Three old guys: I

Oy! It’s getting to be that time of the semester, and last week I was buried under grading – and then I had to deal with a student who plagiarized. It was a messy week. But we’re back, this time with a story that was so long I’ve broken it in two.

In my department, there are three old guys. The first is Hank, the classic “deadwood.” His last article was published in 1987, although he tells us he’s working on something new. Hank’s an easy teacher, if not inspiring, and the undergraduates think he is “cute.”

The second is Red. Red is the center of a perpetual-motion machine turning out dozens of multi-authored scholarly articles a year. He does a lot of work, no one can deny that, but he’s too busy administering his graduate students and administrative assistants and research assistants and grants to do the actual scholarship himself. The dean recently negotiated with him to stay in the face of an offer to be a department chair at a top-ten program, and no one who knows will tell the rest of us how much that cost.

The third is Miller. Miller is an odd combination, a reserved WASP who takes on maybe one graduate student at a time and is a recluse – at least, he doesn’t socialize with the rest of the faculty. He has a steady stream of output, not like Red’s, but very solid stuff. Even though he never talks to anyone, his reputation is for impeccable work. I’ve been here ten years, and I still can’t figure out if he’s shy or a snob.

As an associate professor who hopes to some day be an old guy – and full professor – I’m not sure which of these three models is preferable. They’re like a Chinese menu: I’ll take Hank’s affability, Red’s productivity, and Miller’s reputation.

At some places, these three guys would form a ruling triumverate, but not these three, not here. It took me years after I got here to fully understand the politics between all of them.

First, Hank and Red despise each other. Now visibly, they seem to get along just fine, and after hearing stories from my colleagues at other institutions, I appreciate what that is worth. There are no screaming matches in faculty meetings. Even when you get one of them alone, they never directly say anything about each other.

You might think Red would have all the power there. But Hank used to be the department chair, and he brought in several big hires, our strongest associate profs, and they’re loyal to him. That includes our current chair. I don’t think Red wants to be a chair, except as a counter-offer; he likes being the head of a pyramid rather than having to deal with his ostensible equals. He never, ever collaborates with tenured faculty members – all of his legion co-authors are graduate students, research assistants, post-docs, and the occasional assistant prof. When his interests are threatened, though, his vast operation and the money that it brings in are somehow brought to our attention.

Second, Hank is a bigot. He does not like our young gay scholar at all, and he got downright nasty when we had a job candidate in a wheelchair.

Third, Red is a lady’s man. Which might not impact his work, except that his ex-wife was a student in our department. Both exes, actually. The one thing I can say in his defense is that, as far as I’m aware, he’s never dated his own student. He dated the ex-wives before our code of conduct expressly forbade such relationships; after all, even though he wasn’t their advisor, he still taught them and had power over them. Now he is dating another former student. Curiously enough, they began dating a week after she graduated.

Finally, Miller doesn’t do service. At all. He must have done enough back in the day to get promoted to full, but that was just before I arrived. He won’t advise undergrads, sit on search committees, or even go to job talks. Don’t think of mentioning university or college-wide committees.

I am rambling on too long already; I haven’t even gotten to my main point yet. Classroom time management was a serious problem when I first started teaching. I would get distracted by an interesting tangent and never get to the main point of my lecture before class ended. I’m better now, mostly. But the point of all this is that it was rare for the three men to agree on anything. If they did, it was something too trivial to bother discussing, like “cheating is bad.” Except for one time.

This happened a few years back, not long after I was promoted to associate. At the time, there was one guy even older than them in the department: Maxwell, who mostly snoozed in his office and looked confused when he came out. He’s emeritus now. I think this incident may have been what drove him to retirement, realizing he had no idea what was going on around him.

The chair then, a guy named Bill, wanted the department to revisit our masters and doctoral curricula. Actually, the entire department was okay with that, although the extent of the changes they were willing to countenance varied widely. At the very least, what was on paper should be updated to match what we were actually teaching, so that, for example, every student wouldn’t have to register for “special topics” instead of 526, a supposed core course that everyone agreed was dated. A committee was formed; Hank was on it. So was Linda.

Linda was about as far as you could get from Hank, politically speaking. I like to think I’m open-minded, but she went too far for me – one of those feminists who thinks it’s still the 1950s and women are being oppressed at every turn. According to her, the number of men in our department was by itself enough to convict all of us. Like I said, Hank is a bigot, so I’d grant that she was right on his count. Otherwise, the department was just the way it was through a series of historical accidents.

