misinterpretations and misunderstandings

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I shouldn't post anything when I'm in the throes of grading because it's sure to be misunderstood. :-)

But I feel I must respond when Dorothea posts about what she sees as the horrible effects of academia on my otherwise right-thinking brain: " And yet the system has warped them such that they both get a twinge when somebody else comes out with a perfectly good idea, just because they didn�t come out with it first."

I'm pretty sure that's not what I said in my post. What I did say was that I found myself "torn between excitement and envy," and that I wished I'd had more time over the past few years to explore the topics that I had been so interested in as a grad student. The twinge isn't that somebody else came up with the idea first--it's that I want to be able to contribute more to the body of knowledge on the subject than I've been able to do.

All my bitching and moaning about academic politics aside, I wouldn't trade my job for any other. Academia has its warts, sure...and those are what get most of the attention. What gets left out are all the reasons that so many of us work so hard to get here...and to stay once we're here. So, let me list some of those.

  • Autonomy. In no other job I've ever had (including working as an entrepreneur) have I had the amount of autonomy I have in this job. I get to define what I teach, and how I teach it. What matters is results--if my students are learning, if I'm demonstrating scholarship. Not how I get there. That's totally up to me.
  • Flexibility. Not only do I get to decide what and how I teach--for the most part, I also get to decide when. If I need to be home to meet my kids when they get off the bus two days a week, I can schedule my classes and office hours to accommodate that. If I want to be home for bedtime every night, or at the gym every morning--no problem.
  • Collegiality. I work with a bunch of incredibly smart, incredibly dedicated people. I never lack for someone to have coffee or lunch with, or someone to go out for a beer with on a bad day. If I want help solving a problem--instructional, technical, theoretical--there's someone only steps away ready to help.
  • Students. This is big. There is nothing--nothing at all--like the feeling of seeing your students grasp a concept and run with it. Today I spent two hours watching my Web Design students present their final projects. They were fabulous. Check out this, and this, and this. How cool is that? Those of you who are parents have some idea of what this feels like...but I get it all the time, almost every day, and I get paid for it.
  • Creativity. There aren't too many jobs out there where you're encouraged to write about things you really care about. My job rewards me not just for the traditional academic stuff, but even for this blog.
  • Summer. The summer after I started teaching, I remember sitting outside on my back deck, looking at my garden, thinking that this job felt a bit like that old joke "Why are you banging your head against the wall?" (Answer: "Because it feels so good when I stop.") Now that I've acclimated to the annual workload, summers are an incredible blessing. Not only do I get to share them with my family--travelling, swimming, playing--I also get to spend time thinking, imagining, exploring new ideas for teaching, and...if I can get my intellectual act together this year...even writing.

I know Dorothea had a terrible experience her last time through graduate school. But I guess I take umbrage at the characterization of academia as such a wicked, evil place. It's not. It's full of people like me, Alex, Jill, Larry Lessig, and a host of others (many still sans blog). And it has no more of the evil, backstabbing, wrong-thinking type of person than any other work environment I've been in--from corporate to non-profit.

4 TrackBacks

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A lousy system can contain good people and still be a lousy system.

But I'm out of sorts today; you're under no obligation to pay me much mind.

What a great reminder of the pleasures of academia! Next time I'm down about my job, I'll look at this.

Any openings at RIT for a theologian?

I get down on the academy on a daily basis, but then I realize there isn't anywhere I'd rather be. Well, Hawaii, but that's another story. There are the every day annoyances, and then the really big annoyances, but I would still do this for free. I marvel that I've tricked them into giving me a paycheck for this--meager as it might be. While I can imagine myself doing other things, I would still end up moonlighting on some campus. Thanks for enumerating the pleasures of prof-ness.

AKMA--don't I wish! However, there might well be openings at Nazareth or St. John Fisher...would certainly love to have you nearby (and am so looking forward to meeting you and Margaret this weekend!).

And Alex, I'm with you--I would do this for free. When I wasn't doing it, I found myself inexorably drawn to campuses. I'd take a course here, a course there, just to be able to walk across campus on a regular basis, soaking up the feel of the place.

I'm a "faculty brat," so I suppose that's some of why I feel so much at home on campus. But there's more to it than that. For someone who loves learning, being a professor is like being a chocoholic who's asked to run the candy store. And the bit about marvelling that you've tricked them into paying you to do this--that's something that I've heard many times from the people whom I most admire in academia.

(Oh...and in Hawaii, they have really big bugs. Bigger even than Alabama. Remembering that helps me tolerate the winters here much more easily.)

Do you think RIT would ever be willing to hire a green-haired Prof.?

They have this great thing on Universities and Colleges, which I really like. It's inspiring, it's entertaining, it's challenging and it's sweet, lovable and rewarding: It's called students! I love them, I go all soft and mushy over them, kind of the way other women act with babies. And no, I am not sarcastic! OK, so I frequently yell at them and occasionally cry over them, but I do that with all my loved ones.

The conditions of work in academia in the good jobs--which I certainly am blessed with--are about as good as you could ask for in pure labor-market terms. You trade a certain amount of higher-end salary for autonomy within your workspace, summers, sabbaticals, major outlets for creativity and with tenure, lifetime job security plus at most well-off institutions a decent benefits package. In quantifiable terms, that's worth a good 100K a year, I think. Frankly, the conditions of work are so good that it can be embarassing at times to describe them.

