Figuring Out the Puzzle

After I re-ran this popular guest post from last year, I tweeted a call for full-time faculty who’ve served on hiring committees to write a complementary piece from an insider’s perspective. Not surprisingly, Amy Lynch-Biniek took me up on it. She’s an associate professor of English at Kutztown U. Amy is a tireless advocate for fair labor conditions, and she’s been a strong supporter the nonprofit I co-run, PrecariCorps. She uses her privilege well in speaking out for adjunct faculty and other precarious members of academia. She coedited this great book, Contingency, Exploitation, and Solidarity, which is available in e-format here.

In short: If you’re in a position to do so, be like Amy. Adjuncts and graduate students especially need to hear tenured voices and see that you’re on their side.

Remember, faculty, grad students, administrators, and whoever else: I’m always happy to run guest posts. They can be helpful and career-oriented like Amy’s or this one from 2014. Or they can be critical of higher ed’s broken, exploitative labor practices and social system, like this and this gem from a few years ago. If you’re reading this, you know how to contact me. Do it.

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Figuring Out the Puzzle

Amy Lynch-Biniek


As I read Erling Ueland’s guest post from last year, “Addressing the Myths,” I found myself nodding along. Here, I hope to fill in some more pieces of the academic job search puzzle without simply repeating much of the good advice offered there.   

I’m a tenured associate professor. I spent ten years adjuncting before landing my current position. Once on the tenure line, I served as a member of several search committees. My advice and observations are grounded in those experiences, as well as in my work studying higher education’s labor system. I aim to be accurate and helpful, so please forgive any bluntness.

ABDs Do Get Hired…

I agree with Ueland that you can and should apply for positions when you are ABD. You may not make the committee’s initial list of top candidates, but that doesn’t mean you are out of the race. Most often, candidates at the top of the “invite to interview” list already have PhDs in hand. Even so, they also may have interviews at other schools. More than once, I’ve seen committees make offers to all three top candidates, only to find they’ve each already accepted positions elsewhere. In these cases, the committee goes back to the pile. An ABD who missed the first cut for the lack of degree may make the second cut. (In fact, this was the case in my own hiring. I’m lucky #4!)  

…But ABD Hires May Come with Strings Attached

Administration may have a policy that ABDs must complete the degree in a specific timeline. A contract may require you to complete the degree as soon as within an academic year, or as late as by the tenure application. Know what the clock is, and be honest with yourself about whether you can make the deadline. I completed my dissertation while working my first full-time, tenure-line job, and I would not recommend running that gauntlet to anyone. On the other hand, the job security was an enormous motivator to finish. I gained weight and gray hairs in the process, but I earned tenure as well.  

“Terminal Degree” May Mean More Than You Thought

Depending on your discipline, you may not think you need a doctorate. The MA, MFA, MS, or MLS has conventionally been accepted as the terminal degree in a few fields. A creative writing professor, for example, could be competitive with an MFA.  

As more and more PhDs are applying for adjunct positions, however, administrators have realized that they can insist upon a PhD, even if that is not typically the standard in the field. This may not be fair, but it’s a demand that the adjunctification of higher ed has made possible. If you have a Master’s degree, weigh carefully your desire for a tenure-track position and the time, labor, energy, and money required for a PhD.

Expectations for Scholarship

If you are ABD or a newly minted PhD, a hiring committee at a teaching-focused school may consider one or two publications in smaller journals significant. Even a couple of book reviews and some reference materials may be fine. If you’ve been on the market for a long while, though, or worked at other institutions, then a committee may expect you to have accomplished more. Your chapter in an anthology may impress, but your entry in that encyclopedia of Victorian poets may suddenly seem paltry.

If you’ve spent any time in academia, you know the system loves its hierarchies, and faculty can be snobbish. Recently, I put a book review on my CV. This project had taken time and research, and I considered it significant scholarship. A colleague suggested that I remove it from the section of my CV where journal articles live, creating  a new section called “Other Contributions.” I didn’t do that, but I did explain the significance of the work in my promotion letter. I made a case, too, for my “public” writing in blogs and news outlets. You may need to advocate for the work you do, as you can’t assume the scholars reading your CV will. When in doubt, ask someone who’s been there.

I’ve learned that a significant portion of academics construct the the scholarly ladder thusly, from the bottom up: reference works, blog posts, book reviews, peer-reviewed journal articles, chapters in anthologies, and books (or “monograph” if you’re feeling fancy). Where purely digital scholarship lives in this formula varies widely from discipline to discipline and department to department.

This, too, is not fair. If you’ve worked as an adjunct, you’ve likely had less time and fewer resources to devote to scholarship. Most faculty know that the first three items on the list are both intellectually valuable and in many cases more immediately useful to readers. They can also often be completed with limited resources. If you’re lucky enough to have an adjunct-ally or former adjunct on the hiring committee, this might be taken into account. Unfortunately, too many tenure-line faculty have no sense of the obstacles to publication that adjuncting brings.  

Addressing the Challenges of Adjunct Work

You might consider addressing the challenges of adjunct work head on, as our host Joe Fruscione did in his last cover letter in 2013. The approach he shared with me is one I can imagine a search committee being moved by: he emphasized the significance of his scholarship in light of the adjunct’s schedule he was keeping.

In my own interview for my current position, I was asked if I felt prepared for the 4/4 teaching load shared by all members of the teaching-focused university. I think I may have actually chuckled! Honestly, I think the description of my ability to juggle my dissertation with adjunct work at two or three colleges each semester made a convincing case that I was ready to handle the demands of the tenure line. It helped, of course, that the faculty involved in my interview were labor-conscious already.

So, I think that some faculty will be moved by addressing the challenges of adjunct work directly in a cover letter. A few, however, are bound to misunderstand thanks to their lack of experience adjuncting (and perhaps apathy). We’ve all read the posts and comments from tenure-line faculty who dismiss the descriptions of adjunct workloads, claiming that “we all work hard” and “we all have busy schedules,” betraying any understanding of the material differences in positions.

That said, it can’t hurt—and might help—to ask some tenured faculty for feedback on this section of your letter, especially if they have experience serving on hiring committees.

It’s easy to paint the tenured profs with a wide brush, as one-dimensional villains with tweed jackets, mostly because so many of us have refused to acknowledge or address the concerns of our adjunct colleagues, despite advocating for social justice beyond the academy. (You won’t get any “not all tenured professors” nonsense from me.) Even the most ignorant of professors are awakening to the broken nature of higher education’s labor system, since budget crisis rhetoric, increased workloads, and/or shrinking departments have come for us all. As non-tenure-track faculty unions grow in number and power, tenure-line faculty are being forced to acknowledge that the problems of adjunct faculty are linked to the problems of us all.

As a result, emphasizing the particular context in which adjuncts work, while noting the increasing demands on all faculty, can be a better a countermeasure to adjunct-bias now than it would have been ten years ago.

Find Your Fit

While you may be applying to every college with an opening, you will seem a better fit to the hiring committee if you can speak to features of the institution you find attractive. You might want any job, but they want to know why this one is the best fit for you. Learn about the department, its programs, its student population, and its extracurricular organizations and publications. Explain why you’re excited to work in these contexts and with these people. Ask questions that show you’ve done your research. Whatever you do, don’t say that the interviewing institution is a great “first stop” in your academic career. They’re interested in nurturing a colleague, not in preparing you for a job somewhere else.

You may be tempted to apply for a position that you aren’t particularly suited for, or one which you feel you can do well despite it being out of your specialty or experience. Maybe you take the time to recraft your letter and CV to show your ability to do such work, or to acknowledge directly that this is not your field. These are understandable moves, but they’re not always the best tactic.

