Kelly J. Baker has a thoughtful and interesting report on her blog about why she’s decided to take a break from academia for the year, and perhaps forever:
In May, I quit my job and moved to Florida. Both decisions might seem big (they were), but they were remarkably easy. My lecturer gig paid little, the teaching load was heavy, and my department was dysfunctional. Leaving behind students, friends, and colleagues was hard. Watching my daughter mourn the loss of her friends was harder.
. . . . . .
After six years on the job market, I found myself burned out. I’ve had conference interviews and campus visits. I’ve been a second choice for tenure track jobs multiple times. I applied for jobs while teaching three and four classes a semester. And I finished my first book, wrote articles and book reviews, received a contract for a new book, edited a journal, organized panels, and experimented with an ebook. The harder I worked, I thought naively, the more likely I was to get a job. Optimism is hard habit to kick.
During this past spring semester, something broke. My tireless drive to research and write dissipated. The latest round of rejections hit harder than previous rounds, and I was tired. Why make myself get up extra early to write if there was no tenure track job for me? Why spend the time researching when I would rather spend time with my daughter? Why kill myself for a job opportunity that would never materialize? I found that I couldn’t do the work I used to love. My motivation stalled.Something broke, and it seemed irreparable.This was compounded by my increasing frustration with my job as a lecturer. I liked my students, I enjoyed teaching, and I despised the undervaluing of teaching by my department head. I disliked the hierarchy of talents, in which tenure track and tenured faculty were valued more than those of us who just taught. Being a lecturer meant that my publications could be brushed aside, and that my experience and opinions mattered less. Frustrating doesn’t quite cover it.
The desire to throw up my hands and walk away chased me through the day. There must be more to academic life than this. I hoped for something that would make my training and efforts redeemable, and I struggled to find it. Why should I stay? That thought is a dangerous one. Once it roots, nothing makes it disappear. It remains and confronts. It pounces me in Florida now as I try to figure out what I am going to do next.
Go read the whole thing. Can you relate? What do you think?
I think a post like this not only highlights the craziness of the academic job market (for tenure track jobs, that is; they still need our labor, otherwise, why all of the adjunct positions?), but also the unjust superiority complex that many on the tenure track believe separates us from our non-tenure track brothers and sisters.
34 thoughts on ““Something broke, and it seemed irreparable.””
Forget about everything but your students and how much you want to honor the people you are teaching about.
I read Kelly’s post and say “better to move sooner rather than later.”
I walked away from my tenured position in 2009. Had to. Physical threats, verbal abuse, department dysfunction (including the deposing of two chairs), a parade of administrators through the revolving door of the dean’s office. Off into the Great Recession (unaware when I put in my resignation with a year’s advance notice), and a problematic job market. (No savings now; reducing retirement and taking a tax hit to make ends meet.)
While I was completing my last year of employment at Dys U, I looked for an academic position. Several interviews, but the recession ended all that. The next year lovely friends at a local university needed someone to teach a variety of courses. I cast my job net wider, but did apply to specific academic jobs which seemed to fit my expertise and twenty years’ experience. Publications, teaching and advising awards, grants, fellowships, international and national symposia, editing, curating: had it on the cv.
I was asked to apply for one particular position at a state university. When I received the rejection, the email heading included the word “Sorry!” and the explanation was even more unexpected and insulting: because I was merely an adjunct (never mind the 20+ page cv), the search committee chair wrote, the committee could NEVER persuade the dean that I was a viable candidate. No matter I had been asked to apply. No matter that I was still producing work in the field, some of which was being taught in the program seeking to hire.
It’s more than a superiority complex that stymies academics. It’s an inferiority complex incorporating fear and fecklessness and professional self-loathing.
I liked my students, I enjoyed teaching, and I despised the undervaluing of teaching by my department head. I disliked the hierarchy of talents, in which tenure track and tenured faculty were valued more than those of us who just taught. Being a lecturer meant that my publications could be brushed aside, and that my experience and opinions mattered less.
