The Transient Academic

When I returned to my university the week before the spring semester started, the door across the hallway was closed and locked. As I watched colleagues quickly walking down hallways, I wondered why Dr. R. was not joining us in our last-minute preparations. Our departmental secretary enlightened me, "Oh, he took another position at a university a few hours south of here." Refusing to meet my eyes, she continued, "He was on contract, but I suppose that didn’t mean a thing to him." She waved her hand and walked away.

Later that afternoon, I heard that a sociology professor on the tenure track had also left our campus for greener pastures. With mixed feelings, I silently congratulated my colleagues on furthering their career paths -- and wondered if professors really are as self-centered as administrators think we are. Sitting in my tiny cube office, I pondered. Yes, I am intensely loyal to my academic discipline. But I do invest with the institution that pays my wages.

I worked for six years at a community college that not only declined to interview me for full-time positions, but also never guaranteed me work. In the last four years I worked there, I also worked on committees to shape curriculum and install a college-wide common exam. True, this committee work helped my CV, but I felt guilty working to develop professionally while many adjunct friends simply could not afford the time. For most academics, getting ahead is important. Yet administrators continue to assume that this is always at the expense of the current student population. We soon become defined by our investment -- not our expertise.

David Riesman, the late sociologist best known for The Lonely Crowd, was the first to define this split well. Those who identified with an institution and student population were "locals." Those who were married to their discipline, but not to an institution were "cosmopolitans." Beyond this simple classification, many have studied differences within these groups -- and groups that have been overlooked.

Adjuncts aren’t even in the mix. Everyone understands when an adjunct takes another job: one-year contract, three-year contract, visiting, non-tenured -- anything. At best, adjuncting can be a ticket into an industry overloaded with qualified applicants. At worst, it's a decade (or two) of poor pay and painful schedules with no pay off. Adjuncts often receive no training and absolutely no support. With the constant threat of poor student evaluations and grade reviews, part-timers may feel compelled to water down the curriculum and deliver only the most student-pleasing assignments.

When a tenured instructor’s class does not fill, it is the adjunct who is penalized. Last-minute cancellations and changes create constant worry and chaos for professional adjuncts. Often they are forced to take non-academic positions just to pay the rent or mortgage. More often than not, they do not even receive a courtesy interview from their “home” campus. After investing years (or even a decade) at an institution, they are often forced out when out-of-state applicants take positions that adjuncts themselves are qualified to fill.

One online friend advised me, “Do not begin to identify with your institution. You are hired help. The institution has no loyalty to you.” Because adjuncts suffer the worst circumstances and receive the emptiest promises, no one is surprised when they walk away for a full-time position -- whether it’s a visiting position, a temporary contract, or a tenure-track job in a less-desirable location. The adjunct simply cannot afford to stay.

Contract instructors suffer, too. Working full-time without tenure or hope of tenure can motivate contract employees to take any position that promises more -- whether or not that promise delivers. At a small, private university in the suburbs of Northern California, a business professor gave me the skinny on his situation: “Oh, sure, when I applied for this visiting job, they promised that a tenure-track job would be opening the next year.” Sighing, he continued, “But I found out that was a lot of hooey. They said that to every person who made the cut.” By the time he’d relocated his family 1,600 miles and started his second semester, he’d found out the truth. There was no tenure-track job for him -- or for anyone.

In fact, institutions often make vague promises about funding, salary increases, better benefits and even permanent job status with the hope of hiring more qualified applicants at a lesser wage. The untrustworthy campus or department, of course, is careful that this information never appears on paper or in e-mail -- giving the applicant no recourse when the money (or position) doesn’t appear. Most experienced professors know that if it’s not in a contract or letter of offer, it’s not real. Yet some applicants, enticed by verbal promises during a second interview on campus, may take a position that doesn’t look as good on paper. It’s simply too seductive to refuse.

And then there’s the “sham search.” A faculty member at a university in the Pacific Northwest waited nine years for a tenure-track job to materialize in her scientific field. One year, her teaching garnered an award by the provost. And each year, glowing student and peer evaluations filled her file drawer as she kept reapplying for one- and three- year contracts with the dean. Promises by hiring committee members had her hanging on, year after year, until the unthinkable happened. They did hire for a tenure-track position in her department; but they did not hire her.

Unbeknownst to the contract employee, the department chair had been grooming her own protégé. He had been a former student and fellow graduate school alumnus; in effect, the job had been his all along. My friend, who had served her institution with a loyalty everyone admired, found herself without a job within a semester. Although she has been able to pick up a few courses as an adjunct, she has virtually lost all of her contacts, her colleagues, and her friends. Misused and exploited, she confided that she doesn’t know if she will ever really be able to completely emotionally invest in a campus again -- even if she lands a tenure-track position.

Although administrators often accuse academics of moving solely for increased salary, funding, research opportunities or location, there are other qualities that make a position livable. One tenure-track instructor at a large community college on the East Coast confided, “They would dump me in a nanosecond if it became convenient to the institution’s goals.” She told me that it was not just the lack of funding and inner-circle favoritism that has forced her to start applying to positions out of her area -- in fact, it was her campus’ poor treatment of adjuncts and contract instructors that left her cautious. Even with her protected status, she believes that her campus will not support her. Worse, budgets had been cut again; departments had been collapsed and combined with horrific results. She has started looking for another tenure-track position, “I really hate feeling like a commodity that falls to the highest bidder but to be honest, until I find a campus that is worth my investment, I will be looking.”

A colleague in the Mid-Atlantic has told his tenure-track protégé, “Even if you get tenure, don’t stop thinking of yourself as a potential candidate. Channel that energy into publishing, mentoring, developing new classes, and getting funding. It’s a Darwinian system; the most productive will be most rewarded.” And this physical science professor is right. With an industry moving more and more into a “student as consumer” mode, postsecondary instructors need to work smart. In the past, we may have had to learn to adapt to unlivable situations. Now we find that we need to continue to develop professionally -- not just to benefit our student population and campus, but to also keep ourselves marketable. Just in case.

Yet, many instructors I’ve observed are not only invested in their own careers. Untenured professors often invest heavily in their own campus. A contract colleague of mine in speech holds a dozen office hours a week and extends his availability when students can’t make those times. Every other Saturday, he e-mails his students to let them know he’ll be at a local café for two hours -- and often stays three hours to accommodate the panicked freshman crowd.

Two adjuncts I know sit in on committee meetings at a local community college and work to develop curriculum. One offers suggestions on her area of expertise. After developing an elective for the campus, she has copied her notes and handouts for full-time professors who are often asked to teach the course. “I could be bitter and hold out,” she tells me, “but the students would be the ones to lose out.” Every two years she is allowed to teach this specialized course -- and she relishes the experience.

A veteran contract instructor at my current university proctors exams for minimal pay. She is often called in at the last minute when tenured professors can’t make the specified date and time to give an exam. Smiling, the contract instructor told me that she found the time with students “surprisingly relaxing.” Her serene influence touches the exam-takers; they often seek her out and take her courses the following semester.

An adjunct I know at a technical college in the Pacific Northwest sat in on several grueling sessions with tenured professors to assess students’ writing. I suspected he was simply networking during these “norming” and grading sessions. I was wrong. The greatest value, he said, was in actually being able to see exactly how senior professors were grading students. Adjusting his assessment tools (and expectations) has helped him feel much more confident teaching. He has since helped refine the rubric used to assess writing -- and applied this knowledge to his own courses. Although I can’t assume a cause and effect relationship, he e-mailed me this week to tell me that he has been invited to interview for a full-time position at his campus.

