Thursday, January 27, 2011

Guest Post: A Broken System

If I had time, I'd actually teach you something!
A guest post by *Kate Kohler

A student I mentor confided in me recently that one of her tenured professors this term (FYI: I am an adjunct) told a class that she would be “spot grading” their papers. She was simply “too busy” and had “too many students” to grade all her students’ work. (The professor is teaching 2 classes with a total of 79 students – I checked.)

My student was rightly dismayed and, despite the fact that she is an above-average and conscientious student, felt unmotivated to excel in the course if her work was not to be taken seriously, or even read. A series of scenarios went through my head: Perhaps the professor should outsource the papers to India to be graded?
Perhaps the professor should assign less writing? ( Perhaps the university should hire me full-time with salary and benefits since I make the time to carefully evaluate the work I assign students as an important part of my job?(

I quickly realized I was once again stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place: not only did I need to advise my student with politic discourse (god forbid an adjunct trash a tenured professor) but I had to explain to myself at least why the university system is so broken that a tenured professor, who not only is under less pressure to publish but gets time off from teaching to do her research and writing, can assign undergraduates course work with no firm promise of mentorship or evaluation.

The reasons why the system is broken are myriad. They involve change through time (also known as history), as well as current economic and cultural realities. As a doctor of philosophy in history I find I can appreciate the change through time ironies quite well. I earned my PhD in the wrong time and place. Born in 1971, a decade that saw the beginning of the end of the post-war boom, I earned my doctorate in 2009 amidst reports of the crises in the universities and economic woes world-wide. My hope to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps as a professor in terms of job placement, salary, and prestige had become an anachronism.

Here is how I see the problems and a solution. Higher education has historically been a privilege of certain groups – early on clergy who had the time and institutional support to live a life of scholarship followed by social elites who again, had the time and financial support to devote at least a few years to academic pursuits. (Keep in mind one definition of academic is: “hypothetical or theoretical and not expected to produce an immediate or practical result,” which works for both social elites and the scholary in that order). This set the
tone for higher education.

The opening of higher education to a broader community in the twentieth century had myriad benefits for society: first by allowing minority and working-class folk into the hallowed halls where many of them used the education they gained for both practical and scholarly purposes, allowing a necessary breath of fresh air in tired academic power-structures and trends. Second, the opening of the universities also allowed a wider population to gain the kind of “critical thinking” skills so lauded – rightly so – by the powers-that-be as beneficial to economics, politics, and society.

Critical thinking allows just what it promises – “careful evaluation and judgment” of past, present, and future choices by cultures and societies. Problems arose however – critical thinking requires time and money -- to support a growing population of students and professors. It also created an educational bubble that is now untenable. Higher education became focused on raising revenue and maintaining prestige (which equals money) rather than academics and critical thinking skills. In terms of teaching this often meant that faculty were put between that rock and a hard place I mentioned – focusing on their traditional role as scholars and sometimes mentors or acting as excellent teachers of a broader student population.

The truth is that in the opening of the universities a larger population of students came ill-prepared for self-direction in academic studies or simply lacked the motivation and skills necessary to succeed in academic pursuits. This is not a slam on minority groups or students in general. Everyone should have the opportunity for higher education but we, as a global community, need to decide what higher education should entail, how to prepare students for that education, and how we can provide it given the “publish or perish” culture of tenure-track positions in U.S. universities.

I could write a long-winded dissertation on the ins-and-outs of higher ed (in fact, I did) but I want to get back to my main concern here: if tenure-track professors don’t have time to teach (and part of teaching is evaluating student work and helping students reach new levels of scholarship), what can we do? As an adjunct who had planned on becoming tenure track but has since swallowed the bitter pill of reality and is now quite content with a part-time adjunct position (my husband works full-time with great benefits) at a branch of a well-known state school, I have given solutions a bit of the critical thinking I was taught to apply to problems.

Here are my two-cents: At present about 70% of teaching faculty in the United States is made up of adjuncts who work part-time, piece-meal, and most often with low pay and no benefit. This creates a culture of “fast-food work” in college teachers and courses, although many adjuncts are both excellent scholars and teachers. Adjuncts are typically either trained professionals in a specific field or hold a PhD in their teaching
subject. The other 30% of faculty are tenured – which today usually means they have published enough peer-reviewed scholarly work in their field to be considered senior scholars. Aside from the problems inherent in scholarly publishing ( and(, research is important in keeping academics active and relevant to each new generation as well as creating more -- and often more advanced – knowledge.

