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

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.

Monday, April 6, 2015

If I Ran the Zoo

My last post, in which I shared a paper that I gave at Michigan State University's "Neoliberalism and Public Higher Education" conference, quickly became the most popular blog entry I've ever posted. I was heartened by the positive response, and wanted to follow up on it.

It's important to emphasize that I really do love my job. The day-to-day experience of planning lessons, teaching classes, and consulting with students is immense fun. My colleagues at the writing center are tremendously collegial and pleasant to work with, and there are many ways in which my department is supportive of my professional development. I'm a best case scenario in a lot of ways. Still, as a best case scenario, my experience illustrates what I would characterize as systemic problems in how graduate students are prepared for the job market and how contingent faculty are treated.

So what would I do if I ran the zoo? Here are five things I would change if I could.

  1. Schedule course offerings with a view to maximizing the number of full time, full year faculty hires.

I appreciate the headache that is course scheduling for department chairs. Enrollments fluctuate, professors get sick--all manner of last minute changes affect what courses are offered from one semester to the next, and who is hired to teach those courses. Consequently, some faculty might need to be hired on a single semester or part time basis. But from the faculty member's perspective there is an immense difference between a year of guaranteed employment and a semester of guaranteed employment. Departments could do more to minimize this semester-to-semester uncertainty. One significant step would be to take those big intro-level courses like Freshman Writing that are typically taught by contingent faculty, and offer an equal number of sections of those courses in both semesters. Departments could also offer more opportunities for Graduate Student Instructors to teach upper level classes when professors become unavailable at the last minute. Graduate students' funding sources are more flexible, so if departments offered graduate students opportunities to defer research fellowships and gave them financial incentives to teach courses at the last minute, then departments could rely on them more to fill these vacancies, instead of relying on part-time, short term adjunct positions.

  1. Revise the PhD curriculum to genuinely prepare graduate students for the academic job market and for the work of a professor.

When I was a student, the English Ph.D. program at Michigan involved two years of coursework (during which you took 3-4 courses per semester), one year of studying for and taking prelim exams (during which you took one course per semester), and 2-4 years of dissertation work (during which additional coursework was optional). Ph.D. candidates had six years of guaranteed funding--a first year fellowship, a year serving as a Teaching Assistant to a professor teaching a large 300-level literature class, and four years teaching writing classes--with other fellowships available to extend students’ time to degree and/or replace teaching. There were two 3-credit courses that every student was required to take: Introduction to Graduate Studies in the first semester of the first year, and Pedagogy in the first semester of the second year. In the first semester of the third year, we participated in a not-for-credit teaching circle for an hour once a week, designed to provide practical support during our first semester teaching writing and led on alternating weeks by professors or graduate student mentors. Other than those, the courses were similar to undergraduate seminars, only with longer final papers and longer readings, including more literary theory.

Certain aspects of this program do an excellent job of preparing students for academic work, but there is substantial room for improvement. Introduction to Graduate Studies served mainly as a bonding opportunity for the incoming cohort, and while I value the friendships I made through that course, it did not contribute in a meaningful way to my professional development. The same goes for Pedagogy, a course that I took while concurrently serving as a Teaching Assistant for the first time ever. This was far too early for me to meaningfully understand the theoretical underpinnings of college teaching, for a literature course or a writing course (the later of which I had zero practical experience with).

If I were designing a graduate program, I would have no required courses in the first year, allowing students those two semesters to explore courses in their fields of interest. In the first semester of the second year, I would require all students to take a 3-credit course titled, “Writing for Academic Publication.” The course would be a writing workshop where students would be required to revise a seminar paper written during their first year, and submit it for publication by the end of the semester. Students would be allowed to repeat the course every year if they wished. Given that a publication record is a requirement for so many jobs, it only makes sense to integrate this requirement into the curriculum.

I would keep the funding structure and teaching schedule the same, but make the weekly teaching circles required all year in both the second and third years, so graduate student instructors would have regular, ongoing access to resources and new, diverse ideas for lesson plans, class activities, grading techniques, and classroom management. I would delay the 3-credit Pedagogy course until students’ fourth year, after students had had a year’s worth of experience teaching literature and a year’s worth of experience teaching writing, and after they had completed their prelim exams and begun dissertation work. The purpose of the course would be to examine pedagogy more theoretically, from the vantage point of an instructor with practical experience. The final project of the course would be to write a sample syllabus for a survey course in their teaching field, and to write a draft of the statement of teaching philosophy that they would have to submit for job applications.