I know that investment is good. It’s good for professors, for students, for administrators, for research, and for the campus climate. In her paper, “The Humanist on Campus,” presented to the American Council of Learned Societies in 1998, Judith Shapiro claims that transient academics weaken the campus system. Although their local counterparts may be idealistic and occasionally intellectually stilted, the campus needs both. Bringing together the best of the local and the cosmopolitan is ideal. This not only requires a tremendous investment on the part of faculty, but on administrators as well. Accountability on both sides may help shape a campus that invites investment from both students and faculty -- and offers the stability necessary to breed original thinking and research.   

Shari Wilson
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Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.

Serious Bloggers

In several online educational columns, various blog posts, department meetings, and graduate education advice, we repeatedly hear the dangers of blogging. Blogging will ruin your career! Blogging will prevent you from getting a job! Blogging will ... fill in the blank. In a 2005 Chronicle of Higher Education column that received widespread attention from online readers, blogging critic "Ivan Tribble" argued that openly sharing one's views or one's life with the world can only have detrimental consequences for aspiring educators. Tribble wrote: "The pertinent question for bloggers is simply, Why? What is the purpose of broadcasting one's unfiltered thoughts to the whole wired world? It's not hard to imagine legitimate, constructive applications for such a forum. But it's also not hard to find examples of the worst kinds of uses."

Too many academic bloggers have taken Tribble and similar commentaries seriously. Technorati, the blog search engine, lists 264 weblogs linking to (and one assumes commenting on as well) the initial Tribble column. It's not a trivial number considering the small amount of academic bloggers writing and the even smaller number of humanities-academic bloggers on the Web. The latter was the focus of Tribble's diatribe. Tribble's intense reading is not alone nor the anomaly. Most notable among other warnings regarding blogging is Forbes magazine's October 2005 cover story "Attack of the Blogs." Written by Daniel Lyons, the essay transformed blogging into an economic heavyweight whose influence far exceeds normal market and political forces. Beware of the blogs, Lyons cautioned. They will destroy your business!

More worrisome than this trepidation over blogging (i.e. whether these warnings are accurate or not), however, is the general seriousness that has immediately encased a fairly novel form of writing.  By "seriousness," I don't mean the investments and concern we place in our work; instead I note the over-hyped heaviness centered on this one particular type of writing. That heaviness can be overbearing. It turns online writing into either an obligation or a burden; either way, writers act as if they are trapped in this medium they have chosen to work in. The two brief examples I just alluded to are not the only attributes of the seriousness weblogging evokes. A quick glance at Inside Higher Ed's "Around the Web" section reveals a majority of blogs linked to whose writers are identifiable only by pseudonyms: Wanna Be Ph.D, Angry Professor, Anonymous Professor, La Lecturess.

These "names" do not reflect the general tendency in digital culture to adopt alter-egos (as in hip hop culture) nor do they reflect the altering of one's name for easier and more likable recognition (as in Hollywood screen names) nor the postmodern play of identity (as in Philip Roth's novels). Instead, these names re-enforce the burden of seriousness which has overtaken academic blogging. Writing a blog under a pseudonym is usually an argument that the only safe way for an academic to write publicly is to write anonymously. Our thoughts about students, grades, internal policy and even our private lives and interests can never be revealed to our colleagues or future colleagues or we risk losing all we have worked so hard for! As one anonymous writer states about her decision to stop blogging: "The only reason I'm in this predicament is because I've been terrified of people knowing who I am. As much as I've dealt with my 'real' identity being revealed to a few people, I've also been really afraid of the consequences of being a 'real' person in the blogosphere. And so, I thought, maybe the solution is to come out -- to just write under my "real" name, to tell people in my real life that I blog. As I thought about it more, however, it seemed to me that to write under that name is no solution, ultimately, because it would limit my writing here in the opposite direction."

I don't want to rehash the pro/con argument regarding blog pseudonyms or  anonymous blogging in general. Instead, I draw attention to how serious both the critics and supporters of this kind of writing take its activities. Lost in this seriousness are a number of quite amazing things blogging has provided writers: ability to create discourse in widely accessed, public venues, ease of online publishing, ability to write daily to a networked space, ability to archive one's writing, ability to interlink writing spaces, ability to respond to other writers quickly, etc. That over a million people of various ages and writing proficiencies have taken up blogging so quickly speaks to its attractiveness and novel nature. Indeed, all new genres of writing spurred on by technological innovation create new opportunities for expression. Always there exist doubters, but seldom do the adopters themselves express as much seriousness and trepidation of the very medium they use as their opponents do.

The consequences of this seriousness can be quite problematic, more problematic than whether or not a reader will take offense (or even retribution) at one's postings. The consequence of this seriousness is stagnation. When we become too serious about novel ideas too quickly, we deny ourselves the ability to experiment with and develop the very innovations in communication we are attracted to in the first place. In turn, we replicate processes already in circulation; i.e., we maintain a status quo and fail to explore possibilities raised by the new medium. One hears that stagnation in the repeated refrains of "fear" pseudonymous bloggers express or the tropes of general complaining many pseudonymous weblogs turn out. One hears that stagnation in Tribble's own cliché reading of the job market or what digital writing entails. On hears that stagnation in Forbes' model of economic competition.

If we have too much seriousness, nothing new occurs. One might imagine what would have happened to the future of the essay if Rousseau had contemplated and feared negative public response to his love of self-pleasure and resisted exploring his emotions in such a way (i.e., if he doubted whether self love would be a "serious" topic).  Or what if Cervantes took the "novel" form of the novel so serious that he could not mock his own novel's origins and purpose, as Don Quixote does in its beginning pages? Would this medium be the same as it is today?

To break this sense of seriousness, academic bloggers would benefit by engaging with the potentials this medium offers writers and by allowing themselves the opportunity to experiment. In a professional environment like ours, where experimentation is typically admired elsewhere (poetry, fiction) and downplayed in our own practices (exams, dissertation writing, outcomes statements, academic publishing), finally academia has the opportunity to play with digital form, content, and genre in ways previously denied because of the difficulty of learning hypertext or setting up webspace on university servers.

Some of the most provocative and exciting weblogs are, in fact, those that experiment with content and form: Boing Boing's daily juxtapositions of Internet oddities and current events, Warren Ellis' s explorations of fetish, comic book culture, sci-fi, and related topics, Oliver Wang's Soul-Sides,  an archival replay of forgotten soul tracks (and which incorporates music into the blogging experience), dETROITfUNK's photographic exploration of Detroit's ruins, forgotten sites, and surprising charms, Wonderland's mixture of game related and consumer items, and Drawn's highly visual, daily updates of cartoon and graphic art developments are but a few blogs functioning in a fairly experimental manner. By experimentation, and not by seriousness, they explore how blogging may change or enhance their interests. That they are not academic is worth noting if only for the lack of seriousness they apply to their existence and their willingness to break conventions. We, in academia, might learn from them. We might learn how to simultaneously be serious about our work (i.e., to be invested) while not allowing that  seriousness (heaviness) to be overbearing.