The reason I think that so many of us complain or have a dire sense about academia is that this bounteous condition doesn't seem to nurture the joy and passion and creativity you would expect. That has to do with the changing nature of academic socialization in the past thirty years. Precisely because there is a glut of Ph.Ds chasing those desirable jobs, we've gotten more and more intensely mandarin and careerist about how we winnow people into those good positions. The ecology of academia is getting more and more narrow, and I'm afraid that one of the predominant species that survives the careerist pressures and claims the prize is a sort of dourly machiavellian bureaucrat. What disappears is the play and the openness because there is too much risk of appearing to be less than perfect.

The dissatisfactions of academia are not with what it offers, but with the gap between what it could be and what it is. I don't think an insurance agent has a sense of the untapped human possibilities of his day-to-day labor: it is what it is, and couldn't conceivably be much more. Academia is a different thing entirely.

We just browsed the Birch, Maple, and Oak Web sites.

Birch is good, Maple loads a little slower but gives us a bang, the punch of seduction.

And then we land at Oak, capture the link, and start stealing ideas.

I _don't_ think the academy is a sick and twisted place full of sick and twisted people.

I do think academia is in trouble. I believe the university is undergoing large-scale structural transformations, part of which involve the deprofessionalization of the academic professions. Many full time tenured faculty remain wilfully blind to such changes, though the evidence is right in from of them (in their own departments and on their own campuses) and has been right in front of them for quite some time. The figures are out there for anyone who is interested: 43 percent of faculty are now part-time, which represents a doubling of part-timers over the past twenty years.

Many of the advantages you list for life in the academy are simply not part of the adjunct or part-time teaching package.
Students? Yes, absolutely.
Autonomy? There is no real autonomy without a minimum of security and academic freedom, both of which adjuncts lack.
Collegiality? Not at all. Adjuncts are invisible, and are supposed to be not seen and not heard anywhere but in their own classrooms.
Flexibility? Not in the sense that you've described it, though certainly every adjunct is well aware of another sort of flexibility: ie, the flexibility that allows university admins to hire and fire (or not rehire) at will.

Not trying to make any sort of personal attack on anyone who enjoys the academic life. More power to you if you do! and in all honesty I envy your position and I wish I shared your perspective. But to speak of whether or not the academy is a good thing without acknowledging the existence of a two-tiered labor system...I suppose that does strike me as a kind of "survivor bias."

But to speak of whether or not the academy is a good thing without acknowledging the existence of a two-tiered labor system...I suppose that does strike me as a kind of "survivor bias."

The point I was trying to make here is that there's not just *one* view of academia, there are many. Some are more positive than others. My argument isn't that academia is a "panglossian paradise." I'm well aware of its flaws, from sadistic thesis advisors to the exploitation of adjuncts to the cost barriers that prevent many bright and capable students from pursuing their goals. What I was trying to say is that I think it's wrong to paint the academy as a whole as "sick and wrong," as Dorothea did. And I wanted to counter the generalization with my specific experiences.

I think Tim Burke has been right on in his comments here, and on my more recent post on the topic. The expectations are higher for academia, so the outrage is more pronounced. The two-tiered labor systems exists in many places, from janitorial staff to Microsoft employees. That doesn't make it right, but it also doesn't justify condemning the organizations outright.

The statistics you cite are real, and a problem. But they're also aggregate statistics--and that takes us back to my qualitative stance. I know, for example, that the adjunct percentages at RIT are much lower than the national average. I also know they're improving, not worsening--due to a conscious effort on the part of the administration to keep a reasonable balance. I know that's not true everywhere. But it's important to be aware that it is true somewhere--and that's what I'm trying to shed light on.

Remember, you're talkingn to people who have chosen to work in this field. Most of us do so in large part because we believe we're doing good for others through our teaching and research. So it stings a bit when our life choices are dismissed as fatally flawed. And it seems worth pointing out that there are things to enjoy in this job--while not a paradise, it's far from a hell hole.

Re: quantitative versus qualitative accounts of the academy. It is true that the numbers I cite are aggregate statistics. But disaggregate the statistics and you have a large number of separate and individual qualitative experiences.

I am one of the statistics, I suppose, but I also have my story. That is, I have my own qualitative account of my experience as an adjunct.

Does your account cancel out mine? Does my account cancel out yours? Surely not. We each and every one of us have our story, and who is to say that one story matters more than another? Problem is, it's not a level playing field. The stories of people like me don't get told very often, and when they do get told, there are not many who care to listen. Adjuncts are basically a blot on the copybook, an embarassment to the profession to which we (marginally) belong. We internalize the sense of shame and embarrassment, which is one of the main reasons why we don't tell our stories.

Again, this is not at all an attack on those who enjoy the work they have chosen to do (some of my best friends -- no really! -- are tenure-track and tenured faculty members). It is more a reminder that not everyone who chooses this work ends up in a happy, or even a tolerable, situation. Adjuncts also chose their fields, after all. And when they leave, as many (myself included, I hope!) must do, it is most often not so much from choice as from necessity.

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