nine years and counting

Next May, it will have been 10 years since I last stood in front of a room full of college students to share my thoughts about books. In July 2006, a few months after I taught my last class, I published a short piece about quitting academe in The Chronicle of Higher Education called Not Slinking Away. I saw the piece as the end of a memoir I was writing about my experience as an adjunct professor of English. I couldn’t yet see it was actually the beginning. Since then, I have made a version of that article into the Prologue of my book.

That July nine years go, I imagined I would take a year to shape and polish my many notes and journal entries into a well-crafted memoir. I planned to begin querying agents in the summer of 2007.

That I might still be fiddling with an unpublished draft nine years later never occurred to me. And a good thing too–because I can see now it was the idea of the book, the idea of sharing my story in the near term, that carried me through those first years. After investing ten years on an academic career that didn’t pan out, I would have had no patience with idea it would take another ten to write a book about that failure.

But now that I’m almost on the other side of that decade, I’m glad. Coincidentally, as I’ve been thinking about how time and reflection have improved my narrative, a story appeared in the New York Times about memoir: Should There Be a Minimum Age for Writing a Memoir? Oddly, the title focuses on the age of the writer rather than the distance from the events. I think the question the writers grapple with isn’t how old you are, but whether you’ve had time to reflect on what you’re writing about.

So what’s enough time?

The answer depends on the purpose of the writing. A friend of mine wrote a memoir of early grief called Rare Bird, about the loss of her 12-year-old son in a drowning accident. She published the book just a few years after her son’s death. And she did a beautiful job. I’m sure her telling of these events will change over the coming years, but her point in writing the book so soon was to tell the raw story of how she saw her experiences in the moment–before the years had a chance to pass. And it works. It works because parents have a desire to know how a mother or father survives, day by day, during those first terrible years of loss. We are terrified by the idea of it, and yet we cannot fathom it. Rare Bird works because it draws back the curtain for us, letting us see what our worst fear looks like without slipping into hopelessness on one hand, but without the amelioration of time on the other.

My book, on yet another hand, was not working in its original form–the one written in the immediacy of my post-academic moment. One of the authors of the New York Times articles says, “I believe we tell our stories when we need to tell them.” I agree. But not every story is ready to be heard in the moment when it needed to be told. Mine was one of those. And it has taken some excellent readers in the past two years to show me that.

Unlike Rare Bird, my story needed time to soften its corners, the way wind and water will wear away the jagged edges of a mountainside. In the art of complaining: an adjunct’s dilemma, I wrote on this blog about my struggle to tell an angry story without alienating readers with an angry narrator. I didn’t know how to make my narrator likable without taking the bite out of my story. I think the condition of adjuncting (working part-time as a professor for a quarter of the pay tenure-track professors make with no job security, little or no benefits, and little or no opportunity for improvement) is one that promotes bitterness. I thought readers should see how my job changed me into a spiteful person I hadn’t been before. But how to be spiteful and sympathetic too?

The answer, I discovered, was in this blog. Over the past two years, many readers have offered words of encouragement about my book, telling me they couldn’t wait for it to come out. Reading those comments I felt sure my blog readers would be disappointed with the book, but I couldn’t figure out why. Eventually, I realized it was because of the difference between the person who writes this blog and the person who wrote the memoir. While readers might like me here, I understood they would not like me there.

Because my narrator had no distance.

My narrator hadn’t learned anything yet.

It’s not that I suddenly have all the answers about why crappy things happen to us. It’s just that I no longer feel as angry as I did in 2006. So in the last year, I’ve converted my memoir into the past tense and told my story with this current voice, the one softened by ten years of wind and rain. The experience has been transformative, for me and for the book.

Of course it’s not done (are you tired of hearing me say that?) but it is close – at least in this latest iteration. So while I’m glad I didn’t know it would take so long to finish this book when I started it in 2006, I’m glad it did. Since then, public awareness about the condition of adjuncts and the problem of contingent labor at colleges and universities has grown. Adjuncts have banded together online, students have become more aware of their professors’ working conditions, and articles like this one and this one have made it into the main stream news.