It is not a surprise that many professors who are working toward tenure or prefer a life of research don’t feel they have the time and energy it takes to be a great teacher. Teaching, however, is one of the most important goals of higher education. One of my favorite quotations by G. M. Trevelyan sums this up: "Since history has no properly scientific value, its only purpose is educative. And if historians neglect to educate the public, if they fail to interest it intelligently in the past, then all their historical learning is valueless except in so far as it educates themselves." You can fill in your discipline, but the message holds true: what good is advanced or new knowledge if it is not applied to and shared with society at large? That is the role of a good teacher – to know and understand the scholarship and be willing and able to share it with a broader audience – an audience who does not have the time or skill set to decipher disciplinary trends and jargon. A good teacher will also teach students to find the time and create the skill-set of life long critical thinking.

Here is my proposal. Keep 70/30 split, hire professor-teachers (aka most adjuncts) with a contract and benefits, and keep the 30% of researchers to push academic fields ahead. Renew these positions with professionals and scholars but allow them to choose which track they enter and, if necessary, to switch tracks. In order to keep both professor-teachers and professor- researchers in touch with each other as well as the communities they serve, university-wide scholarly conferences could be held on each campus or system in which teachers and researchers would meet to share knowledge and pedagogy. Researchers could potentially work with graduate students as well to train them in the rigors and details of research and publishing.

Of course this plan has kinks, and economic woes would slow its development for now. I think my campus is moving toward this solution, however, and suspect many other will as well as adjuncts demand their due, students demand teachers, and scholarly publishing opportunities continue to dwindle. As a recent piece argued, however, universities should offer both practical and academic resources and strive toward both as goals. (

*Kate Kohler (a pseudonym to protect the innocent and the adjunct) teaches history at a major state university branch campus. She loves teaching history that is useful, fun, and interesting to those who hated high school history classes.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

We Will be OK

A friend of mine brought this great Salon thread to my attention today, "If I don't succeed in academe, I'll die!" and I wanted to pass it on to anyone who stumbles across this site.

In a letter seeking advice from columnist Carry Tennis, a failed anthropology PhD seeking tenure-track employment has come to the following, heart-breaking realization: "I've given it everything, and I want it more than anything, but it looks like it will never happen." Ouch.

I can really relate to her predicament and self-imposed drama and feelings of inadequacy. We've all been there. This particular PhD and ex-academic is wallowing in despair, asking herself over and over again: Why, oh why, did I F--K up my life and waste more than 15 years pursuing something pointless? I should have just moved to L.A. and tried to become an actress, like I wanted to back in high school. Of course, her parents told her then that acting was an impossible industry to break into and that she would never be able to support herself. A PhD in anthropology, on the other hand, promised to lead to a rewarding and realistic career as a professor. NOT.

Intellectually she knows the race for tenure-track employment is over but she just can't let her dream die. Or, rather, she refuses to allow herself to move on and find joy in life. She refuses, on many levels, to accept the reality of her situation:

"The problem is that emotionally, I can't drop it. It's like having a painful sore in my mouth that I keep poking with my tongue -- all day, every day, I'm angry, bitter and heartbroken. I resent my husband so much for having what I can't get that I can barely stand to be in the same room with him, I'm so consumed with jealousy. The workload of a professor is far more brutal than many realize -- 60-hour workweeks are the norm, and actually you don't stop working over the summer, you just stop getting paid -- so my husband naturally has little time and energy left over for any housework, which naturally falls on my shoulders. And this ENRAGES me -- it's like I'm not just unable to get my dream job, I'm doomed to 1950s housewife drudgery while my husband does the important stuff. My resentment toward my husband is on the verge of causing me to leave -- and it's not his fault."

So what does the wise Cary Tennis have to say in response? In a nut shell:

"You are not one-dimensional. Of course you have academic talent as well as other talents. Of course you have a good mind and many skills. But where is your power? Where is your center of gravity? . . . You must be a free human being. That is your first priority. You do not have to be a professor. . . . You know what the situation is. You just have not yet marshaled enough concrete evidence, on a consistent basis, to counter these core beliefs that are ruining your life. I think you can do it. I think you can undertake to undo this set of beliefs, and that will free you to be a human being who can choose whether she wants to be an academic or wash pots and pans.

I assure you, nothing terrible will happen to you if you do not become an academic. To know this is literally to get your life back. . . . That is the most valuable thing of all, to know that we can be OK. That is priceless. That is my wish for you, that you will find a way out of this terrible, stifling belief that you must be an academic, that you will regain the freedom to dance and sing and fling elaborate gestures to the crowd."

