate students or junior faculty are urged to attend conferences in order to "network." But usually this means little more than partaking of the opportunity to meet somebody, and then hoping that this person will be able to open up a wider opportunity, unnamed and maybe unnameable.
What to say? It could happen. And again, networks undeniably exist. The closer you get to the top, the more tightly knit and implacable their bonds may appear. Yet we're Americans. We're not Japanese or British. We believe in the power of individual will and the rewards of individual effort. Academic life, like all other forms, may be arranged in terms of hierarchy. Nevertheless, compare business or entertainment. (When the director, Quentin Tarantino, was asked what is necessary in order to make a film, he replied: "Know Harvey Keitel.") We academics believe we have within us the capability to change institutional arrangements that exclude us or to enter circuits of influence that prevent us from seeking the job we desire or publishing the manuscript we wrote.
Alas, though, there are networks and there are networks. Not only do some matter far more than others. Some hardly matter at all. I know of a small community college, 75 percent of whose English department is staffed by M.A. graduates of the largest area university. Do these people take themselves to comprise a "network"? Probably not. They merely happen to have been taught by the same professors or to know many of the same people. The idea of a "network" only comes into play when outsiders exert some pressure on the uniformity of the organization. In turn, the organization itself exerts no pressure on any other. So, although it possesses the integrity (perhaps not the best word) of a network, this particular community college department lacks the extensiveness of one.
On the other hand, the most powerful or influential networks operate nationwide; this is one primary reason they're powerful and influential. In turn, they authenticate the crucial difference between "knowing somebody" and "somebody worth knowing." We all desire contact with members of networks that enable mobility, prestige, financial reward, and other good things, all authorized by elites (or else they wouldn't be elite in the first place). That is -- let's say -- we all want to work at the best liberal arts colleges or research universities in the country. Too bad so few of us can.
Too bad the reasons why can be so crudely stated: there are too few networks and they are too exclusive. Finally, too bad that most of us work in places where the guarantees of the best networks can't even be realized. (Again, Golub's column can be recommended on this point.) Instead, the great majority of us have to try to be content with what we have. Either we enjoy our own networks, such as they are, or else we contemplate the absence of others. Meanwhile, we try not to acknowledge that it was simply never in our experience to have saved Pascal's 30 years.
Terry Caesar's last column was about the lessons he has learned writing Purely Academic.
“Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil veils” (“When you are worth nothing, you should want nothing.”) --Arnold Geulincx (1624-69; with apologies to Louis Menand)
One of the best films of the 1990s was Chris Smith’s unheralded $14,000 masterpiece, American Job. The film follows an uninspired young man, Randy Scott, as he finds and then loses (or quits) a number of dispiriting minimum wage jobs: factory worker, fast food dishwasher, motel room custodian, and telemarketer. One of the best scenes comes near the beginning of the film when Randy is interviewing for a factory job. Quickly scanning his application, the middle manager conducting the interview notices that Randy once had a summer job at a local amusement park guessing people’s ages and weights. Intrigued, the middle manager challenges Randy, if memory serves, to guess his weight. Although at first reluctant, Randy does guess, comes pretty close, and the interviewer is duly impressed. Randy gets the job.
The scene, like the television show "The Office" at its best, is painfully awkward and therefore anxiously hilarious. But in retrospect the scene also terrifies because it demonstrates just how meaningless minimum wage job interviews have become. These jobs are so de-skilled that they could be -- and have been designed to be -- done by anyone. Indeed, we later see Randy at his job, where he pushes a button, waits for an excruciatingly long 30 seconds or so, removes a piece of molded plastic, and then pushes the button again. Given the nature of the work, it follows that the interviews held to fill these positions will have little to do with determining a person’s skills or qualifications. Since the job requires no skills whatsoever, everyone is qualified for it. Rather, these interviews will have more to do with determining a job applicant’s character: his work ethic, his friendliness, his willingness to follow a boss’s order (even an absurd one, like guessing his weight), and, later, of course, his drug-free-ness. I caught myself thinking about Randy and his interview during my own extended interview -- what is euphemistically referred to as “a campus visit,” as though you were there to soak up some local color -- for a job in an English department at a small, regional campus of a large state university system. It must have been my second or third campus visit of the hiring season, with two or three more looming over me. Like changing the oil in your car, campus visits follow a rigid, prescribed routine that one departs from at peril. These visits alternate between events -- meeting with a dean, touring the campus, giving a job talk, meeting with the search committee -- and meals, and it must have been at one of these meals, making small talk with various professors, that I thought of Randy and his interview.
