A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Friday, December 30, 2016

What Scares Me

Years ago, when I was still a Ph.D. student, I was teaching a first year writing course. I'd assigned students to write a "position paper," in which students were to take a position on a contemporary issue and argue for that position. Most papers made familiar arguments on topics that 18 year olds are invested in--violent video games don't make people more violent, schools should eliminate standardized tests, etc. But one student's paper--conveniently, the bottom paper of the stack, which I read late into a long evening of grading before returning the papers the following morning--was an argument that opposed covering birth control under the Affordable Care Act. This was during the height of debate over the ACA, and unbeknownst to me before reading this paper, this particular student was a deeply conservative Catholic. His paper was an utter mess--though initially framed as an argument about the need for religious exemptions to birth control coverage, the paper quickly descended into a unfocused rant about the evils of contraception, highly confrontational and lacking any coherent organization. Trying to control my own offense at the paper's tone, I gave the paper a low C (which felt generous), and provided a brief, carefully worded end note about the paper's tonal and organizational issues. A few days later, the student came to my office hours to discuss his grade, though it was unclear whether his intent was to get a better grade, or further litigate his argument. Repeatedly, I would attempt to turn the conversation to the rhetorical and analytical content of the essay, only to get pulled into an argument about contraception itself. I could feel that I was being cast in the role of the stereotypical liberal university teacher; the conversation was an exercise in trolling more than a discussion of academic writing. But the sad thing is, I genuinely sensed that the student didn't realize there was a difference; to this 18-year-old, argument was argument.

I eventually let the student rewrite the paper on a different topic and raised his grade slightly, an outcome motivated by exhaustion rather than a sense of fairness--he had successfully worn me down, and as a grad student it wasn't worth it for me to fight for him to keep his C. This would not be the last time that I would feel like I've failed as an educator to adequately confront a student's ideological entrenchment--the student who, when asked to bring an example reading to class, picked a 10-year-old climate change denying editorial from a right wing magazine; the student who wrote a paper critical of Western medicine whose only sources were anti-vaxxer websites; the student who, in a discussion of violence at Trump rallies, insisted, "to be fair, there's been violence on both sides"--these examples all stick with me for the way they've left me feeling blindsided.

I don't believe teaching can or should be an ideologically neutral act. However, nothing in my training as a teacher of writing and literature has prepared me to handle overt ideological conflict. I've acquired some basic skills on my own, but for the most part, the material that I cover as a humanities teacher presupposes a certain amount of common ground, and I no longer believe we can or should assume that such common ground exists.

Here's what scares me: I know that a year from now, or two years from now, there will be college students citing Milo Yiannopoulos's new book as if it is an academic text, citing statements from the new president as if they are authoritative truths, and many of the people on the front lines in confronting those ideas--the teaching assistants and writing instructors--will be ill equipped to handle it, just as I was and largely still am. We train instructors on how teach evaluating sources, we train instructors on how to teach rhetoric, but we don't train instructors on how to teach ideology. At least not directly--certainly, by training instructors on how to teach sources and rhetoric, we are indirectly training on the teaching of ideology, but I don't believe we can afford to be so indirect in the future. Teachers need the equipment to confront racism, misogyny, homophobia, and science denialism when and where it shows up in their classrooms--to confront it with the compassion, empathy, and respect befitting an educator, but to confront it nonetheless. I have decent improvisational skills, but I need more concrete strategies--we all do.

Of course, resources providing these strategies already exist, but they're more important than ever before. Here are a few questions I've been mulling over, pertaining to specific teaching scenarios that I've encountered in the past that I suspect will become more common in the future:

  • How do you grade and comment on a paper when the fundamental problem with its argument isn't the rhetoric or the sources or anything you covered in class, so much as it is the first premises from which the paper is arguing, e.g., an unexamined assumption about biological race?
  • How do you diffuse an encounter with a confrontational student in office hours?
  • Is there such a thing as a student who is a "lost cause"? That is, how do we identify and deal with students along a spectrum of ideological entrenchment, from those who simply have never examined their problematic beliefs before, to those so steadfast in their bigotry that there is little to nothing productive we can do with them in the course of a semester?
  • What role do facts play in an ideological discussion, and how should an instructor handle a situation where they don't have the relevant facts at hand? If one student peddles false or misleading information in a classroom discussion, but the instructor doesn't have the resources to fact check in the moment, how can the instructor effectively debunk the misinformation while maintaining authority?
  • How do you manage sensitive discussions in an ideologically diverse classroom? That is, in a hypothetical classroom comprised of 2 or 3 students from vulnerable populations (e.g. queer or POC students), 5 or 6 students who consider themselves allies, a dozen or so indifferent or politically disengaged students, 5 or 6 international students without the same background in American political discourse, and 1 or 2 right wing students who might be inclined to be more confrontational, how does an instructor manage conversation so as to provide an education to everyone at once (this is, in my anecdotal experience, a fairly common demographic breakdown of a ~25 person class at Michigan)?

