highered

Oh Captain, my Therapist!

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Note: a big thanks to Vimala Pasupathi for the constructive conversations that culminated in this post.

If you are a college-level educator, you have most likely experienced the following scenario: a once-promising student stops attending class or turning in her assignments. You know this student, her work ethic and temperament, and thus, her uncharacteristic behavior concerns you. You send the student several email inquiries — gentle nudges about upcoming assignments, reminders that her grade is free-falling, offers to chat during your office hours. Finally, the student shows up in your office looking wan and shaken. She tells you she’s been having trouble getting up in the morning. The thought of leaving her bed exhausts her. She has no energy. She can’t concentrate. She is missing all of her classes, not just yours. She is in danger of failing the entire semester and losing her financial aid and if she loses her financial aid, she tells you, she’ll have nowhere to live.  She looks at you, with tears in her eyes, grateful to finally have someone to talk to. It’s clear that this is the first time she’s articulated these spiraling fears to anyone out loud. “What should I do?” she asks you, and she means it. She wants you to tell her what she should do.

According to a 2012 survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of students polled said they dropped out of college for a mental-health related reason. A 2013 poll conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors found that the top mental health concern among college students was anxiety (41.6%), followed by depression (36.4 percent) and relationship problems (35.8 percent). These numbers, apparently, have been on the rise since the mid-1990s, and Psychology Today’s Gregg Henriques believes it has become a full-scale crisis: the College Student Mental Health Crisis (CSMHC). These claims are not news to those of us who work with college students every day. Every year more and more students miss classes, entire semesters and even drop out of school due to mental health issues. And those are just the students who openly discuss their mental health struggles. Many more remain silent and thus, undiagnosed and therefore, untreated.

These statistics are certainly troubling for professors who work with these students on a daily basis. But, perhaps, just as troubling are the increased responsibilities piled on to the already overburdened instructor,  a responsibility which no one is talking about. At the same time that universities are asking more and more of faculty in terms of assessment, recruitment and program development (on top of teaching, service and gasp! research), professors are now increasingly finding themselves in the position of playing armchair psychologist to their students. For those of us who work at universities catering to low-income, first-generation, or non-white college students, the odds that these students will have undiagnosed mental health struggles is even greater. Yet most faculty working today are not provided with the resources (in terms of training, time or, most importantly, financial compensation) to competently deal with this crisis in student mental health. And make no mistake: this has, for better or worse, become our responsibility. Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, believes:

Higher education institutions need to ensure not just that services are in place to support mental wellbeing, but that they proactively create a culture of openness where students feel able to talk about their mental health and are aware of the support that’s available.

Yes, today the college instructor frequently finds herself in the difficult position of having to simultaneously play the role of psychiatrist, family counselor, financial advisor, and life coach, all while having to make very real, very difficult decisions about the student’s academic future. The standard advice from the university is to send the student to their mental health services, but these campus centers often have very long waits and/or find themselves underfunded and understaffed. As Arielle Eiser reports:

College counseling centers are frequently forced to devise creative ways to manage their growing caseloads. For example, 76.6 percent of college counseling directors reported that they had to reduce the number of visits for non-crisis patients to cope with the increasing overall number of clients.

More often than not, recommending that the student head to a campus counseling center means simply passing the buck. In my personal experiences at least, that student will disappear from campus, becoming one of the 64% who leave college due to mental health issues.

As an academic advisor my job is to shepherd a group of students through their English major — they must meet with me each semester to discuss their schedule, their progress towards graduation, and their academic standing. Each semester I get a list of student names, along with their registration code for the next semester (a process which ensures that students must meet with me prior to registering for classes). It always breaks my heart when I look at that list of advisees and see the ones with no registration code next to their names. These are the students who have not re-enrolled for the semester. These are the students I have lost.

If only I had checked in on that student after our last tearful meeting. If only I taken the time to make sure she was still going to class, turning in her work, registering for her next semester. A single email, hastily written and sent, might have been the difference between staying in or dropping out. These are the kinds of emails my best self sends, the self I wish I were all the time, but which I am only when my deadlines are met, my children are healthy, and I’m caught up on Downton Abbey. These unmade choices torture me because they exist as possibilities, reminding me of everything I might have done and didn’t. My job and salary don’t depend on sending those emails. Therein lies the rub. When students fail and drop out of the system, who is to blame? It’s the student, sure, but it’s also those of us who are tasked with advising them. And it is this unpaid, unmarked labor that becomes “key” to student retention, a job which has, quite suddenly, been shuffled onto my already very full plate.

So much of the labor expected of faculty today, both on and off the tenure track, is unmarked and unpaid. As our salaries stagnate, our job descriptions inflate exponentially. Although middle management, the dreaded Associate Deans, has skyrocketed over the last few years, it’s ironic that faculty are being asked to take on more and more of the management burden. Our department chairs no longer assess our research, service and teaching contributions. Instead, we assess ourselves and turn in those documents in to our chair, who then quickly rifles through our summaries, offering us arbitrary numbers meant to represent our achievements. The university no longer assesses the value of our individual programs. Instead, we assess our programs — through Byzantine rubrics and committees and “objectives” — and then turn these documents in to our middle-management overlords for quick perusals.  The university is no longer tasked with recruiting new students to our programs. No, that is now my responsibility, despite the fact that I have no training in marketing or recruitment. I am expected to spend my work hours (the hours for which I pay for childcare) pitching English courses to community college students or thinking of sexier ways to describe my courses to undeclared majors. And then, if my classes don’t fill up? Yeah, that’s my fault. And I’m told I have to tach freshman composition.

Almost every week I receive a new email announcing the formation of yet another subcommittee on which I am supposed to volunteer to serve. I should volunteer, you see, because we all need to pitch in together and help! We’re a team! Almost daily I receive an email inviting me to attend another training workshop that will show me how to better assess my program or better manage the time that is increasingly being taken up with deleting emails inviting me to time management seminars. There is simply not enough time.

So how do I help my anxious, depressed, spiraling-out-of-control students when I don’t even know how to help myself with these problems? If I ignore the students’ cries for help, their mental health is compromised. If I help them, mine is compromised. This zero-sum game involves just me and the students. One of us is going to lose and right now, it’s both of us.

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Understanding Your Academic Friend: Job Market Edition Part II

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A few weeks ago I published part I of my 2-part post on the academic job market. I decided to break the post into two because when you write something like “part I of my 2-part post” it makes you sound important, like you have a real plan. Are you not impressed? These posts represent my attempts to translate the harrowing experience of applying for tenure track positions in academia in simple, easy-to-understand terms (and gifs) so that you, my dear suffering academic, can avoid this conversation with your Nana during Christmas dinner:

Nana:  “Didja get that teachin’ job yet?”

You: “No, Nana, I’m still waiting to hear about first round interviews.”

Nana: “First round wha? I SAID: Didja get that teachin’ job yet?”

You: “No.”

Nana: “Boscovs is hirin'”

And then you go to Boscovs and grab an application because, you know, Boscovs!

 

So where were we? I believe the last time we spoke, I was telling you all about the dark sad month of December, when most of your academic friends on the job market have hit peak Despair Mode. They’ve already sunk their heart and soul into those job applications and though they’ve likely heard *nothing* from the search committees yet, the Wiki gleefully marches forward with a parade of “MLA interviews scheduled!” and “campus interviews scheduled!.” So your friend, the job candidate, is going to be depressed, anxious and hopeful, all at the same time. Thus, your primary job during the month of December is to keep your friend very intoxicated and very far away from the Wiki. Can you handle that?

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The Wiki knows ALL.

 

Preparing for the Conference Interview 

Assuming your sad friend was able to schedule some first round interviews and assuming he has recovered from his massive December hangover, the next step in the job market process is interview prep. First, a word on the conference interview. Not every academic field requires job candidates to attend their annual conference for a face-to-face first round interview (like I mentioned in my last post, many schools have started offering the option of first round phone or Skype interviews as a substitute), but still, many many departments prefer to conduct first round interviews in the flesh. For folks who live within driving distance of these conferences and for whom the conference is always a yearly destination, the face-to-face interview is actually a great thing: being able to look the search committee in the eye as you speak (are they bored? excited? offended?) helps you gauge your answers and your tone. I, for one, think I’m much better in person than over the phone.

But, unfortunately, loads of folks don’t have the funds to attend these annual conferences *just* to interview for a single job. This is especially problematic because many search committees don’t contact candidates about conference interviews until a few weeks (or even a few days!) before the interview. If you ever tried to buy a plane ticket a few days before your departure date you know that this is prohibitively expensive. For example, one year I scored a first round MLA interview when it was being held in Los Angeles. The plane ticket cost me over $400, plus the cost of one night in a hotel and taxis, etc. It’s hard to imagine another field in which the (already financially strapped) job candidate must pay hundreds of dollars just to interview. Later I found out that some of the other candidates for the same job had requested (and received) first round interviews via Skype. When I ended up making it to the next and final round of that particular search, I wondered, briefly, if it was because I had been so willing to fork over $400 in order to have a shot at a single interview.  This is just one example of how academia perpetuates a cycle of poverty and privilege. But I digress…

Where were we? Oh yes, preparing for the conference interview. Usually my tactic is to study the research profile of every member of the search committee, study the make up of the department and its courses, and compile a list of every possible question I might be asked during the 30 minute interview. Then I print all of that info onto note cards and spend the remaining days and hours leading up to the interview whispering sweet nothings over those notecards.

