Monday, May 31, 2010

The M.A. Decision-Making Process

Okay, here's a sing-along-with-Mitch kind of post, inspired by a sub-thread in yesterday's post: What is/should be the decision-making process when applying to M.A. programs in particular?

Of course, by the time our students apply to Ph.D. programs, we hope that they understand that they need to find a real match, whether it's geographic, thematic, or both. Yet, as many commenters pointed out, the M.A. might be different -- many of our applicants are place-bound, and so are applying to the program that's closest to them. Heck, many are applying only to get the M.A. as a teaching credential, so that's a different animal altogether.

I wasn't place bound -- in fact, I wanted out of where I was, at least temporarily -- but my M.A. program selections were not anywhere near as careful as my Ph.D. applications. Here's the short list of questions I asked when researching M.A. programs:
  • Is there a person in my geographic/chronological field of interest?
  • Do they have tenure? And if not, is there another person in the department who can supervise me if they are denied tenure or recruited away?
  • What is the very best program (as opposed to person) that might actually let me in?**
And that was it. Perhaps I should have known more. But as I've posted before, my own decision to go to grad school was made rather impulsively, and I'm just damn lucky it worked out. But given yesterday's discussion, and especially the point on geographic proximity being the main consideration for many of our M.A. applicants, I'm wondering, for those of you who did a separate M.A., what was your decision process?

**Considering my combination of big ambitions, but only a B+ G.PA., this final point weighed the most heavily in my deliberations. It's also why I giggled when my undergrad medieval professor, whose Ph.D. was from Fancypants U., kept urging me to apply to Fancypants U. myself.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Thesis Topics: How much say should a director have?

So, I'm here with a bit of a bleg -- I need some opinions. The topic: How much say should I, as a potential thesis director, have in an M.A. student's thesis topic?

Let me start with a few bullet points of background, and then my modest proposal (as yet unproposed):
  1. I teach at a regional M.A. comprehensive institution. Undergraduates are our primary students, but we also support a thriving M.A. program -- though very few of these latter are medievalists. Most of our M.A. students are Americanists, and most of those are here to get an enhanced credential for high school teaching.
  2. I, nevertheless, usually have anywhere from 2-4 of "my" M.A. students at any given time. About half express interest in writing a thesis/going on to a Ph.D. program; the other half want the exam track, and are thinking of using the M.A. for secondary ed. or just personal enrichment.
  3. In our department, the decision of whether a student writes a thesis (as opposed to taking exams) must be mutual: that is, both the advisor and the student must agree to the thesis option. A student cannot simply announce that he or she will be writing a thesis.
  4. We are under pressure to admit more M.A. students, though the grad advisor and some of us faculty work hard to keep standards high. But we DO NOT have the option to decide not to admit a student because s/he doesn't work on our specific chronological/topographical focus. I can say no to someone who wants to work on Early Modern studies, but if they want to work in the Middle Ages and they look qualified ("qualified" meaning quite a few things, of course), they're more or less in, even if there's no real match.
  5. I am the only tenured/tenure-track medievalist in the department, and that is not going to change. I therefore am the supervisor on all medieval M.A. theses and exams.
THE PROBLEM: 80% of the students who apply to our M.A. program in medieval want to work on medieval England. I do not work on England, and never have. I can fake it for an undergrad class, but the supervisor of an M.A. thesis should have some sort of expertise in the topic.

THE PROPOSAL: I would like to tell students that if they want the thesis option, they must work on something I have some degree of expertise with.** For example, let's say my research was on the cultural meaning of saints and sanctity in 13th-century Paris. Then, I could accept students working on any aspect of medieval France, or saints and sanctity anywhere, or (even more broadly) the cultural history of religion anywhere (yes, including England). But someone wanting to work on Anglo-Saxon queenship, or merchant guilds in 13th-century Constantinople, or the Spanish Reconquest, would have to take the exam track (where I would happily design one of their exam fields in their particular area of interest).

