Thursday, January 18, 2007

Executive Vice President of Close Reading

In catching up with grad school and conference friends this winter--whether over email or in person at the MLA--I've mentioned several times how unremarkable, how easy, I've found the transition into a tenure-track job to be.

And in most ways this is entirely true. Unlike some of my friends who are also in their first year on the tenure-track, I've been moving away from grad school for a long time now. I left Grad School City at the end of my fourth year, and consequently wasn't around campus for most of the last two years that I was enrolled (my fifth year I was on fellowship and my sixth I commuted in just twice a week to teach one class). I also had a part-time office job for all six years, working an average of 14 hours a week, and I consider this to have been good preparation for all the paperwork and administrative nonsense that comes with a t-t job. And then last year I was a full-time lecturer teaching a 3-4 load, which means that I got used to teaching--and to thinking of myself as a teacher--in a hurry.

So, as I say, it makes sense that this transition is easier for me than for people who went on the market early, with little teaching experience, and got jobs straight away; it also makes sense that I'm happier and more comfortable in this new role than those people who really, really liked grad school. In case it isn't clear yet, I wasn't one of those people. In theory, grad school was great, and in theory I liked everything I was doing--being around smart, fun people, taking interesting classes, etc. I was well-trained, I liked my teaching and my research, and I received more or less adequate support. But in practice? I was unhappy on nearly a daily basis. (Grad School, I'm sorry: it wasn't you. It was me.)

But if the transition has been easy, it's still been a transition, and in no way more shockingly than this: suddenly, I'm important. I'm in charge of things. I matter.

That's something that grad school and even visiting positions don't fully prepare one for. One minute, you're being infantilized by your institution, left in the dark about the workings of the department, and given minimal control over your teaching. The next, you're on committees, you're being asked for your input on a thousand things, and you're the most important person (at least for three hours a week) in the lives of your 40 or 60 or 80 students.

One minute, you're convinced you'll never get a job, that your research is crap, that you'll be eating ramen for dinner for the rest of your life (and still be in debt)--and when you say you're a student, people look at 30-year-old you with pity. The next minute, you have a good retirement plan, a doctor with a plush suburban office, and your realtor and mechanic consider you a person of status (after all, you're "a professor at the university!").

In other words, at age 30 or 35 or whenever you get the damn job, it's as if you suddenly vault from a decade of being 23 (entry-level job, little direction, little control) into having the sort of life that most of your friends have. If we'd gone into law or business, by now we'd be managers or partners or Vice Presidents of Whatever. We'd have long since grown accustomed to being in charge, being taken seriously, and being confident in our decisions.

But in my experience, these aren't things we're really prepared for in grad school. Sure, we build skills, becoming better and more assured teachers, researchers, and presenters, and most of us do come to feel in our later years that we have at least a toehold in the profession. But there's still a big psychological gulf between being a sixth- or seventh-year graduate student, however accomplished--or even a Ph.D. in a nice visiting position or a multi-year lecturer--and being made to feel an essential part of one's department and institution.

It is, as I say, more a psychological adjustment than a real one, but let's be honest: it's not only psychological. Our profession treats us differently once we have a "real" job. I've been at Regional U for four and a half months, in which time nothing new of mine has come out in print and I've presented at no conferences. I'm not at a big-name school. And yet in those four months, four different publishers or publications have contacted me to review manuscripts or to write book reviews for them. Call me cynical, but I'm disinclined to believe that more than one of them would have contacted me had I still been a lecturer.

So although it's probably no great surprise why I'm happy in my new position--happier than I've been for at least eight years--I'm also angry that it's taken this long for me even to start to feel like an adult again. Or to be treated like an adult. I'm not sure where to direct that anger, but there it is.


Ancrene Wiseass said...

The infantilization is definitely one of the worst few things about grad school. I'm angry about it, too, and I don't blame you at all for still being angry about it. I think that makes perfect sense.

negativecapability said...