As a full-time contingent faculty member in a teaching-only position, this is the part that frustrates and demoralizes me most. I think I’ve been somewhat more lucky in chairs and colleagues than Baker (though both people and their reactions to contingent faculty vary widely), but even if every one of my colleagues gave lip service to the value of my work in the classroom *and* the quality of the research and writing I manage to do, there would still be the structural indications that undergraduate teaching, especially of core courses, just isn’t valued. I teach twice as much as my tenure-track colleagues, but, after over twenty years in the classroom (and over a decade at my present institution), I don’t make as much as the greenest tenure-track assistant professor. And the disparity persists even though teaching core courses is the main (quite possibly the sole) department activity that pays for itself (not that money should be the main measure of the worth of an activity, but shouldn’t tuition dollars paid for core courses in large extent go to support those courses, with perhaps a bit of subsidy for upper-level teaching, and the research that feeds it?).
While I’d prefer a job that involved more research and less teaching, I’m willing to accept that teaching is the work that needs to be done, and to devote most of my energies to it. I’m also willing to concentrate on core courses. In short, I’m willing to do what needs to be done, for my students, my university, my state, my country, and to do it cheerfully. I also really do believe that humanities research is important, even as I sometimes question the value of the umpteenth published article making what appears to be an already well-worn argument. I don’t think we’d be harmed by having more faculty publishing more slowly and more selectively, while doing more teaching, especially if that meant more faculty members also held full-time jobs with service that helped integrate them into the university, and with at least enough of a research/professional development expectation to keep them current in their fields.
What I have trouble accepting is that I’m doing the hard, necessary , basic work of the university (more teaching, and more difficult teaching) while others are reaping respect and rewards that my work (and my students’ tuition dollars) is/are subsidizing. I know it’s not *quite* that simple, but sometimes it sure feels that way.
The whole of academia has insane. Teaching is a relief. The students are great. Everything else is in shambles.
I am three days into the fall semester and keep thinking about quitting. “Something broke, and it seemed irreparable…” describes the situation to a T.
Kelly Baker was in a department in which tenured and tenure-track faculty are expected to do both research and teaching, while “lecturers” are expected only to teach. The problem is that she was doing the job of an assistant professor, yet had not been able to get hired anywhere as an assistant professor. I think the central question here is not whether the profession should have better rewards for faculty who only teach, because Kelly Baker was not one of those faculty (nor is Contingent Cassandra). I think the real question is whether the expectations for these categories of faculty should be differentiated less. What if a “lecturer” who is active in research could be given lighter teaching responsibilities than is normal for her rank, and she would be evaluated for her research as well as her teaching?
EngLitProf: this struck me as well. Baker was only evaluated on her teaching, as though her (considerable and impressive) research and publication record didn’t exist.
Isn’t this the same prejudice (or fantasy) that permits the “regular” faculty to look down on the adjuncts & lecturers? The prejudice exists because the regular faculty imagine that lecturers only teach, but anyone who’s been on the academic job market in the past 20 years knows full well that the majority of adjuncts or lecturers are active researchers *because* (like Baker) they hope to jump to a tenure-track job.
IOW: no wonder she is demoralized.
But so is Matt, and that troubles me as I think he’s tenured now.
I was a demoralized full professor. I loved teaching and my students (still do) as well as my research program. But I could not tolerate the administration under which I worked (at a large public university that had not managed growth very well).
I didn’t like the way I was treated but even more, I did not like the way university support staff were treated. There was contempt for unions (faculty and staff were all organized, graduate students were not) and what struck me as clear examples of union busting (redefining jobs from classified to unclassified categories and so on). There are only so many times you can hear empty seats in classrooms described as unrealized revenue before you do actually vomit. There are only so many times you can explain to a grants administrator that your plan for the book you asked for permission to buy is to, you know, read it. They hired a new provost who uses all the latest business school language and who set immediately upon a path to fritter away student fees on one-off spending on course conversions from IRL to online only.
I just had to get out. Happily–and I realize how fortunate I am in this–I had been asked to apply for a job at a university I knew to have a much better administrative culture. I got the job, resigned my tenure, moved with my family, and am starting over. I was appointed at an appropriate rank but I must go through this university’s tenure-like process before that becomes permanent. I’ve done that once though and figure I can do it again.
I felt bad about leaving my equally long (and longer) suffering colleagues behind but the situation was just too unhealthy. My kids like to tell me how much calmer I am now.
