wanted: fair trade education

Of late, I found myself on several university campuses in an entirely new capacity: not as a grad student, not as a TA, not as an adjunct professor, but as a parent of a soon-to-be rising undergraduate. The university’s quintessential consumer-extraordinaire.

I found this something akin to one day shoveling coal into the furnaces that powered the Titanic and the next day (or decade) getting an invitation to frequent the Lido deck. The only problem: my experience in the bowels of that boat gave me reason to question the soundness of the ship. Which set me inevitably to grumbling about how those exorbitant tuition dollars I’m supposed to hand over get spent.

And it’s all downhill from there.

As an undergrad, and even as an early grad student, I walked around my college campuses feeling all dewy-eyed about the great halls of academe. The naiveté of youth must fade, thank god, but I never expected to feel quite the way I did on these recent campus tours.

As I endured five identical tours at five different universities, the slime of my own cynicism grew so prolific I feared I might leave a trail of it on the sidewalk behind me.

When the proud tour guides led us through the brand spanking new athletic and workout facilities, each expected me to ooh and aah with my son, but I could only wonder how a regiment of state-of-the-art ellipticals, positioned with an optimum view of the mountains, could supersede the need for a crew of composition instructors who can afford something more than Ramen for dinner.

We toured the newly turfed athletic fields, the mall-sized food courts, and a slew of smart classrooms in recently erected business school buildings. As one guide gushed on about the still-under-construction suite-style luxury dorms, I oozed a thick smear of cynical sludge on the ceramic tile just inside the sliding double doors of the brand-new student center. Do you give free massages too? I wanted to ask.

I’ve followed the problem of student-as-customer and lamented the progression of edutainment for years, but now it feels ever more personal because as a parent, I’m expected to buy–and buy into–these things.

I looked around for the cavalcade of high-paid administrators who had built these amusement park-empires, but they must have been cloistered in their towers for the afternoon—eating steak tartar out of silver dishes, no doubt.

Then the guide announced: “They do a great job preparing you for grad school here. So when you go, you’ll be ready.”

“When you go?” We heard this at several schools. When did grad school become an expectation? For which careers? All of them?

I’ve got to hand it to them. This is a clever sales tactic—kind of like creating brand loyalty for Camel cigarettes among elementary-aged kids. Persuade the new students that a bachelor’s degree won’t cut it before they’ve even had a chance to move their Xbox Ones and PS4s into their freshman dormitories.

No one mentioned how these unemployed college graduates would pay for grad school after four (or five?) years spent selling everything but their organs to pay for tuition. Another student loan perhaps? Or for top-tier students, a low-paid TA-ship with a loan on the side?

And then we got to the “excellent” part of the presentations: the teacher/student ratio. I had to keep moving because a puddle of goo had begun to form around my feet. Again and again I heard promises about personal attention, accountability and the family that is the university community.

“Really?” I said under my breath from my curmudgeon’s place in the back row. What happens to that ratio if we calculate professor to number of classes taught instead of number of students in each class? Then we also have to count the students and the grading for the three additional classes the professor teaches at the community college down the road to make ends meet.

If the professor has 25 students in each class and three classes at each institution, that’s 150 papers to grade for every assignment. How’s the ratio looking now? Does that instructor have time or energy to meet with my child about his latest paper grade?

So much for “family.”

Before going on these tours, I imagined I would heckle the tour guides about adjunct labor in a way that would educate other parents who may not be aware of this hiring practice. You will be so disappointed to hear that when the time came, I lost my nerve…entirely.

I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t arrive prepared that each tour would feel so much like a Disney ride – a sanitized explication of university life intended to celebrate and sell, the script delivered by volunteer student-guides who showed us only the pretty parts of campus with uninterrupted smiles that dared me to contradict them. I believe the student-guides were genuine in their enthusiasm. I understood the families on the tours had signed up for just this kind of show–as had my son. I didn’t have the guts to ruin it for any of them.

So, in my pathetic way, I asked about adjuncts in a low voice from the front row—or worse, I slunk up to the guides after the tours were over and asked: did they use adjuncts?

They were ready for me.

Every one of them said, “Yes, we do employ adjunct professors” with more interminable smiles. But then, “No, I don’t know what percentage of the faculty they make up.” Two guides assured me that adjuncts are good teachers too, so I shouldn’t worry.

All of the guides invited me back to Admissions where they could answer my question more thoroughly…and collect my contact information to ensure the child of a parent who would probe into such sensitive matters would never go to that school.

No, that last part only happened in my imagination. But it’s true I didn’t pursue my question at Admissions. It’s true I feared it might reflect poorly on my son’s application.

And suddenly this felt like a really creepy business. Was I being paranoid? Probably, but I found myself in a vulnerable position: At the public universities, my son must compete for admission. At the private ones, he must compete for a financial package that will make the difference between our affording the school or not.

I need the sales people in admissions to like us, not usher us out the door for fear I might make a scene.

Voting with my wallet has always felt like a common sense strategy to me. I don’t buy meat or produce at the grocery store because I don’t like big agriculture. I buy fair trade coffee because I care about who picked and processed the beans. But where can you buy a fair trade education?

We need more parents to ask this question. If a school has fat administrators, skinny adjuncts and a long line of brand new stair machines, maybe that’s not the kind of place to drop your life’s savings.

Except I’m a captive consumer. I don’t know where I might find anything different.

Despite my griping, I’m excited about this next phase of my son’s life. I anticipate the day he’ll come home from college on a break and tell me about the cool class he’s taking and the awesome professor who teaches it. We’ll chat about it over dinner. He’ll recommend books for me to read from the syllabus.

But then we’ll wonder: Is that professor on food stamps?

And that sucks. For everyone.

Right now, the Fair Trade Movement focuses primarily on farming, food and home goods. But the fact the movement exists at all illustrates the will among Americans to make ethical purchases. Forget U.S. News & World Report. Wouldn’t it have been cool if I could have asked the tour guides, “Where does your school rank at Fair Trade USA?”

