October 30, 2003

A Happy Academic Responds to my Blog

These (and others along these lines) blogs are interesting to read because they make good points and observations about academia in the news, they have good links, and they are generally well-written. And it's not as if what many of these blogs are saying isn't true or at least potentially true-- more often than not, I agree with what I see in these spaces. But at the same time, these blogs bother me. For one thing, they too often move far too quickly from what I read as legitimate complaints to 'whining'-- and let me say that 'whining' is a word I'm not comfortable with here, but it's the only one I can come up with. I guess what I'm saying is they are telling a part of a story, one that, logically speaking, can only be a part of the story.

-- Steven D. Krause, "Steve the Happy Academic, Part I"

Since Mr. Krause is a professor of English with a PhD in composition and rhetoric, I'm rather surprised to read that "whining" is the only term he can come up with to characterize my writing on this blog. Frankly, I think I'm more inclined to rant than to whine. But he's quite right that this weblog focuses on some aspects of academia, while leaving other aspects to be covered by other academic bloggers.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at October 30, 2003 11:00 AM

The market for weblogs should be diverse; there's as much value in a blog about adjunctification as in a blog about financial aid or a blog about PC in academia, or ... Hopefully, the variations are limitless. Let a thousand blogs bloom.

I think the word "lamenting" would have substituted for "whining". My wife used to have a fifteen minute period before bedtime we would call "Nightly Laments" where you could curse the fates. You were limited to the 15. Calling it whining was considered coarse, and lead the complainer to the couch-gulag.

Posted by: kb at October 30, 2003 11:55 AM

Yes, I thought "whining" was rather lame, myself, especially since the possibilities are so plentiful . . . decrying, poking, illuminating, revealing, voicing . . . .

We all know about the perks in academia. How nice for him that he has a comfortable position and doesn't have to whine about it. I can't believe all he has to whine about is other people's whining . . . . he's probably deluding himself.

I noticed ^Happy^ hasn't posted anything since September 18 -- maybe he's not so happy after all.

Posted by: Academy Girl at October 30, 2003 12:21 PM

Buried at the bottom of this guy's "happy happy, joy joy" points is the most important one: He's been lucky. He got a good tenure-track gig, when most of us didn't. That should have been his first and only point, end of story.

Posted by: Kevin Walzer at October 30, 2003 12:22 PM

Academy Girl,

He has a few blogs, he's been posting here.

Posted by: ogged at October 30, 2003 12:31 PM

The Happy Academic really doesn't get why there are blogs such as this one, does he? Blogs like Invisible Adjunct exist because until very recently, openly discussing the negative aspects of graduate programs and a career in academia was considered impolite and inappropriate in many circles, and had to be done furtively, if at all; and because there's almost no real "career counseling" in academia.

Anyone can look at the life of a tenured prof at a college university and see that, yeah, hey, it's not a bad life. But how does one get there? What are the risks? What are the sacrifices? Who's cut out for the life and who isn't? What's the ratio of job seekers to jobs?

Thanks to the Web in general and blogs in particular, aspiring academics now know to ask these questions--and where to find answers. They have a much more broad view of what to expect when they send out those grad-school applications, and if they decide to can the whole endeavor halfway through, they can find an online community of like-minded folk who know that despite the anxiety and angst and the self-esteem that's wanly trying to claw its way out of a shallow grave, there is, in fact, a whole big world of opportunity out there.

They--we--also find that our experience in academia is far more common than that of the people who "succeeded." Very little whining accompanies that revelation.

I'm glad Mr. Krause is happy in his job, but it's his lack of understanding that he's an *exception* rather than the rule that makes him part of the vast, interconnected morass of dysfunctions that's bogging down academia. (It's the same sort of myopia that makes a person evaluate the fitness of the national economy based on whether or not he personally has a job.) Mr. Krause's happiness in his field doesn't change the objective reality that's evident in hiring figures, the high number of starving adjuncts, the exploitation of grad students, and dozens of other well-documented facts. If these blogs help grad students understand that they're more likely to become an "invisible adjunct" than a Steven Krause, they're well serving many people that professionals in the field simply are not.

Posted by: J.V.C. at October 30, 2003 02:25 PM

What J.V.C. said.