My own blog, Yellow Dog, attempts to engage with the experimentation blogging affords as well as to produce a lighter sense of seriousness. In my writing, I mix personal narratives, imaginative encounters, academic work, critical commentary, humor, Photoshop imagery, multiple personalities, and other items in an effort to generate a space which is both professional and playful. I am serious about what I do; but I am not overpowered by seriousness. Yellow Dog is not a model, but one effort to think about a new medium while actively working with that medium. What Yellow Dog does not do, and what my overall point of this short piece is trying to convey, is resort to a sense of super-hyped seriousness; a stagnation that fails to move our ideas, work, and sense of experimentation anywhere. I can name other academics who have also chosen to place "seriousness" aside in favor of play and experimentation: Jenny Edbauer, Derek Mueller and Collin Brooke are but three. Serious bloggers might take heed of such writing and think about how their own sense of seriousness limits their interaction with the new medium of weblogging. As Roland Barthes famously noted, there is a pleasure of the text. To that we might add the pleasure of online activities in general, engagements which do not always have to be placed in the realm of super-seriousness.

Jeff Rice
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Jeff Rice is assistant professor of English at Wayne State University, where he teaches courses in rhetoric, writing, and new media.

Moving Beyond Tenure

OK, a thought experiment.

Although tenure is still around, it seems clear to me that it’s on its way out. Higher ed hasn’t really had an open, honest discussion about that yet -- denial is one of our talents -- but it’s hard not to notice. Right now we honor tenure in the breach, by saying all good things about it while simply replacing retiring full-timers with adjuncts. It seems to me that this strategy has a natural limit. We need full-time faculty, but do we need tenured faculty?

In the corporate world, “at will” employment is the normal default mode. Under “at will,” employees can be fired at any time for any reason, or no reason, with a few legally defined exceptions (racial discrimination, say, or absence due to jury duty). “At will” is a pretty good description of the bottom of the occupational ladder, but in the credentialed ranks, there’s usually a brief probationary period followed by a system of graduated warnings. If you do something badly wrong, first you get an informal spoken warning, then a written warning, then some sort of sanction, then termination. (Layoffs are another matter, since they’re about reducing headcount rather than addressing individual performance.)   

“At will” strikes me as inappropriate for professors. The subject matter expertise required of faculty is usually quite specialized, and no rational actor would undertake such narrow specialization without some reasonable expectation of still having a job next week. Given the realities of course scheduling and the nature of semesters, it’s just not realistic to assume that people can be fired on Wednesday for looking slovenly on Tuesday. Nor would it be any way to run a college.

Tenure certainly meets the needs for security and predictability, but it does so by granting impunity and saddling a college with immovable costs for the life of the employee. (It used to expire at 70, which struck me as more than fair, but now it expires at death.) As any academic manager can tell you, once people have tenure, they’re almost completely unaccountable for their actions. Give large numbers of people absolute immunity for decades on end, sheltered from economic reality, stuck with the same peers for 30 years, and some very weird behaviors come to the fore.

(For a while, my family lived in Ann Arbor. One of our favorite games when we went downtown was pointing to badly disheveled men and asking “homeless or faculty?” Sometimes the only way to tell was to see if the shiny aluminum thing they carried was solid or foil. Even then, you couldn’t really be sure.)

Worse, locking a group in for decades on end has the unintended side effect of locking new hires out. In my academic field, for example, my current college’s last hire occurred during the Nixon administration. He’s still here. I’d venture to say that the field has moved forward since then, but you wouldn’t know it here.

When I’ve tried to engage faculty friends in this conversation, they’ve uniformly reacted with horror. “I’ve killed myself for years to get tenure! Don’t take it away now!”

Well, exactly. I don’t think tenure is the solution to abuse. It’s a root cause.

The labor surplus in academe is not new. Why does it persist? Why do smart people keep crowding into a field with relatively few jobs, shockingly low pay relative to its training period, and absolutely no idea where it’s going? Sure, teaching is fun, but lots of things are fun.

I think the siren call of tenure is the culprit.

Tenure creates a do-or-die moment 15 years into a career. What other profession has anything even vaguely like that? At least in law firms, if you don’t make partner, you have the option of putting out a shingle and starting your own practice. Most of us can’t afford to start our own colleges. After years of extended graduate training, some post-grad-school bouncing around, and more years of tenure-track teaching and writing, you are either set for life or summarily fired. No wonder people are edgy!

Colleges have responded to increased cost pressures and a huge and enduring labor surplus by raising the bar for tenure for the lucky few on the tenure track. To my mind, this pretty much guarantees increased burnout. People who’ve lived monastically for 15 years and finally get tenure often effectively retire on the spot. They start paying back the other parts of their lives, which makes individual sense, but no institutional sense.

There’s an obvious alternative out there. Every administrator I know, when pressed,  admits that the alternative is better. A surprising number of tenured faculty, when pressed, admit the same.

Long-term renewable contracts.

Hire full-time faculty to 3-to-5 year renewable contracts, with annual performance reviews. (I could imagine the initial hire being for 3 years, with subsequent renewals for 4 or 5.) It’s far more secure than anything in the corporate setting, and it allows for predictability of scheduling, in-depth course preparation, and the like. But it doesn’t allow for someone to throw in the towel at 40, and self-righteously suckle at the teat of the college for another 35 years. It would give faculty some sort of stake in the success of their programs, since contract renewal times would be natural times to make adjustments reflecting changes in enrollments. It would allow for more turnover than we have now, which means more hiring of new people.

Some might argue that post-tenure review already accomplishes this goal. It doesn’t, and it can’t. At my college, tenured faculty are reviewed on a multi-year cycle. As one of them (correctly) put it to me, I can write that they feast on the entrails of the innocent and it wouldn’t make any difference; they still have tenure, and raises are contractual and across-the-board. Other than hurt feelings, they’re bulletproof.

(Before I get barraged with “easy-for-you-to-say” comments, I’ll disclose that my job is on one-year renewable contracts, with annual performance reviews, and without tenure. I don’t even have a faculty position at my current school, despite having a Ph.D. in an academic field and having reached the associate professor rank elsewhere. So I’m not proposing anything I wouldn’t gladly accept myself.)

Most faculty, I would predict, would get renewed easily. (That’s what happens at Duke University, which uses a system like this for its "professors of the practice.") But those awful 10 percent at the bottom (the ones who use two sick days a week, or who just go AWOL without even calling in, or who last bothered updating their courses sometime around the bicentennial) could be dispatched and replaced by people who really want the job. They couldn’t just hang around and spread bitterness for decades on end.

Good new people would actually have a chance to break in, students would be spared the worst of the worst, and colleges could actually start to focus on performance. With the siren call of tenure muted, the rush to graduate school (and the resultant labor surplus) would gradually subside, bringing us closer to market equilibrium (and forcing better salaries).  

Your thoughts?

Dean Dad
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Dean Dad is the pseudonym of the author of Confessions of a Community College Dean.

This Year's Job Ads


English Department, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Assistant Professor in Renaissance literature. Ph.D. required. 3/3 load. Salary $40,000. Duties include teaching composition, gym, and specialty every fifth year. Send CV and letter to Hiring Committee Chair. Deadline Oct. 15.


English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Please ignore previous ad. Visiting Assistant Professor in Renaissance studies, Ph.D. required. 4/4 load. Salary starts at $35,000. Perks include semi-private office and access to faculty get-togethers. Send CV, letter, transcript, teaching philosophy, dossier, and writing sample to Dr. R. Murgatroyd, Chair, Search Committee. Deadline Oct. 25.


English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Never mind previous ads. Visiting Instructor to teach five sections of composition per semester, as well as acting as English tutor for our student athletes. Ph.D. required. Salary laughable. Send CV, letter, and evidence of sanity to Dr. R. Murgatroyd, Chair, Search Committee. Deadline Nov. 30.


