Monday, September 13, 2010

What's a "good job"?

Job market season is upon us, and though the number of tenure-track jobs isn't likely to be much greater this year than last--and thus everyone going out for the first time knows that a "good job" is, basically, one with a salary and benefits--I thought I'd take a post to talk about the real differences among academic jobs in the hopes that this might be useful to the grad students and job candidates out there.

They way we talk about jobs at different kinds of institutions is a peeve of mine, and it tends to be worse in graduate programs. This is true not because (or not only because) faculty at top graduate programs have drunk the Kool-Aid of believing that the only "good" jobs are jobs just like theirs, but simply because faculty know what they know. How many faculty at top programs have been on the tenure-track at more than one previous institution? Not many. And even if a significant minority did their undergraduate work at other kinds of institutions--liberal arts colleges, less selective state schools--they haven't taught there and their sense of the lives of their undergraduate professors is probably not particularly well-informed.

My own grad program did a good job of encouraging us to apply for all kinds of jobs, and the faculty clearly tried to emphasize the satisfactions that might come from teaching at a non-top-tier or non-research institution, but they equally clearly didn't know what they were talking about. They talked about how "rewarding" some recent PhDs found doing more teaching, to less culturally-privileged populations, to be--and how they'd come to realize that their real passion was teaching, not research. Or they said things like, "there's some really exciting pedagogical research coming out of community colleges these days"; the implication being that, in order to keep doing research at a less-prestigious, more teaching-heavy institution, you'd have to make teaching the subject of your research.

Now, I'm not knocking the joys of teaching or the worth of pedagogical scholarship; I believe strongly in both. But my grad school professors presented them as consolation prizes: the things you might wind up with--and eventually be rather happy with!--when you were foiled in your attempts to pursue a serious research agenda in the field you trained in.

So lemme tell ya: your grad school professors (if they're anything like mine were) are wrong. And the way that we, as a profession, tend to talk about academic jobs is wrong.

We typically divide jobs into categories based on the amount and nature of the teaching they require. Sometimes we pretend there are just two kinds of jobs, at "research" or "teaching" institutions, but more often we break those categories down a bit more finely by talking about teaching load: 2-2 or 2-3, 3-3, 4-4, or higher. Those are useful distinctions, to be sure, but they have limits. How many preps? How big are the classes? How much repetition is there, year-to-year? And if you're at a research institution, how many dissertations, dissertation committees, orals committees, or independent studies will you be responsible for--and how much "teaching time" does that amount to beyond your official teaching load?

I had no clue, prior to starting a tenure-track gig and seeing my friends wind up in various tenure-track gigs, that you could have a 2-2 teaching load and still be responsible for grading 100 students a semester (because you teach a lecture class, but don't have a TA). I had no clue how much work serving on M.A. or doctoral thesis committees could be--and how often it might be on a topic about which you knew precious little and had less interest.

But more importantly, I hadn't thought about the ways that teaching--or at least, teaching anything outside of my immediate specialty, and to advanced students--could enrich my scholarly life. Now, I was never one of those people who wanted to go straight from grad school to teaching graduate students myself, and nothing sounded less fun than designing an esoteric grad class or senior seminar around my own pet specialty. But although I was looking forward to teaching Shakespeare and Chaucer and the occasional twentieth century novel, I thought of that as a perk of the job rather than something related to my scholarship.

In fact, however, teaching a Shakespeare survey for ten consecutive semesters means I'm now as much an expert on his plays (though less so on Shakespearean scholarship, of course) as many a person who wrote a dissertation on Shakespeare. This affects the way I read Milton and other seventeenth century writers profoundly--and as of this fall, I'm actually starting a small project on Merchant of Venice.

Now, if I'd been hired as a Miltonist, in a big department with lots of other Renaissance scholars, that would certainly have had its benefits. But I likely would never have been asked to teach a Shakespeare survey, and I wouldn't have been let near non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama (especially not when I hadn't previously read almost half of the plays I put on the syllabus). My teaching has been hugely important to my scholarly life.