I am so, so jealous (but in a happy-for-you way :).

I am not happy in grad school. It's exactly as you describe - in theory, I'm doing what I want, but on a daily basis, I'm just...not happy. It's because I'm not 23 anymore and I'm tired of feeling like I still am and that there's not much I can do about that at the moment.

Ianqui said...

This is an excellent description of the trajectory from grad school to a job.

I had a tough time my first year, because I hadn't taught on my own before and so majorly freaked out about the responsibility of both teaching and research. But now that I'm more comfortable, I can see that the real problem is that we don't prepare students at all for having collective responsibility, or for working with others. It was a shock to me to realize that academic departments are not that different than office environments when it comes to dealing with your coworkers' personalities.

But at least we don't have to work as teams every day!


Hear, hear, on matriculating from the perverse and protracted infantilization of graduate school . . .

I was one of the *extremely lucky ones who got a job my first crack at the market. That said, I don't think it's a secret -- either to my current employers or to my former institution -- that I made a total, utter hash of graduate school. Faced demons, bore children, spent *many years in the wilderness. I far exceeded the approved length of "time to degree," and misery? Profound and enduring. All of which makes me *even more lucky (and deliriously happy) that I not only got a job, but got the one that I did, which fits like a glove.

Interestingly, I spent a couple of those wilderness years working in the graduate school of my institution, administering a program called "Preparing Future Faculty," which was initially founded (and funded) by the Pew Foundation, specifically to prepare graduate students for the kinds of responsibilities they assume once they are on the tenure track. Teaching, service, governance. . . the program also offered students "fellowships" at other regional institutions -- which is to say, non-research institutions, and in my area, a couple urban, commuter colleges and universities. As part of the fellowship, students "trailed" faculty, to classes, department meetings, union meetings, committee meetings, etc.

Once the Pew Funding was withdrawn (on the assumption the host graduate schools would take up the ball), the program has since been scaled back (at my former institution), largely because the higher-ups didn't want to encourage their graduate students to take jobs at said non R1 institutions, and only saw, or wanted to see, their graduates going on to top tier institutions. . . I'm not sure how the other parts of the "how to be a prof" curriculum have also been scaled back, but I suspect that they have, to focus predominantly on what an R1 prof "needs". . .

So it's a matter of resources: who pays the money to fund the kind of programming that will give grad students this kind of preparation (should we demand this kind of mentoring from our advisors, in addition to what we get in the way of research?); but it's also a vision thing.

Me, I learned a ton in my admin job (i.e., while I was flying under my department radar, and avoiding the dissertation) that's helped me immeasurably since I've been here. And my first year on the track, I make for a pretty hoary ingenue (I'm 39).

For those who are suffering, I feel your pain. I've been there, been there bad. Gosh, what can I say? It seems facile to say "hang in there, you'll get there," because that's infantilizing in itself, and it's the system that's much to blame.

Becoming a parent forced me to grow up and be an adult in ways that (ugh, please don't mind the Oprah-speak) empowered me back at the department -- that is, to take control of my work and my destiny. But I would hope that you don't have to spawn (another transition one is hopelessly unprepared for) to take control, and see yourself as having already entered the profession (not waiting to) in a way that you can steer the ship. . .

But until I think of something better: hang in there.

Flavia said...

Wiseass and Neg Cap: it does get better. It will get better. And I look forward to seeing both of you on the other side.

Gwynn: I couldn't agree with you more about the benefits of having other demands on one's time. I'm not a parent (and neither did I have a local partner for most of my years in grad school), but those of my peers who did seemed to have the healthiest possible relationship to their work. They knew that they had the hours between 9 and midnight (say), and ONLY those hours, in which to work, and they got a helluva lot done during that time. They also knew their priorities: sick child? No work. No question about it. We're the best scholars and teachers, I think, when we place those obligations within a full and meaningful life, rather than when we stake our entire sense of identity upon those activities.