When serving on committees, I’ve had to read through over a hundred applications for a single position. Looking through reams of paper between classes and meetings, faculty may look at these reworked CVs with a twinge of annoyance—or resentment. If the ad asks for a hard news journalism professor and you pitch your creative writing degree as a qualification for that work, you’re likely going on the “no” pile.  

That said, some applicants undersell their suitability. I’ve seen applicants for composition positions continue to pitch themselves as Medievalists or American Studies scholars (perhaps hoping the job teaching writing may one day allow them to teach in these areas again, too), not bothering to mention the two classes in composition pedagogy and theory they took in graduate school. If I’m on the committee, like your experience, and want to make a case for you to the other committee members, I need concrete lines on the CV and cover letter to point to. I need letters of reference that speak to your work in the area in question. Your identity and long-term hopes may lie in a different specialty, but your qualifications for the job at hand is the only case you need to make. When they have hundreds of applications to consider on a deadline, many committees won’t take the time to hunt out details you didn’t highlight.

One last piece of advice: where possible and practical, apply to institutions that share your sense of fair play and labor ethics. That is increasingly challenging in the modern, corporatized university, and certainly no institution is without its flaws. You can tell a lot about a college by the way it treats its graduate students and adjuncts, though. When I applied to the tenure track at Kutztown University, I did so in part because its faculty were unionized, it employed most adjuncts full-time with pay and benefits above the national average, and it did not take advantage of graduate students in the classroom. I knew that for those circumstances to exist, the tenure-line faculty must have fought for them. I assumed that the search committee might see me and my CV with this same spirit. I figured I might fit.

And if you get that tenure-line job, I hope you’ll remember every detail of the fight to get there, the broken scales and elitist ladders. I hope you’ll volunteer to serve on a hiring committee and be the voice that advocates for fair play.

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Addressing the Myths

It’s been a while since I ran a guest post. A few weeks ago, Maren Wood did a webinar to share her findings about who gets academic jobs nowadays. Maren’s excellent research validated what many of us long-time adjuncts know: academia punishes age, experience, and contingency. “The market rewards potential, not experience,” she tweeted to me on December 3. In Humanities, most recent tenure-track hires have gone either to ABDs or candidates within 3 years of receiving their doctorates. Talk about having a short shelf life. I was an adjunct for 15 years, so I know that the longer one adjuncts, the longer one will adjunct. Full stop.

I began chatting about Maren’s findings with a friend who recently got a tenure-track position in English at a Public Regional Comprehensive University in the Midwest. He has experience at R2’s and a SLAC. We started trading stories of good, bad, and mythical job advice we’d received over the years, and he agreed to write this piece.

Consider it an informational interview with a new assistant professor telling you what others either can’t or won’t tell you: the academic job market is a mess. Sometimes, even it doesn’t know what the hell it wants.


Addressing the Myths

by

Erling Ueland

Assistant Professor of English

I. Things that Hurt

Let’s start with the hurt. Because we are generally in closest contact with our professors and advisors, we seek their advice on the job market. While this is not necessarily a bad thing (you’ll get stories from their own interviews), it can be somewhat damaging to first-time job seekers. Remember, most of your professors secured their tenure-track appointments a decade or more ago. While this does not automatically disqualify them from advising you, it certainly puts them at a disadvantage.

There had not been a TT literature hire in my department for years, and most of the faculty had been there for well over fifteen years. Take advice from people in this position with a grain of salt. I was lucky to have advisors and professors who knew their stuff when it came to the market. They did research (like I did), they asked important and difficult questions regarding standards (like I did), and they recommended better advice than they could give in the form of books, articles, websites, blogs, etc. My team knew their own shortcomings and told me to seek out as much information as possible, whether it aligned with their notions or not. This was crucial, and I know that it does not happen everywhere.

However, the bottom line is pretty simple: your advisors will have no freaking clue about the current job market. And how can you blame them? Even if they were hired in the early 2000s, the market has shifted significantly in the last sixteen years. It’s not their fault. But it is their fault when advisors dispense advice as God’s word: “This is how you get a job. It’s how I did it and it’s how you will do it.”

You need to do your homework. This job means the most to you, not your advisor. Their job is secured. Although they might really, really like you, this doesn’t mean a damn thing once the market opens.

Take ownership of your teaching, research, service, and hard work. You aren’t a grad student anymore; you’re a professional trying to procure employment. Dictatorial advisors (thankfully mine wasn’t one) fail to see you as a non-student. To them, you will always be their student, just like parents always see their children as children. Break away from that dynamic by seeking as much advice as you can. Talk to a diverse set of folks. This might mean you have to find new people. Get to it.

II. Myths

During my two years on the job market, I heard good and bad advice. Below are some of the myths surrounding academic job searches, followed by my thoughts on why they need to be broken. A lot of these ideas are generalities that were at some point discussed between me and either colleagues, advisors, professors, or friends.

As with any personal narrative, my experience does not (and will not) necessarily relate to every prospective job seeker. My comments are based on my own experiences, as well as my own research into the system. Take from my advice what you will.

Myth #1: Ease your way into the market during your first attempt. Only apply to your dream jobs, and spend the rest of your time focused on your dissertation.

No. No. No. No. No. No.

How do you expect to get hired if you do not get onto the job market in full force? This isn’t child’s play. This is your goddamn life. Your profession does not wait for you to come around. You have to attack the market. Attack is the best way to describe it. Easing your way into the market only prolongs an already protracted process. Realize that when you decide to apply for jobs, you may be sending out applications from September through June.

Some good advice: This is a numbers game. You don’t stand a chance for any position if you do not apply. If someone tells you to take it easy on the market during year one, tell them you cannot wait around. This is too damned important.

And, if you are worried about time to complete your dissertation, get a full draft done prior to the market opening. I wrote a 350-page dissertation in nine months. Revisions take time, but the first draft takes the most out of you. Finish a draft over the summer, and get to those applications when September hits. If your director is not prompting you to get it written in a timely fashion, then maybe you should reconsider their role as your director.

The national average for PhD-seeking student completion is 5-7 years. If possible, you should be done in four. Four. It won’t be easy. Some good advice: a good dissertation is a done dissertation. I wrote three days a week for eight hours a day from May through August. A 320-page draft came out of that writing schedule. It can be done, and your dissertation should not keep you from applying to jobs.

Myth #2: You only need one peer-reviewed publication in a good journal to be considered an effective scholar.

I’m not going to say that you won’t be hired if you have one (or none), but unless you are a PhD candidate at an Ivy League or a top-tier R1, you’d better have an impressive research profile. By impressive I mean quality, not quantity. On day one, my director told me that “publishing is the essential act of scholarship.” This is absolutely true.

When I entered the job market in my fourth year, I had published two peer-reviewed journal articles, with three forthcoming peer-reviewed articles or book chapters. All were in my field, with one of the two journal articles in the field’s primary journal. I built on this resume in year two (with a postdoc I secured in year one based in part on my publishing background). If you have publishable work, get it published in a decent journal when you can.

Some good advice: I had my first peer-reviewed article accepted by the beginning of year two. The earlier you start honing your writing for publication the better. Most applicants have more than one peer-reviewed publication, chiefly because the market has changed since the above advice made sense. I applied to a job at a SLAC in a subfield, rather than a major field, in year two. There were 400 applicants…for a specialty position at a SLAC. Don’t think that publications had nothing to do with weeding out potential candidates. Your job is to get to the second pile. Publications can help you get there.

Myth #3: When applying to teaching institutions (jobs that require a 4/4 or 5/5 teaching load), downplay your research profile.

