moving forward

Contractual Obligations

Back in April, I did something simultaneously trivial and momentous:

I signed a contract renewal.

On the one hand, it was pro forma. I would have had to be terrible at my job to not be invited back. Ninety-nine percent of the staff at my school who want to come back will be there next year. The contract was electronic and I signed it electronically. It was something that I did in under five minutes between my fifth period class ending and the start of my lunch.

On the other hand: Contract. Renewal.

If you haven’t spent time as contingent labor, it might be hard to understand the magic of that phrase. As an adjunct, it’s common to get phone calls on, say, August 10th, asking if you’re available to teach a class starting August 25th (or even August 15th). Sometimes your jobs end unexpectedly after one semester. Everything is precarious. Much—if not most—of the time, you grab at what’s available because you don’t have time to wait for what might be coming. Twenty-seven hundred for a class guaranteed is better than the potential to pick up a $3600 class in a few days. What? You have to drive 35 miles each way to get there? Well, even so. (I once taught a class that was exactly 100 miles away from my apartment. I “needed” it for my CV, so I took it even though after gas and childcare I netted only about $200 for a semester of getting out the door at 5:50 a.m.)

Stability, even more than money, was the reason I got out of the adjunct racket. I have kids. I needed to be able to help plan their lives and activities. That’s hard when you don’t know when or where your next paycheck is coming from. Since “graduating” from the family restaurant at 16, I had worked the same job two years in a row exactly once: the administrative assistantship I had for two years during my masters. Since then, it’s been new classes, new institutions, or both…or the job hunt, for which “stability” is a terrible sign.

Renewing my contract means that I will have the same full-time employment two years in a row. For the first time. Ever. I’ll be teaching most, if not all, of the same classes. I can actually develop curriculum to be used in the same context, rather than having to develop and adapt it simultaneously. I can continue to work on getting better at my job rather than getting used to it.

I do not have to spend the summer looking for jobs, or worrying that I will not find one. I don’t have to do any calculus about whether a cross-town commute will be feasible, or try to figure out how to tailor my resume to different positions. I do not have to wonder what is going when an interviewer asks me about my PhD, or fails to ask about it.

Best of all, it means I get to keep doing a job I still love and still care deeply about, even when my freshman intervention classes won’t let me finish a sentence or my seniors complain about reading 35 pages in a week. I wrote “Smile, you love this job!” on my little calendar white board the day I hung it up in my classroom. My students give me a hard time about it. I don’t care. I can love my job without liking it every minute of every day. And now I know that, for at least another year, I get to keep doing that job.

That April Thursday, we ordered pizza. Partly, that was because Thursdays are the day I run out of steam for cleaning the kitchen and cooking. Mostly, though, it was because I wanted to celebrate. There may come a time when I take signing my contract renewal for granted, when it’s just a thing that happens in April that I have to remember to do, like renewing car insurance. I’m not there yet, though. Even two months later, it still feels good.

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Knowing is Half the Something Something

G.I. Joe taught me that knowing is half the battle. The Joes were suspiciously silent on what the other half might be…maybe it was “fight enemies with extraordinarily poor depth perception.” Two different events this weekend, though, got me thinking about what I know, what other people know, and what I sometimes expect other people to know.

Saturday: The Known Knowns

Most of the time, I think that signing up for the face-to-face teacher training sessions was a good thing. There’s legitimate networking that happens at the classes, the people are nice, and the air conditioning keeps the conference rooms colder than I can responsibly keep my apartment. (I also can’t put them off as easily as the purely on-line sections of the training.) By the end of Saturday, I was not so sure.

The material, taken out of context, is often interesting. Primary and secondary educators like to dabble in neuroscience, taking bits and pieces of things (like different loci of activity for different kind of learning) and concocting theories to support them (like “learning styles,” which do not actually work the way you might think). There are practical tips about applying for jobs and navigating state mandates once you’ve got one. We spent time addressing the standards that go with the state’s academic achievement exams. We also discussed how to convert those into objectives for one or more lessons.