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Attending the Conference Interview

If you are like me (and most academics I know), you really hate wearing a suit. It’s an outfit that communicates “I am not supposed to be wearing this but I put it on for you, Search Committee.” I own 3 suits and they all remind me of defeat.

image source: http://www.corbisimages.com/
image source:
http://www.corbisimages.com/

After donning your weird interview suit you head to the hotel where your interviews are being held. This is possibly the worst part of the conference interview: a lobby filled with shifty, big-suit-wearing, sullen academics who are all doing the same thing you’re doing: freaking the fuck out. The air is thick with perspiration but also something more ineffable than that, a pheromone possibly, that signals to everyone around you that your soul has been compromised. The stakes are so high (it’s your only interview in this job season!), the competition so great (all of these people are smart!), that the gravitas of the room feels wholly out of control but also wholly reasonable. You breathe in the fear of your cohort as you step into the crowded MLA elevators (so famous they have their own Twitter account) and that fear cloud follows you as you march down the carpeted hallway of the Doubletree Hotel, counting off room numbers until you reach the one containing your search committee. Often, as you’re about to knock, the previous job candidate is walking out. It’s very important that you try not to make eye contact with this individual or else you risk getting sucked into their vortex of anomie (pictured below):

What it looks like deep inside the eyes of a job candidate. image source: http://williamlevybuzz.blogspot.com/
What it looks like deep inside the eyes of a job candidate, just after completing the conference interview.
image source:
http://williamlevybuzz.blogspot.com/

Now begins the oddest part of the conference interview: being alone in a hotel room with a group of punchy, overly caffeinated search committee members you’ve never met before. You may need to perch on a bed during the interview. Some members of the search committee may go to the potty in the middle of your schpiel on how you “flipped” your classroom or had your students teach you or whatever pedagogical bullshit is currently in vogue. Time will move much faster than you think it can and before you know it, your conference interview (the one you paid $400 for) is over. You nervously shake hands and slink out the door, trying to avoid eye contact with the sweaty mess waiting in the hall. Now you wait…

The Campus Interview

It may take days, weeks or possibly months, but eventually someone will contact you to say that you did not make it to the next round, thank you very much for your time, we wish you luck in your job search, etc. But, maybe, just maybe, you are one of the lucky few who moves on to the final round of the search: the campus interview! At this point the pile of candidates has been whittled down from 200-400 to just 3 or 4 candidates. I have been on a total of 8 campus interviews in my life and they run the gamut from positively delightful (swank hotel, great meals, gracious department members) to the miserable (the time I was told I’d be eating all of my meals on a 2-day interview “on my own” [except one] because the Search Committee was…too busy to eat with me? I saved all my receipts from the food court, trust me). But campus interviews generally include the following:

  •  Q & A with the Search Committee
  • A teaching demonstration, followed by Q & A
  • A research presentation, followed by Q & A
  • Meet and greets with students
  • Meeting with the dean/provost/generic white male in expensive suit who is way too busy to be meeting with you
  • A tour of the campus
  • Classroom visits
  • Meeting with real estate agent/ tour of town
  • Group meals with various department members

Campus interviews are also challenging because they need to occur when faculty and students are on campus, which means they happen during the semester, when the job candidate (whether she is a graduate student, TT professor, or contingent faculty) most likely has classes of her own to teach. So, for example, last year when I was on the market I had 3 campus interviews (yay!). But then I had to scramble to find colleagues who were willing and available to teach my classes for me (and yes, it’s really awkward to ask a co-worker to cover your class so that you can interview for another job. Thanks guys! <3). That also means you’ll be doing a lot of grading and course planning (not to mention interview prep — hello again, note cards!) on planes and in airports. During the month of February I was out of town more than I was in town.

Let me assure you that campus interviews aren’t inherently traumatic. In fact, they can be downright pleasant if you think of the campus interview as a 2 or 3-day party thrown in your honor during which people will ask all manner of questions about your research and teaching and your big old brain. It’s kind of an academic’s wet dream if I’m being honest. We lovelovelove talking about ourselves. One thing that makes the campus interview difficult, though, is that it requires you to perform your Best Self (the Self that is continuously charming, smart, ethical, engaged) all day, for several days in a row. When you wake in the morning at the Best Western you will pull your Best Self out of the closet and iron it. Throughout the day you will tug and pull at the Best Self, making sure it is neat and presentable and that Tired Self or I-Still-Have-Papers-to-Grade-for-my-Actual-Job Self or Your-Kids-Are-Crying-Because-This-Is-Your-Third-Trip-This-Month Self doesn’t peek through. It is a days long exercise in faking it.

In order to be a viable job candidate it is necessary to imagine yourself (I mean *really* imagine yourself) working at University X: teaching their students, collaborating with their faculty and staff, doing your research in their kickass libraries, etc. You need to make yourself fall in love with University X in order to make the Search Committee fall in love with you. And I suppose that’s why it hurts a little more to get rejected at this round than you might expect. Because when you get rejected, YOU get rejected. All of you. And that’s tough.

Campus interviews are also hard because so many things can and do go wrong — from travel mishaps to weather-related delays to folks (usually well-meaning members of the search committee) who say and do the wrong things at the wrong times. Below is a small sampling of some of the stories academics sent to me when I asked “What was your worst campus interview experience?”

“Of course I have a couple, but the one most worth talking about was this: An older male (tenured) faculty member who, while I was a captive audience in his car, said, ‘I know there are some questions that it’s illegal to ask you, but I don’t know what they are, so you’ll just need to tell me if I ask something inappropriate.’ Yes, please let me do all the work of managing the conversation, navigating complicated power structures that you’ve just managed to make even more tricky despite LAWS designed to keep you from doing so, and disciplining you as to correct behavior–all while trying to impress you so I might actually have a shot at paying off my student loans someday. Sheesh.”

“Following a [campus] interview, several weeks later, I’m called by a search committee member, who tells me clearly that he’s not offering me the job, since the decision isn’t yet made. But he wants to know whether I’d accept it if offered. I don’t understand, trying to be nice in saying, in effect, “why don’t you offer it to me and find out,” and he rambles on about junior candidates “playing” his university by not accepting jobs, and them not wanting to waste their time on me if I’m one of them. No salary is mentioned, no details offered — I’m just supposed to tell him there and then whether I’d accept.”

“I was on a campus visit and went to lunch at the swankiest restaurant in town. As I was served my quiche lorraine, I happened to notice an older man projectile vomiting into an empty pitcher.  I was the only one who had this view, and it was all I could do to eat and smile and answer my seatmates’ questions while the staff cleaned up.”

“I get a call one afternoon from the search committee chair. I’m a finalist for the job (for which I wasn’t even phone interviewed, so I’m not expecting any of this), and she’s taken the liberty of booking me a flight. For the next week (!). She suggests she could change it “if I really need to,” but it’s clear what that’d mean to my candidacy. Said flight leaves at 11pm, connects in Chicago at around 3am, with a two hour layover, and I’ll be met at the airport by someone who’ll drive me the remaining hour. I am told I can sleep in the car, but of course I can’t actually do that. I’m then assured that since they know this flight “isn’t ideal,” on the first day, “all” they’ll ask of me is to have a lunch, an afternoon coffee with grad students, a dinner, and a meeting with the grad and undergrad committees who’ll “just” ask me what classes I could teach. When I arrive at the university, with it snowing outside, the inn they’ve put me up in doesn’t have my room ready (it’s ~8am), so I just have to sit in the lobby and explore the snowy environs for a couple of hours. And that meeting with the grad and undergrad cttes. turns out to be about 12-15 people, all of whom have questions for me, grilling me about the finer points of my diss and dense theoretical issues for 2 hours.”

“A university was flying me in for a Monday-Tuesday campus visit. They had me scheduled to arrive very late on Sunday, so that I’d get in after 1am.  They had things scheduled at 8 the next morning, so, naturally, I asked if I could come earlier.  They told me no.  A flight delay meant that I first got to the hotel at 2:45 and the front desk was closed.  I then had to frantically call the after-hours line, which advised that I walk 3 blocks — with my luggage, in the middle of the night — and get keys from another site that the company ran.  I get in, go to bed, and am up at 7 for my first appointment at 8.  The person never shows.  I call the department, but b/c it’s early, they take a while to call me back.  It was probably 8:45 when they tell me that I should walk — well over a mile — to campus to make sure I’m not late for my 9am meeting.  I sweat through my shirt.”

“When I was still a green ABD [dissertation not completed], I found out I was a finalist for a position at a prestigious school, one which I didn’t think would even look at me twice. Even my dissertation chair was surprised that I was invited for a final round interview. My first night there I had dinner with the chair of the search committee who casually informed me that they had a visiting professor in the department who was also competing for the position. That helped to explain the aloof behavior of everyone I met the next day, as it was clear they all really liked the visiting prof and wanted her to keep her job. For example, after my teaching demostration the search comittee took me to a Chinese lunch buffet. During lunch everyone at the table talked only to each other  about people and things I didn’t know. Or they were silent. I would occasionally try to break the silence by asking different people at the table about themselves or their families. They would answer me politely, then go silent again or start a private conversation with someone else at the table. This was super intimidating for a young, insecure scholar and so halfway through lunch I got up, went to the bathroom, and cried. Then I dried my tears, reapplied my make up and went back out to lunch. No one even noticed. I did not get the job but was pleased to hear that they offered the visiting prof the job and she turned them down for a better place.”

“I have a really wonderful MLA interview with the chair of the department. She’s really interesting, engaged, etc. The pay is terrible at this place, the course load enormous, and the town/village is not that great. But, I am excited–in part because I liked the chair so much. Note: chair is the only person at MLA. When I get there, I learn that a committee–not the department, not the chair, a committee of five–will exclusively vote on who gets the job. There is both a teaching and research talk. At the research talk, no one from the committee shows. I give a talk to three people. I have yet to meet the committee who’s voting. I don’t meet anyone on the committee for meals, coffee anything. They are the only one’s who are voting. I eventually have one large Q and A with the committee. That is the only time I see them. At the teaching talk, one member of the committee shows, for which I am absurdly grateful to him. It is clearly being implied (to the chair?) that they are choosing not to consider my candidacy at all. Yet I’m there for 2 and 1/2 days.”