English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Soliciting any warm body to teach at a school in the sticks without any charm; workload incommensurate with anything you’ve done before. Need ability to tolerate mind-numbingly dull students, an administration in love with itself, and a faculty simply waiting to retire. Evidence of experience welcomed. Salary debatable. Just arrive in person, and we’ll put you in front of a classroom. Deadline: 21st of Never. Ha ha....


English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Full professor to fill our prestigious new Murgatroyd Memorial Chair in Renaissance Studies. This job, occasioned by the untimely death of Professor Reginald Murgatroyd and heavily endowed by a long-lost cousin, carries a 2/1 load. Applicants should have a substantial body of published scholarship, an international reputation, and many influential friends. Send CV and letter to Professor Myra Blowenthorpe, Chair Pro-tem. Deadline Jan. 15.


English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Search extended: Murgatroyd Memorial Chair in Renaissance Studies. Responsibilities include directing the new R. M. Renaissance Center and getting along with a chancellor who doesn’t respect the liberal arts. Send CV and cautious, diplomatic letter to Professor X. R. Clancy, Interim Chair. Deadline Feb. 15.


English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Search postponed indefinitely for Murgatroyd Memorial Chair in Renaissance Studies. We could say that no candidates fit the bill or that our funds for the position were suspended, but instead we’ll let you guess as to just what administrative mess occasioned this screw-up. Send no CVs or letters, please, until next year, when we’ll probably try again.

David Galef
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David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).

Our Office

When I arrived to my new academic post almost two years ago I was faced with a daunting task. The office I had been assigned was still inhabited by the possessions of my predecessor, a beloved professor called Bart Lewis who had suddenly and unexpectedly died five months before. The door was decorated with a mural of student signatures and messages on brown paper and the inside of the office still contained thousands of pieces of paper, some personal photographs and a library that had been picked over by the university librarians first, and then by faculty members and graduate students.

There were many books that remained on the shelves, but the space they took up was smaller than the empty gaps between their incomplete and uneven rows. The office, like those shelves, was like a bruised mouth with missing teeth. Bart’s answering machine contained a message from an unsuspecting friend or contact from Argentina who did not know he was dead. The message did not make any sense and the man did not leave a phone number for a call-back.

As I tentatively began to move in to the office during the summer, I was interrupted from time to time by visitors who did not seem to quite know how to react to my presence in their friend’s office. In their faces I saw sadness, surprise and friendly concern for my comfort in this sacred and alien space. I was frequently asked if I had met my predecessor, to which I responded that I had, during my job interview at the Modern Language Association meeting.

Then, the passersby usually told me an anecdote about Bart’s warmth, friendship and vibrancy, or their feelings for him. As you might imagine, all of this was a little bit unsettling, but I was determined to take command of this office. In those weeks of intermittent cleaning-up and moving-in, with our door closed, I spoke to Bart out loud on more than one ocassion. I don’t remember what I said, but I felt like his presence deserved acknowledgement. I probably said things like “Hey Bart, I’m here now and I’m sorry you’re not around.” “Hey Bart, how are you doing?” Or “Damn this is a good book, I can’t believe no one took it.” Mostly, however, I thought intensely about Bart as I explored filing cabinets, drawers and bookshelves.

I found barbells in a filing cabinet. Slides from Spain. Lecture notes. Meeting notes. Old binders from other universities. Old and stained copies of some his articles. Newspapers and magazines from South America and a famous New York Times Magazine issue with the writers of the Latin American Boom colorfully pictured on the cover. Most poignant, however, was a photograph of a younger Bart in another country, with his arm around a friend. As I looked into his eyes and kind face and noticed how the very curve of his shoulders seemed to communicate a receptive, humble nature, I could not help but think of my own mortality, and the day that some poor soul like me might have to go through the remnants of my professional life, and not really know who I was. I thought of the fragility of memory and remembering, and how quickly, relatively speaking, we all fade into the good night of forgetfulness.

I could not keep all of the books that remained, so I packed up the rest for a local second-hand bookstore that gave me practically nothing in return. I was glad for it too, because I didn’t want to make money off of Bart’s books. I stuffed vast reams of papers, old tests, exams and meeting notes and such, into plastic baskets that eventually made their way to my department chair. However, I was careful to save some of the syllabi and lecture notes: I did not want to banish those papers from my presence because I hoped that they might provide some kind continuity with my own teaching in the future. I also saved his articles, the separata and the journal issues, which I put on one of the bookshelves, where they sit now.

Throughout the process of cleaning the office, I felt myself having strange conversations with myself about the contingency and intimacy of the papers that academics produce in their professional lives. As fascinating as Bart’s lecture notes were to me, they were also quite opaque and mysterious. What was missing was his animating presence to give voice to what was between those bullet points and arrow points. I thought about the papers of my own that I was moving into our office and wondered if it would not be better for me to toss them in the trash and be over with it. Why subject someone else to the uncanny experience of looking through things that lose life when the hands that created them cease to move? Sometimes, in our office, I felt that I was surrounded by the bureaucracy of death. The illegible print of yesterday, waiting to claim all of my paraphernalia in some -- hopefully distant -- future.

My most dramatic act of possession took place when my partner and I moved all the furniture around. We changed the layout of everything. Then I put some of Bart’s books on the shelves, mixed in with mine, kept his articles out on the shelf, framed the New York Times Magazine cover on my wall, and put some of his lecture notes in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet for future reference, under his barbells. I reprogrammed his answering machine with my own voice and decisively deleted that last, cryptic message that Bart could only respond to from eternity. It was almost my office now. In time, I would grow into it more and more, and come to be associated with it. Some day in the future, people might think it had been my office forever. But I’m just passing through, like my departed friend and colleague.

Cleaning Bart’s office made me feel close to him, and I’ve always felt comfortable in his old office. But I think I learned some things about academe and the lifestyle that I had begun to seek on my own before arriving at my new post. One of the reasons I had left my previous job at Brown University for a tenured position in Texas was to lead a more settled down life with my partner.  After years in a commuting relationship, we found jobs together and ended our financially devastating and melodramatic airport farewells. As I drove across the country in a rented Cadillac with most of my possessions in the back seat and the trunk, I felt the personal and professional pressures of the last few years fall away from my life. I resolved to worry less about work and be happier.

Now, Bart’s papers and his sad, plundered library, with its uncertain, dispersed futures, challenged my attachment to work by making me aware of my own paper ephemera. I realized how unimportant my professional possessions were, not because they meant little to me (on the contrary, they still mean a lot to me), but because outside of the context of my work habits and thoughts, all of my papers cannot mean much to anyone else. They are truly mine and some day, truly no one’s.

Thanks to these thoughts it became a lot easier to recycle paper and worry less about my stuff. I want to live less on paper and more on life. If I’m lucky, my office will be bare by the time I’m gone, everything in it consumed by lived experience, gone with my spirit and my body. And if not, if I leave a bunch of stuff for someone else to get rid of after I’m gone, I want that person to know that it’s OK to move my stuff out. Welcome to your new office. Just erase my outgoing greeting and delete any messages that remain on Bart’s old answering machine. We’re all in this together.

Christopher Conway
Author's email: 

Christopher Conway is associate professor of modern languages and coordinator of the Spanish program at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Self-Assessment: Academe and Me

This past week the roof collapsed on my professional life. You’re tottering along, a bit woozy but still standing, minding your own business, dreaming of the summer which is right around the corner, there’s a lightening of the mood and the weather begins, gradually, ever so subtly, to turn, you decide to open your storm windows, you go for a walk in a “Fall” jacket, and then, in the words of the annoying cleaning commercial: KABOOM!

