Adjuncts, spousal hires, and other academic employment woes

Maybe because the semester is over, but I’ve seen a flurry of posts and articles about various ills in the academic market.  Megan McArdle has an article questioning why such left-leaning folks as academics would support a labor market that looks more like one of those evil corporations they’re always railing against.  That article was, in itself, a response to an article in IHE by a tenured faculty member who fights for the rights of adjuncts, which got a lot of play in the academic blogosphere.  And then Laura at 11D responded to both, and the conversation there still carries on.  I think Laura is spot on with a lot of her assessments of the situation.  I do think departments aren’t very honest with their students about job prospects.  And I think there are adjuncts who keep putting themselves in the system in some vain hope that they’ll land a full-time position–and there are too many of those people and they’re cheap and so schools keep hiring them instead of full-timers.

Finally, there was an article in the Chronicle about spousal hires.  The comment section is especially vile.  Profgrrrrl responds as does Kate.  My husband’s school was too small to do any spousal hiring, but some spousal career services would have been useful.  What I got told was, “Oh, there are plenty of places where you can adjunct.” Oh, yeah, real helpful that.  I would have even appreciated them suggesting I shift careers and helped me make that shift.  But no.  And we were lucky because we’re in a major metropolitan area.  At least there are job prospects here.  Many a school, even large ones, are located in the boonies.  They are often the largest employers in the area.  And if you’re favorite candidate can’t move there unless his or her spouse/partner doesn’t have a job, then that would be kind of a no-brainer for me.  But, still, like Profgrrrrl says, it’s amazing the vitriol people can spill over these things.  As, I used to say when I was a kid: “Who died and made you king of the world?”

Drifting Away, or Brief Respite

Increasingly, I find myself disconnected from educational technology in higher ed and from higher ed more broadly.  I used to be interested in structural issues surrounding higher ed, especially the pressures that have been brought to bear on higher ed by technology.  I still have some interest in those, but I find myself reacting to blog posts and articles on these topics with a big, “Meh.”  Partly, of course, this is due to my not working in a higher ed institution anymore, though my husband still does and many of my friends do.  Will higher ed change as a result of the economy and/or the influence of technology?  Probably.  Eventually.  But not across the board.  And not necessarily in ways that are good.  And frankly, part of me doesn’t care.  I’m still reading those blog posts and articles, but they don’t inspire much in me.  Perhaps if I worked in a college again, I’d be inspired again.  But part of me thinks it’s a lot of tilting at windmills.  So it’s not that I don’t want to see change; it’s that I’m not seeing any truly constructive suggestions for how that change might happen.  What I see is a lot railing about faculty not using technology or at administrations for hiring too many adjuncts or at state governments for reducing funding.  It’s not that these aren’t legitimate complaints; they are.  But few writers out there–whether for “real” publication or on blogs–are suggesting practical steps that might really change something.  I know from experience that even if you do have some practical steps for small change, that change can get swallowed up, even reversed if it occurs within an institution or environment that is clinging to the status quo, or worse, grasping at some bygone golden age.  Too often in higher ed, both of these are true, and frankly, a lot of it comes from the faculty.  There’s a lot of whining and moaning about salaries, about “kids these days,” about work loads.  And again, some of these are legitimate complaints, but a lot of people just whine and don’t do anything about it.  In many places, faculty are still the ones who set the policies and more importantly, the tone of a place.  If you want to change those policies, start working on it.  Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s why you have tenure.  I think my fading interest in higher ed has to do with this constant whining about the administration, about the students, about everything.  I want to scream, well get off your ass and do something about it.  And take a long, hard look in the mirror first.  Maybe it’s you that needs to do the changing.