I'm thinking of running it by our department's grad advisor. But what are your thoughts -- does this seem fair? And if it does, can I lay it on the students we've already admitted? Are there other solutions?

**There are, of course, other requirements of my own devising, such as "No Latin, no thesis," and "Your writing in your coursework must be up to graduate-level standards."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Graduation Day

...was today.

Congratulations, and good luck!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Medieval Academy and Arizona Politics

So, in the wake of Kalamazoo, I post on the other big stateside meeting, the one that Kalamazoo was invented as a more casual response to (or so the story goes): The Medieval Academy meeting.

I've never actually presented at Medieval Academy (though I attended once) because it seems so darned hard to get on the program. But this year, it seems, may be different.

Medieval Academy's 2011 meeting is in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Conferences like the Medieval Academy are planned and booked years in advance. Like the AHA's San Diego Hyatt debacle this past January, academics (many of them with progressive politics) found themselves already committed to a location when a boycott-worthy political situation blew up. In both cases, a prestigious conference may end up with low numbers and low revenues. Professors and grad students will have to make some decisions about whether they want to register (either hoping that the situation resolves itself by next April, or just holding their noses and going). Organizers -- well, I feel for these women and men. Putting on a successful conference is a ridiculous amount of work, and it must be frustrating to have that work undermined.

So, medievalists: what are your thoughts on this? Any conference organizers want to chime in?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

New Summer's Resolutions

So normal people -- that is, not academics -- traditionally make their resolutions at the new year. When I was a student (high school and college), I'd make them at the beginning of every semester. But now that I'm in professor-land (I taught summers throughout grad school), the end of May marks the time for resolutions.** With three teaching/grading-free months stretching out ahead, the air is full of promise, and anything seems possible.

So, I thought I'd share my probably-too-ambitious summer resolutions:
  • Every day (beginning June 1): transcribe 1 document from the mess I brought home from the archives; write 1 page (even if it's just a summary of what I've transcribed, or read in the secondary sources)
  • Every week: read 1 book or 2 articles each from two running reading lists (one for research, one for a new topical course I'd like to develop)
  • Whole-summer goals: Finish one round of revisions on collected volume article; have an outline and a proposal for a conference paper-length piece; draft syllabus for new topical course; prep my two oft-taught courses for fall so I can focus on the less-oft-taught one.
I'd also like to go to yoga at least once a week, and try one new recipe a week from my backlog of really excellent cookbooks. And keep up with my photo-a-day project, of course:

(picture from day 131 of 365)

Other than one short week out of town, I'm not going anywhere all summer, so I can really burrow in. Even so, I'm probably being too ambitious here, so the goal within the goal is to achieve about 85% of the goal. That's a solid B, right?

Anyone else care to tempt fate by posting your own new summer's resolutions?

**This is not to say that I don't still make new-semester resolutions -- I do: stay on top of the grading, get those assignments posted on time; the usual pipe dreams that last about as long as the "go to the gym three times a week" ones from January 1st did.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Negotiations, Part 2: What to Ask For

False advertising warning: the following post is not a totally definitive guide to what to ask for when you're hired. These are reflections based on my own experience, and so I hope my commenters have some other ideas to contribute.

Bear in mind as well that this post is written from the perspective of a single person with no partner, no kids, so your mileage may vary. If you're trying to wrangle a position for a partner, then everything else changes. Likewise, if you're trying to move a family, and make sure you're in a good school district, then you will really need to focus on relocation provisions. With those caveats in mind, here goes:

Yes, you can ask for more: First of all, as I mentioned in the last post, your most important negotiating moment comes when you are offered the job. But if you're like I was, you're just so happy to have a tenure-track offer that you're not willing to push, either because (1) you're afraid to lose the job, or (2) because you think that they've done enough by offering you a TT job at a decent wage, and you don't want to come off as greedy or ungrateful. A couple of things to remember: (1) Unless you're asking for a private jet and a personal masseur -- in other words, for things that make you sound like you'd make an insufferable colleague -- the chair or dean or the person you're talking to knows that negotiations are part of the process. Negotiations should be completed in a timely manner, but a reasonable employer isn't going to rescind your offer just for asking for something. (2) See #1: they know this is part of the process. BUT... also recognize when you're being offered a good deal, and don't negotiate a point for the sake of doing it. For example, if your suitor-institution has a 4-4 teaching load, and you're offered two years of 2-2 teaching, pushing for more course releases might be a misuse of your negotiating capital.