Obviously, no two scenarios will ever be the same, so none of these questions have easy or universally applicable answers, which makes ongoing teacher training that much more important. I honestly don't even know if I'll still be teaching in a year or two, but I'll still be in academia in some capacity or another, and whatever I end up doing, I hope I'll have a network of colleagues with whom to explore these questions. We'll need each other as resources now more than ever.

We also need institutional backing, since those on the front lines are also those with the greatest professional vulnerability: graduate students and non-tenure track faculty. We shouldn't have to risk our jobs confronting ignorance and bigotry, but if we don't confront the ignorance and bigotry, I don't believe it's a job worth having in the first place.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Premature Death of a Course: A Glimpse into how Universities Value the People they Pay to Teach

Last Fall I saw a Facebook post from a former student of mine from Shanghai who is now studying at the University of Michigan. In the post, he commented on Ann Arbor's air quality and expressed sadness and concern for his parents living in Beijing, for whom he'd just bought a new air filter. Coincidentally, directly below that post, Facebook showed me this meme, which had been shared by a history professor acquaintance of mine:
The juxtaposition of my former student's post and the professor's post got me thinking about the language of abjection with which we talk about pollution in China, and Beijing specifically, and about how air pollution constitutes a kind of Faustian bargain with the mephistophelean forces of industrialization and modernization. And it got me thinking about the history of that Faustian bargain--how it started in Europe, moved westward across the Atlantic, and now had moved westward across the Pacific.

These thoughts stuck in my brain for a few months, and by January I had come up with an idea for a course that I wanted to teach examining the history of urban air pollution. The course would consist of three units: one on nineteenth century London, one on twentieth century Los Angeles, and one on twenty-first century Beijing. The course would be interdisciplinary; within each unit we would examine scientific questions (chemically speaking, what was the air pollution in each of these cities, where did it come from, how was it measured, and how did it affect human's health and the environment?), humanistic questions (how did artists and activists work to make the air pollution visible and represent its effects?), and sociopolitical questions (how did politicians and regulators address the problem of air pollution?). The course would begin with Oscar Wilde's observation in "The Decay of Lying" that painters were responsible for making London's fog visible:
Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art.
And it would end with the artist Nut Brother's recent work, creating a brick out of Beijing's air pollution:
I talked to several professors about the course, and they recommended that I propose teaching it for U-M's Program in the Environment (PitE). I wrote up a proposal and in April I met with the program's director, who happened to be a former professor of mine. He loved the idea, and wanted me to teach it as a 300-level PitE course in Winter 2017.

There was just one complication.

As I've documented on this blog, I've been a contingent faculty member at the University of Michigan since I completed my Ph.D. in 2013. My rank is Lecturer 1. U-M has four levels of Lecturer, Lec 1 being the lowest. In my experience over the past three years, the most frustrating thing about being a Lec 1 has been the instability--I'm hired from semester to semester, and never know whether I will be teaching, and if so, what classes I will be assigned, until the last minute. Twice I've been laid off for lack of work: in the Winter 2014 semester I had to take a temp job at the library to pay the bills, and in Winter 2016 I was fired from the English Department and the writing center, only to get a last minute partial appointment at the Honors College.

This past year, fed up with this uncertainty and seeing the hopes of a more stable faculty position rapidly dwindling, I decided to make a transition into academic libraries. I had already applied to and come close to being hired by several academic libraries; I decided to go back to school for a Master of Science in Information (MSI) to increase my chances of securing a good position in that field. This would have the added benefit of giving me something to do in Ann Arbor for the next two years while my wife finished her Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology. We could then go on the job market together with several career options between the two of us.

I had initially hoped to pay for the MSI degree by applying to become a University Library Associate (ULA), but, as luck would have it, the ULA program was discontinued for the upcoming school year. My backup plan was to pay for the degree by teaching as a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI). And that's where the PitE course comes in.

PitE has offered me a position for Winter 2017, but they have offered it to me at the rank of Lec 1. Now, previously, it had been the instability that frustrated me about work as a Lec 1, but now, from the vantage point of someone who is going back to graduate school, the disparity in financial compensation is coming into sharp relief. It's important to note that at U-M, a Lec 1 and a GSI can do essentially the same work: they can both be hired as a the instructor of record, teaching their own course, or they can be hired to lead discussion sections for a Professor's large lecture class, like a "teaching assistant" (though we don't use the term TA here in any official way). However, according to the standard contracts for a GSI and a Lec 1, the work looks very different in terms of how we are compensated. Let's look at a side-by-side of what a GSI might get for teaching one course vs. what a Lec 1 might get for teaching the same course:


GSI
Lec 1
% appointment?
50%
33%
Tuition waiver?
Full tuition waiver, the value of which can vary depending on the school. For the School of Information it is $10,000 per semester.
No compensation equivalent to the tuition waiver.
Salary?
Approximately $10,000
Approximately $6,000
Health care?
Yes
Only for appointments over 50%