I'd say this is pretty good advice; although it's a shame he didn't offer any perspective on the husband-housework dilemma.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Private School Option

What you may be up against.
Interested in leaving the ivory tower and teaching at a private high school? Wondering if Ph.D.'s are desirable candidates for prep school teaching positions or if making the switch would make you happy? Concerned that prep school kids will be little rebellious punks? Look no further.

Check out my latest Inside Higher Ed column, "The Private High School Option":

*I'd love to respond to your questions and comments, so please feel free to leave them either at IHE or here at the blog.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Off the Fence: Reflections on Nine Years of Ambivalence

The first in an intermittent series of guest posts by Caitlin*

As the interview season gets underway and the ambivalent academic's thoughts slide again towards tenure-track dreams (knock 'em dead, Eliza!), I have accepted the offer to write a few guest posts as an academic who is now officially off the fence, gainfully employed outside of professordom, and decreasingly ambivalent about it.

I usually begin the tale of my aborted academic career at the end. I think most post-academics do, with the defensive assertion that we left by choice rather than by necessity. I've come to think, however, that this distinction is mostly--well, academic. Whether you left in the first year of your doctoral program or after gaining tenure, the decision to leave came down to the same calculus: you just didn't want it badly enough any more to make the sacrifices involved. What I have discovered as the months between me and my academic life turn into years is that I don't want it at all.

My c.v. will tell you that I have a doctorate in history in one of the more grossly oversubscribed subfields, and that my post-PhD career consisted of a VAP at an Ivy League college, a multi-year research fellowship, two chapters in edited volumes, some bad luck (and bad judgment) with journals, and a book under contract with one of the top ten presses in my field. Twenty-three conference interviews over four years, five on-campus interviews, one tenure-track job offer. The year I threw in the towel I had that t-t job offer (in a Right-to-Work state where my husband, a union organizer, was unlikely to ever find work) and yet another research fellowship 3,000 miles away. Both of which I turned down.

See? See? I had options! (Yes, yes, the lady protests too much).

What my c.v. will not tell you is that I was ambivalent about professordom every step of the way. I am sensitive to the charge that I am rewriting history here, and there is probably a little bit of this going on, but friends and family have confirmed the nine-year duration of my ambivalence.

I was (and still am) attracted to the mystique of university teaching and research. The prestige was appealing, also the idea of a job that combined some routine duties (teaching and advising) with some creative ones, and had travel opportunities more pleasant than a grueling salesman's schedule of four days a week on the road.

But there were major problems, too. I tend to couch my objections to the academy in terms of fit: round peg, square hole. For one thing, teaching never gave me a buzz--I admire education in theory, but in practice it just left me limp. For another, I couldn't stand academics en masse. I am very fond of many individual academics, but collectively they induce in me an extremely unpleasant combination of anxiety and boredom.

And perhaps most importantly, I had no burning research questions to sustain me. It took me a long time to face up to the fact that I simply don't think think very highly of most academic research in the humanities--mine or anyone else's. From its deliberately opaque style to the irrelevance of most of its topical concerns to a host of conventions as mannered as eighteenth-century protocol in the courts of Europe, most academic writing on history, art, literature, religion, and philosophy has run off the rails as far as I'm concerned. I know there are people who love this stuff. But it's not for me.

I also have objections to the academy that are less personal and more systemic. But most of this reads as sour grapes when it comes from me, so I tend not to dwell on it. There are others better placed to make these criticisms. In retrospect it seems obvious that prestige and lifestyle would be insufficient to sustain me through misgivings as deep as these. Yet somehow I persisted over nine years. Why? Answering this question has been a major part of my post-academic deprogramming.

Over my next posts, I will be writing first about the forces that kept me on the academic straight and narrow despite the mounting evidence that it was a terrible fit. I have a list of five as of right now, but I reserve the right to come up with others. Then I will post on my epiphany moment--actually, it was a series of epiphany moments--that helped me realize that the things I didn't like about the academic track outweighed the things I did like about it.

Navel-gazing? You betcha. I offer no general remarks--only reports from the front lines of the out-of-academia transition. I can only hope that my own mental turmoil--and the gradual cessation thereof--helps other tortured souls resolve inner conflicts, either through that shock of recognition you get when someone else articulates something that you've been feeling but haven't put words to, or that that almost equally illuminating moment when you realize that someone else's inner life is profoundly unlike yours. May self-knowledge rain down upon us.