In short order, I woke up from my honey-colored dream of lazy summertime barbeques and short pants and sultry Big Eastern City days and nights with Mr. Gordo to discover several outstanding bill collectors on the phone: a conference paper due forthwith (like yesterday!), students clamoring for extra credit work because they bombed your midterm, the usual meetings and minute-taking, long-postponed paperwork rearing up, not to mention tax time and the suddenly desperate need to see your CPA before he himself is overwhelmed. But by far the most demanding task at hand has been the need to write my year-end report on activities for my dean, the time for which I severely underestimated because this is my first year at this particular college. So underestimated, in fact, I didn’t even know it was due, until I received (again, out of the blue), a polite note from my chair. I fear I am becoming the very model of the bumbling professor who forgets his car keys in the refrigerator.

In essence, my “book report” is a catalogue of my activities in the three well-known subject areas: research, teaching, and service. And there is a certain empirical quality to the task that is reassuring: Yes, Virginia, you are exhausted for a reason! Committees and meetings, abstracts and conferences, works-in-progress and works forthcoming, student evaluations and syllabi, e-mails and phone calls, lectures and events. I have been, um, busy this year, contrary to the stereotype of the academic as social parasite, so eloquently paraphrased by my girlfriend La Connaire tonight who said, “I thought the whole point of academia was not working hard,” followed by the sound of a stream of smoke blown into the telephone mouthpiece. As most academics would tell you, the stereotype bears little relationship to the reality of most tenure-line professors. However, this cataloguing of the minutiae of quotidian academic life has gotten me to think of the differentials in experience for faculty across the broad spectrums of race, gender, and sexuality.

As a professional, I obviously covered the unholy trinity with some aplomb, if not utter success in all three. Given what has been thrown at me this year in terms of workload, I feel I did very well, as undoubtedly will my dean, who has been nothing if not incredibly supportive. However, the differential I am thinking about here is the double duty that faculty of color, some women faculty, and some lesbian or gay faculty, perform in their role as symbolic capital for the profession. For we are not only meant to perform as scholars and teachers and colleagues, we also have to be role models and mentors and supportive persons, lifting as we climb, each one teaching one, until we reproduce ourselves like some sort of crazy neo-Fabergé Organics Shampoo commercial.

This notion of symbolic capital is one that is both forced upon us by institutions looking for the diversity fix, and nurtured within ourselves, by varying degrees of gratitude, guilt, regret, and sadness at the price of our success. We are the best and the brightest, the cream of the crop, those who struggled and worked, only to find ourselves marooned as tokens whose value is unclear, both to ourselves and the profession we serve. I am reminded of Toi Derricote’s story in The Black Notebooks, of meeting the “other” black woman professor  at the college were she taught, only to discover that this woman was as light-skinned (i.e. completely passable as white) as Derricote herself, and how this causes a crisis in her thinking about why they were hired, and what is the symbolic value of having two black faculty members who look white?

Ironically, tonight in my race class, upon discussing with my students Fanon’s The Fact of Blackness, my eyes fell on this quote:

It was always the Negro teacher, the Negro doctor; brittle as I was becoming, I shivered at the slightest pretext. I knew, for instance, that if the physician made a mistake it would be the end of him and of all those who came after him. What could one expect, after all, from a Negro physician? As long as everything went well, he was praised to the skies, but look out, no nonsense, under any conditions! The black physician can never be sure how close he is to disgrace. I tell you, I was walled in: No exception was made for my refined manners, or my knowledge of literature, or my understanding of the quantum theory.

To which all I have to say is: Ain’t it the truth? Faculty of color can never be sure how close we are to disgrace, to the knife-edge of outliving our usefulness, our symbolic capital. Seemingly, we can never be appreciated as intellectuals alone. We must always have some other value, some point to our presence, aside from simple qualification. We must be, in the truism, 200 percent good. And never, ever, make a mistake, for it's not just our personal mistake, but a mistake for every person of color, past present and future. If we simply think of this differential in terms of labor, then perhaps the contours will come more sharply in focus.

While I appreciate my white colleagues for the support they provide, they are not expected to “liaison” with Latina/o students and student organizations. They are not expected to be role models of appropriate behavior. They are not expected to be present at every little thing that might concern race, whether interesting or not. They are not expected to be experts at the drop of a hat, nor responsible to others of their same race who might have particular critiques of authenticity for which they have to answer. No, my beloved white colleagues get to be themselves, be individuals, and go home and sleep soundly. So for me, this is not only about the incredibly problematic racial dimensions of role modeling or each one teaching one. This shit is also about work, cause believe me, this is work.

As any faculty of color, nay person of color, could tell you in an unguarded moment, the illusory community fostered by 60s social movements is exactly that: fleeting and utopian. Academics of color in particular suffer from the vertiginous histories of racial trauma that are predicated on the unintelligibility of the subject of color: the very fact of our theoretical stupidity. Living in a post-race society means that we are finally, blissfully allowed to be ourselves, individuals in a society that prizes individualism. Needless to say, we aren’t there yet.

And then, as I am thinking about this and taking a break from writing this post and perusing the Internet while wolfing down a quesadilla, I come across this little ditty, which linked from here, both of which sadly and ironically prove my point. The most inflammatory quote from Michael A. Livingston’s post on race and law school faculty is a bombshell:

Because it is so costly to dip below the required minimum of diversity faculty, in practice almost anything has to and is done to ensure that they are happy. At my school, I have watched sadly as one after another of the unwritten faculty rules -- the level of publication expected, the expectation that one's work would be presented to the faculty before tenure, even the assumptions regarding physical presence at the law school -- were compromised or abandoned to accommodate female or minority candidates who the law school simply could not "afford to lose" under the new dynamic. Once these principles are given away, of course, the same concessions are demanded by other professors, so that the entire system of expectations that cements a faculty begins to come crashing quickly down.

Good grief! So not only are we not smart enough to be hired on “merit” (the odious false consciousness of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, apparently) but we also simultaneously threaten the very foundations of the institution. For as tenuous a hold as faculty of color have in the profession, we seem to wield an incredible amount of power in Livingston's analysis. While it is true I have known some "playas" (as in players, not beaches) who have worked out some pretty impressive deals on next to nothing, by far the vast majority of the professoriate of color (and professoriate in general) works, day in and day out.

In fact, faculty of color are incredibly vulnerable not only through the typical utilitarian nature in which they are hired (as tokens) but also to the risible racism and real disgust revealed in Livingston’s quote. If anything, Livingston’s critique reveals more about the unscrupulous ways in which institutions will go out of their way to hire "dummies of color" to avoid hiring contrary to racist type (e.g. with intelligence) than the general qualifications of a vastly diverse class of people, who after all have earned doctorates and J.D.s, right? If we trace Livingston’s critique to where it originates, this isn’t just a critique of hiring and retention practices, it is questioning the very ability of people of color to hold advanced intellectual and professional degrees. And people wonder why race is still important?

The evidence is writ before you in Livingston’s post. Race still matters, and not only for red state academics or conservatives, for liberals and leftists hold similar, if more holistic, views. The black physician can never be sure how close he is to disgrace. One wrong move, and you’re toast, baby!

