The Academic Life Is Not Candy Land

Posted by @ 3:45 pm on December 13th, 2010

Anytime I hear the rhetoric about the shelter of academia, I cannot help but think, “What the hell are you talking about?” A job is a job is a job. I have been really interested in some of the responses to Lily’s post about the utility of her MFA, where people have expressed that an academic job involves shelter from the “real world,” and that the simple solution to her very real and valid concerns is to extract herself from the warm and safe cocoon of academia so she might experience “reality.” This is actually a rather common, albeit sort of delusional sentiment, the idea that to know the “real world” one must suffer, toil in poverty, travel, work as a waitress or any other prescription you might have for where the real world is actually taking place.

While nothing is guaranteed, nor should it be, when you pursue a terminal degree and you want  to teach, it is frustrating to learn that you may not be able to do what you trained to do, or you might get an academic job without security, working for what amounts to less than minimum wage even though you have excellent credentials. Yes, life is unfair, but the solution here is not for Lily to “walk it off,” or “just write,” because, as I interpeted her post, Lily is not so much lamenting she doesn’t have time to write because she’s in a PhD program. She is lamenting she doesn’t have time to write because she cannot do what she trained to do by getting her MFA even though she has an impressive list of credentials. Hers is the frustration of being the best and having your best not be good enough. That’s a really bitter pill to swallow.

In the meantime, I just finished my first semester as a faculty member at a mid-sized Midwestern public university. I think a lot of these misperceptions about academia and its relationship to reality arise because people simply don’t know what faculty do when they’re not in the classroom or frolicking all summer, or what it takes to become a faculty member. Creative writing is only part of what I do, but I have colleagues who strictly teach creative writing and have the exact same workloads and tenure expectations.

Before you get the academic job, you have to get the MFA or PhD, which can entail reading and writing an exhaustive amount, learning two or more foreign languages, teaching, service work, and otherwise conducting yourself as a faculty member for a stipend that is a pittance. Some people pay for this privilege. Most people accrue a staggering debt load whether or not they are funded. This is all a choice. Then you have to apply for these academic jobs. I applied for about 45 positions. Each application required its own job letter, a vita, letters of recommendation and then various supplementary documents depending on the school including a Teaching Philosophy, Research Philosophy, Writing Sample, Dissertation Abstract, Dissertation Summary, Teaching Portfolio, etc. I created at least one of each of these. I was also working on my dissertation and teaching so I basically went insane and got a lot of gray hair. After you send out your application packages,  you wait and hope you will get an invitation to interview at MLA, an annual conference for academics in modern languages and literature. Most English job search committees interview candidates at MLA because it’s centralized.

As a graduate student, you are expected to pay your own way to the conference which is always held in an expensive city. Last year MLA was in Philadelphia. This upcoming MLA is in Los Angeles. As a graduate student, you are generally living below the poverty line so it’s a pretty big deal to have to come up with the money. MLA, until 2011, always started the day after Christmas so to go MLA, you miss the holidays with family.  I didn’t get the first MLA interview invitation until the end of the first week of December so I bought my ticket and make my hotel reservations in November with a little faith I would get at least one interview. I got five, went to Philadelphia with my fancy interview suit and then had interviews in hotel rooms or suites, all over the city, along with thousands of other graduate students, equally competitive and credentialed if not more, all vying for probably 100 jobs. It’s awkward and terrible to sit in a hotel room with strangers who are interrogating you. You don’t know what they’re going to ask or what they think of you or what they want so you have to prepare for each interview after researching the respective departments, their philosophies, etc. Some schools are awesome and tell you when and where they’re going to interview you, what they’re going to ask and/or who’s going to be on the search committee so you can prepare more effectively. Some schools tell you to find them by asking for their room at the hotel front desk. While you wait, you sit in a hotel lobby surrounded by a bunch of other doctoral or MFA drones nervously muttering smart sounding things to themselves while shifting uncomfortably in their interview suits. In addition to the MLA interviews, there are phone interviews with those search committees who chose not to go to MLA. I did several of those too. You are generally on speaker phone with committees of four or five people, awkwardly trying to figure out what they want to hear without embarrassing yourself or saying something idiotic. You’ll say something idiotic. On one interview a guy said, “I met you in Nebraska 9 years ago,” and I dumbly replied, “I don’t remember that,” which was the truth but not what he wanted to hear.