That’s where things went off the rails. The distinction between items on the state guidelines and objectives for lessons just…escaped…some members of the class. First the instructor, then other members of the class, tried to guide the lost back to clarity. No dice. For forty-five minutes, we circled and circled what was basically a question of semantics.

It reminded me of graduate school.

Actually, it reminded me more keenly of some of my undergraduate classes. Those drove me crazy when we had to go over material more than once. Most of the time, I got it on the first pass and had little sympathy for anybody who needed to repeat it. By the time we hit the third or fourth repetition, I had generally begun writing nasty things directly into my notes or into the doodles that fill the margin. Until this last weekend, I hadn’t thought of those moments for years. As a room full of aspiring teachers tried to restate the information in as many different forms as possible, I found myself writing unkind things in my notes. (In German, even.) Intellectually, I don’t blame them. Asking questions is the responsible thing to do, especially when understanding the answers will affect how you deal with the young people you’ll be responsible for. Emotionally? Man, was I bad at mustering sympathy. That’s one of many things I need to practice.

I wrote a while back about being “the smartest one in the room.” There are some very smart people taking this alternative certification course, but it’s a much truer cross-section of the population than graduate school was. It is taking some time and effort to adjust to that, to sort out what I know because I’ve taught before, what I know because of my general level of education and, most importantly, what I only think I know. That’s the vital part for me, because I, too, am going to be responsible for young people. It doesn’t matter if I already know 75-90% of what we spend any given Saturday plowing through; it matters that I get a grasp on the 10-25% I don’t. In this case, the other half of the battle is biting my tongue and keeping my attention in the right place.

Sunday: The Unknown Knowns

I spent all day Saturday in class. I spent most of Sunday doing other things—first dishes, then a day trip out to  visit some friends. On the way home from that day trip, I caught the tail end of the local folk music show. The guest host was doing a special episode with, of all things, a musicologist. Even better, the show’s focus was on Texas music in the 1970s (particularly the “cosmic cowboy” scene in Austin). My daughter really wanted me to turn it off, but I couldn’t.

The last musicological thing I did was a book review that may never see the light of day; that was back in December. Hearing a musicologist on the radio, one who studied the same historical period I dissertated on, was awesome. I was familiar with some of the broad historical background the musicologist discussed, but the details about the Texas scenes were new to me. The interview was broken up with appropriate music. It was interesting, practice-oriented musicology. I loved every moment of it.

This was what I knew. This was the kind of discussion that I had spent years of my life training to participate in. I could have talked just as fluently about my own work on New York. Even better, it was quality scholarship pitched for an interested but general audience…the kind of thing I’ve always particularly enjoyed.

It would fit the narrative to say that 20 minutes on the radio awakened my old desires, that I’m again wrestling with the loss of the career I abandoned. That might be true, ephemerally. I miss doing scholarship. I miss research and I miss talking to my fellow scholars about their work. I even miss the esoteric stuff. A little. I miss them, though, like I might miss an ex-girlfriend long after the breakup. The times were good, but they’re done. I’m with somebody else now. (Happily!) Might-have-beens will linger. I can, to push the metaphor one step further than it ought to go, be Facebook friends with academia these days.

The other half of this battle? I don’t think there is one. It’s fun to know things, but I know that, for me, this particular battle is over. I’m getting better at embracing the “post” in “postac.”

Checking Boxes II

Why Middle School?

My memories of middle school are mostly about bad hair and misery. I spent seven years in Catholic school (for a variety of reasons) and started middle school in seventh grade. I was smart. I was awkward—physically and socially. The only people I knew even a little were some kids I had been in daycare with years before. Academically, there was nothing to challenge me. One day my younger brother and I came home with the same homework. He was in fourth grade; I was in eighth. I became a band nerd and the eleventh-worst basketball player on the B-team. I ran track (poorly). I ransacked the middle school library for anything with swords or dragons.

If I work at it, I can remember most of my teachers from middle school. Few of them made an impression on me—probably not their fault. I came in knowing almost everything in most of their classes. I was a good student, but I was also a terrible student. Those books from the library? I’d sit in the front row of class and just read them. I wasn’t disruptive, but I felt zero need to pay attention.

