Very touching

Behind his back, our advisor’s nickname was Dr. Hugsy. He was a little too hands-on with all of us – male or female, good-looking or not. His standard greeting was to put an arm around your shoulder, usually leaving it there for a few seconds too long. You’d wait it out uncomfortably, and eventually he’d step back to check his Blackberry.

No one ever reported him doing anything more than that, and I don’t even think it was a sexual thing for him. It seemed more like an assertion of power cloaked with a veneer of friendliness. He would breeze into the room, give you this hug, and ask what exactly you were meeting about again. At least, that’s what he’d do if you, like me, were in his second tier of advisees. He was one of those professors who clearly had a set of favorites and a set of also-rans. The favorites got the publication opportunities (second author – even though he did none of the work), while the rest of us made copies and graded freshman papers. Then, since they had “proven themselves,” they got more opportunities, and we made more copies.

If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. I stayed with Dr. Hugsy because I was doing a side project with another faculty member, and so I wasn’t dependent on his patronage. Rumor had it that he didn’t like it when students changed advisors, and he’d go out of his way to make things difficult. To be fair, I never saw any substantiation of this rumor. The only student I knew who switched from Dr. Hugsy was forced to do so after he screwed up some data big time. This was only one in a long line of screw-ups, yet he held tenaciously on, managing to squeak through every scrape, much to our chair’s annoyance. I think he’s still there, a perpetual ABD.

I fell into the side project by sheer chance; Dr. Fierce (not his real name, of course), had a reputation for being tough and distant. But he liked the paper I wrote for his class, and at that time his advisees were either buried deep in their dissertations or still struggling through their first semester. He needed a student to do a little analysis for him, and there I was. From there it grew into a series of papers, and I know those papers had a lot to do with my success on the job market.

Dr. Fierce was distant, although not unkind. He never once hugged me, not even at graduation. There’s a picture of us in our robes out on the lawn, and he’s standing next to me with none of the camaraderie (real or false) all my other graduation photos display. He once grazed my arm by mistake in a narrow hallway, and his apology was profuse. I’d never say I “ran into” him a conference, because that would imply physical contact.

Dr. Hugsy, though, I see him twice a year at the big conference and at the regional. Now that I got a job – and a better one than all his favorite students – he’s friendlier than ever. The hugs keep coming, but I’ve been elevated, postmortem, to that top tier. He tells whoever we are making small talk with that he always knew I had so much promise, I was one of his top advisees, etc. etc. And yes, he still puts his arm around me.

Some day I’m going to tell him I’m not really a touchy-feely person. But that’s not going to be until after I get tenure.

The author is coming up for tenure soon at a private research university you’ve probably heard of. She has limited her touching of students to shaking their hands, an occasional pat on the back, and, once, performing the Heimlich maneuver.

Posted in grad school

Not quite Camelot

When I moved to “Excalibur University” to be department chair, it didn’t take me long to figure out that something was seriously wrong with our graduate program.

The first sign should have been on my visit in the spring, when all the grad students looked suspiciously tan. But I was coming from someplace southerly in latitude – let’s say San Diego – where you could get a tan in solitary confinement. At that time, the early stages of the cancer gnawing at the department went totally unnoticed.

The second sign I took as simply an individual failing, rather than as symptomatic of larger issues. I was assigned “Desdemona” as a graduate assistant, and I told her she would be helping out with the all-day orientation for the new PhD students.

“I can help out, but I have to leave at some point, because Poindexter can’t be left home alone all day. He’s still a puppy,” she said.

What any grad student was doing with something as time-intensive as a puppy was beyond me. I made sure she arranged for someone else to walk Poindexter at lunch.

The third sign was the one that really got my attention. Journal clubs aren’t terribly common in our field, but I’ve found they’re an important piece of getting grad students to think like faculty. So I set about arranging one for Wednesday nights, which is an appropriate time for that sort of thing. I’m not evil – my own advisor did them on Friday nights back in the day.

One student had Bible study. I was sure she could find one on another night – it’s not like there weren’t other churches in town – yet I know the perils of seemingly criticizing religious choices. But then another student had his jiu jitsu class, one had his juggling club, and another said she had yoga. The final straw was a student whose book club met on Wednesdays. “We’re reading The Lovely Bones right now,” she offered.

“You’re in graduate school, and you have time to read fiction?” I asked.

For the record, my discipline is not English. I would say our discipline, except clearly these students weren’t acting the part. These weren’t first-years, either, by the way.

“Well, what day would work better for your schedules, then?” I asked. If they were smart, they would have heeded the warning in my voice. But they plunged heedlessly on.

Yoga on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Ultimate Frisbee on Mondays. Lifeguarding and church softball games on Thursdays. Volunteering at the hospital. Swimming. Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Coaching their son’s soccer team. The list went on and on.