Self-assessment is hard, this I know after struggling with it this past week. But it might be time for the profession to take a real self-assessment of its own. For instance, when, if ever, will faculty of color be real intellectual members of the community, and not just tokens of diversity and tolerance? When will the university and its faculty and administrators stop considering us as detriments to its intellectual mission? Why, if universities are so committed to "diversity," can't they sustain and support faculty of color in double or triple digits? When can we stop the fiction of pretending just because student X is “brown” and I’m “brown,” we automatically understand each other, like dolphins? When, in other words, will our years and years of labor be appreciated for what it is, hard and good and honorable work? When, in other words, shall we breathe the fresh, clean air of individualism, which includes the noble as well as banal? When can we be normal, neither Sydney Poitier nor Step ‘n’ Fetchit? Not, apparently, any time soon.

Oso Raro
Author's email: 

Oso Raro, who is writing under a pseudonym, teaches cultural studies, literature and film at a North American university. A version of this essay first appeared on Oso's blog, Slaves of Academe, which concerns itself with academe and racial and cultural politics.

The Tyranny of Citations

The analysis of citations -- examining what scholars and scientists publish for the purpose of assessing their productivity, impact, or prestige -- has become a cottage industry in higher education. And it is an endeavor that needs more scrutiny and skepticism. This approach has been taken to extremes both for the assessment of individuals and of the productivity and influence of entire universities or even academic systems. Pioneered in the 1950s in the United States, bibliometrics was invented as a tool for tracing research ideas, the progress of science, and the impact of scientific work. Developed for the hard sciences, it was expanded to the social sciences and humanities.

Citation analysis, relying mostly on the databases of the Institute for Scientific Information, is used worldwide. Increasingly sophisticated bibliometric methodologies permit ever more fine-grained analysis of the articles included in the ISI corpus of publications. The basic idea of bibliometrics is to examine the impact of scientific and scholarly work, not to measure quality. The somewhat questionable assumption is that if an article is widely cited, it has an impact, and also is of high quality. Quantity of publications is not the main criterion. A researcher may have one widely cited article and be considered influential, while another scholar with many uncited works is seen as less useful.

Bibliometrics plays a role in the sociology of science, revealing how research ideas are communicated, and how scientific discovery takes place. It can help to analyze how some ideas become accepted and others discarded. It can point to the most widely cited ideas and individuals, but the correlation between quality and citations is less clear.

The bibliometric system was invented to serve American science and scholarship. Although the citation system is now used by an international audience, it remains largely American in focus and orientation. It is exclusively in English -- due in part to the predominance of scientific journals in English and in part because American scholars communicate exclusively in English. Researchers have noted that Americans largely cite the work of other Americans in U.S.-based journals, while scholars in other parts of the world are more international in their research perspectives. American insularity further distorts the citation system in terms of both language and nationality.

The American orientation is not surprising. The United States dominates the world’s R&D budget -- around half of the world’s R&D funds are still spent in the United States, although other countries are catching up, and a large percentage of the world’s research universities are located in the United States. In the 2005 Times Higher Education Supplement ranking, 31 of the world’s top 100 (research-focused) universities were located in the United States. A large proportion of internationally circulated scientific journals are edited in the United States, because of the size and strength of the American academic market, the predominance of English, and the overall productivity of the academic system. This high U.S. profile enhances the academic and methodological norms of American academe in most scientific fields. While the hard sciences are probably less prone to an American orientation and are by their nature less insular, the social sciences and some other fields often demand that authors conform to the largely American methodological norms and orientations of journals in those fields.

The journals included in the databases used for citation analysis are a tiny subset of the total number of scientific journals worldwide. They are, for the most part, the mainstream English-medium journals in the disciplines. The ISI was established to examine the sciences, and it is not surprising that the hard sciences are overrepresented and the social sciences and humanities less prominent. Further, scientists tend to cite more material, thus boosting the numbers of citations of scientific articles and presumably their impact.

The sciences produce some 350,000 new, cited references weekly, while the social sciences generate 50,000 and the humanities 15,000. This means that universities with strength in the hard sciences are deemed more influential and are seen to have a greater impact -- as are individuals who work in these fields. The biomedical fields are especially overrepresented because of the numbers of citations that they generate. All of this means that individuals and institutions in developing countries, where there is less strength in the hard sciences and less ability to build expensive laboratories and other facilities, are at a significant disadvantage.

It is important to remember that the citation system was invented mainly to understand how scientific discoveries and innovations are communicated and how research functions. It was not, initially, seen as a tool for the evaluation of individual scientists or entire universities or academic systems. The citation system is useful for tracking how scientific ideas in certain disciplines are circulated among researchers at top universities in the industrialized countries, as well as how ideas and individual scientists use and communicate research findings.

A system invented for quite limited functions is used to fulfill purposes for which it was not intended. Hiring authorities, promotion committees, and salary-review officials use citations as a central part of the evaluation process. This approach overemphasizes the work of scientists -- those with access to publishing in the key journals and those with the resources to do cutting-edge research in an increasingly expensive academic environment. Another problem is the overemphasis of academics in the hard sciences rather than those in the social sciences and, especially, the humanities. Academics in many countries are urged, or even forced, to publish their work in journals that are part of a citation system -- the major English-language journals published in the United States and a few other countries. This forces them into the norms and paradigms of these journals and may well keep them from conducting research and analysis of topics directly relevant to their own countries.

Citation analysis, along with other measures, is used prominently to assess the quality of departments and universities around the world and is also employed to rank institutions and systems. This practice, too, creates significant distortions. Again, the developing countries and small industrialized nations that do not use English as the language of higher education are at a disadvantage. Universities strong in the sciences have an advantage in the rankings, as are those where faculty members publish in journals within the citation systems.

The misuse of citation analysis distorts the original reasons for creating bibliometric systems. Inappropriately stretching bibliometrics is grossly unfair to those being evaluated and ranked. The “have-nots” in the world scientific system are put at a major disadvantage. Creative research in universities around the world is downplayed because of the control of the narrow paradigms of the citation analysis system. This system overemphasizes work written in English. The hard sciences are given too much attention, and the system is particularly hard on the humanities. Scholarship that might be published in “nonacademic” outlets, including books and popular journals, is ignored. Evaluators and rankers need go back to the drawing boards to think about a reliable system that can accurately measure the scientific and scholarly work of individuals and institutions. The unwieldy and inappropriate use of citation analysis and bibliometrics for evaluation and ranking does not serve higher education well -- and it entrenches existing inequalities.

Philip G. Altbach
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Philip G. Altbach is director of the Center for International Higher Education, at Boston College.

Rumor and Innuendo

Springtime in higher education heralds the faculty search extravaganza. As a newly minted Ph.D., I dove head first into the overflowing candidate pool. I was engaged with some short-term work at my graduate institution and had a strong desire to remain there. It is located in my home state, close to family and friends, and is a highly regarded national university. I also had a strong personal affinity for the institution and had developed strong personal and professional relationships, which I valued a great deal. I navigated my way through the process of creating a dissertation-length CV, the nerve-racking experience of being interviewed by my speakerphone (i.e. the dreaded first-round phone interview) and the endurance test of 8 to 10 hours of interviews and meals with people in positions I never knew existed.

I was fortunate to have reached the “I can taste the job it’s so close,” campus-visit stage in two searches at my institution. I felt fairly confident that I would emerge from this process with at least one offer. What I did not foresee was that my experience would force me to reflect on the role of trust  in higher education. My first foray, as a “full member,” into the academic universe would be a “teachable moment.”

During one of my campus visits, I knew that an intimate knowledge of and appreciation for diversity would be a trait required of the position. So in 3 different sessions with 12 different individuals, I chose to share that I am gay as a means to illustrate my ability to empathize with students, professors, and staff of diverse backgrounds. It was a strategic decision, which, after researching institutional policy, I believed would unfold in the context of a confidential faculty search.

