June 13, 2013

Dreams die hard

I just found out that my latest application for full-time teaching ended up where most of them have--in the trash can.  This one hurts a little more because I really thought I had a chance.  I have been teaching at this particular community college for the last 5 years and have a pretty impressive resume of teaching experience both online and in person.   I have a phd, have one publication (which matters not to community colleges, to be fair), and have had very good teaching evaluations from students over the years.  When I applied last year to a different community college, I had to pull those evaluations together and was rather surprised at how the vast majority of them were positive.

Not that any of this matters.  I sit here watching Phd after Phd come out of the same school and land jobs.  Some of them are in places I would never want to live, to be fair, but many of them have landed in very good positions.  I have no idea how to make sense of any of this.  As I have written before, those inside academia often act rather cultish about it, and look at those of us who teach the majority of the courses in about the same way that suburban dwellers look at the migrant workers roofing their house.

I kind of get that.  If you get inside, you have to believe it is on your merit, and not just the luck of the draw of being in the right place at the right time.  Either that or the people who get hired are just better than me.  That is a possibility.  A frustrating one, but one nonetheless.  I am told over and over that I am an excellent teacher, though most of those who tell me that have never actually seen me teach.  I am told that I am good with people (not that my blog readers can tell) and that I would make an excellent colleague.  I am told that I am very good in interviews.  Last year's community college told me that I had put together an excellent presentation and he had absolutely no suggestions for improving it.

But they weren't going to hire me.  With this one, even more frustration as they didn't even bother to interview me.  This from a department who has hired several people with only master's degrees and with very questionable people skills.

I apologize for the whining.  I know there are people here in Oklahoma who are homeless after major storms.  I know there are people suffering with serious health issues and family loss and tragedy.  In that context, my life still looks pretty good.

But this one hurts.  I have been studying history at a serious level since 1990.  I have been teaching and honing my craft since 1997 (off and on).  When I put together my vita this last time I had to re-categorize all my teaching experience because listing the individual classes would take too much space. All for nothing.  Well, not nothing.  Those classes and those students still matter.  But I have had a dream for a long time of being able to teach fulltime at a place where I could do more than teach the intro course.

But some dreams are not meant to be.  Clearly.


steves said...

Sorry to hear that. My dad spent a decade and a half in academia and I got the impression it was rather cultish from what he said.

ANewAnglican@gmail.com said...

"the same way that suburban dwellers look at the migrant workers roofing their house"

What an excellent and truth-to-power way to describe the inside/outside nature of the academy! The whole world is this way, of course, but what's especially frustrating about the academy is that it thinks it isn't. Sons of bitches.

Maybe the history you need to write is your story?

Streak said...

Thanks. Maybe I will.

Smitty said...

Nowhere is safe from politics.

Sorry, Streak. Bum deal from an insular network.

Jay said...


Speaking as someone who gave up a similar dream (in the sciences) when it was clear we were going to have to support a family, and who is married to a person who had an almost identical dream to yours (in the humanities) that she had to give up some years later, I empathize and sympathize with your situation. It is very difficult to set dreams aside, and old dreams that you have worked at for a substantial portion of your life are undoubtedly the worst. I have been very fortunate in that my decision has almost certainly led to a better work life for me and home life for me and my family than I/we would have had as a professor. My wife's decision is more nebulous: she has a job, she is adequately compensated, and she is productive and helpful to those she works with. But she uses only a very small portion of her intellect to perform her duties, so real satisfaction is elusive.

So, yeah, it sucks. Sometimes it works out for the best, sometimes it doesn't, and sometimes we just don't know. I hope you are able to find the fortitude to keep working toward a goal, even if you feel you must modify that goal based on your most recent setback.

re: comments from Steve and Noah

While I acknowledge that their impressions come from their experiences with academics and that their statements were not meant to be an broad indictment of the academic community, I am somewhat uncomfortable with the labels they used. "insular" and "cultish" strike me as a bit strong. I work with academics constantly, I help advise students, and I am involved in the allocation of (modest) funds for research programs at multiple universities. It has been my experience that the single best indicator of whether a given student/post-doc/research associate will be a useful and productive member of a group is a strong recommendation from an established scientist that I know personally and trust. My colleagues and I all recognize that this situation can contribute to the appearance of (and in some cases actual) nepotism. But among the academics with whom I work closely (again, in the sciences, so the dynamic could be somewhat different than what you have experienced), the pressure from the university administration to produce results is so strong that they HAVE to maximize their hit rate with respect to new hires. As a result, whether or not a given candidate is offered a position often comes down to who the candidate knows, whether the individuals on the search committee know them as well, and whether they are really willing to go to bat for the candidate.