I should mention that I was on the committee, too, although I mostly kept my mouth shut, and there was another member, Jim, but he isn’t really important to this story.

Anyway, in our first meeting, Linda pushed for some reforms that went much further than anyone thought was necessary. She pretty much wanted the entire curriculum to be diversity and the latest postmodern trendy “everything is relative” stuff. Hank went into reactionary mode and started defending the entire Western canon and the scientific method and I can’t remember what else. I made some sort of pabulum speech about compromise that no one listened to. Outside of our official meetings, the emails got acrimonious.

From a practical standpoint, Linda’s reforms would never go over with the department, so she was just wasting her time. But she had just gotten tenure, so I guess she figured it was time to make her mark. (Her tenure bid is a story in and of itself. No one thought she would actually make it.) She sent a rather strongly worded email not just to the committee but to the entire department, basically accusing everyone of being racist.

That’s when Red stepped in.

Posted in tenured life

From the author

I apologize for the delay in posting, not to mention that this entry is not another Almost True Tale. Last week I was buried under grading comprehensive exams and looking forward to a relaxing weekend – including a few moments updating this here website. Little did I know that my weekend plans would be blown to bits by a family emergency. Without getting into details, let’s just say that while everyone is going to be fine, it was touch and go there for a few days. I apologize; we’ll be back next week on schedule.

Posted in reality

Home alone

8 p.m. is still early, and here I am, drunk enough to be honest.

I am not an alcoholic. Since we had kids, I barely drink at all, so when I do, it goes straight to my head. I’m almost done with this bottle of wine all by myself, and it isn’t even good wine. My wife went to her sister’s for the weekend for the niece’s quinceañera, leaving me here with this mound of grant paperwork – but tonight I can’t do any more of it. I’ve been surfing the web, flipping channels on the TV, and letting the wine channel all the feelings I normally keep tightly wrapped up. The house is never this quiet, and having the TV on so loud dulls the sound of the locks around my heart cracking open.

I love you. I’ve loved you since you first came to campus three years ago, eight months pregnant. You walked with the gait of a woman about to give birth, yet your face was still radiant in a way that has normally faded by then. It didn’t matter that my own wife was pregnant with our second child at the time. What would I have done anyway? I was keeping everything under control, being a responsible member of the search committee, squiring you to lunch, telling you how great the schools here were, how you and your husband would find the property values to your liking.

Then you accepted the job, and you joined us here in the wintry north after the semester of leave you negotiated. I saw you in January for the first time since February, nearly a year. You were no longer pregnant, looking tired but pleased, like the life you had envisioned was finally assembling itself. You had made an offer on a house and your husband had found a job. The baby was doing well; you were pumping in between teaching classes and holding student meetings and calling the IT guys to get your software set up.

We went out to lunch and I gave you the inside scoop on the department. We worked together on a grant application. You helped me install R on my computer, and I showed you how to work with LaTeX. You were more beautiful every day.

You showed me photos of your daughter, a cherubic girl who looked much more like your husband than you, and I went home to my own daughters, the oldest in her terrible twos and the youngest as angelic as any newborn could be. I gave you daycare advice and we swapped stories of sleepless nights. I looked at my notepad in the middle of a staff meeting and discovered I had written your name with a heart drawn around it.

When my wife and I made love – when we weren’t too tired from a newborn – it was your face I pictured. You and I shared stories about the exhaustion babies bring in to your life, then you went home to the man you loved and I went home to my wife, whom I had somehow grown apart from during the five years I had been chasing tenure.

I love the way you unconsciously push your glasses back up whenever you’re thinking about a problem. I love it when you smile. I love it when you talk about your daughter and the unconditional devotion you feel makes your expression go far away. I love it when you come into my office and say my name, even if it’s just because you have a question about requisition forms.

I know you don’t love me. You think I am your mentor and your friend. If you knew what I felt, the space between us would grow wider, the air would grow chill. You’d eat lunch with someone else. You wouldn’t slip off your shoes during meetings, dropping your guard. Instead of being your trusted friend, I’d be just another lech who treats his wife and child shabbily.

Still, I can’t stop loving you. I’m home alone for the first time in ages, and my love is expanding, pushing on the walls, squeezing through the cracks, bursting at the seams, enlarging my heart, breaking my mind and my common sense, making me less and more of a man. I want to tell you everything. I want to run over to your house and make a declaration. I want to take you in my arms in your office and kiss you until we’re dizzy.

