Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Learning Curve: Bienvenido a Miami

*This post is part of a new series in which professors reflect on the practical lessons they have learned in the transition from graduate school to employment.

By Robyn Faith Walsh

Once, while working for an emeritus professor at Harvard Divinity School, I unearthed a phone directory from the 1960s. It was very Mad Men. At first, it was a delight to thumb through the photos and see what many of the famous names in the field looked like back when they were masters and doctoral students. Then, after a few pages, I noticed that next to each phone number was a different woman’s name. The only exception to this pattern was the entry for the solecoed (now a well-known scholar at Princeton, I’m happy to say). It clicked: these were the names of the students’ wives. After all, you need to know how to greet the woman taking your classmate’s calls. Like I said, very Mad Men.

I entered college in 1998, and you could argue I never really left. While the golden age of the bespectacled and be-tweeded, gentleman scholar had more or less passed by the time I entered the fray, it wasn’t completely over. Many of my (male) professors, now near retirement, continued to smoke tobacco pipes in their offices, serve alcohol during seminars, and entertain students at their homes where their wives would dutifully serve us. In some pockets of the field, the vestiges of this way of life persist, but it is increasingly rare. Academia is far more diverse and also more corporate than in generations past. The idea of the (mostly male) scholar who is able to “have it all” is also increasingly, even comically, off-the-mark. If I have observed one thing during the past 18 years, it is that the goalposts for the traditional path to becoming a professor are constantly changing. Further, the expectations of what a professor’s life should look like are no longer stable. Forget having a partner at home to answer your phone calls and raise your kids while you research, write, and teach. Some of us would settle for any semblance of office space or health benefits.

Last week, a related—and seemingly casual—conversation between academics on Twitter and Facebook erupted into a discussion eminently hashtag- and meme-worthy. It began with an exchange of Acknowledgements pages from a handful of monographs. The authors cited seemed blithely unaware of the fact that their expressions of gratitude (particularly of men to their housewives) betrayed levels of social privilege no longer representative of the academic community at large. Sharing screen captures and quotes from these publications evoked a number of laughs, but it was humor tinged with a certain irony. As a groundswell of examples and comments grew online, some tenured, tenure-track, and adjunct faculty began writing mock author acknowledgements/biographies intended to be more representative of today’s life in academia.

With these tweets there is little evidence of helpful housewives. Others openly discussed the troubling disparities between tenure-track and adjunct faculty in terms of benefits and other resources. If I still lived in New England, I know I’d be thanking Reynold’s Wrap and duct tape for helping me plug some of the drafts in the moldy Victorian basement (I’m sorry, “garden apartment”) I called home for years. Soon, the phenomenon made news on Inside Higher Ed and opened up a new discussion about whether such accounts were indeed representative: are they too negative? what are reasonable expectations for early career scholars entering the field?

I am currently in the middle of my second year in a tenure-track position at the University of Miami. Before coming to Miami, I taught as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies and Classics for about three years at The College of the Holy Cross and Wheaton College in Norton, MA. I accepted my first adjunct position before I had even submitted my prospectus. At the time, I had observed that those who had taught their own courses (“controlled their own classroom”) were often the ones getting tenure-track jobs. My doctoral institution didn’t offer that option for Religious Studies students; it only offered assistantships. I enrolled in a teaching certificate program, and began developing my own syllabi. I was forced to forfeit my graduate stipend (if I wasn’t a teaching assistant for them, the institution wasn’t willing to support me), and I began cobbling together instructor work. At one point I was teaching a 5-3 and commuting about four hours a day, five days a week in order to make ends meet. It took me a bit longer to finish my Ph.D. than my cohort, but I think the gamble paid off. By the time I decided to test the market, I had developed a strong track record in pedagogy and demonstrated that I knew how to get research done while teaching full-time. I was hired ABD roughly a month after my initial interviews at SBL/AAR.

The mini biography I offer above informs my first piece of advice about the field/market: trust your own critical thinking. No one told me to give up my stipend and start teaching. In fact, I was often advised to do the opposite in order to “finish in five years.” But, I could see the market had changed and that the traditional advice seemed outmoded. I’ll admit that it isn’t feasible for everyone to do what I did, especially those with families or other concerns. I had to live without benefits and below the poverty level for quite some time. I’m still trying to pay down my credit card debt. I had to ask my family for help financially. One of my dissertation advisors even let me live in his house while he was out of the country so I could save money and shorten my commute. Additionally, at the time, I was only responsible for feeding myself and my little dog (although, to be fair, she could have eaten her weight in chicken wings daily if I let her). But, I understood that I shouldn’t blindly accept the conventional process and that I needed to be bold enough to chart my own path. Whether it is when you start teaching/pedagogical training or even who you select to be on your dissertation committee (to whatever extent you can control that process), don’t be afraid to assert yourself if you judge it will better your circumstances in the long term.

Related to this, just say no. As you move along in your career, you will be asked to participate in a variety of professional activities and to contribute to a number of projects. At first, this is exhilarating. But, what helps you at the start of your career may not help you down the road. Certainly, in the beginning, you need to build your CV. If you have the time, feel free to accept offers to blog, write book reviews, compile bibliography, and contribute to encyclopedias and edited volumes. I still do (obviously!). But, these kinds of projects may not necessarily help in obtaining a permanent position or with tenure. When it comes to publishing, peer-reviewed work and your own monographs are the most prized.

