Sunday, August 18, 2013

Curmie Doesn't Like Being Condescended To

Several years ago, Curmie received an e-mail from a well-meaning colleague at another university. He was collecting information about course release for college/university theatre faculty doing production work, i.e., to what extent (if any) do faculty have fewer curricular responsibilities if they’re directing or designing a play in a given semester. He was particularly interested in whether such accommodations were more or less standard for faculty with “heavy teaching loads” of five or more courses a year.

Curmie chortled. Yes, out loud. I’ve done five courses in a semester before. Several times early in my career I taught four regular courses plus two “practicum” courses (one of them in journalism) in a single semester while also directing, designing, and tech directing two major productions including a musical. In the past year I have taught seven sections of courses (six preps), including five different classes at the 400 (senior) level. Four of those courses require assessment reports in addition to the usual work of preparing lectures, searching out supplementary readings, grading, etc.

I directed two full-length productions (one with a cast of 28 and two big sets, the other a musical), supervised four (or was it five?) student productions, and was artistic manager for all 20 or so student productions. I was vice chair of the Fine Arts Council and served on a university committee on sabbatical leaves. I have about 30 advisees, not counting the de facto ones, and I actually spend time with them: at least an hour or two per student per semester, and oftentimes many times that. I am the principal on-campus recruiter for our program: I organize our three departmental “Theatre Days” and I represent us at the three major university-wide recruitment events unless I’m unable to get free of other work-related duties on those Saturdays. I served on two search committees for my department, chairing one. I’ve spent a fair amount of time working on the self-study documents required by our discipline’s accrediting agency. I attended a meeting of the Professional Advisory Board of my doctoral alma mater and drove a full day each way in order to do so. I served on a committee for a professional organization. Oh, and I wrote two scholarly papers and delivered them at conferences.

I think I can say, moreover, that I know something about the way colleges and universities work. I have taught at least one course in 61 of the last 68 semesters, and in every calendar year since 1979 except 1983. I’ve either directed a production or taught (or both) in the summer in 10 of my 12 years at my current job. I have 22 years in tenured or tenure-track positions at three different colleges or universities and I’ve taught as either a grad student or adjunct at four other institutions; depending on how you count (do team-taught courses count? what about being a discussion leader with someone else as the lecturer?), I’ve taught somewhere in the vicinity of 185 classes.

This, Gentle Reader, is the background I bring to bear when I read stuff like Karen Kelsky’s blog, “The Professor Is In,” being hosted (if that’s the right word) by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Dr. Kelsky is a career consultant specializing, one presumes, in higher education issues. She’s been, we learn from the blurb, tenured at two universities, and has been an advisor and mentor to undergrads, graduate students, and junior faculty. So far, so good, right?

I was initially heartened by the choice of question to answer and the first paragraph of the response:
I have a Ph.D. from a mid-ranked program at a middling university. I’m pretty sure I’ll be competitive for SLACs and teaching colleges with this kind of Ph.D., and that’s fine with me since I don’t want to have to work too hard to aim for a big fancy job. Am I right?

A: No, you are not right. Your logic contains two major misapprehensions of the academic job market.
Surely, I thought, she’ll explain that it’s your strengths, not those of your grad school department, that matter to search committees, O Jobseeker. And above all else she’ll disabuse this earnest but ignorant recent PhD of the notion that working at SLACs [Curmie finally figured out that stands for Selective Liberal Arts Colleges] and teaching colleges ought to be mentioned in the same breath as “not [having] to work too hard.”

Alas, Curmie was 0 for 2 in these surmises. Dr. Kelsky sees fits to castigate Eager Young Jobseeker for thinking he/she could possibly compete with someone from “R1s and even Ivy Leagues.” R-1s, for those of you unfamiliar with academic jargon, are “Research 1” institutions, a classification once used by the Carnegie Foundation to designate universities with extensive doctoral programs and a high priority on faculty research. (The Carnegie folks have dropped the term, but it has stuck, the way I think of my current university’s football team as competing in Division 1-AA, not the “Football Championship Subdivision.” FWIW, ESPN agrees with me.) After all, in Kelsky’s world—her CV indicates that she has never been either a student or a faculty member at anything but an R1—publications are paramount. Therefore, in the parochial logic employed by all too many people who ought to know better, it’s the same everywhere.

A few years ago I served on the Research and Publications Committee for a professional organization. I was a tenured associate professor at the time. I was the only person in the room who didn’t need to publish a book to get tenure, and over half of those present didn’t even know that it was possible to do so, anywhere. Yet there are far more institutions like mine than like theirs, and far more faculty members like me than like them.

You’ll notice that in my list of what I’ve done in the past year, there was no mention of publications at all. That’s because there weren’t any. Over the years I’ve published a handful of articles, couple of book chapters, some interviews, and a couple dozen reviews of books or theatre productions. But not this year… and probably not next year, either. I do write an average of two conference papers a year, but no R-1 would pay any attention to that. Still, my scholarly work was once described as “prodigious” in an official review document, and I’ve been nominated for the university’s research award.

Thus, I feel a particular pang when Kelsky offers up this claptrap: “Your competitiveness… is a product of your record beyond the Ph.D., in the form of refereed journal articles, major national conferences, national grants, substantive sole-teaching experience, and illustrious letter-writers.”

