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.
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?”
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?
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.
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.
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):
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Job ads have been posted! JOB ADS HAVE BEEN POSTED! JOB. ADS. HAVE. BEEN. POSTED.
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.
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:
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.
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…
“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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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?
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.
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.
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
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!”
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?
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.
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?
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.
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/>.
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/>.
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.
On July 19-21 I attended the biennial conference, Console-ing Passions: A Conference on Television, Audio, Video, New Media, and Feminism, hosted by Suffolk University (on a side note, if you write about or study anything related to these themes, I strongly encourage you to apply to Console-ing Passions in 2o14. You won’t regret it). In addition to presenting a paper on Teen Mom (don’t you judge me), I also chaired a workshop entitled “Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent.” During this workshop, Eleanor Patterson, Jason Mittell, and Melissa Click, three media studies scholars at different points in their academic careers, candidly discussed the challenges and rewards, both personal and professional, related to being a parent in academia.
The reason I’m sharing what transpired during this workshop here is twofold. First, as anyone who has ever attended an academic conference knows, the turn out at individual panels and workshops is precarious. You could have 50 people in your audience or 5 (we had more than 5, less than 50). I thought the stories and advice that circulated during our 90-minute workshop would be useful reading for other parents who live and work in the Ivory Tower as well as those who are pondering whether or not to become parents. Second, for my part of the workshop I explored definitions of the “child friendly department” — and what academics with children have a right to expect (or not expect) from their employers, colleagues, and students — and conducted a survey to see how other folks in the academy defined this term. I am grateful that 180 busy parents agreed to participate in my survey. Since many of them told me they were curious about its findings, I wanted share the results here.
I will cover the workshop in two parts to make reading and sharing more manageable. In Part I I will be discussing the challenges and rewards of having a child while still in graduate school and in Part II I will address the challenges and rewards of post-doc life with children.
“Navigating Motherhood as a Media Studies Graduate Student”
During our workshop Eleanor Patterson, a doctoral student in the Media & Cultural Studies program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, discussed her experiences being a parent while still in graduate school. I asked Eleanor if she would participate in this workshop after reading her smart, funny, and insightful post, “So You Want to be a Grad Student Mama.” Here are some (but not all) of the key points Eleanor addressed during our workshop, with additional commentary by me (because I just can’t help sharing my own war stories):
Parenting is a feminist issue
Eleanor began her presentation with this statement: “being a parent in academia is a site where power is literally exercised over the body, in how we reproduce and parent. As a grad student, our labor has less political and social power within academic institutions.” It is difficult to be a new parent in any context but when you become a new parent as a graduate student, the low man/woman on the academic totem pole, navigating the field becomes even more difficult. New parents often find themselves in situations where they must request “special considerations” (flexible scheduling, missing meetings to care for sick children, etc.) and asking for these considerations is daunting when you feel like you have no power or that the very act of asking could somehow tarnish your reputation as a “serious” scholar. You become paranoid, constantly wondering how your choice to have a child will impact how others see you. You become extra determined to not let being a parent impact the way you function professionally (which is impossible, by the way).
As the authors of “Making Space for Graduate Student Parents: Practice and Politics” point out, being a parent and being an academic are similar in many ways: “The intensity and reverence with which academics and parents undertake their respective ‘labors of love’ is undoubtedly similar. And certainly both vocations can be marked by constant self scrutiny and a nagging sense of incompletion and imperfection.” It’s true. Nevertheless…
Being a parent and a graduate student are two roles that frequently appear to be at odds
During our workshop, Eleanor rightly pointed out that unlike faculty parents, grad students must adjust to “the new demands of academia while simultaneously adjusting to the new life of parent.” Although very little research has been done on graduate student parents, what is known is that there is a lower attrition rate for graduate student moms. After citing this fact, Eleanor was quick to add “I don’t mean to suggest that grad students shouldn’t be moms, but I bring this up to say that being a grad parent is complicated and there are concrete, material incongruences with how academia is structured and being a grad parent.” To name just one example, graduate students often struggle financially as they are sandwiched between student loans stemming from college and a highly uncertain economic future. And new babies? Well, they cost a lot of money. They need clothing and diapers and constant visits to the doctor and toys that are made with lead-free paint. How can a grad student, who can barely pay her rent, support the life of another human being?