Heretofore, I had not been open about my sexual orientation in my professional or educational life (while being so to family and close friends). My reasons are many and my own; yet, in my view, not terribly relevant to this particular situation. The decision to “be out,” in this part of my life, was mine alone to make.

Nineteen days after my interview, a colleague and personal friend, unaware of my sexual preference, called me at home that evening. She wanted to let me know that late in the day she had been approached by a colleague, uninvolved with the search, who stated “There is a rumor going around that Jim ‘came out’ during his interview.” My friend, never a gossip, asked the colleague how he had heard information revealed during a confidential search. My friend, feeling duty bound, contacted the chair of the search committee, 1 of the 12, to inform him  that information from a candidate interview was being shared outside the search process.

It has been five weeks since that evening telephone call and I have not heard anymore of it. I am not quite sure what, if anything, I should expect to hear. As I reflect on my experience, I circuitously analyze the issues it raises. It undoubtedly raises issues of professionalism. A case can be made that it raises ethical considerations. Perhaps, it crosses into the legal realm, but I leave that to the lawyers among you. That is of little interest to me.

It is the ethical implications that keep my mind stirring late past my bedtime. They are what keep sending me back to my computer to read, over and over, the institution’s policy on confidentiality in the search process. As I have already said, there were many reasons I chose not to “be out” in my professional life. However, after completing my Ph.D. and embarking on a new chapter in life, I was now prepared to travel down that road. Revealing my identity during a confidential search process, to a limited audience, was the first of many destinations on that journey.

I keep returning to two primary considerations. The first relates to diversity. My institution professes a strong commitment to and appreciation for diversity, almost to the point of overkill. Perhaps that is why it was that much more difficult to swallow that the information I shared was deemed, by an individual involved with the search, fodder for the rumor mill.

The far more salient issue to me is that of confidentiality, and more specifically trust.  Institutional policy dictates confidentiality in the search process.  Common decency demands it. The search process is an opportunity for the committee and potential colleagues to gain an intimate understanding of the candidate in a relatively brief period of time. To effectively evaluate what strengths and challenges a candidate would bring to the institution, he/she must be willing and permitted to be utterly candid and acutely honest.

At the same time, candidates should be able to have confidence that information shared during the interview process is privileged and confidential. Whether such information be a medical condition, unique family situation, special accommodation, or sexual orientation, it should be treated as internal knowledge to those involved in the search. When speaking of confidentiality in the selection process, Joan Rennekamp, a national commentator on personnel issues,  states: "It is sometimes helpful to think of information as you would think of a material object that has an owner.... No other employee has the right to communicate it to someone else unless some overriding concern arises, or unless the owner gives permission to do so."

Yes, Rennekamp is a lawyer (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but even lawyers have sage advice at times.

Trust, leadership, and moral conduct are professed institutional values at my college. Of course, as an educational institution, those values are most strongly inculcated in students. However, as educators, we have a responsibility to model proper, responsible, and ethical behavior to our students. If we fail to lead by example, then we fail to lead at all. If we are unable to maintain trust among colleagues, how can we develop trust with students, or teach them to develop trust in each other.

Lest I seem to be presenting myself as some type of moral elite, I must admit that I am all too experienced in losing the trust of those close to me. I will never forget the utter look of devastation on my mother’s face when she discovered I had lied to her as a teenager. More recently, I lost the trust of a supervisor who felt I had betrayed our professional relationship. Yet, in each of those instances I was able to make an honest, open, and sincere apology to the wronged individual. I have a strange feeling that no such apology will be forthcoming in my situation.

I suppose I never realized how important those three simple words -- I am sorry -- are to my value system. The fact that my sexual orientation is now part of the public domain is not what makes me continue to brood over my experience. The issue that forces my mind to wander is that one or more of those 12 individuals felt it their prerogative to decide how I “rolled out” my sexual identity to my professional colleagues. There were unique aspects of my own experience that I felt could be educational to faculty, staff, and students. For better or for worse, I am an educator. I had a “lesson plan” for sharing my experience with members of the campus community. That “lesson plan” was my own to execute.

Yet beyond my own experience, what do such actions say about trust among members of the campus community. Higher education is, admittedly, a gossip factory on overdrive. How often have each of us heard information that was not intended for anyone but those involved with the search process? How often have the personal issues or misfortunes of our colleagues been whispered throughout the classrooms, laboratories, and conference rooms of academe? How desensitized have we become to the whirlwind of rumor and innuendo? Knowing the character of the collegiate workplace, I perhaps should have known better. Yet, based on an explicit, written statement of confidentiality, I chose to begin this particular personal journey during the search process. In hindsight, it was a poor choice.

As in any situation, I look for the lessons learned. For good to emerge from a bad experience, I always look for the “take away.” In no particular order, and limited to the clarity of my thinking on this issue, are some thoughts for institutions, candidates, and myself.

For the institution:

  • What is the institutional policy on confidentiality? Is it a policy that is iterated not only to search committee members, but also to other faculty, staff, and students whothat may interview a candidate? Does the institution also communicate the seriousness of the policy and that it exists for reasons other than mere formality? Are processes in place to handle a breach of confidentiality?
  • Do attempts to include a breadth of constituencies in the selection process sacrifice the integrity of the process? I wrote 26 “Thank You” notes for the campus visit alone. Can confidentiality be maintained in such an open and inclusive environment? Should only the search committee interview be subject to confidentiality? Should an explicit notice of when confidentiality applies be provided to candidates?
  • Are there implications for student confidentiality when candidate confidentiality cannot be maintained? Do professionals with access to student records have a sufficient understanding of federal and state privacy laws? Are professionals required to undergo training on legally protected data and information? Are we modeling professional, ethical, and legal behavior for our students when it comes to matters of trust and proper conduct?

For the candidate:

  • Be clear about  institutional policy concerning confidentiality. Research the policy with human resources and/or the equal opportunity office. At a minimum, be aware of the written policy. Be confident that information shared is privileged information. As Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.”
  • Be even clearer about your expectations should you choose to share a personal or private experience. For example, during the interview process, you may choose to share information about a current or former supervisor, co-worker, or subordinate. If such information reflects a negative experience, you should preface the information by asking that such information remain internal to the search process. Some candidates may want to share information about a medical condition -- and should be very clear about expectations.
  • For internal candidates, be aware that professional responsibility and personal friendship make strange bedfellows. Knowing the actors in a particular search makes the issue of trust and confidentiality that much more critical. Should irregularities arise in the search process, the actors have a professional responsibility to the institution. That responsibility will, more often than not, take precedence over duty to personal friends.    

For myself...

I do my best to approach my experience as a professional, letting reason guide my analysis. But, emotions do enter the scene. Hurt, anger, and disappointment inevitably play a role. While it is difficult to lose respect for and trust in the colleague who divulged the information, it has been far more difficult to question the status of personal friendships I have developed with others involved in the search process and hiring department. Their lack of communication leaves me to assume indifference to the issue.

I would like to say I have not become a less trusting person. But, I would be lying. However, with no one from whom to hear those three magic words, I am left to lose a little bit of trust in the institution as a whole. That is a very hard pill to swallow when you have a passion for your institutionschool. I am still processing that aspect of this whole experience.

And for those interested, I was not offered this particular position. I accepted another position at the same institution, which has greater responsibility, offers a higher salary, and is a new field for me within higher education. Had I been offered the position in question, my adverse experience during the search process and the subsequent administrative silence would have been a rocky start, to say the least. So, I am optimistic about what lies ahead, yet uncertain as to how I feel about the personal and professional relationships I leave not so far behind.