Journal articles are nice (although there are some colleges that distrust the priorities of faculty who are interested in publishing). Conferences accept most proposals based on an abstract—being able to sustain an argument for 250 words maximum is different from doing so for a 20-minute formal presentation, and very different from conducting a 50-minute seminar on the subject. National grants are important only in some fields, and only for a minority of colleges and universities. No one cares how “illustrious” your letter-writers are: we care what they say. If you’re just starting out and you have an “illustrious” reference, chances are that one of two things is true: that person was on your dissertation committee (making the “mid-ranked program at a middling university” description somewhat incongruous, and suggesting a potential conflict of interest since your getting a job makes your doctoral program look better), or he/she doesn’t really know you very well, and will write a generic paragraph about how much promise you have. In fact, many if not most search committees have abandoned the idea of letters altogether: a phone call reveals a lot more about a reference’s true feelings about a candidate than a “to whom it may concern” letter ever will.

Speaking as a veteran of search committees at both the SLAC and teaching college level, I can assure prospective applicants that we’re looking for three things:
1). Some demonstrable engagement with the field. This could be in the form of publications, conference presentations, workshop attendance… it doesn’t matter. No, really, it doesn’t. We’re looking for evidence that an applicant could publish (per se), but actually having done so is nowhere near a sine qua non, at least not in an initial hire—a tenure committee might want to see an article or two.

2. Breadth. Smaller departments mean a significantly increased likelihood that you’ll be teaching outside the narrowly-defined area of your research. You wrote your dissertation about Yeats? Great. You’re teaching the American Novel in the 19th century. Enjoy. Over the years I’ve taught beginning and advanced play analysis; numerous variations on the theme of theatre history and dramatic literature; a host of topics courses; beginning and advanced acting; beginning and advanced directing; production courses in stagecraft, lighting, makeup and costume history; a handful of courses in speech and communications; analysis of fine arts; classical mythology; and Eastern civilizations. Oh, and manifold variations on the theme of introduction to theatre. If you think you’re above that, then yes, your only hope is at an R-1, and you’d better get working on those refereed articles.

But the fact is that I generally spend about 15 minutes a year talking about the specific content of my dissertation. (Last year was an exception: I taught a topics course that allowed me to incorporate a couple of the plays discussed in my diss.) This isn’t to say that you won’t, over time, be able to move into coursework that fits your particular skill-set. Two of the courses that are now part of my regular rotation didn’t exist when I came here; I also created (with a lot of help) a study abroad program to Ireland which is about to head into its fifth biennial iteration. But you’ve got to get the job before you can adapt the job.

3. Teaching. This is the only absolute. You have to be able to teach, and you need to be able to do it at all levels. You are going to be in a room with a few dozen students who really don’t want to be there. You are going to be in a different room, or at least at a different time, with a bunch of students who know a lot (but not as much as they think they do). You are going to be in classes that drive you crazy because your students stare zombie-like at you and write down everything you say (including your jokes). You are going to be in classes that drive you crazy because nothing you do seems to engage them in any way. Teach them. Teach them all.
If you really want to improve your chances at getting a job at a university like mine, teach. Teach anything someone will let you teach. If you’re still working on your degree, talk to your department about letting you be teacher of record, about letting you teach the intro to botany course even though you’re a microbiologist. If you have your degree, don’t be afraid to take that adjunct job, as long as you save the time for yourself to do whatever it is that will make you more employable in a tenure-track position. Go to workshops and roundtables on pedagogy. Go to conference sessions on textbook selection, integrating technology, accommodating students with idiosyncratic needs. Participate! (And talk about this stuff in your cover letter.)

All of this, of course, is true only if being in a SLAC, LAC, or teaching college is really where you want to be: you understand the requirements and the workload, and you want to concentrate on teaching while doing enough research to keep you current in your field. Kelsky assures us that “I have no problem at all with people aiming for careers at community colleges and SLACs—those are fine career options,” but of course there’s that tone of dripping condescension that sounds very much like she’s comparing my job to being the assistant manager at Wendy’s.

Fact is, whereas there are certainly those at my institution who couldn’t survive at an R-1, most could, although they’d have to re-orient their priorities to do so. (There are some at R-1s who couldn’t survive here, too.) I had a good talk with my Provost a few years ago in which I suggested that the quantity of my scholarly work wouldn’t keep up with my colleagues at “major” universities, but the quality of what I do present or publish had better be comparable. I am confident that I could have succeeded at an R-1 had happenstance pushed me in that direction—I had a couple of phone interviews at R-1s, but pretty well withdrew my application when the job descriptions became clearer. I’m sure that other R-1 jobs would have been more to my liking, but I’m pretty convinced that for me, personally, my current job (or one like it) is where I want to be. Good thing, of course, since no R-1 would hire a full professor, let alone one my age, with a publication record like mine.

Here’s the thing: if you want to work at an R-1, you need to follow R-1 rules. Publish. Present. Write grants. If you want to work at a university like mine, you follow our rules, and they aren’t the ones outlined by Kelsky. We aren’t the spillover trough. Many of the best scholars I know are also great teachers; many of the best teachers I know are also brilliant and active scholars. But anyone who has ever gone to grad school has had a course with someone who might be doing cutting-edge research but can’t teach a lick. And anyone who has spent any time on a campus like mine knows a professor who can teach anything to anyone but either wouldn’t or couldn’t crank out an article a year and a book every five.

That’s OK, Dr. Kelsky. Really. Different skills for different thrills.

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