Friday, March 25, 2011

Kicked to the Curb: It Can Happen to You

At least this curb has a place to drain your sorrows.
One of my good friends (let's call him Moe) is currently a visiting assistant professor--VAP--at a very large public research institution in the south (a.k.a. VLP). Moe has worked his little hiney off since graduating in 2007 and starting his job at VLP. He sincerely believed that if he did the ten following things, in no particular order, something good would come of his efforts, either at VLP or elsewhere:

1. Teach great classes
2. Win a teaching award
3. Publish journal articles
4. Secure a book contract
5. Network and play nice
6. Mentor and advise undergrads
7. Serve on grad student dissertation committees
8. Present papers at conferences
9. Schmooze with tenured colleagues
10. Generally be a pleasant person and say "Yes" to extra service requests

Moe has done all of these things and more. In fact, twenty years ago Moe would have been halfway on his way to tenure by now. Alas, Moe has discovered that his hard work is not really valued by VLP. VLP has exploited Moe as much as possible, and taken anything Moe was willing to give, but given very little to Moe in return, other than a paycheck.

At the same time, Moe has discovered that the larger academic world also has little time for him. It's true, he has received a number of AHA preliminary interviews over the past few years, and even a handful of on-campus visits, but thus far Moe has failed to attain the object of his desires: a tenure-track job. Other universities pretend to care about teaching (even the hard-core teaching schools) but have spent more time grilling Moe about research productivity and whether or not he'd "fit in" at a small liberal arts school, for example, than asking about his copious teaching experience. One school even rejected Moe over the phone and noted that he lost the job because he "failed to make enough eye contact" during his teaching presentation. This is despite the fact that Moe has won a teaching award and is, hands down, one of the most popular and hard-working professors at VLP.

What's worse, Moe was recently told by the department chair at VLP that although he's a great teacher and good colleague, he will soon be demoted from VAP to lecturer/adjunct status and will be forced to take a $25K pay cut and teach additional classes, including online classes, if he intends to stick around much longer.
When Moe complained to a tenured faculty member about his woes, this particular professor responded by saying, "I know tons of recent PhDs who would KILL for you job. They'd be thrilled to teach a 4/4 plus online classes for $25K per year at a good university. You should be glad you have a job." Another tenured colleague said: "Pretend like you're on a postdoc! Make the best of it!" Sure, like anyone on a postdoc is supposed to be teaching themselves into the ground at the same time. P-l-e-a-s-e.

Moe is pretty pissed off and bummed right about now and I don't blame him. The last time I talked to Moe it was 1pm on the Friday before spring break and he was ready to start drinking. Drowning his sorrows has become Moe's method of choice for stress release because, lets face it, hard work certainly isn't going to pay off. Why bother working hard all week, and even on the weekends, if nothing ever comes from your labor? Why indeed.

So for all of you out there who are considering applying for VAPs or would even dream of turning down a tenure-track job offer for a chance at a VAP at an elite institution, think again. You're just as expendable as any other contingent faculty member. Moe kicks academic ass yet he was still kicked to the curb. It really isn't fair.


Anonymous said...

This is a really sad story, and not uncommon at all. A few of my friends are in this situation as well. I have a feeling Moe will pull through and find the TT job in the end. Luck (on so many levels) is such a big part of finding an academic job. "Doing everything right" isn't enough anymore. Thanks for posting this story.

recent Ph.D. said...

What kills me is the professor who said s/he knows "tons of recent PhDs who would KILL for your job. They'd be thrilled to teach a 4/4 plus online classes for $25K per year at a good university." AND it kills me that s/he is right, that there are so many recent PhDs willing to do this, to hussle for hope, to keep playing the game because something MIGHT come through somewhere down the line.

Moe sounds like someone a university ought to want to keep around permanently and compensate fairly, but, clearly, it's the bottom line that matters more, especially when so many good people are willing to work for inexcusably low salaries.

IMHO, change is going to have to start with us being willing to walk away from those crap jobs, even if it means doing something nonacademic, whether for a while or forever.

But then, I have a pretty low tolerance for what I see as blatant exploitation of both hope and talent. I ruled out VAPs and teaching postdocs from both my job searches and will again, if I go on the market this fall, and I left adjuncting to work as a secretary. It's a disgrace that I earn more doing this than teaching full-time at a university, but I really do believe that if more people were willing to do this, things would have to change eventually.

Good luck to Moe, and thanks for sharing his story. I hope soemthing better comes along for him.