Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Chicago Charlie: Reflections on part of a first semester on the Tenure Track

It was a dark and stormy night – literally, it was January in the tundra during that whole polar vortex thing – when I arrived on campus to start what Dante would called my vita nuova, the new life, as a TT faculty. Needless to say, it was a much much much different experience than arriving for the first time on other campuses as an adjunct. Arriving as an adjunct, (a) no one gave a shit and (b) no one knew and (c) even if they knew, they woudn’t have given a shit. I mentioned the polar vortex? My new colleagues asked when the moving van arrived so they could help me unload. As an adjunct, not so much.

I arrived on campus; I had to meet with HR about benefits and a parking spot. Adjuncts park on the street if they can (and again, we’re talking cold enough that even walking from the faculty lot is too cold. I pity those poor bastards walking from wherever they can park. I didn’t worry about frostbite so much, since, well, at that HR meeting I found out I had health benefits, another perk denied me as an adjunct. Then to my new office, which I don’t have to share, supplied with the latest technological wiz-bangs from my faculty start-up package. I thought back to my adjunct days, when, yes, as recently as three years ago, I had to peel the perforated edges of the old dot matrix printer I shared with 30 other adjuncts in the office. And we had these support staff whom we lovingly referred to as the hellhounds, because they were fire breathing bitches who would stand over our shoulder as we made photocopies, so that we didn’t go over our 30 page/day limit (in a cl ass of 40 students… tough…). Now I have a copy code! And the support staff treat me with respect, not because I’m any different, but because of the title I bring in there.



What I want to say is this: being on the tenure track… wow! holy wow! Everything they said was true! It is the dream. I teach two classes a semester to graduates and majors for four times as much money as teaching four classes to those drooling first year students. We talk about, like, ideas and shit. And students do the reading. And ask questions. From top to bottom, the tenure track, it’s just a dream. The money (not just the salary, but the research stipend, the travel benefits), the time, the treatment, the security, the health and retirement benefits, the absence of that psychological squeeze, no longer worrying about financial security in life or my security in academia… what a load off! It’s indescribable, and everyday I am just a bit more relaxed and a bit less anxious (I think it takes some time to shed the old psychological habits and realize the new situation).

I also wanted to say this, though: I am startled on how quickly my perception of adjuncts/adjuncthood has changed, and I wanted to share it with you before I lose all sense of perspective. Much like the screen legends who nostalgically considers his days as a poor struggling young actor the best of his life, so too have I started thinking fondly of the dynamism in the overcrowded adjunct office, all the interesting peope I met, and how some of them are now made too, and others aren’t. But it’s a nostalgia from privilege, from having made it. I think more and more how lucky I was to have the struggle and to have it with those with whom I had it, so that I (and we) can appreciate our current golden goose better.

But I also think the acting metaphor is more and more apt. I consider myself something like a working actor – regular enough parts to make a living, but no franchise superhero flick (yet?). And in many ways I am losing my sympathy for contingent faculty. I suppose this is an almost inevitable part of my growing into a new role and losing my class solidarity. But I think tenure-trackdom has also given me a new perspective on academic life generally, and I think the acting metaphor is more and more apt. Does anyone really think that Pamela Anderson (I don’t know who the modern equivalent is…) is actually a better actress than any of the thousands of other bleach blond booby bimbos out there? No… part skill, part luck. And then, like, Nick Cage or someone, who is in the family business. Is he better than all those struggling actors, or just better connected? Or all those other superstar actors who got “the big break” because of this or that or the other reason. Sure, there will always be a Meryl Streep or Dustin Hoffman, who just are superlative in their field and will necessarily rise to the top. But then there are the spousal hires (like that Judd Apatow’s wife who he insists on putting in all of his movies), and all the other marginally qualified people who can do the job well enough once they get it, but how to get it?

And this is how I think of adjunct life. Do all those aspiring actors demand Brad Pitt share his wages? Would that be fair? Does every never-made-it aspiring basketball player demand LeBron share part of his earnings with them? There is no justice in this world, and yeah, it’s heartbreaking that some people make it and others don’t, but that’s the (often arbitrary) nature of pyramidal capitalism. Not everyone who wants to work as an actor can work as an actor. Lots of them take shit acting jobs for no money and hope. Lots of musicians play the same crap bars for the same crap money for years hoping to make it big. But should U2 and its opening act earn the same amount? Many people’s sincerely held dreams are crushed. Many people spend the better part of their early lives honing their skills but never getting the chance to shine for it. So you can keep acting for the artistic pleasure, or you can give it up for financial security. Not sure there’s a better or worse, but only the exceptionally skilled and lucky few get both.

