Wednesday, February 01, 2006

I feel like a Rick Springfield album

So a good friend recommended a book called This Fine Place So Far From Home that I've been reading when I get a chance. It's a collection of essays from academics from working class backgrounds, and this should really be required reading for anyone moving into upper level higher education. Plus, it's very cool! You've gotta love any academic book where the opening essay is entitled "Stupid Rich Bastards."

I'm really enjoying the read, but it's making me think not-so-uplifting thoughts about my current job, the state of my career, and the general state of university teaching as a profession. So I'm torn about how much I should really keep reading.

Here's the deal: I really am happy to be a full-time faculty. I like my department, I like the people with whom I work...and as anyone who was reading this blog last year can tell you (see my post on trying to become a security guard), I am much more at peace than when I was part-timing. I'm definitely not knocking my job security...I don't know how I survived without it. My students, for the most part, generally really try and are open to new thoughts. But this book is, in part, making me really question why I'm here.

Rather than rant primarily about my own class background (which I'm sure is a factor somewhat), I need to tell you how I've started to become hyper-aware of my class status within the University structure.

When I got my Lectureship, I noticed that the wonderful office staff seemed to know me a bit better than they did when I was adjuncting. I've noticed since then that I now know many more faculty than before, when I knew the person who hired me and my office mate. I talk to fellow lecturers in the halls. I have friends on the staff. This is definitely a step up from where I was.

It seems, however, that I've only moved from the academic underclass to the worker-bee class. I've started to notice that I really only know two tenure-track faculty, both of which are my bosses. The profs seem to hang with the other profs, while us non-tenures tend to hang together.

And who can blame us? One night last fall, when I was leaving my office after another marathon grading bout, I walked past the prof offices, and I noticed that they only taught two courses--that's 6 credit hours--while I was teaching 16 credit hours. I drifted off into deep thought, trying to focus on the glorious accomplishments I could make if I only taught two courses (in my major, even) rather than the load I carry...I felt this was better than getting violent and angry with the profs, especially since they all do seem like nice people.

I could publish. I could not only do my book revision but also do my book. I could keep up on new theory and trends. Hell, I could even start my own journal.

Really, the professors seem (from my perspective) to lead a life of luxury, of envy. I wonder how they got there. How many of the tenure-tracks in this department worked up from the non-tenure (or, even worse, the part-time) ranks? How did they do it? Everyone tells me that publication is the key to getting a job, but how does one publish while teaching 18 credit hours at three institutions? Can you even do it if you're not from a "name" program?

All I seem to do is grade and plan, plan and grade. It's worse when papers are due, but when one teaches comp classes, papers are always due.

I thought about this last night while driving home after a 12 hour grading/teaching marathon. The saddest thing about it all is that while I love teaching, I love interacting with students and helping them learn, this really isn't the main reason why I got into this career. I started grad school because I loved learning, I loved reading, I loved creating thought. And as much as I seem to procrastinate in the drafting process, I love writing...I love the sense of being involved in a big project that might make a difference to someone. It makes me feel smart...which makes me feel worthwhile and quiets the voices in my head accusing me of being a loser...or a fraud.

I am not as good of a teacher when I don't get to think. But the only time I get to read now is when I'm waiting for someone who's late to an appointment. Since I don't get a chance to read, I get very little chance to explore new ideas. I'm not a creator of knowledge anymore, and I don't really know when I will get time to get back into the game save summer break...and if the past few summers is any indication, I will then have to fight sheer semester exaustion.

In short, I feel like a working stiff. I didn't get into academics to be a working stiff. I got into this field because it was supposed to be a place where I could feel unbound by the real world and its was supposed to be a place where I could freely think and create.

Yes, I know I'm expressing class envy, but I'm beginning to wonder how anyone is supposed to grab that mobility from academic working class into the realm where thinking is as much a part of your job as teaching. As is, there's a little part of me that says: if I wanted to feel like I was just busting out product, I could've stayed at Little Caesars. I have to be careful I never treat my students as if they were product, and I have to really fight against feeling like a working class dog. It wouldn't be doing any good to my students, and it definitely would scar me if I started believing that.

