Monday, September 10, 2007
As a graduate of a Snooty Liberal Arts College with a Phud from an R1 Flagship, who is working in administration at a community college, I'll just say I have a more-than-passing interest in this issue.
From the perspective of my graduate program, I have failed. They count full-time faculty placements, with extra credit for tenure-track and/or high prestige locales. By their measures, I've fallen off the radar. (This was even true in my faculty days, since Proprietary U didn't have tenure, so it didn't have a tenure track. I was permanent full-time faculty, but I wasn't tenure-track, so I didn't count.) I don't feel like I've failed – honestly, I think I've done a pretty good job of “lemons into lemonade” -- but by the measures used in grad school, and which most of us internalized to one degree or another, there it is.
(It doesn't stop in grad school, either. For the administrators out there – do you get sick of faculty assuming that administrators are failed faculty? Me, too!)
Oso confesses to Googling former colleagues to see whose career is where. He has a little more faith than I do in the fairness of long-term outcomes, but he notices too that, even just a few years out, some of the early 'stars' turned out to be flashes in the pan. Sometimes the rules for what you're 'supposed to' do change abruptly, leaving the stars of an earlier period stranded someplace nobody wants to go. When what looked like the future becomes a tired fad, some very hardworking people are bound to look pretty silly.
The people I admire, both in and outside of academia, are frequently the ones who followed their own senses of what they should do.
Faddism in academia bothers me more than it does in many other industries because, unlike in many other industries, it defeats our reason to exist. To my mind, part of the point of academia is to be the place to try off-the-beaten-path ideas. This is where you can ask “what if...” and actually work on providing an answer. If the answer is already given – whether by a fad-driven job market, a theology, a political platform, groupthink, or popular opinion – then I don't see what value we add.
That freedom of inquiry is premised on boringly solid institutional backing. If you're reasonably sure that hard and honest inquiry will be supported, regardless of where it leads, then you're free to inquire. (There's a difference between 'reasonably sure' and 'tenured,' but I'll leave it at that.) The current academic job market in most disciplines simply does not offer that kind of assurance. Grad students are routinely advised (I know I was) to pick a dissertation topic based on its marketability. The same is true in getting articles published – you want to pick something 'hot,' so the 'right' journals take your stuff. Marketability can mean faddism, or demographic specificity (the whole 'embody what you teach' part of identity politics strikes me as immoral in the extreme), or outright intellectual dishonesty.
I'm much more impressed by the folks who blow off the market demands and just do – assiduously – what they think is right. Part of my ongoing fascination with the blogosphere is that it's still evolving; the rules haven't calcified yet. This is not true in the rest of academe. At my academic discipline's annual conference, the 'community college' name on my nametag precludes me from being taken seriously. I was treated much more respectfully when I went as a grad student, since I had the R1 name on the tag back then. (The last time I went, I saw the facial expressions as people read my nametag. I would have been more politely received had it read “inmate” or “unhinged loner.”) In the blog world, some folks trade on already-established star credentials, but some have developed their own street cred through nothing more than their writing. Pity that the mainstream of the profession isn't like that.
It's supposed to be.
What I think I share with Bitch and Oso, even granting our obvious differences, is a strong sense that the traditional rules just don't work anymore. Unfortunately, the folks at the top of the pecking order are the ones most vested in those traditional rules, and therefore most blind to their failures. The “opinion leaders” are far behind reality.
My words of wisdom, such as they are: go ahead and break the rules. There isn't much payoff in playing by them anymore, and they certainly don't make sense intrinsically. Cross disciplinary boundaries; blog; select topics that are interesting to you; have a kid; have a life; move into and out of administration; contradict or ignore your advisor when he's wrong. The old rules about what you're supposed to do were developed in a world that doesn't exist anymore, and that isn't coming back.
My quest is to help rewrite the rules from the inside to make it possible for folks with passion and independent thought to find a real home in the academy. Progress is glacial – almost imperceptibly slow, but drastic over time – but that's okay. Like Oso, I'm not in this for the hit single. I'm in this for the duration. That may not be what I was supposed to do, but it's what I'm doing.
Your comment about flashes in the pan speaks to those who never really learn to operate beyond their grad school parameters of being a 'star student'. The rest of us know that is only the beginning. However, I have to say I have an administrator and senior colleague who are completely bowled over by someone who is a nice guy but has done very little in the way of being a department citizen. Their conclusion when he ran back to his home institution was that 'we couldn't keep him anyway' and, besides, Yale and Stanford wanted him. (I didn't know how to tell them Yale and Stanford would have had him if they really wanted him.)
So, it's a good message to give those who are wondering that your best course of action is to do what you think is right and it usually works out much better than what you're sometimes told should be the "correct path." I was told being a former high school teacher meant I wasn't the "right caliber" for a doctoral program in the humanities. Yet that same line item on my vitae has led to two tenure-track positions and my connections to this whole big wide world that exists apart from the ivory tower.