I won’t do any of this. I’ll take the coward’s way out, posting an anonymous first-person column to the Chronicle or a sad screed on Craigslist. I’ll write this document and then delete it and then empty the trash. I’ll have a headache Sunday and say what I always say to you on Monday. Since I love you, I won’t tell you that I do.

There’s half a glass of wine left. I’ll finish it by myself, and tomorrow I’ll start on that grant paperwork.

Posted in personal, tenured life

Multiple choice

Congratulations! One of your graduate students has accepted a position with a college or university. Right now you feel:

  1. Proud
  2. Disappointed that the market is so tough this year
  3. Baffled at his/her choice
  4. Glad s/he will be clear across the country.

The position is:

  1. A tenure-track professorship at a major research university
  2. A teaching-centric job at a prestigious liberal arts college
  3. At some mediocre school whose name you can’t remember
  4. Not in academia
  5. In (sotto voce) administration.

Remember when he or she was just a wee young first-year student?

  1. No, like medieval parents, I never name them until they’ve survived a year
  2. Yes, s/he was so overwhelmed and eager, like a puppy
  3. Yes, what an arrogant little know-it-all
  4. Yes, but only because I’m great with names.

S/he worked in your lab because:

  1. I recruit anyone with that much potential
  2. S/he was so fascinated by our research
  3. The chair said I had to take him/him
  4. I’m not sure we could actually call it “work.”

In your letter of reference, you referred to him/her as:

  1. “One of the brightest students I have ever had the privilege of teaching”
  2. “I know hyperbole is common, but s/he really is the best I’ve ever encountered in 30 years”
  3. “A serious researcher with a true passion for science”
  4. “Competent, with a flair for drama.”

When you see him or her at the next conference, you will:

  1. Not a chance – there won’t be any travel funds with that job
  2. Give him/her a hearty slap on the back and offer to buy a drink
  3. Chat politely if they insist on talking to you
  4. Beg for a job.
Posted in grad school, job search

An open slot

Three years now. That’s how long we’ve been running this damn search.

It all started four years ago when Georgia announced she was leaving. Georgia was a full professor who brought in good grant money, so her departure was a real blow to the department. Sure, she was a good colleague, too, but at this point I’m long past annoyed with her for leaving – pardon me if I sound a little instrumental.

We had a pretty good pool of adjuncts, so we didn’t temporarily replace her with a visiting appointment. Besides, her departure posed a bigger issue for our research profile than for teaching, since she had a 1-2 load. We wrote up an ad for a senior scholar and posted it in the usual places and waited for the applications to roll in. Of course, everyone had their own pet scholars in mind. They called and emailed them, encouraging them to apply.

It should have been a pretty attractive position. The department is top 25 within a flagship state university. We’re not located in a “destination,” but at least it’s a good-sized city with moderate weather. What we didn’t count on was that there was a lot of movement in the senior ranks all over that same year Georgia left. Maybe we should have noticed, but since we hadn’t been hiring, why would we have been paying attention?

The upshot was that a lot of senior folks had just moved, and hence were unavailable, and that left a lot of other schools trying to replace them. The market was tight. It’s an understatement to say we didn’t get the applications we wanted.

Clarence was the search chair that year, and it made him very depressed. “Half of these people don’t publish, a few are freshly tenured, and some are in the wrong specialty. The ad did say we were looking for someone quantitative, didn’t it? Please tell me I’m not hallucinating.

“You’re not hallucinating,” I said.

We ended up inviting two candidates to campus. Behind door number one we had a reasonably senior scholar who did interesting mixed methods research. She came from a better department than ours, but word was there was some friction there. Behind door number two was a guy with a pretty hard-core quant reputation. He was by far the biggest fish in a small pond department.

Big fish was a disaster; he talked down to the faculty and condescended to the students. We made an offer to the mixed methodologist, who, as it turned out, was just using us as leverage with her home department.

“God, that was a disaster,” Clarence said.

The second year we opened the ad up wider, to anyone tenured. Clarence was again at the helm. We got a few more applications, although still not what we were hoping for. Some gossips claimed that our department had a reputation for being unfriendly. Others blamed our location in flyover country. A few pointed out that we had a couple of tenure denials recently.

“What were we supposed to do?” Clarence said, “Jay didn’t publish a damned thing during his last two years, and Rajesh was groping the students. Besides, we’re looking for someone with tenure.”