Now, I should note that GSIs only teach one course per semester, and because Lecturers usually are hired at a 100% appointment (three courses per semester), they typically do receive health care and their take home pay is substantially higher than graduate students. I should also note that, compared to many universities, these rates of compensation are something U-M should be proud of, and are the result of hard work on the part of the graduate students' union, GEO, and the lecturers' union, LEO. But still, looking at this information side by side, it's striking to note the disparity in how two ranks of university employees are compensated for doing the same work, especially considering that GSIs, almost my definition, are inexperienced instructors without advanced degrees, while Lec 1s are experienced teachers with MFAs or PhDs. I think this disparity speaks rather clearly to the university's priorities, which lie more with cultivating future scholars than with compensating professional teachers. The sad irony is that those future scholars are more likely to end up in a job that looks like a Lec 1 position than one that looks like a tenure track professorship.

I haven't yet decided whether to accept PitE's offer to teach the course in Winter 2017 as a Lec 1 with a 33% appointment, or to see if I can find a GSI position with another department. PhD programs at U-M typically guarantee GSI positions to their students--I had ten semesters of support as a GSI during my PhD program--but the School of Information offers its MSI students no such guarantee, meaning I have to apply to positions one at a time. There are few GSI positions in the School of Information, and positions in other departments are difficult to obtain for applicants outside of the department. For the Fall semester, I applied for over 20 positions in different departments and only last week received an offer to teach discussion sections for a class in the Screen Arts and Cultures Department. It's a gamble, but right now I'm inclined to let the PitE course die a premature death.

The urban air pollution course is a passion project of mine, and such being the case I have been willing to put in the extra work of building the course from scratch. But passion won't pay my tuition, or my rent, or my grocery bills, or my doctor's bills.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A Few Quick Thoughts on the Colonial Adventure Narrative

There's a genre descriptor that I often find useful, the "Colonial Adventure Narrative." I use it, generally speaking, to refer to those stories where a colonized land serves as the site of adventure for one or more of the colonizers. It's a capacious genre encompassing a variety of story settings and formulas. The Jungle Book and Tarzan of the Apes are obvious examples; perhaps less obvious are Cowboys-and-Indians Western stories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It's a genre most commonly associated with the Victorian period, but it's as old as colonialism and is still going strong. And while no one story element is necessary or sufficient for a story to fall under the umbrella category of the colonial adventure narrative, the genre is associated with a fair share of negative tropes, such as the noble savage and white man's burden. Generally speaking, the colonial adventure narrative is deeply entrenched in the perspective of the colonizers' culture, envisioning the colonized land as a site of unique opportunities and unique dangers. These dangers and opportunities are seen as coming from nature itself, and unlike the "civilized" culture of the colonizers, the colonized people are typically figured as a part of that natural landscape. It's easy to see how these narratives generate and reinforce a whole host of dehumanizing stereotypes, but it's also easy to see how that dehumanization is somewhat complicated. When writers like Rudyard Kipling depict indigenous people as having special skills or a closer relationship with nature, they often do so with earnest admiration, and on a practical level, these were traits to admire, even as their framing perpetuated untruths and reinforced the colonists' power over the colonized.

Now, I'm very far from being an expert on colonialism, and there's a whole host of historical and literary scholarship on the subject with which I have only a passing familiarity. What I am an expert on is science fiction, and science fiction (indeed, all pulp genres in one way or another) owes a lot to the colonial adventure narrative. To the genre's credit, its anti-colonial roots run as deep as its colonialism; both Mary Shelly and H.G. Wells, often called the genre's mother and father, were staunch critics of colonialism whose fiction frequently employed the conventions of the colonial adventure narrative in ways that challenged dominant ideologies. But many works in the genre, from Edgar Rice Burroughs's "Barsoom" series (which in many ways is Tarzan on Mars) to Dune (in which the son of a duke becomes a mighty whitey and leads an indigenous people in their fight against an empire) to even Star Trek (which Gene Roddenberry initially described as a "wagon train to the stars") evince classic patterns of the colonialist mentality.

Colonialism runs deep in pop culture's DNA. It's leapt from pulp magazines to radio dramas to comic books to TV to movies, and it's no wonder why--these stories are tremendously fun! Colonialism's legacy of racism can't be denied, but neither can the excitement that comes with these stories of exotic exploration and cultural contact.