At that moment, of course, I had no real reason to think of Randy. Unlike the factory job Randy interviews for, the job of English professor requires a great deal of skill and training -- depending on how quickly one moves through her graduate work, anywhere from 5 to 10 years in addition to 4 years of undergraduate training. And instead of a single interview stretched out to last a respectable 10 minutes, candidates for tenure-track jobs in English must pass through at least two rounds of interviews: an initial, 45-minute interview at the discipline’s major conference, the Modern Language Association, and then, if they clear that hurdle, a two- or three-day interview at the hiring department’s campus. Indeed, search committees go to great expense to fly me to their universities, put me up in hotels, and stuff food down my face in order to judge how well I or any other candidate will perform at the particular set of skills required of a standard tenure-track English job: the holy tenurable trinity of research, teaching, and service. Unlike Randy’s situation, too, my campus interview existed for my benefit at least as much as for the search committee’s. If I receive more than one job offer, visiting a campus gives me the chance to determine whether I would want to bring my particular skills to this particular campus and community. As a result, everyone is usually -- though not always -- on their best behavior.
If my interview was nothing like Randy’s, I nevertheless frequently ended up feeling a lot like Randy, guessing -- and being asked to guess -- people’s weights and ages. Don’t get me wrong. No one asked me to guess their weight -- or whatever the academic equivalent of that question would be. Rather, just like the weight-guessing question Randy was asked, the banal yet innocuous questions faculty members do ask -- “Where was I from?” “How did I get interested in this topic?” -- become loaded with a significance out of proportion to their actual content. Together, my answers formed me into a certain candidate shape, one which may or may not be the proper and notorious “fit” that search committees frequently resort to in making their final decision. And I realized that despite our hopes to be judged according to what we have done and not who we are, what really gets evaluated on campus visits is not primarily a candidate’s skills but, rather, just like at Randy’s interview, a candidate’s character. Has the candidate worked hard? Is she likable? Does she get along well with others? Can the candidate handle gracefully the at best inappropriate and at worst illegal question someone asks about her spouse and his or her career ambitions? Will the candidate hold her tongue in meetings with the insipid dean who is perversely proud of his lack of knowledge about the humanities? And while there is less fuss made about her drug history -- although that is changing -- how well will she get through dinner with only a glass of wine?
Later that night, flipping through stations on the television, I tried to account for why, if I was right, Randy and I should both be judged on our character and not on our skills. The answer, rather obvious in retrospect, is that while the job of an English professor is certainly a skilled one, there are at the same time countless people trained to do that sort of work. In other words, anyone could push a button and wait 30 seconds. Similarly, there are a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of people who can write articles and books, teach classes in a given area, and adequately serve on committees. (Many rejection letters noted that the search committee received several hundreds of applications.) In which case -- that is, in a case where there is a surplus of people qualified to do a certain task, whether that task is skilled or unskilled -- the criteria for who gets a job and who doesn’t will shift, either slightly or totally, away from a candidate’s competency and towards her character. It is a buyer’s market, and in addition to providing shelter, a house-qua-candidate has to have a certain curb appeal, too.
Economists refer to this as the “sheepskin effect,” although it works slightly differently in the humanities job market. In times of high unemployment, employers will have more applicants from which to choose their employees and, thus, can raise the qualifications for the position beyond what would reasonably be needed to perform the work. When character does not, educational attainment oftentimes performs that sorting function. Employers conclude, rightly perhaps, that someone who could make it through two or four years of college has demonstrated more perseverance and ability than those who dropped out of college or never went. For example, a secretary does not need a college degree to do all or even most of her work, but all things being equal, an applicant with a college degree will be interviewed -- and most likely hired -- before the candidate with only a high school degree. Thus the “sheepskin” effect: the process whereby those with college degrees will be interviewed (and frequently hired) before those without college degrees, even though nothing about their work requires a degree.