But furthermore: isn't Krause missing the dog-bites-man aspect to his comment? So, he writes, IA (emphasis on the A-as-in-Adjunct) isn't so happy in academe; Krause, with a tenure-track job, is very happy. Well, duh. And yet he doesn't quite get this point, as evidenced by this comment: "Oddly, it might be more popular and socially acceptable for me to post something about how unhappy I am." No, no, Mr. Krause. You see, many people who post to IA tell rather negative stories about their experiences in academe because THEY DON'T HAVE TENURE-TRACK JOBS, not because they find it "popular and socially acceptable" to be unhappy. So when he writes, "I guess what I'm saying is they are telling a part of a story, one that, logically speaking, can only be a part of the story," the proper response is that they are telling THEIR story, not Steven D. Krause's or anyone else's. Does he expect IA to write about how wonderful it is to have an endowed chair at Harvard?

The stories told on this blog, and the arguments made here, are important because they tell some unpleasant and hard truths about the world of academe -- stories often neglected in Chronicle happy-time essays -- that should give pause to everyone who cares about the American university, even those who happen to have been well-treated by that institution. I suppose I have even more to be happy about than Krause, since I am a tenured full professor at a highly selective liberal arts college. But while I'm pleased with my own situation I'm NOT happy with the way the American university does its business -- largely because I play a role in my institution that keeps me in regular contact with younger faculty, and I see what it does to people who don't have as much working in their favor as I did. Krause says he doesn't want to gloat, but I hear some of that tone in his post, and it's not pleasant.

Posted by: Ayjay at October 30, 2003 03:23 PM

One thing, though: The primary hobby of every teacher I've ever known—from kindergarten teachers (incl. Mom) through primary school (incl. Grandma and two aunts) with a detour through special ed (Uncle Bill) and all the way up through university (the profs I work for now) is bitching about how hard it is to be a teacher. They bitch about politics, law, the union, the administrators, the staff, and above all the students and their parents.

I don't say that to downplay the fact that being a teacher is God damned tough and getting tougher. I know, thank you. I just say it to point up an odd little sociological-esque factoid thingy I notice about the profession.

Other professions whose exponents I have had the pleasure and privilege to be close to—psychotherapy, medicine, nursing, occupational therapy, lawyering, business consulting, private investigations—don't spend half as much time and energy on profession-related bitchery as do teachers. And it's not like they have easier jobs. What is the difference? Any thoughts?

The only people worse about it are members of the military. I wonder if that says anything.

Posted by: Luis at October 30, 2003 04:12 PM

I've read what he's written, and I really don't see how you could find it offensive. The situation he describes about the English job market is not, to my knowledge, applicable to history.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 30, 2003 04:16 PM

What J.V.C. and Ayjay both said.

I find it very odd to think that any one person's blog could tell more than "one part of the story" about the state of academia. I also find it odd that Mr. Krause doesn't seem to apply that logic to his own blog; it's not as if he's telling the story from an omniscient point of view any more than we "whiners" are.

And J.V.C. is right to point out that until recently, some of these topics were hardly considered "popular and socially acceptable" to raise in academic circles. Blogs like IA's, I would say, are performing a valuable service by allowing people from all over to join in a kind of conversation about academia that they may not be able to have in their home departments.

Posted by: Amanda at October 30, 2003 04:24 PM

But Chun -- I thought you found everything offensive. In fact, I count on you to do so. My world is reeling. . . .

Posted by: Ayjay at October 30, 2003 04:29 PM

I think it's easy to forget. I'm a very recently tenured prof in the sciences, and I consider myself VERY lucky. But I also remember what a long, painful struggle it has been: two long post-docs, a previous position in which I did not get tenure, and now finally this one. My wife is also an academic, and is suffering now with that terrible problem, that while it is extremely unlikely to get one tenure-track position, it's even more ridiculously improbable for both members of a couple to get one in anywhere near the same place.

Posted by: PZ Myers at October 30, 2003 05:12 PM

I agree with KB: "Lamenting" is a much better word choice. Besides the fact that "whining" is something I tend to associate with children, "lament" has the connotations of loss, of mourning, and of melancholy. Lament it is.

Anyway, I more or less agree with the comments here. They are all legitimate, and they are all things I'm most certainly familiar with. It's difficult to be "positive" and not sound like someone who is "gloating," and my apologies if that is how I came across. All I was trying to suggest is when I read a lot of the "lamenting" about the academic world, I tend to think to myself "it beats the way I felt when I had a real job" and/or "your academic results will vary considerably, based on field of study, institution, department, etc., etc." It's not that I am trying to suggest, as I sense my colleague Ayjay is implying, that the stories told here and the other sites I mentioned are somehow irrelevant. Far from it. It's just that my story is different. This is why I posted it on my own blog. This, as I understand it, is one of the reasons why people write in blog space in the first place.

