Checking Boxes, Part I

Last week I took a test. It was one of the boring ones administered by computer, a string of multiple choice questions and a pair of short essays. The thing is, I was extremely nervous in the run-up to the test. More anxious than I had been since my comps. My stomach wasn’t in knots, but my body was taut with stress hormones. I was also chasing my kids around and managing urgent research and paperwork for a project. Focusing on anything for more than a few minutes was challenging. I worked through perhaps half of my planned study, leaving large swathes of the study guide untouched and never managing to complete a practice test.

And yet…and yet when I had driven to College Station, when I sat in the over-cushioned but somehow still uncomfortable chair you only find in waiting rooms…I was smiling. It was a slight smile that showed no teeth, one I wear most often in the run-up to athletic competitions. Sure enough, there was Berlioz’s “March to the Scaffold” from Symphonie Fantastique playing in my head. “Scotland the Brave” came hot on its heels (the closest thing my alma mater has to a fight song and something my college ultimate team used to sing-shout before games). I knew I was going to be fine.*

The test was a necessary step in becoming “highly qualified” by the standards of the Texas Board of Education. I’ve now officially embarked on becoming a middle school teacher. That’s weird for me to type. A year ago—even six months ago—I wouldn’t have believed it possible. I have a PhD. I was going to find a writing job or a consulting job or a tech job. Becoming a public school teacher wasn’t on the table. I wasn’t going to “settle” for that. I’m overqualified. And seriously…middle schoolers? I hated middle school. Why on earth would I ever want to go back to one?

Because I like teaching. I like waking up in the morning knowing that, if I do my job right, it will mean something to somebody. Teaching is a job I can care about, even if the money’s not great and there are tests and parents and bureaucracy to deal with. Hopefully I can make middle school suck less for some kids along the way.

Saturday I started my alternative certification training. Most of the day was designed to reinforce the feelings I mention in the previous paragraph. The company president and the guides talked up the emotional payoff (and, to a lesser extent, the emotional burden) of teaching. We talked in small groups about our favorite teachers, about their qualities and which ones we hoped we could emulate. We watched feel-good documentary clips about first-year teachers.

Then we talked a lot about how to channel our idealism into the practical concerns of the job hunt. It was an oddly mercenary turn, but one that I can appreciate. The program encourages its teachers-in-training to start their job hunts as soon as possible. For those of us looking to be employed by the time the 2014-2015 school year starts, that’s particularly urgent. The program doesn’t get paid until its graduates are working, so there’s incentive for them, too.

Alternative teacher certification manages to contrast with the dubious passage to professorhood at both the practical and ideological ends of the spectrum. Especially as an adjunct, the emphasis is on getting it over with…teaching prerequisite or general education classes checks boxes for the students and for the university. You get the students through or you fail them out; either way, they’re just passing through. As an adjunct, you’re also just passing through. You want to make a difference, and sometimes you can. It is seldom a goal of the institution, though. The life-changing stuff is for fullprofs with offices for office hours…or for fancy new buildings…or for the smiling ethnically-diverse friend groups that fill recruitment brochures. All the things that will be there next semester when you probably won’t be.

In my graduate programs, at least, there was seldom any practical advice for job hunting. “Have a badass CV and know people” is not much of a directive. Doubtless the lack of practical advice has something to do with the impossible math of hundreds of applicants for every tenure-track job, but I still find the contrast with my teacher training striking. The emphasis there is on understanding high need areas, on what to say and avoid saying in interviews. There’s no illusion that you get jobs solely on merit. You have to know the system, and you have to work the system. It’s possible for even an average applicant to work the system effectively, which is contrast enough with the academic job market.

*I have not actually gotten my scores yet, so I do not know whether that pre-test feeling has any connection to reality, but anyway…


This Is Why We Fight

"Beautiful piece, but what about looking beyond ourselves?"

“Beautiful piece, but what about looking beyond ourselves?”

The “[ compliment ], but…” construct is a mainstay of academic conferences, one that’s too often used to precede a polite-snark critique or a wild ride into the questioner’s own research and opinions. When I saw it come up in response to the essay I wrote for How To Leave Academia, my instinctive reactions were all defensive. Let’s get those out of the way first:

1. I wrote these 5000-plus words on a volunteer basis. I spent a significant chunk of time on the piece as it was. Expanding its scope would have required more writing and revision time that I needed to spend on projects that might eventually net me some income.