In the past 30 years or so, storytellers have explored a few different options for how to resolve this tension. One option has been to follow in the tradition of H.G. Wells and try to subvert the genre. That, I would argue, is what George R.R. Martin attempts to do with the colonialist undertones of traditional high fantasy, exposing narratives about chivalry and white saviorhood to be a lie.
Whether that subversion succeeds is debatable.
Another option has been to simply ignore the old stories altogether. Despite the seemingly endless adaptations and remakes Hollywood provides us with, I think there's a reason we haven't seen an Alan Quatermain on the big screen in 30 years.
This doesn't count.
Yet another option is to get postmodern--to show a self-awareness about the genre traditions you are engaging with that creates some distance, even if you are not explicitly critiquing those traditions. That's what Steven Spielberg attempts to do with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and what Alan Moore does with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
No, not that one.
A fourth option is to change characters' races--when adapting a story, make one or more of the white characters people of color, or when telling an original story that fits within the framework of the colonial adventure narrative, make the typically white hero a character of color.
Quentin Tarantino kind of tries to do all of the above.
Of course, a fifth option is "none of the above." Which brings me to the trailer for Doctor Strange:
This trailer looks undeniably badass. It also looks sadly familiar. Ever since Marvel released Iron Man in 2008, it's been at the vanguard of the trend embracing more sophisticated and spectacular superhero movies, and, consequently, it's been the leader of the pop culture landscape more generally. But their success has been built on two sensibilities that, I think, are coming into conflict here: (1) a willingness to tell new stories unlike what superhero films and TV shows have done in the past (like Captain America: Winter Soldier and A.K.A. Jessica Jones) and (2) a faithfulness to the pulp attributes of comic book storytelling that previous filmmakers have eschewed (Christopher Nolan) or treated as pure camp (Joel Schumacher). Guardians of the Galaxy's earnest embrace of comic-bookiness is what made it possibly the best Marvel movie, but I fear that that same embrace might be this movie's biggest limitation.

The comic books of the 1930s-1970s were inheriting the sensibilities of the pulp magazines of the 1890s-1950s, which themselves inherited the colonialist sensibilities of the 19th century. That means that a lot of the classic comic book narratives predate the various modes of interrogating the colonial adventure narrative that I described above. Doctor Strange's acquisition of mystical powers from the orient, first told in comic books in the 1960s, is a classic example.

I've heard others criticize Doctor Strange for "whitewashing." It is true that Tilda Swinton's character, "The Ancient One," is typically portrayed as Asian. However, it is also true that Baron Mordo, a typically white character, is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor--as they had previously shown by casting black actors to play Nick Fury and Heimdall, Marvel is not afraid to cast black actors in substantial supporting roles that were originally written as white. It's also true that casting Tilda Swinton to play a role typically portrayed as a male represents an increase in female representation as well.

Whitewashing is part of the issue here. It's worth noting we've seen numerous traditionally Asian characters being played by white actors in recent years, including Liam Neeson as Ras Al Ghul in Batman Begins, Ben Kingsley as the fake Mandarin in Marvel's Iron Man 3, and Benedict Cumberbatch himself as Khan in Star Trek. Thinking about the representational politics of their casting choices would have probably been the easiest way Marvel could have interrogated the genre traditions it was entering into. I was a big fan of the idea of casting Chilean actor Pedro Pascal as Doctor Strange back when the movie had first been announced. This film seemed like the perfect opportunity to give its protagonist a race lift. Instead, it will be the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a white protagonist.

But the problem isn't simply one of whitewashing--there are patterns and structures at play. Notice how two of the three movies I listed above, Batman Begins and Iron Man 3, feature a white villain (Liam Neeson's Ras in Batman Begins, Guy Pearce's Aldrich Killian in Iron Man 3) hiding behind Asian personae (Ken Watanabe as the fake Ras in Batman Begins, Kingsley as the fake Mandaran in Iron Man 3). In both cases the simple storytelling structure--uncovering the villain behind the villain--serves to affirm white supremacy. And notice the similarity between the Doctor Strange trailer and Batman Begins, both figuring the orient as the place where the white protagonist gains special knowledge. These colonialist tropes make some sense in a 1960s comic book, or an 1860s novel, but they're out of place in a 21st century film.

Representation is important, but I would argue that there is a deeper issue here. Marvel's commitment to remaining faithful to its source material is causing it to abdicate any interrogation of the centuries-old mentalities embedded in the genres that it is drawing on.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Go Set a Watchman, 2015

I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction, and I've only ever purchased two novels on the day they were released. The first was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the second was Go Set A Watchman. I can't say that there was a deep emotional motivation that led me to rush out and buy Harper Lee's book--I found To Kill A Mockingbird beautiful and moving when I read it in my early adolescence, but no more so than most people do, and I can't say that it's one of the books that particularly influenced me in my intellectual development. But I recognized the sequel's publication for the rare event that it was, and wanted to participate in it.

It's hard to engage with the book without wrestling with the extratextual question, why now? Coming so soon after the death of Alice Lee, Harper Lee's sister and literary executor, the discovery of the long lost manuscript, and Lee's decision to publish it after 55 years of adamant refusal to publish another work, seemed odd. An investigation by the state of Alabama found that claims of elder abuse were unfounded, but it was difficult to shake the suspicion that a frail 89 year old woman was somehow being manipulated or coerced. It was a strange situation; if the manuscript had been found after Lee's death, I would have been unambiguously in favor of its publication, just as I believe Max Brod made the right decision in publishing Franz Kafka's stories, and Dmitri Nabokov made the right decision in publishing The Original of Laura. I don't believe that artists are entitled to dictate their posthumous legacies that way. But of course, Harper Lee is still alive.