Tenured faculty suffer as well from the adjunctification of the academy as it is tenured faculty who bear the brunt of service and administration. With fewer tenure-track lines there are fewer faculty to advise, serve on committees, deal with the omnipresent demand for assessment reports, run programs etc etc. I don’t mean to suggest that I have it worse than adjuncts, b/c I don’t, but I feel like there is a whole stinky mess in the academy that only benefits the administrators making the real money.
Everyone is making good points here, but I’d like to second Nikki’s. I have friends who are tenure-track or tenured, but with crushing service burdens because their tenure-line faculty ranks have been all but demolished. Or their teaching loads are going up while their research and service expectations remain the same, purely because they’re being starved for lines. This is everyone’s problem.
And while there are many, many, talented contingent faculty members, the hiring and vetting process varies, both by rank and by institution, and having all non-TT faculty teaching intro courses doesn’t serve TT faculty members well, even if they’re foolish enough to think it does: at a minimum, TT lose touch with the full range of students in the major, where they’re starting from, or what they can expect from them when those students reach advanced courses — and in the worst cases (when the non-TT faculty aren’t vetted, mentored, and actively included in the life of the department, including discussions about curriculum and pedagogy), TT faculty can wind up with erratically prepared students or a shrinking major.
There are tremendous wrongs done to contingent faculty. But even if TT faculty don’t give two shits about that, they ought to see it as being in their own — purely selfish — long-term interests to help reform practices in their departments.
Why kill myself for a job opportunity that would never materialize?
That is so true. We’re excited to be hiring this year, two francophone positions! But it’s a drop in the bucket compared to needs and available talent.
That said, I can’t fathom any group that doesn’t value adjuncts’ research given that they are our colleagues, peers and sometimes collaborators. Is there only so much enthusiasm and collegiality to go around that we can’t all celebrate the achievements of others in our fields who work with us, whether or not they’re tenured or on a tenure-track?
In addition to what I said above, I’d second Nikki’s and Flavia’s observation: there are real costs stemming from the overuse of contingent faculty, especially in terms of service load, to TT faculty (especially, in my observation, recently-tenured associate professors, and even more particularly, for whatever combination of reasons stemming from individual personality, cultural expectations, and the like, recently-tenured *female* associate professors). In fact, I’ve wondered more than once whether my department’s tenured faculty’s research really benefits as much as they’d hoped from a move over the last decade or so from 3/3 to 2/2 loads, because that move was made possible in part by increased use of contingent faculty (both full- and part-time) who have to be hired, evaluated, etc., etc. (interestingly, scuttlebut has it that they’re/we’re actually pretty hard to fire/non-renew, at least for non-programmatic/cost-cutting reasons, which is, indeed, also a problem).
The disconnect between intro courses and upper-level ones is another very real problem, especially for majors such as English, which are losing numbers. Since I teach a writing-in-the-disciplines course that includes an exercise in which students investigate the research of a professor in their department, I also get to see the students’ disappointment/puzzlement when they realize that “their” professor, that instructor from an intro class in their chosen field whom they liked so much, isn’t, as Baker’s conference interlocutor would put it, a “real academic” — either (s)he doesn’t have time, given hir course load, to do research, or hir research activities aren’t listed on the department web page, in the university’s booklet listing faculty publications, etc., etc. As a colleague puts it (and as a recent study found: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/08/12/study-finds-choice-major-most-influenced-quality-intro-professor ), college students can be a bit like ducklings: they imprint on a professor from an intro course, and want to follow hir to upper-level courses. When that chain is broken (and even more so if the professor disappears to another job, and/or doesn’t do advising), something is lost.
Reading shitte like that definitely triggers some survivor’s guilt.
I strongly agree with the last statements by Nikki, Flavia, and Contingent Cassandra, but I’m not sure I understand Flavia’s recommendation that tenure-track faculty “see it as being in their own [. . .] long-term interests to help reform practices in their departments.” Obviously, tenure-track faculty should keep on fighting to pry more tenure-track lines from our universities, but how should we change practices within our departments? Treat non-tenure-track full-time faculty well, many would say, and I can’t disagree. If I were a department chair writing a yearly evaluation of a lecturer like Kelly Baker, I would acknowledge her research accomplishments, even though they technically are not part of her job, and maybe I would try to assign her courses that would fit in better with her research, if I could do so without harming a tenured or tenure-track person’s work. But should I be making unofficial promotions? For one thing, if I do so, I am being unfair to the other people out there who would apply if we advertized a tenure-track job. A department needs to argue to the university that a tenure-track line is needed, and the argument is weakened if your non-tenure-track faculty are doing the job of a tenure-track person.