It should not be surprising then that the majority of graduate students decide to wait until after they finish their degrees, or later, to have children. According to Mary Ann Mason’s 2009 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education “Exact figures are elusive, but a study we did of doctoral students at the University of California indicated that about 13 percent become parents by the time they graduate.” This is a problem for female academics in particular since the median age for women to complete a doctoral degree is 33 and for most women, fertility begins to drop starting at age 30. In her aforementioned blog post on parenting as a grad student, Eleanor explains “I also believe that the general discourse that encourages women who want children to wait until they’ve completed their Ph.D. is part of a greater patriarchal discourse that disciplines our bodies. I think it is similar in many ways to the advice female faculty often receive to have their children over the summer. As if taming our biological reproduction to match the academic school calendar would make academia more amenable to parenting or mothering.”
After my husband and I got together in my early twenties, we began to have earnest conversations about when we could start having children. I was emotionally ready for kids, but I was terrified about how it would impact my academic career. How would I finish my degree with a child in the house? Would I ever get a job if I had a kid first? I asked some of the professors and older graduate students in my department for advice and received lots of conflicting opinions. One popular answer was to wait to start my family until I was awarded tenure. Allow me to explain why this is problematic logic: I started my Masters degree in the Fall of 1999 and finished my PhD in the summer of 2007. Other than taking one year off after my MA to work for AmeriCorps so that I didn’t start drawing symbols and formulas all over the windows of my Pittsburgh apartment, Beautiful Mind-style (a story for another time, perhaps), I moved relatively quickly through my degrees. Then I won the academic lottery by snagging a tenure track job for the fall of 2007. If all goes well and I am awarded tenure in the spring of 2013 (fingers crossed), I will be 36 years old.
If I had waited to have children until tenure, I would be trying for my first at age 36. I know many women who were able to get pregnant with healthy babies at age 36 and beyond. But I also know a lot of women my age and older who are suffering through the stress and financial burden (not to mention the heartache) of infertility. Simply put, it is more difficult (and expensive) to get pregnant in your mid-30s. So, for many female academics who want to start a family, having a child while still in graduate school is probably the only way to do both. As Mason points out “[Many women] can see their biological clocks running out before they achieve the golden ring of tenure.”
Grad students are urged to “hide” their pregnancies and/or babies when they go on the job market
Eleanor explains that “Graduate student mothers are not only confronted with logistical difficulties, limited support, and potentially constrained career paths; they must also contend with conflicting and powerful ideologies that surround academia and motherhood. I know this is an issue, because every professionalization workshop on job talks, and being on the job market, have emphasized that you should not discuss your position as a parent, or your partner, at all, unless once you have an offer, you might angle for a spousal hire.” I was given the same advice when I went on the academic job market in the winter of 2006. At the time, I was still breastfeeding my 7 month-old daughter, so keeping my status as a parent under wraps was challenging. Breast feeding mothers who are away from their babies need to pump every few hours or else they risk diminishing or losing their milk supply.
During my campus interviews I had to ask for a bathroom break every few hours so I could hide in a stall and pump, praying that no one would inquire about the weird “whoosh whoosh” sound of my battery-powered pump. I would emerge from the bathroom 20 minutes later, with a wrinkled suit and sweaty brow, pretending like nothing unusual had just occurred. When I finally gave up this exhausting ruse and told one of my future colleagues what I was up to (this was my third campus interview in the space of 2 weeks and I was just fed up with lying), he breathed a sigh of relief and said “Oh great, I’m glad you told me you have a kid. Now I can tell you about child friendly our department is!” How silly I felt for keeping it a secret. I’m not saying that all of you parents should out yourself during your job interviews this fall but a good question to ask yourself is this: do you want to spend the next 40 years working in a department that sees your children as a liability?