*Postscript: Why I write under my own name (but only part of it):

I have been for some time participating in online and face-to-face communities of ambivalent and/or disaffected academics. I run a face-to-face group in my local area and comment in various blogs and fora. I am particularly fond of the Worst Professor Ever, Post-Academic, and VersatilePhd, as different as they are.

I do this under my own name. I do not use a pseudonym, because--for me, at least--the project of leaving the academy has been an effort to revive some long-atrophied skills in self-awareness. Nine years in the academy was nine years of stifling deep reservations about my fit there and the value I placed on the system itself. A stronger sense of *my* values and *my* wishes is my most precious achievement of the past eighteen months, and I use my name to associate those sentiments with ME, thank you very much! (No such thing as a unitary self, the theoretically-minded may sniff, and maybe you're right, but I can tell you that I am by now dead sure when I am doing something that is NOT a good fit).

That said, I would prefer that these self-absorbed ramblings not appear on Google searches of my name. It's just TMI for potential employers or landlords or whatever, so I tend to omit my surname and the proper names of institutions I am associated with. If you want to Google-stalk me, be my guest. It won't be that hard.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Good Luck to those with Preliminary Interviews

We could all use a dash of luck right about now.
Since the annual AHA and MLA hiring conventions will be held this coming week/weekend, I wanted to send out positive vibes to all the anxious job candidates out there. It's a truly brutal year to be on the academic job market; and if you're lucky enough to have any interviews at all this month, you should be congratulating yourself for getting this far.

NB: I've got a few upcoming interviews and keep having to remind myself that it's a miracle I made it this far. Not because I'm "unworthy" but just because the entire academic hiring process is a complete and total crap shoot. It's random and unfair. (And, yes, I really do believe this.)

I know having a preliminary interview, or two or three, is a far cry from an actual job offer but it's a necessary first step on the road to tenure-track academic employment, if that is what you are in fact seeking. So what last-minute steps, if any, should you be taking to prepare yourself for these convention interviews? Based on personal experience and wise advice from others, I've got a few tips to offer in no particular order:

1) Dress professionally and tone down the bling/body odor/perfume/piercings.

2) Know where you are going and make sure you get there on time.

3) Be confident and friendly. Smile!

4) Prepare to discuss your research.

4a) Know your dissertation and/or current research project in and out and have 1 and 5 minute spiels roughly memorized. Also know where your research is headed over the next 5 years or so.

4b) Know how you intend to go about revising your dissertation for publication. If you're like me and have already started revising, explain how you've gotten from point A to point B.

4c) Think about answers to commonly asked questions: What's important about this project? What contribution are you making to the field? How did you get interested in X subject? Who are the major players in your field and how is your work different? What's your next project?

5) Prepare to discuss your teaching.

5a) Look over the original job ad and make sure you know how you'd go about teaching the courses mentioned. Design syllabi if need be and pass them out during the interview. Think about why you'd assign certain books. What lessons or skills would you want students to take away from your courses?

5b) Come up with a dream course and be prepared to discuss it. Make sure it's realistic in the context of the department's current curriculum and not already offered by another professor.

5c) Scan departmental offerings and see what courses they've got on the books. What could you reasonably teach right now; what new courses could you bring to the table?

6) Bring a pad and paper so you can take notes throughout the interview.

7) On the same pad write down in advance several questions you have for the search committee. Make sure you have some questions ready!

8) End on a confident and collegial note and avoid talking smack about the university or the search committee to others at the AHA. You never know who could be listening.

9) Also, and this is just a pet peeve of mine, please don't immediately get on the academic jobs wiki and start saying what assholes the SC members were to you, etc. You'll just make yourself look like an A-hole.

10) Enjoy the painfully stressful process and try to be yourself. You may need a job desperately but you're also a professional, right? You know what to do.

Good luck everyone!

FYI: Tenured Radical also has some excellent advice to offer job candidates on their way to the AHA and she has WAY more experience under her belt. Listen to her!


1) I found the following IHE article about the proper attire for an MLA interview a bit over the top; the author's advice is better suited for an on-campus interview, in my opinion:

2) The news about the "serious crisis" in the history job market this year comes as no suprise to me. (I did predict this back in August in my IHE column "A Bleak Market" but apparently the AHA is only just now catching on. Go figure.) Yes, we are in a free fall and things are looking very bad indeed. Even more reason to prep your heart out if you've got an AHA or phone interview lined up.