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!

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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!

you just miss the sex

I’m always the last to know.  I attribute it in part to my introvertedness.  I don’t get out enough.  I don’t network.  I don’t (or didn’t) blog enough.  Actually, I’ve been blogging for about a year and a half, just not here.

Since I last graced the threshold of a classroom (as an adjunct) in 2006, I’ve been almost completely cut off from university life.  Looking back, that seems rather a traumatic occurence.   At the risk of sounding like an old lady remembering the days before the telephone, I have to say: “We didn’t have blogs back in my day.”–at least not the easy user-friendly kind that any old fart can start.

It took me until 2011 before I started a blog of any kind, and it’s taken until now for me to think about writing a blog about life after academia.  Doing so prompted me to poke around for similar websites and I’ll tell you: if I thought I had an original idea, I was wrong!

I’m sorry to see so many people suffering their way out of the academy as I did, but I have to say I’m also happy to see a support community forming–something I desperately needed when my academic friends (caught similarly without tenure after graduation) scattered to the wind like dogwood petals just past their bloom.

The forty-eight hours I’ve spent perusing these websites has helped me to better understand the juncture I’ve come to, including this professor never project I’ve begun.  Most of the blogs I’ve looked at so far are written by people who only recently abandoned their academic lives (with or without degrees).  They focus primarily on the transition: how to leave, how to get a different job, and how to survive the vast array of feelings associated with those challenges.

It seems obvious, but reading about their experiences has helped me to see that I’m in a very different place.  Ironically, I think the start of this blog marks the end rather than the beginning of that transition for me.  You see, Professor Never is the title of the memoir I’ve written about my journey from corporate ladder climber to adjunct professor.  I’ve preoccupied myself with this endeavor off-and-on since I graduated (which is way too long, but that’s what kids and work will do to a writing project).

Today, the book still needs editing, and I still need an agent.  Nevertheless, I’m ready to move on–to stop writing about the process of becoming “professor never” and start writing from the perspective of simply being “professor never.”

Many of the blogs I’ve looked at so far started around 2011 then petered off, probably becoming less relevant as the authors (hopefully) found jobs and became less preoccupied with their past academic quandaries.  For those who have kept writing, I found an interesting thread.  Many are employed in “good jobs”–making decent enough money, not feeling overworked or otherwise exploited, and not regretting their choice.

They don’t complain.

I think, however, that I detect an undercurrent of boredom in many of them.  I get that.  I can feel that same specter creeping in around the molding of my own door.  When you first start working, the novelty of relatively fair pay amazes you.  The free time that embraces you like an old friend on weeknights and weekends dumbfounds you.  When the December holidays arrive for the first time without paper deadlines, grading deadlines, or the shadow of the MLA Convention darkening the winter cheer, you think you’ve really hit pay dirt.

In many ways, you have.

Eventually, however, the tread wears thin on a job that fails to satisfy your intellectual needs.  It doesn’t mean you want back in the ivory tower.  In fact, when you think about your old lover, the university, you remember him as a selfish and abusive prick.

So no, in your boredom, you don’t miss the lover.  You just miss the sex.  And the beauty of that?  You can get it elsewhere: at the library or on the internet, for free, and without a dossier to boot.