We brought three people in. One crashed and burned at his job talk; you would have thought he was a nervous ABD, not a new associate professor. The second neither impressed nor offended anyone. The third, everyone agreed, was the winner, but she turned down our offer in favor of one in California. Before we could decide whether to go for candidate two, we heard he had accepted another position. We were out of luck.

Which brings us to this year. The dean was adamant that we had to hire somebody. It was my turn to be the search chair, and we posted the job as open-rank. The number of applications increased, but most came from fresh PhDs applying to everything. Many didn’t even begin to meet the stated criteria.

“No bloody way we need another Americanist,” I told Clarence.

“No shit,” he said.

We did ten phone interviews and whittled it down to three candidates with a fourth in reserve. The first didn’t seem to understand his own dissertation. The second’s interpersonal skills were a nightmare, and he sealed his doom by getting wretchedly drunk at dinner. The third never came to campus; she called us a week before to let us know she had accepted a position at a school we couldn’t come close to competing with. Candidate number four came in, did an acceptable job, and we made the offer.

I don’t think anyone was excited about him. Maybe it was because we were still hoping for someone senior, which is what we really needed, and this guy was brand-new and still rough around the edges. Still, we were shocked when he turned us down.

“Where is he going instead?” Clarence asked.

“You don’t even want to know,” I said.

“No, really, tell me. Is it Harvard? Is he polygamist, and did Brigham Young offer him a job with spousal hires for the whole harem? Or perhaps he can’t see himself anywhere but New York City.”

“He’s staying where he is. It’s a one-year postdoc with his advisor.”

“What the hell?”

Which pretty much summed things up. The dean is furious. He says that obviously we don’t need this tenure line, since we’ve managed for three years without it and clearly aren’t serious about filling it. There won’t be a search next year, at least not for that slot.

We’ll be doing a search anyway: our colleague Brenda was up for tenure, and she got it, but her and her husband have had a commuter marriage since she graduated. His university offered her a tenured position, and she’s out the door.

“You’re a lucky man, Clarence,” I told him.

“How’s that?”

“Word on the street is you’re being asked to head up the search committee.”

“Oh no. No way. Don’t even joke about it.”

“No joke, my friend.”

“Dammit.” For the first time since I’ve known him, he actually looked morose. “Do you think I could get out of it by quitting?”

“And leave me with it? Two words: Justifiable homicide.”


The author is tired of hearing about the surplus of PhDs vis-a-vis the disappearing number of tenure-track jobs.

Posted in job search

The love guru

Maybe it was because I was older than the rest of my cohort. It wasn’t like I was that much older – not old enough to be anyone’s mom – but it made a difference. I had worked for four years after college, whereas they had all come straight from undergrad, or gone straight from undergrad to a masters to our program.

Amber was technically an exception, having spent a year backpacking through Europe, but she did it on her parents’ dime, which prevented her from gaining any actual experience that might have been an occasion for personal growth or maturity. I really do believe she thought grad students who lived impoverished lifestyles were doing it out of a misguided pursuit of quaintness. After all, she was doing just fine, and as she said, “I’m totally paying my own way” – aside from the minor detail of Mum and Dad having bought her a house, in cash.

Nevertheless, Amber, like the rest of my cohort, was involved in an endless carousel of relationships, swapping partners, both licitly and illicitly, with everyone else in our program. Bernie and Cassandra broke up; Cassandra immediately started dating Evangeline. Bernie was ostensibly single, but he was still getting it on the side from Frida. They kept that quiet, though, because Frida was in a relationship with Gunner.

And I had to hear about all of it. Somehow, I had become the go-to person for relationship advice in our cohort, despite being manifestly unqualified. Mostly I listened and nodded, and occasionally said, “There, there.” I tried to avoid pats on the back, in case too much comfort was took from them.

It was mighty awkward when Hap talked to me about his secret relationship with Amber, and then days later she would come to me for advice about This Guy, not naming names, who could only be Hap, and they both expected me to tell them they were being totally reasonable. According to Amber, it was a secret because she was afraid “an ex” (Bernie) was “still hung up” on her; according to Hap, Amber was embarrassed to be with him. My money was on Hap with that one; he had become moderately famous in our cohort for saying that his family wasn’t well-off, and he had “never eaten anywhere fancy, like Outback Steakhouse.”

I consoled my classmates through break-ups, one night-stands, ill-advised seduction attempts on their professors, and the occasional extra-departmental fling. Outsiders should have been warned they were getting sucked into Peyton Place, likely to find themselves in permanent rotation until ranks were closed against them in a fit of pique.