The thing is, I wonder how many of the Lecturers and Adjuncts here feel exactly the same's not a healthy feeling to think yourself has the potential to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. I know that higher education increasingly relies on non-tenure teachers, and that this is probably never going to change...but is it possible to get that upper-class academic gig if you're in the lower ranks? Does the current system allow any class mobility? Or are we stuck here?

I've been considering limiting myself to "happy" culture until things improve. However, this ranting is the only real thinking I seem to get done anymore. Can I use it to my advantage, as motivation? Or will it use me?

Is it better to think dank thoughts than to not think at all?


Jennifer said...

wow - where to start here?

There is a lot of writing about adjuncts, non-tenure jobs, specifically from feminists - if interested, look into it. You are certainly not alone in your frustrations.

We'll have to talk more about how you figure class plays into this - are you suggesting your class background has you stuck in this place & unable to get ahead? or, that adjuncting itself creates an academic underclass?

This rut of non-tenured folks - I'm so terrified of this happening to me because it is what happens to SO MANY people. Now, I'm in women's studies so you can imagine the even *fewer* jobs that will be open to me when I have a degree.

a few thoughts -

-your degree speaks for you, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. A few US profs have told me that your first job will be one tier lower than where you get your PhD from and you have to work your way up. Is it fair? no, there's nothing that says someone at Columbia or Northwestern is smarter or more capable than you. They just have the privilege of a degree that will at least have them considered for jobs first. (Canada, by the way, doesn't have this tier thing, but we are moving towards a research/teaching binary - scary).

-speaking of superstar academics - as you know, there are academic "trends". Right now, transnational feminism has the market cornered on new hirings. Sexuality studies less so, but certainly in 2nd place. If you haven't chosen the "hot" research topic, this also excludes you from those plump positions. I've thought a lot about this, do I tailor my diss. according to the research trend? (thankfully, I like transnational feminism and probably will employ it - moving away from psychoanalysis which is quite passe now). My point is that this is somewhat arbitrary - I get excluded all the time from national/provincial scholarships because I'm not doing a particular kind of research. I have to tell myself that there isn't fault with what I *am* doing, just that it doesn't fit what is being funded at the moment.

-I know it's hard, but don't give up hope. Complacency can be deadly in academia. As time marches on, people have families to care for (children or aging parents), spouses get fantastic jobs, we set up roots in a community, etc. These keep us tied to one place, and "successful" academics are transitory. This is also a problem with the system. It requires us to drop everything for that great job cross-country, or at least to prioritize *our* lives over family members.

random thoughts for now, but we should talk more at the conference. I certainly think about these things often too.

Matthew said...

Hey there Mike,

There is an incredible amount of stuff that I would like to discuss on this topic. (I just wrote several pages of stuff with the intention of posting it here, but due to the late hour I think I'll hold off). Call me/us up if you'd like or email or I'll see you in April get the idea.

Amy said...

As a faculty wife and the daughter of a retired union electrician, what you said really hit home with me. I can symthize all too well with the frustrations you share here. In fact, I was just quizzing my husband the other day about his willingness/interest/suitability for a corporate job to get us out of this often-dysfunctional academic culture.

I also must tell you that one point you made struck me in a big way, although it is off on a bit of a tangent. When you say: "I got into this field because it was supposed to be a place where I could feel unbound by the real world and its requirements..." you are admitting to exactly what many non-academics dislike about academics. This leads a non-academic to ask: are academics too smart for "the real world" or too lazy for its "requirements"?

I've seen sooooo many faculty at all levels of the hierarchy who are entirely unable/unwilling to relate to people outside their discipline or outside the academic culture (even individuals who worked in non-academic areas of the university). I know you're not one of them, but it sounded for just a minute there like you wished you could be.