Take your time (but not too much): Most places will want no more than two weeks to elapse between offer and final decision. Try not to drag it out. On the other hand, if they say, "we need a decision in three days " (as one school did to a good friend of mine), something's going on there. Taking a job is a huge decision, and a commitment for a big change in your life. Don't let yourself be stampeded into it.

What I asked for: I asked for the library to purchase a subscription to a critical bibliographic database that I needed for my research (and that students could also use); I also asked for a one-semester junior sabbatical to work on the book. I got the database. But I also got two years of a reduced courseload that was part of my original offer. Still, I could have done better...

What I might have asked for: And here we have a list of things that you might consider when negotiating. No one person needs to ask for all of these; it depends on your offer, the institution type, and any number of other things. This is just a list of ideas:
  • Relocation expenses. Seriously, you may not think that moving yourself and your grad student furniture is a big deal (if you're like I was, you did it every 12-18 months anyway), but moving cross-country is another ballgame. Check out moving companies' rates -- how much will it cost a company to load, drive, and unload it? Then, see if you can get enough to wholly or partly cover a short apartment-hunting trip as well. My employer was pretty generous in this regard, but that was part of the offer, not something I negotiated for.
Welcome to your new home!
(seriously: don't rent without seeing it for yourself)

  • More money. Most institutions will probably start you at the middle of the range of what they'd planned on offering; sometimes you'll be lowballed; almost never will the opening offer be the very top. If you can ask for even $1,000 more a year, that adds up over the course of a career, where raises are based on percentages of a previous year's salary.
  • More resources. If you're in the sciences or social sciences, you're likely to need equipment and/or lab space. Science-y commenters can expand on this, I think, but my instinct is that it's better to ask up front for whatever you think you'll need over the next 5 years to further your research and that of your students. I've seen friends try to get lab equipment mid-career, and it's very difficult, especially in tight financial times. If you're in the humanities, think in terms of book/journal/database purchases for the library. That one little database I got from my pathetic negotiations costs only $600 a year, but it's essential to my work, and that of my advanced students. If you're at an R-1 (or whatever they call it these days), they expect you to want research resources. Go for it.
  • Likewise, start-up funds. This is linked to the previous point. If you're in a field that needs equipment, your start-up funds are what buys that equipment. Make sure you have enough. If you're in the humanities, your start-up funds can pay for research travel. Do you have enough to support you for, say, a one-month research trip to exotic foreign lands? Or, if you're an Americanist, can you get enough to pay for a full summer of jetting around from one archive to another all over the country? (Again, for the record, I used my funds stupidly.)
  • Course releases. This point is probably less applicable to SLACs. Your first two years are going to be difficult, as you write new syllabi, and get used to the mountains of paperwork. If you can get a few courses off for your first 2-4 semesters, this lets you get going. Of course, the trick is that you have to show that you're using that time -- not just for research, but to develop new courses.
I think this is about all I can think of off the top of my head -- basically, "stuff I wish I'd thought of when I had the chance." Other opinions?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Negotiations, Part 1: The Gender Issue

There's been some talk around the academic blogs lately about gender and working conditions: issues of mobility, salary compression (also here), and spousal hiring in general. And I, got to thinking about how we do or don't ask for more when we deserve it. I, like most people I know, took my first (and currently only) TT job without much in the way of negotiation, just happy that I had a job. Hell, I had no way to know what to negotiate for. More money? Well, there was only a narrow salary window at our unionized school, and I was placed smack in the middle of it. Other resources? Well... what? See, they don't cover this in all those mock-interviews you do in grad school.