After MLA and the phone interviews, there’s a pause for the new year. You wait nervously, obsessively checking the Academic Jobs Wiki for news, for faculty to return to their spring semesters before the search process moves along. You are now waiting for a call to do a campus interview where you travel to that college or university for a one or two day interview. Expenses for campus interviews are reimbursed but you need to come up with the money up front, right after paying for MLA. I had a great boyfriend with a great job or I would have not been able to do any of the job market travel and document preparation (also expensive) without going into debt. On the campus interview for the job I got the day began at 7:30 am. I met with almost every department committee, the chair, the search committee, a group of students,  the associate dean or something (I’m hazy on this because it was the end of the day) of the  College of Arts and Humanities, and I had to give a lecture about my research. Relative to many campus interviews, this was not bad but it was an all day affair where I was poked and prodded like a zoo animal. The worst part was an insane tour around campus in a business suit in February given by a man who had some kind of allergy to elevators. Other demands at campus interviews can incude teaching a class or two and anything else the search committee dreams up to determine if you will be a good fit for their department. After the campus interview you wait and hope to get a job offer at which point you have to make your peace with the salary and the new economic realities of the modern university, try to negotiate as best as you can, and prepare to start your life as a faculty member. More importantly, you have no choice about where you’re going to live  for the next several years of your life, and most of the time, it’s in the middle of nowhere where there are no jobs for, say, your great boyfriend, partner, or spouse. Many people do this whole routine for two or three years or more before they get a job. Jobs of similar salary levels outside of academia only require a two page resumé and one job interview that lasts less than an hour.

The pay is not great. At this point, you might say, “Oh I wish I made that,” etc etc  etc. I don’t have a response for that. I wish you did too. I could certainly make less. I would love make more. I do not make enough for the amount of time and energy I have put into my education and the amount of time I put into my job, which I can assure you, demands more than 40 hours a week. This is my choice and I am happy with it. If you scroll to the bottom of last year’s Academic Jobs Wiki page for Rhet/Comp, you’ll see the positions and  a range of salaries for several new faculty in the field. Jobs in creative writing tend to be similar or lower. On the Creative Writing Jobs wiki, you can see who got what jobs and what their credentials were. There’s no need to wildly speculate or create myths abut what you need to get a job. There’s a lot of information out there about what people make and what it took for them to get their jobs.

As a faculty member, I teach a 3/3 load or three courses a semester. At other universities faculty can teach a 2/2 or 4/4 load and recently, I’ve seen a few 5/5 jobs. In addition to teaching, there is an expectation of having a research and publishing agenda. You have to participate in departmental governance. I serve on four department committees—professional writing, creative writing, the department literary magazine, and composition. These committees generally meet every two weeks and duties include planning events, proposing programmatic and curriculum changes, providing professional development workshops, etc. I gave two workshops–one on using creative writing in composition and professional writing pedagogy and one on the future of the literary magazine this semester. I served as the fiction editor for the department literary magazine (which is not to be confused with that other magazine I edit), worked on my research, proposed conference panels, etc etc etc. Next semester, I will be presenting at a conference in my primary field so I have to actually write the paper I proposed and of course, there’s AWP where I’m doing two panels and I have to figure out how to pay for the travel because only one portion of one trip will be funded. We also have to serve on university wide committees and are expected to do service at the national level. Some faculty advise student organizations or serve on advisory boards both locally and nationally. Many faculty members serve as readers for literary or  peer-reviewed journals and/or serve in some editorial capacity for academic or literary journals. We have to document every single thing we do for our tenure portfolios which are reviewed every year, so we can, essentially, prove, after 6 or 7 years, that we deserve our jobs, that is, if you get a tenure track job. If you don’t have a tenure track job, you do all this without job security. You might have to do all this in a fractured or contentious department. My department, thankfully, is awesome and supportive. Amidst all this, the faculty at my university are currently involved in tense contract negotiations because we’re unionized and it’s contract renewal time. One of the main points of contention is the threat of 24 furlough days which is, essentially, a month of pay and none of us can afford that. That’s pretty real.