And I would say the same thing to the technology people out there whining about how people won’t use technology, how they don’t understand the changes it’s bringing, etc.  First, I’d say think a little more critically about the technology you’re espousing.  Too many technologists out there really sound more like evangelists, trying to convince people to use the snake oil.  I understand.  I was there.  I felt the frustration, the worry.  But I think technologists need to acknowledge the fear and the skepticism, not dismiss it as ridiculous.  Yes, it’s a barrier, but not one that you knock down with a bulldozer.  It needs to be dismantled bit by bit and it needs to be done with the help of the people that put it up in the first place.  And we need to acknowledge that sometimes technology isn’t the answer and that some technology is being used in ways that are counterproductive to teaching and learning.  Not everyone needs to blog and twitter and create multimedia presentations.   Too often faculty see us as pushers of tools rather than as partners in education.  And sometimes that’s because we project that attitude as often as that attitude is projected onto us.

In my distance from these issues, in only having to think about them once in a while rather than daily, I think (I hope) I’ve gained a better perspective.  I’ve come to realize that real change is slow, that it’s a rare thing for transformation to happen overnight, and that it takes cooperation among many different kinds of people for change to happen.  You can’t be the lone voice in the woods advocating for change.  You need partners from across the spectrum.  In places where nearly everyone is clinging to the old ways, those partners can be hard to find.  But if I ever return to this work as a day job, those will be the people I’ll seek out first. And I would try to avoid the places that aren’t open to change.  I know what those look like now.

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Survive the Recession: Become an adjunct

I had to laugh at this article in the New York Times, suggesting part-time college teaching as an option for un- or underemployed people.  Really?  Honestly, for the amount of time one puts in, you’d be better off waiting tables.  But I understand, you’ve got your Ph.D., why waste it as a waitress.  I do like my part-time gig, but if I were looking to make an actual income, I don’t think part-time teaching is what I’d be pursuing.  I agree with the article that there are a lot of intangible benefits to teaching part time.  But it also glosses over the generally poor treatment of adjuncts and all the complex reasons for the fact that there’s such a demand for adjuncts in the first place.

So, about the MLA

It was here, this year.  Though I knew plenty of people attending, both blogger people and people from my various former institutions, I didn’t contact anyone to do anything.  And no one contacted me, so there ya go.  Because I read so many academic blogs, particularly those in Rhetoric and Composition and in other English fields, the conference has been in the back of my mind.  When it was here three years ago, I went and wrote about it in two very different ways.  First, I was apprehensive.  And then, I was over it.  I attended that year for two reasons.  One, I had a job interview, which I couldn’t write about back then but which is the meeting I referred to in that second post.  And two, I was technically a grad student and could afford the fee.  Though I wrote more confidently about my experience there in the second post, I remember it still being awkward for me in all kinds of ways.  I did, indeed, run into old grad school friends and we had coffee and talked and it was really enjoyable.  But I also caught a glimpse of my former advisor, whom I dumped and of whom I have awkward memories.  When I saw her, she was taking one of my friends around and introducing her to people, something I am not entirely sure she would have ever done for me.  In part, perhaps, she knew my heart wasn’t in my subject before I did, before I switched to Rhetoric and Composition and switched advisors.

I felt generally awkward as I wandered the halls and lobbies and did not recognize a soul.  In part, of course, it’s because the conference is ginormous.  Even if I knew people, it would be hard to find them.  But I felt lost in a sea of unfamiliar faces, no one I could stand with and chat and have coffee between sessions.  I’ve been to sizable conferences like this in other fields, namely technology.  At those, there are cocktail parties and other events where one can meet people on a more informal basis.  Or, there’s the strategy of meeting the five people you do know and attending mostly the same sessions together.  The MLA seems to be so crammed with sessions, starting at an ungodly hour in the morning and ending sometimes at 9 at night.  Seriously, 12 hours of sessions, crazy!  There’s no time for gatherings or parties in all that.  And then there are the people conducting and attending interviews.  They don’t have time for such niceties either.

