academic conferences

Gradfessional Development

I spent most of last week attending an Advanced Placement (TM) Summer Institute, a training program for teachers who teach AP courses. I spent a week doing it last summer, too, with no idea that I’d be teaching it two months later. This year, I went to the session for new and returning teachers, which made it a bit of a grab-bag. I was at a table with a middle school teacher who was simultaneously moving up to high school and about to teach AP Literature as a one-semester class, a teacher who’d gone to the same session I did last summer (and was, like me, one year into teaching AP), and a third who was about to teach AP for the first time. Between the four of us, we had two collective years of teaching AP Literature.

There was a lot more experience in the room, though, people who’d been teaching AP English courses (Language or Literature) for long enough that they really had to work to count up their years of experience. We didn’t really get into which degrees people had, but it came up in passing that a few people had masters degrees (in either English or education). That’s relatively common; a postgraduate degree in your field gets you a pay bump in most districts. (Aside: my summer courses back in Bowling Green were full of music teachers because, in Ohio, teachers were required to get a masters degree within a certain number of years of starting teaching.)

Professional development—and this institute was 30 hours of professional development—is always a mixed bag. It’s common to go a whole day and pick up perhaps five to ten minutes’ worth of stuff you might use. The AP summer institutes, thankfully, are better than that. Even so, there was a lot of repetition. A lot of margins filled with spirals and such:

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From day one, the slowest day, and one on which the slow crawl of my doodles across the page became a spectator sport for the next table over. And the consultant leading the workshop.

We frequently broke to work with our groups (our tables). Those situations had me thinking about my smartest person in the room post. Graduate school and inclination make articulating snap analyses quick for me. Most of the time, I can come up with something that at least sounds smart very quickly. By the second day, I was intentionally backing away from my group because they’d already started to look to me for answers. (I did my best to be a good teacher and ask questions instead.) The situation made me a little crazy, not because my group members were awful (they were great!), but because it frequently put me on the spot in ways that encouraged me to indulge in bad grad school habits. My responses curved back toward my old seminar self and a need to prove not only that my readings were good, but that they were particularly good and that I was particular smart. In among my notes, I wrote a short poem:

I think fast, get to my answers

Fast

Like a fox

Especially when they are wrong

Too clever by half in half the time.

Even when I want wisdom,

I want for wisdom.

As much as I miss some of graduate school—the discoveries, the fun parts of research, the camaraderie—I don’t miss analysis as a competitive sport. As we slogged through sample texts and sample student essays, the institute participants got there. Also from my notes: “By the end of the day, we frequently descended to the worst of ourselves, quibbling like grad students over the minutiae of texts, forcing literature into the procrustean bed of the Hero’s Journey.” English teachers are articulate. We grasp the basics of texts quickly. We also have a related capacity to give slight disagreements undue significance. Doing this to texts is a big chunk of the reason I didn’t go to grad school for English…never expecting that I’d end up in music history and comparative studies, where the arguments just as frequently hop back and forth across the line between inane and inspired.

You know where else I heard lots of self-serving cleverness mixed in with cool stuff? Academic conferences. Those are as close as higher ed faculty usually come to the kind of professional development required of secondary teachers. From my current side of the fence, that seems so weird. Professors aren’t obligated to know how to teach. (That doesn’t mean they don’t, or that there aren’t many who take their teaching at least as seriously as their research, including writing books and giving seminars on pedagogy.) “Continuing education” is keeping up with your discipline. There is a whole section of a tenure portfolio or CV dedicated to “professional development,” but it again comes back around to conferences and committees, to research and knowledge and “scholar” as a profession.

Do I lose my thread? I lose my thread. Let it suffice that in the Venn diagram of secondary teachers’ professional development and academic conferences, there is a space of significant overlap having to do with cleverness and ways of displaying it.   

The thing is that none of the cleverness we participants performed for one another makes us,  in itself, better teachers. We don’t have to win arguments about literary meanings with each other, never mind with our students. We have to teach them to make those arguments in fruitful, responsible ways. Parts of the APSI did a great job of that; I picked up lesson plans and strategies that should help me help my students. Other parts didn’t. The squiggles in my margins testify to that.