2. Related to the “outside the scope of my paper” defense: I am very uncomfortable with generalizing my experiences. Many of the practical problems I encountered cross disciplines: adjuncting, poor advising, the uncertainty (impossibility?) of balancing grad-student and contingent faculty life with family. I think there are writers out there more concerned with and more qualified to speak on those issues. I was fortunate enough to have an employed spouse with good benefits during most of my gradjunct years. We had to pay attention to money, but we didn’t sink or swim based on my income. The interior, emotional issues became the important ones for me (though they’re not disconnected from money and pragmatic questions) and the ones I felt best qualified to write about.

Okay, we’re good on that? Because Dr. Selder’s question merits a fuller response. My answer is again going to come in two parts. (Old habits die hard.)

Looking Beyond Ourselves

Being a touchy-feely humanities writer guy, my first (non-defensive) interpretation of “looking beyond ourselves” was to take it as a critique of the navel-gazing of my essay. It’s an introspective piece…self-centered if you’re inclined to read it that way. It belongs to a genre of personal confessions about the suffering of the “failed” academic…a navel-gazing genre. That’s one of the reasons that I grew increasingly weary of doing #postac posts here on Walking Ledges. It felt more and more like self-indulgent whining. I’ve only recently realized that it’s possible to write about the happier elements of #postac life without coming all the way around to the rah-rah public boosterism of consultant-centric #postac.

That said, part of getting through the navel-gazing phase of being a postac or altac is finding new ways to connect yourself to your community. I lingered so long in the morose phase of leaving academia partly because I compounded that loneliness with a cross-country move. Substitute teaching wasn’t enough to help me get over it until I had long assignments at the same school. I didn’t enter fully into the community, but I did get to be part of it. Over the course of those weeks, I interacted repeatedly with the same people. I got to (and had to) deal with their concerns and quirks and needs. I could not do my job as a teacher and hang on to being self-centered.

You have to have a rudder before you can decide which star to sail your ship by.

You have to have a rudder before you can decide which star to sail your ship by.

For the other academic leavers in the audience, that’s my piece of advice: find something that you care about that brings you into contact with other people. The perspective will help you get on with your life.

Doing Something About It

Dr. Selder—whom I know exclusively through his Twitter feed and his association with the California Part-Time Faculty Association —posts actively about adjunct issues and the corporatization of higher ed. I’m guessing that his “looking beyond ourselves” was aimed more at those questions than my touchy-feely writer-y ones. Even if it wasn’t, to what extent do postacs and altacs have a responsibility to engage the broken system that led to those neologisms?

The answer is…I’m not sure. My thoroughly leftist alma mater has spent the spring in a public fight about the formation of an adjunct faculty union. It’s involved Congressman Keith Ellison. A picture of the quad of my yesteryear was the cover image for a national news story on adjunct issues. Recently, the union vote has been canceled, in part at the request of both adjunct and tenured faculty who had questions about the process.

There is no question for me that the use of contingent faculty helps only budget administrators. No matter how much they want to, contingent faculty can’t provide the same support for students that tenure-track professors do. Structural inequalities keep most adjuncts from accumulating the CV bullet points that get your foot in the tenure-track door. (A tenure-track door that seldom opens.) In large departments that rely on adjuncts, power imbalances can get ugly for all involved. It’s bad for departments. It’s bad for students. It’s worst for the people whose “$17/hour” only counts for the three hours they spend with a given class rather than the 10+ they spend on preparation and making sure students learn the material and get their questions answered. (Never mind commuting.)

Still…where does that leave those of us who, like myself, have gotten out of higher education completely? Every passing semester diminishes my connection to adjunct issues. More and more of my friends are either snagging tenure-track positions, landing in “stable” visiting positions on multi-year contracts, or getting out of the business all together. It won’t be too many years before my Facebook feed runs out of adjunct-issue posts from actual adjuncts.

We can’t abandon the problems. Many of us have or will have kids—do we want them taught by academic wage-slaves until they get to their senior seminar when an academic superstar can handwave them through to cap-and-gown? When we’re completely outside, we might not have a lot of power to affect what goes on inside the academy. We do, though, have our own platforms to speak out. We can raise awareness. We can write letters. We can donate to projects like GEDs and PhDs that make a real difference in people’s lives.

