September, 2013

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Too Much and Not Enough

For whatever reason, the stars have aligned turning this October into the month of ALL THE DEADLINES! Really, there are 3-4 CFP’s with deadlines between October 15 – 25th (and those are just the ones I’m interested in). Consequently, one of the ways I’m avoid the massive pile of grading that must be done before tomorrow (okay Wednesday at the latest) is to feel productive by working on these CFP’s.

The CFP I’m working on this weekend, which is simultaneously the least related to my professional work and the one in which I am most invested, is for a book chapter in a book about first generation & working class graduate students and faculty. Given all my discussions here about being working class in graduate school/the academy, you might think this project would be coming along nicely.


The current draft of my proposal consists of an unusable paragraph, complete with strike-through.

Since I spent my entire dissertation writing process thinking, “Wow! That really works.” whenever a writing center technique would come in handy, I figured I would start with the basics, with something I counsel writer’s to do when they are stuck — go back to the prompt. While the prompt hasn’t provided me with an epiphany just yet, it has made me realize the problem.

Like most CFP’s this one includes a nice list of suggested topics/areas of interest on which writer’s might like to focus.

    Cultural Difference
    Academic Preparedness
    Economic issues
    Work-life balance
    Social and cultural capital
    Family responsibilities and relationships
    Peer relations
    Mentorship Strategies and relationships
    Academic and social skills

My problem here is not necessarily a bad one. The problem is not that I don’t have anything to say about the items on this list; the problem is I could probably say something about every item on this list. In this case, having too much to say is just as problematic as too little, because I completely lack focus. Sure, I could talk about nearly every item on this list, but that doesn’t mean I have something useful to say about them all. The difficulty lies in figuring out my “So, what?” Why and how has being a working class/first-generation graduate student/faculty impacted me the most; and, what might be useful for someone else in that story?

At the coffee shop this morning I returned to Donna LeCourt’s Identity Matters, which is my go to place for starting to think about class & education. Modifying Sharon Crowley’s claim that inexperienced writer’s are better able to see the “differance” in a discourse, LeCourt argues graduate students (particularly first generation/working class) serve the same role in the academy. (I’ve probably tried to oversimplify here, so please do check out LeCourt & Crowley.)

The struggle I face is picking out the moment that resulted in the most clear conflict between my working class identity/values and the expectations of the academy. Here’s where it all get a little sketchy, because there is so much and it is all so inter-related that I’m having a difficult time picking out the unifying thread. What I currently think, however, is that there is something for me to write about in the difference between my response to crisis and the “time to degreee” expectations.

Yes, a stroke is rare, and could happen to anyone during their graduate work, and it isn’t necessarily a “working class” or “first-generation” issue, but my response to that crisis is what I think most clearly brought my working class identity/values into conflict with the academic demands made on me as a graduate student.

Now, I just have to figure out what it all means and send in a 500 word abstract. 😉
And, since you’ve been patient enough to let me talk-it-out here, I give you PUPPIES!

20130929-135723.jpg They love sitting on the porch.

Forks in the Road

Although I’ve been thinking a lot about Casie’s list of activist advising questions for students considering careers in academia, and I had planned to do a series of posts answering some of those questions, that plan began to feel a little disingenuous.

Here’s a refresher of those questions:

What is it you like about academia? Specifically, what practices make you happy?
What parts of academia stress you out or make you upset?
Is it important that you live in a specific city, state, or region?
What kind of financial compensation do you need to be happy?
What sort of daily or weekly schedule do you envision as your ideal?
Is teaching/research/administration a practice that you could envision yourself engaging with over time?
What feelings do you experience when you think about not working in academia?
What kind of job could you imagine yourself doing and being happy?
Do you like to research and write?
How do you deal with timelines and independent goal setting?
If you had to describe your ideal day at work—from waking up to going to bed—what would that day look like? What challenges might you encounter? What high points might you experience?
What identities do you call on when you consider your self-worth? Your values? How do you prioritize these identities?

While I still think that it is worthwhile to keep many of these questions in mind throughout your career, the disingenuous part of my reflection plan is that I already have a career in academia. It might not be the traditional tenure-track assistant professor gig, but I am now three years into the system. If I truly wanted to, I’m positive I could find a way out, but for now at least I’m not that motivated to get out. Recent events (graduation), have however, made me re-think my position in the academy.

That last question, “What identities do you call on when you consider your self-worth?” That is the question driving me the most right now. Although, since going back to community college in some way shape or form I’ve been a student since 1995, I am now officially done. No more student. Given the duration of my time in and out of schools, you might suspect this would be a bigger identity crisis than it really is. As typically happens with me, the strange backwards way I find myself doing things actually works to my advantage in some way. Taking a full-time job before I had finished my dissertation actually worked for me in terms of my identity. For the last three years, I’ve been cultivating a new identity through work. My professional identity primarily got me through that last stage of dissertation writing because having a job made me want to be done being a student. Since, as I said before, the only way to get done was to work through it, I did it. The more I built an identity as a writing center administrator by working all day, presenting at conferences, and joining professional organizations, the more vexing it became to continually have interactions that placed me firmly in my “student” identity.