Grad students are inadvertently penalized for having kids
Part of being a graduate student is immersing yourself in your field. In addition to taking classes, teaching classes and writing, graduate students benefit from attending talks given by guest speakers, participating in colloquia, and (if you are a film studies scholar like myself), going to (or renting) movies with your fellow students. But when you are a parent, your time becomes limited. Once you have shelled out money to cover daycare while you go to class, teach and write, you are unlikely to have additional funds for a sitter so you can go to a talk, much less a movie. While your friends are having cocktails with Dr. Famous Scholar after her amazing, intellectually stimulating talk, you’re at home stacking blocks with your baby. Yes, your baby is wonderful, but you are definitely missing out on some key grad student experiences.
During her presentation Eleanor cited a study by the American Sociological Association that found that many crucial resources — including help with publishing, mentoring, effective teaching training, and fellowships — were less available to graduate student parents, particularly mothers, than to other students (Spalter-Roth & Kennelly, 2004). Graduate mothers are also less likely to be enrolled in higher ranking departments (Kennelly & Spalter-Roth, 2006). Furthermore, having a child in graduate school often comes with little to no support. Mason found that “Only 13 percent of institutions in the Association of American Universities (the 62 top-tanked research universities) offer paid maternity leave to doctoral students, and only 5 percent provide dependent health care for a child.”
What to do if you want to have a child while in graduate school:
Unless you have had a Doogie Howser-like educational trajectory and thus finished your Ph.D. in your mid-twenties, having a child while still in grad school may be the only option for women (and men) who want both an academic career and a family. Eleanor offered up some great questions to ask yourself before you make the decision to have a child while finishing up your graduate degree:
*How much university/departmental support is available for graduate students with children?
*Will you get paid parental leave and/or continuation of health insurance when you take parental leave?
*Will your health insurance cover dependents?
*Will your department “stop the clock” on your funding while you take parental leave?
*Is there an on-campus daycare (or any daycare) that you can afford?
*Are professors in your department willing to give you some leeway (in terms of paper extensions, missed classes, etc) after your child is born?
*How far along are you in your degree? The final years of dissertation work are often the most conducive to parenting since you no longer need to be on campus daily for classes.
Saranna Thornton outlines similar ways to make parenting more amenable to graduate students here.
It’s still hard
Finishing a Ph.D. is hard. Raising a child is hard. Putting those two jobs together? Very, very hard. Eleanor offers some of the highlights “To get things turned in on time, I have to plan my weeks out in advance, and no longer have the luxury of waiting for my muse to hit before I begin writing. I regularly have to write during my ‘free’ time between class/teaching to get stuff finished.” She also describes typing papers with a sleeping child on her lap. I have clear memories of breastfeeding my newborn daughter while simultaneously typing up my job application letters. I’m not sure that I would ever want to relive the year in which I had my first baby, completed my dissertation, taught two classes, and applied to 40 jobs. But what kept me going that year (and what continues to keep me going) is the realization that the pay off for all of that stress, the many sleepless nights, and endless hustle to write during the isolated gaps of my day (being a parent teaches you how to write any time), is a job that makes me happy when I am away from my children and a personal life that makes me happy when I am away from my job.
Of course, I should add that I had an ideal situation for having a baby during graduate school. My husband worked from home and made a good salary so that we could afford to hire a nanny for 25 hours each week. This gave me just enough time to finish my dissertation and apply to jobs (even though I still did a lot of this work while holding a baby in my lap). But even if you don’t have a partner with a great job, here are some reasons why having a child during graduate school can be a great choice:
* your schedule is far more flexible as a graduate student (especially an ABD) than it is as a full-time faculty member (remember a TT job involves research, teaching, service, and meetingsmeetingsmeetings)
* when things get crazy in the first years of the job, your child will be older and less likely to be keeping you up all night with his/her blood-curdling screams
*since most of your graduate student cohorts don’t have (and don’t plan to have) kids, you will have a built-in community of eager aunties and uncles who will genuinely enjoy taking a break from “the life of the mind” to play with your kid for a few hours while you work on dissertation revisions (or at least, this was my experience)
*the push to publish a book (or two) once you are on the tenure track often scares faculty away from having kids. I know several academics who fully intended to have children before landing their first job and who now say “Who has the time?”