I think I am excellent at what I do and I know I have worked very very hard for it. But I also know that there are many other people just as excellent who worked just as hard and will never make it. They can go on about the terrible nature of their employment, or they can find other employment – most aspiring actors are now in regular jobs. Them’s the breaks, right? What does Brad Pitt owe the guy who plays the guy Brad Pitt shoots in the opening scene? Or the girl in the red dress who does nothing but stand in the background. The fact is that most actors spend their lives as extras; a few make it as character actors with regular work, and some walk the red carpet. It’s mostly about skill, but also about a lot of luck and privilege. But how much does each owe to the other? And is academia really any different?

-- Chicago Charlie


16 comments:

  1. We're in education, not entertainment. At least I am.

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    1. And an effective education system is crucial to a functioning democracy (and/or a functioning capitalist society). Entertainment (especially of the sort that primarily distracts the masses from their troubles) is not. When too much of the money starts going to, and flowing through, bread and circuses (i.e. the athletic/entertainment industrial complex, including its offshoots in higher ed), that's a danger sign. If you don't pay the people who design, build, and maintain the infrastructure -- human as well as physical -- somewhat decently, things start crumbling. Personally, I see some pretty big cracks, and not only in the roads and bridges (though they're there, too).

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    2. Agree that we're in education not entertainment, but the economic winner-take-all pyramid model of many aspirants knowing the longs odds of "making" it still applies. The question I am curious about, and which your flip comment doesn't even begin to address, is that the economic model behind academia is, in my view, similar to that of many entertainment fields (acting, sports, music), where everyone knows going in that the odds for success are long and that for those who make it, riches await, and for those who don't, they can carry on trying to live the dream in poverty or do something with better odds.

      I agree that the system is flawed, but it being what it is, how do we as individuals deal with that?

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    3. It does seem as though J.D. is purposely missing the metaphoric aspect of your reference to Hollywood stars. The comparison is not so much of the work of the two professions but as you state so well above, the difficulty in each profession to truly "make it,"even for very talented, hard working people.

      Still, I wonder if our moral obligations are higher in academia. I suppose I only wonder that out of a sense of snobbish conviction that there is a certain nobility in our profession! And truly, as you note below, Charlie, making a change could only be done if any attempt were made on a global scale, and by (at least nearly) everyone involved. It does not seem very likely to happen.

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    4. I think we need to dismantle the star system (which is, realistically, only a vanishingly small part of academia anyway; most of us -- even the quite lucky of us --- are teaching in the kind of position you describe, Bella), and agitate for professors being paid, and working, like other teachers, and like other government workers who provide basic services: police, fire, basic administration and regulation, etc., etc. I hope we'll continue to have more autonomy than the average K-12 teacher (in fact, I'd like to see the average K-12 teacher have more autonomy), but, otherwise, I don't think there is, or should be, all that much difference.

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    5. Even actors and musicians have unions.

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    6. Indeed. And it's possible to make a living as an actor (I'm not sure about musician; it probably depends on the instrument) by doing basic, unglamorous work -- commercials, training videos, etc., etc. -- in part because unions make sure there's a basic, decent wage for everyone who does the work. The real challenge is getting the work at all. A key difference between higher ed and entertainment is that there's plenty of paying work in the academy, and the work is easy to get; it's just that the wages are terrible (in part because they're figuring in an intangible that Charlie mentions below: the continued hope of a "real" job with real wages). At last actors know when they're holding down a volunteer gig; in higher ed, it's not always so clear.

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  2. Congratulations on your TT job! Some adjuncts, like myself, have had rewarding careers and do the job because they like to, too!

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  3. Holy crap, Charlie!

    I am so glad you found such a plum position. There are many of us with full time, TT jobs who are not in such a great place as you are, though.

    And somehow, I find it a bit wrong, the way you are losing your sense of perspective so quickly. I wonder very much what the miserable Charlie, the one who wrote that last hopeless post before all was turned around, would have written about this newest offering.

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    1. I find it a bit wrong, too, how quickly my perspective is changing and I don't know how old Chicago Charlie would have felt about it. Working that out was in large part what motivated the post.

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  4. Thanks for your honesty, Charlie, and congratulations -- truly, congratulations -- on the job. I'm very glad you've found a spot that allows you to do the work for which you trained long and hard, and which I'm sure you do well. Watching my TT colleagues, I do think that things will seem a bit less rosy as tenure deadlines approach -- all the more so because, as we sometimes forget when enrollments are high, tenure depends not only on an individual fulfilling the requirements for promotion, but also on the university seeing a need for the position in the long term. It's not widespread yet, but the phenomenon of faculty being promoted but not tenured because of enrollment projections is happening, and I suspect it will become more widespread. Institutions of higher learning may soon start seeing tenure decisions as decisions not only about the individual but also about the line -- are they sure the institution is going to need it for another 3 decades, give or take?