And then, Historiann sent me a link to an article in the New York Times about women and salary negotiation (in the context of non-academic jobs, but whatever), and I got to really thinking again about the gender dynamic. And so I sat my butt down to write a post. And it appears that I have Opinions, because lo, I did go on and on. So I present here part one of a two-part post, partially in response to the NYT article, and partially some other random thoughts. Even broken down into two parts, it's a bit on longer than my usual posts, just FYI.

Let me start off by pointing out a nifty feature of the article: it has some nice figures (with links to the studies) from the research on the pay gap. It's worth looking at, so you have ammo if you ever end up in a conversation with one of those boneheads who insist that the pay gap is a feminist myth. It's not. In fact, when I was in Exotic Research City, the newspaper published results of a study that showed that, in the most recent six months of that country's economic crisis, the pay gap between men and women there had gone from a difference of 12% (much less of a gap than U.S. figures) to 17%. So things may be even worse than we yet know.

But, on to some other bits and snippets:

Snippet #1: "Even now, when women represent half the work force, they’re still paid considerably less than men — and part of that pay gap may be a result of what happens at the salary negotiation table."

Well, yes. But for academics, we have to add the fact that the most critical moment for this is at the first negotiation: when you are offered the job. Once you account for deductions, an extra $1,000 a year may not be much to start with, but most of our raises are based on a percentage of what we are already making, so that adds up over the course of a career. Also, academia has very few institutionalized opportunities to negotiate salary after this point (more on the non-institutionalized ones below), so this is an important moment. Yet the moment comes at a time when you are feeling less powerful than you actually are – most of us were just grateful that someone wanted to give us a chance, so we didn't think to ask for more than we were already getting.

Snippet #2: "So what’s a woman to do if she feels her work merits a raise?"

There is a problem that the NYT skips right over here: that most women don't ever feel this way, or at least not strongly enough that they don’t talk themselves out of it. That's a gender thing, pure and simple, and it's the first obstacle to overcome. Look at the work you do, compared to the expectations of your institution. If you can, get hold of salary figures for comparable colleagues. Pretend you are evaluating someone who isn't you: Is this person being underpaid?

Snippet #3: "In industries where salary standards were ambiguous, women accepted pay that was 10 percent lower, on average, than men."

And that about characterizes academia: they offer you a job (hooray!), then name a number. You have no context. Even if context is available (for example, published salaries of state employees in some states), you probably don't know about it. Are they lowballing you? Can you ask for more? How much? I have no answers here, except to see if your state is one that publishes salary figures. If I could do it all over again, I'd find something that seems reasonable, then ask for $1,000 more, because chances are that if you're facing your first job offer, you're underestimating what "reasonable" is. Remember: they won't rescind your offer for asking. If you get really intransigent, they might decide that negotiations have broken down, but a reasonable employer won't walk away on the first volley.

Moving on to the deeper gender dynamics:

Snippet #4: "A new study concludes that women need to take a different approach than men. Women, it suggests, should frame their requests in more nuanced ways to avoid undermining their relationship with their boss. […] You may be asking yourself, as I did, whether negotiating in ways more favorable for women means that we’re just succumbing to stereotypes — or whether the ends justify the means. […] 'When a woman negotiates persuasively for higher compensation, she clears the path for other women to follow.'


"Instead of explaining why you deserve a raise directly, for instance, frame it in terms of why it makes sense for the organization or the person you’re trying to persuade. 'Make the company the focus.' "

I agree with the statement that we're helping other women when we help ourselves. But the column author completely sidesteps the original question of the dangers of catering to gender expectations in our negotiation strategies. And just as every successfully negotiated raise normalizes the process for the women who follow us, so too does negotiating within gender confines perpetuate those confines for the next generation. The suggestion that we frame it in terms of others' needs, rather than our own, is a bad trap to play into. On the other hand, most of us, including those who consider ourselves feminists, have at least in part internalized the "nice women try to get along and don't make waves" part of the feminine mandate, so this negotiation style may be the only one we're comfortable with. It's a problem, and not one that I have an answer to.