This fall I taught three different classes which meant three different preps—freshman composition, professional communication, and new media.

In my composition class, I was teaching freshmen who are adjusting to the expectations of college and many of whom have never had a teacher of color and have no idea how to handle that.  Two students referred to black people as “colored people.” They weren’t being overtly racist. The did not know any better. There are many rural students, some of whom don’t have personal computers or Internet access at home and I teach my courses with an intensive focus on technology so I have to help them catch up and also recalibrate my expectations for what students come into the classroom knowing. There’s all kinds of teaching that has to take place that doesn’t involve the curriculum and that is very much grounded in reality. The semester began with 21 students and ended 16 because I’m a “hard ass” and a “battle axe” who expects students to do crazy things like attend class and do their homework. I assign writing nearly every day which means reading, for me, every day. In addition to 3 hours in the classroom each week, there’s several hours (it varies) of prep work, grading, and course planning, for each class.

My professional writing class was a 2000 level class with 18 students. I’ve taught versions of this class before so I had a foundation to work from which made things a bit easier. I had a kick ass group of students who were enthusiastic and engaged and actually looked forward to coming to class so this was the one teaching hour each day where I could chill out a little. For this class, one of the curricular requirements is client-based projects so in addition to the prep, teaching and grading, I also had to find a client for the students to do a project for, manage the logistics of that and make sure the students were doing the work the client needed.

The final class I taught was a 4000 level special topics class in new media, also with 18 students. This was a class I never taught before so I had to learn and teach at the same time. It was an experience. This class was full of pre-law students who have to take this special topics class as a requirement so they have to be there but don’t want to be there. They were also a good group but fairly resistant because like so many college students these days, they want a bespoke education that gives them exactly what they want rather than what they need which to my mind is a liberal education where they are exposed to all kinds of subjects. We also did a client based project in this class and I had the students write, almost daily, on a blog so in addition to regular homework, there were those obligations.

For many students, their English classes are the only classes where their professors get to know their names so you develop relationships with some of the students and they then look to you to be  a friend, counselor and confidant. You have to decide where you’re going to create boundaries or you will go crazy. You are also dealing with different levels of literacy. I had students who were very competent and students who were demonstrably underprepared and you have to try to reach all of these students without catering too much to either end of the spectrum because there simply is not enough time.

I also work with graduate students. I am on three thesis committees, two creative, one in literary studies, and next semester I will have two graduate assistants to mentor, in addition to the student committee work. I’ll be teaching three different courses again, which means another three preps. Two of the classes are classes I’ve never taught before so I have to develop new syllabi over break.

Beyond teaching, committee work, service, office hours, and research, I have to think about my personal life because I actually have one, my writing, my responsibilities, my family, etc. I get things done and still have time to watch TV  because I do not have children yet.

Being an academic is a lot of work. Most jobs are a lot of work. Please though, let’s stop acting like academics sit around doing nothing all day. We only sit around doing nothing on Tuesdays and Thursdays. While there are some academics who might fit your fantasy of the reality insulated academic, let’s be real: there are slackers in any job. The slackers are not the measure of what anyone does. Academics are not in a coal mine or dropping frozen foods into a vat of hot grease or cleaning up someone else’s mess (at least not literally) so it’s all good. There’s a lot of flexibility so while there is a lot of work, I get to do most of it on my terms. I’m “off” from now until January 10th though I have to grade a disheartening amount of work before next week. During the summer, I can pick up other gigs to supplement my income or I can travel or I can sit around reading and writing or doing nothing at all. Don’t get it twisted though. During breaks, most faculty are catching up on everything they neglected during the last semester and planning for the next semester. We get paid for 9 months of work but work year round.

I am excited about my job every day and grateful as well. I wouldn’t give this job up for anything but I must disabuse you of the notion that academia is some kind of magical fairytale shelter from reality. Faculty members are very much part of the real world most of the time. We work hard to get our jobs and we work hard to keep our jobs just like everyone else.

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