Interestingly, a study by the Lilli Research Group, which surveyed the job market for non-STEM fields between 2013-14, noted that, regardless of institution, 70% of TT jobs were going to applicants from R1 schools. That’s a lot of prestigious researchers taking jobs at sub-R2 schools, where teaching is more of a focus than research.

Never downplay your research profile. Own it. Don’t go on and on about your dissertation in your cover letter, but also don’t pretend you don’t research, don’t have aims to publish articles and books, and won’t use your research as a teacher. For teaching institutions (4/4 loads or more), always connect your research to your teaching. If that can be done well, committees will appreciate your ability to make them work together. Connect research and teaching, but certainly do not deny your research its place in your profile. That work took a lot of labor and time. Honor it.

Myth #4: ABD students (All But Dissertation) do not get hired at the same rate they used to, so don’t bother applying too heavily.

In the same study, the Lilli Research Group found the majority of TT jobs go to ABD applicants. This came as a surprise to me, since I always thought that ABDs would not fare well on the market. A myth I wholeheartedly believed was busted by reliable data. Trust the data. And this goes back to Myth #1 regarding taking it easy in year one. Do not ever take it easy. Go for it as soon as you can. I suggest you watch the video the Lilli Research Group put together.

Myth #5: “If I don’t get hired at an R1 or R2, I’ll settle for a job at a nice liberal arts college or a community college if I’m really desperate.”

You can think that all you want, but you’ll be wrong. SLACs and CCs are just as competitive as R1s and R2s when it comes to hiring tenure-line professors. And even worse: if you think that throwing out some half-assed applications to CCs “just in case” will get you hired, you’re wrong again. CCs can sniff out a jumper (someone who plans on leaving as soon as another job comes up). CCs will not hire you if you come off as anything but CC material. That means you have to carefully tailor your materials to the institution you’re applying to.

Don’t get me started on SLACs. I don’t know where the myth came from that a SLAC job—almost always teaching focused—is somehow “easier” to secure than others. Wrong. Private schools are extremely discriminating because they can be. Most have mission statements, and if it is religious-affiliated, then there is usually something relatable to that college’s specific religious mission involved with your application. My postdoc was at a SLAC, and it was not an easy job to get. Departments are small or combined with others, most SLACs are feeling the crunch of reduced budgets, and some have even begun retrenching (firing faculty on the tenure track). Take CCs and SLACs seriously, and do not ever think they can serve you as backups. You’ll be sorely disappointed.

Myth #6: Spend more time on applications for jobs in your specialty, especially R1 & R2 apps.

Again, if you haven’t picked up on my theme yet, you will now. Every application you send out should be treated equally. Knowing that the chances of securing an R1 or R2 job are slim to none (for those graduating outside the Ivy League or top R1s), do not overdo those apps. Do them well, and work hard at them, but treat those apps to public comps, SLACs, and CCs with respect. Chances are, that is where you will end up, so get used to researching those schools, faculties, and communities.

Myth #7: Schools pick the “best” candidates for their TT positions.

No. They. Don’t. They pick candidates that fit.

Most departments are afraid of hiring the best candidates because they may one day surpass them in terms of prestige or merit. Committees are a fickle bunch, and hiring mediocrity with a decent pedigree (like a Harvard degree…yes, mediocre people come out of R1 schools. Someone’s got to be at the bottom of the class don’t they?) makes them look good, makes them feel good, and keeps the status quo humming along. The sooner you divorce yourself from this fantasy the better.

Fit matters, not your merits. You have to fit into that department. This could mean anything from studying the right field or author, to understanding the mission of the college, to just getting a good look that day. With hundreds of applications to be gone through, most committees look for anything that stands out. I got my job at my current institution, I believe, because I actually taught a course in the specific discipline they were hiring for. That small detail separated me from the pack. You never know, so apply with an open mind and realistic expectations.

Myth #8: “I can just adjunct for a couple of years until a job comes along.”

Joe Fruscione, my good friend, will tell you this is absolutely hogwash. The Lilli study showed that most (if not all) jobs went to applicants in either their first or second year on the market. That means that, after year two, your chances of getting a job reduce dramatically. When I started my search, my spouse and I decided that we would give it two years. If no meaningful employment (which my spouse meant as TT) came about, then something else would have to be done. Because of institutional biases, adjuncts literally adjunct themselves out of TT consideration.

Is it ageism? Yes.

Is it elitism? Yes.

Is the system built on merit? No.

Do schools see adjuncts for TT jobs as damaged goods? Yes. Joe can back me up on this one. After a decade of adjuncting and applying to jobs, he courageously walked away from the academy. I respect him for it, and I am glad it didn’t come to that with me.

Unlike most, I never adjuncted. Not once. If you can avoid adjuncting immediately after your doctorate, avoid it. It’s the kiss of death.

Myth #9: “If I don’t get a job this cycle that’s okay. My department will offer me some kind of position to help me out.”

After finishing my PhD, and prior to interviewing for and accepting my postdoc at a SLAC, I hoped my institution would offer me something like an associate lectureship. Instead, the best they could do was put me in a pool for adjuncting, with a 3 class limit should I be brought in. That would have amounted to less than $8,000 for the semester, were I to get a full load. I find in speaking with colleagues that this is true for most institutions. They educate you, then they cut you loose. It’s business. Again, is this the fault of departments? Not necessarily. They have to operate under the restraints of their college or university. Budgets are tight, folks. Don’t expect anything to get handed to you just because you graduated from that school.

Myth #10: “I deserve a tenure-track job, so I’ll get one.”

No you don’t, and you probably won’t. Depressing and cynical, I know, but it’s honest and realistic.

I applied to 275 jobs over a two-year span. That’s right, 275. It was 165 in year one and 110 in year two. Year one (ABD): I received one interview (for a postdoc at a SLAC, which I was eventually offered) and an interview request for a lectureship at a public comp once my postdoc had already begun. That equals out to 163 rejections, two interviews, and one position. Both interviews came almost nine months after the market had opened. Year two (postdoc): I received one TT campus interview (public comp where I currently work), one alt-ac interview (finalist), one continuing contract campus interview for a private school (finalist), a Skype interview for an NTT visiting position at a public comp, and three additional NTT or visiting interview requests I turned down after accepting my current position. That equals out to 103 rejections, seven interviews, two campus interviews, one TT position. I saw a remarkable increase in action in my second year, which I initially attributed to having “PhD” rather than “ABD” after my name. I was wrong.

I believe that I got my current job because of several factors:

  • Impressive research profile coming from an R2
  • Flawless materials (formatting, spelling, grammar, design, style)
  • Persistence in applying
  • Fit with my current department and college
  • Excellent teaching evaluations
  • Professionalism in materials and in person

And finally…

  • My postdoctoral fellowship: My SLAC department allowed me to design a specialty course based on my sub-field. I asked to design it because I knew that certain jobs would appreciate this experience and potentially hire me because of it. This turned out to be true. I know, absolutely, that I would not have secured my TT job had I not worked at the SLAC as a postdoc for a year. It made me stand out, and it gave me a leg up. You never know what thing will separate you. So do as much as you can to be successful. I didn’t deserve my current job. I earned it.

III. Things that Help

The help is also important. You are currently in a community of writers, teachers, scholars, and (hopefully) friends. Get them to read your materials. Have them comment on structure, formatting, and content. If your chair is also on your dissertation committee, talk their ears off about job searches and hiring cycles your university has done. What did they look for? Why did they hire certain professors?

Seek out junior faculty members, especially those that recently navigated the job market. Get their materials, notes, and advice. These were the most helpful moments of my search in year one. Once you leave their halls, communication generally lessens, even if you forge great relationships with your committee like I did.