There's also the argument that teaching a certain number of repeat classes, semester after semester, frees up more time and mental energy for research than continually devising funky new ones. Personally, I get bored and depressed if I don't have one new or newish class a semester that requires me to stretch intellectually--but I don't think I typically spend any more time on my teaching, with my 3-3 load, than most people with a 2-2 load. (And in my first two years, I probably spent less time on teaching than those friends who were scrambling to devise cool new graduate or senior seminars every semester.) I know plenty of people with serious research agendas who teach at schools with 4-4 loads or higher.

And that, of course, is just about the teaching: what's the expected service load? And is it real, useful service--or endless bullshit committee meetings? What's the culture of the place like, and your colleagues? How might the location of the institution affect your personal, family, and even intellectual life? (Are there other colleges and universities in the area? Major libraries? A good arts scene? And don't discount the importance of an airport: when I was on the market, I used to say that I didn't care what region of the country I wound up in, as long as I could live in either a decent-sized city or a funky college town, within 30 minutes of a good airport.)

The trouble is, you often don't know until you start a job what its real strengths and virtues are. But that's the good thing, too: the rise of contingent labor notwithstanding, there are a lot of good jobs out there--and most of them don't look anything like what we were told we should want.


Prof. de Breeze said...

This is one of the best things I've ever read about the job market. I have no doubt that some of my former profs and colleagues viewed my CC job as a "consolation prize." And it's true that the job is not what I was trained to do, not what I imagined my career would be like when I was in grad school. But, as Wordsworth says, "Not for this / Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur, other gifts / Have followed; for such loss, I would believe, / Abundant recompence." I love teaching Brit Lit surveys, even the second half survey, which I would likely never teach had I been hired as a medievalist at a large university (and which makes me somewhat proficient at spouting off Wordsworth quotations). I even enjoy my Freshman Comp classes, though I blanch at grading just as much as the next guy. My school doesn't offer tenure, but on the other hand, I don't have to suffer through tenure-track anxieties. The point, as you say, is that each job brings with it its own rewards and its own challenges.

Great post.

Dr. Koshary said...

It's good to hear this, Flavia. As you say, I'm still mostly oriented to "Who's going to pay me to do *any* kind of job?" But it's good to know that the perspectives one hears from advising professors are just that: perspectives. Luckily, I've had advisors from pretty diverse backgrounds and preferences, so I haven't had to be deprogrammed from the whole "R1 or bust" way of thinking. In fact, I would dearly love to get a job at a SLAC like the one I went to as an undergrad, but it may be ten years down the line before such an opportunity arises for me.

Back to application writing.

Susan said...

This should be required reading for grad students coming on the market and their advisers. As someone with a very varied professional career who has ended up at a research institution, I find myself surprised by colleagues whose goal was always to get to a big research institution.

The other piece I'd add to your discussion of the dimensions of a "good" job is that you change. The academic world doesn't deal with this well, but in a world where most people are expected to have something like 6 or 7 different careers, we still expect people to do the same thing for 40 years. And different institutions have different ways of allowing you to develop all your gifts.

Horace said...

Great post, Flavia. While you talk about some of the very real upsides for teaching loads, let me underscore the one about class size. Two sections a semester might seem posh until you realize that they are 2 sections with 50 students each in a lecture hall that seats 300, or that the 300 level courses are the ones you get to teach far fewer of at an R1 job, or that grad teaching is as much work, and not necessarily any more rewarding (especially when those obscure texts dear to your heart are dismissed offhandedly by M.A. students who are just trying to get in a distribution requirement).

Although I am on a 2/3, I have friend on a 4/4 who often has fewer students than I do, and is more often teaching the courses she really wants to be teaching. And at her much smaller institution, she feels like her work really makes a huge difference, as opposed to be a drop in the metaphorical bucket.

The upsides and downsides are never quite where you expect them. I have quite a "good" job in both respects of the word, but it's certainly not better than my friend's, who got her book under contract before I did.

Flavia said...