The interviewing is another moment of awkwardness.  The reports are pretty much on the money in terms of being able to pick out the interviewees, those in black suits, glancing nervously around, many of them spending their time hanging outside the “interview room,” a row of tables in a large conference space where people can overhear nearly everything.  On elevators and in hallways, one can sometimes hear them practicing their summary of their research or their teaching statement.  I, too, wore a black suit, pants, not a skirt.  But I was 10-15 years older at least than most of the interviewees.  Thankfully, I wasn’t relegated to the interview room, but still it’s weird to interview in a hotel suite.  It feels undignified, is reminiscent to me of prostitution, which isn’t far off the mark of how the market functions these days.  It’s hard to forget that toiletries and underwear lurk behind closed doors and drawers even as you’re discussing your pedagogical strategies.

Later that day, I walked into the lobby (as I describe in my earlier post, looking for a place to sit, maybe have a drink), and I run smack dab into the (now former) president of our college, whom I know quite well.  I’m in my black suit.  It’s probably abundantly clear that I am interviewing.  We say hello and thankfully, she is talking to colleagues and so hello is all there is and I go sit at the bar.

After that, things get dramatically better, but still . . .

New Kid wrote a nice post earlier this week about leaving academia.  I haven’t left it entirely.  After all, I’ll be teaching a class starting next week.  But I like the mish mash of work I’m doing that partly involves academia and partly involves other things.  As my post on failure notes, I’m on the fringes of this thing and feel like I can be more objective about it in some ways than I would be if I were in it.  I got that job I interviewed for at the MLA, but turned it down.  Every once in a while, I used to have pangs of regret for not taking it, but I really do like where I’ve ended up.  Had I taken that job, we might have had to move or I would have at least had a huge commute, a big teaching load with lots of papers to grade.  When would I have time for my family, my kids?  It’s tough to admit that the demands of that kind of work don’t fit with my desired lifestyle.  It feels selfish and wrong to reject full time employment on that basis, especially now when there are people who have lost jobs, who can’t find work.  Every other full time academic job I’ve considered applying for, I’ve rejected on that basis.  But I still like the teaching, the mission of education, especially for disadvantaged students.  I still like the intellectualism of academic life that is absent from a lot of other kinds of jobs.  And so, I keep a foot there, balancing it out with other kinds of work and with the rest of my life.

I no longer feel the despair and self-loathing that probably colored that 2006 MLA conference.  And I really didn’t feel it much then, just in moments when I was immersed in it as much as I was at the MLA.  When all I could see around me were reminders of the path I could have taken, it was hard not to feel some regret for not taking it.  When I look back over my life and consider the moments when I could have plunged in and really taken that path the way my colleagues from grad school did, I can’t see a moment where taking it would have given me everything that I have now.  I would have had to give up living with my family at least temporarily or perhaps even permanently if I were completely careerist about it.  I wouldn’t have gained the technical skills I have now.  I wouldn’t have time for a lot of the things I do now that keep me sane.  Maybe I wouldn’t have needed them, but I doubt it.  Yes, there are things I don’t have because I didn’t go down that path.  Maybe I would have more published, maybe even a book.  But that doesn’t seem like much to give up.  I have the phrase “our paths choose us” resounding in my head.  In part, I think that’s true.  I think we make decisions that we think will make us happy and those decisions take us down a path we can’t see yet.  We can only see it as we look back.

Failure is a good thing

I finally got around to finishing this article in Wired magazine on what our brains do when we fail.  I won’t say a huge amount about it, except that a few things jumped out at me:

1. We don’t see failure as a potential success because we see what we want to see or we see what confirms our beliefs.  When things go wrong, we have a hypothesis, a theory about what was supposed to happen.  When our prediction turns out to be wrong, we think we failed instead of rethinking the hypothesis.

2. People who are on the fringes and not part of an inside group tend to see important new things.  The money quote here:

There are advantages to thinking on the margin. When we look at a problem from the outside, we’re more likely to notice what doesn’t work. Instead of suppressing the unexpected, shunting it aside with our “Oh shit!” circuit and Delete key, we can take the mistake seriously. A new theory emerges from the ashes of our surprise.