I have a number of responses. My first is about the pressure academics put on themselves. I hik the line in Baker’s post that jumped out at me was her reference to her debt to her a academic training. Huh? She doesn’t owe her training anything. A second thought is that it’s no wonder she lost her drive to work. She was trying to do the work of a TT faculty member while not having those resources. A related response is about how destructive personally the “academic speed-up” of the last 20-25 years is. I get the sense that many people are pushing themselves to publish more to publish than because they have something to say. It’s not that they wouldn’t still be writing and publishing, but maybe at a less frantic pace. Finally, I wish that academics valued kindness more. It goes along way. But we’ve mostly been good capitalist worker bots, working ever harder, valuing only that which gets us ahead. We are not kind to ourselves, or each other.
I run a center which now has two post-docs, both really smart and interesting. But there were 90 applications for our post-docs, and there were 88 really good people, most of whom probably ended up as lecturers or adjuncts somewhere. I always try to remember that in the current academic world, getting a TT job requires both ability and some luck; lecturers often are just as able, but not as lucky. Where I am the criteria for evaluation of lecturers is specified in the union contract, and it’s all teaching. But we can still support them in staying engaged in research.
I also think Kelly Baker was wise to give herself time to think, reflect. The really poisonous people are the ones who hit the point she did, and then hang in.
@CC: Ducklings! I love it. But I also agree with what you are saying there, and I agree more generally with CC, Flavia, & Nikki’s points. There was a great article circulating around my facebook a couple of weeks ago about transforming departments into ones without adjuncts, and doing it without costing the administration anything. It was very interesting – I’m not sure I thought zero was good number, but it was a potent reminder that it is possible for the tide to turn, but that tenured faculty have to be behind that push to change the system. They have to see in their own self interest as well as in the interests of justice. (I would provide the link but I can’t find it anymore.)
It’s maddening the amount of groupthink academics engage in. The idea of not hiring someone simply because ze has been an adjunct – even an incredibly productive one – is ridiculous, but it is common. The same happens to tenured faculty at smaller institutions – fancier places won’t hire them even when they have extraordinary CVs and crushing 4/4 loads. Fancy R1s want to be able to say they “got” someone from somewhere “good”. What on earth does any of that matter? What’s the quality of the person’s work, is the question we should be asking.
The AAUP has had a proposal out (since 2009, I think: http://www.aaup.org/report/tenure-and-teaching-intensive-appointments ) calling for “stabilizing” the faculty by “converting” present contingent lines (and the people currently holding them) to teaching-intensive tenure-track lines. Re-reading (re-skimming, actually) the report, I’m seeing that it privileges tenure over other issues such as pay parity and job structure (not surprising for the AAUP); I’d put more emphasis on pay parity and job structure (especially service for all, and especially service on relevant curriculum committees for the faculty who teach the majority of the courses in a particular part of the curriculum).
Ideally, I’d also like to see the possibility of people moving back and forth over the course of a career (probably via multi-year agreements) between various balances of teaching, research, and service. Being more explicit about what constitute reasonable expectations for each, alone and in combination with the other elements, might help combat the speed-up that Susan mentions. But part of combating that has to be to get the majority of the faculty in the same boat: tenure-track or, if necessary, not. I’d be willing to see tenure go away as long as it really went entirely away, including for high-level administrators who presently can make spectacular messes and then retreat to cushy light-load teaching jobs if they can’t find another institution willing to let them make a new and even bigger mess. From my perspective, what really isn’t working is tenure for the increasingly few; it’s divisive, and breeds strange, unproductive forms of comparison, competition, and envy (on the part of non-tenure track types) and defensiveness (on the part of the tenure-track types). Theoretically, the present system should empower the tenured few to stand up for the rights of the untenured many, but, as others have pointed out above, even when the willingness is there, the power of the tenured faculty to change the situation is, in practice, quite limited. My main caveat to abolishing tenure would be that there would need to be measures to maintain the balance of power between the faculty and all administrators: faculty would need to evaluate faculty for renewal; more administrators would need to also be teachers, rising from the teaching ranks and being expected to return to those ranks after a specified time; there would need to be fewer administrators (especially non-teaching ones) overall; and there would need to be a formal system for keeping faculty and administrative salaries in some sort of reasonable relationship to each other (movement back and forth would, of course, also encourage this).