The other piece I'd add to your discussion of the dimensions of a "good" job is that you change. The academic world doesn't deal with this well, but in a world where most people are expected to have something like 6 or 7 different careers, we still expect people to do the same thing for 40 years. And different institutions have different ways of allowing you to develop all your gifts.

This seems to me to be so important. I'm still in an early stage of my career, but I already sense my intellectual/pedagogical goals and needs changing, or at least could see how they might. I'm not looking to leave RU, but I've been thinking lately about the ways that different kinds of schools (or just different kinds of classes, right here) might stimulate new kinds of growth.

For example, for the first time I feel ready to teach graduate students, and I'm really loving teaching our M.A. students. But I'm also loving teaching my non-major Honors freshmen, and I'm eager to redesign my Intro to Lit class for majors (which I haven't taught in a few years).

And that's another thing: a mix of levels and kinds of classes can be (as PdeB suggests) a really intellectually invigorating experience.

Carin said...

This is a wonderful post. Two addenda from my experience:

1) The amount of support for research at relatively teaching-intensive institutions can vary enormously from place to place, and it can be as much about institutional and departmental culture as anything. It's something interviewees can try to be alert to at the campus interview stage. I was privileged to teach in a small, teaching-centered college where it was clear that teaching was everybody's common purpose, but there was also a culture of "my colleagues do such cool stuff!" as well as fairly generous travel budget and a regular pre-tenure sabbatical. I have friends who've had lighter teaching loads than I had, but with nothing like the informal or formal support I had.

2) Very closely related to the above: it's my experience that you can have a lot more intellectual freedom at a smaller, more teaching-oriented school. It's not just the way teaching a wide range of subjects expands your research horizons; it's that when you're hired to be The Specialist in One Area and supervise doctoral students in that area, there's a concomitant expectation that you will publish in that area, at least until tenure. At a smaller school where everyone taught a range of undergraduate courses, the expectation was just that one keep up an active research agenda, without undue fussing about its focus, and I found I did much more interesting work under those conditions.

Renaissance Girl said...

I'd also add that whether a job is "good" or otherwise sometimes shifts depending on who is serving as chair, or as dean. A mediocre job can turn fabulous over the course of a regime change, as I've found over the course of the (farily recent) chairship of someone who prioritizes my own concerns. My job is WAY BETTER in real life than it might appear just given facts and stats--that is, better even than it was when I took it 7 years ago (and it was a good job then). And things can go the other way, horribly, too, as Neruda has cause to understand...

Ruviana said...

Another thing to consider (I'm at a SLAC that sounds kinda like Caren's) is directing undergraduate research and advising. I sometimes have 30 advisees and you can spend a fair amount of time with them, which my institution encourages as part of our "hands-on, personal attention" image, something pretty common at SLACs.

thefrogprincess said...

I really like your points on location, which at the moment is my prime concern. There's no one region I'm eliminating categorically (although there are a few states) but a decent-sized (and reasonably diverse) city or city suburb is key for me as is a decent airport. It doesn't necessarily have to be an international airport (although that would be best) but I really need to be able to get around and out of the country with as little fuss as possible.

The location matters much more to me than does "type of school." I won't be happy if I feel trapped and doomed to be single in some isolated small town. In my case, this cuts out a lot of the New England small liberal arts colleges.

Flavia said...

Carin, RG, and Ruviana:

All really good points. Carin's experience at her first job is almost exactly my own at RU--and it's something I could tell even before my campus visit, from the faculty profiles on the departmental webpage: it was obvious that these people all had serious research agendas, and that there would be a lot of intellectual/emotional (and some financial) support for me.

And to RG's point: chairs are hugely important. (My first chair made the case for--and got hired--more than 10 TT faculty in six years.) But administrators beyond the chair matter, too, especially the people most responsible for fulfilling a chair's requests (in our case, both the dean of our school and the provost). But I'm less sure how you can know those personalities, and the dynamics of those relationships, in advance--except by assessing how happy and productive the faculty are.