I hope with that changed landscape and my changed perspective, this story I’ve needed to tell for a decade is ready to be heard.

Now if I could just finish it already!

 

 

 

academic twitter

Yesterday, I saw someone had tweeted “I love academic twitter!” This got me thinking about the various twitter communities we belong to, and the way we can reinvent ourselves in them—or play different roles in them—as much as they play different roles for us.

I have two twitter accounts. One is my @professornever account which I’ve used to connect with other academics, postacs, and writers. The other is my @smallhousedeb account. I’ve hardly used it in the last year (so I’m sure my followers are dropping like flies), but the account follows twitter liberals from the UniteBlue movement, leftist news organizations, and people interested in locavorianism (I guess that’s a word now), yoga, meditation, cycling, and other stuff I think is cool.

My @smallhousedeb (SHD) account is a very different animal than my @professornever (PN) account. The former is full of people networking and socializing around politics and personal interests. There is a lot of reciprocity, humor and snark. The latter is full of people who are connected by profession. There is a palpable self-consciousness on academic twitter. You can feel the weight of administrators, colleagues, and students listening in. How ironic since tenure is supposed to set you free!

As a result of this professional stiffness, there are a lot of conventions on SHD that don’t appear to exist on PN, primarily around the idea of reciprocity: #FF (Follow Friday), where people recommend other accounts to follow on Fridays. Tweets that say: TYFF (Thank you for follow), TY for RT (thank you for retweet), TY for fave. There is also an imperative that you RT what you fave. Oftentimes, these niceties generate more conversation around a given topic—and in their small way cultivate a sense of community and belonging.

The biggest difference between my PN and my SHD accounts, however, is the FollowBack (FB). In my SHD world, the objective is to network, share ideas with like minds and build up your account. If someone follows you, you FB. If you don’t, they unfollow you—and they use tracking software like JustUnfollow to find you! Those exempt from the expected FB include institutions, journalists, and celebrities.

The FB happens much less often in my PN world.

My first day on PN, I searched for humanities academics and followed about 30 that appeared to have similar interests to mine. I have to admit, I was excited just reading their profiles: people studying American literature, childhood, cultural studies—all things that had been dear to my academic self. The one thing that’s still hard about postac life is losing that community of like-minded intellectuals. Maybe I could connect with these people and talk about books! Then I went off to tutor for the day. When I got back, I logged onto PN, eager to see the activity on my account.

Two people had followed me back.

So I learned quickly that it is much harder to get FBs on PN. I’m sure there are a number of reasons, but I imagine at least one must be competitive spillover from academic culture in general. My experience in academe was that everybody wants to be a thought-leader, not a follower. In my heady academic days, that included me. And what easier place to see a manifestation of your thought-leaderness than by watching your follower-count sky-rocket on twitter—especially if your following-count is low. But if all academics on twitter want to be followed without following back, then…you get the picture.

Of course, I could be wrong about all that and the problem was just that no one wanted to follow me!

And to be clear, lots of friendly interesting affiliated and unaffiliated academics have ended up following me. And I appreciate that! But I don’t know that I’d call the community I’m in “academic twitter.”

But it is definitely something different from SHD. In writing this, I realize how much more buttoned up I am on PN than I ever was on SHD. No snark. Not a lot of politics. No convivial TY for RT messages. And a lot less humor. That sounds god-awful boring.

But it’s not. It’s as if I have two rooms I can walk into, depending on my mood and what I feel like talking about. And while the PN account sounds like less fun than SHD, it’s the one I’ve spent most of my time on in the past year or so.

What I ended up finding through PN, which I never anticipated, was a community of adjuncts and scholars still fighting the good fight over adjunct labor—with many making the decision to leave. I started PN (the blog and the twitter account) expecting to talk about literature while throwing a few plugs in about my memoir, but I’ve ended up talking about my status as a long-time post-ac—a term I didn’t even know existed before I started the PN blog.