    If/when you do make it through tenure, you'll probably be hit by a ton of service (among other things, contingent faculty generate service work, in the form of ongoing needs for evaluation, hiring, re-hiring, etc., and, at most places, either don't do service at all, or can only fill certain service positions), and might, over the long term, find that that cushy load changes (tenure guarantees you a job; it doesn't guarantee you a job that is structured in a particular way). Junior faculty are protected so they can meet ever-increasing publication requirements; very senior faculty often feel they have paid their dues (and certainly aren't going to increase their salaries much on the basis of service; that takes publishing enough to at least get, if not take, an outside offer, or jumping into administration); newly-tenured associate professors tend to bear the brunt of the service load (and often get stalled in their research as a result, but the alternative is being kind of an asshole and foisting your part of the load off on a colleague).

    I tend to think that we (part-time contingents, full-time contingents, and TT faculty) might all be better off in a university where the contrasts weren't quite so stark, where more people taught a slightly-higher load that included both freshman and the occasional grad class, more people had more modest research expectations built into their jobs, more did service, and more were eligible for tenure on some reasonable (and perhaps shifting-over-time) combination of the above (the shifting might actually provide an opportunity for what people outside the academy -- including some who've spent time inside -- would like to see as an antidote to the abuses of tenure -- some sort of regular review. People could make 5-year plans, and need to come somewhere close to meeting them, or adjust duties accordingly, in order to stay on, with the presumption being that they would, as long as they were genuinely contributing to the department, institution, etc.). I'm not sure what to do about the salaries; at least at my institution, part- and full-time contingent faculty definitely make too little in relation to the local cost of living, their/our training, importance to the core mission of the university, etc., etc., but TT faculty do not make too much (so I guess the next step is to go after the administrators, or perhaps the athletic program, though I doubt either would yield additional funds as easily as we'd like to think). Maybe that's how things will look to you, too, once you've got a clearer sense of the stresses attached to your new position, maybe not. I just hope you keep in mind that your 2/2 upper-level load, and all the perks that go with it, are possible only because *somebody* is teaching the lower-level classes. If they all quit tomorrow, who do you think is going to find himself teaching freshman again, probably in some gigantic class that also involves supervising undergrad TAs, but only counts as one class?

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    1. I completely agree that we would be all better off in a more egalitarian system. But we're not, so the question is what to do.

      Ironically, and in answer to Bella's question above about what former Charlie would have thought about current Charlie, former Charlie spent his early adjunct years as a contigent faculty organizer, pounding the pavement in his spare time trying to sign up adjuncts for the faculty union. If each and every one of those adjuncts, who by and large loved to regale Charlie with their sad songs, had signed, we'd be in an entirely different world. And a better world for faculty, students and country.

      a propos of this: "I just hope you keep in mind that your 2/2 upper-level load, and all the perks that go with it, are possible only because *somebody* is teaching the lower-level classes. If they all quit tomorrow, who do you think is going to find himself teaching freshman again, probably in some gigantic class that also involves supervising undergrad TAs, but only counts as one class?"

      While I was the adjunct organizer, I would advocate at every single meeting that we all walk out en masse; every single adjunct and whichever full timer went in solidarity with us. The problem is the same as with all organized labor: it only works if everybody does it. If half stay, the university goes on, but those who walked out get fired. The other problem is unique to academia: every adjunct, despite overwhelming odds to the contrary, believed that they were only temporarily adjuncts, and so had no interest in improving their current lot (possibly at the expense of their future) since they would be full timers soon enough.

      If a contigent faculty strike were possible, I would be the first one on the picket line even still.

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  5. every adjunct, despite overwhelming odds to the contrary, believed that they were only temporarily adjuncts, and so had no interest in improving their current lot (possibly at the expense of their future) since they would be full timers soon enough.

    This, of course, is the key to the whole thing. Whatever we do (including forming unions, striking, etc. where that is possible), we have to do it together (and accept that the New Faculty Majority is appropriately named, and that the facts on the ground that that name represents probably aren't going to change. Most faculty now are contingent; most faculty in the future will probably be contingent. The real question is what those contingent positions will look like).

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  6. I can see how one would also feel that a position like that is "owed" for all the shitty years of adjunct treatment, so once you achieve that, it's not hard to transition to thinking, "Hey, I put in my time!" I don't have that cushy a load, or cushy pay, but in our department, I am proud of the fact that we don't hire adjuncts. Let me explain: If we need extra classes taught, we negotiate for a half-time position that comes with an office and all the regular resources that a full time position has (except for the full time pay; because the teaching isn't full time, either). We've managed to do this with a fabulous academic VP who used to be one of us in the department and who set up that structure and who recognizes that it is important to treat professors as professionals rather than as expendable. I worry, though, when she retires, that we will no longer have that luxury.

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  7. Didn't a whole bunch of TT faculty get laid off when the Great Recession hit?

    Just sayin'...

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  8. I've been on both sides of the fence… I started my career consulting while teaching as an adjunct. At that point, I had no aspirations beyond that. Later, I landed a tenure track job. But being responsible for finding and hiring adjuncts, I never felt that removed from them. I made sure to reach out, share teaching materials, and did whatever I could to make their lives easier. "My" adjuncts were dedicated and hard-working, and I hope I made things a little better for them. They certainly did for me.

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