That is, of course, if I could muster the gumption to speak up.

the perfect job: life after academe

If you’re leaving academe feeling despair because you’ve missed out on the “perfect job,” never fear. Of course you know this, but I’ll tell you anyway: there is no perfect job. Even today’s professoriate suffers a variety of hardships: bigger classes, fewer raises, increased pressure to publish, a customer-oriented culture that emphasizes entertainment over education, and the biggie for me: the moral quandary of working side-by-side with an ever-growing force of underpaid contingent laborers.

Still. Perfect job or not, leaving academe is hard. Figuring out next steps can be even more daunting.

More than likely, the job you do right after quitting academe will not be the one you want to do forever (mine wasn’t). Perhaps you take it because you have to pay the bills now. Or perhaps it’s the only thing that comes along. Or perhaps it falls into your lap and you don’t know what else to do (me).

Whatever the reason, just remember first, that nothing is permanent and second, that your work doesn’t define you. The culture of academe suggests the opposite, heaping judgment on those who work outside the academy, but once you get away, the echo of those voices will quiet.

Looking back, I can see that each of my jobs has brought together a different balance of the same four things: financial need, ability, interest and time. As these factors have changed over the years, so has my work.

Here’s what that has looked like:

After graduating from college with a B.B.A in marketing, I needed to make enough money to buy a car and move out of my parents’ house. I also wanted to show just how high a woman could climb on the corporate ladder: to the top. Then I discovered the mind-numbing tedium of corporate life. With so little invested in the purpose of my work, I found the days soul-suckingly empty.

After four years in an otherwise good job (great boss, good pay, challenging tasks), I couldn’t take the boredom anymore. In pursuit of something more creative and less bound by the mandate I spend eight consecutive hours behind a desk, I quit and enrolled in an M.A. program. I thought perhaps I’d get a writing job, or teach. While in school, I supplemented my husband’s income by working a variety of jobs: part-time nanny, full-time office manager, full-time marketing assistant. Instead of the upward mobility I’d originally sought, these jobs offered a low-stress 40-hour week that left me with time and energy for my studies.

During the M.A., academic work seduced me into striving for a professorship. Where money had been a driving factor behind my corporate job, in academia I saw an opportunity to do intellectual and creative work, earn respectable pay, and work varied hours. Also, where corporations promise upward mobility and increased salaries, universities promise prestige. I can’t say I wasn’t enticed by that.

By the time I started the Ph.D., I had a 6-week old baby. I quit the office manager job to attend graduate school full-time and stay home with my son. After a year, I got funding and worked as a TA making $12,500/year. Because we could scrape by with that and my husband’s salary, I was lucky to graduate with minimal debt.

When I graduated, my kids were 7 and 3. I was exhausted, and we were broke. Of course, the only job I could get was an adjunct job paying $2,500/class. I took it because I felt I had to teach while on the market for a tenure track job. As a parent, childcare becomes a major work priority. Since the adjunct pay was so low, I couldn’t afford to hire a childcare provider, so I only taught one class per semester.

After three failed years on the market, I decided to quit for several reasons: 1) The adjunct work was unsustainable: I couldn’t parent, publish, present, network, write job letters and teach all at the same time—especially without funds for childcare; 2) I saw quitting as a form of protest. I did not want to be part of the adjunct problem. 3) Between parenting and academe, I’d had no life for years. I was tired; 4) Both of my kids had special education needs that required extra attention and patience, but all my time with them felt stressed and rushed; 5) Our growing family had gotten more expensive—I needed to make more money.

Also, my daughter became ill about this time, requiring I be more available at home. After so many years of putting career before family, my priorities changed again. I turned the tables and put career last, becoming a tutor for students with dyslexia.

One year, I taught college students about intertextuality in African American literature. The next I taught 7-year-olds how to spell “cat.” On the university’s prestige-o-meter, I’d fallen far. But I didn’t have time to care.

Tutoring was a flexible job that paid me the most money for the least amount of time. With just a 10 hour work week, I earned $2,000 per month. That’s almost as much as I made in an entire semester teaching one class at the university. When I upped my hours to 14 per week, I made over $30,000 per year for part-time hours.

Even better, I was deeply invested in my students and in literacy (a subject not unconnected to my training in literature). I was good at it. I worked in and out of my home, made my own schedule, and had no additional grading/prepping. For a time, the work was intellectual. I attended conferences, learned about the brain, opened my eyes about education in a way that all my own formal education had ironically never done. I didn’t expect it to hold me forever, but in the moment, it was the perfect job.

This brings me to last year. As of then, I’d been tutoring for nearly a decade. My daughter was much healthier and on the brink of middle school. The memoir I’d been writing off and on for years still languished on the back burner. Despite a good hourly wage, my part-time hours limited my overall income while cost of living had increased dramatically. Intellectually, I knew tutoring full-time would be tedious, so I decided it was time to refocus on my career.

Figuring out my next step over the past year has been another difficult transition. After much soul-searching, I finally decided that, in addition to the need to increase my income, my main priority is still: time.

When I started out in business, I was very ambitious. I never set out to get rich, but I did set out to make something very respectable of myself: the status of a corporate executive, the prestige of a university professor.

But tutoring young people in this most basic skill of literacy has humbled me. I didn’t get famous or rich. I didn’t make a bold feminist statement about women and work. I didn’t impress anyone with my credentials. Instead, I made a fair wage while truly changing the lives of my students in great leaps and bounds. And while I did that, I settled into a simpler life.

Between my work in special education and my daughter’s food allergies/sensitivities, I’ve learned a lot about the ills of processed food and big agriculture. Consequently, we are locavores. Since I make my own schedule, I can shop at farmers’ markets, cook fresh food, put my hands in the dirt of my garden, avoid traffic and save gas by riding my bike for short errands like the grocery store and the bank. I can meditate after lunch—sometimes. There is a rhythm to this life that I can only call spiritual. A nine-to-five schedule would disrupt that. It’s not that I don’t want to work a 40-hour week, it’s just that I want to pick which eight hours of the day to work (I work best late at night). This need goes all the way back to my dissatisfaction with my first corporate job, so I feel like it’s important to listen to it—if I can.