BTW, as someone who is invested in composition and rhetoric, I am painfully aware of the problems of adjunct and part-time faculty. My department employs about 50 people part-time to teach first year composition courses, and another 20 or so people are considered "full-time lecturers," a non-tenure track position that is better than being part-time because of benefits and union protection, but not as secure or "comfortable" as tenure-track faculty. My department is typical of a middle-to-large public university in the US in that we staff well over 100 sections of first year writing classes a semester, and only a handful of them are taught by tenure-track faculty.

This is obviously a huge systemic problem that I'm not going to go into here in great detail, and, for those of you not familiar with the sorts of things that composition and rhetoric scholars talk about, trying to resolve this problem is one of the major discussions of the field. But clearly, this situation is complicated. I'm not a writing program administrator, but my personal take on it is we ought to make first year composition an elective and not a requirement, we ought to only offer as many sections as we can ethically staff, and we ought to encourage what is known as "writing (or communicating) across the curriculum" so that writing can be addressed in context and within students' majors.

In any event, I'm not sure to what extent I am, as my colleague JVC would suggest, "the *exception* rather than the rule that makes him part of the vast, interconnected morass of dysfunctions that's bogging down academia." I prefer to think of myself as functional, for one thing. It seems to me that it depends a lot on your field of study, and my field happens to be a fairly employable one. It is not as employable as some fields-- business immediately comes to mind, as does criminology-- and it is certainly more employable than other fields-- literature is the example I am most familiar with. Like I said, experiences vary a lot, and like I also said, that's why I wrote what I wrote on my blog.

Posted by: Steven D. Krause at October 30, 2003 05:17 PM

I'm curious, how widely known is it that composition and rhetoric is a more employable field than literature?

I'm also a happily employed academic (although in a full-time research position only loosely affiliated with university), and it seems to me that keeping a mind to the market when selecting a specialty is sensible advice. But I know that in my own discipline (economics) that information on which specialities had best chances for employment and high salaries was not easily obtained, and I learned it only slowly throughout my graduate career. Most of that learning occured while I was well into my own research.

Oh, and IA certainly does not whine. The increasing 'adjunctification' of academic jobs is an important issue. The fact that there are still nice tenure track jobs ignores the trend - they are increasingly threatened by other forces. It may be that the problem is wholey a supply glut created by poor information about job prospects in the humanities, but I'm not convinced, in economics, since there are no adjuncts to be had, class sizes are expanding at rapid pace. In the three years I taught at university, my class size increased from 100 to 500 students, and even our upper division courses had 90 students in them. And we still aren't hiring.

Posted by: Matilde at October 30, 2003 06:03 PM

In regard to Steven Krause's admirably un-offended reply to our meditations, I would just add that I don't quarrel at all with his expressing satisfaction about his career -- especially on his own blog! It was his setting of those comments in the context of being "bothered" by blogs like IA and Household Opera that, well, "bothered" me.

Posted by: Ayjay at October 30, 2003 06:40 PM

Now, here I've been faithfully returning to his happyacademic.blogspot.com blog waiting for the next installment, and he's been cheating on us all over at http://people.emich.edu/skrause/blog/

Thanks for the link (I think) to "Mr. Lucky."

Posted by: Academy Girl at October 30, 2003 06:43 PM

Steven, thanks for your response to my comments.

I stand by my claim that you're an exception. Untold numbers of grad students aspire to have your job and your career; only a small number of them will ever have it, or will ever even come close. You are *literally* exceptional.

I intended no sarcasm when I said I was pleased to see that you're happy and love your job. If you're as positive in your classroom as you are on your blog, then you likely have many satisfied students. So I didn't mean to imply that you're *personally* dysfunctional, but I really don't think you understand the dysfunction and human misery in the lower professional rungs. It embitters thousands of people every year--but it's a problem that could be avoided if a few more tenured humanities profs said to some of their students a bit more often, "You know, you may wish to re-think going to graduate school. Have you looked at the numbers? Perhaps you should speak to some of our department adjuncts about their salaries and lifestyles."

Many students won't listen. But a few will--and that will make life easier for them, and for everyone.

Steven, your story is definitely worth telling; people need to know that there are success stories in academia. But a bright-eyed first-semester grad student also needs to know, as I said before, that he or she is more likely to become an invisible adjunct than to become you.