In the humanities job market, though, where everyone, by definition, has a sheepskin, sometimes a whole flock of sheepskins, the “sheepskin” effect will still apply but according to other criteria -- criteria nevertheless unrelated, strictly speaking, to the ability of the person to do the job. Distinctions among sheepskins -- Ivy versus state, flagship versus branch -- as well as publications used to provide that sorting function, and still do, but now that more and more candidates are going on the market with publications, hiring committees can begin to be even more finicky about their candidates. Call it the “character” effect, or, in homage to Randy, the “weight-guessing” effect.
Now, I do not mean to suggest that “skills” count for nothing, and it could well be that I am just cynical, fed up with being the plaything of departments and search committees. At the time, I was certainly tired of going on campus visits. And it is also true that I dislike this part of the job search not just because I find it dehumanizing (although I do) but because it puts the shy, the reticent, the impatient, and the substance-addicted among us -- and I include myself in most of those categories -- at a considerable disadvantage. Either we will not demonstrate our collegiality as well as other candidates, or we will feel slightly ashamed for being someone (chatty, obsequious) we are in fact not. Indeed, I will admit that my favorite part of campus visits is the job talk. Not just because I like to hear myself talk, but because it means you’re finally done with all the time-killing and time-serving conversation and can finally speak about something meaningful.
In many ways, of course, this emphasis on character is justified and even laudable. These are tenure-track jobs, which, if all goes as planned and tenure is granted, represent -- failing financial catastrophe -- an institution’s lifetime commitment to that employee. As such, faculty members in a department, especially a small department, need to feel certain that they can live happily ever after with a candidate for the remainder of their career. No one wants to share their workplace with a drunk who wanders the halls and sneaks cigarettes in his office, a faculty member who sits in his office in boxer shorts eating spiral ham with his fingers, or a crank who circulates vituperative, paranoid e-mails to the rest of the department. As you probably guessed, I have not invented these colorfully un-collegial colleagues, but they are very much real. Most of them, not coincidentally, come from an earlier generation of faculty, hired before the reserve army of literature professors came on the scene in the mid-1970s and made it possible for departments to pick and choose among the qualified and collegial rather than just having to take their chances with the qualified.
So, in the end, departments can be forgiven their desire for collegiality. And it is surely nostalgia to imagine that “character” never played a role in who gets hired or fired. Moreover, there may well be no solution to the current “weight-guessing” effect short of returning the profession closer to a state of full employment. But we should remember that that desire for collegiality is a luxury, one made possible by the specific -- and surplus -- conditions of a labor market.
Michael Joseph Donlin
Michael Joseph Donlin, who isn’t sure future colleagues will find this essay collegial, is the pseudonym of a lecturer at a university in the Midwest. For the benefit of future job seekers, he weighs 170 pounds.
As a child, I thought that being the new kid at school was the most painful experience imaginable. Now that I’m older, I’ve reconsidered. I’d say that being a new tenure-track hire is even more stressful. I like to think that teaching for nearly a decade has helped ready me for my own first tenure-track position, but I know that this next year will challenge me. Luckily, more-seasoned colleagues have given me some valuable advice over the years:
S.T.F.U. or “Shut the frick up.” This advice sounds counter-productive. After all, outsiders are often hired to bring in fresh ideas. This is true -- but know that brash commentary offered at the wrong time can damage a new professor’s chance to be of use to a department in the long run.
This is not to suggest that new faculty should not make suggestions. Still, careful research will help educate those who are less experienced with a campus’s specific concerns. I think seasoned hands are more open-minded to suggestions when they can tell that the newer professor has some understanding of the history of the program and underlying nature of the issue at hand.