Reading pieces likes this affirms my belief that one should not enter a PhD program because you can’t imagine doing anything else. Instead, be passionate about pursuing your interests, view graduate training as an opportunity to investigate ideas and careers, and continually envision (and even seek) satisfying alternatives. As someone once said (I wish I could remember the source), “if you can’t imagine doing anything else, you’re not very creative.”
(This doesn’t eliminate the problems adjuncts face, but would, I think, temper individual expectations and perhaps lead people to jump the adjunct ship before getting burnt out, and if fewer people needed to perform the adjunct-hustle, well, maybe the system would shift a bit?)
One comment regarding the AAUP report, CC: there is a big difference between converting a line from contingent to tenure-track, and converting the specific person who presently holds the contingent position. Even if the expectations for the positions are roughly the same, the market for the tenure-track position will be different, and there should be an open, wide-ranging search, not least because we should be fair to those underemployed people out there who would be eager to apply.
Yes! I was thinking of that article in my comment! But, equally, I have no idea where it’s gone. I thought it was in the Chronicle, but can’t find it.
What CPP said. I swear, there is not a single darn day that goes by in which I don’t thank my lucky stars.
Even without changing the employment structures, tenure line faculty can treat lecturers with respect, as colleagues. Where I am there are two types of lecturers. Most of them are lecturers, paid to teach,and evaluated only on teaching. They have a relatively good contract, they are unionized, and we can’t ask them to serve on committees. The teaching load is set by the contract. Anything beyond their classes they are supposed to be paid for. After six years, they get multi-year contracts. A few are on a track essentially for tenure as lecturers; they serve on committees, and ultimately get security of employment. But they are evaluated on teaching, and on their work in SOTL. So we can’t change the criteria on which lecturers are evaluated. But we can acknowledge them as important colleagues in our educational enterprise.
I think about my grad school friend–the best in our cohort, I always thought–who was drafted and went to Vietnam. He came back, and had a decent life, but it was hard. He never finished his PhD, and died much too young. And my women friends in my cohort, who were amazingly talented, and almost none of whom wound up with a PhD and a tenure-track job, for reasons every reader of this blog knows. The gods and fortune make sport of us, and the biggest fools are those who wind up in good positions and believe they are there simply because they deserve to be.
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To emphasize what so many have said already, this doesn’t just give me a bad case of survivor’s guilt, it also underscores that luck and not skill makes the difference. As does institutional culture, Nikki reminds me. Some places try harder and maybe the effort has an impact.
Was this the article that Flavia and Perpetua were thinking of: http://utotherescue.blogspot.fr/2013/05/when-tenure-track-faculty-take-on.html
One of the great things about this article was the specificity with which it outlined the tactics the group used to push for more TT lines. As well as the list of enemies, some expected and some not, they acquired along the way.
That non-TT faculty were among those enemies highlights one of the most painful catch-22’s of this new structural situation, namely they way it sets different groups of faculty against each other. One only has to read the Chronicle forums or the jobs wiki to see, on the one hand, job applicants outraged about a non-TT faculty member they see as an unjustly privileged “internal” candidate, and on the other, non-TT faculty outraged that conversion of an adjunct or lecturer position to the TT means reapplying for and likely losing their own job to a shiny new PhD.
But the PSU project gives some hope that there is something TT faculty can do to begin changing institutional culture and practice locally.
I find myself agreeing with so many of these comments, especially Susan’s. We may or may not be able to change the terms of employment for NTT faculty (though we can try), but we can support a culture of respect and support, monetary as well as collegial.
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I came across these posts late, probably because I quit my TT job this summer and I’m disengaging from academia all together.