With these changes to the curriculum, graduate students would have two of the most important components of a successful job application--a publication and a teaching portfolio--under their belts by the end of their fourth year. But scholarly writing and teaching are only two of the three prongs that comprise a professorship. Many graduate students have little to no experience with the third prong--service. So much of the day-to-day work of academia is attending departmental meetings, developing curriculum, planning events, etc., but graduate students can go years without any awareness of this part of the job. But this one’s an easy fix: nominate all students to positions on committees at the start of every year, and make an expectation of graduate student service part of the departmental culture. This is already standard practice in other departments at Michigan, such as Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

  1. Provide PhD students with substantive opportunities to explore career alternatives.

I occasionally hear stories from older alumni of my PhD program about professors who would scoff at the suggestion that students would want to pursue any career other than a tenure-track professorship at a research university. I’m happy to say that those days are behind us. Professors get how difficult the job market is, and get how unappealing the tenure track life can be, even for those who can achieve it. The stigma of alternative career paths is pretty much gone, in my experience. The only problem now is, nobody knows what those alternative career paths actually are, or how to find them. Professors are at a loss as to how to advise their students who are interested in pursuing nontraditional career paths (either instead of or alongside the pursuit of professorships), and departments are clearly struggling with how to provide resources to their students.

“Alt-Ac” is all the rage, and departments have done some good work connecting students with Alt-Ac career opportunities. This usually means work in libraries, in academic administration, and in publishing. Sometimes it also means teaching in high school. Sometimes it means teaching in community colleges, which really should just be considered “Ac,” since it isn’t really “Alt.”

This is a good start, but it doesn’t go far enough. What we need isn’t simply “Alt-Ac” but also “Non-Ac.” I’m frequently told that the skills I’ve developed over the past nine years--research, writing, classroom management, etc.--translate to other professions, but rarely can people tell me what those professions are, where to find them, and how exactly to make that translation from an academic to a nonacademic context. Departments should work more closely with their universities’ career centers, and host regular events connecting graduate students with people in the tech industry, in the advertising industry, in nonprofit organizations, in state, federal, and local governments, and in the myriad other fields where they could potentially find stable, stimulating employment.

  1. Open up (and actively welcome) contingent faculty to professional development resources that are available to graduate students and professors.

This May, Michigan’s graduate school will be hosting a two day seminar titled “What Now? Career Paths Paths for Ph.D.s in the Humanities.” If you follow that link, notice the bold text: “This event is limited to University of Michigan Ph.D. students who began doctoral study at U-M between Summer 2011 and Fall 2013.” As an alumnus and faculty member who is actively seeking more stable employment, seeing this was a smack in the face. Admittedly, this is a program being run by the graduate school, not the department, but it should be open to alumni as well. As for the department, if they are going to rely on contingent faculty who are likely only to be there for a year or two, they should at least provide that faculty with these kinds of opportunities as well.

  1. Consider phasing out tenure.

Hear me out: If we’re going to criticize the problems at the bottom rung of the faculty ladder, we should also reflect on how things work at the top. I’ll be honest, I question whether in the twenty first century the tenure system succeeds at what it sets out to do. It is important to protect academics’ jobs so that they can conduct disinterested research, controversial research, and slow research that requires many years to pay off. But tenure only offers those protections to those academics who are already among the university’s least vulnerable employees: those who have achieved the highest level of respect in their field. For those on the tenure track, the drive to publish undermines any interest in producing genuinely creative and worthwhile scholarship. And for most, the criteria for achieving tenure devalues teaching and service in ways that particularly hurt women and people of color, as well as anyone who actually wants to put effort into their teaching.

I don’t have a better model for how to protect academic freedom, and of course I believe that existing tenure commitments should be honored. But universities would do well to rethink tenure, and either redefine the criteria by which it is achieved so as to fix the pressure cooker that is the tenure track, or stop making new tenure track hires altogether. If part time and semester-to-semester faculty hires were eliminated, it might benefit the university to institute a system where all faculty were fixed-term faculty, with contracts from one to ten years in length.

Obviously some of these changes are easier implemented than others, and all are easier said than done. And of course, someone with different priorities might suggest completely different changes. But from where I sit, thinking about these kinds of changes might help make the university’s English department a more equitable, more secure, and more hopeful place to work.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

One out of Nine

Yesterday I attended a conference titled Neoliberalism and Public Higher Education at Michigan State University. I presented on a panel titled "Uncertain Career Paths for Graduate Students in a Neoliberal Context." What follows is a lightly edited version of my paper.