When it comes down to it, teaching teaching is not so different from teaching writing: “here is what I did and how I did it and here are a bunch of ideas that might work for you.” There are technical details—what is on the AP test, how they’re scored, what the College Board requires in a syllabus—but so much of teaching is the delicate blend of performance, communication, and knowledge. I’m not going to lie: being clever helps. It’s the rest of the stuff, though, that I’m working to develop. Professionally.

Get a Job, You Schlub!

The other day, a friend of mine posted this article about why people with PhDs don’t just leave the soul-sucking, sub-living wage world of the adjunct. It’s a brief piece, one focused mostly on the short notice adjuncts have when taking jobs and the feelings of obligation to their students (and sometimes institutions) that prevent them from abandoning a course mid-semester. What’s missing from the article is just how hard it is to quit.

Quitting is tough because all through grad school, we get a variation on the Game of Thrones truism: “You win or you die.” As long as you can stake a valid claim to be a player in the game—even if you’re more Karstark than Stark—you’re not dead. Leaving is failing, even if failing in this case means “failing to be exploited by a system that simultaneously turns your hope and your desperation against you.” Who sets out to fail? We wanted to be professors because we had professors we loved, because we love teaching and/or our fields. For an adjunct, quitting academia is like breaking up with a fiance/e who keeps refusing to set a wedding date (or just keeps pushing it back). Even if your friends are all telling you to break it off already, your emotional investment keeps you plugging away, dreaming about flowers and centerpieces and organ preludes.*

The other bit that makes quitting tough? What else are we going to do when we’re out? No matter how many odd jobs we’ve held during or interspersed with our studies, it’s hard to build a foundation for an alternative career while trying to build the foundation for the one you expect to be your lifelong occupation. Even if you smuggle the education section to the bottom of your resume, you’ve still got that “PhD” stuck there, begging for explanation. In my case, where I’ve even gotten to the interview stage, it’s usually the first or second thing to come up. An enormous amount of education, a small amount of relevant experience…this is not a formula for an easy job hunt. Given the choice between months of unemployment—remember that adjuncts typically don’t get unemployment insurance—and a crappy job, most of us will stick with a crappy job.

Academic conferences these days usually feature a panel on “non-academic” employment. I’ve stopped attending these. They’re a useless gesture, tending to highlight a small klatsch of of folks with PhDs who have carved out lives outside the professoriate. Just, you know, not very far outside the professoriate. (The organizers are no doubt limited by the need to draw panelists from within the professional society…or actually pay presenters for their time.) I went to one of these panels a year ago in which half the speakers worked for universities. One of them even still taught courses every other semester or so. (The other half of the panel? Somebody who worked for a foundation and somebody who worked for an early music publisher.) This was the precious outside I was so interested in? Never mind that the panelists had taken spectacularly idiosyncratic paths to reach their current positions, most of which seemed to involve knowing somebody who’d been able to offer them a job at the right time. The tl;dr version of these panels boils down to “Look, here are some people who did it! You can, too! If you want to, you crazy person.” Who, precisely, is that supposed to help? And how?

As for me, I’m still working on carving that idiosyncratic path, hoping that I can either strike up an acquaintance with the right somebody or get my foot in the right door to get out of this application-rejection cycle. Just remember that no matter how stupid it might seem to stay on the Academy’s Skid Row, leaving can feel just as stupid.

*Aside: my partner and I had an extended discussion about wedding music well before we even considered getting married to each other.

The 983rd Cut: AcademiConference

I don’t know when the thousandth cut will come, the one that will move my lingering academic dream from hospice to the boneyard. I do, though, strongly suspect that the conference I came home from yesterday will be the last American Musicological Society event that I attend. Three and a half days—of papers, panels, and the far more important conversations that happened in hallways and the hotel bar—were not enough to pull me back in. More surprisingly, I think, they were not enough to reopen the old hurts.