Take advantage of your environment. But the myths I outlined above would’ve been the most helpful notions to discuss when I started my search. These nine myths all reared their ugly heads at some point in my search. Knowing the information surrounding them and what to do with that information would have greatly benefitted my first year. In fact, in year two I applied a lot of the busted myths to my work, which led (eventually) to my current job.

Knowing the terrain, trusting the data, and seeking out actual productive advice will get you a lot further than if you just listen to your director, who got hired in 1995 when you still had to mail in every application.

My narrative is not the norm, I assure you. I am lucky…and that’s the damnedest thing. LUCK has just as much to do with your search as skill. Figuring out what’s useful, what’s harmful, and what’s mythical will go a long way in making that luck count at the right moment.


I’m always happy to run guest posts about relevant aspects of academia and adjunct life. Comment below or find me on Twitter.

Dear Unions Representing Adjuncts

Here’s a short but important note from fellow activist Lee Kottner. She has some thoughts about unions, professional organizations, and other groups with conferences or meetings that are prohibitively expensive for adjuncts and other NTT faculty to attend. When I was an adjunct, I spent thousands of never-to-be-reimbursed dollars to attend professional meetings for research sharing, networking, and other things that I hoped would get me on to the tenure track.

Yes, unions have helped many adjuncts with collective bargaining, job security, and representation for wrongful termination…but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold them accountable when their events contradict adjuncts’ financial realities.


 

Dear Unions Representing Adjuncts:

If you want us to participate as equals with you, you’ve gotta be more attuned to the financial realities we live with.

Here’s what I mean: I’ve been designated by our Local’s VP (a great guy, very attuned to the problems of adjunctification) to go in his stead to the joint NEA/AFT conference in Orlando this March. Frankly, I’m thrilled. I managed to scrape together the cash to go to the Detroit national AFT meeting a couple of years ago (a process that involved cashing in all my spare change for traveling money), but my financial situation has changed significantly since then. My credit cards are maxed out and I’m behind on the payments, so all I’ve got left is my debit card. Unless we make some reality-based changes in local financial policy in the next couple of months, I’m going to lose this opportunity–which might be kind of awkward since I’m running for VP of the new national Contingent Faculty Caucus.

You see, while the national AFT is happy to bill my local for my registration fees, the conference hotel (not unreasonably) wants a credit card to hold my room. But with just a debit card, they reserve the right to tie up the cost of the room for the entire four days of the conference from the moment I make my reservation until up to thirty days after I check out. That’s a problem in a couple of ways. First of all, I’m still waiting for my first paychecks of the semester and I still have rent coming up. Secondly, I cannot afford to have $600-$800 of my own cash flow tied up from now until mid April. Not only that, but I’m also expected to pay the costs of traveling there as well.

That $100 ticket on Amtrak might be doable, but it’s a 20-hour trip. Flying is probably out of the question.

Our union local has no provisions for funding adjunct participation in the executive processes of our national union, because it was originally formed in the days when adjuncts were just that: part-time teachers from the world of commerce who weren’t fully invested faculty members. There was no need for that kind of funding structure because the majority of its members made a comfortable living and could afford to wait for reimbursement.

Times have changed.

Frankly, even new tenure-track faculty, already loaded down with debt, are too cash-strapped to participate in pay-as-you-play academic events like luncheons and on-campus conferences. It’s even more unrealistic to expect adjuncts making $24-32K/year to be able to fork over in advance for national conference expenses, just as it’s unrealistic of the MLA and other professional organizations to expect adjuncts and graduate students to be able to afford conference expenses for interviews. Get. With. The. Program.

Reimbursement does not work for us. We have no money. If you want us to come, we need funding. Up front. Since you don’t fund us up front, it seems clear you don’t value our presence or input in your comfortable, vacuum-sealed world of tenured privilege.

So if solidarity and equality really matter to you as a union, put your money where your mouth is.

No Love,

Lee Kottner, Adjunct Professor
New Jersey City University
AFT Local 1839 Recording Secretary

Freelance Academics (Walking Away from the Con)

Today’s guest post is brought to you by two great tweeters and fellow freelancers, Elizabeth Keenan & Katie Rose Guest PryalKatie & Elizabeth are also running this piece on their own blogs, too, so pay them a visit if—or, ahem, when—you reread and share this fine conversation. They originally did this in June, but for a few reasons we’re finally running it now.

Katie first blogged about the “freelance academic” identity in the spring, and it’s even more relevant now as the post-ac and alt-ac ranks are increasing:

I’ve dumped my online academic identity and claimed one as a freelancer—even while very much maintaining a contingent post at a university. And, on the blog, I’ve stepped outside of the boundaries of acceptable academic discourse to engage in what one of my doctoral advisors called “fist-waving.” (He wasn’t using that phrase as a compliment.) In short, I’m creating distance.

Happy reading. Please, if the spirit moves you, share the heck out of this piece.

freelance


 

Freelance Academics (Walking Away from the Con)

Elizabeth Keenan & Katie Rose Guest Pryal

December 2014

Elizabeth and Katie both left teaching positions after the Spring 2014 semester. Katie has taken unpaid leave for a year. Elizabeth began working in real estate in September, while still maintaining her freelance editing business. When Joe first asked us to write this column, we were still teaching as contingent faculty—now, we are post-academics. Thus, we are both to a degree in transition, and our discussion will reflect some of this fluidity.

On Choosing a Topic

KP: Let’s write about leaving academia and trying to rebuild our lives. We could also write about using social media to help us do this rebuilding, via networking, writing, etc., if you think that could work too, since that’s how we met in the first place.

EK: Sounds good.

On Abandoning Academia

EK: I was going to abandon academia in the spring of 2013, more than a full year ago, while I was adjuncting at Fordham and Columbia. I had heard that all of the jobs I’d applied for that cycle had moved on without me—even the ones where I’d made it to the long-short list. And so I wrote a series of thank-you-for-all-your-help-but-I’m-leaving emails to my advisor and other mentors and senior faculty who’ve been helpful to me.

Then, literally two days later, I got a request for a two-day, on-campus interview at an R1 in my dream location. (My husband can transfer his job to only one city other than New York, and this was it.) On the one hand, I felt a little flutter in my heart that maybe, just maybe, the universe was finally throwing me a lifeline. On the other, I knew that I was the sixth of six candidates, brought in after a pause in the search, and that either the job was going to me or to no one.

Once I got to the interview, it was clear that my dream was never going to happen, and that the search would fail. But it was a real heartbreak to be so close to the thing I wanted and realize not only that I’d never get it, but also that jumping into a department that viewed itself as constantly in crisis wasn’t something a sane person should want. At that point, I knew I couldn’t go through another job cycle with likely the same close-but-no-cigar results.

But I didn’t leave. Another challenge complicated my extrication from adjuncting: fertility issues. My husband and I were about to do a round of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) last summer, and the doctors told us we had very good chances of having a baby. Since we believed them, and most of my friends had success with IVF on the first try, I thought I’d adjunct in the fall and then take the spring off to have a baby. Then I could look for a job outside academia at some later date. The first IVF didn’t work, but we were told our chances were still very good if we tried again. So, instead of searching for a non-academic, 9-to-5 job when I knew I’d face tons of early-morning doctor visits, I decided to stay in my adjunct position for another year.

This decision, though practical, led to a lot of frustration. I was no longer treating adjunct position as a step toward a tenure-track job. Instead, I saw adjunct work for exactly what it was: a radically underpaid dead-end job. And then I read a conversation about uppity adjuncts between two tenured folks on Twitter that set me off. So, I started blogging with “How Not to Be a Tenured Ally,” followed by “How to Be a Tenured Ally.” Suddenly, after these two posts, people were coming to my blog and contacting me over Twitter. Blogging (and tweeting, since I’m pretty much on Twitter all the freakin’ time) helped me recognize not just that I wanted to leave my terrible adjuncting job, but that I was really done with the pursuit of the ever-elusive tenure-track job and the “academic” mindset.