And before blogs, very few people knew that; in fact, as recently as the late-1990s, my tenured mentors were still spinning optimistic tales about the supposedly impending "professor shortage" in the humanities! Most professors, once they're tenured, know little or nothing about what it's like to be a job-seeker or an adjunct--even though those same professors are the closest thing to a professional advisor most aspiring grad students will ever have. Meanwhile, the profession is flooded with more talent than it can handle, and it keeps churning out more, oblivious. Quite simply, the field does not know itself.

It may seem like a small thing for you to keep some of these issues in mind when you advise students about graduate school, but if you do, I guarantee you that you will be doing the field an enormous favor.

Posted by: J.V.C. at October 30, 2003 06:57 PM

Luis, as someone who came from the military to academia (if it hadn't been for the GI Bill, I wouldn't have the good fortune to be working on my dissertation now), I'll second your comment re the amount of griping in the professions: soldiers (and sailors/airmen/marines as well, I'm sure) are the only workers I've known who complain more than teachers. But see, they got reason to complain, I think. I mean, lawyers and bankers don't get deployed for years at a time and have to live and sleep and eat (and get shot at) with the same people they work with 24/7. And I think that teaching is fundamentally different from some other professions in the way it can expand (like a gas, if I might use an unfortunate analogy) to fill one's available time. Most folks I know in other professions are pretty good about leaving work at work. But for academics (at least in English and the field I share with Steven, Rhet/Comp), there are always more papers, more lesson plans, more that one could be doing, as folks who follow Cindy at Making Contact or Rachael at Blue or Amanda at Household Opera know quite well. In fact, I think I'd agree with you to the point of saying that there seems to be something very seductive about self-martyring discourse -- but that doesn't mean that teaching ain't tough. (At the same time, as a graduate student and someone with his own sections of first-year composition to teach, I'll say I'm in Rhet/Comp because I love the teaching and it's the most intensely -- though of course not monetarily -- rewarding thing I've ever done, and in that way maybe I line up with Steven.)

And for the high school teachers I know, the angry parents *are* the worst component; an unending stream of people who simply *know* that their children are better than everybody else's, and who will immediately presume that if Junior gets a B, the teacher is incompetent. I don't think any other profession has to deal with second-guessing of your abilities and credentials in the way that teaching does: many sneer at those who would represent themselves in court, but don't think twice of home-schooling their own children. So, Luis, I guess I'd say that the differences to me seem rather significant. I'm sure others' mileage may vary.

And, as an aside -- Matilde, in English at least it seems to be well-known that rhet/comp is currently far more employable a field than literature. Kinda makes sense if you think about the unfortunate growing vocationalization/commodification of higher ed: people are thinking more and more that there's no "payoff" with a literature degree, but they still gotta write papers for their other classes. (And the rhet/comp as service discipline construction is itself really problematic, but that's a whole nother argument.)

Posted by: Mike at October 30, 2003 07:49 PM

"The unhappy man lives in a different world than the happy man" -- Wittgenstein. W. wasn't being snarky or New Age when he said that.

I friend of mine once told me about a Chinese movie called something like "If I were only real" or something like that. A smart guy goes to a different province of China pretending to be the son of a late big shot high-level cadre. Doors open for him, things go wonderfully, long-lost old friends of his supposed father embrace him with open arms, he gets a great job, he's about to be married, etc., etc., and then a letter comes in the mail and he's ruined forever. (Something like that, I didn't see the movie).

It's like the medieval imposters pretending to be noblemen, or people today wishing they had that green card (or citizenship). What you really are and can do won't be important until the paperwork is right.

Success is everything in our world, and almost everyone believes in it, but it still can be arbitrary. Elsewhere in the world and in other periods of history, fate, nefarious conspiracies, and the evil eye could be blamed, but we're all optimists around here and we all believe in justice. And that's what our problem is.

Posted by: Zizka at October 30, 2003 07:57 PM

Steven, I understand your wanting to offer a different perspective on the happiness question. But I was rather puzzled to see that my blog was one of the ones you see veering into whining (or lamentation, which is a term I also prefer). When I write about leaving academia, I'm writing about the possibility of not becoming an unhappy professor. I don't see myself as whining about academia so much as trying to think up ways to move away from the unhappy-making aspects of it. (Unhappy-making for me, not necessarily for you.) I can see why you might read that as lamentation, but I don't always think of it that way. Object-lesson in the gaps between authorial intention and reader response, I suppose.