One reason I was able to stay out of the fray was that I had a boyfriend. Of course, he was back in Oklahoma, and he was asexual, but no one needed to know that latter fact. At least I was pretty sure he wasn’t cheating on me. (Although this turned out to be an inaccurate assumption.) My age also helped. It wasn’t so much that my cohort thought I was old, although that was true, but that I thought they were babies. Even the people who were actually my age in previous cohorts seemed like babies.

“I have to do all this photocopying for Professor X,” Isolde or Jose would say. “It’s a total waste of time. I could be doing research, and like the admins could be doing this. This kind of crap wouldn’t happen in the real world.”

Having been in the real world, I knew that with the amount of in-demand skills they had, they’d be lucky to get paid to make photocopies. No employer cared if you could refute Wittgestein. Heck, despite their considerable collective experience with sex, they didn’t even have the chops to make it in pornography. Philosophers aren’t exactly the silicon type.

I joked to my boyfriend – this was before I found out he was cheating – that I should get paid for all the advice I doled out. I could be the Dear Abby of academia. “You should put a philosophic spin on it, though,” he said, not joking.

That was how my book got its start. The working title was A Philosopher Tackles Life, Love, and the Pursuit of Happiness, but the publisher changed it to something shorter and snappier, with that as more of a subtitle.

It comes out next week, and I’m actually taking the semester off (I’m working on my dissertation anyway, so not like it matters) to promote it. My agent has big hopes for me. My boyfriend thinks we should get back together, but I told him my philosophy forbids it.

The best part is that now none of my cohort wants any more advice. They think I’ve sold out, and that’s OK with me.

The author’s book appears in stores next week under the title “Think Your Way to Love: How the Wisdom of Philosophy Can Save Your Relationship – or Get You One.”

Posted in grad school

The essays

The academic job search is a lot like dating. You get excited about a college, only to find out they don’t feel the same way. You wait for the phone to ring, and they never call when they say they will. Just when you think things are going well, you find out they’ve been seeing someone else.

But I’ve never had a potential boyfriend ask me to write an essay on “What Being a Good Employee Means To Me.”

This was the lowest point in my job search by far. Two years on the hunt for an English faculty position hadn’t yielded anything except a one-course adjunct gig at a local community college. I had expanded my search, reluctantly, to non-faculty jobs – jobs with university presses, in writing centers, and at a few nonprofits. Mostly I didn’t get very far. They seemed to smell my desperation. Looking back, I’m sure they knew these jobs weren’t my first choice.

But this time I’d made it to the interview. I’d driven two and a half hours to get there, changing into my interview suit at a gas station as I got close. I couldn’t see much of myself in the mirror, but I felt like an imposter in an unflattering suit. Where did people find suits that actually fit well and were comfortable? And how did they afford to dry clean them?

I was a few minutes early, as our university’s career office (which didn’t really know what to do with an English PhD) advised. The receptionist looked as if he had just finished his undergrad degree in English himself, so I tried to make small talk, but he simply escorted me into an empty office.

“First, there is an editing test,” he said.

The position was “editorial assistant,” which I was over-educated for, but I had been assured that in publishing one had to start at the bottom no matter what. At least it wasn’t in the mailroom. For a moment I was excited – I’ve taught enough freshman comp that I can see how to revise all but the most hopeless texts. My excitement died when I saw it was a copyediting test. I had 20 minutes, he said, to bring the manuscript up to Chicago style standard, using appropriate editorial marks.

Unfortunately, I know MLA rather than Chicago style.

Next, the receptionist left and came back with a sheet of paper. He made a production out of opening Word on the PC. He pointed to the sheet of paper and then left.

The paper told me I had 30 minutes to write a series of essays and gave instructions as to what file names to save them under. The first was on “the future of the university press in America.” The second asked me to share my strengths and weaknesses. The third asked me to define a “good employee.” I groaned.

Don’t think I’m an inveterate snob. I had applied to plenty of jobs with lower salary and prestige prior to this, including to a job at a coffee shop whose name I can’t mention (but it rhymes with Glarducks). They at least treated applicants with a modicum of dignity. Here I hadn’t even met anyone besides the receptionist – whose name I still didn’t know – and while the first test had at least assessed real skills, these essays just begged for bullshit answers. “Why, my weakness, Mr. Employer, is that I work much too hard.”