If you have a tenure-track position, make sure you understand precisely what will get you tenure. Ask recently tenured faculty what it took for them to advance. Keep in mind that scholars who obtained tenure long ago will have outdated perspectives (you can no longer wait five years to publish your dissertation, for example). If your institution offers a workshop for faculty to review and discuss the expectations for tenure, attend. You may be surprised to find that the administration at your college or university holds the bar quite high, that they explicitly exclude certain kinds of publications from consideration, or that they have very specific rules for potential letter writers.

When it comes to pursuing tenure or simply functioning within a department, there is often a difference between the “rules” and reality. Do not underestimate the value of being a good citizen. If you’re an adjunct who is not obligated to participate in service, attending or helping out with departmental activities is a good way to solidify professional connections and increase your profile within the institution. If you are at a research university and your enrollment numbers and teaching evaluations shouldn’t count against you in your tenure review, that doesn’t mean you should stop promoting your courses or that you can completely disregard your students. If your teaching evaluations are abysmal, it would be wise to work on your approaches in the classroom. Not only is it always a good idea to pursue avenues for professional development, you also never know when the culture and standards of an institution might shift (e.g., teaching became much more of a factor for tenure at the University of Miami under recently retired President Donna Shalala’s regime than it had been previously). Use social awareness to help you decide which tasks and responsibilities you should investigate, accept, or reject.

While this may be somewhat controversial, I also believe that you have to recognize that there is a degree to which being a professional in this field involves a certain amount of strategic performance. Whether we are in front of a classroom, speaking to the public, or sitting in a committee meeting, there are particular ways that we have all been socialized to embody “the Academic.”I find that it’s important to understand, both, what you represent to those around you and what you project (and I do see these as different things). And I think it’s important to figure out what kind of relationship you want to have with this aspect of the job.

For example, on the subject of gender, I know my students are going to scrutinize what I wear. Gender bias is very real in our culture, and if you are a public figure in any measure, such bias is as regrettable as it is inevitable. As such, I work with it to whatever extent I can.To offer a “very Miami” case study, shortly after arriving here, I noticed that, like it or not,women tended to wear high heels as a means of expressing authority. Not being particularly interested in or adept at wearing them, I took to wearing flats to class but also carrying a pair of high heels that daily peek out of my satchel for whenever they seem necessary. My students think this is a hilarious commentary on Miami culture, and it is often an example I can reference in the classroom when we talk about gender expectations.  I agree that much of this kind of culture both in and outside of the academy needs to change. But I also think that, to some extent, you can find ways to make it a tool and, ultimately, a benefit.

I also see mentorship as an integral part of the role we play. Personally, I have found that making myself available to my students has been more rewarding than not. There is almost never enough time during class to talk in depth about all of the issues the study of religion can raise. I have also had students come to me because something we addressed in class has come up with friends or family and they want advice on how to talk to others about what they are learning. These moments can be invaluable for helping students feel a sense of ownership over their developing knowledge of our subject matters.

And beyond the classroom, the majority of our “audience” is comprised of young people entering a sometimes-difficult phase of their lives: some are away from home for the first time; maturity can be an issue; cognitively they are still prone to take risks. A wide variety of studies have demonstrated that signs of mental illness often emerge for the first time in young adults. Thankfully, our campuses usually have excellent resources and professionals to help deal with such issues. Yet, it is also the case that many students will turn to their instructors or professors first. We are hardly trained for this aspect of the job. If fielding the personal problems of your students is something with which you are not comfortable, by all means, set firm boundaries. For me, being in conversation with campus resources and assisting students in finding the proper resources to succeed personally and academically has been a real privilege.

Do they come to me because I’m a woman? Maybe. And, I have certainly learned the hard way to limit my office hours and to ignore emails after a certain hour. But, the same advice I gave at the onset of this piece about trusting your own critical thinking applies here as well. You may not understand entirely why your students come to you, but if they do, it is because you embody something that seems authoritative and maybe even “safe” to them. We have to anticipate this aspect of the job, educate ourselves about the resources at our institutions, and decide what we are able to offer.

Moreover, from my own experience, you can’t underestimate the influence a strong mentor can have on your personal and professional choices. I took every class my undergraduate Classics advisor, Nancy Evans, offered. At some point in the early going, she had me over to her house for tea. I already looked up to her, and she had such a lovely home with so many books (oh so many books!). I knew there were no guarantees, but it helped me decide to go to graduate school. Evans and others modeled for me how to be persistent and weather the expectations of this career. Allowing for that kind of relationship with your students can be an incredibly powerful pedagogical tool, and it is also one of the things that has kept me motivated in the moments when teaching seems like something of a hindrance to neglected research and writing.

Finally, realize that in many ways you are an island. When you are in graduate school, you have a surplus of mentors, peers, and friends willing to discuss your research. You have your cohort of fellow students. You have a (hopefully) captive audience among your professors, directors, readers, and advisers. But, when you begin teaching, it is more the norm that you are the only person representing your area of specialization. Those easy conversation partners are gone, and the training wheels are off. I admit that I still haven’t figured out the best way to handle this aspect of being an early career scholar. So far, I have tried to find as many conversation partners as I can among my immediate colleagues and in allied departments or local universities. I attend as many public lectures and readings as I can. With the help of a colleague in Classics, we applied for (and got) funding for an open research group. And, I keep in close contact with my graduate school friends and colleagues from my adjuncting and grad school days. When I face a challenge with my teaching, I reach out to senior colleagues within my department and at other institutions (thank you Russell McCutcheon). Facebook has also been my friend, particularly when I have a last minute question or if I need advice before class. While this is all still new to me, it seems to be a fairly effective strategy for building community and, hopefully, my career.

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