3. A diverse group of people, those with a variety of backgrounds and no real common language often solve problems more quickly.

I was thinking about these things in relation to the work I do in Ed Tech.  One, educational technologists are often, but not always, “failed” academics or part-time instructors, people who have a foot in technology and a foot elsewhere, making them automatically on the fringe of things.  I was also thinking that a single faculty member who experiences only his or her own teaching probably can’t see the mistakes anymore or can’t see that there might be a new way to do things.  And finally, as a whole, though you might have historians talking to scientists talking to sociologists, a group of faculty is pretty homogenous when it comes to teaching.  So now the question is, what do you do about it?

Tenure, or Tilting at Windmills

This post by Dean Dad, response to this post by Michael Berube, created quite a stir in our household this morning. The tenured faculty member tried to defend himself to a Ph.D. who’s never landed a full-time t-t job, and in fact, doesn’t want one, but wishes there were more options for employment in academia. What kind of choice is t-t vs. migrant labor. Once in a blue moon, I see a continuing non-tenure-track position in my field. I have never seen permanent part-time work.

I don’t have a dog in this fight as one commenter at Dean Dad’s said, so I don’t keep up with the literature though I do read blogs about “the fight for tenure and academic freedom.” I think tenure at many places is misguided at best, detrimental at worst. At a few places, tenure works as it should. I think those who draw a hard line around tenure and claim there is no other way to protect academic freedom and employee rights have actually contributed to the current situation where more and more adjuncts are needed to teach the classes that some tenured faculty don’t.

Tenure certainly isn’t a way to recognize how hard faculty work at places where they’re teaching 3-4 classes a semester, doing service, and have a research requirement. In fact, I would argue that as tenure requirements have gone up, the work load for faculty has increased dramatically. Is academic freedom so important that you would sacrifice any semblance of an actual life for it? That is, to gain academic freedom, you would work 60, 70, 80 hours a week? I know that not all places ask for that kind of work, but I know from reading enough academic blogs that many do. And that many academics have given up quite a lot for their work, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes not.

I just think that one could imagine another way, where work loads are limited, where requirements are clearly spelled out, where one would have recourse during disputes, and where there would be some transparency. And, yes, you could have academic freedom.

Mr. Geeky reminds me that in such a complex system, any one element, any small change, might have unintended consequences. And that there’s no one plan that would fix it. True enough, and in fact, I think the whole system is what it is because of those small choices. One place decides to replace a retiree with two part-timers instead of hiring a t-t person. Other places follow suit. The original decision seems to work well, so the next retiree is replaced with part-timers. Enrollments increase. Now it’s about adding positions–part-time or full-time? In tough economic times, you know what the answer is.

I have no idea which “side” is right. All I know is that the economics are not usually on the side of tenure and that when costs need to be cut, positions are looked at with greater scrutiny. But it seems to me that there are a lot of losers in this fight and it’s not among the people who are doing the fighting. The losers are the students, the Ph.D.’s who can’t find good work in higher education, and the public whom we owe an educated populace.

Lob your tomatoes now. 🙂

Friday Fun: Academia vs. Business or Faculty vs. Staff

This comic perfectly describes how I often felt in my staff position:

I was often thinking like the Academia side of things, but the response to my ideas, from both faculty and staff, was like the Business reaction. I got the Academia reaction from colleagues elsewhere, which helped ease the pain of the Business reaction. Long-time readers might recall stories where I was asked to help with hooking up DSL, sort email folders, or upload documents in response to my reporting on the latest research in teaching with technology. No matter how academic I sounded, what people often saw was the mechanical side of my work. Sigh.

More on Academic Conferences

Am I the only one who thinks academic conferences are weird? Why do they feel a little bit like a junior high school dance?