I had a funny realization, though, as I was finishing up the first of my first two long sub assignments. Out of all the teachers and professors I’ve had, the one whose style I’ve come closest to adopting is my middle school math teacher, Mr. Johnson. I had Mr. Johnson for math and “computers” (this was the early 90s). He made sure we did the work. He answered our questions. As long as the work was getting done and we were learning, he was relaxed about everything else. We played computer games when we were done with our algebra assignments. The favorite among my group was a space trader simulation. You could make the most money transporting drugs, but they could also get you arrested…unless you’d purchased enough guns to defeat the police. We were in eighth grade. It was awesome. (I also played the Moria rogue-like on those back-of-the-room monocolor-monitor computers.)

There were things Mr. Johnson did not have to deal with in a small-town middle school two decades ago. Nobody had cell phones, for one. (I hate them. I really hate them. The only thing I enjoy is the utter disbelief when I show students I still use a flip phone.) That guiding ethos, though… I like that: the work matters. The learning matters. If that stuff is happening, the rest doesn’t have to be a grind. Of course, you sometimes have to make things a grind to ensure that the work and the learning happen.

I started today with “why middle school?” The answer is that interesting things result from both sides of Mr. Johnson’s approach: from pushing the students, and from giving them space. Legitimately interesting things, not just “interesting.” Sometimes they’re awful—to the teachers and to each other—but they’re also growing in every direction at once. Teaching middle school, you get to witness that growth and encourage the directions it takes to be productive.

Longterm Ersatz

One decision after another. That’s how it goes.

I’ve just taken a (small) step up in the world of substitute teaching. I have a “long-term” job—it runs most of a month. Substitute teaching is a double ersatz: I’m filling in for the teacher, and the job is filling in for…a “real” job. The long term gig is another step along the way, not a destination. Still, it’s a step that comes with some minor perks. Among them:

  • I know where I will be working when I get up in the morning. For a while, I don’t have to refresh the district’s online substitute management page every few minutes starting at 5:15 a.m.
  • I’m teaching at a school that’s on my side of town. It’s still a 25-minute drive in traffic, but it’s short enough that traffic won’t make it too variable unless there are wrecks.
  • I do not have to learn a whole new set of students’ names every day.
  • I get a small bump in pay.

There are other things I appreciate more.

First, and most importantly, I actually get to teach. One of my biggest frustrations with substitute teaching is that my responsibilities are usually limited to handing out worksheets, showing films, or giving tests. Effectively, I’m a babysitter at the “good” schools and a corrections officer at the “bad” schools. (When learning happens at the rougher schools, though, it is incredibly satisfying.) As an aspiring professor, I was in it for the teaching. I like research, but that’s mostly because I like learning. Discovering unknown material and concocting novel theories are cool, but I’m nearly as happy in a quality seminar. Adjuncting was often awful, but there were good moments in the classroom. I still have vivid memories of straining to sing the tenor line in a shape-note unit for non-majors. I like teaching. With the long-term appointment, I get to do that. I have some control over lesson plans. I get to deliver content and respond dynamically to student needs. (And apparently choke on a few buzzwords.)

Second, and related, this becomes a trial run for moving towards certification and full-time secondary teaching. This is closer to doing the job than I usually get, right down to adjusting my teaching plans and schedule for standardized testing. It’s not a perfect simulation: it’s unlikely that I’ll have to deal much with parents, for example. Nobody will be grading me on the grades the students receive on those standardized tests. I have some responsibility for grading, but I’m working within the permanent teacher’s architecture. Same for lesson plans (though he’s encouraged me to adapt the plans he’s left as I see fit). The school I’m at is a “good” one—mildly suburban, mostly middle-income or better. It’s an International Baccalaureate middle school. Basically, it’s a cushy gig that probably wouldn’t resemble my first few years of being a teacher.

If day-to-day subbing is the adjunct situation writ miniature, the long-term sub is more like a visiting assistant position. It’s not precarious, but it’s a long way from stable. At the end of the month, I’ll be back to the grind (or maybe employed outside the school district). Maybe I’ll have made enough of a mark at this school to go on its preferred list for the rest of the year. Who knows? It’s a step, though.