So, for me, leaving academia (especially adjuncting, which is a trap no matter how you look at it), wasn’t the result of one crisis, but the culmination of a bunch of them. On your blog, you mention that it took a crisis to make you finally leave. Without getting into that crisis per se, what made you know that this was the time to leave?

KP: My most recent blog post prior to our initially writing this piece, “What Does It Mean To Be a Freelance Academic?” takes on my identity-shift from someone who was very much immersed in the identity of an academic. In retrospect, my exit began long before I requested my year’s leave of absence back in May, and I should make clear, I’m still planning to return to my contingent academic job.

But I am not planning to return to my identity as an academic. I will no longer be looking at academia as professional fulfillment (even though it has been my career for eleven years). I will no longer be viewing academia as a career. Instead, and this sounds kind of funny when I write it down, the university is merely one of my many freelance clients.

Here is the chain of events that led me to request a year of unpaid leave, and then to take on a new identity as a freelance academic: On the day I was promoted to “associate”—in quotation marks, because in my department, writing faculty cannot be on the tenure track—two other events took place. My sister gave birth to her third child and Nelson Mandela died. I received the call that the vote went my way, and then I went to the bathroom of the coffee shop where I’d been working and bawled. Like, I completely lost control.

When I say that my promotion is meaningless, here’s what I’m referring to: I do not get any presumptive increase in pay. In fact, I do not expect any increase in pay. I do not get more freedom in my teaching—I will continue to teach the same course every semester, year in and year out. Absolutely no benefits accrue to this promotion except one: a contract term that is two years longer than my previous contract term. In a world in which adjuncts are fighting for any sort of job predictability at all, a long-term contract is nothing to sniff at. I know. I’ve been year-to-year.

But birth, death, and the changing the world made my meaningless promotion seem especially meaningless that day. What on Earth have I been working one-hundred-hour weeks for? I asked myself. THIS?

I got my act together, went back to teach this past spring semester, hoped my working conditions would be better, and realized, due to a variety of events that occurred during the spring semester, that my working conditions were never going to be better. I asked the dean—in a fashion that could not be misunderstood—whether I could make a move to the tenure-track. He said, in similar fashion, “No.” That’s when I realized that I’d been working 100-hour-weeks because I’d been hoping that they would let me in the tenure club.

I came home and tried to explain to my husband what I was feeling at work—the snub at the coffeemaker, the “Who are you again?” at the copier. He nodded sagely (he does that) and said, “Well, they’re not letting you be what you know you can be.” And that’s when I realized the most important thing that I wrote about in that Freelance Academic post: when you’re contingent faculty, the university is basically saying that it wants the small bits of you that will do the exhausting, draining, underpaid work while remaining at the fringes of academia. And for so long, I pushed myself so hard to try to break in, to show I was good enough to be let in from the fringes.

But here’s the con, the legerdemain, the grift, the whatever you want to call it. And you yourself know this as well as anyone, Elizabeth: it isn’t a matter of being good enough. They truly just don’t want us in the club—whether their thought process is conscious or not. They’re scared and self-conscious, and exclusivity is all they have. They have to believe in their “process” because without their process, their myth of merit, they have nothing.

As soon as I saw the academic house of cards for what it was, I wanted no part of it. It was easy to walk away from the con. It’s not easy to walk away from teaching and from students, though. I love teaching. I love students. Indeed, this love, the “calling” of teaching, has enabled the conning of adjuncts for years, as Rebecca Schuman has pointed out.

freelance hats

On Social Media and Rebuilding

EK: Adjunct/Post-Ac/Alt-Ac Twitter, more than blogging, made a huge difference in how I started to see my role as an adjunct. I started blogging about adjuncting during Campus Equity Week, which was fortuitous and partially planned. I’ve been on Twitter since 2008, but my followers were a mix of music scholars and people from geek culture acquired whenever my Twitter-famous spouse mentioned me. Discovering Adjunct Twitter was a huge part in how I could start reframing myself. How did you get looped into the contingent/post-ac blogosphere and Twitter? Have you found it helpful in rebuilding your identity?

KP: I never used Twitter at all until I left Facebook nearly one year ago (fed up with their ridiculous privacy rules—oh, and I’ve since returned, but purely for “professional” reasons ROFL). I figured Twitter had to be better, since it only had one simple setting: public. I never realized how dang useful it would be. Once I figured out how to coordinate my blog, Twitter, colleagues, and conferences, it seemed like a whole new world opened up. Adjunct Twitter—I’ve actually never used that term before, but yes—has been very helpful. I’ve needed help negotiating my precarious status in the university, figuring out an identity separate from academia, and networking a professional existence outside the ivory tower. All these challenges would have been much harder without my Adjunct Twitter network.

On Networking as Post/Freelance-Acs

KP: As I’ve shifted my identity from full-time contingent professor to Freelance Academic, I’ve gotten really brazen about networking. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how generous the Adjunct and Post-Ac Twitter communities are. I’ve emailed or messaged folks and asked for referrals or advice about writing for publications; everyone has always not only agreed but also done so whole-heartedly. I’m happy to do the same for others, I just don’t have as much pull in powerful places as others do. Maybe some day.

I do think that academia trains us to not ask for things, to be meek and wait our turns. Or to accept as our due when the spotlight only shines on a special chosen few. We don’t question the spotlight, or the structures in place that create the “chosen few” in the first place. Part of the academic con is the belief in the pure meritocracy. What a load of crap. Outside academia, good hustle is rewarded, which comes as a relief to me. I’m a hard worker (sound familiar, Elizabeth?) and I want to be paid for that work. One way to work hard is to network hard: to reach out to people, with kindness, and ask for their help.

And to always remember to repay the favor.

EK: I’m terrible at networking, in the sense that I am never sure what the boundaries are. Years in academia have led me to expect that everyone is as prickly as a tenured Ivy League professor, but, really, most people aren’t. (I’m not sure if the bias toward white men is still there—or if, in some cases, gender bias is working in my favor in the new careers I’ve been investigating.) The more I reach out to people, the more I see that the extreme kowtowing of academe is a little unusual in most places—sure, people expect (and deserve) respect, but most people are more willing to give up their time more often than I think they will.

In a lot of ways, I should be used to reaching out to people—my dissertation involved extensive fieldwork, and I’ve been a freelancer who regularly checks in with clients—but there’s something different (and scarier) when it’s about a whole, new field. It’s not just about introducing yourself to someone new, but about learning about a new industry while simultaneously pitching yourself as a potentially viable job candidate for some future position. It’s a delicate task made all the more difficult by pre-existing stereotypes of academics (we’re stodgy; we won’t take direction; we don’t pay attention to deadlines; we’re already making a lot of money), as well as real, structural issues within the larger economy.

On Shedding the “Academic” Title, but not the Identity of the Scholar

EK: So, one of the things that really struck me as we were writing this is that we’re both leaving academia in slightly different ways. For me, it’s leaving a job that I find exploitative, while giving up on the dream of a tenure-track job. But I don’t see myself shedding the “scholar” identity any time soon. I’ve got more articles in the pipeline now than at any time in my career, and I still enjoy thinking and writing about music and feminism in a scholarly way. The biggest question for me is: How do I continue to be a scholar without being an academic? Is it even possible to dream of being a public intellectual in this climate? I don’t know, Katie. How are you reframing that scholarly part of yourself as you move forward?