I hope this section doesn’t come off as “this worked for me so it must work for everyone” advice. My point is that graduate students are often under the impression that they must put having children on hold until they finish their degrees or get tenure. I don’t think this is necessarily the best advice.
Embrace your choice
As Eleanor concluded her presentation she offered up a great piece of advice to graduate student parents: “perform legitimacy.” In other words, don’t apologize for your decision to have a child or hide this fact. The more visible student parents are, the better the environment will be for all graduate student parents. She also emphasized the importance of good mentors, both at the graduate student and at the faculty level.
I mentioned earlier in this piece that as a graduate student I was advised by many to wait until tenure to have children. However, I had one faculty mentor who gave me very different advice. She was one of the few professors in my department who brought her child to receptions and events and discussed the fact that she was a mother openly. As a graduate student I watched her do this and I mentally noted: “This is possible. This is okay.” One day I asked her to meet me for coffee and she told me about her experiences having a child in graduate school and why it was a great decision for her. I view this conversation as one of the most pivotal in my entire academic career and I will forever be grateful to this mentor. I hope to do the same for someone else some day.
This post, as well as Eleanor’s workshop presentation, are based almost entirely on personal experiences. I would love for readers to share their experiences below. What kind of advice (if any) did you receive about having children in graduate school? If you ended up having kids as a student, what was the biggest challenge and the biggest benefit of this decision? What advice would you give to graduate students who are contemplating having kids right now? Although this post focused more on the experiences of female graduate student parents, it would be great to hear from all of the men out there who had children while in graduate school (we know it’s hard for you guys too). How did your experiences differ from those outlined in this post?
Works Cited (& further reading)
Collett, Jessica. “Navigating Graduate School as a (Single) Parent.” scatterplot 5 Apr 2010. <http://scatter.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/navigating-graduate-school-as-a-single-parent/>.
Kennelly, Ivy and Roberta M. Spalter-Roth. “Parents on the Job Market: Resources and Strategies that Help Sociologists Attain Tenure-Track Jobs.” The American Sociologist 37.4 (2006): 29-49.
Mason, Mary Ann. “Why So Few Doctoral-Student Parents?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 21 Oct 2009. <http://chronicle.com/article/Why-So-Few-Doctoral-Student/48872/>.
Patterson, Eleanor. “So You Want to be a Grad Student Mama.” Antenna 2 Aug 2011. <http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2011/08/02/grad-student-mama/>.
Springer, Kristen W., Brenda K. Parker and Catherine Leviten-Reid. “Making Space for Graduate Student Parents: Practice and Politics.” Journal of Family Issues 30.4 (2009): 435-457.
Thornton, Saranna. “Faculty Forum: Making Graduate School More Parent Friendly.” Academe Online Nov 2005. <http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2005/ND/Col/ff.htm>.
Late last month a small cardboard box arrived at my office at work. In it were ten shrink-wrapped copies of my very first book, American Film Cycles: Reframing Genres, Screening Social Problems, & Defining Subcultures. Long title, eh? (more on that later). I was so delighted by the arrival of this long-awaited package that I posted a picture to my Facebook account:
Throughout the long process of writing my book proposal, revising and cutting down a 400 + page dissertation to a 200 page book, compiling my own index (DON’T DO IT!), and checking my proofs, I would often post book-related status updates on Facebook. Therefore, when I posted the above image, most of my Facebook friends understood that this was the culmination of many years of hard work (seven years, if you count the years it took to write the dissertation). I received hearty congratulations and words of support. It felt wonderful, like being the Prom Queen. Or at least that’s how I imagine being the Prom Queen would feel.
However, it is an odd thing publishing an academic book. On the one hand, my colleagues at East Carolina University, my graduate school professors and friends, and the other academics I have met along the way have a very clear idea about how difficult it is to obtain a book contract with a university press, how this will be a boon to my tenure case (fingers crossed), and finally, how specialized the audience is for a book like this. In other words, although my mother has purchased copies of this book for each of my aunts and uncles, I am fairly certain that my aunts and uncles are going to stop reading my book around page 2. That is, if they even crack it open at all.