But the important thing is that, once you've decided you do deserve more, you act on it. I think it's a good idea to time your requests to specific accomplishments. For example, if your university is cutting faculty lines, lecturer positions, and classes, this is probably not the best time to ask for a raise. But it's not too early to think about it, and to plan your strategy. If your research or teaching has recently won a competitive award (internal or external), you've got a very good platform. But these accomplishments don't come along very often, so look for other opportune moments. Have salary freezes meant that your incoming colleagues have leapfrogged your salary? Negotiate on the basis of equity. Your university may even have specific procedures in place for equity raises, but they just don't advertise them. Talk to your union rep, if you have one; they will know. Do you need more non-monetary resources (lab equipment, for example)? Outline specifically why you need what you need, and what you will do with it. Did you just get a big grant that brings money and prestige to the university? Mention it. Likewise if your work has been the subject of a special profile in the alumni magazine or periodic newsletter: if your work is valuable enough to them that they're trumpeting it, then you should kindly but firmly invite them to put their money where their mouth is.

Most importantly (and this goes back to point #2), practice not underrating your own accomplishments. ("Oh, everyone gets an NEH sooner or later… I was just lucky." NO. Luck may play a role, but you also kicked ass. Don't ever forget it.) If you really have trouble taking reasonable pride in your own accomplishments for your own sake, then do it for other women who come after you, who need a model for success.

Okay, so this has been more about what to do once you're already in a job. But what about that first negotiation? What should you ask for? More on that tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Commencement FUBAR

UPDATE: Do read the comments. Once again, Historiann immediately gets to the heart of the matter.

I do have a couple of posts I'm working on backed up, but right now I just need to vent about something. And it has to do with commencement.

At Urban University, commencement is optional for faculty. And it can be kind of irritating -- Urban U. has a student population of over 30,000, so commencement, even broken up into five separate ceremonies (two for my college alone) has an assembly-line feel to it. Plus, we share our ceremony with Big Rowdy Party Major, so not only is there whooping, hollering, and air horns; also they go first, then they get up and leave as soon as they are done, which never fails to piss me off. Worse yet, so do their faculty. From the front row.

((deep breath))

Still, I go, and breathe deeply when things start to irk me, and stand up and shake the hand of or give a hug to every one of our majors that processes by, even if I've never had them in class. This is about them, not about me. It is their moment, and I owe it to them (and their parents) to be there, and be fully respectful and attentive. I don't care if they were A students or barely squeaked by; for this two hours, once a year, it's all about them. And a lot of my department colleagues feel the same way -- we usually have the best faculty turnout, and are kind of proud of that fact.

Plus, truth be known, I kinda like wearing my regalia. It's the one time of year in our very casual university where I feel like an old-skool Professor-with-a-capital-P.

So, I put in my annual order for rental regalia** by e-mail while I was in Exotic Research City, scheduled my research trip and Kalamazoo-related travel so that I would be back to participate. And I was glad I did, because I found out in early April that one of my M.A. students won one of the college's two awards for "best M.A. thesis." Dang. Definitely not missing this year's ceremony.

So, you can imagine how distressed I was to get home from my Excellent Midwestern Adventure to find a note in my inbox to the effect that the College staffer in charge of such things had not submitted any of the orders that our department staff had sent them back in March. Meaning that, although commencement is next week, and although our faculty takes commencement seriously, we (with the exception of those who purchased their own regalia somewhere along the line) will be showing up in Urban University-themed robes and M.A. hoods that the bookstore scrounged together, "though not all sizes may be available."***

**I was very excited, as this was the first year that I remembered my cap size without having to measure: 7 1/2. Yes, I have a big ol' head -- what about it?