As for my “lesson plan,” I guess that is on hold for now. I need to retool it given new realities on the ground. Of more immediate concern is the 500-pound gorilla in the room. More specifically, the great majority of individuals who are aware of my sexual orientation are also aware of how the information came to be shared (and most of them did not learn of it during the search process). It is a uniquely interesting experience to be meeting or dining with a colleague and have the proverbial “family secret” lurking under the table. In two days, I have a meeting with the individual who mistakenly gossiped to my friend and started this chain of events. We have not seen each other since this whole episode started. For some odd reason, I chuckle to myself when I think about the encounter.

My hope is that after writing this piece, I will feel a sense of closure. Since I am not privy as to whether there has been any administrative action on the issue, I cannot gain the satisfaction that some good or value came out of my experience. For myself, I suppose the good comes in that I think far more about what is and what is not appropriate information to share. I think far more about trust. I am more cognizant of my own behavior and how it positively and/or negatively affects others.

We all receive an enormous amount of information each and every day. Being able to differentiate between routine, need-to-know, and confidential information is a critical skill, and more importantly personal and professional value, for administrators, faculty, staff, and students. Trust is the foundation on which any vibrant community, academic or otherwise, is built. No community can survive without it.

Democritus said, “Do not trust all men, but trust men of worth; the former course is silly, the latter a mark of prudence.” I honestly do not know how I feel about that statement. I have always been an openly trusting person. What I do know is that I have a newfound appreciation for those individuals who I trust implicitly and who have not given me reason to doubt that trust after many years of friendship. I have a new respect for those closest to me who are “men [and women] of worth.”

James Pierpont
Author's email: 

James Pierpont is the pseudonym an administrator at a research university.

Affirmative Inaction

Universities all over the country have been struggling in recent years to develop diversity plans and hiring doctrines to improve the position of minorities on campuses. I am most familiar with the plan recently issued in draft form by the University of Oregon, which has been working on the latest version of its diversity plan for a couple of years now. A 40-page comment draft has been issued. The plan, which discusses a wide variety of issues related to how non-white people fit into the largely paleface community of the university I know best, is surely similar to plans underway or issued at institutions all over the United States.

These plans don’t make much difference. The problem is less a lack of good will than a lack of connection to facts on the ground. Universities cannot remake the fundamental culture in which they exist, and that is a culture in which the availability of minority faculty and, to some extent, minority students, is decided years before a particular college or university can affect the situation by internal policies.

Diversity has become a word that must be spoken; those who don’t speak it in the right slightly breathless tone while looking both sorrowful and committed are unemployable. Because everyone speaks the word and almost no one does (or can) produce results, we are at risk, if I may use another phrase that used up its oxygen long ago, of seeing diversity mean as little as do Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity.

What does affirmative action mean today in faculty recruitment? A leaden process controlled not by departments but by human resources bureaucrats, with little discernible result. Universities need to stop treating diversity as an internal, mechanical process and start looking at the larger communities they serve for ways to improve academic opportunities for young people.

How many minority people earn Ph.D.s? Not many, and they are heavily concentrated in certain fields. In 2004, 36 percent of doctorates issued to African Americans were in education. Nationally, 15 percent of U.S. doctorates were in education. Another 20 percent of doctorates issued to African Americans were in fields in which the University of Oregon has no programs, such as agriculture, theology and engineering. Thus 56 percent of all African Americans who earn doctorates are not in Oregon's applicant pool no matter what the university does, except for the rare vacancy in education.  The same is true at other institutions without these fields -- that is, most institutions.

What about fields that most universities do have? How many blacks earned Ph.D.s in mathematics in the U.S. in 2004? Ten, in the entire country. In physics? Thirteen. Although some fields have a higher number of doctoral graduates, with such minuscule numbers coming out of the academic pipeline, no mid-level institution can compete with wealthier, more prestigious institutions whose diversity goals are similar. That doesn’t even take into account those graduates who might enter private industry from fields such as physics, chemistry or engineering.

In order to maintain their reputation, good universities hire Ph.D.s who earned their doctorates at the best programs in the U.S. (and the world, when possible). In most fields, this means a chunk of the Ivy League plus other top-rank universities such as Michigan, Chicago, Stanford, Wisconsin or Minnesota; maybe 20 to 30 schools all told.  For the most part, these freshly-printed Ph.D.s don’t want to work at mid-level schools, they want to work at one of the top 30 schools where they came from, but they need a job.

What happens when a mid-rank institution such as Oregon, Kansas State or Rice succeeds against the odds in hiring a new-minted Ph.D. of color? In many cases those earnest young assistant professors are in a parking orbit until they can try for what they really want: to go back to a top-tier institution where they get more pay, nicer offices, better toys, better students and more opportunity to honk their own horns. This is not wicked, it is simply human nature. When there are only a dozen new ones in some fields available each year to start with, let us cease pretending that all colleges should have one and that a college that doesn’t is doing something wrong.

Faculty at the great majority of schools are not really interested in color-coding their potential co-workers on a sepia-index wall chart anyway; they are interested in whether those co-workers are any good. Their departments don’t care that Carl Phillips, Yusef Komunyakaa or Reginald Shepherd are black; their co-workers care that they are three of the best poets writing in the U.S. today. I hope that nobody at Old Dominion thinks of Adolphus Hailstork as “the black composer in our music department;” they undoubtedly think of him as the composer who wrote “Sonata da Chiesa,” one of the best pieces by any composer in a hundred years.

Anyone who tried to recruit these people away on behalf of another school would, I trust, be discreetly shunted off in another direction and told to stop poaching. This is not because they are of color, it is because they are of quality. It is not faculty of color that are such an important example to students of all shades, it is good faculty of color. And there are not enough of them being made. We must stop whacking our colleges for failing to hire people who do not exist.

Anyone interested in actual improvement of the presence of good nonwhite faculty in our universities needs to take certain steps at their schools. Do not allow the hiring of more bureaucrats to gasp in predictable horror at the way things are. No more Assistant Vice-hand-holders in the bower of ethnic unhappiness. Forget all the false storefronts and unseemly fawnings that are the usual pewter trade beads of minority recruiting.

Start the laborious process of dragging recruitment out of the clinging vines of the H.R. people and back into the hands of departments. Accept the possibility that an imperfect process can lead to a perfect result. College leaders need the ability to go outside the standard hiring process to support and attract the best faculty, including minority faculty. They should also have the flexibility to flag potential scholars early in life and use university resources to assist them in their long-term goal of joining the professoriate.

Plan ahead a generation. Work ahead a generation. Figure out who of color in your local schools has the potential to be a good professor. Get rid of your highly paid and symbolic chief diversity officers. We all know that they accomplish little. This is not their fault; their jobs are inherently impossible. Respect can’t be legislated, it must be earned. Use that money to hire a brace of heat-seeking twenty-somethings to systematically find the most academically promising minority 10-year-olds in likely and unlikely places, and track and support them for a decade or more, as your university’s scholars-in-waiting. Consider advance long-term contracts with the best doctoral students. Be bold.

Let the word diversity lie fallow until something meaningful can grow from its good soil. Let the words affirmative action not be spoken until they mean action that is affirmative again.

Alan L. Contreras
Author's email: 

Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission. A shorter version of this essay appeared earlier in the Eugene, Ore., Register-Guard.

The Constant Temporary Employee

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
Author's email: 

Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.


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