Mike, you're absolutely right about teaching responsibilities and their gaseous expansion into all available time. [looking guiltily at stack of papers waiting to be graded this weekend, whistling, looking away] And I, too, have heard that angry parents are the worst part of high school teaching. If the griping within my own social circle is any indication, the kids with angry parents grow up to be the college students who panic and demand a grade change when they get a B.

Zizka, are you thinking of The Return of Martin Guerre? I think there could be a clever movie takeoff: a professor vanishes and then returns years later, more published, more collegial, and better-versed in the latest scholarship. Then s/he turns out to be an impostor who was never hired for the job in the first place. I wonder if Gerard Depardieu could be convinced to star in it.

Posted by: Amanda at October 31, 2003 12:54 AM

As I mentioned on an earlier thread, my alma-mater did have an imposter professor for 10-20 years. No PhD, maybe no BA. A lazy teacher who hit on all the cute female students. My alma mater had a lot of lazy students, so there was a symbiosis, serendipity, harmonic convergence, or some other kind of New Age harmony involved. Everyone was happy.

Martin Guerre sounds like the same thing, but it WAS a Chinese movie.

Posted by: Zizka at October 31, 2003 10:52 AM

IA: I just want to add that I think your site does serve a real purpose. Academia can be extremely isolating and there should be more places where people can write about their concerns. I wish that your site had existed when I was teaching and contemplating leaving academia!

Posted by: Hana at October 31, 2003 11:32 AM

"Whining" is indeed an inappropriate term for a serious look at adjunctification, but "lamenting", while certainly much better than whining, seems to miss the combination of anger and resignation that I feel. How about "deploring"? Ah, reflecting upon and civilly debating the precise use of the English language; its all that I have left these days.

Posted by: Chad at October 31, 2003 12:59 PM

I got a PhD in Dutch at a major U.S. university and am still looking for a meaningful tenure-track position. It's a tough field to get a foothold in these days.

Posted by: Garth at October 31, 2003 01:13 PM

I was struck by this remark at the blog in question: "But for me, being an adjunct college teacher was never my main source of employment, and I didn't have any sense that being an adjunct would somehow lead to a full-time and permanent teaching job ... but I think that those folks who are trying to piece together a full-time teaching experience by picking up a few sections at several different schools are making a mistake."

Wow, do you think so? Thanks for that bit of ... advice.

If this guy is indeed the "happy academic," then he is proof positive that ignorance is bliss -- err, happiness, in this case.

And now, he can take his happy wife (a lecturer he says) and his happy kid, and [they can whistle a happy tune, maybe?]


Edited by IA to conform to weblog posting policies.

Posted by: Chris at November 1, 2003 11:50 AM

Matilde, post #13: yes, amongst grad. students and the professions as a whole, it is fairly widely recognized that rhet/comp jobs are more plentiful than lit. jobs. That said, there is still a tremendous imbalance in the ratio of full-time tenure-track and full-time multi-year (5?) renewable positions, versus either adjunct and/or one-year discretionary positions.

A large state Univ. may have, say, 5 or 6 either tenure track or full-time multi-year renewable faculty members, but they also will have literally 100 - 150 individuals cobbled together as one-year hires, adjuncts, and grad. students.

In other words, going into Rhet/Comp is not a sure thing. The odds may be better than lit., but they're by no means the proverbial sure thing.

And the real down side to these kinds of jobs is that no matter how it gets spun -- by the increasingly professionalized Rhet/Comp people thmeselves -- the job is essentially that of a 13th grade english teacher.

Still, I do agree with the happy idiot when he says that it beats working in "Dilbert-land." But the best thing about it is December/January, and June, July, and August.

Posted by: Chris at November 1, 2003 12:06 PM

Chris, as much as I consistently value your perspective and insight, I think this is an issue where our temperaments and views on the value of teaching first-year comp are very, very distant.

So I'll ask: first, in what ways is a job teaching first-year composition fundamentally equivalent to teaching high school English? Second, it sounds as if your characterization is pejorative: what do you see as the problems with teaching high-school English?

I also wonder how relevant Chris's characterization might be to other disciplines: if you're an adjunct hired to help out with a 100-level history section, are you just doing 13th grade social studies? What if you're a tenure track professor teaching that same 100-level history section? What about psychology? Physics? Biology? German?