One out of Nine

I began pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Michigan in the Fall of 2006. My incoming cohort had nine students--seven in English Language and Literature, two in English and Women’s Studies. When we entered the program, all of us aspired to the tenure track. The last of us just defended her dissertation this January, making ours the first cohort in several years with a 100% completion rate. Nine years out, only one of us has a tenure track professorship. Interestingly, he was the first of us to finish, having completed his degree in only five years, and he was hired by California State University the same year he defended. Another one of us has a full professorship at a small university that does not offer tenure, where he teaches a 4-1-4 load--that’s four courses in both the Fall and Spring terms, and one intensive course during their “J-Term” in January. While his position is roughly the equivalent of a tenure-track job, the teaching load makes it barely possible for him to keep his head above water, and the university’s precarious economic situation places him at some risk (It says a lot when the guy working for the California university system has the most stable job). Another one of us earned a prestigious postdoc at the University of Chicago, which she left to join a nonprofit. Another, who had left a job as a lawyer in order to pursue her Ph.D., now has an administrative staff position at U-T Austin. Another now teaches high school. Another is a stay-at-home parent. And three of us now work as contingent faculty.

That’s the camp to which I belong. I defended my dissertation in the Summer of 2013. In the Fall of 2013, Michigan’s English department hired me as a lecturer. It was from this vantage point where the vagaries of the corporatized university became apparent. Now, at this point, it’s important to note that Freshman writing courses are the lifeblood of English departments. They contribute massively to the department’s enrollment numbers, and they provide graduate students with employment as instructors. This is despite the fact that there is no real reason why writing courses should be housed in an English department as opposed to a separate Composition department--those who study literature are no better qualified to teach writing than those in any other humanistic discipline, and are significantly less qualified than those who study Rhetoric and Composition or English Education. Nonetheless, the fact that every student is required to take Freshman Writing is essential to the health of the department.

When I joined the program in 2006, the tacit understanding was that students would go on the job market in their last year of dissertation work, and if they had not gotten a job by the time they defended, they would be hired as a lecturer, which would provide a buffer year and a second opportunity to secure a tenure track position. By the time I became a lecturer, that understanding had changed. While my cohort boasted only nine students, the cohorts below me averaged at 16 students apiece, meaning that more writing classes were going to graduate students, leaving less for lecturers. Also, most undergraduates want to get their writing course out of the way in their first semester, meaning that far more sections of that course are offered in the Fall than in the Winter. Now, departments could offer fewer sections of Freshman writing in the Fall and more in the Winter, forcing undergraduates to rearrange their first year course schedules but offering more lecturers employment for the full academic year, but instead they acquiesce to consumer demand, and consequently, many lecturers now only enjoy employment in the Fall.

This is the position I found myself in in December of 2013, when the pink slip showed up in my mailbox. In the Winter of 2014 I took a temp position at the library editing digitized texts. But I was fortunate--in the Fall Michigan rehired me as a lecturer, with a joint appointment in the English Department and the on-campus writing center. And this time around I was lucky enough to be rehired for the Winter semester--though I was operating under the assumption that I wouldn’t be until I got word of the reappointment in December.

I recognize that I’m relatively privileged. Lecturers at the University of Michigan make a living wage with generous health benefits, and the workload is manageable--most lecturers teach only three courses per semester, and because I’m jointly appointed in the writing center, I only teach two courses per semester and work ten hours per week as a writing consultant. And I’m privileged in a hell of a lot of other ways--I’m a straight cisgendered white dude who speaks English as his first language. I don’t have kids, or a disability, or debt. I went to college on a scholarship and started graduate school at 22. I’m physically and financially healthy enough to make the sacrifices that academia asks, and don’t have to put up with institutional biases about my race or sex. I’m the bearded, bespectacled, tweed-blazer-wearing nerd that most people picture when they close their eyes and imagine a graduate student, and even I think the system is not working. And I can assure you that my degree of privilege is by no means the norm.

But a lot of ink has already been spilled discussing the various injustices of adjunctification. I don’t want to talk about the problems of underpayment or underemployment so much as the problems of unstable employment. What strikes me are the contradictions inherent in the way that humanities departments frame contingent faculty positions as a kind of way station--a transition job between graduate school and the tenure track. On the one hand, professors will often advise their graduate students to be wary of the adjunct route, as taking adjunct jobs requires a heavy teaching load that will deprive young scholars of the opportunity to write and publish. And on the other hand, with no viable alternative, newly minted Ph.D.s take these positions because they feel pressure to have continuity of employment on their CVs. This seemed at least somewhat viable back in 2006, when I was told that a year-long lectureship was the norm. But now, for the past two years, when the MLA job list has come out in the Fall, I’ve found myself in the position of needing to carry out a dual search: searching for tenure track positions that would start in the following Fall, while simultaneously searching for temporary positions that would start in January. And while a tenure track job is the ultimate goal, finding a job for the winter has been a lot more pressing.