Ultimately, I decided to defer to the state of Alabama and others who have maintained that it was Lee's decision to publish the book. Even if her faculties are failing, I believe a person has the right to change their mind, and in this case I can imagine why Lee might have done so. In the wake of her sister's death, it makes some sense for Lee to contemplate her own legacy and perhaps to want to extend it. The publication might even serve as a distraction from her own mourning.

Whatever her reasons, I'm grateful that she published it. I read the first 180 pages of the novel the night it came out; work commitments then got in the way, and it took me another week to get to the last 100 pages. I've been ruminating on it since then. Its an uneven but fascinating novel. Sometimes its clear why the publisher rejected it and encouraged her to write the story of Atticus defending Tom Robinson instead. The novel can be slow, directionless, overly sentimental, and clumsy. But it has moments of brilliance and beauty that match if not exceed my memories of To Kill A Mockingbird. I agree with Randall Kennedy's assessment, "Go Set a Watchman demands that its readers abandon the immature sentimentality ingrained by middle school lessons about the nobility of the white savior and the mesmerizing performance of Gregory Peck in the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird."

As Kennedy notes, the first hundred pages or so seem overly nostalgic and mostly directionless. Overall, the book's greatest weakness is its lack of a plot, something Lee seems to tacitly admit when Atticus's brother, Dr. Jack Finch, tells Jean Louise, "The novel must tell a story." But that meandering quality helps Lee offer glimpses into the philosophical mindset of 1950s southerners, providing insights into the pathological mentalities that link veneration for tradition with the perpetuation of racial inequality.

What little story there is is simple enough: Jean Louise returns to Maycomb for a visit after living in New York, and finds it a more segregated and hateful place than she had remembered from her childhood. Whether the town actually is more racist than it was is ambiguous--the characters attribute the rise in racist fervor to the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, but what the decision actually did to the mentality of white southerners remains an open question in the novel. Did the Supreme Court and the NAACP spark a reaction that made progress more difficult? Did the decision simply turn the volume up on racism that had existed more quietly in previous decades? Or was that racism always there, right on the surface, regardless of the Court, and had only been invisible to Scout thanks to her youth and white privilege? The answer may be clear to anyone with a sensible understanding of American history, but given how contemporary these debates remain, I find tremendous value in how Lee unpacks the psychology of white supremacy.

At times, the novel does feel tremendously contemporary, so much so that it's hard to believe the novel was written in the time it was set, rather than decades later. It often reads like a work of historical fiction using the past to comment on the present, the way that To Kill A Mockingbird does. In one scene, for example, Jean Louise walks in on a women's meeting hosted by her Aunt Alexandra. In a discussion of miscegenation, Jean Louise's response seems straight out of recent debates over gay marriage (and satires thereof): "When white people holler about mongrelizin', isn't that something of a reflection on ourselves as a race? The message I get from it is that if it were lawful, there'd be a wholesale rush to marry Negroes. If I were a scholar, which I ain't, I would say that kind of talk has a deep psychological significance that's not particularly flattering to the one who talks it."

The fact that these debates feel so familiar--in discussions of race and other social justice movements--might provide another answer to the question, why now? The fact that Atticus is revealed to harbor racist attitudes has garnered the most controversy since the book's publication. But maybe now is the best time to interrogate our white saviors, and, more importantly, interrogate our own veneration of them. Why, exactly, are we surprised that Atticus Finch would join a Citizens Council to oppose the NAACP? What does that reveal about what we chose to see and not see about others? What does that reveal about what we chose to know, and what we chose to assume?

This might not be why Lee decided to publish the book in 2015, but I do believe it's why it's a book of 2015--a book for the era of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and so many others. It's a book for an America full of white progressives who elected the nation's first black president and actually patted themselves on the back for achieving a post-racial America while confederate flags still flew over statehouses, not even noticing that they were there until nine people were murdered in a church. We (and I'm including myself among those white progressives here) are all Jean Louise. We naively remember our homes and our friends and our families as being better in the past, but then some progress is made and we see them lash out violently to protect institutional racism. And we act surprised, thinking this isn't the Maycomb or the Atticus or the America that we remember. But the hate was always there; it was just able to remain hidden from us because we weren't its victims, and because at the moment it was going more or less unchallenged.

And it's in us too. Our own nostalgia for the simple days when we didn't feel the responsibility to confront the bigotry only fuels it. We try to put responsibility on older people, attributing reactionary attitudes to generational change. But that's a naive comfort. The most haunting moment in Go Set A Watchman comes towards the end, when when Jean Louise confronts her father, and he presses her to tell him what her first reaction to the Brown v. Board of Education decision was, and she admits, "I was furious." Atticus's racism is sad, but Scout's racism is a tragedy.

Friday, July 17, 2015

On Turning a CV into A Resume

I wrote a piece for MFA Day Job (which, by the way, is a fantastic blog that I highly recommend following). I'm resharing the piece here.