I wouldn’t have assigned these essays to my beginning comp students – first thing they would do would be to plagiarize them off the internet. I don’t know why they presumed I wouldn’t do the same, although they were right. I sat there and churned out three essays I wouldn’t want to ever see with my name attached.

After that, the sullen receptionist took me down the hall, no introductions to the people we passed, to the office of the Humanities Editor. Her suit was worse than mine, and her office was a disaster area of paper and books. She cleared off a seat for me and then launched into a rambling 30-minute interview with questions culled straight from an HR manual. She asked about my strengths and weaknesses (again), why I wanted to work at the press, why I was the right person for the job, about a time I successfully led a project, and what animal I would be.

“What animal?” I asked. “Um, a lemur.”


“Because I like lemurs?”

She looked disappointed and asked me if I had any questions. I remember asking something about possible opportunities for growth and advancement before being ushered out.

I walked outside and back to my car in a serious funk. Was this what non-academic job interviewing was like? Would all my co-workers be as depressed as the receptionist and as scattered as the editor? If I was offered the job, I’d have to take it, and I was seized with terror that perhaps I had performed well.

At least that fear wasn’t realized. Not only was I not offered the job, I never heard from them again.

I told my non-academic friends about the interview with great indignation, and they just looked at me.

“Well,” one said, “It wasn’t a great interview, sure. But it wasn’t especially bad. I remember this one time …” and proceeded to tell me about an interview where the only question she was asked was if she had any pets. Her prospective boss spent most of the time telling her about his malti-poo and his Portuguese water dog. “He had pictures, too.”

I started to appreciate academic interviews. Even if they were long, they were humane. They treated me like a colleague, for good or ill depending on the school. No one made me write essays.

And then when the coffee shop called, I took it.

The author is a manager at a locally owned coffee shop in a university town in California.

Posted in job search

The cooled

Brint and Karabel made the phrase “cooling out” famous in their book about community colleges. The two-year colleges they looked at lured students in with promises of transfer degrees, then “cooled them out” into vocational programs – if they weren’t persuaded to drop out altogether. Those of you not in academia may have seen this phenomena at work in the persona of William H. Macy in The Cooler, where his presence blows a chill air on the luck of gamblers on winning streaks.

Cooling out has been written about a little bit at the baccalaureate level, primarily about students who got bogged down in remedial courses that stretch out their time to degree intolerably. But here the literature tends to refer to this as an unfortunate by-product rather than as the desired result.

At the post-baccalaureate level, you don’t hear anything about it at all, except for the legendary “look to your left, look to your right” speech of law schools. But the dirty little secret of academia is that graduate schools are just like community colleges – except instead of cooling students into associates in air-conditioning repair, they toss them worthless consolation masters degrees.

Here’s how it works: So a crop of us new students come in, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. About half of us are fully funded. (At least that’s how it worked in my department. Your mileage may vary.) Those students are the ones faculty are betting on to succeed. There’s usually one or two rich dilettantes who don’t need funds. The rest make it by on a combination of TAing, working at the local coffeeshop, and taking out loans.

But as the years go on, students gradually lose their cushy funding, since it’s only guaranteed for three or five years. Average time to degree? More like eight, but ten isn’t unusual. Financial pressures cause a few to drop out.

The money isn’t the biggest part of it, though. It starts in seminars, where the professors make you feel like idiots for not having read all of Bourdieu yet. Some students get singled out. The kinder professors tell you in their office, in private, that they don’t think you have what it takes.

“I understand, –, that your background is in some ways deficient. The program at your undergraduate institution is, to put it mildly, not up to the level we usually expect here. But that is no excuse for you to coast. Frankly, you’ll have to work twice as hard just to get up to speed. If you want to make it, you’ll have to step it up.”

This, after laboring over a seminar paper, when my roommate had dashed something off – “Levi-Strauss isn’t that bad. And the professor still loves him, so you just have to say the right things.” I still didn’t know what the right things were.

Most students were roadblocked by one or two professors, but for a couple of us it happened over and over, like a rejection montage: Knock on door; it opens; it slams. Slam. Slam. Slam.

Here’s something I learned from a friend in ed psych: People with intrinsic motivation take this to heart and work harder, but the system is set up for them to fail. It breaks them, and they end up with the self-esteem stripped right out of them. People with extrinsic motivation recognize the system is failing them, and they let it. They don’t know how to fight back, and they get cooled out too easily. Which is worse?