“I went to my final dinner with 2 committee members and a person outside the department. One of the committee members was the only junior person [in my field] in the department. She seemed super stressed about tenure and her place at the uni. That should have been my first sign. She also asked me all kinds of badgering questions about my theoretical approach, training, etc. Needless to say, after two bottles of wine for the table (!!!), I went to visit the ladies room to take a breather. The junior member followed me into the bathroom to ask me why I want a job there, to talk shit about her department, and tell me that I could do better. The weirdest part is that the chair of search committee in my exit interview told me the job was mine and they really wanted to hire me. In the end, they offered it to someone else and those folks act like they have no idea who I am when I see them at conferences.”

“I could tell you my most horrific campus interview story was when a member of the search committee noticed I saw him picking his nose and then stopped taking to me. I could tell you my most horrific campus interview story was members of search committee made a toast to finding their new hire (i.e., me) and then called me two weeks later to say I didn’t get the job. I could tell you my most horrific interview story was when I had my bags packed to go interview for my dream job and the dean cancelled my interview. I could tell you my most horrific story was when my old department offered me my old job back but then rescinded the offer after I asked for $2,500 more. I could tell you my most horrific story was when a search committee chair called me one night and said it was down to me and another candidate — only to call the next day and say the committee was re-opening the search. But really, my most horrific interview story was when my current employer made me an offer, and I accepted it. The other stories are just that: stories. Comedic ones at this point. As the old saying goes, comedy is tragedy plus time. But my current job is just tragedy in the eternal present.”

Or this campus interview horror story here, a story which many commenters over at Inside Higher Ed thought was somehow exaggerated or false. But dear readers, I assure you it was not.

The Waiting, The Waiting, The Waiting

Well, this could go on for quite some time, I’m afraid. Remember that job that required a $400 plane ticket to Los Angeles? Well, after my campus interview I waited months for news. Then one day a form letter from the university’s Human Resources department arrived in my mailbox. It began “Dear Applicant,” and then informed me that the position for which I had been interviewing had been filled. That’s right, after months of interviewing, after flying roundtrip to LA for my first interview, and then flying again, mid-semester (they paid this time), for the final round interview, I didn’t even receive a rejection with my name on it. That was some major bullshit. There is also the famous case last year of a philosophy candidate who was offered a  tenure track job, then had the offer rescinded when she asked for things like maternity leave and a course release. Lean in, my ass.

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Yes, the waiting can take MONTHS. Because clearly hiring a professor requires the same timeline as vetting a Supreme Court Justice (actually it takes longer). We are that important, don’t you know? Then, one fine day you get that letter or email or (if you are super lucky) a phone call that says “I regret to inform you…” and then you know that 9 months of work have been in vain. So you take a deep breath and gird your loins because it’s now April and next year’s job season is already gearing up. Maybe you should try again, just one more time? I’ll bet your suit still fits.

And really, this gets to the core of the problem with the academic job market —  the amount of preparatory work, the difficulty of making it to the next round, the days-long interviews, and then the waiting — all for a job that ultimately pays way less than you think it does. Keep in mind that the tenure track job — as a concept and as a reality — is slowly disappearing. As the old Catskills joke goes: “These jobs are terrible and there’s so few of them.”

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So, there you have it: my comprehensive guide to the academic job search. What have I missed? What stories do you have to share (I’ll take good ones, too). Thanks for reading and happy job hunting. May the odds be ever in your favor.

Understanding Your Academic Friend: Job Market Edition

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“If you and your spouse don’t like living 400 miles apart, why don’t you just get jobs at the same university?”

“You miss living near your mom? Well, there are like 5 colleges in her town — just work at one of those!”

“You still don’t know anything about that assistant professor job? Didn’t you apply to it 9 months ago?”

“Wow, your salary is terrible. Why don’t you work for a school that pays better wages?”

“Want me to talk to my friend’s mom, the dean at University X? I’ll bet she can hook you up with a job there and then we’ll live closer to each other!”

I’ve had to answer all of these questions — or some variation of them — ever since I completed my PhD 7 years ago and began looking for tenure track jobs. The people asking these questions are friends and family who love me very much but who just cannot understand why a “smart, hard-working” lass like me has such limited choices when searching for permanent employment as a professor. When I’m asked these questions I need to pause and take a deep breath because I know the rant that’s about to issue forth from my mouth is going to sound defensive, irate and even paranoid to my concerned listener. When I finish the rant, I know my concerned listener is going to slowly back away from me, all the while secretly dialing 9-1-1.

In the interest of generating a better understanding between academics and the people who love them, I’ve decided to write a post explaining exactly how the academic job market works for someone like me, a relatively intelligent, hard-working lady with a PhD in the humanities. My experiences do not, of course, represent the experiences of all academics hunting for jobs, nor do they represent the experiences of all humanities PhDs (they do, of course, represent the experiences of all humanities unicorns though). I think this post will prove useful for many academics as they return to the Fall 2014 Edition of the Job Market.

So, my dear academics, the next time a friend says “I just don’t understand why a smart, hard-working person like you can’t get a job,” you can just pull out your smart phone, load up this post, and then sit down and have a stress-free cocktail while I school your well-meaning friend/ mother-in-law/ neighbor about what an academic job search entails and, more importantly, how it feels. I should note that I have been successful on the job market (which is why I’m currently employed) but for the purposes of this post I’m going to describe (one of my) unsuccessful attempts at the job market, during the 2013-2014 season. Enjoy that sweet sweet schadenfreude, you vultures.

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Spring 2013

Though job ads usually don’t go live until the fall, the academic job search usually begins the spring before. At this point all you really need to be doing is selecting three individuals in your field (preferably three TENURED individuals) who think you’re swell and ask them if they will write a letter of recommendation. It’s necessary to make this request months in advance of application deadlines since many of these folks are super busy. You should also lock yourself in your bedroom and do dips, Robert-De-Niro-in-Cape-Fear style, because upper body strength is important. Who knows what the fall may bring.

Summer 2013

Job ads still haven’t been posted yet, but at this point any serious job candidate is working on her job materials. These are complex documents with specific (and often contradictory) rules and limits. Here’s a breakdown of some (not all, no, there will be so much more to write and obsess over once actual job ads are posted) of the documents the academic must prepare in advance of the job season:

1. The Cover Letter

The cover letter is a nightmare. You have 2 pages (single spaced, natch) to tell the search committee about: who you are, where you were educated, why you’re applying to this job, why you’re a good fit for this job, all the research you published in the past and why it’s important, all the research you’re working on now and why that’s important, the classes you’ve taught and why you’ve taught them, the classes you could teach at University X, if given the chance, and your record of service. You explain all of this without underselling OR overselling yourself and you must write it in such a way that the committee won’t fall asleep during paragraph two (remember, most of these jobs will have anywhere from 200-400 applicants so your letter must STAND OUT). You will draft the cover letter, then redraft it, then send it to a trusted colleague, revise it a few more times, send it to several more trusted colleagues (henceforth TCs), obsess, weep, and revise it one more time. Then more De Niro dips.

2. The CV

The curriculum vitae is not a resume. Whereas the primary virtue of a resume is its brevity, the curriculum vitae goes on and on and on. Most academics keep their CVs fairly up-to-date, so getting the CV job market ready isn’t very time-consuming. Still, it’s always a good idea to send it along to some TCs for feedback and copyediting. And don’t worry about those poor, overworked TCs: academics love giving other academics job market advice almost as much as mothers like to share labor and delivery stories with other mothers. There is unity in adversity. We also drink in the pain of others like vampires.

Is that a CV in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?
Is that a CV in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

3. Statement of Teaching Philosophy

The statement of teaching philosophy (aka, teaching statement) is basically a narrative that details your approach to education in your field. You usually offer examples from specific classes and explain why your students are totally and completely engaged with the amazing lessons and assignments you have created for them. What’s super fun about these documents is that every school you apply to will ask for a slightly different version (and some, bless them, might not request it at all). Some search committees want a one-page document and others want two-page documents and still others don’t specify length at all (a move designed specifically to fuck with the perpetually anxious job candidate). Some search committees might ask that you submit a combined teaching and research statement, which, as you might guess, is the worst. So when you draft this document in the summer it’s just that: a draft. It’s preemptive writing. And it’s only just begun.

4. Statement of Research Interests

You know all the stuff you said about your research in the cover letter? Well say all of that again, only use different words and use more of them. This document could literally be any length come fall so just settle in, cowboy.

August 2013

Job ads have been posted! JOB ADS HAVE BEEN POSTED! JOB. ADS. HAVE. BEEN. POSTED.

Commence obsessing.

September 2013

At this point job ads are appearing in dribs and drabs, so you’re able to apply to them fair quickly. If you were obsessive in preparing your materials over the summer, your primary task now is to tailor each set of materials to every job ad. This process involves: researching the individual department you’re applying to as well as the university, hunting down titles and descriptions of courses you might be asked to teach, and poring over every detail of the job ad to ensure that your materials appear to speak to their specific (or as it may be, general) needs. This takes more time than you think it will.

Also keep in mind that every ad will ask for a slightly different configuration of materials. Some search committees are darlings and only ask for a cover letter and CV for the first round of the search, while others ask for cover letter, CV, letters of recommendation, writing samples, teaching statements and all the lyrics to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

It’s also important to keep in mind that most folks on the academic job market are dissertating and/or teaching or, if you’re like me, already have a full-time job (and kids). But still, things haven’t gotten too stressful yet — the train’s barely left the station.

October-November 2013

Loads of jobs have been posted over the last few months and you are applying to ALL OF THEM. Well-meaning friends will send you emails with hopeful subject lines like “This job seems perfect for you!” and a link to a job you will not get. You apply to it anyway.

Also? Remember, all those jobs you applied to back in September? Well, right now you might also start receiving automated rejection emails that look something like this:

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 10.37.18 PM

Neat huh?