This has been a huge value to me even though the fact I left academe so long ago makes me somewhat of an outsider for this crowd too. But I have been grateful to be privy to the experiences of others who have decided to leave their academic lives because I never had that shared experience when I left. Without social media, I lost touch with my old grad school friends—I only know of two who got jobs. Our isolation from one another bred shame and silence. Watching the events of #NAWD over twitter yesterday showed how social media can generate the opposite of that. Which was pretty darn cool to see.

So I guess I’d qualify that tweet I saw the other day (can’t remember who said it!**). I don’t know that I can say I love “academic twitter” so much as I love twitter in general—for its power to bring people together, and for its versatility.

I just wish it wasn’t so addicting!

(If you want to read about my initial twitter addiction, here’s a silly post from several years ago called twitter haze about how twitter took over my life when I first joined. I’m (usually) much more under control about it now!

**It was Jennifer Polk from @fromPhDtoLife. And of course she loves it – she is always so positive about everything – and she’s great with a FB too!

save your darlings!

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

Faulkner said it. All writers know it. But can we do it? My academic self struggled more with the cutting than my creative self does. During grad school, it seemed each turn of phrase contained the key to my future: another brilliant conclusion, another bit of evidence to prove my scholarly worthiness, another before-unseen truth my readers might discuss over the elongated table in our English department conference room. I couldn’t quite get over how deliciously clever I was.

During those days, I couldn’t kill anything at all, let alone my darlings. So instead of deleting the extraneous turns of phrase, I cut and pasted them into a file labeled “scraps.” And then I saved them.

For what?

For all time.

Every seminar paper, dissertation chapter, and journal article had a “scraps” file. Each time revisions required I sheer a darling from its roots, I tucked it away for “later.” Over the years, the collection grew—like a pile of broken china dolls stashed in an attic trunk, waiting for the day I’d come to my senses and realize the truth: these babies had a rightful place in the world of necessary all along.

When I first began making scraps files, I actually believed I would find a later use for all those extra words. I promised myself I’d be back to collect them, even labeling paragraphs in bold so I could find content more easily when the need arose.

These days, I don’t feel anywhere near as attached to my writing as I did in academe. But my habit persists. I save most major cuts, despite the fact that in all the years of writing, I have never gone back–have never once opened a scraps file intending to do anything but dump more darlings in.

It turns out, even if you can’t kill your darlings, you can kill your love for them.

And that’s the key.

So if you too have trouble letting go, don’t. Save yourself the internal debate over whether a given string of words should die. Instead of killing those babies, stick them alone in a room with the promise you’ll return. Then leave them there until you can’t remember why they mattered so much.

If you never feel compelled to go back for them, you’ll know you did the right thing.

“Indispensable but Invisible”: a new study on contingent faculty at GMU

Check out this important new study on contingent faculty at George Mason University. I got my M.A. at GMU and worked there as an adjunct after getting my Ph.D. years ago, so for me, this reads like it came right out of my memoir: too many hours, too little pay, no opportunity for recognition or advancement etc. etc. etc. If you’ve ever been an adjunct, you know the routine, but we need more studies like this to move us past the anecdotal.

I was also pleased to see “Pay Equity between contingent and tenure track faculty of similar rank” as the first recommended action for GMU, among other important things related to benefits and job security.

I’m tempted to keep writing/summarizing but really, you should go to the horse’s mouth:

Indispensable but Invisible: A Report on the Working Climate of Non-Tenure Track Faculty at George Mason University

Thanks to the authors:
Marisa Allison
Randy Lynn
Victoria Hoverman
Doctoral Students
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
George Mason University

student loan repayment: can it be done?

I tweeted this a.m. that I paid off my student loan yesterday. Since I’ve been making monthly payments on that thing for 10 years, I felt celebratory. But after tweeting, I sort of regretted it. The twitter account, @Debt_Free_2day favorited and retweeted me (presumably because I am an inspiration for having closed out a loan). Confirming this idea, someone else tweeted that my news made them “seriously emotional,” adding #ItCanBeDone. Others congratulated me.