Most importantly, we can recognize that adjunctification is one element of the same pervasive change that’s eroding social mobility and concentrating wealth and political power in a limited number of hands. That is a problem we do not leave when we leave academia. That is reason enough to fight.

Too Much School, so…Back to School?

Some days come poorly off the mold. Their shape is not symmetrical. The joints don’t fit. They wobble. These are not the “worst” days—those seem to come off the line perfectly shaped to suck. These poorly-formed days just suck life out of you. Minor annoyances and substantive problems scrape against each other without quite coalescing into a proper crisis. You get through them, but that’s usually the best you can manage. They’re not quite bad enough to inspire any feeling of victory when you come out the other side. Today is one of those, grumbly nearly from the get-go.

If you’re keen on integrating the following thoughts into the course of my blog, they go with the loose sequence that begins with “Of Carrots…” and continues with “Get a Job, You Schlub.” It also includes the “Cut” series, though those are more tightly tied to the practice of scholarship. There’s not really anything about writing in it, unless you count wanting to write. (You can imagine that as a subtext through the whole post.) This isn’t a plea for sympathy, just a snapshot from the inside of trying to make a life as a post-academic.

I have been living in Austin for six months. I have been looking for a full-time job pretty much that entire time. I am still looking. I substitute teach three or four days each week, usually a 30-40 minute drive from our apartment. The other weekday is reserved for hunting full-time employment. Often, I don’t know where I’m going to be working until I get up at 5 a.m. to start stalking the district’s online substitute system. (During the day, good jobs are often gone in one or two minutes. That’s particularly tough when you’re actually at a school doing your job.)

It sucks, even without mentioning the conditions when I get to work.

Like adjunct faculty, substitute teachers are not eligible for benefits…nor are they eligible for unemployment insurance. Pay is low. I make more on a real per-hour basis than I did adjuncting (where my hourly rate was based solely on the time I spent in the classroom). Oh, and my PhD? It entitles me to exactly the same daily rate as any completed four-year degree. It’s still not a living wage, and I still don’t feel “employed.” It’s certainly not a career, and it’s more supplement than support for my family.

Long-term job searches are draining as hell. The last time I had a job that I “chose” was in September of 2012. I’ve been “on the market” since then, although I did not do any serious job-hunting between finishing my oh-fer on academic applications in April and moving to Texas in August. I’ve been lucky in that my partner eventually found work, and that we had some savings. Things have gotten tight, but never quite desperate.

The problem is that looking at job listings gets a little more like staring into the abyss every week. Human resources people and departments at the kind of companies that list jobs on-line are as indentured to formulae as university search committees. Miss a keyword or have the wrong job title and you go straight to the circular file, no matter how qualified you are. The more rejections I get, the harder it is for me to look at a listing and think “I can do that” rather than “there is no way in hell I could even get an interview.”

There have been studies on this stuff , and reports. They don’t offer much positive.

My doctorate is an unhappy limiting factor. I have the option of leaving a seven-year gap in my resume or owning up to my years in academe. Mostly, I just have to hope that the relevant people read my cover letter and that I can sell them there. For entry-level positions, I seem overqualified and likely to jump ship when some imaginary university comes calling. Jobs beyond entry-level tend to require specific work experience that graduate school failed to provide, even if I otherwise have sufficient knowledge and skills. HR filters are not set to account for these things. My post-relocation network is also thin—another obstacle to getting the all-important foot in the door.

The upshot of all this is that I have too much education to get a job…no matter how many times I’m in a school and an incredulous teacher says “You have a Ph.D. and you’re subbing?” I find it very reminiscent of a recent post and the ensuing discussion over at Pan Kisses Kafka. It’s a similar catch-22 in that you allegedly need experience to land a tenure-track job, but experience as an adjunct counts against you because if you were good enough, you would have gotten a tenure-track job right away.

For me, it is looking more and more like the solution to too much education is somehow more education. That might mean doing alternative teaching certification and going from “substitute” to “permanent” secondary teacher. It might involve getting third-party certificates in various software and programming platforms. One way or another, I need to gather up some keywords and documentation to cover up all the education I’ve already got.

Nothing seasons a wobbly no-good day quite like irony, naja?

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.