All the while, concerns begin to emerge about the problem of a “stale” Ph.D. and of remaining tapped into your scholarly community. Here too, my university’s model of the lectureship as a way station on the way to a tenure track position is plagued by contradiction. For example, the writing center where I work offers lecturers up to $1,500 to attend one conference a year. But you have to apply for those funds in the same semester that the conference is taking place. So, if I had wanted to attend the American Culture Association’s conference on April 1, I would have had to register for the conference by December of last year, before knowing if I had the job that would pay for the registration fee and travel expenses. Consequently, keeping up with the scholarly conversation in your field becomes nearly impossible, let alone doing any actual writing. When teaching becomes your full time job, and the draconian job application process becomes your second full time job, your job as a scholar falls by the wayside. This is the central irony of the system as it is set up now--constantly having to apply for jobs makes you substantially worse at your job. This is all the more true if you move across the country for a one year visiting professorship, as many people I know have, and even more so if you have a partner, whom you either have to separate from or ask to upend their lives to move with you.

Contingent faculty also have difficulty finding a community within their home department, thanks to various microaggressions that mark their day-to-day working environment. I, for instance, have my own office--something I couldn't say last year--but it’s in a basement with no window. I have a phone, but it’s incapable of making outside calls. This can be particularly jarring when making the transition from graduate student to lecturer at the same university. Despite being both a contingent faculty member and an alumnus, when walking the halls of my department I feel less like a colleague and more like Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused, the guy who stuck around at his old high school a little too long. I remember the moment I realized I had been missing out on workshops and talks from visiting scholars because I was no longer on the graduate student listserv, and thus had been missing a large number of the departmental announcements. I missed out on a lot of good free meals that way. The uncanny feeling of being excluded from resources at your home institution is deeply unsettling.

If this is the life that a recent graduate from a top-tier R1 institution can expect two years after his dissertation defense, then what are we to do? The simple answer, proffered by many, is to opt out of the contingent faculty world altogether. But if we opt out of university teaching altogether, what are we going to opt into instead? As it is, I have no good answers. The two most common alternatives offered to those in my position are publishing and academic libraries--two fields that have depreciated almost as much as humanities professorships have.

The only advice that I could offer to any current graduate student facing this climate is, keep your eyes open for a “plan B” starting right now--don’t wait and see what happens after a year on the academic job market. Because as terrible as the job application process is, at the very least, the MLA Job List does provide a centralized clearinghouse of jobs that you can apply for. Other fields don’t have that. For an academic, perhaps the most perplexing thing about facing uncertain career paths is, where the heck do you find nonacademic jobs that you (a) are qualified for, (b) can sell yourself as qualified for, (c) can make a living at, and (d) wouldn’t be miserable doing? In the past two years, while plugging away as a contingent faculty member, I’ve been exploring my options, and I’ve heard the word “networking” more times than I did in the seven years I spent in graduate school. Having no actual networking skills, I’ve fallen back on that old chestnut, nepotism. I was invited to this conference by my mother, and at the moment my best career option is teaching at a prep school in Boston, a job I only found out about because it’s my fiancee’s old school and she’s Facebook friends with her former teachers. And people say the world isn’t a meritocracy!

As difficult as it is, however, if someone asked me if I think people should go to graduate school in the humanities, I wouldn’t say “no.” I would say no if it involved going into debt. But the stress and financial uncertainty aside, I am still a believer in the humanities. Two weeks ago I attended a symposium in honor of Patsy Yaeger, an immensely influential scholar in the field of American literature, who passed away recently from ovarian cancer. She worked closely with several of my friends, and her office was right across the hall from mine. I sat in this symposium and listened to renowned scholars who had come to Ann Arbor to remember Patsy’s legacy, and they did so not simply by eulogizing her, but by honoring the ways in which she creatively, thoughtfully, and joyfully made them think about the world differently and experience it more fully. Working alongside people united by a shared love of literature, and of applying a critical gaze to language and culture--that is a noble profession. Ultimately, we need to work towards a system where more than one out of nine people deemed qualified for that profession can obtain it.