“You don’t sound like graduate students to me,” I said. “Listen to yourselves. When do you study? When do you work on your own research? If you want anyone to take you seriously, if you want any kind of a shot at a job, you need to signal that graduate school is the most important thing in your life. And yes, that includes the church and your family.”

They looked stunned.

“I’m not saying you quit going Sunday mornings, or you put your kids up for adoption, but right now your focus needs to be here. You can’t be involved in things outside of school except at a bare minimum level. Now, I want you all to decide among yourselves what night works best, and come back to me with an answer.”

I heard the grumbling as I closed the door. How had things gotten to this point? I understand new students come in with these idyllic images in their head, like graduate school is an uber-undergraduate experience, an Eden where they leisurely study only the subjects they like best, in between wacky hijinks, but how had their professors let them hold onto that illusion for so long?

I started realizing the answer that evening, as I looked around and found the department deserted at 6 p.m. Nary a junior professor was to be found.

The next day “Colin” came up to me. Colin was a full professor, popular with the students and a middling researcher.

“Don’t you think you were a little harsh on them the other day?” he said. “I think it was smart, asking them to work out a night for the journal club on their own, but these kids need to learn work-life balance now. If they can’t find some way to work off the pressure now, they’ll explode once they’re on the tenure track.”

“If they make it to the tenure track.”

“We have an excellent placement rate here.”

“I’ve looked at that rate. We’re sending students to community colleges and minor-league liberal arts colleges in Nebraska. For a top-20 school, we need to shape up.”

The signs were everywhere once I started looking. Extended maternity and paternity leaves. Offices that were deserted by 5 p.m. An associate professor that was on the local roller derby team. Sure, these folks were publishing, but not at the rate they should be if they wanted to move the department up in the ranks.

The worst part was what they were modeling for the students. If they wanted to remain mediocre, fine, but the students thought they could imitate their faculty and get the kind of jobs they wanted. Not in today’s tough job market, that’s for sure.

They say it takes 10,000 hours of practicing something to become an expert. That’s more or less a 40-hour-a-week job for about five years. Our students were maybe putting in 40 hours on average, if you counted class and homework time, which I didn’t. Being a good student doesn’t get you a tenure-track job; being a good researcher does. They just weren’t graduating with the skills they needed.

I fought a losing battle at Excalibur for two years, going back on the market as soon as I could. I only considered good departments in top universities, but I had learned a valuable lesson at Excalibur: Of the two offers I received, I chose the one where the students, regardless of natural skin tone, had a pasty, indoor look.

The author is an endowed professor in the social sciences.

Posted in tenured life

The colleague

My colleague hates me.

If you ask him, naturally he says he doesn’t hate me, not personally. He just thinks I’m unqualified: The search committee never should have hired me. My research shouldn’t earn me tenure. I’m taking up, in other words, a valuable tenure line that could be used by a competent colleague, and the sooner I realize this, the sooner I will leave and be replaced.

Not that he told me all of that. He did tell me, not long after I started, why my hiring was a mistake. After all, they had hundreds of candidates, but of the three they brought to campus, one was a Pynchon scholar, and the other did her dissertation on the brief run of Story magazine. Those were “important” topics, even if the Pynchon scholar put himself out of the running by hitting on a graduate student during his visit. (“Which everyone blew out of proportion,” he said. “Boys will be boys.”) My job talk, on the other hand, on conspiracy theories in African American literature – c.f. The Intuitionist or The Big Machine – was just niche pop stuff, ephemeral, only of interest to “people of your race,” as he informed me.

The rest of it I’ve heard second-hand, or overheard. I defy department culture by leaving my door open most of the time, and even though everyone can see me sitting there in my office, they act as if there is a cone of silence around the hallway. I’ve heard more dirt, more rumors, and more inside scuttlebutt from leaving that door open than you would think could possibly exist in a department of this size.

And, yes, I know you’re supposed to fit into your department’s culture, but I’m claustrophobic, and my office is windowless. It’s not a grand gesture.

That means I hear the chair berating the administrative assistant, the students complaining about seminars, the undergraduates’ confusion over MLA style, and the director of graduate studies rating students’ footwear. I even once heard a dimwitted plagiarist boasting, and, since the course in question was not this particular colleague’s, I did pass on the word.

By objective measures I’m doing all right. My teaching evals are high, not the highest in the department, but above average. They try to limit the service of junior faculty here to one committee. My first year I served on an undergraduate diversity committee, but after that I took my mentor’s advice and found something that had nothing to do with race or diversity. And in the almighty research category, I have a book contract for my dissertation. I’m right on track, maybe a bit ahead.

But not according to my colleague. Every journal that has published my work is either insignificant, or the editors accepted my article out of pressure to be politically correct. My teaching evals are as high as they are because my students are too afraid to say anything negative. (Subtext: African American men are scary.) And he just knows that the minute I’ll get tenure I’ll waste all my time mentoring black kids and hanging out at the African-American Campus Center and starting a Black Panther Club.