For those moving into a first year on tenure track like myself, the challenge will be to sit in meetings, listen, take notes, and say very little. It will help me to remember that if I have a big worry about a topic being discussed, chances are that a more established professor will have it, too. When they speak up, they’ll be able to weather some criticism since they have a history at this institution. By curbing the tongue, pen, and keyboard in the first year, fresh faces like mine will last long enough to make a valuable contribution to a department, program, and college.
Watch out for the pink cloud. An academic acquaintance of mine accepted her first tenure-track job at a university in the Midwest and bought a house within a month of signing her contract. A year later, she wondered if she might have jumped too soon. The department was fractured, research funds were scarce, and the students seemed unmotivated. Worse yet, two hiring seasons later, her fiancé, also an academic, was still two states and a 10-hour drive away.
It’s normal to want to plant roots, find a home, and invest in a community. After graduate school and years of TA'.ing, it’s natural to grab on to that first tenure-track position and breathe a deep sigh of relief. But the reality is that half of the colleagues I’ve met did not stay at the their first tenure-track job. Of those who left, some found that they needed to move even after a second tenure-track position. It’s a sobering thought.
That’s not to say that I won’t stay in my first tenure-track position until retirement. But it does temper the expectation that this job, these colleagues, this area must be perfect because they represent a 30-year commitment.
To those who have never landed a tenure-track position or are experiencing their first, this may smack of ingratitude. But more experienced colleagues have told me that true fit between professor and campus becomes more important with time. It may be something as simple as location. Departmental politics, curriculum, or student population can also influence a professor’s decision to go on the market. Some are just searching for an atmosphere more conducive to development as an instructor, a researcher, or an author.
For those, like me, who get caught up in small details (like noticing the overzealous office supply guardian, worn linoleum, and lack of parking spots), it’s important to keep an eye on the bigger picture. Good questions to consider: Has the college weathered more than a few educational trends? Have seasoned professors held fast, knowing that one weak administrator would eventually move on -- whereas the college itself was solid? Is a key group of faculty that you admire and enjoy working with going to be there for a good part of your tenure? In theory, would you choose to live in this area even if you weren’t tenured at this institution?
Don’t fall into one camp right away. At institutions awash in politics, new hires may be approached by more established professors hoping to get support for pet programs or new curriculum. As a fresh face on campus, it’s tempting to see this as a chance to develop professional contacts and feel more anchored on campus. The down side is that in fractured departments, this alignment may directly influence which committees one is invited to serve on, and even what courses one will be allowed to teach for years to come. For a few, it may even curb chances for promotion and research funds.
At one university where I taught, new faculty were immediately “sorted” into camps according to the institution that granted their graduate degrees, their academic mentors, and the subject of their dissertations. Many assumed that the new hire was of a particular ideology based solely on this information. On top of this history, many immediately received a reputation depending on where they sat at departmental meetings and faculty with whom they lunched. Surely not all institutions are this political; still, it reminded me that the connections made in the first year may be of utmost importance.
Of course it’s important to make connections and encourage professional friendships. These are necessary to teach well, do research, and publish. Yet old friends in academe have cautioned me to make it a point to spend time with professors on both sides of longstanding divisions. When in doubt, be nice to everyone. Don’t gossip. And when burning with enthusiasm after the first departmental meeting, it’s smarter to approach professors in private and ask questions rather than publicly take a stand. In addition to keeping a new hire from being branded with a reputation too soon, making more than a few alliances will help avoid overdependence on one individual and strengthen a professor’s position in the department.
Get over your last college or university. I remember one faculty member at my last institution whose every comment started with, “At Blah Blah U, we…” No matter how important his point, two-thirds of the faculty zoned out as we heard, yet again, how much better his last university dealt with every situation. We often wondered why he left.
It’s natural to want to lend your experience to a committee or to a department. But know that if you fly your last institution’s flag every time you open your mouth, others will not be as open-minded to your suggestions -- no matter how valuable. I’ve already caught myself wanting to name my last affiliation when chatting with faculty and staff at my new position. A few times, I’ve trailed off with, “… somewhere where I used to teach.” Other times, I’ve bit my tongue, reminding myself that this is not my last college. And I need to learn to trust the professors and administrators that are already working with the curriculum and student population at this college.