KP: Right now, I have one article that I am finishing up, and two conferences on the horizon. I would imagine that I would stay involved in my scholarly communities (I’m interdisciplinary), but I won’t be immersed. The hustling I will do is for me, not for professional recognition in those fields. I think that’s the main difference between hoping for success in academia and working as a freelance academic: I’ve changed the metric of success. Is my family clothed, fed, housed, happy, safe? Do I have time for them? Am I doing satisfying work to me? Well, then, that’s far more than most people get, and I feel lucky.

 

An Adjunct Catching Fire: Part 2

Adjunct Mockingjay is continuing her work for the resistance. If you missed Part 1 yesterday, read it here. As she told us in Part 1, “Rebellion should never be polite.”

She’s been doing her best to shift the odds. Let’s keep helping her. Add your thoughts below and then share & tweet this piece.


An Adjunct Catching Fire

by Adjunct Mockingjay

I’m one of the Katnisses of the world: I stand up for myself & defend others, but then go PTSD in a closet.

PART 2

A rockstar scholar stole the research of someone she called stupid.

Just let that sink in for a moment—not because it’s especially heinous, but, in case this, or something similar, has ever happened to you. In academia, know that usually if someone doesn’t like you, if someone abuses you emotionally or verbally, it’s not about you. It’s about their insecurity.

And it should be reported.

As a survivor of abuse, I don’t always have the impulse to tell others. I tend to internalize the abuse I experience because I start thinking I must have deserved it.

The more I thought about the intellectual theft, the longer we stayed in class every week, the more she systematically humiliated every student who wasn’t a “favorite,” I started getting angry. But I wasn’t necessarily getting angry for the reasons I just listed because I didn’t know it was okay to be angry—no one would say a word against Rockstar, not even when we were outside class, so, being a new grad student, I couldn’t put into words what I was angry about, per se.

I became suicidal that semester. Rockstar triggered all of the insecurities about being worthless I was trying to suppress from childhood. I had worked so hard to prove my father wrong, that it was nearly the end of me when someone I respected zeroed in on that vulnerability and tried to blow me to pieces.

The only thing that kept me from going through with it was that, for the first time, I realized that I was angry. But I didn’t understand where the anger should be directed. As my husband and I sat and talked on the kitchen floor, I realized I wasn’t angry with myself.

I was angry at Rockstar.

Getting angry was the only way I had of not going through with killing myself that semester. So I started complaining to fellow students in my creative writing class before class would start, but no one told me to report Rockstar—reporting her was not even something that was on my (our?) radar! That is so embarrassing to admit, but reporting was a huge blind spot for me precisely because I was indoctrinated to accept abuse.

Never accept abuse.

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I should’ve reported Rockstar. I just didn’t know where to go. In retrospect, I should have written a formal complaint to the chair of the department, used the same letter for the Dean of Students, and I would have forwarded it to Rockstar so she could know that I was reporting her abusive behavior. If I were the same person at 25 as I am at 33, I would have brought it up during class–even if it meant no one joined me in confronting how she was treating us, but just so they would know that someone was calling her on it and they weren’t alone.

Other things that happened in that class:

  • Rockstar held the final class at her house,
  • which meant the PowerPoint presentation I spent weeks making was useless (and I give really good presentations—no reading off slides nonsense) because
  • the Other Student and I had to give our presentations in Rockstar’s cramped living room, and
  • a large portion of the class was noticeably tipsy because the schedule transpired thusly: Other Student’s presentation, then dinner with wine, then me, so
  • it was 9:30pm when I gave my presentation, and
  • a large portion of the class was tipsy, so
  • there was basically no discussion of my presentation.

The way the assignments were supposed to run was: you give your presentation, the following week you submit a 5-page paper on your topic, revised from class discussion, Rockstar provides feedback, you use these 5 pages for the basis of your final 25 page essay.

Since Other Student and I were giving our presentations on the last day of class, our 25-page papers due 5 days later, I made sure I handed my 5 pages over to Rockstar at her house.

During dinner I asked Other Student what she had planned to do, and Other Student informed me that Rockstar told her to turn in her 5 pages weeks ago so Rockstar could give her feedback ahead of time. Rockstar never made a similar arrangement with me.

After my presentation, I gave my 5 pages to Rockstar and she said she would email me comments. She emailed me the following two sentences on the day the 25 page paper was due:

The only thing I wanted to say about the five pages, which were well written and on the right track, is to push yourself a bit to think about the issues raised in the relevant readings.  But over all, I thought you were off to a good start.

She gave me a B- for the class, which is the grad school equivalent of failing because anything lower than a B doesn’t count toward your course credits.

In the Amazon preview of Rockstar’s book, the one where she told me she was stealing my ideas to my face, I see a friend’s classroom contributions plagiarized as well.

So it wasn’t just me.

I should have reported her. Silence is not the ally I need. And rebellion should never be polite.

Mockingjay

 

POSTSCRIPT

The following semester, I am happy to report, I got myself into therapy and it was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. I am convinced it’s why I’m still alive. If you come from a similar family culture where the phrase, “You need therapy!” turns the option into a pejorative, try to fight against your programming and get the help you need. And if you are ever abused, or witness the abuse of others, report it—even if you have to do it anonymously to feel safe. You and your classmates deserve to feel safe, and to survive and thrive.

That same semester, for the first two weeks of classes, I bounced around trying to find a critical class where I felt safe. Being on the creative track, as opposed to the critical track in my department, compounded my issues of being a fraud from that heinous fall semester—but I found a gender studies class taught by a wonderful professor who changed the way I thought, opened the door for what my dissertation would be about, and showed me the kind of professor I wanted to be.

Near the end of the spring, my professor mentioned in passing that she had a conversation with Rockstar about me. She didn’t go into the details of that conversation, only that it was surprising. When I checked my grades, I noticed Rockstar had changed my grade from a B- to a B.

An Adjunct Catching Fire: Part 1

Our #BurnItDown firestorm on Twitter this past weekend did a lot of great things—among them this two-part guest post from Adjunct Mockingjay. She felt inspired by this post from a former adjunct who was tired—very much so—of being a tribute to please the whims of university administrators.

Her bow is strung. Her quiver is loaded. Her aim is impeccable. #Badmin, watch out for your apples. The odds are about to shift.

katniss-shoots-apple-o


An Adjunct Catching Fire 

by Adjunct Mockingjay

I’m one of the Katnisses of the world: I stand up for myself & defend others, but then go PTSD in a closet.

PART 1

As a grad student, I had my research stolen by a rockstar scholar who yelled at me while calling me stupid. During her office hours.

That yelling is literal, not hyperbolic. A fellow class member walked in during the tirade and Rockstar apologized for yelling at me—she was smart enough to apologize in front of that student.

But maybe I should begin at the beginning.

I went to a Top 20 university for grad school where I took a Women in Media class from a rockstar scholar (hereafter, “Rockstar”). I had quoted her in papers as an undergrad, so I was excited to take a class from her.

It began innocuously enough: Rockstar said she was giving us the power to direct and teach the class. I am now instantly skeptical of any professor who uses this approach because the way Rockstar employed this pedagogical method exploited our class in two major ways:

  • as a knowledge mill so she could rip off our ideas for her work;
  • as a way to avoid actually teaching; and when she wasn’t pleased with what a student had to say during their presentation, she humiliated them in front of the entire class.

During the first class, we brainstormed a list of topics we wanted to cover, then we had to be responsible for “teaching” the class that week. The responsibilities included: finding readings to distribute to the class at least a week in advance and giving a 20-30 minute talk about the topic and leading the rest of the discussion.

effie and katniss at reaping_0

We had enough material to get us halfway through October, because students were to present their topics each week (to fill the three-hour class). Rockstar said after that point, she would take charge of the course. Sometimes there was more than one student assigned to a topic, so what ended up happening was the class got so far behind because only one or two students had the chance to present. Another student and I were literally the last ones scheduled to go on October 19th. But the class ran so far behind that she and I did not get a chance to present until the last day of class. In December.