If you are lucky, though, the search committee will send you an email asking you to “submit more materials” — Ah, it feels good even to type those words — and at that point you do a happy, submit-more-materials jig in front of your computer. Yay! More materials! They like me!

Every search committee will ask for something different at this point. Almost every school requests a writing sample and letters of recommendation at this stage. Some schools will ask the candidate to submit sample syllabi while still others ask for the candidate to design an entirely new syllabus. It’s kind of a free-for-all.

Oh, you might *also* be doing phone or Skype interviews with departments that don’t attend the annual MLA convention in early January, where many humanities-based schools conduct face-to-face first round interviews (more on those later). It’s far more humane to allow candidates to interview from home, so I’m always pleased when this is presented as an option. Of course, interviewing from home generates its own share of problems when, for example, your cat and your toddler simultaneously demand entrance to your office in the middle of a Skype interview for which you have put on a pressed button-down, suit jacket and a pair of pajama pants.

December 2013

Ah December, December. As the days get shorter, the Job Wiki gets longer. Most job candidates now have a pretty good idea about how the market is “going.” Spoiler alert: it is going terribly. 

Even if you haven’t received a lot of rejections yet, it doesn’t mean you haven’t been rejected dozens of times. It just means that the university is going to wait until an offer is made and accepted by The One in the spring before sending you the automated rejection notice I posted above. Usually though, we don’t need to wait that long. If University X has already contacted the standard 10-15 candidates for first round interviews (which you know because you check the goddamn Wiki every day 5 minutes) and they haven’t contacted you (which you know because you checked your spam folder twice and had your husband call your phone to be certain that it was working properly), then baby, you’re out.

Yes, December is a dark month for the job market candidate. As the winter holidays arrive, your dear academic friend has invested over six months in a job search which has, at best, offered ambiguity and at worst, pummeled her with outright rejection. Your friend, if she’s lucky, has some MLA interviews scheduled by now or maybe even … a final round interview! … lined up for just after the holidays. So try to pull her away from her interview flashcards. Treat her with care. Make her get drunk with you the day after Christmas in some crappy bar you two liked to frequent in your younger, more carefree days because listen: shit is about to get real for your friend.

to be continued…

[Part II of “Understanding Your Academic Friend: Job Market Edition” or “When Shit Gets Real” is now up. Click here to read. ]

So academic friends, have any to add to this timeline? What else should the friends and family of job-seeking academics (henceforth FFJSA) know before the job season begins in earnest next month? Share below…

No End in Sight: Academic Research and “Time Off”

Posted on Updated on

 

Wheedle

“Can you read these words to me, Amanda?” my first grade teacher asked, pointing at the cover of The Wheedle on the Needle. I shook my head and smiled, thinking this was some kind of trick. How the hell would I know how to read those letters? Later, I asked my friends if they had been able to decipher the book cover, assuming they were as lost as I had been. “The Wheedle on the Needle,” my friend replied, almost casually. The others nodded and I felt betrayed: when did everyone learn to read? This was 1983, when it was not assumed that children would enter kindergarten knowing how to read. But still, somehow, between kindergarten and first grade, I had fallen behind my peers.

Soon after my fateful reading test our teacher sorted us into reading groups. I was, of course, placed in the “remedial” reading group while all of my friends were in the “advanced” group. Though I had no way of knowing this earlier — this was the first time any kind of judgment had been made, implicitly or explicitly, about our intelligence — I now had confirmation: I was stupid.

I decided then and there that I would learn to read, as quickly as possible, and I would get the hell out of the remedial group. After several months of intense concentration and effort — it was the first time I can recall applying myself fully to academics — I was in the advanced reading group.  It felt good to be back with my friends and sure, it felt good to learn how to read. But the biggest lesson I learned that day was that I was built for studying: a natural born student.

Fast forward to 1999, my first year of graduate school. I had just graduated  magna cum laude from an Ivy League institution and I was pretty confident in my intellectual capabilities. As an undergrad I had stuffed my brain with the likes of Doris Lessing, Tom Stoppard, Toni Morrison, Euripides, and T.S. Eliot, but I quickly learned that these names meant nothing to my new classmates. They had abandoned the text, that frivolous playground of undergraduate English majors, and moved on to more challenging writers with unfamiliar names like “Foucault” and “Deleuze” and “Baudrillard.” When did this happen? Why did I not get the memo? I was behind everyone else and grad school had barely started. It was first grade all over again.

To cope with this brand new bout of imposter syndrome, I set to work “catching up” with my peers. I made lists of “essential” books and essays — the stuff I thought I should have already read, before coming to graduate school — and tried to fit them in after completing all of my assigned coursework (which was impossible since my coursework took up almost all of my time). How does one cope with such an impossible work load? Easy: you never stop working. And when you do stop working, you must berate yourself about your decision to not-work because, in the world of the scholar, you can always be working. That’s why alcohol is so useful for graduate students. No one feels bad about not reading Foucault while intoxicated.

9780253204745_med

Sometimes I would be in my apartment, rereading an incomprehensible passage in The Acoustic Mirror for the fourth time, and I would be seized with a bottomless sense of doom, like I was free falling down a long dark well, only it was the inside of me that was falling. The only way I knew how to keep my body from collapsing in on itself, like a black hole of dread, was to get into bed, squeeze my eyes tight, and breathe deeply until my internal gravitational pull slowed to a stop. Sometimes this took minutes, other days it took hours. Then I would get out of bed, pick up The Acoustic Mirror and my yellow highlighter, take a deep breath, and begin again.

At the time I had no idea that there was a name for these episodes: panic attacks. I just thought I was too dumb for graduate school and had a bad time coping with that reality. But after some consultations with my doctor and my parents I realized that the best thing for me to do was to take a leave of absence after completing my Masters. I hoped that a year off might help me to decide whether I should continue on to do a PhD or move into some profession that would not cause my body to regularly seize up  with dread or cause the skin on my face to erupt in angry pulsing nodules of adolescent acne.

The year off was good for me. I worked for AmeriCorps, watched a lot of movies, read all of the Harry Potters, got a puppy, and learned how to share a home with the man who would eventually become my husband and the father of our two kids. At the end of the year I felt refreshed and returned to the University of Pittsburgh, fully ready to begin a PhD in film studies. I still had the occasional panic attacks, suffered from imposter syndrome, and regularly believed that there would never be enough hours in the day to complete all of the reading, viewing and writing that  I thought I needed to complete. But I also knew that being a scholar was what I liked best and so the constant anxiety, a kind of low-level hum –my body’s own white noise — was the penalty I had to pay to do what I loved.

During those 5 years I was always wondering if I was doing “enough” to succeed. I distinctly remember sitting around with my fellow PhDs, comparing the amount of hours we spent on our coursework each week — not to brag or one-up each other — but out of a genuine desire to determine whether what we were doing was truly “enough.” Because there was no other way to measure the knowledge we were slowly and painfully accumulating. Was 50 hours enough? 60?  70? (Answer: it is never enough).

Of course anyone who pursues a post-graduate degree  — doctors, lawyers, nurses, veterinarians — finds themselves devoting all of their free hours to their studies. But the difference for professors is that this frantic need to always be reading or writing, to always be a student, never really “ends.” In this profession we are made to feel as if teaching and committee work and the occasional article or book are not enough. If we’re not publishing books with the top presses or publishing articles in the top journals or being offered jobs at R1 schools, then we don’t really matter in the field. If we’re not always working (and I mean always working) then we don’t exist.

William Pannapacker addressed this issue quite well in a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is worth quoting at length, because it is fantastic:

If someone asks, “How are you?,” I sigh, shrug, and say, “Busy, like everyone else.” If pressed, I will admit that I spent some time with my family—the way a Mormon might confess to having tried a beer, once. For more than 20 years, I have worn what Ian Bogost has called “the turtlenecked hairshirt.” I can’t help it; self-abnegation is the deepest reflex of my profession, and it’s getting stronger all the time…

Surely, the Catholic tradition of monastics and mendicants lies behind this tendency that I share with my profession, but there are other traditions at work here. As H. L. Mencken said, Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Happiness is worldliness, and idleness is sin: Work is an end in itself, as Max Weber observed in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Likewise, there’s an old, unspoken commandment, “A professor shall not be seen mowing the lawn on weekdays.”

This “turtlenecked hairshirt” doesn’t go away when you finish your dissertation, or (if you’re lucky) snag your first tenure track job. It doesn’t even end when you get tenure. I know professors who have climbed as far as they can up the academic hierarchy (and it is a woefully stubby ladder to begin with), but who still regularly churn out monographs and anthologies as if they are getting paid by the word. But here’s the thing: they’re not getting paid by the word. Or the chapter. They’re barely clearing a few hundred dollars for what is often years of tireless research and writing. No, academics are “paid” in positive reviews, citations, and ego stroking.We’re paid with tenure or new job opportunities. Those of us on the tenure track are “paid” in new titles: Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Full Professor.

***

I am a tenured professor working at a state university that has ceased to offer raises (including cost of living raises) to its faculty. When I started my job in 2007 I was making approximately $53,000, a solid starting salary for an Assistant Professor circa 2007. Today, after 7 years at the same institution, I’m proud of my research profile, the classes I’ve taught, the students I’ve mentored and the film studies program I’ve helped build, but my salary is a mere $2,000 more than it was when I started 7 years ago. I have been told by numerous administrators that I should not get my hopes up for a raise, that money is tight (even though newbie professors fresh out of graduate school are hired every year at much higher salaries). The $2,000 I received for getting tenure is likely going to be “it” for a very long time. Yes that’s correct, the only raise I’ve received in 7 years is $2,000 for getting tenure. Oh, you can also call me “Associate Professor” now. I know academic titles carry a lot of weight so I wanted to make sure y’all knew about that, too.