For background, go read this post about my last academic conference. I’ll try not to repeat what I said there. Because I’m not in a discipline, I tend to go to conferences that are interdisciplinary or a little tangential to some established discipline. This is a good thing as the presentations can be on a range of topics. I was recalling some of my earlier Renaissance conferences yesterday. While the Renaissance is a huge period covering several countries, there are some conventions that get repeated at conferences. It can get tiring to hear yet another paper about women’s poor treatment in [insert author]’s work. This latest conference definitely had a wide variety of topics. I heard papers on dna art (very cool), on illness in literature (also cool), twittered subjects (disappointing), and a reading of short stories and essays (perhaps my favorite).

My biggest complaint is the fact that everyone read their papers. This was especially hard on those of us (I’m sure I’m not the only one) who were unfamiliar with the topic being presented. Many of the papers were theory heavy, involving complicated arguments about philosophical positions on consciousness or relationships. Note: people cannot digest such complex arguments in 20 minutes via listening. Perhaps if one is familiar with the theory, one could follow the argument, but most of the time, I could not. Some people, despite reading, did a very good job of distilling the argument into its simplest form. But most did not. Once upon a time, this would have made me feel dumb, but now, I just feel like the people presenting are not doing a good job. If the idea of a conference is to disseminate your ideas to more people, then it seems to me important that the people to whom you’re disseminating your ideas understand them.

The name-tag glance that I mentioned in the previous post was almost non-existent at this conference. And surprisingly, I felt totally comfortable telling people that I was an independent consultant and writer. It helps that I’m not looking for anything from these people. I was there to learn, not to network. During one conversation where I described my background and my current pursuits, someone said, “Wow, you’re really employable!” And that made me laugh, considering my current limbo state. But, I knew that it was also true and why I feel so comfortable (mostly) being in limbo.

The other thing I noticed, and which I mentioned in the other post was the way that people asked questions to promote their own ideas or knowledge. This happened in the very first session, a creative writing reading. Someone asked if the stories could be tied together using some theorist’s work, who said blah, blah, blah. I was rolling my eyes. In Ian Bogost‘s plenary, much of which I found rather difficult to understand, someone did the same thing and he called them on it, saying, “What you’re asking is whether what you’re interested in is at all related to what I just said.” That made me laugh.

The weirdest sensation I had was that of resistance. Some of the sessions actually made me angry at the way they interpreted very practical things, like programming robots, as philosophical conundrums. It’s not that one doesn’t need to have some kind of philosophical stance on the nature of learning in order to program a robot, but a robot does not have a consciousness of its own that one can confront. Honestly, I couldn’t even tell you exactly how they made the connection.

Perhaps the most frustrating session along these lines was the one that advertised itself as being about Twitter. I was actually interested in hearing a more theoretical stance on Twitter, but instead, I discovered that they’d used Twitter as a metaphor, dismissing it as a real entity that is having a real impact on how we relate to each other. I doubt any of the panelists even has a Twitter account. And that made me really mad. It was a similar move to using concepts from Artificial Intelligence and programming to talk about the relationship of science to art. The people using those concepts as metaphors have no real idea what those concepts really mean. They’ve never programmed or Twittered or conducted a physics experiment. But I felt like I didn’t have a good counter to their arguments, veering as much as they did from any kind of practical reality. I wish I could have stood up and said, look, I’m a programmer and your metaphor really isn’t working.

I have always been resistance to theory, primarily when it’s drawn from philosophy. What it often feels like to me is that people are drawing on these theories to interpret literature because they’re desperate to make their work more relevant. A philosophical theory arises that changes the way we think about our relationship to the world and the literature people are all over it, using it to interpret everything from Shakespeare to Pynchon. I don’t mean to be unkind. I have seen theories used quite well, but too often, it becomes a mumbo jumbo that only the initiated can understand. It’s at conferences that I most feel that I’m not among the initiated, that I’m not invited to the party.