I’m working on my listening skills so that I’m actually paying attention rather than formulating a response. When I feel the need to “blurt,” I often check my motives. Am I excited about a past experience that will be useful here? Or am I feeling insecure because I’m the new hire? I also need to keep in mind that constant comparisons in my head may be a way of emotionally distancing. Changing positions involves grief. When I admit that I miss my old colleagues, staff, and even the fast copy machine on the second floor, I’m on the way to making room for my new situation. It’s smart, though, to use old colleagues, non-academic friends, and relatives to work through my emotions, rather than burn up my new contacts during this adjustment.
Don’t overextend yourself. After a semester working full-time on contract at my last institution, I was able to make time for a few outside interests. I wrote a monthly column for a local newspaper and volunteered two shifts a month at the regional food bank. At one point, overloaded with committee work and essays to be graded, I cursed the monthly column that had originally been a source of great pride. I already suspected what others knew: academic work is all encompassing. And I’ve heard it’s much, much worse for those working toward tenure.
For those on the tenure track for the first time, it’s tempting to try to do everything to impress senior faculty and administrators. I understand the desire to impress higher-ups and do well. Even while working on contract, I felt compelled to do everything I could to “fill in the blanks” in my annual review binder -- even though I knew that others less qualified would be renewed. And tenure is much, much more difficult to acquire than a yearly contract. I will need to carefully gauge where my time is best spent.
Agreeing to do extra committee work, service work in the community, and advising feels good when one first signs up; in the end, however, one needs to consider the time necessary to do well with the teaching, publication, and research necessary to achieve tenure first. I’ve been told that it’s much smarter to add duties after a semester or two when one has already received positive reviews from a department chair or dean.
I’ve been told to prioritize -- to find out what is most important to my department and draw boundaries when I find myself falling into saying, “Yes” to responsibilities beyond those in the first year. I know that outside interests will have to suffer in my first few years while I work to be a good instructor, colleague, and agent for my students. True, I want to look good to administrators -- but I also realize that being overwhelmed and dropping the ball will be noticed, too. Balance is the key.
Prepare for a deeper level of commitment. Being on contract is like dating for fun. If there is too much friction between the individual and department, temporary faculty can finish out the semester or year and attempt to find another assignment. On the other hand, working toward tenure is like being engaged -- at least according to my tenured friends. Because both professor and institution are more committed, there is a better chance that the union will last. Tenured faculty members often stay during poorly funded years and look to the big picture when faced with a failing academic program or weak administrator.
After nearly a decade of teaching on contract, I know that staying put will be both a welcome change and a challenge. My current CV is a mish-mash of adjunct and contract work spanning eight years. Although I’ve always been deeply committed to teaching my students, it’s painful to realize how less committed I’ve been to my employer’s vision. Still, I realize that there is a greater plan in place here. Working toward tenure is not just the opportunity to step up professionally; it’s an opportunity for me to mature as an individual.
Already I sense a shift in my thinking. On campus today, I passed a maintenance man working with a large rolling cart of student chairs and padded benches. I stopped, introduced myself, and asked if a short bench might be placed outside my office. “Sure,” he answered without hesitation. I motioned back toward the office that I share with a colleague. He walked back with me, then stood for a moment, hand beneath his chin, one finger tapping his lower lip. “A two- or three-seater bench would work here,” he said, looking at me for approval. “Three would be great. If you have it,” I said. He nodded. I thanked him, and as I turned, I started to smile. This was the first time that I’d asked for something to augment my physical workspace. In years past, I’d simply make do with whatever had been given me, confident that I wouldn’t be teaching there long enough for it to make a difference. I suspect this is a one small step toward a deeper level of commitment for me at this college.
Today, I feel more dedicated to the process. Although a bit nervous, I’m excited about being “on track” for the first time in my career. It will be an interesting study to see how well I follow the advice given me -- and how I fit in this new academic circle.
Shari Dinkins has been teaching at postsecondary institutions since 2000. In fall 2007 she joined Illinois Central College as an assistant professor on the tenure track.