A Year After Horns and Horses

December 7. Pearl Harbor Day. In 2012, it was also the first day since September when I could get all of my dissertation committee into the same room so I could defend.

That morning, I posted this clip to Facebook:

There were a lot of reasons to pick it. First and foremost, I’m a geek. I grew up on this stuff. When I got older I became a bit of a geek about language, too, and developed an enthusiasm for Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. When I am psyching myself up for a challenge, Theoden’s speeches (this and the one from Helm’s Deep) are part of my repertoire (along with the “March to the Scaffold” from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and the James Bond theme). As done in the movie, the scene has just about everything you could ask for: an excellent little speech, delivered well; the right hits in the score with horns and the Rohirrim theme; dramatic lighting; panoramic shots of the whole battlefield to give a sense of scope. The score cuts out at the right moment and sneaks back in wonderfully.

In hindsight, this was a terrible choice. The Rohirrim fully expect to die on their charge. You do not get quite as much sense of it in the movie, but those guys on horses are outnumbered more than 5-to-1. The bad guys have war elephants and Nazgûl. The Rohirrim end up losing their king, and would surely have lost their whole paltry army if Aragorn hadn’t shown up with Rangers and (in the movie) ghosts. I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was just psyching myself up and killing time on a day I’d spent years preparing for. Posting a video, like making cookies for the public portion of the defense, was a nice diversion.

Were I having a glass half-empty day, I could easily push the comparison with the Rohirrim’s charge further. The horde of orcs could be, say, the job market. The gloomy bravado of Theoden could easily be any grad student’s conviction that the market might be bad, but we can take arms against the sea of troubles. There aren’t any Rangers of the North coming to save us. Und so weiter.

Even if the doom and gloom are true, I don’t want to spend more time on them today. It has been a year since I defended my dissertation, and nearly that since I completed the final round of edits and submitted it, eventually resulting in this:

Bound Copy of the Dissertation

408 pages, appendices included

The past year has been the most unsettled one of my life. I’ve been up and down. I’ve applied for jobs, not gotten them, dramatically switched up the kinds of jobs I’m applying for, and not gotten those either (yet). My family moved 1200 miles from a place where the temperature hasn’t gotten above 0 degrees Fahrenheit for a few days to a place where people are freaking out because it’s 25. For nearly half of the year, there hasn’t been a “normal.” There has been so much waiting, so much anticipation and hope and sometimes hopelessness.

It isn’t all better, but a year out, I feel like I’ve got better perspective on both that video clip and that UMI-bound black book. Defending my dissertation was not a life and death conflict. (If there was one of those, it came after, and there was nothing so tangible as orcs to fight.) Literature is not feeding me poetic lines to spout at neat points in a structured narrative, nor is Hollywood supplying a dramatic score to remind me what I should feel at important moments. I wrote a book. It has some good bits and some bad bits, with enough insights to convince a collection of professors of my worthiness to share a rank with them. That’s cool. It hasn’t made the last year any better. That’s also cool.

Now, anyway. I don’t think I was cool with that six months ago. I certainly wasn’t cool with it ten months ago, when the cold and dark of northern winter were far too apt a metaphor for my life.

We often overplay the importance of finishing things. We wrap stories around our lives because we hope to make sense of them. We want the happily ever after, or the brilliant last stand that proves to be the tide-turning sacrifice. If we carve our lives into a series, we want each volume to come to a tidy caesura. Defending a dissertation could have been one of those caesuras. I could have my victory, walk across campus to turn in my paperwork in wonderfully picturesque snow, and then…we skip to the next book, where I am busily occupied with whatever the author wants me to be doing when she throws the next plot arc at me.

In life we cannot—to steal a line from Elmore Leonard—leave out the parts people skip. I have had a year I wouldn’t mind skipping (or at least reducing to a kick-ass training montage). I still get to cook dinner and do laundry and write blog posts. I’ve got a good chunk of a novel that I am working on turning into something the non-rhetorical you can read. I just watched my daughter just fall asleep on the couch with a book in her lap.

What have I learned, a year out from my personal Pelennor Fields? That the parts that people skip are not always bad, even if they don’t come with horns, horses and dramatic speeches.

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.