I had planned to spend my summer — as most academics do — working on a major research project, in this case, my next book project. I would find a way, as I always do, to fit research and writing into the pieces of time leftover after teaching a summer class, driving my kids to their various activities, and visiting the family and friends who live too far away to visit during the school year. My summer research projects always drain away the time I spent with family and friends, but I have done this every summer since I can remember: to get a job, to get tenure, and because I was always advised to work for the job I want, not the job I have.

“Why are you always working in the summer, aren’t you a teacher?” my non-academic friends often ask me, while my academic friends usually ask “What are you working on this summer?”

***

A few months ago, after a failed attempt to get a job at a university that might actually pay me a salary commensurate with my rank and experience, I came to the realization that the stress and late nights, the self doubt and loathing, were now unnecessary. I am not going to get a better-paying job and my current employers, no matter how many books I publish, how many students I mentor, or how many committees I serve on, are not going to give me any more money. Or at least not much money. Initially this realization made me despondent: if no one is paying me more money to produce more work, and very few people read the peer-reviewed articles or monographs I’m trying to crank out, then what happens? What happens when a professor no longer has any incentive to work at the breakneck pace at which she has been encouraged to work since she first embarked upon that great and arduous journey towards a career in academia?

Nothing. Nothing happens. And, dear reader, it is glorious.

Yes, this summer I decided to stop: panicking, working at 9pm after the kids go to bed, working on Saturday afternoons, bringing “work” with me on vacation, making myself feel guilty for not working on vacation, complaining about how “busy” and “stressed” I am all the time in real life and online, writing articles or presenting at conferences just to add a line to my CV, writing shit that no one will be able to read because it’s locked behind a paywall, viewing the success of my friends and colleagues as a indictment of my own (non)success, and staring at my computer screen while my kids ask when I will be done working so I can play with them. Plus, most people believe that professors are lazy layabouts in the summer anyway, so I decided to start living up to the stereotype.

So this summer I’ve been on vacation — a real, honest-to-goodness vacation. Sure, I taught a 5-week class and I’ve answered urgent emails. I’ve spoken with colleagues about conference panels and workshops. And right now I’m writing this blog post. But I’ve stopped with the “musts” and the “shoulds.” I’m only working on what I want to work on. And sometimes, even when I really do feel like I’d like to say, brush up on the history of broadcast television, I decide to go out to lunch with my kids instead. Just because. I’m saying “no” to “Would you like to chair this blah blah blah…” and “yes” to “Would you like to sit in this chair and drink a cocktail?” And I’m enjoying my family and my life in a way that I haven’t been able to since…well, since I started graduate school back in 1999.

I want to be clear: I love writing and researching. I love the feeling of finishing a sentence and knowing that it says exactly what I want it to say. I love following an idea through all the way and producing scholarship that is readable and functional. I’m incredibly proud of my first book and I think it’s doing something useful in the subfield of genre studies. But my scholarship won’t cure cancer. It doesn’t provide fresh drinking water to drought-stricken regions. It’s not even the kind of writing people stay up all night reading and then eagerly discuss with their book club the next day, like Twilight. That’s just not how humanities scholarship works. So I’m in no big rush to publish my next piece of scholarship. While I love doing good scholarship I don’t love feeling like a hamster on a wheel: working, working, working for no tangible reward and with no end in sight. At least the hamster is getting exercise.

***

Last week my children and I drove up to Connecticut to spend a few days with a dear friend and her family. They swam and dug holes and her kids taught my kids how to catch (and release) frogs. They were having the kind of summer I remember having when I was young — days that unspool in no particular hurry, with no clear agenda. As we walked home in the twilight, holding hands, my daughter said to me “This is the best vacation ever!” And she’s right, it is.

Frog catching
Frog catching

 

GHOSTBUSTERS as Neoliberal AltAc Fantasy

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image source: www.vulture.com
image source:
http://www.vulture.com

Normally, I’m not a big fan of rewatching films I’ve already seen. I have to do so much rewatching for my classes and for my research that in my free time my goal is to see new stuff. Nevertheless, over the last few months I’ve been rewatching some favorite films from my childhood, like Home Alone (1990 Chris Columbus), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993, Chris Columbus), Teen Wolf (1985, Rod Daniel), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986, John Hughes), Karate Kid (1994, John G. Alvidsen), and Footloose (1984, Herbert Ross), with my own children and I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve (mis)remembered those films. When I rewatched Mrs. Doubtfire, for example, I was shocked by how my memories of that film were so conditioned by its theatrical trailer. The scenes that I found myself remembering before they happened — Robin Williams asking Harvey Fierstein to make him a woman, Robin Williams throwing a piece of fruit at Pierce Brosnan’s head, Robin Williams’ rubber breasts on fire — were the scenes that were featured in the film’s trailer:

As a child of the 1980s, I grew up with commercials, with flow, and I watched these commercials over and over, even when I didn’t actively watch them (because I was fighting with my brother or gabbing on my sweet cordless phone). These scenes travelled through my brain repeatedly, wearing a groove, making themselves at home. Robin Williams’ burning rubber breasts are a permanent part of my memories.

But it wasn’t just frequent exposure to trailers that shaped my memories of these films — my memories have also been shaped by the way I watched movies as a child, that is, by my child-self’s attention span. A few weeks ago we decided to screen Footloose for our kids, reasoning that its numerous dance scenes would make up for its snoozer of a plot about an uptight preacher (John Lithgow) who won’t just let those kids dance! But my husband and I misremembered the film — there aren’t that many dance scenes in the film. And when those kids aren’t dancing? Well, the film is pretty boring. Our kids (and our neighbor’s kid) were antsy throughout, only pepping up when a dance number came on. Then they would leap off the couch and dance furiously until the narrative started up again. So perhaps they, too, will misremember the film when they’re old like me, filing away the “good stuff,” the dancing and the Kevin Bacon, and forgetting the boring stuff.

What I’d like to talk about in this blog post, though, is my experience of rewatching a beloved film from my childhood and realizing that the film my child’s brain watched is very different from the one I watched as an adult. I’m talking about Ghostbusters (1984, Ivan Reitman). I remember being 8-years-old and actively anticipating the release of Ghostbusters, a movie which was most certainly a must-see for the elementary school set. Like most kids my age, I was obsessed: I watched the sequel and the Saturday morning cartoon, ate my Slimer candy, and of course I drank my fair share of Ecto Cooler .

item_ghostpaste

This past Saturday we rented Ghostbusters, made some popcorn, and invited another couple and their son to watch it with us (at this point my child-free readers might be asking themselves: is this what Saturday night looks like when you have young children? Yes it does, child-free friends, so please, practice safe sex). As we all sat down to watch the movie, the first thing I remembered about the film, or rather what I had forgotten about the film, is that before they become “Ghostbusters,” saviors of New York City (and by extension, the entire world), Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Raymond Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) are actually professors at Columbia University, studying the paranormal.

Pointless brain research. Image source: ghostbusters.wikia.com
Pointless research.
Image source:
ghostbusters.wikia.com

I had completely forgotten this but the moment the film cuts from a frightened librarian to the interior of a Columbia lab where Bill Murray flirts with a student participanting in his ESP tests, I turned to my children and declared “The heroes of this movie are professors, kids, just like Mommy!” The friends who were over are also professors, in Biology and Geology, so they were also excited for their son to see professors doing cool shit in a movie (this rarely happens, as you all know). After we watched the scene in which the professors are informed that their grant has been terminated, my daughter was confused “What just happened?” she asked. I explained, “It would be like if Beth’s boss took away her corn fields or if Eric’s boss took away his rocks.” Then my husband piped in “Or if someone said Mommy couldn’t watch movies.” Rocks and corn are not ghost busting, but they’re more tangible than the study of film. Nevertheless, this answer satisfied my daughter.

As I watched Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler pack up their offices and their life’s work and leave Columbia’s grand campus, I thought about the current state of academia and then, I began to watch Ghostbusters in a different way. Instead of watching the fun, comedy-horror-blockbuster of my youth, I found I was watching a vision of the future of academia, a fantasy of the Alternative-Academic career, one based wholly on the market value of the university professor’s research, rather than the broader, and somewhat less market-driven value of the professor’s ability to instruct students in that research and to engage the public in those findings.

Hello Professors! Image source: www.clearancebinreview.com/
Hello Professors!
Image source:
http://www.clearancebinreview.com/

When the professors leave academia they are not ghost busters. They’re just unemployed PhDs, which, as we all know, are a dime a dozen. What transforms these useless, unemployed academics into Ghostbusters? An ancient Sumerian god named Gozer the Gozerian, who wants to destroy New York City! These professors are literally the only people in the city who can do this job. They actually have ghost busting equipment: proton packs (for wrangling ghosts), ghost traps, and an Ecto containment unit on hand. I mean if there’s something strange in your neighborhood who are you gonna call? I don’t need the 1984 Ray Parker Jr. hit to answer that question, because the answer is, naturally: GHOSTBUSTERS! The university may not value these men, but the good people of New York certainly do. Their research will save the world! Does your research save the world? Mine sure doesn’t!

So you see, these professors have a real value. As soon as their first commercial airs, glimpsed (fortuitously) by beautiful Dana Stevens (Sigourney Weaver) just before she finds a demon in her fridge, the phone at Ghostbusters central never stops ringing. In fact, the Ghostbusters have so much business, they must hire a fourth ghost buster, Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson). My childhood memories of this film have Hudson’s character, aka the “black Ghostbuster,” playing a much larger role, perhaps because he gets more screen time in the sequel? But during this viewing at least, I was surprised by how little screen time he gets. His character truly feels like an afterthought, like a producer said “You better get a black guy in there somewhere” and so they threw him in at the last minute. But I digress. All of this is just to say that business is booming at Ghostbusters and the men are finally getting the chance to prove the value — the real, incontrovertible value — of their life’s work. The market says so.