It took me a surprisingly long time to figure out how to turn my CV into a resume. Here are some tips I’ve picked up over the years:

When turning a CV into a resume, the first thing to bear in mind is length. CVs are as long as they need to be, while resumes are short–one page for recent college grads, two pages for those with advanced degrees and/or a few years of job experience. They’re never longer than two pages. This can feel really restrictive–my CV is seven pages, and cutting it down to two felt crushing. But that work of cutting ended up being really valuable, because the resume is a fundamentally different document from a CV.

This is one of the most important lessons anyone ever taught me about the nonacademic job search: A CV shows your accomplishments; a resume shows your skills. Academia is very results-oriented, so they want to know everything you’ve done. A CV gives academic hiring committees a comprehensive picture of what you’ve done: Here are the articles I’ve published, here are the conferences I’ve presented at, here are the courses I’ve taught, etc. Nonacademic employers care about what you’ve done, but in a different way. What nonacademic employers want is a narrative of your past experiences that answers the question, how have your past experiences shaped you into the kind of person who can do this job? As a result, you might have five or six different resumes tailored to different kinds of jobs, the same way you might tailor your cover letter for different jobs on the academic market.

You might end up cutting things that felt like major accomplishments in your academic career, but aren’t relevant, while elevating things that at the time seemed inconsequential, but that better highlight a key skill. For example, I was recently applying for an editor job, and I ended up including that I had been a research assistant for several professors–a job that would not be particularly impressive in an academic job search, but one that allowed me to legitimately establish in a one-line description that I had several years’ experience editing and preparing manuscripts for publication. On that resume, “Research Assistant” took up as much space as “University Writing Instructor,” a job that takes up more than a page of my CV, because on my CV I list all the various courses I’ve taught.

Finally, bear in mind that when submitting a resume electronically, a computer program is likely going to read it into a database and strip out any formatting, so keep it simple and be mindful of the keywords that they might be searching for. My resume has five sections: Education, Work Experience, Other Relevant Experience (such as extracurricular and volunteer work), Skills (such as language and computer skills), and Interests (another opportunity to insert keywords). Depending on the job and what I want to highlight, “Education” might come first or third, after “Other Relevant Experience,” but otherwise I keep them in that order. I’ve known people who’ve taken their Ph.D. off of their resume entirely, but I’ve yet to do that myself.

Note that this matters when applying to nonacademic jobs, but “alt-ac” is a little different. In the alt-ac world, they often use the terms “resume” and “CV” interchangeably, and depending on the job, it might make sense to submit your full CV even if the posting says “resume.” This is true of jobs at university libraries, university presses, and some academic support staff positions. It’s important to know your audience and use your judgement.

If you are interested in perusing my CV-turned-resume, you can read it here. Keep in mind that, as I mentioned above, it might be advisable to tailor your resume to emphasize some skills over others depending on the job. This example was tailored for editor jobs, particularly those involving popular fiction or digital text editing, so keywords pertaining to those fields are iterated, often more than once. Jobs in other fields might require a rewording of the resume to emphasize other keywords, and the Experience, Skills, or Interests sections might add or delete things to tell a different story about my professional development and direction.

Over at MFA Day Job, Leah Falk kindly provides a few links to other sources of potentially useful advice that are worth checking out.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why I Didn't Go on the Academic Job Market this Year

In April 2014 I had been on the academic job market twice--once somewhat halfheartedly as an ABD, and once doing the full-court press right after having defended my dissertation. For those who aren't academics in English literature, job listings for professorships typically come out via the MLA Job List, put out by the Modern Language Association. The list typically comes out in September, applications are due in the fall, interviews are conducted at the MLA annual conference in January, and offers are typically made in the spring for jobs that will start the following fall. This is the traditional job "season," but increasingly, as schools are uncertain as to their budgets, postings are coming out later and later, well into the summer. That April, not having had any luck two years in a row left me scrambling to figure out what I would be doing in the fall--or, for that matter, in the summer.

An added complication was the fact that I had recently gotten engaged. My fiancee PJ, a biology graduate student, would need to be in Ann Arbor for the 2014-2015 school year, and we scheduled our wedding to take place in Ann Arbor in May 2015. I was immensely excited about the engagement, but anxious about the professional and financial uncertainty that the next year would bring.

Then I received an opportunity to teach for two months in China during the summer, and an offer to teach as a lecturer at the Sweetland Writing Center in the fall. After many rejections, these opportunities felt exciting, and made it easier to make a plan for the future. I would go to China for the summer while PJ went to the gulf coast to collect samples for her dissertation research. Then at the end of the summer we would move in together (we had been living in separate apartments at the time we got engaged), and during the 2014-2015 school year, PJ would finish her lab work while I would work as a lecturer while making one more attempt at the academic job market. By the end of the school year, PJ would be done with her lab work, and hopefully, I would have a job, and she and I could get married and move to a new city where I would teach and she would write her dissertation.