My aunts and uncles will stop reading not because my book is difficult to understand or filled with field-specific jargon. Quite the contrary, I try to write as I speak: simply and directly (minus the occasional curse words). I think my relatives will not read my book because academic books are peculiar creatures. Generally, academic books are a dissection of a very specific idea or question in a very specific field of study. And unless you are somewhat interested in that idea/question, you probably won’t enjoy reading an academic book. It has nothing to do with the intelligence of the reader or the accessibility of the book — if you aren’t interested in the subject, academic books can be … monotonous.
If my wonderful editor over at the University of Texas Press is reading this post right now, I am betting smoke is coming out of his ears “Why are you discouraging people from buying your book?!?” I guess my fear is that my dear friends and family, who only bought American Film Cycles because I wrote it (as opposed to an interest in the topic), will open it up and realize that they spent $55 on a pretty blue paperweight. Can you tell that I have a guilt complex?
In order to both combat this guilt and promote my book at the same time, I’ve decided to write a blog outlining the subject and purpose of American Film Cycles. Then, if you buy it and you’re bored it’s your fault, isn’t it? So below I offer some FAQs about my book (and by “Frequently Asked Questions” I mean, “the questions I just made up right now”):
FAQs about American Film Cycles
Why did you write this book?
The point of my book is to offer the first comprehensive discussion of the American film cycle.
What is a film cycle?
Film cycles are a series of films associated with each other due to shared images, characters, plots, or themes. Film cycles usually form based on the success of a single, originary film. The images, characters, plots, or themes of that successful film are replicated over and over until the audience is no longer paying to see these films. Then the studio producing these films has to either alter the original formula or abandon it all together.
That sounds a lot like a film genre. Say, what are you trying to pull here, lady?
I know, they do sound a lot alike. But they’re different. Trust me. Film genres and film cycles generally form for the same reasons: a particular combination of image and theme resonates with a particular audience. However, cycles differ from genres when it comes to a few things, which I’ll briefly discuss below:
1. topicality: A film cycle needs to repeat the same images and plots over and over within a relatively short period of time (most cycles only “live” for 5-10 years). A cycle must capitalize on the contemporary audience’s interest in a subject before it moves on to something else (for example, the torture porn cycle that was extremely popular just a few years ago). While individual films within a genre may be quite topical (see, for example, how the gangster genre has altered the ethnicity and race of its hero over the decades to fit America’s changing view on who or what is “the public enemy”), film cycles are defined by their topicality.
2. longevity: One major difference between film cycles and film genres is that genres can better withstand interludes of audience apathy, exhaustion, or annoyance. Westerns, to name one prominent example, enjoy periods of intense audience interest as well as more fallow periods when audience interest wanes. Why are they able to do this? Simply put, film genres are founded on a large corpus of films that have been existence for decades at a time. The basic syntax or themes of the most established genres address a profound psychological problem affecting their audiences, such as the way gangster films address the legacy and impossibility of the American Dream. Film cycles generally address something far more topical and time-bound.
3. stability: It’s best to quote the master of genre studies, Rick Altman, here:
“The Hollywood genres that have proven most durable are precisely those that have established the most coherent syntax (the Western, the musical); those that disappear the quickest depend on recurring semantic elements, never developing a stable syntax (reporter, catastrophe, and big-caper films to name a few” (39).
Cycles generally lack a stable syntax, or set of themes. They are too new and fleeting to remain stable. Therefore, while film genres are defined by the repetition of key images (their semantics) and themes (their syntax), film cycles are primarily defined by how they are used (their pragmatics).
In other words, what separates cycles from genres is their intensely intimate relationship with their audiences and how audiences use them. The metaphor I use in my book is this: “If the relationship between audiences and genre films can be described as a long-term commitment with a protracted history and a deep sense of familiarity, then the audiences’ relationship with the film cycle is analogous to ‘love at first sight'” (11).
For example, in the 1950s, just as teenagers were starting to view themselves as “teenagers,” film studios tapped into this market by releasing a slew of films that exploited the newly emerging concepts of the teenager, juvenile delinquency, and rock n’ roll. But this relationship wasn’t one-sided. As much as studios exploited the teen subculture for profit, the teen subculture needed these films. Studios were integral to the definition and formation of this youth subculture, with their economic motivations acting as a catalyst, rather than a deterrent, for the growth of the subculture.