Here’s the thing. I feel happy to have closed out this loan, but no one should be inspired by it–and I’m sorry my tweet misled people. What I didn’t think to say was that my loan was for $6,200. The idea it takes a comfortable middle class person 10 years to pay off a $6,200 loan when others face boulders of debt in the range of $100K, coupled with the fact I could be looking at these same kinds of numbers after my kids go to college (starting next year!), is not inspiring. It is daunting. Horrifying.

How did I get away with just $6,200 in debt anyway?

I started graduate school twenty years ago, in 1994. While that feels like a blink to me, college tuition rates tell a different story: surely only the passing of a century can account for the snowballing 3.7-4.2% average increase we’ve seen in tuition every year since then?

Even in the golden olden days of 1994, we thought higher education was an expensive luxury. I paid for my master’s degree with $5,000 I inherited when my grandmother passed. Neither of my grandparents went to college, and both placed a high value on education. This inheritance was a huge windfall to me, and I felt obligated to spend it wisely. Confident my grandparents would have approved of my choice, I put the money in a separate bank account and drew from it only to pay for school expenses. When I graduated with my master’s degree in 1996, I had exactly $30 left. At the time, I thought, “Wow, I can’t believe it took almost every penny!” Even at the more modest rates of the past, I viewed graduate school as an expensive luxury that I only afforded with this unexpected gift.

Then I wanted to get my Ph.D.

By now it was 1997. Tuition rates were increasing at a rate of 3.7% each year, my doctoral program would be out of state, and my acceptance to the program did not come with funding. My tuition jumped from about $130/credit hour for the master’s, to about $350/credit hour for the Ph.D. (still a pittance by today’s standards, I know). This is when I borrowed the $6,200–to pay for my first year of doctoral work. The year prior, my husband and I had struck a ludicrous deal: I would stay home with the kids we hoped to have if he would support me while I got my Ph.D. (the repercussions of our naiveté in this decision are in part the subject of my memoir). But still, Steve’s support meant I did not have to pay room and board, so my $6K was not the $20K that my friends borrowed.

The next year, I got funding. Honestly, I may have dropped out if I hadn’t. Not just because of the money, but because no funding also meant no teaching. I knew with no teaching I had no chance of getting a job (if only I’d known I had so little chance of getting a job anyway!). Three years of teaching/funding paid my tuition and provided a small stipend that helped Steve and I with our bills. By the time the funding ran out, I was dissertating. Then I only had to pay for 1 credit-hour per semester, an approximate $400 expense that we scraped together twice a year without loans.

And there you have it. With a little luck, I managed only $6,200 in debt for a Ph.D. Meanwhile, my nephew just borrowed $4,200 to pay for one college-level class–his last one. I don’t know how much he owes in total, but I do know it’s the kind of number that sits in your gut like a rock.

In a great irony, I’ve paid off my debt just in time to incur more. My son will follow his cousin to college next year. We have actually managed to save enough money to pay for two years of his schooling (because he is an athlete, we already know he will attend a public school in our state–but don’t even think scholarship). At our current pace of inflation, those final two years will cost about $25K each. How will he (or us? we haven’t crossed that bridge yet) pay off $50K in loans?

And then my daughter will go to college as well. After years of responsible saving, will we still find ourselves at the end of our lives worthy only of debtor’s prison?

The latest financial advice for people like us is that we must not take on our kids’ college debt because we won’t live long enough to pay it off. We must leave it to our kids while we focus our resources on retirement. Either way, our kids inherit the burden: they can pay their own college loans or pay for our nursing home.

In another irony, my son is enrolled in a required high school class called Personal Finance this year. He is learning about checking and savings accounts, debit cards, credit cards and the like. Most importantly, he is learning about the imperatives of avoiding and managing debt. Yet, quite possibly, the first thing he will do after high school graduation is incur a debt so insurmountable it could take his entire adult life to pay it off.