Consequently, in this next leg of my work life, I’ve decided to supplement my tutoring by increasing the freelance writer/editor work I’ve been doing in bits and pieces for years. If I can do that from home, I can manage my own time. So far, I have several regular clients, so it looks very promising.

I remember one of my advisors discussing her past work as a “copyeditor.” She practically spat the words when she said them. I shared her judgment at the time. How ridiculous that seems to me now. My intellectual life lives on not only in my continued interest in literature, but in my interest in food, the environment, education and the brain—and in the kind of writing/editing I’m qualified to do. It’s my life that defines me, not my job. As a “copyeditor” (no spitting), I hope to fit my job around my life and interests, which at 47, have grown more important to me than professional status or prestige.

That is the plan, for now.

My point in detailing this zigzagging career path is to show how career aspirations and employment needs/opportunities can change over time. While some of these transitions have been extremely difficult for me, all of my jobs have enhanced my understanding of myself and the world around me. All have been steps to the next thing.

If the transition from academe finds you adjuncting, waitressing, pushing papers in a job you hate, or if you’re otherwise unhappily employed, know it is just one step on the path—not an endpoint. While there may be no overall perfect job, the one that pays the bills today, or keeps you from sitting home feeling lost, may be the perfect job for now.

So, if you’re on this post-ac path with me, the best advice I can give is to forget the judgments of academe, do what makes sense for you now, and see where it leads.

post-ac community: who gets to speak?

I distanced myself a bit from social media these last few months and I’m sorry to discover, upon my return, that there’s trouble in Denmark, so to speak. I’m not even sure of the scope of it as I missed the twitter exchanges that apparently took place, but I can see from blog posts there was a debate about privilege within the post-ac community that has left some feeling like we’re divided and others questioning whether they should continue blogging.

I’m jumping in a day late and a dollar short, so perhaps I should keep quiet about it all, but I feel like I want to weigh in because I think this online post-ac community is such a valuable thing. After suffering the silence around what was happening to Ph.D.’s who left academe back when I did it in 2006, I know the value of connecting with others who have left the academy. It’s worth it to invest time and energy in preserving this positive space.

The tough thing about a community like this is that it must strike a balance between those who have found their way to a satisfying work/pay situation and those still struggling to do so.

The overarching point of the post that seems to have caused the debate, Post-Ac Privilege Divide from over at How to Leave Academia (HTLA), is that we don’t hear often enough from (or provide enough support for) those who are struggling to piece together their post-ac lives.

I think this is an excellent point and I’m glad the authors drew attention to it. I admit, however, that I’m also not too surprised there was some sort of backlash. I think that the piece’s attempt to divide our community by degrees of privilege distracts from its important argument about lack of balance by suggesting (inadvertently?) we should hear less from those who are more popular or who enjoy more financial security rather than just pushing to hear more from those who are currently underrepresented.

This sets us up to argue about who’s privileged and who’s not (who gets to speak and who doesn’t), leading to further debate about how we define privilege.

Of course, I say all that without knowing what much of the argument was about, so it’s just a guess.

What I find relevant about a discussion of privilege is that we acknowledge as a group how much easier it is to speak and be heard if you come from a position of privilege. If you are working three jobs to put food on the table, you are far less likely to find time for blogging or Twitter. Privilege affords access to a computer, time/energy to write, and time/energy to network on social media. So people with the luxuries of time and energy are more likely to engage with this community in an active way.

Also, even for those who have all of these things, I imagine we’re more likely to share our successes, or our steps towards positive change, than we are to share the days we spent staring at a wall because we couldn’t figure out how to move forward after the devastation of leaving our academic careers behind. In this sense, the stories of struggle are also less likely to get told.

Consequently, as a community and regardless of our individual backgrounds, we should remain conscious of imbalance in our story-telling to be sure we clear space for those still finding their way.

The transition out of academe can be long and arduous. Those just embarking on this journey need to know they’re not alone – that others are flat broke and in debt, working less than desirable jobs, feeling unemployable, questioning their worth, and questioning their investment in graduate school. But struggling post-acs can also benefit from the flip side, from seeing others like them who have discovered their marketable skills and have found satisfying work outside the academy.

The authors at HTLA are right, the post-ac movement needs balance. I just wouldn’t want to argue for silencing any particular voice to get it. Rather than call for fewer rants in national venues, fewer feel-good tweets or blog posts, or fewer paid sources of advice and information, I’d say we need all those things to remain in addition to all the things the authors at HTLA call for: more stories of struggle, more open source advice, more measured and thoughtful critique of higher education.

I know I’m a bit of a quirky member of this community: I’m older than most. I have teenaged kids. I left academe 8 long years ago. Yet, I still spend time hashing out what it means to have this academic self tucked away in my head. I don’t know if that’s encouraging or discouraging for others to hear! But I do know I have always felt welcomed by other post-acs, despite my differing situation. I would want to pass that kind of welcome on to anyone else finding themselves suddenly estranged from the ivory tower.

In the interest of that, I’m happy to offer my site up for anyone with a story who is in need of a platform. Traffic is pretty modest around here, but I’m willing to share the space if it’s useful to anyone. You can leave a comment or DM me through Twitter @professornever if you’re interested.

In the meantime, I hope everyone keeps blogging, sharing and working to build and preserve a post-ac community where everyone’s voice can have a place.

the humanities: do we love to hate them, or hate to love them?

Back in January, we took a family trip to Gettysburg. As part of a school project, my 16-year old son had to visit a historical site related to the Civil War. In typical teenager fashion, Gareth waited until the week before the project was due to choose the battle of Gettysburg.

Then it snowed.

Undaunted, and unwilling to give up a family outing with my teenagers, we trekked to the battlefield two hours away. When we got there, we discovered several of the locations Gareth wanted to visit were barricaded due to snow and ice.

I am a do-gooder rule-follower, so I took this news with resignation, telling Gareth he should have planned better. My husband, on the other hand, persisted. He asked every ranger he saw about the accessibility of certain areas, especially Little Round Top.

I berated him. What did he expect them to do, give him secret instructions on where to park so we could sneak past the barricades?

Yes.