However, I agree with undine’s summary and also want to add: increasingly the terms of employment for tenure-stream people also lacks respect and support, both monetary and collegial.
One day I will be ready to write something longer, but in short, I went to my chair and dean and said “I need these working conditions addressed” and they didn’t listen and didn’t believe me. When I pushed on it, they implied and then told me that I should feel lucky to have a TT job at all. And, when I quit because they refused to address my problems, they were surprised.
Why someone would pursue further employment at a school that treated their faculty the way I was treated made no sense to me. My decision to leave academia altogether is a much longer story, but I live in a fabulous, affordable, booming city an I’m not dragging my family around for a tenure-track job at another miserable school in a horrible market.
That sounds like a blow for mental heath in our lifetime, wini. I’m sorry that your chair and dean were so unresponsive to your critique, but alas, I’m also unsurprised. It’s a buyers market, and we’re the sellers.
I too once left a crummy, abusive job. I left it for another TT job, but if I had not been successful in getting another academic job, I would have left the profession. Life is too short to be unhappy, even for the dubious prize of lifetime job security.
Back when I started blogging, I blogged a lot about the ways in which tenure distorts the academic job market. I believe that we still need it–nothing like being called a “5th columnist” and a key part of the “hate America first brigade,” ca. 2001-2004, to make one appreciate academic freedom!–but I resent the way that it frequently becomes a pretext that sustains an abusive work environment. Then the Great Recession happened, and all Americans who work for their daily bread came to know precarity as capital-intensive institutions used their leverage to squeeze more work out of those of us who weren’t laid off, and things only continued to get worse.
I need to remember once again the great lesson of the George W. Bush presidency: things can always get worse! And of course, they have.
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I am not even near what any of you have accomplished educationally speaking, but just have to say something, as I have 4 Phd’s in the school of hard knocks. I had tenure in a way, I suppose as it took me ten years to get my Bachelors Degree from the University of Hawaii. I don’t think there is a job on the face of the Earth where there is not someone or a group of someones that are just so miserable with their lives that they take great sadistic joy in torturing their fellow coworkers. See article on the defination of Evil people. From my perspective most highly educated people are pompous rear ends anyway it’s a wonder any of you can get along at all, as in my experience you all think you are right.
Why don’t you just get a simple job for awhile, cut back on the way you live, walk on the beach, play mud pie with your kids. I just got through watching my beloved mother die of pancreatic cancer she was a 7th grade math teacher for almost 60 years and had to deal with a group of people like you big fat over degreed, giant egoed whiners who in the pecking order of education consistantly made my Mom’s life a living Hell on an off for years. She’s gone now just like the Last Lecture Guy do you think anyone really cares anymore? I doubt it. Stop complaining, count your simple Blessings every day, hot shower, clean sheets, a door that locks behind you, ice cream in the freezer. Good God use all that education you have to find a way to Peace in your Hearts. And P.S. to Mr. 80 page CV get the heck over yourself, you need to open a shell stand in the Bahamas and get a bit of sun as well as perspective, no one in their right mind wants to read 80 pages of a freaking resume. I’m only sort of sorry if I ruffled feathers, you people need to wash off the whole high horse thing and live in the every day world for at least five minutes…I dare you.
One other thing, the higher education system as we know it is a dinosaur, it’s over people. All you are doing is training more professor’s who are going to want your jobs and tenure. Seriously it’s hard to believe education as we know it is still going, or is it? All of you are in a dream land. Funnist part of all you the the ones with these empty jobs and crap loads of education don’t even get it???
I wish I agreed with the student part. I sought refuge from the politics and never ending job description creep by fleeing to a regional campus. The F2F classes there have never materialized given the working class demographics of the student body there and so I now am sentenced to spending my last days in academia in the ether of online world. I rarely meet my students and know little about them. My role online is largely dealing with technical problems I generally have no ability to fix and negotiating a never-ending stream of excuses for failures to participate and submit required work on time.
Whatever else this is, it’s not teaching. But the swollen classes (up to 75 in intensive writing sections alone) and constant turmoil of FTE driven campus politics has left me with few options. Fortunately, retirement looms. And for the record, this bittersweet rumination comes from a veteran college instructor of 30 years with teaching awards and a Fulbright under his belt.
Dysfunctional U, indeed.