The good news is that he’s the only racist jerk in the department; the rest is a mix of well-meaning white liberals, Goldwater conservatives, and one French socialist. The bad news is he’s on the promotion and tenure committee.

One girl I went to grad school with asked me, naively, how he could get away with saying that kind of thing. It’s easy: He doesn’t say it to everyone. He brings up the supposed low quality of the journals I publish in to the elderly Shakespearean scholar, who knows nothing about my specialty. He mentions my evals to the French socialist, who has comments on Rate My Professors like, “Pathetic.” He saves the really nasty stuff for a couple of his grad students and our soon-to-be-former administrative assistant – who, thank God, is moving, because her husband got transferred to Baltimore.

My third-year review is this year. I’m torn between hoping he stands down and hoping he tries to go so utterly off the deep end they won’t let him be on the committee. How do you fight back when a colleague hates you?

The author is an English professor in New England.

Posted in tenure track

Lead into gold

If you look hard enough, you’ll see a pattern to who drops out in every graduate program. In programs that allow part-time study, it’s usually the part-timers. Sometimes it’s the foreign students or minority students that are the most likely to drop out – or be pressured out. A friend from undergrad was in a program where she was the only female student to make it out alive and with a PhD in a decade.

(“You’re making it sound worse than it is,” my husband tells me. “Only one student actually died, and she was killed by a drunk driver.”

“Yes, but the drunk driver was the department chair.”)

In my department, like so many others, there were two classes of students – those with good financial aid packages, the golden boys and girls the faculty asked to be graduate assistants and co-author articles – and everyone else. Everyone else had to take out loans to pay for school, and the professors rewarded our devotion by asking us to babysit, walk their dogs, or (if we were lucky) TA for them.

Most of the golden children, naturally, felt the stratification was a meritocracy and that they were justly rewarded for their talents. That was true for at least one of them. “Fred” had a perfect GRE score, a 4.0 from MIT, and had been a coauthor on two published papers as an undergrad. Fred was also so socially clueless as to not realize he was the apex of an exploitive system. On the other hand, his cluelessness meant he wasn’t a jerk to the rest of us.

The worst students were those who had received cushy packages but did not seem discernibly superior to the rabble. “Reuben” and “Clothilde” just knew their GA-ships were recognition of their talents, and these talents would carry them through their exams, pass their defenses, and into tenure-track jobs.

Clothilde once said – and like Dave Barry, I am not making this up – “I don’t know why people whine about TAing. They’re going to end up in teaching jobs anyway, not doing research, so it’s good training.”

(“It sounds like a reality show,” said my sister. “One of those where a bachelor has to choose between two sets of women, where one set is supposed to be young and beautiful and the others are fat or old or something.”)

It wasn’t the differing size of our financial aid packages alone that bothered us. Work-free stipends allowed some students to spend more time on classes and more time volunteering on projects with the professors. Even working 20 hours a week as a graduate assistant meant getting your name on some papers. The rest of us, if we wanted a shot at any publications, had to squeeze that stuff in after we worked at Starbucks or walked the chair’s Pekingese while said chair trotted off to another conference. The better package you had, the better your CV looked, and the more Big Names in the field you were likely to meet.

I had one advantage, at least: I had taught high school for three years before returning to graduate school. Teaching freshman labs wasn’t as different as you might think, and I spent less time than anyone else on my TAing duties while still getting respectable evaluations from the kids. (Although, frankly, as long as the students didn’t report being beaten, I don’t think anyone in the department cared.) That meant I had a little more time to focus on what my dissertation chair called “the currency of academia” – not teaching.

I don’t have any inspiring story about how I persevered and was plucked from toiling in the classroom to a fabulous project, nor can I report with schadenfreude that everyone got what they deserved. Fred did get a tenure-track job at an Ivy League university, but he quit after three years to hike the Appalachian Trail and then left academic life for good. Reuben took a cushy job in industry. Clothilde, despite her confidence, ended up at a small liberal arts college with a three-three teaching load, and rumor has it she might not get tenure (okay – there’s a little bit of schadenfreude there, yes). And three people from my cohort all dropped out – all of them with staggering loans, none of them “golden children.”

I eeked my way along, getting my name on two peer-reviewed papers (nowhere near first author, mind), but then I had as stroke of luck: I got married right before starting my dissertation. Fortunately, my husband made enough that I could stop TAing for the two years while I finished. I got done faster, and with a better dissertation, than I could have otherwise. And I got an okay job, a two-three at a research school in a state not on a coast.

That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Depending on who you ask, grad school is supposed to reward brains, or hard work, or sheer grit. It shouldn’t be about who you marry. And goodies can be distributed unevenly by merit, but no one is supposed to be set up to fail from the very beginning.

And there’s no lesson in my story, unless you want to extrapolate that we should all marry well.

The author is an assistant professor at a flagship land-grant institution in flyover country, and she swears she would love her husband even if he were poor.

Posted in grad school