***On the other hand, I guess it's an opportunity for me to walk the walk of my egalitarian talk, no?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Birthday Madness!

No, not mine.

T. & I met on a photo-sharing website several years ago, commenting on each others' photos. But circumstances have meant that she can't really travel from her home in Ohio, and I'm never in the area, except when I'm in Kalamazoo, and then I have to turn around and head home to finish the semester. But this spring, Kalamazoo and sabbatical have meant that I had the opportunity to finally meet her, and she was nice enough to let me stay. So, that's two lovely and gracious midwestern friends hostessing me in one trip, which has been fantastic.

And by coincidence, it's T's birthday. So we celebrated by going out to breakfast, then getting all amped up on coffee -- a LOT of coffee...

...and taking our cameras out for a spin. We managed to get into two abandoned buildings...

...and then we feasted on cheese and olives...

...after which, I supervised while she and her son made a birthday cake, which we will be feasting on later tonight.

Happy Birthday, T!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Random Bullets of Kalamazoo

  • Yes, the unbound galleys were out for viewing. Yes, I was unreasonably giddy.
  • Also, person at Dream Press table informed me that there were at least two preorders of the book. I've sold two copies, Mom!
  • Skipped the dance this year -- too damned tired. Next year, I promise.
  • This year, I felt a bit like I was always running, trying to catch up with someone or let them catch up with me. The sad result was that I was never fully present with the person I was with, because half of my brain was frantically trying to arrange my schedule. What the hell? I am not that important. Next time, I think I will plan a couple things in advance, but let everything else just take its course, and not try to juggle. All part of the whole "be present" plan.
Am now off to pack, then head to meet a fellow amateur photographer friend in southwest Ohio. After that, it's back to Grit City, and a week of sleep, if I can manage it.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Kalamazoo: preliminary report

1. Awesome blogger meetup. I think I met Vaulting and Vellum last year, but I somehow didn't know they were so fun. Lots of other cool people, too.

2. Paper went well, but even better was the success of the panel itself: in a room with seating for 48, we had an additional 38 sitting on the floor, including half a dozen who went ahead and sat just outside the open doors. Just to hear our papers. Mine, as I said, was fine, but my co-panelists totally rocked the house, and I learned a lot.

3. I've been unprepared on the scheduling front, trying to meet up with people for lunches, dinners & coffees, and somehow not managing. Missed Dream Press' publishers' party, and haven't even seen the entrance to the book display yet.

4. Volunteered to organize a panel for next year. Why do I do these things?

More later...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

On to the next thing

Still thinking about some of the things that the post & comments brought up yesterday. Between that, and hanging out with my midwest friend who is an actual grown-up who says sensible things that I need to listen to, I've got a lot to chew on. But I'll spare you another does of navel-gazing for now.

For now, I'm enjoying one last morning surrounded by beautiful trees with leaves that shade of bright green they only are in spring, a breakfast at this small town's lovely café, and the company of a lovely person.

THEN... it's off to the next thing, which is Kalamazoo. Seeing friends, delivering a paper that miraculously doesn't suck, then another social call.

After which, I will work on the whole becoming-a-grown-up thing. I swear.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How to Be a Professor: SLAC vs. Big University

Only time for a short post today: in anticipation of Kalamazoo, I've taken off early to visit a friend who teaches at Small College a few hours away. They're in their dead week here, so my timing is fortuitous. But she's been telling me about what she does and how she does it, and I realize how many different things "professor" can mean.

My friend not only hostessed, but also totally made me a pie.

I did my undergrad at an urban SLAC. That's my model for how things should be done. But it's so very hard to import that model to a four-year urban school with over 25,000 undergraduates, over half of them transfers from two-year colleges, the vast majority of them first-generation college students, almost all working at least 20 hours a week in outside jobs, and far from all from English-speaking households.