Why is your title so long?
I love short academic book titles.I think my all-time favorite title is by Richard Dyer: White: Essays on Race and Culture (the book itself is pretty damn amazing too). I wanted something similarly short and pithy for my book as well, because as we know, academic book titles and article titles can get out of control. However, after numerous back-and-forth e-mails with my infinitely patient editor, he convinced me that the more keywords that appear in my title, the easier it will be for interested readers to find my book. I think he’s right.
Okay, I understand. But so what?
In my book I argue that cycle studies offers an important compliment to traditional genre studies by questioning how generic structures have been researched, defined, and understood. Cycle studies’ focus on cinema’s use value—the way that filmmakers, audiences, film reviewers, advertisements, and cultural discourses interact with and impact the film text—offers a more pragmatic, localized approach to genre history in particular and film history in general. Cycle studies argue that films are significant not so much because of what they are, but because of why they were made, why studios believed that they were a smart investment, why audiences went to see them, and why they eventually stopped being produced. Any film or film cycle, no matter its budget or subject matter, has the potential to reveal a wealth of information about the studio that made it and the audience who went to see it. In my book I liken film cycles to fossils. Pressed on all sides by history/popular culture/audience desires/studio’s economic motivations/trends in fashion/trends in music/ etc. , film cycles serve as documents forever preserving a particular moment. In other words, if we examine film cycles (and film studies has, for the most part, entirely ignored this important production strategy), we can learn a lot about how audiences interact with films and how films interact with audiences.
On a practical level, cycle studies can answer a question I am so often asked by students and friends “Ugh, why do they keep making movies about [insert annoying film cycle subject here]?” Well, friends, after seven long years of research, writing, and revision, I think I can answer that.
So there you have it, folks. If you have read all of this and are still interested in my (AMAZING! GROUNDBREAKING! LIFE CHANGING!) book, you can purchase it here or here (it’s cheaper through the press). Or, you can order one for your university’s library. Or you can order 10 copies, sew them together, and make yourself a nice book coat. It’s cold out there — knowledge is warm.
Altman, Rick. “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre.” Film Genre Reader III. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. 27-41.
Klein, Amanda Ann. American Film Cycles:Reframing Genres, Screening Social Problems, & Defining Subcultures. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.
This week I taught the film Wall*E (2008, Andrew Stanton ) in my Film Theory and Criticism course. I selected the film to complement the week’s topic on digital cinema. However, my students were far more interested in discussing the film’s post-apocalyptic vision of an Earth so overrun with consumer waste that it must be abandoned for a clean, automated, and digitized existence on the Axiom, a spaceship that caters to humankind’s every need. Robots take care of human locomotion (which is why these humans are no longer able to walk), food (lunch in a cup!), grooming (robot manicurists!) , and even decision-making:
My students were critical of these human characters: for their sloth, their apathy, and most importantly, because of their inability to form real human connections. “They only communicate with each other through screens!” they lamented. I then pointed out that the behaviors of the humans on the Axiom are not too different from the behaviors of the humans on our college campus. As I walk to and from my office I see students, heads bent, eyes averted, typing away on their smart phones. Those who aren’t typing on their phones are talking on their cell phones or listening to their I Pods. Eyes plugged, ears plugged, the students I see each day rarely commune with the real world around them. Like the humans on the Axiom, we are surrounded by screens and by virtual relationships. This realization seemed to depress my students.
But I’m not all that saddened by this vision of the future. No, I don’t want to become a rotund, infant-like drone, sucking my lunch out of a cup, but I am quite fond of the connectivity fostered by the internet and the proliferation of increasingly more affordable smart phones. In particular, I love Twitter. Man, do I love Twitter.
When I first joined Twitter in March 2009, I found it to be a lonely place. Gone were the hundreds of friendships I had accumulated on Facebook. Gone were those cute pictures of people’s babies and dogs (no really, I like seeing those). Gone was the instant validation I received when friends commented on my witty and hilarious status updates with their witty and hilarious rebuttals. Instead, I was faced with a long lists of 140 character statements, typed up by strangers, and addressed to no one in particular.