So there we were, stealing through the snow around bright orange “Do Not Enter” signs and climbing over the icy rock face of Little Round Top as instructed by one lone ranger. I looked over my shoulder more than once, expecting to see a more rule-oriented official approaching with a stun gun.

Instead, a bus load of Naval Academy midshipmen arrived. I guess they got the secret sneak-past-the-barrier instructions too. These seniors, or midshipmen first class, had come for a lesson in battlefield strategy. Afterward, we were told, they would return to the academy where they would each take command of a company.

These were the Navy’s future leaders.

Unlike us, I imagine they had permission to proceed with their tour despite the icy conditions. They had to know we didn’t belong there, but they were polite, chatting and mingling with us on the hill.

Then the Navy contingent congregated at the end of what had been the Union line, where Colonel Joshua Chamberlain is famed to have held off the Confederates with a bayonet charge.

When the Navy instructor climbed up on a rock, we all gathered around to listen. I stood toward the back, willing my civilian mommy garb to blend in.

After a brief introduction of the battle scene, the instructor said, “So, you may or many not know that Joshua Chamberlain was a professor of rhetoric.”

I nodded, “yes” and straightened up, feeling suddenly as if I belonged in this conversation. The instructor continued, “Any rhetoric majors here?” His voice had a smirky tone to it that reminded me of the way Fox News used to say John Kerry’s name during his presidential campaign.

At the question, I heard low derisive chuckles of which the meaning was clear: “Ridiculous! Of course there are no rhetoric majors among the future leaders of the United States Navy!”

I stood up even straighter, military straight shall we say, and looked around me. An open scowl on my face. Military leadership does not require good communication skills?

Then the instructor asked if anyone knew the three tenets of argumentation. At this, the midshipmen shuffled their first class feet.

They didn’t know.

I felt myself inch forward a step or two. Steve watched me out of the corner of his eye, worrying about what I might do. We were already trespassers after all.

I could hardly contain myself. Was there room for me on the rock? Should I take over the lesson?

Before I could embarrass anyone (especially myself), a young man nearby mumbled something about pathos. Someone else joined in – yes and ethos, right? Others agreed. I heard less shuffling but still more snickering. I think they were embarrassed to admit that yes, in fact, they did know something about rhetoric.

I felt relieved, if only marginally. These young men and women would assume leadership positions when they returned to school. How could they do so without knowing a thing or two about the art of persuasion and diplomacy? How could they lead effectively in high-pressure situations without the practiced balance of ethos, pathos and logos?

I inched yet another step forward. Could I take the rock? I imagined myself diving for it, scrambling up and giving the instructor a swift shove. I wanted to validate the students who spoke up and point out the great irony in the fact they mocked the profession of the soldier who, by most accounts, saved the day on Little Round Top in July of 1863.

But in another irony, I didn’t have to. The instructor picked up the lesson himself. In an unexpected reversal, he pointed out that perhaps Chamberlain was the perfect man to hold the flank that day because his broad education contrasted the more narrow military training of the other Union leaders present. Chamberlain saw the bigger picture, the instructor continued. He saw the importance of his position on the flank without having to be told. He’d also cultivated a strong ethos with his men, persuading them to fight, even when they’d run out of ammunition.

Now I wanted to leap up on the rock and cheer (I guess I wanted to be on that rock no matter how things were going).

But how strange.

Had the instructor played off the way folks love to hate the humanities to make a point about how important they are? If so, why deliver such an important lesson in this eleventh hour of education and training?

Perhaps he just saw me coming, musket in hand, ready to commandeer the high ground if he didn’t get his story straight.

I didn’t get a chance to ask, so I’ll never know the instructor’s motivations for sure, but I was reminded of this trip when President Obama beat up on art history majors a few weeks later.

In case you missed it:

Then I was reminded again when President Obama apologized for his comments in a hand-written note to Art History Professor Ann Collins Johns a few weeks after that. It turns out President Obama loves art history: it was one of his favorite subjects in high school.

To report on the apology, Fareed Zakaria interviewed art history major and staff writer for the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik. When I saw the headline, “Are the Humanities Worth Studying?” I thought, “Here we go again!” But Zakaria must be a humanities supporter as well because it’s a softball interview that sets Gopnik up to tell us why the humanities matter: “because we’re human.”

Of course.

But the love-to-hate-the-humanities phenomenon is real. The Navy instructor played off it to get his students’ attention. President Obama used it to make a point about the economic viability of vocational training, and Zakaria used it to attract viewers. (Otherwise, why not lead with, “Why the Humanities are Worth Studying”–a more accurate but less inciting tag).

The really interesting thing about all this hating, then, is that no one really means it. The humanities make an easy target because degrees in language, history and literature do not align with neat revenue-driven categories like accountant, engineer or brick layer. We can make fun of them for that, but in the end, we can’t help but love them anyway.

Which is encouraging.

And so President Obama apologized. Zakaria let Gopnik speak unfettered, and my Navy instructor brought his lecture back around to celebrate Chamberlain’s training.

As for me I am glad that, in the end, I did not have to do battle for the rock.  Instead, I melted back into the crowd–satisfied with the turn of events.

And Gareth, who isn’t a fan of school with its rows of lockers and chairs, had a blast walking the open fields in Gettysburg, imagining the soldiers who once marched and died there.

History is one of few subjects that brings him to life.

And why not? He is human, after all.

adjunct community, “Lucy Snowe,” and the trap of adjunct work

A vibrant on-line community has erupted around contingent faculty in the last five years. Articles about adjuncts and the atrophied job market have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Slate and beyond. When you add the blogs and Twitter accounts that have popped up everywhere regarding adjuncting, unionization efforts and transition from academic life, it seems a massive snowball has formed over the much troubled village of academe.

Real change may still be far out, so far that I have trouble imagining what it will look like when it finally comes, but the potential for graduate students and adjuncts to build community and organize exists on a large scale.

I am so happy to see this community form. When I worked as an adjunct from 2004 to 2006, I didn’t even know the other contingent laborers at the university where I worked, let alone those who held similar jobs across the country.

But I did have Lucy Snowe.