What I see here at Small College? I want this for my students. And I want to be the kind of professor that my friend here is. But I don't know where or how to begin. Any ideas?

UPDATE: After reading the comments below, I've come to a totally different (and only partially rhetorical) question, which perhaps is more the one I should be asking: Is it perhaps my attitude toward the possibilities of a particular institution, more than the institution itself, that is getting in the way of me being the teacher I want to be?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Page 99 Test

I am preparing my paper for Kalamazoo, and so turned to thinking about visiting the table for Dream Press, where it has been suggested that a not-quite-published version of my book may be on display. Or not.

But really, the publication date (according to Amazon) is right around the corner. And so maybe it's fortuitous that, while I was supposed to be working on revising my paper, I stumbled upon a link (over at Historiann's place) to "the page 99 test" blog. I'd never heard of this before, but according to the blog owner, English novelist Ford Maddox Ford once said: ""Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

So for fun, I decided to apply this to my own book's page proofs. Here's what I found on this page:

  • A rather interesting subtopic, and at least one intriguing (to me) question posed
  • Good weaving together of primary and secondary sources
  • An awareness of how this subtopic might play out in regions other than the one I'm studying/awareness of the broader scholarly field
  • generally good writing
  • where original analysis appears, it's generally good and subtle

  • no real link to the huge big argument of the book
  • overuse of scare quotes
  • most of this page is engaging with broader literature, so there's less of my work on display here

On the whole, if someone started with this page, do I think they'd want to read more of the book? You betcha. So I guess that's a success.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A note to people e-mailing me asking me to do something for them


I don't answer e-mails addressed to "hey."**

**The only exception to this is friends of long standing. But if you're asking me for my professional services, please be professional.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Following What You Love vs. Paying the Bills

(As they say in various recovery communities: trigger alert! (un-)Employment-related post follows. Click away now if you don't want to read it.)

I talked yesterday (okay, chatted online) with a journalist friend. This guy is really good at what he does, has won at least one national award (that I know of), and was doing the print/online hybrid thing years before most people knew what was what there.

He's been out of work. Picking up shifts in a coffee shop to help make ends meet (his wife isn't yet working full-time either) and support his two year-old son. Looking for jobs and hoping for someone to recognize his undeniable talent, and pay for it.

I used to joke that my younger sister, as a bartender, was in one of the only recession-proof jobs. Then she lost hers when the bar she worked for changed hands and the new owner decided to "make some changes." She found another bartending job a few weeks ago. Hates it, because the guy also owns strip clubs, and is a bit of a sleazeball, but she's got a six year-old, a new baby, and a new mortgage, and off and on is single-momming it (it's complicated).**

Sometimes I dream about life at a fancy SLAC, surrounded by trees and engaged students, with my own office and research money and the like. Sometimes I just dream of not having to pay for my own photocopies. But I don't always take the time to take stock and realize that, short of the complete collapse of my state's education system ((knock wood)) or gross dereliction of duty on my part, I cannot be fired. I need to be grateful for that more often -- internally, anyway, even if I continue to sign up for Union actions to push for better.

But here's the point: Our recent discussions about whether or not (or when and under what circumstances) one should go to grad school, what one should expect of the labor market, etcetera, aren't taking the emotional factors into account. These are wrenching decisions, whether you're in academia or out of it, and it's not all about crunching the numbers (number of Ph.D.s versus number of jobs; monthly paycheck divided by frequent flier miles accumulated flying to see your partner once a month; pay per adjunct gig divided by number of weekly miles on the freeway). If your passion is Restoration drama, but you know the abysmal state of the job market, should you go anyway? Is it more important to find a job that's likely to keep a roof over your head (and the heads of your loved ones) in the long term? What sort of compromises should be made for a paycheck? Is it better to make them before investing (or wasting, depending on your perspective) 8 years of your young life in grad school, or should you roll the dice, and believe that those 8 years have a value in and of themselves? What's the psychic trade-off for walking away from what you love for pragmatic reasons, and is it worth it?