I agree that this is not a good thing, particularly for those looking for a job, and it is certainly is not "fair." I believe I wound up on the wrong side two job searches because my references were not as well-known to the committee as those of the other candidates. But putting aside whether it is good or bad, this type of decision-making definitely results from a strong awareness of historical data and experience. To me, "cultish and insular" suggest inward focused, personality driven decision-making that is driven by personality more than logic. Based on my experience with the academic community, I find the brush to be a bit too broad in this case.

Streak said...

Yeah, in the sciences this may make more sense, and in a research setting, even in the humanities. My colleagues at the research U have a lot of publishing to do, and if they don't, they are in a bind. I will say that a pretty big part of me is glad that those research jobs didn't happen for me, because the publishing pressure is pretty intense.

But the cultish stuff that I, at least, am talking about applies to the research and to the sciences as well. I am talking about the cult as being on the inside and then looking at those who didn't make it. Those who get inside tenure tend to look at those who didn't as "less than." I think they kind of have to assume that they got in through their merit and not because of good luck. In the humanities, and certainly in a community college setting, I have no illusion that there are not many people capable and qualified to do this job. But I observe so many who really are not very good at it, but who have been able to get in the door, while I have my experience and evaluations and students lined up to say that I am good and even better than most--but won't get in. I have students at this particular cc who tell me routinely that I am one of the best teachers they have ever had in that setting.

But that particular cult won't let me in. And I think you would agree that the community college setting is porbably far more cultish and insular than any other, because it has none of the pressures you work with about producing scientific results.

Thanks for your comments, though, and your compassion. I think about your wife's issue and that is where I get really frustrated. I can do a lot of jobs, but I am really good at certain things that I fear are not at all welcome in most jobs.

steves said...

Jay, I probably could have chosen a different word. To myself, an outsider, academia seems somewhat strange, with odd rules and customs. Obviously, my experience is limited to being a student and the child of someone in academia.

My dad was in academia for a number of years and taught geology and mining engineering at MTU. At that time (the 70's and 80's), it was very strange to me and could likely be very different now. I certainly don't mean my comments as an insult.

Smitty said...

I don't mean to offend.

My use of the "insular" was primarily an empathic statement. You felt bad, and that's a word and sentiment that I can identify with.

I see and get it has different implications with you and Jay, and I'll prolly take Jay out to lunch and talk to him about it. We work like 5 miles away from one another.

Again, my comment was more "rabble rabble rawr rawr" than a real reflective comment.

But politics...I get. I work in that universe, and hiring in my world, given Jay's narrative, is *exactly the same.* Hence: nowhere is safe from politics.

Tomorrow morning, like way after 10:00, I'm gonna write a really cogent comment about political evaluation and hiring. But right now, it's like 3:00 am, and I'm +7.

2 Brewery Vivant Zaison saisons, 2 Southern Tier Chokolat, 2x2 fingers of Bulleit and 1x2 fingers of Makers Mark. [hic] [hic]

So look: I didn't mean to be a chump with my comment, but my comment totally was chumpalicious. There is an insular quality to political hiring, but looking at Jay's comment, I think we're saying the same thing in different words, but my words mean something worse to Jay than they do to me.

I'm going to pass out now. TTYL.

Streak said...

As Anglican said to me yesterday, part of the difficulty here is not that this kind of hiring crap happens only in academia. It doesn't. But Academia likes to tell itself it is a meritocracy and about knowledge.

Jay said...

First, I was not insulted by the comments I referred to earlier, and I apologize if I gave that impression. I just found the concepts to not be aligned with my experience with academia (and academics) so I questioned whether the entire community was perhaps being painted with an unfair brush.