Should I tell him not to worry? After all, it only took me 10 years to meet my miniscule obligation. Of course, times have changed since I went to school. While I couldn’t find a job in my field, my son can count on the benefit of a free internship after graduation to help him dig himself out!

And what of the person who tweeted #ItCanBeDone this morning? Do I write them and tell them it can’t? No. For who am I to say? Besides, I’m holding out the same hope for my kids, and their cousins too.

just finish it already!

Good god. I am someone who wrote a dissertation in three years with an infant in one hand, a toddler underfoot, and no childcare. I even had a teaching job for one year of it. How is it I can do that, yet take eight years (and counting) to write a memoir about that very same experience?

What is taking so long?

Once upon a time, this was a fun project. I saw it as a way for me to process the experience of leaving academe while also exposing the plight of adjuncts to the general population at a time when few people were writing about it.

Since then, talk has exploded around the problem of exploitative university hiring practices and the trek-to-nowhere that has become the humanities phd. There is no more need for an exposé. That’s actually OK because the project changed over time anyway. It grew into something bigger, an accounting of graduate school life as a whole: the experience of being a student, teaching, and writing a dissertation while contending with a reading disability and raising a family. And then giving it all up.

Great. But still, why isn’t it done?

To be fair, I haven’t been writing for eight solid years. This book has always been a spare time thing. Something I did when the duties of parenting, tutoring and grant writing didn’t call–which was almost never. I know I left it untouched for at least one full year of that time.

Technically speaking, I finished the first draft after about two years. I spent time after that sending book proposals to academic presses. I had this idea that some cash-poor university press would welcome the opportunity to publish a book people might actually buy and read. But they didn’t. With no simultaneous submissions and a minimum six month turnaround, I clicked off about two years just waiting around for rejections. Then I spent another year querying agents. One even asked to see the manuscript. But, alas…

THEN, in 2012 I got myself into a writing group. Before that, the book had been peripheral to my busy life. I didn’t give much thought to the fairly obvious fact that, unless you are a genius, you can’t get to the final version of a book by yourself: you need readers, editors, critics.

After years of simply reading my own book over and over again, I finally started getting useful feedback and making real revisions. I have since rewritten the entire thing twice over, and I cringe to think of the version I sent to that agent a few years back.

This is where I’m supposed to tell you, “And now…it’s finished! Voila!”

Except it’s not. I still have a few big decisions to make about structure and cuts, and my writing group still has to finish it (which will help me make those big decisions – I hope). So I plod on. I have to admit, I’ve begun to feel like I did during the final year of dissertating: like my life is on hold until I can unburden myself of this project that overshadows everything else, especially  other writing projects. I want to write magazine articles and blog posts. I want to start my next nonfiction book. I want to be free of this thing that has hung over me for eight years!

Instead, here I am–writing a blog post about the process of writing a memoir about the process of writing a dissertation. Ridiculous.

I need to just finish it already!

The Adjunct Petition Challenge — Watch Me Humiliate Myself (More Than Usual)!

professornever:

A worthy cause(s): (seeing Rebecca pretend to sing, and petitioning for a federal investigation of university labor conditions)!

Please check it out and sign!

Originally posted on pan kisses kafka:

Friends, Probably-not-Romans (but who knows?), Americans:

This spiffy petition, by Ann Kottner, Joe Fruscione and many of their hero compatriots, asking the US Dept. of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division to investigate the labor conditions of adjunct professors in our country, currently has about 5500 signatures. It would be very exciting if it had more signatures than that — especially from you tenured and tenure-track faculty I allegedly hate (JK, especially from anyone for any reason!). So here’s the deal.

I’m going to keep watching this petition, and when it hits 7500 signatures, I will, in the spirit of my friend Gordon Haber, upload a YouTube video of myself lip-syncing — WITH FEELING — to the song of your choice (as suggested in the comments below). I would prefer a German pop song from the 80s (I would prefer “Major Tom (Völlig losgelöscht),” if we’re being particular), but if there’s…

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