**Unexamined privilege note: unlike my first two examples, and unlike many of my commenters, I am single, with no children. So my calculus is somewhat less complicated. It's a lot easier to cut back on expenses when it's just my own.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

For-Profit Education: Ripping off the Working Class?

For many months now, bloggers like Historiann, Roxie's World, and Clio Bluestocking have been sounding the alarm about the creep of the for-profit model into higher education, to the detriment of actual, well, education. Today, Historiann has a discussion on last night's PBS/Frontline special, "College, inc."

I work at a four-year public university that serves a population made up primarily of working-class first-generation college students and non-traditional students returning to school -- the same demographic that these for-profits are going after, to the detriment of these already vulnerable groups. I encourage you to watch the video, then take part in the discussion over at Historiann's place.

Considering the giant smoking crater that the profit-driven mentality has blown in the national and global economy in the last years, I'm not convinced that the "business model" is the best direction for something as important as education.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Group Project Idea!

Spent the days since arrival home sick as a dog.

Am feeling better, but now facing deadline pressure, as Kalamazoo fast approaches, and today is the first day I've been able to work on my paper. So I have an idea: how about if each regular commenter takes one page of my Kalamazoo paper. I will send you a title, and will do the intro and conclusion myself. This means that I only need 8-9 volunteers.

Who's first in line?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Service: Before Tenure vs. After

So, today in a bid to get people to volunteer for college-level service, the committee on committees published a list of who had already volunteered, then broke it down by department. In my department there were no surprises: the same five midcareer women and one senior man. In five years, and in ten, the list will likely be substantially the same. That's one topic. But that's not my point here.

The big change: this year, I was on the list. And this gets me thinking about service, pre- and post-tenure.

When I hear about service as it relates to the tenure line, I tend to hear the same narrative: that one of the great things about tenure is that you finally get to say "no." In many places, junior faculty, in addition to heavy teaching loads and inflated publication expectations, shoulder a large burden of the service work in their departments. They don't say no because they are conscious of the fact that they are being watched and possibly judged – are they good department citizens? A leitmotif of these discussions is that what is true for junior faculty in general may be even more true for female junior faculty, and even more for mothers, who feel pressure (whether it's internal or external) to prove that being a parent doesn't mean that they can't do their jobs. So, once these junior faculty reach tenure, one of the things that they joyously do is start saying "no." Sometimes this means cutting back from an unsustainibly high level; other times, it means saying no to everything, figuring they've paid their dues for six years, and it's time to let someone else take over. They use their time for more research, better teaching, more time with family, or actually developing a more rounded life outside of academia.

Of course, the more negative way to view this is as faculty "checking out" after tenure, perpetuating a system in which the junior faculty who follow them are sentenced to the same six years of hard time that they were. But either way you view it, these faculty are exhausted.

My situation has been different: here, junior faculty are expected to do some service, but it's generally at the department level, with one or two college-level things thrown in over the course of the pre-tenure years. It is, in other words, humane.

And do you know what has happened, in my case at least? I find that I want to do more service, now that I have tenure. I have experience, I have some institutional memory, I have friends and acquaintances in other departments who I can build coalitions with to get things done, I know who the crazy people are, and how to avoid and/or appease them. So I've found myself saying "yes" more: yes, I'll serve on that university-level committee that meets twice a month. Yes, I'll be a mentor. Yes, I'll edit the online newsletter for organization X. Yes, I'll research grant opportunities for my junior colleagues.

So here's the thing: if you believe in faculty governance, sooner or later you need to step up. But isn't it better to let the greater burden fall on those of us who have a little less to worry about in terms of tenure (and who have toughened up enough to handle the disillusionment and frustration that goes with university-level service)? Wouldn't decreasing the service load on junior faculty result in less burnout and turnover? Do you think that tenured faculty would be more (or less) likely to take on a service load later if they had been protected from it earlier? Would this model work where you work?