Initially, I was nervous but excited about China. It seemed like an opportunity for a unique experience, and also a chance to, as I put it at the time, "hit the reset button" on my relationship with my job. Then, one week into my time there, I got an interview for a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at Georgia Tech University, a position that I had applied for months ago and assumed I had been passed up for when I got to China. I interviewed for the position via Skype, and received an offer a day later. I discussed it with PJ and my parents. Saying yes to Georgia Tech would have involved moving to Atlanta less than a month after returning from China, turning down the position I had accepted at Sweetland, living apart from my fiancee for a full year, and disrupting my wedding plans for the spring. Ultimately, it was too big of a sacrifice, so I turned the position down.

This significantly soured my experience in China, but I was excited to be back in the United States in July. PJ and I moved in together and got a dog (something we'd been discussing for some time), and started working on wedding plans.

Then PJ started experiencing panic attacks. She would have uncontrollable crying spells and suddenly get sick to her stomach. She became agoraphobic, and her personality seemed to change. As I began to prepare for another year on the job market, she became clingy and accusatory, telling me that I was too obsessed with work. She would become irrationally angry at our dog. She also suffered from severe insomnia, sometimes going all night without sleep.

In retrospect, this was the beginning of an episode of mania. We saw several therapists, both individually and together, and they initially thought it was anxiety brought on by the stress of moving in together and of the wedding. PJ began to discuss details of her unhappy childhood and unhealthy home life, which seemed to be the underlying source of this anxiety. Things got better for a little while. But then they got worse.

PJ's insomnia became uncontrollable. She began saying things that made no sense (psychiatrists call this "disorganized thinking"), and began to hallucinate colors and shapes. On September 18 I took her to Psychiatric Emergency Services (PES), and they admitted her to the inpatient psych ward. That semester's classes had begun on September 2, and the MLA Job List had been released on September 12.

I had been working less than three weeks in a new department, teaching two classes, one of which I'd never taught before (and had been assigned only two weeks before the start of the semester), and working ten hours a week as a writing consultant. I was just barely able to hold it together in front of my students. I didn't know what was going on, and I was a basket case.

That first hospitalization lasted 12 days, at the end of which she was discharged with no real plan for follow-up care, and without a clear diagnosis (officially, this was described as a "psychotic episode," and her diagnosis was "Mood Disorder Not Otherwise Specified"). She was heavily medicated on a drug that made her depressed and gave her terrible akathisia--a state of agitation that some describe as feeling like you have a spring inside you. It makes you shake and move uncontrollably, and can be so irritating as to drive some people to attempt suicide. She was also taken off of her ADHD medication out of fear that it had contributed to the episode. All of this led to a second hospitalization in October. Then a third hospitalization the day after Christmas. Only after that third hospitalization was PJ finally given a diagnosis of Bipolar I and given a course of medications that seemed to genuinely help manage her symptoms with relatively tolerable side effects.

PJ shared her experience of all of this in an article for XOJane a few months ago. From her perspective it was one kind of hell, and from my perspective it was another. When she was in the hospital, I worried constantly, uncertain about the quality of care she was receiving and what her prognosis was. I needed to know if she could find her mind again, and I called the hospital daily--getting doctors on the phone in the little time that I had between classes and meetings with students was next to impossible, especially from my basement office, which lacks cell reception. When she was home from the hospital, I worried even more--with the diagnosis still uncertain and with PJ seeming more and more depressed, I worried about accidental or intentional self-harm whenever I was at work. All the while, I served as the go-between with her family (who are not exactly easy people to communicate with), as well as her Ph.D. advisor. I worried about her department not allowing her to complete her graduate work, and encouraged her to go on medical leave, which she initially refused to do. She did go on medical leave for the Winter semester, after the third hospitalization, and that gave her four solid months to recuperate.

But from August through January, I was carrying a massive ball of tangled worries. In that time, we saw at least seven therapists, eight social workers, and twenty psychiatrists--that’s counting residents and attendings at the hospital as well as private practice doctors, but not countless interns, nurses, orderlies, and other hospital staff. We also made two trips to her primary care physician, two trips to the ER, three trips to the university counseling service, and five trips to PES. I tried my best not to let it interfere with my teaching, but I know it did. I haven't even looked at my student evaluations from that semester.

PJ's third hospitalization lasted a full two weeks, cutting into the first week of the Winter semester. I had spent most of the Fall semester assuming I would not get reappointed for the Winter. The reappointment was a pleasant surprise that made things easier from a financial standpoint, but also created more work at a time when things were their most uncertain. My ball of worries had gotten so heavy that I started to have panic attacks myself. I would come into the office between 7 and 8 in the morning in order to write my lesson plans for my classes, and within minutes of turning on my computer I would feel a tightness in my chest, I would have difficulty breathing, and I would feel sweaty and dizzy. On more than one occasion I came very close to calling 911, thinking I was having a heart attack, but, recognizing that it was likely a panic attack, I would close my office door and lie on the floor for several minutes, until I could get my breathing under control, then I would go on with my day. All of this was happening while my colleagues were interviewing for jobs at the MLA conference in Vancouver.