In this neoliberal (a term I use here to reference the broader trends toward the privatization of higher education) fantasy of higher education, academia within the walls of the academy is stifled and limited. But once professors are freed from the constraints of the Ivory Tower, with its navel-gazing and its pretentiousness, and are placed at the mercy of the market (aka, “the real world”), they can demonstrate the true value of their research and their pedagogy. Professors should be training our college graduates for real jobs in the real world. After all, isn’t the whole point of a university education to create future workers, future entrepreneurs, future moneymakers? Sure it is.

But what happens next? What interrupts our fairytale of flourishing academics? It’s the goddamn Environmental Protection Agency, that’s who! Walter Peck (William Atherton), the EPA representative, is the film’s heavy. I remember hating this character when I was a kid. “Why won’t he just let the Ghostbusters do their jobs? Doesn’t he realize the fate of the city is at stake? Regulation is the worst!” Peck wants to investigate the environmental impact of the Ecto containment unit, which, I have to admit, looks super shady. I wouldn’t want to live downstream from the Ecto containment unit, but if I had to choose between living with Gozer and living with Ecto in my water? Bring on the Ecto cooler! Screw the EPA! Regulation, boo, hiss!

In the final scene of Ghostbusters, all four men (yes, even Winston), are cheered by New York City residents who are grateful that they’ve been saved from the wrath of Gozer. I told my kids “Look, they’re cheering for the professors!” And then the four adults in the room laughed for a long time.

My kids laughed too. They were delighted by the film, just as I had been as a kid. But this time around, Ghostbusters gave me pause. The narrative hit a little too close to home because I am acutely aware of the market value of my degree and my profession. My Governor tells me my work is useless and elitist. So I’m waiting for the day when this dystopian future is upon us, when the key master finds the gate keeper, and we’re all packing up our offices,  just waiting for a chance to prove our true worth.

Screening THE ROOM: 2012

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The famous THE ROOM billboard in Los Angeles.

Note: I have been given permission by the students of ENGL4980 to use their images in this post.

Hey there, you. Yes, I’m talking to you, my dear reader. I know it’s been three months since my last post. That doesn’t mean that I forgot about you. In fact, there has been a blog-sized hole in my heart these last few months that I have been aching to fill with my gob-smacking insights into film and television. But now I’m back. And I’ve brought you chocolates and roses. Or rather, I’m bringing you a post about chocolates and roses and rain-slicked windows and “sexy” red dresses and lots and lots ham-fisted performances and green screens and unexplained establishing shots and tiny doggies and alley football. In other words, I’m bringing you a post about screening The Room...[insert dramatic music]…2012!

Students from ENGL4980 screaming “YOU’RE TEARING ME APART, LISA!” before the start of the screening.

I came up with the idea of having my student run their own cult film screening when I first taught ENGL4980 “Topics in Film Aesthetics: Trash Cinema” in the Fall of 2009. The course objective was to examine the aesthetics of films which were notorious, not for their excellence, but for their terribleness. In “Esper, the Renunciator: Teaching ‘Bad’ Movies to Good Students,” Jeffrey Sconce argues: “beach blanket films, Elvis pictures, 1950s monster-movies — any film where history and technique remove students from the ‘effects’ of representation and plunge them headlong into the quagmire of signification itself” can be fruitful classroom texts (31).  The polished Hollywood stalwarts that populate the syllabi of so many film studies courses — Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz), Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles), Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock) — are so seamlessly crafted and carry the weight of so much critical praise that it is often difficult for students to find a way to analyze their “invisible” style. Of course, I do teach these films in other classes (one film I will always teach in Intro to Film is Casablanca –always and forever). But I think it’s useful for film studies students to also look at films with a highly visible style — ideally one in which all of the seams are showing. Further, understanding how and why we classify popular culture as being in “good” or “bad” taste tells us a lot about how unnatural and constructed such categories can be. These are topics that can often be easily ignored when we only watched Ingrid Bergman framed in a beautifully lit close up.

Todd Haynes’ SUPERSTAR tells the story of Karen Carpenter’s rise to fame and her consequent death due to anorexia and bulimia. With Barbie dolls.

Throughout the semester my students and I have been studying American films that have been marginalized due to a variety of interrelated factors: their small budgets and chintzy set designs (Sins of the Fleshapoids [1965, Mike Kuchar]), their completely inept style (Glen or Glenda? [1953, Ed Wood, Jr]), their offensive subject matter (Pink Flamingos [1972, John Waters] and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story [1987, Todd Haynes]), their violent or sexual imagery  (2000 Maniacs [1964, Herschell Gordon Lewis] and Bad Girls Go to Hell [1965, Doris Wishman]) and their desire to place marginalized faces at the center of the screen (Freaks [1932, Tod Browning] and  Blacula [1972, William Crain]). In addition to understanding  why these films have historically been viewed as “trash” (we relied heavily on Pierre Bordieu’s pithy line “Taste classifies and classifies the classifier” to answer this question) we also sought to understand why moviegoers persist in watching these movies. This second question is, admittedly, harder to answer. Why did my students enjoy watching the blurry, overdubbed images of Todd Haynes’ Superstar or delight in the conclusion of Sins of the Fleshapoids when (SPOILER ALERT!) a female “fleshapoid” gives birth to her own baby toy robot?

Watch a fleshapoid give birth to the fruit of her forbidden robot love.

Enter The Room.  I will admit now that the idea for this assignment was partially selfish:  I had read about The Room  and wanted to experience a live screening myself. Right here in my own town! Of course, beyond my desire to scream the holy words “YOU’RE TEARING ME APART, LISA!” with a crowd of rambunctious moviegoers, I also felt that this assignment would be an inventive way of having my students learn by doing. The fancy word for that is “praxis.” You’re impressed now, aren’t you?

I had a few goals with this class project:

1. To teach students about the importance of “ballyhoo” 

Eric Schaefer defines ballyhoo as “that noisy, vulgar spiel that drew audiences to circuses and sideshows…a hyperbolic excess of words and images that sparked the imagination” (103). Ballyhoo promises audiences something—an image, an experience or a reaction (“This movie will make you puke!”)—that it does not always fulfill. This unfulfilled promise is a convention of exploitation advertising. I encouraged my students to think of their advertising in this way — as an exaggeration or complete misrepresentation of the experience of attending The Room. Say whatever you need to say to fill the theater seats.

Proof that student-generated ballyhoo was working: on the event’s Facebook page a student writes “I have no idea what this is but I’m going lol.”

I told the students that their grade  for this project would be partially determined by the amount of people in the audience and the level of enthusiasm emanating from the audience during the screening. Just as exploiteers like Kroger Babb and David Friedman endeavored to fill as many theater seats as possible because their livelihoods depended on it, my students had to fill the theater or risk a low grade. The students were given the duration of the semester to design and distribute posters, create a buzz in various forms of media, and prepare the venue for the night of the screening —  just as their exploiteer ancestors did.

They made a variety of posters and flyers:

I collected the various posters and flyers designed by the students outside of my office.

They created a Facebook event page and posted regular reminders extolling the virtues of The Room:

They created a series of “Golden Tickets” which they planted around campus. Students who located the tickets and attended the screening received a “special” prize which I believe was just a ring pop. But you see: that’s exploitation!

The students also convinced the school paper, The East Carolinian, to write an article about our event and called the campus radio station to plug the screening after the Presidential election. Overall, I found their ballyhoo to be creative and persistent, which is key to the successful exploitation of a film. Indeed, about 15 minutes before the start of the screening, when it appeared as if they would not fill the theater, several of my students ran outside the venue to harass students as they walked by: “Don’t you want to come and watch The Room? It’s the greatest movie ever! We’ll give you spoons!” That’s exploitation too! Lesson learned, students. Lesson learned.

2. To teach students about how cult film audiences are created and nurtured

This was the trickiest aspect of the class project because a cult audience is defined by its almost spontaneous nature. A cult is created by the audience, not by a group of students hoping to score an A in the film studies class that they’re taking to fulfill their Writing Intensive requirement for graduation. We watched The Room during our first full week of class and the campus-wide screening did not take place until the 13th week of class, so by the night of the screening I think my students were legitimate enthusiasts. But what of the audience members who had been lured into the theater on a Monday night, through false promises that the event would be the screening event of a lifetime or because their friends in the class had begged them to or because they were promised special prizes?

Prizes!!!

Could a group of students (the majority of whom had never seen The Room prior to enrolling in my course) create a cult film audience out of sheer force of will? I think they did.

If someone shows up to your screening dressed as Tommy Wiseau, then you’ve done something right. Well done students.

It was the students’ responsibility to prepare the audience for the evening’s events through their promotional efforts and also by presenting a brief introduction to the film. Ostensibly motivated by the desire to educate, exploiteers would often bring in “experts” (or actors dressed as doctors and nurses) to speak to audiences who came to watch their sex hygiene or drug films. But of course, this was titillation in the guise of education, further adding to the experience of watching the film (which started the moment an audience member saw the first advertisement in the local paper). We attempted to replicate this environment by having one of the students serve as an emcee. She provided the audience with insight into the cult of The Room and a demonstration of key rituals. Our emcee cracked jokes and interacted with the audience throughout her introduction, which prepped the audience for the film to come.

Grace served as our (very animated) emcee while Jenna (dressed as Johnny) ran the Power Point presentation.