This was my first year presenting at AMS. Any AMS, even the twice-yearly chapter meetings to which I religiously sent paper proposals. My research and the Society’s interests had apparently never been compatible. Looking over the conference programs, I could almost see why. Research into post-1945 American art music was scant. Research that also took odd methodological tacks, that engaged different elements of music-making, was even rarer. It wasn’t this year. I spent most of Saturday hearing papers on post-war American music. The presenters were not just engaging scores or composers. There was a whole Saturday morning panel about music and branding. The papers were excellent. Here were scholars doing the kind of work that had pulled me out of composition into musicology in the first place: asking why, and who, and how, and why we should care.

Peter Kupfer presented a partially data-driven paper on classical music’s use in advertising, and managed a beautiful balance of data, interviews, and analysis. Mark Samples, in addition to ensuring that I’d spend the rest of the day with fragments of Tom Waits song bouncing around my head, drew out useful distinctions between Waits’ voice as a matter of legal identity and the varied use of that voice as a performing tool. John Pippen actually went and did what I thought I was going to do when I started my doctoral research, exploring the ways in which new music ensemble eighth blackbird balances technique and publicity to sustain the “friendly virtuosity” that undergirds their professional lives. Jessica Wood showed off a bunch of delightfully weird Bach-Rock material from the 60s, and went one better to place it in its historical context in marketing counterculture. As an added bonus, Phil Ford was up front, moderating the panel with his hipster guru beard.

Sitting in that Saturday morning panel, even moreso than in the Friday afternoon session featuring my presentation, I felt like I had made it. Here was a collection of smart people, mostly junior scholars, chasing the same answers I spent years chasing. We had somehow managed to chase them straight into the often-stuffy corridors of AMS. I could have collected e-mail addresses to wrangle together a group for an edited volume, or panel discussions for future conferences, or just to compare notes on all the Cool Stuff…

…and I didn’t. Before the conference, I had talked about not having anything to prove this year, but I hadn’t realized what that would look like. I enjoyed being able to approach the presenters with sincere compliments, to share short conversations about our work, and to move on. I wasn’t compelled to network or position my research vis-a-vis theirs. I could appreciate the coolness of the cool stuff and get on with my day.

If I were still invested in the game, I don’t know as I would have enjoyed the conference much beyond those papers. Most of my conversations with colleagues were about bureaucracy or the job hunt. Neither subject had much sunshine in it. Even the young academics who are collecting awards and doing awesome research do not seem especially sanguine about staying inside. The faculty who mentored me through my doctorate are making noises about or plans for retirement. My impression is that we have gone beyond hand-wringing over the state of academic affairs. We focus on our work and our students as best we can. People push for small changes where it seems possible (or push back against inane institutional fiats), try to stay aware of the ways the system is jobbing them, and resign themselves to “reality.” (And reality bites.)

I laughed last weekend, more than I have recently. I caught up with people I hadn’t seen for months or years. I had too much coffee and not enough sleep. I sat outside panels and worked on my novel (still far behind NaNoWriMo par). I used my Twitter account more in 72 hours than I had in the previous 72 days. Despite all that, it felt like a farewell tour. Not a victory lap, mind, but that one last walk around campus before everybody goes home for the summer…

…and I don’t have to measure my life by semesters anymore.

Post-script: The following two articles are tangentially related to the above post and some of my earlier ones about leaving academia. 

Write Like a Motherf*cker  from Karen at The Professor Is In. It’s not as profanity-filled as the title suggests. The short version is that it’s a post about not letting academia define you. The long version is the one you should go and read by clicking that link.

“Please Stop Saying ‘Not Everyone Is Suited for Academia’”  by Rebecca Schuman of pan kisses kafka. Schuman is probably best known for her “Thesis Hatement” on Slate, but this one’s also worth the time to read. Like Karen’s, this is a post about de-academizing yourself. It’s rather more confrontational—justifiable given that she’s become one of the faces of post-ac. At AMS, anyway, I did not get the feeling that anybody was looking down their nose at me, even when my session chair read aloud “Since finishing his degree, Josh has moved to Austin, Texas, where he works as a substitute teacher.” The post does, though, get at many of the conversations I’ve had at work (and in interviews) about what exactly I’m “doing with” my PhD.