Then come exams. Due to a loophole in our rules, there is no limit on the amount of times you can take them, although your committees get increasingly unhelpful. But not all failures are equal. Some students, their advisor sits down with them and says, “I know you can do this. For next time, you’ll need a better grounding in old dead guys. Matthew Arnold, for starters.” Others, they sit you down and say, “–, I don’t think you have what it takes. You’re allowed to take your exam again, but frankly I wouldn’t advise it.” Some students take the advice and slink away.

I am not only dumb but stubborn. If I was going to leave, they’d have to make me leave. (And besides, if I had left then, I’d never be able to pay back my student loans.) So I trudged along while the other students, some of them smarter or better prepared than I, dropped out one by one. Cue another montage.

It took me three tries to pass my comps. The last time I got smart and put a brand-new prof on my committee. They warned him I wouldn’t pass, but he wasn’t inclined to make his first exam a failure. Besides, students weren’t exactly flocking to work with him.

I finally passed – in year six. My professors were still telling me to get out. “–, I doubt you’ll be able to find a job,” they said. Meaning, their recommendations would poison me. At this point, it wasn’t about a job for me anymore. It was a war, and I wasn’t going to lose. I even had theme music, at least in my head – Hotei’s “Battle Without Honor on Humanity,” which you’ve surely heard in Kill Bill. I was like the 300-pound male version of Uma Thurman, in my mind.

Year eight, my proposal passed. My chair was the same prof in charge of that troublesome area exam. I had in hard time assembling a full committee, between those that would yes to sink me and those that would just say no up front. But I managed, although I had to convince the department head that the Latin American guy from the nearby state school was an acceptable outside member: “–, I’m not sure his expertise and recommendation will get you very far in our field.”

So, now it’s year 12. I’m 34 years old. My family has given up on me ever having a real job. But – guess what – I defended last week. I’m Dr. — now. And I have a job for next year, even if it is temporary. That outside guy liked me a lot better than my own department did, and next fall I’ll be a visiting assistant professor at local state U.

You can’t cool me out.

The author is enjoying his time at Local State U., and he just R&Red an article in a pretty good journal.

Posted in grad school

Waking up

I’m your worst nightmare.

Not as in, I’ll do terrible things to you, but as in, what might happen to you.

I’m the kind of cautionary tale that you tell graduate students about. I’m the reason you warn new assistant professors to never be secure – to always look over your shoulder.

You’re a new professor, and you’re at a job that was exactly what your advisors expected of you. Maybe you secretly hoped for Harvard, but you know no one gets tenure there anyways. Instead, you’re at a good university with a second-tier PhD program in your field. Maybe you’re in demography, but it could be something else.

For three years you work hard. You have a steady stream of articles – it works out to 2.5 per year – plus a book chapter and a few reviews. Your teaching evals are solid, and stellar in your multiple regression class, which is unheard of. They protect junior faculty from service, but you do advise the undergraduate chess club, which doesn’t require much.

That third-year review is good. You’re right on track for tenure.

You pick up the pace: Year four sees four articles come out. (If you were in a different field, maybe it would be a book instead.) You have a couple of advisees that pass their area exams, and one of your undergraduates gets into the number-two program in North America. Year four and year five go similarly. You’re a shoo-in for tenure, everyone tells you.

You’re worried about a colleague of yours, though. He’s going up for tenure at the same time, and while he had a lot of promise coming in, he hasn’t lived up to it. Besides, there are rumors about inappropriate behavior with students. Just what that consists of you’ve tried not to find out.

Then there’s the collegiality thing. You get along with everyone, more or less, but he’s in with a particular set of faculty, which means he’s out with the rest.

But the news is good. No one is supposed to tell you, but the committee chair slips you the word that the department has recommended both of you for tenure. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief, especially your wife. She’s pregnant, and you’ve managed to get the baby onto the list for campus day care. You haven’t applied for any other jobs, and you love your house.

Then you get the bad news. The college has recommended neither you nor your colleague get tenure. The department can appeal, and they usually do. Still, you walk around campus with anxiety in your stomach and a cloud of ignominy over your head. Everyone reassures you that it will work out fine.

On one sunny Saturday, you get the news. The department is appealing you colleague’s denial. They’re not fighting yours.

You go sit in your office in disbelief. You were a model tenure candidate. The only thing you hadn’t done was go out on the market this year, because you were busy and didn’t think this could happen.

You’re stuck here, among colleagues who have rejected you, for one more year. You have to break the news to your wife. And all your anxiety for your colleague was for nothing. You wonder what you should have done differently.