This may not sound so bad, except when you know that our class was scheduled to run once a week, 4:00pm to 6:50pm. But we never got out on time. Class ran until 9pm at a minimum, and sometimes we were getting out at 10pm. Once, we got out at 11pm. (But only once.)

That’s right, she kept us in class for two additional hours—sometimes three hours—every single class. (I can’t even fathom doing this to undergrads.)

After a few weeks of this happening, and being harassed, without fail, at the bus stop while I waited in a sketchy part of Los Angeles at 10 o’clock at night, I politely said at the beginning of class the next week that, after a particularly scary bus stop encounter, I needed to leave on time because the bus stopped running regularly after 7pm.

Rockstar was aghast that I would suggest such a thing and demanded that someone drive me home after class.

Now, maybe it wouldn’t have been so awkward if Rockstar hadn’t issued this order as an angry command, but putting me in the position where I couldn’t be self-sufficient made me uncomfortable regardless. Also, this was my small way to foment a polite rebellion. I thought that other people would jump in and back me up about ending the class on time; or, at the very least, the professor would be mindful about our class time once it was brought to her attention that I was being harassed at night, especially since we were forbidden to allow our classes to go long when we taught our undergrads during the day.

Instead, Rockstar used this as an opportunity to officially announce three hours was “simply not enough time to cover the material every week,” and that we needed at least an extra hour. She joked that she had asked for a longer time slot but was told that the university didn’t have longer class sessions for grad students. To her credit she did poll the class right then and there. She asked someone—anyone—to disagree. I was not surprised that no one did. I reiterated my bus dilemma as one last desperate measure.

But, by an essentially unanimous “vote,” it was decided that class would officially go at least an extra hour every week—and I ended up being carted back home on a weekly basis by a number of rotating classmates who said it wasn’t that far out of their way and could give me rides.

In addition to the weekly stress of our “bonus” class, the practice of having students run the class didn’t go smoothly. Rockstar would be silent during the presentation, and often would tear the student apart in front of the entire class afterward. One week, a student presented on Something’s Gotta Give. She spoke about Nora Ephron, pleasure, and problematic feminism, and posed a question: How can we recuperate problematic work such as this one?

After the student was done posing her questions to the class, we were all silent (as was normal) while we formulated our thoughts, and Rockstar went on a tirade about how we were no longer allowed to use the words subversive, problematic, or recuperative for the rest of the semester.

Another student gave a presentation about fashion, using Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette as an example of fashion as text–I want to say the argument was about visual excess and hyper-consumption, but I can’t quite remember what the presentation was about, per se, because all I can remember is what happened after the student was done. In a tone of voice that sounded like she was smelling dog shit, Rockstar said, “That’s it?”

After sitting in class with these kinds of scathing critiques from Rockstar, and after a speech she gave at the beginning of one session where she specifically said that students were not doing a good enough job at running the class, I went to Rockstar’s office hours six weeks before I was supposed to give my presentation on women in comics.

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(Not this kind, unfortunately.)

I asked for advice on what my approach should be for my presentation: representation of women in comics, women comics writers, or an ethnographic study of women who read comics? I said I was leaning towards representation of women in comics, and, in particular, romance comics because Harlequin started publishing their most popular romance novels as manga, printed entirely in pink or purple ink. I thought this might be the way to go because we’d already covered romance novels and soap operas, so it’d be building on things we’ve already discussed in class, and I could also talk about globalization and hegemonic femininity.

But trying to talk about the intention of women comics writers felt impossible without tracking down creators to interview, and doing an ethnographic study of readers felt beyond the scope of the presentation–and like a burden of reading for the other students–so I needed to narrow it down, but didn’t know how to choose. I brought in the Harlequin manga titles I wanted to talk about.

Rockstar called me stupid for not knowing more about comics, and she called me stupid again for needing help.

Yet she asked to borrow the Harlequin manga.

I kid you not: she called me stupid. But I left out that she yelled at me for needing help and she yelled at me that I was stupid.

I let her borrow my manga. (I still don’t know why I did that.)

I went to her office hours the next week–because I’m a glutton for punishment–with alternate presentation ideas. Maybe I should do TV instead, since we were doing TV the week before I was scheduled to go? Could I switch my topic since apparently comics are obviously not the way to go?

She yelled at me again. But a fellow student walked in while she yelled at me–because the door is open during office hours. Rockstar made sure she apologized in front of the other student. Probably not for yelling at me, I suspect, but for being seen yelling at me.

I went back a few weeks later to pick up my manga, and Rockstar told me that she was putting my ideas in the revised introduction to the second edition of her book.

I was struck dumb and after a few seconds said, “Okay. Glad I could be helpful.”

She didn’t yell or call me stupid. But I also didn’t ask for help. I collected my manga and left without sitting down.

Did she just tell me she was stealing my ideas? Is that supposed to make it okay?

Rebellion should never be polite.

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Burn It Down: The Lonely Death of American Higher Education, Part 2

Adjunctski Baum

Today concludes the conversation between Robert Baum and his anonymous friend & colleague, Nikolai Adjunctski. If you missed Part 1, read it here. They know higher ed is broken, possibly beyond repair. And, as old friends, they can tease and challenge each other in the process.

Without further editorial ado, here’s the conclusion of this discussion.


 

BURN IT DOWN

RCB: There’s something terribly wrong, Nikolai. This isn’t our first time talking about this but this time, in 2014, it feels like something needs to change or you and I will die a very lonely academic death–much like Lebanon College.

ADJUNCTSKI: What does your instinct tell you?
RCB: Higher Education is running on autopilot. Like a ghost ship. Or a comatose body. It’s alive by machinations not innovations. Like it’s just, I don’t know, there–right over there–dying.

ADJUNCTSKI: What if higher education, the kind we practice–with the liberal arts and the humanities and arts and sciences all running 100% at places that respect and need our services–what if that higher education is already dead?
RCB: That means we’re the last generation of more than a millennium of scholars who dedicated themselves to truth, beauty, art, politics, rhetoric, thinking, and learning to become what Richard Rorty described as a different sort of person. And I don’t think I can be that person, be that last generation.

ADJUNCTSKI: What makes you so special?
RCB: I don’t know, Nikolai . . .MAYBE I JUST WANT TO BE LEFT ALONE AND DO MY F**KING JOB.
ADJUNCTSKI: Which is?
RCB: To teach my students
ADJUNCTSKI: What if they don’t give a sh*t?
RCB: But, they do. And you know this too, Nikolai.
ADJUNCTSKI: Some of them do.
RCB: Many do. It takes them time. But, once we get out of port (September) and onto the open seas (October/November) we’re ready to bring them back to port (December) as changed people. We wouldn’t do what we do if it didn’t matter to someone.
ADJUNCTSKI: I don’t think they give a sh*t and I don’t want to waste what little time I have left here on them.
RCB: Oh my God. This is so typical, Nikolai. You want to just walk away and leave the mess for me. I’m Mr. Enthusiasm. Professor Let’s Try Again. How dare you?
ADJUNCTSKI: No one cares, Robert.
RCB: Please shut up.
ADJUNCTSKI: Administrators? Program Directors? Presidents? Boards? They’ve been fed their own salty sh*t for so long they have no idea they are eating the fecal matter of their modules–their, I don’t know, andragogy? Do you trust ANYONE who uses such a word? What is that? I don’t get it. I am expert on X and I teach X and students take X and I get paid to do X and suddenly I’m told that X isn’t good enough. Where is Y and Z? I do not know Y and Z. I know X and I think you, Mr. Administrator, made up Y and Z because you don’t know sh*t.