Frankly, I think that too many grad programs take (and encourage) too-young students to enroll. Also in my experience (and I only took 2 years off between college and grad school), those younger students are much more likely to drop/burn out, because they're much less likely to have a sense of perspective and a sense of themeselves.

phd me said...

I agree with so much of what you said but I have to comment on your grad school experience: Although I'm sorry you weren't happy, I'm so glad I wasn't the only one. All my newbie friends here loved grad school - or they aren't willing to admit it if they didn't. They're just amazed when I say that grad school was not a good experience for me. I was essentially unhappy for four years - on a daily basis - and regardless of the external factors (and there were many) I can only assume the real problem was somehow me. So however much I may complain about life as a professor now, it's so much better than the life that prepared me for it.


Funny, what I should have also mentioned is that the job I got is at a *Canadian institution. Very different vibe up here, much more academia is a part of life -- not life itself. I know for a fact that what was perceived as a lack of focus in grad school (i.e., a weakness), was perceived as a strength here (esp they can't believe I wrote my dissertation while raising two young children -- come to think of it, neither can I . . .).

Remember the MLA? Going back there, I immediately went back to that "place" (no, don't go there!), hearing in people's conversations that kind of intensity that makes the experience of graduate school so totalizing in a beleaguering way. . . The day after I got back, I took my kids skating at a public rink downtown. Who did I run into? Three -- count 'em, three -- faculty members from my department (out of, say, 200 people on the ice), who were polite about hearing that I'd been to the MLA, but promptly when on to give me advice about how to teach a four year old to skate. Very different vibe. It's why I fit in.

Also, Flavia (and those slammed by teaching), you know what's saved my arse this year in the classroom? That gig I had doing pre-performance talks at the Shakespeare Theatre. I did it for four seasons, and that's where I learned how to assemble a lecture fairly quickly, how to put the pieces in place so I could riff on them easily (and not so obviously didactically, or from a "written out" lecture) in class. No doubt: saved my arse. Also, my first job out of undergrad (I took 3 years in between) was for a "child abuse prevention program," doing workshops for elementary school students, and teaching them how to be "safe, strong, and free!" I trace my comfort in front of an audience and enthusiasm in the classroom to that gig (as much as my devotion to the material).

I guess the overall point I'm making is that "everything I learned about how to be a good prof I didn't learn in graduate school." The question is how you do that in a way that you're not perceived as "unfocused," or at least feel convicted (and go to sleep at night) knowing that you're cultivating all facets of your academic persona, facets that will be rewarded down the line.

Great post, Flavia. Important, and helpful. Thanks.

LaKisha said...

I didn't take any time off between undergrad and grad school. I feel burnt out. I've felt burnt out for about two years now I think. I have never gotten the opportunity to be a "real" adult out on my own. But, I feel like if I take time off I am just prolonging the time until I can actually get the job I want. I don't mind the work (I love it actually), it is just...I just want to graduate. So badly. Luckily, I am no longer living in grad school city, and am with my partner. When we go places together, people think we are adults. (He has a real job). It is nice.

Mary said...

I agree with you about being infantilized. I was a professional for a few years before re-entering my doctoral program, and went from being The High and Mighty Voice of Everything to being just another no-one-cares-what-you-think student. Fortunately for me, I was more amused than pissed, but I'm ready to reenter "grow up" life again! (It's actually propelling me through my program faster than I might otherwise have moved.)

Ancrene Wiseass said...

Thanks for the post and the comment, Flavia. It's good to know that I'm not alone, and it's good to hear that it will get better, too.

wwwmama said...

Thanks, Flavia. It's so great to know there's hope. And yet, it's painful to know I'm not quite there yet. I think I can start to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel though. And part of my progress towards seeing the light is that I am finally able to not take it all (grad school, the way it makes you feel) so personally. It's taken me a long time to do that. Now, I still feel like crap sometimes. But I can blame it on the system and realize that I'm on my way out of this stage. It's not about me being a failure or making poor decisions.