When looking for a next job, I had to remember the reason why I went for a PhD in the first place--which was to be competitive to teach in higher education. That is such a bad reason, ironically, to get a PhD, and it turns out I love research and writing, so it still was a good fit for me. But I really struggled with the sense that I should be aiming only for R1s, because of the external pressure that this direction constitutes success. I found a position that is a good fit for my expertise and interest, and yes, it is tenure track, but I'm certain that when I attend conferences it will generate similar looks as when I worked at a cc. The difference is that I made the right choice for me, and I'm the one who has to live my life.
This is my favorite blog to read every day. It gives me insight into the broader picture of higher education management from someone who carefully weighs out these issues. What higher education needs is smart people who are genuinely interested in the broader picture of higher education. If others in higher ed look at that as "failure," that speaks poorly of our commitment to education as a whole. (Maybe that goes without saying?)
The tendency to follow fads is partly because it seems safe, but it also reflects institutional pressures that will be more or less explicit. I teach Ph.D. students (in a very non-traditional, interdisciplinary program). The problem is that we tell graduate students to be part of a conversation, and the conversation is usually the current fad. My students get in trouble when they can't show recent journal scholarship on their topics. So the pressures are complicated.
I work in the study abroad office at a small university. I still get to work with students, and I still feel that I’m adding to their education. But I know that doesn’t count in the eyes of many of my former colleagues.
I have no idea where my career is going. I'm neither a failure nor a success in my academic profession: it's too soon to evaluate. But reading this post has caused me reflect that perhaps ~not~ being a fully-funded or favored graduate student helped me be creative, to think outside the box and be resourceful.
Funding might've made me conform more than was necessary. Being on the margins also allowed me to be more persistent in doing what I wanted - with the diss., in classes, etc. I had less to lose inside the establishment because I was less likely to disappoint key figures.
In sum, for active, reasonably intelligent enthusiasts in any field, I believe there is a way. It may take longer -- and involve more twists, turns, and money -- but you'll get there if you have a clear picture of where you want to be in the end. Vision matters.
A related point on the STEM+R1 side is the need to procure research funding to be successful in the long term (whether success is defined within tenure or renewable multi-year contracts). Funding agencies accept proposals on anything, but proposals on "fad" topics certainly seem to lead to higher funding success rates. This makes it very tempting to pursue fads, whether they are genuinely interesting or not. "Your proposal has been declined" gets old quickly.
Having done my MA and PhD at a traditional, old-fashioned, hierarchical European instution, I learned the hard way that you were supposed to act as you were told if you ever wanted to get anywhere. If I had wanted to make an academic career at that university (it still happens in Europe that people just stay their entire career at the institution where they got their BA, MA and PhD), then I would have had to play according to their rules. The old world you speak about is still very much in place there.
On the other hand, it was not an absolutely certain way to success: I have had collegues who did all they were supposed to do, and we're basically abused by the older professors, and then, at age 35 or so, get to hear there is no more place for them.
So indeed, I took my own conclusions, decided I wanted to go my own way and not play according to their rules, and accepted the fact that I would have to join the ranks of wandering scholars, roaming the world in search for post-doc funding, a year once in this country, another year in another country, maybe three years in yet another country, ... Still, I am my own man now, and I do believe it is better for me on a personal, professional and intellectual level (although not on a social or practical one).
I've been very open about my own unconventional career path with my colleagues. The reaction is mixed: half of them seem to feel sorry for me/vaguely disapproving, and the other half think it's the greatest idea since sliced bread. I somewhat regret the reactions of the first half, but I'm very proud of what I'm doing, and not talking about it would feel like being closeted---denying an essential part of who I am. To hell with that.
This is a big problem and strikes me as one of the big problems with going your own way.
I always go my own way and I always have. sometimes I'm glad for that. i think I'm far more interesting for it. the rest of the time, I think I made a huge fucking mess of my graduate career by following my instincts and ignoring everyone's advice. I don't think I was (or am) capable of doing it differently but at the moment I am keenly aware that there are no. fucking. jobs. for. my. specialization. and precious few that are open enough that I'd be a plausible candidate. My job prospects are limited to those few departments either looking to go in a new direction or young enough to be pressing the envelope.
a couple of years ago, someone told me that interdisciplinarity is all good and well in grad school but when you hit the market, everybody wants to know exactly where to categorize you. really far-ranging interdisciplinary gets you into a bit of a problem as far as the categories go. they want to see i's dotted, t's crossed, publications listed...not wild forays into other fields and intellectual experiments. Or, if you must do the former, make sure you still look pretty standard on paper.
Anyway, this is my angst. I could be totally wrong. and I guess what i'm saying is, I completely agree with you. that's the way I've done and continue to do things. At the same time, I know for a fact there aren't jobs for my area of specialization and I'm afraid I may have completely fucked my career before it even got started. We'll see.