Not the Lucy Snowe of Brontë fame–although I’m sure the pseudonym is inspired by Brontë’s teacher-protagonist in Villette–but a Lucy Snowe who worked as an adjunct writing instructor for almost 20 years and who wrote three articles for the CHE between 2003 and 2006.

Back then, the Chronicle still materialized on my doorstep–and I didn’t even think that was quaint. When I read Snowe’s article, I’m Professor Nobody, in March 2004, I folded it up and “filed” it in a stack of books in my office.

I wouldn’t begin my own adjunct work until after I graduated that coming May, but I still recognized this public accounting of adjunct life as a novel thing.

Not even my friends wanted to talk about our plight. We had all endured at least one job search by then, so the burden of shame already weighed heavily upon us. As my colleagues graduated, they scattered to the wind, preferring, I suppose, to face the odds and lick their wounds in private.

The blogosphere was in its infancy at the time. If I’d known to look, I could have found an online source of support in the blog The Invisible Adjunct, but I was what marketing professionals call a “late adopter.” I had heard people talk about “web logs” in 2004, but I didn’t really know what that meant, and I had my hands full with young children, teaching, research and job searching. Surfing the internet never crossed my mind.

I’m sorry for that because I think The Invisible Adjunct would have been a huge support to me as I followed along in her footsteps. IA posted from 2003-2004. She quit adjuncting and blogging just as I graduated and began my first term appointment. (The blog’s archives have been offline for years, but you can read about it here. There’s also an article in the CHE: “Disappearing Act” by Scott Smallwood, but it’s behind a pay wall).

Without an awareness of this small but burgeoning online community, I only had Lucy. I pulled her article out in 2005 and re-read it as if she were a cherished friend. So many of her experiences paralleled the things I’d written about in my journal: our exclusion from faculty meetings and meaningful committees, our invisibility in the department, our miserable walks to the mailroom, our motherhood, our passion for our work, our disgust with the tenured faculty who treated us like second-class citizens, our job insecurity, and our angst about the future.

Except Lucy had been at it for decades.

I would leave academe after spring semester 2006. I’d played the “market” three times, once as a grad student and twice as an adjunct. Some would consider that a quick exit. A lot of factors went into my decision. Kids, exhaustion, pride, my own helpless form of activism (don’t let the university exploit me). But one of those reasons was Lucy Snowe. By sharing her story, she showed me the future: adjunct work would not lead to tenure-track work. It was a trap.

In the eyes of academe, Ph.D.’s are like fresh vegetables. We degrade quickly once cut from the vine. In that sense, the further you get from graduation, the less appealing you become–and adjunct work proves a poor preservative.

After I quit, I published a farewell article in the CHE. Lucy published hers, The Long Goodbye, a few months later, in October of 2006. She and I made the same analogy: the university was an abusive lover, and we saw only one way to save ourselves: leave.

When I saw Lucy’s article, I felt validated. I was sorry that her career ended as it did, but the idea that someone else made the same decision as me, leaving what she loved because it didn’t love her back–went a long way to comfort me in my terror that I’d made a mistake.

So this post is a shout-out to Lucy Snowe, wherever she may be, for having the courage to share her story in the days when we had only a trace of a snowball.

Thank you Lucy!

the college essay – and dyslexia

I think I must have been waiting for an excuse to write about dyslexia, and I’ve finally found one.

Perhaps you saw Rebecca Schuman’s piece in Slate, The End of the College Essay. Schuman argues that the college essay in general education classes has run it’s course. Students hate to write them, professors hate to grade them. If you saw the article, you may have also seen the 800+ responses, many vitriolic.

I was disappointed not to see a more useful conversation evolve.

The question to be discussed is not whether Rebecca Schuman hates her students (of course she doesn’t) or whether we should ban writing from the college classroom (of course we shouldn’t). The piece opens discussion about the college essay as an effective means of student instruction and evaluation in the gen-ed classroom only.

Why can’t we talk about that?

I come to this conversation from a very specific place: as a tutor and advocate for dyslexic learners. I admit, despite my personal infatuation with essay writing, the idea of evaluating student progress through means other than the college essay makes my little dyslexia-advocate’s heart leap.

Dyslexia is a language processing disability that affects 20% of the population. Dyslexic learners struggle with language based skills such as reading, spelling, speech development and word retrieval. They also find grammar and organization challenging.

Are you thinking perhaps a student like that doesn’t belong in your college-level class? You couldn’t be more wrong. The most important thing to know about dyslexia is that it does not correlate directly to intelligence. Stated more simply: very smart people can and do have dyslexia.

Furthermore, by definition, dyslexia comes with gifts such as creativity, imagination, diplomacy, entrepreneurial skills, and athleticism (ever wonder where the “dumb jock” stereotype comes from?). Many dyslexic learners also have gifts for math and science which can make them talented physicists, engineers and inventors (just the kind of person who shows up in a 200 level literature class and states: “I hate reading” on the first day).

In a society (and especially in a classroom) where written language dominates modes of communication and evaluation, dyslexic learners are less able to demonstrate their intelligence. They can be misunderstood as “dumb” or “simple” when quite the opposite is true.

Dyslexics have brought us the light bulb, the telephone, the theory of relativity, the art on the Sistine Chapel, and the governance that helped lead the Allied Powers through WWII. Check out these famous people with dyslexia. I wonder how many of them could put together a five paragraph essay?

For dyslexics, organizing an essay, a paragraph, or even a sentence can be very difficult. This is because people with dyslexia often think in pictures. Of course, language is linear. When an idea appears in your mind as a three-dimensional image, how do you flatten that out and line it up in a row? And is a linear format the better way to convey a three-dimensional idea? A picture tells a thousand words, after all.

What does all this mean for the dyslexic in your gen-ed classroom? For many, response papers, term papers and written exams are the worst ways to demonstrate knowledge.

My 16-year-old son has dyslexia. He reads fluently on grade level, remembers and comprehends vivid details from the text, and has excellent analytic skills. Despite his dyslexia, I think his gifts are literary. I love talking about books with him. During his English class discussions, he’s the star. But when asked to write papers or give written responses to questions, he dumbs down his vocabulary to avoid spelling unfamiliar words; he leaves out pertinent details to shorten the labor of composing, and he simplifies his ideas and insights to avoid struggles with organization.