Doing more with less

Dean Dad had a post last week that looked at the staff side of the equation during this economic downturn. I lived through a downturn during my first years as a staff member and saw 30 people get laid off. In many departments, this meant a 20%-30% cut in their staff, meaning that the rest of the people were doing at least 20-30% more work. While there were a handful of departments where demand had declined and therefore layoffs were a reasonable action to take, this was a rare situation. I’m away from the scene now, but my understanding is that only a couple of people have been let go and that positions vacated via attrition (like my own) are not being filled. As with layoffs, the effect is the same; people having to pick up the slack.

As Dean Dad notes, the work of staff is often invisible. Unlike not having enough sections of comp to fill demand, no one readily notices if the student services office is understaffed. In many cases, service simply slows down, with requests taking longer to get filled. In some areas, such as the IT side of things, a major crisis can bring a department to its knees when understaffed, causing a ripple effect across the campus (no email for days, files inaccessible, no one answering phones). But everyone crosses their fingers that that crisis never comes. The irony is, it’s more likely to happen when you’re understaffed because people are often harried and therefore more mistake prone.

The thing that is incredibly frustrating to me is the way in which the mission of many colleges, including my former employer, is so at odds with their actual employment practices. They talk a good game of social justice and fair employment practices, but it’s all theory. They’re fine with hiring adjuncts or having dining services employees who are not making a living wage. At least in most corporate environments, they make no bones about the fact that they’re trying to make money and that one way to do that is to keep wages low. Corporations that do having excellent employment practices are often applauded and win awards. There are certainly many benefits to working in a university environment, where one often has access to classes, lectures, and often ample vacation and sick time, but all that means little if you’re too overworked to take the time for them and/or not making enough money to make ends meet. Sadly, most faculty have no clue how much their staff members are making or what their benefits are. If you’re a faculty member, I encourage you to a) find out what the living wage is in your area and then b) find out if your lowest paid employees are making that wage.

My First Non-Academic Fall

This is the first fall since 1996 that I haven’t been getting ready to attend or teach class. Right now, I’m actually at the beach, enjoying a final vacation with my father, stepmother, stepbrother, and of course, the kids and Mr. Geeky. Mr. Geeky is having to do some work here, since classes begin for him the day after we return. The kids have another week.

Aeron Haynie writes about returning to school post sabbatical and how relaxing her year without school was. This summer was the first summer I wasn’t directing a program, making my summer more stressful than the school year. I have enjoyed so much spending time with my kids this summer. We have played games, gone to the pool and gone on a few trips. But in general, we’ve just hung out and let the days roll over us, enjoying the completely unplanned time. I may never get another summer like this.

There are things I miss about working in an academic environment, especially teaching. I love planning new classes, imagining student reactions to readings, thinking of ways to engage them in topics. I love classroom discussions from which I usually learn as much as the students. I love connecting with students, helping them not only with the coursework, but sometimes with their career planning and their life. I don’t miss grading. And I don’t miss what Haynie so aptly describes as the competitive environment of the academy:

For me at least, academic work is stressful because of the evaluation and competition attending every task. It’s hard enough to engage a large room full of strangers without knowing you will be evaluated mercilessly (and anonymously) by each and every one. And I feel expected to wow, dazzle, and edify. Likewise with scholarship: writing itself is not painful, I realize, it is the attendant self-doubt. I know that competition is considered by many to be a great stimulus; however, I find it distracting and enervating. But worse is the stress I seem to absorb from those around me. Even before the current economic crisis, it seemed most encounters on campus were permeated by discontent, anxiety, and stress.

It’s hard to stand above that fray at times, to focus on the good things about the job, on the students, on those moments of insight. One thing I’ve learned in the months I’ve been on my own is how to focus on the good. There’s a lot I could say that’s bad about my situation right now. I’m not making enough money. I’m working a lot without getting paid. I’m doing more housework. But, perhaps because I have the time, I’m able to redirect those thoughts into more positive ones. Or perhaps because I don’t have coworkers around me who feed those negative thoughts. Whatever I do, like Haynie, I hope to maintain a relaxed attitude when things get harried.