By the end of January, though, things were beginning to look up. PJ was on medical leave, and her meds and therapy were working far better than before, and I had been given prescriptions for Zoloft and Ativan for my anxiety. We moved our wedding back a year, PJ started doing volunteer work, and my courses for the semester were a resounding success.

A lingering regret was that I had been unable to go on the academic job market. My job at Sweetland was a full time job. For several months in the fall, monitoring PJ's care was a full time job. The academic job search is a full time job. I didn't have time for three full time jobs, so one of those had to be sacrificed.

But now that things had begun to improve, I began applying for professorships and postdocs that came up later in the season. I came to think of Georgia Tech as my ace in the hole. I had gotten an offer from them a year earlier, and I sensed regret when they were unable to give me a deferral. Plus now I had international teaching experience and a year of working in a writing center under my belt, making me an even stronger candidate for the postdoc, which was a teaching fellowship at a writing center. I applied in February and interviewed in May. The interview was almost identical to the one I had a year earlier. I came out of it confident in my chances.

Just this week I received the rejection letter.

The situation isn't completely dire. PJ has funding for the year if we stay in Ann Arbor, and Sweetland has offered a teaching position for the Fall semester. But I don't have guaranteed teaching for the Winter semester, and if I stay, it will be my fourth semester as a Lecturer at U-M, meaning I will be scheduled for my interim review, a labor-intensive process that involves assembling numerous documents that account for my teaching. It's a useful procedure (though I have some criticisms of exactly how it's conducted), but it's a procedure designed for "career" lecturers. For those in my position, who had expected this to be a temporary position, the review is somewhat alien and unexpected, and a lot of the documents that I would need to provide (like comments on graded papers), are materials that I didn't know to keep. I'll have to assemble these materials while teaching two classes, spending ten hours a week as a writing consultant, and, oh yes, going on the job market again.

The greatest disappointment in being turned down by Georgia Tech is, it was the only opportunity available to me that would have bought me time--time to slow down and actually think. Prior to this summer, I had not had the opportunity to so much as think about article writing for a solid twelve months. I still do not have an article published in a peer reviewed journal. I have several articles that have spent ages in a state of being near-publishable, but between teaching and job applications and PJ's health crisis I have Not. Had. Any. Damn. Time. I'm in a state of constant mental and emotional exhaustion. Georgia Tech was a three year postdoc, meaning I could have spent up to two blissful years not even thinking about the job search. I would have had to teach three courses a semester, but at least some precious brain space would be available for me to actually do the thing I'm trained to do, write scholarship.

Furthermore, I am desperate to move out of Ann Arbor. In the two years since I've earned my degree, this place has been the site of too many professional disappointments, and with the events of the past year, I've come to associate it with a kind of personal fear that I struggle to adequately articulate. PJ has been stable for several months now, for which I'm immensely grateful, and she supports me whether we stay or go. But I'd really rather go.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Keep the Humanities, Lose the Fetish

I recently spoke with Leah Falk over at MFA Day Job about the state of higher education in the humanities and the pursuit of academic and nonacademic jobs. It was a fruitful conversation. Here's an excerpt:

Leah: Among MFA students, especially those who come right out of undergrad, I’ve sometimes encountered the attitude that “I don’t have any other skills” but this particular kind of writing. Which makes me kind of mad, because out of necessity I feel like I’ve discovered all sorts of skills and interests in the working world that I wouldn’t necessarily have had to countenance in grad school, or if I’d gone straight from grad school to an academic job, etc. Do you encounter anything similar in English Ph.D. students, or do you think they tend to have a better-rounded sense of their own range of abilities?

Brian: Oh I absolutely encounter that among Ph.D. students, and am guilty of it myself. I still find it somewhat difficult to conceive of what the day-to-day experience of a lot of nonacademic jobs are like. But the important thing to bear in mind is, with academic jobs, so much of the actual work is basic white collar tedium–answering emails, attending meetings, serving on committees, etc. The basic skills that comprise 80-90% of an academic job are virtually identical to the majority of nonacademic white collar jobs out there.

I don’t know about you, but I see it as a two-pronged problem: on the one hand, an anxiety about being able to DO a nonacademic job, and on the other hand, an anxiety about not being FULFILLED by a nonacademic job. In both cases, I think that anxiety is fueled by a poor sense of what both an academic job and a nonacademic job actually entail.

Leah: Yeah, I agree. I think the fear of 9-5 (which I was totally guilty of, and now that I DO work 40 hours a week, it hasn’t totally gone away) comes largely from not being able to imagine any kind of stimulation coming from that rigid a schedule. I think I became more comfortable with a non-academic career path when I realized I’d have just as much time (or more) to write coming home at 5 pm (and not bringing much work home with me) as I would if I were teaching 3 courses a semester.

The whole conversation is worth a read.