I think my son should continue to practice his writing skills. Just because it’s a relative weakness for him doesn’t mean he should avoid it altogether. While he will continue to hone this skill, however, it will always be the less accurate way of evaluating his knowledge of a subject.

The college essay is just one form of communication. The idea that we might consider additional ways of communicating in the gen-ed classroom does not sound that radical to me. Several years ago, I heard dyslexic author Jonathan Mooney speak at a special-ed conference in my area. He argued that visual literacies are replacing reading and writing as primary modes of communication in our society. Consequently, he said, we should not force our symbolic code on picture-thinking dyslexics at all. He feels that by doing so, we are limiting them. Stunting their creativity. Crushing their esteem.

No reading or writing instruction for twenty percent of the population? That is a radical idea, and it’s just the kind of ahead-of-his-time, out-of-the-box thing I would expect a dyslexic learner to say.

We don’t have to go as far as Mooney right now, but given that modes of communication have changed so dramatically, and given that we have known for a decade that dyslexia and its gifts affect one fifth of the population, why not consider Schuman’s question: Is the college essay still appropriate for the gen-ed classroom? In other words, should essay writing be a gateway skill?

What would it look like if, in addition to the oral evaluations Schuman calls for, students created power points, infographics, websites, even twitter streams? Perhaps they could develop one of these things in conjunction with an essay as an exercise in compare/contrast?

Like the essay, these other modes of communication require students to gather, comprehend and synthesize information. They ask students to present their arguments in a coherent and persuasive way. They all have creative and professional applications.

Together, a variety of assignments could enable all students to better demonstrate their knowledge while allowing them to show off the skills that come easily and to practice the ones that don’t.

I know Schuman’s piece was not at all about learning disabilities, but I think they play a part in the discussion. This is just my piece of the pie. The point is simply to continue the conversation Schuman started rather than to see it drowned out in a flood of reactionary comments.

If you’re interested in reading more about dyslexia:

I highly recommend the book Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.

For a nice anecdotal overview of dyslexia in the business community see Coudl This Be teh Secret to Sussecc?

For news on dyslexia in higher-ed: Colleges Step Up to Meet Dyslexia Challenge

For research on dyslexics in higher ed, see this cognitive profile.

post-ac in a book club?

I read an excellent book last week: The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic.

The novel tells the story of a postwar Croatian family scarred by war, the terrors of Yugoslav Communism, and the familial rending of emigration. I loved it for its haunted characters, for the way its vacillating narrative flattens the space between past and present, for its sense of place on Rosmarina, an imaginary island so visceral that it becomes its own character, and for its study of an intergenerational community that, like the island itself, glistens and sustains, even as it oppresses.

I can thank a friend and her book club that I read this novel at all. By coincidence, I’d seen it weeks before in the bookstore where I didn’t pick it up because the jacket whispered “romance novel” in an unfortunate misrepresentation of the richness inside.

I have never been a member of a book club. In fact, I remember ridiculing such clubs as a graduate student. While I’m embarrassed to admit that now, I’m not surprised I fell into academe’s elitism as a young student eager to prove my intellectual worth. Eventually, those feelings dissipated and the teacher emerged. As a teacher, especially of learning disabled readers, I value any group that encourages people to gather in pursuit of their literary interests.

But does that make a neighborhood book club a good home for an ex-literature scholar like myself?

So far, I haven’t thought so. If I were making my living through literature – as a writer, a critic or a professor – and I interacted regularly with a professional literary community, then perhaps it would be fun to also read literature more casually with a group of friends, family members, or neighbors. But as an ex-academic, the prospect of a neighborhood club as my only outlet for discussing literary interests has always sounded demoralizing.

Consequently, I’ve drifted for years somewhere between communities of casual and professional readers–alienated from one group by training and the other by lack of affiliation.

It’s not all so terrible as it sounds. As I’ve discussed in how I lost and found my love of literature and independent scholar? not so much, until this year, time and energy for significant amounts of literary or scholarly reading have eluded me anyway.

For this one day, however, I sat in as a guest in the unfamiliar territory of a book club because my friend had invited our writing group to come and meet the author. It was a privilege to speak with the lovely Brkic and hear about the heritage and family that inspired her novel. I also enjoyed the group’s discussion of characters Magdalena and Jadranka, two sisters working through very different relationships to their Croatian community both at home and abroad.

Afterward, I found myself thinking about exile and community, and I couldn’t help but let my thoughts wander to my own exile as a literature Ph.D., made more keen by my participation in the group that night. In the loosest sense, post-acs make up a diaspora of our own: scholars scattered to the wind, isolated from each other and alienated from our academic roots in the university.

That’s a little dramatic I suppose, and hardly the wrenching struggle that Brkic describes, but still it’s an interesting way of thinking about post-acs because it suggests we should connect with one another to preserve and cultivate our common interests.

In the spirit of fostering that kind of community, I’d love to hear comments from others who have read The First Rule of Swimming (and I encourage you to read it!) or other works, fictional or not, about postwar Croatia and its diaspora. I for one intend to read the author’s memoir, The Stone Fields as a follow-up to a novel that peaked my interest about a culture and history I know so little about.

the art of complaining: an adjunct’s dilemma

I am a terrible complainer.

But I should clarify.

I rock when I’m ranting around the house about my kids’ messy rooms, fraudulent insurance companies or environmental desecration. But the complaints of an adjunct? This is a different and more difficult thing to do. If you hope to persuade your audience of an injustice that you have personally suffered, you’ll be better off if you can make them trust you, empathize with you…like you. Otherwise, they just might blame you.

Before starting my memoir in 2004, I read Ghosts in the Classroom, a collection of essays about adjuncting published in 2001. I thought it was an important book, giving voice to a subject that, at the time, was shrouded in silence.

Still, taken together, the essays wore me out. I didn’t doubt the stories of hardship and loss. I empathized with the writers, and I wanted the message to get out, but despite that, I found the barrage of negative experiences overwhelming. I knew better than to blame the writers for their predicaments, but I wondered, would readers outside the academy be so generous?