The students were also tasked with assembling prop bags for the audience and deciding on what rituals they wanted the audience to perform (again, a seemingly antithetical concept in the world of interactive screenings). They repeated some of the most basic rituals of The Room — the throwing of spoons, the shouting of “Because you’re a woman!” every time Lisa offered up an excuse for her duplicitous behavior, and the calling out of “Hi Denny! Bye Denny!” — but they also added a few new rituals. First, during each of the film’s lengthy and grotesque lovemaking scenes, my students wandered through the audience with bunches of fake red roses (because the film’s protagonist, Johnny, and his fiance, Lisa, make love on a pile of roses). They would tap an audience member on the shoulder and whisper “Welcome to the sex scene. Please accept this rose.” It’s already uncomfortable watching Johnny make love to Lisa’s belly button but to have someone offer you a rose during such an awkward scene heightens those feelings. The second ritual they added was to release several garbage bags worth of balloons during the film’s climactic (and lengthy) party scene. Once the balloons were released, the audience began to bat them around (they would pop after hitting the ceiling), thus bringing the on-screen party into the audience:

On a side note, I should add that the students also purchased a small pack of glowing, LED-filled balloons, which they thought would be a fun addition to this ritual. However, upon reading the instructions the students discovered that these balloons were potentially dangerous when popped and had to be safely “detonated” after use. This added a little, personalized thrill to the screening for me as every time I heard a popping noise I wondered if I might lose my job because a student had just been blinded. That’s exploitation too! Way to go, students!

3. To teach students about the joys (and frustrations) of a class project

The students assembled 200 prop bags containing plastic spoons, chocolates and rose petals for audience members to throw at the screen.

In the classes I teach there is rarely a good reason to assign a class project. However, this screening assignment afforded me a truly useful reason to force my students to work together — to create an environment in which it is safe for me to hurl curses at a screen for 100 glorious minutes. As I mentioned, part of the students’ grades for this project was going to be determined by the amount of people they could convince to attend the screening as well as the enthusiasm of the audience (after all, a cult film audience who sits silently is no kind of cult film audience at all). This meant that if the event was a bust, the grades were a bust too. In the weeks leading up to the screening, I witnessed more and more cohesion among my 14 students. They conferred before and after class, collecting in corners of the classroom to share flyers and advertising ideas. Indeed, on the night of the event I noticed a change in the dynamic of the group. I stood back and watched as they arranged prop bags, fiddled with their power point, psyched up the event’s emcee, and of course, fretted over whether or not the evening would be a success. True, I felt a little like the judge, jury and executioner throughout all of this — in the hour leading up to the screening I caught students eyeing me nervously — but I also felt very proud of them. Moments before the event started we gathered for a class huddle and shouted “YOU’RE TEARING ME APART LISA!”

Nervous about filling the auditorium, the students began cheering every time a new audience member turned the corner.

In short, I was delighted with the results of this student project. I think students learned — first hand — what it would be like to be an exploiteer whose livelihood depended on generating enough ballyhoo to fill a theater. I think they also learned about the joys and rewards of cult viewership even if the viewership they created was highly constructed and mediated through the lens of a class project.

Below I would love to hear about any successes (or failures) you’ve had in attempting to implement class projects into the film or media studies classroom. Were these projects simply “busywork” or do you think they helped your students to gain a greater understanding of the course material?

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Schaefer, Eric. “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!”: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

Sconce, Jeffrey. “Esper, the Renunciator: Teaching ‘Bad’ Movies to Good Students.” Defining Cult Films: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Taste. Eds. Mark Jancovich, Antonio Lazaro Reboll, Julian Stringer, and Andy Willis. Manchester: Machester University Press, 2003. 14-34.

Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent, Part II: Parenting on the Job

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A few weeks ago I published Part 1 of a two-part post entitled “Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent, Part I: Grad School Babies.” This post covered the presentations and discussions that took place during a workshop that I chaired at this year’s  Console-ing Passions: A Conference on Television, Audio, Video, New Media, and Feminism, hosted by Suffolk University, entitled “Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent.” This post discussed the challenges and rewards of having a child while still in graduate school. I was pleased to see how many people engaged in this conversation — in the comments section of this blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter. I often feel self conscious whenever I link up my roles as parent and professor since acknowledging that one role might impact the other implies a weakness. It makes me a less desirable employee than my child-free counterpart. Thus, the first rule of being an academic parent is don’t talk about being an academic parent.  I also worry about alienating ,or at least annoying, my child-free friends and colleagues with posts like these — I don’t want anyone to “un-baby” my blog. Wait, you’re doing it right now, aren’t you? Okay fine. Here’s a picture of a kitten:

In all seriousness, I think these conversations are important for all academics to have, even those who never plan to have children. We all need to work together, after all, and we need to find ways to accomodate each other and create policies that help us all to be the best scholars, teachers, and yes, committee-members, we can be. As my lovely colleague, Anna Froula put it:

“I want the colleagues I work with to be happy at work (so they’ll keep working with me), so it’s a quality of life issue.  The reason I defer to [colleagues with children when] scheduling meetings is because, simply put, you have more humans in your family that depend on you to balance work and home life.  My time is more flexible because I don’t have kids. If one of us had an ill parent or some other pressing issue to deal with, it would be the same thing.  We should want to take care of each other so we can enjoy working together and do so efficiently.”

Like Anna, I want us all to enjoy working together. To that end,  this post will replace all cute baby pictures with cute animal pictures. But be warned: my Facebook page remains fully babyfied.

*****

“The ‘Child Friendly’ Department: Definitions and Expectations”

In this post I’ll be summarizing the portions of the workshop that covered parenting after graduate school. In many ways, the life of a college instructor is ideally suited to the rhythms of parenting.  We have the option to take our summers “off” (though for me, “taking the summer off” means I don’t teach but I do continue to research, write, and work on my fall syllabi and course plans). Most teaching schedules are confined to a Tuesday/Thursday or Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule, which allows parents to work from home at least one or two days per week (unless they hold an administrative position). And most college courses are over by 4:00 pm or 5:00 pm, which allows parents to be home when their kids are finished with school for the day. Pretty sweet, right? Well, maybe not. In their article, “Care, Career, and Academe: Heeding the Calls of a New Professoriate,” Nikki C. Townsley and Kristin J. Broadfoot argue that “…short-term flexibility obfuscates the long term inflexibility of academia for faculty committed to both work and family.” Here are some examples:

* women who get TT job before having kids were less likely to become mothers or get married and were more likely to be divorced or separated.

* female academics were found to hold the highest rate of childlessness amongst professional women at 43%.

* the tenure track model supports a progressive, linear and seamless career model  in that many TT jobs expect professors to teach full course loads, be on several committees and publish at least one book in the 1st 5 years on the job.

* in fact, TT job expectations are built on presumption that professor has a full-time home-based caregiver  and homemaker. The university is not structured to accommodate dual career families.

These statistics beg the question: is being an academic parent harder for women than it is for men? In “Does it Take a Department to Raise a Child?” Bonnie J. Dow writes that lack of support for pre-tenure parenting negatively affects careers of female junior faculty more than male junior faculty. Here are some of her findings:

*12-14 years after obtaining PhD,  males on the tenure track in the humanities & social sciences with “early babies” (babies born in the first 5 years after finishing the PhD) receive tenure at rate of 78%.

* 58% of women in same position receive tenure.

*women with “late babies” (babies born more than 5 years after the PhD) received tenure at a rate of 71%.

*47% of women reported great deal of tension and stress over parenting/work conflict versus 27% of men.

Dow’s findings indicate that many female professors are unable to fulfill the requirements of tenure while parenting a young child. The later women wait to have a baby, the better their chances for tenure. But male parents don’t face the same problems. They have an easier time having successful academic careers while having families. Indeed, Dow’s article mirrors many of the points made by Anne-Marie Slaughter in her hotly contested piece in The Atlantic from earlier this summer. In her article, entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” Slaughter argues that women have a harder time being mother-workers than men do. I know there was a lot of blowback on this piece but Slaughter makes a lot of great points. For example, she writes:

“If women feel deeply that turning down a promotion that would involve more travel, for instance, is the right thing to do, then they will continue to do that. Ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family. If we really valued those choices, we would value the people who make them; if we valued the people who make them, we would do everything possible to hire and retain them; if we did everything possible to allow them to combine work and family equally over time, then the choices would get a lot easier.”

As I mentioned in my last post, graduate student mothers are told to hide the fact that they are mothers when going on the job market. As if being a parent is a liability.  Academia needs to find a way to better bring together work and family.

Before we move on, though, why don’t we all enjoy a puppy picture?

Ahhhhhh.

Now I’d like to discuss some of the feedback I collected through my survey. First, a quick note on this survey. Although I did obtain IRB approval in order to conduct this survey and share the results publicly, I quickly discovered that I had no idea how to design a survey. I had an especially difficult time crafting multi-part questions. For example, I wanted to know how many of my respondents (which included tenure track faculty, fixed term faculty,  independent scholars, and graduate students) were offered the option to stop their tenure clock after the birth of a child, who took that option and why. The data that resulted from my questions is confusing since the question was targeted only at those people on the tenure track, followed by those who had the option to stop the clock, followed by those who actually took that option. But I did get some useful data. In partIcular, I was intrigued by the responses to my question “What is your definition of a child friendly department?” I read through all of the responses and was able to sort these responses into 5 broad categories, which I will list below (along with some representative responses).

How Do Your Colleagues Define a “Child Friendly” Department?

1. Openness and Acceptance

“I would define it as a place where children are accepted and discussed as a normal thing, where I don’t have to feel like I might be looked down upon for having children, where I can speak freely about them without reservation. You know, like you’d talk about your dogs. No one is worried that they shouldn’t mention owning dogs because they might be judged or it might affect their academic work. Yet I feel like it’s easier to talk about pets than children.”

“Faculty, staff and graduate students would also not feel uncomfortable even *mentioning* children, which can happen among academics.”

“…parents feel comfortable revealing work/family conflict to chair in an effort to resolve them If possible”

“A department that accepts parenting as an appropriate activity for a professor and makes reasonable accommodations for it.”

“One that understands and accomodates faculty with children such that within reason, parents are allowed to be the kind of parents they would like to be. “

2. Flexibility… for Everyone, not Just Parents

“Rather than child friendly, perhaps family friendly or life friendly–a place which recognizes that humans have obligations to other humans that sometimes interrupt the ordinarily scheduled activities of a career. That said, I do think all department members should be thoughtful and respectful of their colleagues, recognizing that obligations come in lots of shapes and sizes–some of which are easier to talk about than others.”