You wonder how you’ll get through the year.

You wonder what you will do every year after that.

The author is finishing his seventh and final year at a second-tier demography program in a first-rate university.


Posted in tenure track

The job you get

I got the job, finally, and let me tell you, it was a relief. It wasn’t the job I thought I’d get when I started looking, or even the job I still hoped for a year into my search, but with the economy going more pear-shaped every day, I took the job at little no-name college and was glad to get it. So I moved down to Nashville amid a sea of jokes about pork rinds and pursuing a country music career and left New York City behind me.

My department was small, and I mean small. I was the only anthropologist, so I was in a Department of Social Science along with a sociologist who had last published in 1982 and a young psychologist in the same boat as me. But she was stuck there because her husband was trying to make it in the music business for real. I learned fast that music industry jokes weren’t appropriate anywhere in Nashville, because you never knew who was a failed singer/songwriter.

That first year was rough. I was teaching four courses a semester (all new ones, of course), and I didn’t have time to take care of myself. I stopped running and gained 20 pounds. I didn’t eat any pork rinds – although I didn’t tell my friends back in NYC that; I was too busy and depressed to communicate with them at all – but I did eat at the Loveless Cafe and Elliston Place and the various meat and threes a little too much. None of us were paid decently, but I didn’t have anyone to support and was student-loan free (thank God!) so I ate out alone; when my colleagues entertained, which wasn’t often, it was dinner parties at their houses.

There was no time at all to do research, and while maybe other anthropologists could have done something with the music business, my specialty was Brazilian favelas. I was supposed to be turning my dissertation into a book, but I wasn’t getting anywhere with that. When summer came, I told myself, I’d work on it then; I wasn’t going to be teaching anything. I had gotten out of that by trading the reduced load they usually offered in the first semester for no summer class. I’d have free time, and I’d exercise and eat right and revise.

That worked about as well as you might suppose; the summer was halfway over and I realized I hadn’t written a damn word. It had taken me over a month just to recover from the school year. The only good news was that I had lost weight – two pounds.

I was sitting out by the pool in my apartment complex when I realized that I was well on my way to becoming a permanent fixture at the college, like the sociologist. The college didn’t care at all if I published – people got tenure with one article there! – but I’d never get a job anywhere else, unless I wanted to move to a community college. And, if I was honest, my teaching evaluations weren’t high enough for any CC to hire me.

I got my ass off the plastic chair and went inside, and for a week I worked frantically on revisions, before getting bored and slacking off again. I gained back those two pounds plus one more. The only thing I had to show for the summer, aside from that pound, was a conference submission. In a moment of desperation, I had taken a chunk of chapter four and submitted to a rinky-dink regional conference. There was nothing new in it, but it would look like I was working.

The school year started up again, four classes, only one new (“World Cultures”) this time, and I found out my conference proposal had been accepted. I had to go buy a new suit because none of my old ones fit. The department scrounged up $200, which would cover the hotel and a couple of meals; luckily, I only had to drive a few hours to Huntsville.

I was pathetically grateful to be back in the company of other anthropologists instead of undergrads, and if the papers weren’t quite up to big conference standards, they were better than I expected. I saw a few people I knew, and none of them commented on the extra pounds. The highlight of the conference was that the editor of a certain minor journal was at my session, and she asked me to submit an article based on my talk.

I surprised myself when I got back to Nashville by actually working on it, and while I got derailed by the end of semester grading deluge, I begged off on visiting my parents for the holidays and actually finished the article instead. When I hit the “submit” button on the journal’s website, I felt a moment of intense satisfaction. I can do this, I told myself; it won’t be easy, and maybe I’ll never end up at Harvard, but one step at a time I can land a better job. I could see it in my head, the office with decent furniture, graduate students working for me, colleagues making bad jokes about coming of age in Samoa at the university club, teaching two classes a semester, research sabbaticals …

Then I looked at the time: 1:07 a.m., December 25. I’m not really religious, despite my Methodist parents’ best efforts, but it’s still a holiday. How many more Christmases was I going to have to miss? How much fatter was I going to get? How much sleep would I lose?

Tomorrow, well, today, I told myself, I will call my parents and apologize for not being there and forgetting to send presents. I wouldn’t tell them, get used to it, because it’ll happen next year too, but I would think it.

The author is an assistant professor at a school you probably haven’t heard of in the vicinity of Nashville, Tennessee.

Posted in tenure track