I have been thinking about Anglican's comment as well, but did not want to be critical of the statement without knowing its context. What I question is whether academia in general and academics in particular really do believe they function as a pure meritocracy that is focused on the accumulation of knowledge. Some of the most relentlessly self-aware people I have ever met are academics, and my broad experience with individuals across many disciplines is that academics generally have a pretty good idea how of how the world works and how people in it function. I feel the Ivory Tower stereotype, while still extant, is not as strong as it once was. The vast majority of academics I have encountered are pragmatic, results-oriented people who understand the difference between the ideal of a pure meritocracy and the real world where they need to maximize their ability to get results.

I apologize for being contrary, here. I fully respect your opinions and accept that your experiences have probably been quite different than mine. But after working in academia for 12 years and then constantly collaborating with academics for another 12 years, I have only come across two or three "bad eggs" in that time period whom I feel were substantially too full of themselves and failed to grasp how the world works. Sure, those two or three were really annoying, but my sense is that there are similar numbers of bad eggs in any profession or group of people, which I why I question whether it is fair for academia to be singled out for telling itself it is something it is not.

There is a broader point to be explored here as well, concerning the attitude of the public toward statements made by knowledgeable experts and when it is and isn't appropriate to question those statements. We have touched on some of that in previous discussion at AtK, I think. But I think that is somewhat peripheral to the main issue here of whether academia is any more or less closed/arcane/unfair/delusional than any other group of similar size and influence. My experience leads me to believe that it is not. But I certainly do not claim to be the greatest authority on this topic.

Streak said...

Feels like we are talking about different stuff. I agree with you, actually, that the ivory tower idea is mostly bs. The academics I know struggle with all the same stuff that everyone else does--taxes, kids, healthcare, family, and even jobs.

But I think you might be misunderstanding or missing what I am saying about the cult. My own advisor (and Anglican's as well, btw) used to tell me that my dissertation would determine if I ever got a job. Of course, not one of the jobs I have applied for (and I honestly can't remember how many) ever asked for my dissertation. The list of people who have actually read it are incredibly small. Yet, my grad school faculty was largely oblivious. I had a few interviews along the way, and think that only one asked about research ideas. None asked about my dissertation.

One of my buddies chairs a history/poli sci department at a regional state school, and he notes that he has a big problem with trying to address the expectations of people who come out of a program like ours. They expect that the academic world will be centered around research and publishing, but for most it is around teaching 4 and 5 courses and doing more committee and service work. Publishing is much less important there, and at the community college, not even discussed.

When I talk about my experiences to faculty members from my university, they usually don't get that. Their world is about research, and then about teaching secondarily. And when they teach, they often get to teach the upper division and graduate courses that are about their area. As an adjunct, I know I have taught about 3 times as many classes as my tenured friends in the time I have been teaching.

I have had tenure, or tenure track friends suggest that I apply for certain jobs with a casual nature that is often off putting. Because those jobs are attainable to them. For some, they have no idea the sweat and tears put into each individual application, followed by the inevitable picturing myself getting the job and moving into that office (will I move all my books? What kind of computer will I get?) only to find myself on the outside. For sure, it isn't as if rejection is limited to the academic world, but my experience is that those who have jobs are often oblivious to just how painful and how often the rejection happens. And where "cult" comes to mind are those people who I knew when they were looking for jobs who completely understood how damaging and painful this was--only to slowly lose that the longer they are inside. I can think of a specific faculty friend whose job search I observed before I really knew him. I went to all of those job talks, and remember that this particular friend was hired only because the number one candidate took a different job; the number two candidate flamed out; number 4 was a bust, and that left my new friend. When he started, he was as sympathetic as could be.

He is still a friend, mind you, but not as sympathetic or aware of the market's capricious nature. He is now firmly ensconced. And I could list several others who have responded similarly.

Jay said...

Streak: I understand what you mean now. It is different from what I was talking about and I agree that there is a cultish aspect to that way of thinking. Thanks for the clarification.

steves said...

FWIW, most of the bad eggs I found in academia were in administration. Faculty, for the most part, were good.

Are tenure track positions declining?

Streak said...

From what I have read, yes, many universities have, over the last 10 years either started to replace tenured faculty with term faculty, or have started hiring more adjuncts.

Streak said...

And we should note that conservatives have been gunning for tenure for a long time.