RCB: So perfect.
ADJUNCTSKI: And it’s only so complicated because bureaucrats need it to be complicated so they can justify their f**king existence to some other bureaucrat who must show progress–these measurable results, these benchmarks, these agendas and strategic plans. To hell with all of them and to hell with all of this data gathering and studies funded by dirty fascists like Bill Gates and committees initiated or resurrected or implemented or education products and graduate school programs and digital blah blah brought to us with smiley WalMart faces. I have an idea. Let’s analyze the data and see what the results show. No? Not ever? Right. Not ever. Because sometimes the results show you that you are NOT doing the thing you claim to do and you are NOT able to justify the costs of new programs or hiring new administrators or building new buildings to celebrate the Y and Z all the while my work as an expert in X is neglected and gradually dies out like you and me. That’s what they want; and they are dirty fascists for wanting it.

RCB: Explain.
ADJUNCTSKI: No. You explain. Aren’t you closing a school? Didn’t these people kill your college? How does a college just end, comrade? Only people in power can kill a college. So?

RCB: Does never having become the school Lebanon College professed to have become count as killing? Does having countless resources both human and economic thrown at the accreditation process that was supposed to all but guarantee cash cow market driven education count as intentional death? What about Deans like me spending most of their time attempting to do the work of a Registrar or Systems Analyst or Librarian while also steering programs and hiring new faculty and making sure the curriculum is doing what it claims to be doing? Does that count as killing a college?
ADJUNCTSKI: Yes.
RCB: No. Look. Comrade. It just died.
ADJUNCTSKI: Nothing just dies.
RCB: My father died. My best friend’s father to my dead father just died. Sometimes people just die. Isn’t that the lesson of Russell Banks’ novel and Atom Egoyan’s film The Sweet Hereafter? Sure there are many reasons why my father was released from the hospital and then suffered a heart attack after extensive heart surgery–I could obsess (and have) about that moment. Why send him home? What were you thinking? I’m suing you for malpractice. Complications surrounding the life and hunting accident will forever haunt me about my best friend’s father’s death. Many questions about the years of unemployment, the desperation, the chaos, the rage and all of that. But, he died. My dad died. People die. Colleges die.
ADJUNCTSKI: You’re dodging the question.
RCB: No. I’m not. Lebanon College died. People much smarter than me and with more resources than me couldn’t make it work. Allied Health didn’t work. Business innovation didn’t work. The only thing that seemed to work was General Education with some kind of active almost Chamber of Commerce approach to community needs.
ADJUNCTSKI: Then why continue operations for so long?
RCB: Because like the adjunct, the college believes next Fall everything will be different. And it wasn’t. The college died.
ADJUNCTSKI: You’re so full of shit. I will do the job the reporters should’ve done in August. Ready?
RCB: Fine.
ADJUNCTSKI: Did you have enough money to run operations?
RCB: No.
ADJUNCTSKI: At what point did you know you didn’t have enough money?
RCB: Before I arrived in April.
ADJUNCTSKI: How long?
RCB: Since about 2007.
ADJUNCTSKI: What?
RCB: Well, the state, the federal accreditor, and the regional accreditor all asked the same questions about finances across the 2000s. In fact, one of the main criteria for accreditation is economic viability: will you be here in three years to provide students with the education you promised? It’s a miracle the place remained open this long.
ADJUNCTSKI: How did it stay open this long?
RCB: The generosity of our immediate community, anchor businesses. And hope. A seeming abundance of hope.

Adjunctski: That damn word again . . .
RCB: Okay. There’s definitely bureaucratic stupidity at the College, across the decades of documents I’ve reviewed. Sure. And it’s true: the situation in Lebanon does have a lot of corporate problems, especially the idea that market trends are how you best direct operations. Small colleges are fantastic in boom times; but when the economy busts, the small not-for-profits, the private colleges, are the first to feel the shock waves.

WALKING AWAY

RCB: So, you’re done.
ADJUNCTSKI: I’m done.
RCB: As in?
ADJUNCTSKI: I’m going to burn the whole thing down and then take a long vacation.
RCB: Why now?
ADJUNCTSKI: Why not now? It’s not getting better.
RCB: True.
ADJUNCTSKI: So, we burn it down.
RCB: What is this a scene from Batman Begins? (laughing)
ADJUNCTSKI: (cold eyes, dead stare) In many ways yes. I am your teacher trying to tell you to mind your corners for years. Burn the city. The academic social experiment failed. The fascists once again took over.

RCB: The sad thing is: we invited them in. We were mesmerized by all the talk of “measurable outcomes” and “strategic planning” and “essential course outcomes” and “transparency” and “shared governance” and “best practices.” It all sounded so legit. It sounded so corporate. And stable. And decided. It sounded like a breather from the endless unpaid work and daily (no, hourly) need to get back on our feet and start a new set of tasks but THIS TIME with a plan, with a strategy, with something akin to something to hold on to. Governance. Executive leadership. Hybridization. It was all so welcoming, like the way Heidegger said yes to the Reich so he could have a moment’s rest inside the warm bosom of an entire system dedicated to educating “the Volk” or giving him a rectorship that would establish “the old ways” in the new world order of Hitler’s vision for a people’s utopia. Like Heidegger and his disciples, myself included, he, and we, will be forever haunted by our embrace of an odious someone who wrote the most thought provoking philosophy about everything.

ADJUNCTSKI: Heidegger was a dirty fascist who deserved to die in shame.
RCB: We’re not doing this again.
ADJUNCTSKI: Maybe next time.

TALKING STICKS NO MORE

ADJUNCTSKI: You know we can never leave, like the Eagles song, yes?
RCB: I only know how to do this well: to share and get others to share their lives; to just be together for a few hours focused on stories and people and events that matter.
ADJUNCTSKI: I just do it for the crap paycheck now.
RCB: Truth? Beauty? Goodness?
ADJUNCTSKI: No. Not any more. It’s impossible to tell the truth when you fear for your livelihood each and every day. So, I choose to not fear and just teach when I can and earn money other ways. You cannot tell embody the truth if you are broken down by endless false starts and untenable promises and bottomless assurances from administrators who are conditioned to serve the administrative lapdogs of the institution’s owners, not you, the scholar or teacher or even “Hobby Prof” that decided to bring your experience, wisdom, and leadership into a world that actually embraces a kind of sing-song nonsensical equity that considers with all seriousness a “talking stick” (you talk/I talk/whoever holds the stick gets to talk) conflict (avoidance) resolution philosophy found in too many human resource manuals.

RCB: I once walked away from a week long symposium after someone used a stapler as a walking stick.
ADJUNCTSKI: You should’ve slapped them in the forehead with it.
RCB: You assume, old friend, that the staple would penetrate.
ADJUNCTSKI: Or that the #badmin would even feel it if it did.
RCB: Are you actually going to finish that book?
ADJUNCTSKI: Yes. I’m not teaching this Fall. You?
RCB: Yes. I no longer have a job. So, it’s back to square one version of life version seven point zero. Write. Produce. Maybe start a new college. I don’t know.
ADJUNCTSKI: I hate them.
RCB: I know.
ADJUNCTSKI: I hate them all.
RCB: I do too. But, as you say, what makes us so special? We’re not the first or last to hate people who care nothing about learning and wisdom and beauty and sharing the most profound experiences of our lives with each other, our students, our communities. How many of our predecessors drew swords against the oligarchs of their time? I’m hazarding a guess that most of the people we admire and how to become have had to burn it all down.
ADJUNCTSKI: On this we agree.
RCB: It was nice visiting with you, old friend.
ADJUNCTSKI: Please shut up.


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