“A department that recognizes that faculty AND staff are humans with human needs and issues including the care of children [and/or ill family members or elderly parents] with willingness to flexibly schedule committee meetings or to understand the need for occasional help arranging coverage of classes in emergencies (as with conferences and other professional demands) and to offer suggestions for newcomers on how to find effective childcare.”

“A ‘child friendly’ department alternates the times at which meetings and events (readings, workshops, etc.) are scheduled, so that not *everything* happens during a parent’s ‘second shift’ at home.”

“One that understands not to schedule events after 4:30 in the afternoon. One that understands that if you do schedule a lot of nightly events, then you won’t go. And one that makes public statements supporting why parents with young children are less able to participate in extracurricular events.”

3. Where Parents Aren’t Penalized for Being Parents

“A child friendly department is one that …promotes/recognizes employees based on their JOB performance, and doesn’t penalize or overlook employees based on their maternal obligations.”

“…a general respect for my decision to have children, where it is not looked at as a problem, or a road block on my tenure track.”

“A department that doesn’t force people to choose between a career and a family.”

“One that makes it easy for me to be an academic and a parent at the same time. As a grad student, I can’t afford day care, and I live away from my family, which means that since I have the more flexible schedule between me and my non-academic partner, I am the full-time caretake of my kids, as well as a full-time student, part-time teacher, union steward, committee member, etc. I don’t have the luxury of separating these out.”

“Provides parents with the same opportunities as non-parents. Does not give parents or non-parents an advantage over each other.”

4. Clearly Defined (& Fair) Parental Leave Policies, Including the Option to Stop Tenure Clock

“Gives teaching and graduate assistants maternity leave…”

“A department that provides parental leaves for both partners and in the case of a single parent a longer leave or reduced load including the leave. In addition, if a faculty member elects to stop the tenure clock then at the time of assessment one should not look at when s/he received his/her Ph.D.”

In “Why Maternity Leave is Important,” Meredith Melnick cites a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) that found: “Women with 3-month-old infants who worked full time reported feeling greater rates of depression, stress, poor health and overall family stress than mothers who were able to stay home (either because they didn’t have a job or because they were on maternity leave).” These results suggest that the transition back into employment immediately after childbirth is difficult for the average family. Mothers in particular get stressed and depressed when they must return to work too soon after the birth or adoption of a child. And a stressed/depressed mother has a negative impact on her children. Melnick quotes NBER researchers, Pinka Chatterji, Sara Markowitz and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, who found that “Numerous studies show that clinical depression in mothers as well as self-reported depressive symptoms, anxiety, and psychological distress, are important risk factors for adverse emotional and cognitive outcomes in their children, particularly during the first few years of life.” Despite the results of studies that demonstrate the necessity of some kind of paid parental leave for new parents, the U.S. is one of two developed economies in the world that do not provide some form of universal paid maternity leave (the other is Australia). This is the same country that produces senators like Rep. Todd Akin,  the Republican nominee for Senate in Missouri, who believes the female body contains “biological defenses” that prevent it from getting pregnant during a “legitimate rape.” In other words, women shouldn’t abort their babies and they can’t take off work to care for them either. But I digress…

In terms of the folks I surveyed, 23% took an unpaid parental leave, 32% took a paid leave and 28% took no kind of leave after the birth/adoption of a child. Of those who did not take any time off, 15% said their departments did not offer paid leave, 9% worried it would affect their ability to keep their jobs, 6% worried it would impact their ability to get tenure, 12% (who were men) said that men do not normally take leave in their departments and 9% said they didn’t take leave because they didn’t want to. In general, it seems that the length of parental leaves (if they are offered at all) vary wildly from school to school. I was lucky to get a paid maternity leave of one full semester after the birth of my son. Since he was born, my university’s policy has been shortened from a full semester (15 weeks) to 12 weeks. I don’t see how this change saves the university much money (do we save money by having a professor teach 4 weeks of a 15 week course?) and since I am currently on my university’s Faculty Welfare Committee, I plan to address this change when we meet again this fall.

 5. Your Question is Illogical! 

4 of my 180 respondents responded to the question “How do you define a child friendly department” with something along the lines of “Girl, you crazy!”

“Why do we need a definition? An employee’s job is to work. Their outside responsibilities belong outside of the work environment. University employees are employees just like in a business. Business does not allow exceptions for parents with children-schedules or maternity leaves. Only in this environment would the employees be pandered to in this way.”

“I don’t have one. Why would other adults do favors for my children? My colleagues interact with me and I am not a child.”

“One of the problems to be considered when exploring the idea of ‘child friendly’ is a perceived disconnect between faculty expectations and the ‘real-world’ workplace. To put this another way, the public is unlikely to be supportive of expressions of concern about the absence of a child friendly culture when they have to do without it in their lives. Nor is the legislature likely to be supportive.”

These comments are not representative of the vast pool of responses I received, but I found them worth reporting because they address something important that academics need to consider: do we expect too much? After all, a parent working in a top law firm can’t expect meetings to be scheduled around her daycare schedule and an ER doctor can’t refuse to work nights because he wants to be able to put his baby to bed.

Bonnie J. Dow argues that lack of institutional support for colleagues with children ends up hurting the entire department: “…as long as family-friendly departments enable academic parents to rely on their colleagues’ informal support, they simultaneously enable institutions to forestall developing the structural solutions that would make that support less necessary.” She claims that when a faculty member agrees to cover a class after a colleague gives birth “…the unintended consequence of such short-term fixes is that institutions continue to rely upon them as ad hoc and interpersonal solutions to a structural problem.” Likewise, academic parents must be careful not to take advantage of colleagues. Dow offers 5 rules that academic parents should follow in a good faith effort to not take advantage of their child-free colleagues:

 1. Don’t bring kids to the office

2. Don’t bring kids to meetings

3. Arrange for child care for meetings (NOT JUST TEACHING)

4. Department couples are not interchangeable—you both need to be present

5.  Colleagues are not required to accommodate your parenting philosophy

I’m not sure that I agree with all of Dow’s suggestions. If your child is ill and you must get to campus to meet with a student, you might have to bring your kid with you, and that doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal. But Dow’s overarching point seems to be: remember that you are part of a department. Meetings, job candidate dinners, and the like, are all part of your work obligations and you should therefore have childcare available for those events. When you stop pulling your weight, your weight doesn’t vanish. It just appears in someone else’s “to do” pile. Colleagues should keep my precarious schedule in mind (if you want me to attend a weekly meeting, then try to schedule it during my kid’s day care hours) but my needs do not trump their needs. At some point every member of a given department is going to have a personal situation conflict with duties at work. As colleagues we need to be able to take up each other’s slack when needed and within reason.

How can we do this? Jason Mittell offered some great suggestions during our worksop. As chair of his department he has instituted and/or supported the following policies to make life easier for the humans who work there (and the humans who depend on them) :

* Make kids visible. By acknowledging that we’re parents & not trying to hide it in the workplace, we all can be more sensitive to various demands & conflicts that can emerge. This means both talking about our kids and making a welcome environment for them to be in the office when necessary.

* Fewer meetings. Whenever possible, we try to deal with things via email or ad-hoc rather than have frequent regular meetings, recognizing that the more flexible our schedules are, the better. Not all faculty members feel this is preferable, but to me, at least, it helps ensure that time spent in the office is more focused on what I need it to be, rather than the formalities of meetings.

* Sensitive scheduling of meetings. When we do have meetings, we try to schedule them during regular hours that coincide with school/daycare coverage (i.e. never later than 4:30, ideally on Friday afternoon or other times when nobody teaches).

* Sensitive scheduling of class times. For faculty with kids, we try to let them schedule the timing that works best for them. This includes screenings, which we allow to be scheduled concurrently to allow us to only be out one night each week.

* No “face time” expectations. For some faculty, there is frequently a culture of “face time,” where being around the office is an expectation & you’re judged by your presence. I’ve tried to push back against this, emphasizing that as long as you’re getting your work done & students/colleagues know how to get in touch with you, it doesn’t matter where you’re doing it. For staff, it’s a bit more complicated (and I’d love to hear ways to make things work better in this regard), but in general I hope that people feel our department is one where being away from your desk isn’t seen as a problem.

* Embrace flextime & telecommuting. When kids are sick, have events or appointments, or otherwise draw you away from the office, it’s not a big deal to work from home or shift your normal hours around, as long as students & colleagues who need to know are in the loop.

* Engage the conversation. When I shared this list with my colleagues, half of them expressed their appreciation that I had raised the issue. As one said, “I knew that the department embraced these ideas, but having them spelled out in an email from the chair makes it feel more validated and legitimate.”

Don’t you all wish Jason was your department chair?

*****

In the comments section I would love for readers to share their experiences — both good and bad — with being a post-grad academic parent. What policies have been the most helpful to you and why? What changes were you able to make to your department or university’s policies regarding parental leave, the tenure clock, on-site daycare centers, and/or scheduling needs? What changes were you unable to make? And for those academics without children — how have colleagues with children impacted your work life? How have you tried to accomodate them and, just as important, how have they tried to accomodate you? Keep in mind that if you feel uncomfortable having this conversation in a public forum (these are sensitive issues), you can feel free to use an alias. I won’t out you.

Works Cited

Dow, Bonnie J. “Does it Take a Department to Raise a Child?”  Women’s Studies in Communication  31.2 (2008): 158-165.

Melnick, Meredith. “Study: Why Maternity Leave is Important.” Time 21 July 2011. <http://healthland.time.com/2011/07/21/study-why-maternity-leave-is-important/&gt;.

Slaughter, Anne-Marie. “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” The Atlantic July/August 2012. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/&gt;.

Townsley, Nikki C. & Kristin J. Broadfoot. “Care, Career, and Academe: Heeding the Calls of a New Professoriate.” Women’s Studies in Communication  31.2 (2008): 133-143.