Posted by: Mike at November 1, 2003 06:11 PM


In fact, I doubt my characterization of Eng. Comp is relevant to the other disciplines you mentioned. The reason is that intro-level courses in most other disciplines place more of a premium on actual content, whereas the exigencies of freshman writing tend to force a disporportionate degree of attention to issues of grammar, form, mechanics.

On an almost daily basis my students force me to present lengthy explanations about why phrases such as 'Is so-and-so's theory a good way to go? I don't think so, duhh' or 'I think so-and-so should get with it, and change his/her lame ideas' are not appropriate phrasings for academic writing. (yes, they're fine for chatty opinion pieces in journalistic writing, but not in academic writing -- and teaching them to be able to write academic essays in whatever discipline they may enter is the job, after all).

And on top of having to explain and justify why these phrasings are too informal, and thus inappropriate for academic writing, my students repeatedly confront me with 'but my high school english teacher said that was fine ...' To this I sigh, sometimes I wince, and I try to patiently explain why they need to adopt both a more formal locution (though they don't know that word), and also strive for a more critical and in-depth consideration of the issue/topic at hand.

Then there is the issue of the rag-bag of sentences that comprise their idea of what a paragraph is or should be. You know, those paragraphs in which each sentence after the first sentence of the paragraph has little to nothing to do with it -- i.e. a string of sentences, each of which is in fact a topic sentence for a new paragraph. At this point, I'm teahcing high school english. Or, rather, I'm functioning as a remedial clearing house correcting the errors of exhausted, over-worked, and probably burnt-out high school teachers.

Posted by: Chris at November 2, 2003 10:10 AM

In an effort to procrastinate, I’d like to respond to some of the comments made by my colleague Chris in the previous posts.

* For the most part, I will leave my wife out of all this, but there are two things about her academic career that are germane to this discussion. First, her PhD work was in literature (contemporary drama, to be more accurate), which is the main reason why I am the one with the tenure-track job and she is the one that is a lecturer. She is far smarter and more qualified than I am, but we are again back to the issues of supply and demand. Second, being a “lecturer” at Eastern Michigan University is not the same thing as being a “part-time adjunct.” The position is not a tenure-track one, the teaching load is higher, and lecturers are not paid as well as faculty. However, lecturers are on full-time contracts renewable every year, they receive year-round benefits (full medical and dental), and the university contributes to TIAA-CREF. Granted, this is a “two tier” (and with part-timers thrown into the mix, “three-tier”) system, but I believe it is reasonably humane relative to other colleges and university.

If you are wondering how this system came to be at EMU, the answer is both simple and not so simple: the lecturers, like the faculty at EMU, formed a union. However, it took literally twenty years of hard work and trips to court to make it happen.

* I thank Chris for his recognition of my bliss and happiness, regardless of the view that it is my ignorance that led to this state of affairs. And I am glad that Chris seems to find my thoughts that “folks who are trying to piece together a full-time teaching experience by picking up a few sections at several different schools are making a mistake” obvious. Sadly, my experience has been that an alarming number of my part-time colleagues have not realized this supposedly obvious advice yet. I have many colleagues at EMU who are teaching part-time at two, three, or even four different universities and community colleges. In my opinion, most of these folks would be better off if they sought full-time “real world” employment and stayed in academia by teaching a class or two on the side.

* The non-tenure-track and/or other shorter-term positions in composition and rhetoric that Chris speaks of are almost always filled with people whose PhD work was in some variety of literature as opposed to composition and rhetoric. There are a few different reasons for this, but I think the primary one is people who have PhDs in composition and rhetoric tend to get full-time and tenure-track positions.

* Chris writes: “In other words, going into Rhet/Comp is not a sure thing. The odds may be better than lit., but they're by no means the proverbial sure thing.” I thank Chris for this valuable insight, though I have to wonder, what is the proverbial sure thing? Other than death and taxes, are there any “sure things” with any aspect of life?

* Finally, Chris writes: “And the real down side to these kinds of jobs is that no matter how it gets spun -- by the increasingly professionalized Rhet/Comp people thmeselves (sic) -- the job is essentially that of a 13th grade english (sic) teacher.” This observation, combined with the previous ones, makes me wonder if Chris and I are working in the same profession or even on the same planet.

I like teaching first year composition, which is one of the main reasons why I went into this field in the first place. One of the points I raised on my blog was in order to be a “happy academic,” one must actually like both teaching and scholarship. Chris’ comment “the best thing about it is December/January, and June, July, and August” leads me to believe that the most valuable thing my colleague finds about the profession is the time away from it. If this is the case, I would encourage Chris to pursue a career in a locale such as Key West as a “beach bum,” or perhaps as a retiree.