How do you tell a miserable story without making your reader miserable? Without inviting blame?

I saw this as the challenge of my memoir–a problem I set out to avoid from the beginning. To do so, I decided I would tell the story of the whole person, not just the adjunct. I would pack the hard knot of my adjunct misery in a box padded with personal and palatable things like motherhood, marriage and my passion for graduate school.

By making myself real, I would illuminate the university’s exploitative labor practices without sounding like a whiner.

While I’m confessing silly little fantasies, I should admit I also told myself that I would keep a positive face while adjuncting–that I would view it as a temporary situation to be observed and commented upon, but not internalized.

You know where this is going.

I didn’t get through the opening paragraphs before face-planting on each of those ambitions.

The thing is, I couldn’t see it. Over the years, the writing and editing of this book has occurred in isolation, in the narrow spaces that opened between tutoring, parenting and grant writing. That changed when I got into a writing group this past year.

And the crux of the feedback is: I’m a lowdown dirty rotten complainer. A griper. A whiner to the Nth degree.

How the heck did that happen?

These are my long-held first paragraphs, the ones I just cut. I wrote them in my communal office during my first day on the adjunct-job nine long years ago:

“Here I sit, in my office. My first teaching gig since the Ph.D. and I can’t silence the voice in my head: “don’t be cynical, don’t be cynical, don’t be cynical.” Rather than come across as bitter and negative, I feel compelled to wow people with my resilience. How deep did I dig to find that wellspring of optimism? Impressive, isn’t it, how I can make good from the bad; how I am professionally and personally gratified by the essence of teaching, how I can rise above the pettiness of my employment status? But a coffee stain lies splattered in a sheet down the wall next to my desk. It’s brownish, amorphous and large. Maybe it’s not coffee? I note other, darker droplets that resemble blood. Not blood, I’m sure, but even so, when I look at them, I feel a thickness in my throat. Revolted, I turn away, but they lure me back like a crumpled car on the side of a highway.

I could clean the stain off the wall—obviously. But I think of this as more of an experiment than a job—I’m not really employed here, am I? I fathom myself an observer—an anthropologist of sort—curious about this culture of part-time work that has grown like unwelcome algae in the Petri dish of academia. My research questions: how long will that stain remain on the wall? Do the custodians ever come in here? Will an over-zealous co-worker scrub it off in the enthusiasm of his or her first day? Or will it just fade away like the occupants of this office?

My eye follows the brown trail down below my table and the voice in my head makes way for bitter words like irony, hypocrisy, exploitation…cynicism. And there it is. What a goddamned disappointment that is.”

The crazy thing is that I was surprised when my writers’ group asked me why I was so bitter on the first day.

“Bitter?” I said. “Which part was bitter?” I thought I’d started off like a firecracker.

Then I reread it through their eyes and it looked quite different to me. Way more negative than I ever intended.

I had a few days of crisis after this revelation. Workshopping a memoir is a funny thing because critique of the writing can so easily feel like critique of the writer. We’re not talking about made up characters here. We’re talking about a real person with real feelings, and as the case may have it, real bitterness.

Was I just a negative and miserable old curmudgeon, dissing my work before I gave it a chance? And was this my persona in general? Complaining about my kids’ slovenliness? The dog smell in the carpet? Fracking? The Tea Party? The botched roll-out of Healthcare.gov? Was it all just me?

Time to take a step back.

I separated myself from the critique, but in saving myself, I couldn’t save the writing, which on closer inspection had enough whine coming out off it to make my dog howl.

I considered the advice of my writing group. They wanted to remove all of my lovely and bitter turns of phrase, all of my biting criticisms, all of my damning judgments. Things like: “I knew the university would treat me badly. What I didn’t know, was that I would begin to treat it badly.” I had cherished that line. (And how clever for me to figure out a way to share it with you here).

While I saw their points, I felt frustrated by my original question: How do you tell a story like this without alienating the reader? I could feel my neck getting hot as we discussed it around our computers because some of this felt like the old totalitarian pressures of grad school that dictated we take everything with a smile. No one said it out loud but as a graduate student I knew: never let them see you sweat. No doubt this pressure lay at the root of my feeling that I should “wow people with my resilience” as an adjunct.

I had to remind myself that my writing group didn’t want to silence the story, they just wanted me to tell it in a way that didn’t make readers hate me.

I needed to complain and be likable at the same time.

Part of the problem is my personality. I don’t have flair. One of the “characters” in my book answered almost every one of our adjunct dilemmas with a laugh and a flippant “fuck that!” which only made me like her more. Why couldn’t I be brazen and shocking and charming?

Instead, I’m so…serious? reserved?

Whatever it is, I can’t change that shock-value complaints don’t work for me. I’ll never be that person who makes you laugh with the F-word, so I have to find another way. As I floundered around, one member of my writing group said, “get rid of all the value judgments! Just tell your story and let the reader decide.”

That is some brilliant advice.

Readers don’t want to be told how to feel about something, they want to be inspired to draw their own conclusions.

So I’m back at the drawing board. So far, I’ve excised all of the opinions, ruminations and condemnations from the first quarter of the book. I cut everything from that opening section but the story of the coffee stain, which I rewrote.

I feel liberated, like I’m uncovering something shiny from under a heavy pile of dead leaves.

How ironic that after years of teaching my students to “show don’t tell,” I’m finally figuring out how to do it myself.

let the train run: on quitting and regret

Are you a post-ac waiting to happen?

I have to admit, I don’t envy anyone standing on that precipice. The decision to abandon academe remains the most difficult of my life–one marked by distress over the years spent, grief for the future lost, and resentment for the few who succeeded.

So many questions: had I wasted ten years of my life? Had I tried hard enough? Would another year make a difference? If I left, how would I reinvent myself? What would happen to my scholarship? My intellect? Me?

All of those questions haunted me, but only one question terrified me:

What if I changed my mind?

At any time, if I choose, I can add or drop students from my tutor schedule, give up vegetarianism, repaint my house, divorce my husband. I can even pursue the business marketing career for which I trained twenty-five years ago.

But I cannot return to the ivory tower.