But over time I grew to understand the role of Twitter in my life. As many people have pointed out, Facebook is for connecting with the people I already know. Twitter, however, is for connecting with the people I would like to know. Sound creepy? Sure it does. But really it makes a lot of sense.
In my profession (higher education), networking with colleagues is key. In the past, such networking took place mostly at academic conferences. For example, imagine you are the editor of a film studies journal and you hear someone deliver a paper that sounds perfect for your next issue. You might approach the speaker at the end of the panel and ask her if she’d consider submitting her conference paper for publication in your journal. Or imagine you’re a graduate student and you need to find a scholar outside of your university to serve as a reader of your dissertation. You can approach one of your academic heroes at the bar later that evening, introduce yourself, and pop the question.
Yes, that’s all fine and good for the extroverts among us. But me, I’m an introvert. Or rather, I am the worst kind of introvert — an extroverted introvert. In other words, I love to socialize and meet new people, but I hate being the one who initiates the socializing and I hate introducing myself to new people. I don’t make a great first impression, but I make an excellent third impression. So up until the advent of Twitter, I was not able to meet many new people or forge important professional connections when I attended conferences. Instead, I mostly hung out with my (admittedly awesome) friends from graduate school, getting very drunk in the hotel bar.
But all of this has changed because of Twitter. Not only has it allowed me to meet with loads of new and interesting film and media scholars at conferences, it has also allowed me to develop professional relationships with people I have yet to meet. Many of the people I follow on Twitter also teach film and media studies courses and, even though we have not personally met, are more than willing to offer advice. For example, I am currently developing a syllabus for a new course, American and International Film History (1945 to the Present) and was having a hard time selecting a film for my week on New Hollywood Cinema. What to choose? So, I posed to the question to the Twitterverse:
And here are some of the responses I received:
This kind of conversation is especially important for someone like me, who teaches at a university in which there are only a few film studies scholars (there are three of us to be exact). Twitter provides me with an opportunity to brainstorm syllabus ideas, to get research suggestions for upcoming projects, and even to receive feedback on works in progress (via this blog) with an unlimited, virtual community of colleagues. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it.
Another thing that I love about Twitter is that it assembles an ever-present virtual community who is willing to listen, or at least bear witness to, my daily grievances. Here’s a post from a few weeks ago:
There is nothing profound about this tweet. In fact, it’s the kind of banal statement that most people would cite as evidence of Twitter’s utter pointlessness. But when I wrote this, I was having a bad day. And the shoes that I had to wear during my long walk home in the rain were destroyed. So it felt good to send my annoyance out there into the Twitterverse. Even if no one read it, the Tweet exists, and that’s enough for me.
Twitter is also great for someone in my profession because much of my work is completed in solitude. Yes, I teach in front of large groups of students and yes I have to attend committee and department meetings, but by and large I work alone. Therefore, Twitter affords me the opportunity to drop in and out of ongoing conversations, to comment on someone else’s tweet, to read a recommended article, or to watch a clip of someone crying about a “double rainbow,” when the mood strikes.A few minutes here, a few minutes there. It’s just the break I need in order to remain productive and, oddly enough, focused on the task at hand. Twitter is like a virtual coffee house filled with hundreds of interesting, funny, and bizarre individuals, who can be tuned in or tuned out throughout the course of the day.
It’s true, Twitter has caused me to share more banal details about my life than Facebook ever did:
And no one really needed to know that my cat doesn’t clean his ass after he uses the litter box:
Nevertheless, Twitter has added real value to my life. When I got my very own smart phone almost two months ago, I joined the other screen-entranced zombies who shamble across the ECU campus. But it’s not so much that I’m tuning the real world out. I like to think that I’m bringing more of the world in.
If you’re interested in reading more about the impact of being “plugged in,” you may be interested in the much-discussed (at least in the Twitterverse) article by Virginia Heffernen, “The Attention-Span Myth,” as well as Michael Newman’s thoughts on her piece. Both were written with more time and care than this blog post. But that’s because I’m too busy tweeting, ya’ll.