In any event, I don’t teach first year composition often any more, and I haven’t taught it much since I began my first tenure-track position in 1996. I am teaching one section this semester, mainly because I asked to teach a section of it, but first year composition is not part of my regular schedule. The English department at EMU is very large (around 50 faculty members), and because of this, faculty teach almost exclusively in their specializations. Most of my teaching involves advanced writing classes populated with English majors and writing minors, and also graduate seminars in our MA programs in the teaching of writing and technical writing. My first position was at Southern Oregon University, which had a comparatively small English department of about 13 faculty and no graduate programs. In this environment, faculty routinely taught outside of their specializations. In my two years there, I taught first year writing and advanced writing classes of course, but I also taught world literature, literary theory, and “film as literature” classes. Judging from the conversations I have with friends and colleagues around the country, my experiences are not unique.

What I’m getting at is this: as odd as it sounds, most composition and rhetoric specialists who have tenure-track positions at colleges and universities don’t actually teach a lot of first year composition. Rather, most composition and rhetoric specialists have positions like the one I have (as a “writing specialist” teaching advanced classes), like the one I had in Oregon (where they are a “generalist” as much as they are a writing teacher), or they are administrators, supervising large first year composition programs, writing centers, university-wide writing across the curriculum initiatives, and so forth. The only exception I can think of is those who have tenure-track positions at community colleges.

I suspect this view of the profession will do little to convince Chris, though. My colleague will certainly view this as simply more “spin” by just another one of those 13th grade teachers. I can’t recall who originally said it, but you can’t change beliefs with the facts.

I have probably said too much here, but there you have it. And alas, I now must engage in one of the few “unhappy” parts of being an academic, grading.

Posted by: Steven D. Krause at November 2, 2003 10:19 AM

As a full-time basic writing and composition prof at a community college (gee, what does that make me, something lower than a 13th grade English teacher?), I'd just like to say that I find the contempt for freshman English students evidenced in Chris's post to be really disturbing.

Believe it or not, some of choose this area of our profession because we like it, and we like and respect the students we encounter.

Posted by: cindy at November 2, 2003 12:35 PM

That should be some of *us*. No doubt all that bad freshman writing I read is having an effect ;-)

Posted by: cindy at November 2, 2003 12:38 PM

Happy A. -- my non-academic friends, who in fact make up around 95% of my friends, make between $35k at the low end to $85k at the high end -- and one earns $120k, though she admits she is over paid. Each of them, when asked, says of their job (and I have asked) 'it's okay', 'it doesn't suck', and 'I can live with it'. None have ever said 'it's wonderful' or 'I just love it'. And most all of them explain that their jobs are 'dull', 'boring', tedious', or some variety thereof. Moreover, when asked, they explain that they do whatever they do for 1. the pay check; 2. the medical benefits; 3. the retirement funds. They also admit, to quote a song from the '80's, that they are all 'working for the weekend'. And, when asked if they could retire now, every single one says they would do it in a heart beat. Some add that they would then turn to something that paid significantly less, but was infinitely more rewarding.

Each of these individuals get a 2-3week vacation per year, plus 10 sick/personal days. Now, in any given year I make between $40k to $50k cobbling together one-year full-time and adjunct gigs around town. In other words, substantially less than many of my friends. However, I get something they don't; namely, 4.5 to 5 months off per year. So, where they get 2-3 weeks to indulge in whatever they wish, I get nearly 20 weeks to engage in my passions, which include gardening (believe it or not), baseball (playing, watching, discussing), working out, cooking, tending to my jazz collection, and whatever else strikes my fancy.

Do I have it better than my friends? I don't know. They make more money than I do (in several cases), and they certainly have more security than I do, but I get nearly ten times more time off than they do. Granted, what I endure for this freedom is the daily/weekly grind of teaching kids what they were supposed to have learned in high school.

In the end, though, how is this bad? How does this all add up to a clear sign that I am not fit to be teahcing these kids? I say what my non-acedemically employed friends say about their jobs: it doesn't suck, I can deal, and I get something for it -- time off.

I admit, I would love more money, and even more than the income, I would love more security. But alas, my training and background make me qualified for ... Borders ('would you like that in hard back or paper?'), so here I am.