Quitting academe was like jumping off a fast train. I fretted that as it careened into the distance without me, I would realize my mistake. With my research molding and my connections dissolving, I would wonder, “can a person catch a fast train on foot?”

If the idea of banishment from your life’s work has you paralyzed somewhere deep in the library stacks, I can offer you this one bit of comfort:

I have never felt like chasing after that train.

Not once.

And I am not someone who has settled easily into a new career.

My decision to quit came at a time when my kids needed me more than I’d anticipated. To better contend with the challenges of ADHD, dyslexia and specialized diets, I decided to work as a tutor. It paid well and it allowed me to be more available at home.

After years of sacrificing family for work, I didn’t mind turning the table for a time. I knew that I wouldn’t tutor forever. I knew my children would grow, and I would want more.

Now, with the kids clamoring up to the edge of the nest, it’s time to reinvent myself again.

Of course I get occasional pangs for the academic life I could have led. But those are different from the deep and unsettling regret I feared.

The thing about “changing my mind” that I never considered during all those agonizing months of indecision: I can’t sit around wishing I’d kept something I never had. In other words, going back would mean returning to a job search, not a job.

I have no delusions that more time on the market would have brought success. I quit in 2006, a time when my rejection letters claimed I’d competed with 400 other applicants for the job in question. From what I hear, things only declined after that.

By the time I left the market, I had grown weary of the futile sacrifice of family and self. I could no longer see the logic of working for pennies. I had begun to reject the idea I should feel small despite my many accomplishments.

Since escaping those dilemmas, I have never second guessed myself. After all, who ever looked under the sharp edge of a boot heel and asked, “How can I squeeze myself back under that thing?”

So, if you have found yourself in a similar place, I can tell you, don’t be afraid to get out from under, make the leap, and let the train run.

independent scholar? not so much

Over the last winter holidays, my son and husband went to Florida for a soccer tournament. I stayed home with Olivia, enjoying a week of rare quiet. The weather, with its curtains of grey, asked us to stay inside. My students, happy for a holiday break from tutoring, asked me to stay home. And Olivia, having just turned 12, asked me to give her some space.

By chance, I had just bought a book, The Renewal of Cultural Studies, edited by Paul Smith. It caught my eye first because the contributors include two of my former professors, but the subject also intrigued me. It addresses the apparent need for Cultural Studies scholars to regroup: to better walk the tightrope that would define the underlying assumptions of their discipline without succumbing to the rigidity of those assumptions. I wonder if a self-consciousness about that conundrum, set out so early in the work, isn’t itself the definition of how to do cultural studies, but regardless, for me, the work promised a review of the current state of the field. I was curious. What had transpired without me?

When I left the academy seven years ago, I did it with the intention of continuing my research. I thought maybe I’d even be an “independent scholar.” I wonder if we all tell ourselves we’ll do this, or if some people walk away with the intention of never looking back, never ever cracking another academic book. I thought I’d regularly browse the CHE; I’d subscribe to a few choice journals; I’d read selected texts.

Nada.

Well, I do read the Chronicle, but I admit there was a chunk of time where I couldn’t even manage that. I threw myself instead into researching dyslexia, ADHD, and anxiety so that I could better assist my kids as well as my students. I spent hours in the kitchen learning how to cook gluten/dairy/egg-free from scratch for Olivia. I found myself again writing into the wee hours of the morning, this time racing to meet grant (instead of academic) deadlines.

Depending on my mood, reading scholarly work felt laborious, frivolous, luxurious, or even ridiculous. I didn’t have time for any of that. Without the professional imperatives to publish or teach, I couldn’t make that kind of reading a priority.

What really surprised me, however: when I did try to engage with things academic, I found the reading to be painful and isolating. I had been trained to weigh in, either as a student, as a teacher, or as a writer. Without a classroom, a reading group, or a research project, I had no where in which to express myself.

I discovered that I had been silenced.

Yes, technically I could have written papers for journals and conferences, but realistically, for a mother of school-aged kids with two unrelated part-time jobs, that wasn’t happening. For all intents and purposes, I had lost my academic voice. The voices of others, ringing out in classrooms, in journals and in books, simply reminded me of that. Their ideas prompted questions I couldn’t ask, reactions I couldn’t offer, revelations I couldn’t share.

I couldn’t take it.

So I turned my back, happier to pretend those voices didn’t exist.

I don’t know what prompted me to do it, but I started poking around on the internet last fall to see if anything new and interesting popped out at me. That’s how I came across The Renewal. Soon after purchasing it, the circumstances randomly arose which gave me the time and quiet I needed to actually read it.

I sat, just as I always used to, curled in the corner of my couch with a cup of tea, and cracked the binding. I didn’t expect to have a voice anymore. I didn’t expect to weigh in. Instead, I read with the distance of the curious, a thing afforded me, I suppose, by the years that had passed.

I admit, however, that I cringed when I got to the chapter written by graduate students. I could so easily imagine their glee at the coup–their names would appear in an anthology! But really, my envy dissipated quickly into a sort of sickening feeling for them. Perhaps they will become professors who benefit from fair and satisfying working conditions. Perhaps they already have. Regardless, that’s not the case for most grad students, and I know all too well how quickly the victory of publication, which feels so momentous when it happens, can dissolve into irrelevance on a hypercompetitive job market.

So yes, I am still capable of these unhealthy feelings, but my gratitude that the JIL doesn’t concern me anymore ultimately won out. I shut the door on the weird combination of envy and pity that stood, arms folded, on my stoop and simply read their piece and others with a burning interest I hadn’t felt in a long time.

I didn’t get to hash over the essays with anyone. In fact, I didn’t even finish the book. The holiday passed, Steve and Gareth came home, schedules took over. Although The Renewal sits hopefully on my nightstand, it’s not the book I choose when I stumble into bed at midnight after helping Gareth with geometry homework or reading with Olivia for an English project due the next day.

No, I don’t choose it. But you know what? I don’t shelve it either.

I am no longer an academic. I have never been an independent scholar. But I am still an intellectual. I just live in the real world where these scholarly endeavors that can light me up so consistently, feel oh so much like a privilege I still cannot afford.