And Cindy, I don't have contempt for my students -- except for the 30% or so who just don't give a sh*t. The lions share of my contempt is saved for the culture and its middle-brow values that handicap these kids from the outset, secondary school systems, and unqualified teachers who give students A's and B's for the kinds of papers I receive for roughly the first 2/3rds of the semester every year.

Posted by: Chris at November 2, 2003 02:30 PM

This has been fascinating.

I've taught a little here and there, as something that has come up in my career, and have been interested in trying to move past the classic adjunct work I've done (or not-so-classic, last two classes I taught were to post graduate students).

Had a friend starting a program who asked me to help out and teach as she gets it started ...

Boy, it looks grim, and I have every reason to believe that it is as grim as it looks.

But, "I thank Chris for his recognition of my bliss and happiness, regardless of the view that it is my ignorance that led to this state of affairs. And I am glad that Chris seems to find my thoughts that “folks who are trying to piece together a full-time teaching experience by picking up a few sections at several different schools are making a mistake” obvious. Sadly, my experience has been that an alarming number of my part-time colleagues have not realized this supposedly obvious advice yet. I have many colleagues at EMU who are teaching part-time at two, three, or even four different universities and community colleges. In my opinion, most of these folks would be better off if they sought full-time “real world” employment and stayed in academia by teaching a class or two on the side." -- that is exactly what the full-time adjuncts I knew were doing -- expecting it to lead somewhere.

As I understand it now, the process of adjunctive teaching dooms one to not make it on to the tenure track. That is dismaying.

I don't know what else to say.

Posted by: Steve at November 2, 2003 07:19 PM

This blog has made for some great reading in what has otherwise been a cold a wet Halloween and Day of the Dead.

I have thought about going on to get a PhD but the comments on this blog may make me think otherwise.

The comments about the 13 grader English teacher were great, and as a veteran high school English teacher, I know the students lack an almost unimaginable amount of knowledge and know how. And with the Fed Govt's emphasis--I should shall obsession--with standards and test scores, you can probably count on more students who are test savvy but who write less.

Anyway, this blog could clearly be a great vehicle for reflection and communication--what is so lacking among high school teachers.

One last comment: some comments on this blog seem to point to a division between the haves and have nots. I just want to ask: who is the real enemy here? Some have chosen to attack a tenured professor for his comments. But who ultimately is responsible for keeping adjuncts down?? I think a better target might be the institutions who abuse adjunct profs.

Perhaps most importantly in all this, where is the union? I know CTA was trying to get legislation through to protect part-time community college profs.

No, I don't think this site is about whining; nor do I think it is about attacking tenured profs who got lucky. Maybe I am still an idealist (even after working for the NEA) but when educators complain and take action, sooner or later, something gets done. And the reason is that no one else has the patience or vision to teacher our twelve or thirteen graders--and no Forbes 500 would do it for what you guys get paid. Who says blogs are senseless?
Thanks, Joel.

Posted by: Joel Murphy at November 4, 2003 12:14 AM

Hi -- This is the "Happy Academic"'s wife speaking. The last few posts seem to really point to the larger problem, which is the *system* (not--as some people seem to imply--my happy husband, who really does generally enjoy everything about life. He's from the Midwest :-) ). The lastest issue of _On Campus_, a magazine put out by our Union, pointed to the alarming trend at institutions all over the country that full-time positions are, more and more, being replaced with part-time positions. About 43 percent of all classes are now being taught by part-timers. At our institution, that means that an individual is paid $2,400 to teach a semester-long 3-credit course. These part-timers receive no benefits and no guarantees they will be re-hired. All part-timers in our department have at least a Masters and some have PhDs in Literature. Universities have no trouble finding people to take these jobs and the institutions *take advantage* of this.

But, here's the problem: when I wanted to get my PhD in Lit, I was directly told that I would not be able to find a job, and I said to myself, "Oh, that doesn't apply to me." Now, I tell my students who want to go onto to grad school in Lit, "No! don't do it!" and they respond that they know they won't get a job, but that they "love literature" and want to study it anyway. We "love literature" so much that we end up being exploited by institutions who count on us to love it so much that we'll "Teach for food."

Not to get too Marxy on you here, but the answer is to Unionize. Full-time lecturers here (after years of struggle and court battles with a reluctant and hostile administration) formed a Union three years ago and our lot is much better. We're working to get the part-timers included in this. The slogan organizers here used for years was, "Too professional to be Unorganized."


Posted by: Annette at November 7, 2003 12:39 PM