Now, however, my professional identity as a writing center administrator is somewhat at odds with the identities I feel most tied to my self worth because it only addresses one aspect of the academic triumvirate – administration. Teaching, researching, and writing are supported to an extent in my current job, but they are not a part of my official job description, of which I am occasionally reminded. Teaching is more supported, as long as it is in direct service to my administrative duties. (I am expected to teach tutor training courses, but nothing else.) Yes I am funded to go to conferences, but the papers I give, if written at work, should not take away from my primary duties of staffing and promoting the writing centers. None of this makes my job horrible, in fact I really like what I do, but it does mean my job doesn’t fit me as well as it might.

As difficult as I find it, and as scarred as I might be by the dissertation, some of my identity is wrapped up in being an academic writer. The silver lining of this crazed, hectic semester is that it helped me identify when I am least happy at work. Being out of the office for classroom visits and a ton of presentations, constantly needing to prep for a class or staff meeting, putting out the various fires of trying to add another center to an already crowded space, there has been no time for me to read/research and write. Consequently, this last week when I finally did have 20 minutes here and there to think about the 3-4 CFPs with October 15th-ish deadlines, I couldn’t write. I had nothing to say, which as you might guess is fairly rare. What I learned this week is that being an academic writer is one of my identities and that it holds some value for me because when that identity is not supported by my work environment it makes me unhappy; it makes it harder to focus on what I do like about my job.

Here comes the fork in the road.

The question now is what I do to make sure my identity as an academic writer is a part of my work. The thing about working at a large research institution is that change is incremental at best and glacial at worst, so I don’t necessarily see my present working conditions or classification changing any time soon. Sure, my schedule will free up over the next couple of weeks, and if I can churn out some proposals, I should be able to then go back and get back into my writing. Writing and research will not, however, become a larger part of my job description any time soon. As you might have guessed, yes, this does mean I’ve been keeping an eye on the job lists and considering applications for more traditional tenure-track, assistant professor, types of positions. All of which, as you can imagine, means there will be some serious navel gazing going on around here for a while as I give some serious thought to both my answers to the above questions, and whether or not I want to further entrench myself in academic life. Because, although I just identified “academic writer” as an important way to think about myself, there are regions of the country where it is important for me to live; as the person with the primary income in my family, financial compensation is important; there are values and identities I hold that have the potential to conflict with a deeper engagement with the academia. The more I work to pull together materials, and apply to different positions, the more questions I have about whether or not this is the way to go. The reality is probably that it is the path I am already on, and that I need to give up the questioning and doubt to just get it done.

For now though, at least it gives me something to write about.

Timing and Hearing

Before tackling Casie’s list of questions listed in my “Staying and Going” post and making my own decisions about academia, some of which may be more public than the rest, I’d like to consider the other side of the activist mentoring equation, the student.

Although it is difficult now to remember, I was once an MA student trying to decide whether or not to continue on into a PhD program. I’d come south to find an MA program that would also provide me with community college teaching experience, because I thought that was what I wanted to do. Like my mentor from community college, I thought I could be happy teaching at a CC by day and doing community theatre at night. A couple of things happened a long the way that made me question that idea. I started teaching at a cc and I started learning more about composition. I still wanted to teach, but I was no longer sure I wanted to pursue the cc track. I was also no longer sure an MA would be enough on the cc track. As I participated in a “Facutly-in-Training” program at the local community college, the English department announced a TT position, and I got an inside look at the application process. Sure enough, although the ad said the magic words “Ma required” those were quickly followed by “PhD preferred,” and of course the position went to someone with a PhD. I began to understand that, even though the PhD is a “research” degree, I would need it if I wanted to pursue a “teaching” career. Consequently, when the DGS called me in for an advising meeting and said, “Hey! You could graduate this semester,” I kind of freaked out. With only an MA, I knew without a doubt that I would end up an adjunct. Plus, I felt like I wasn’t done learning yet. Naturally, I turned to my favorite professor for advice.

Here you need some context.

The best words to describe my favorite professor were mercurial, cantankerous, and gloomy. Those might sound like odd words to describe a mentor, but really … when she was “on,”she pushed and expected the best of you, and you wanted to give it to her. She was also brutally honest about the academy, the market, and not staying where I was for my Ph.D. work. Here’s the thing. I heard every word she said, and I considered it, but then I continued, and I stayed. Not because I thought the market was getting any better. I stayed because I knew I would need the degree, because, as loose as it was, I had a network in place, and because she was there. The good news … I have the degree and my network of friends and family only grew during my Ph.D. work. The bad news, just before my comps that favorite professor of mine left, leaving a hole in my committee that didn’t get permanently filled until I started writing about writing centers.

Over the past few years I’ve worked with several graduate students, and I would say I’ve been a mentor to a couple of them. One has chosen to go on to do her PhD work. Without being as gloomy as my mentor, I did my best to ask her the tough questions, and paint an accurate picture of graduate school and the professions. I challenged her with some of the questions in yesterday’s list. Still, she’s half-way through her first semester of a PhD program. Yes, this is just one of the ways I see myself in her. However, having been through it all now, I think there is something else at play as well. I think that even the best advice has to come at the right time, because there are points in time when we are just incapable of really hearing/processing it. Some experiences, I think we just have to have.

Of course this doesn’t change the need for more activist mentoring, because for stubborn person like me (or my former consultant), there are students who need to be asked the tough questions. Students, who will use the answers to make informed decisions, and hopefully won’t end up at the end of a PhD program feeling as if they’ve been bamboozled.

Staying and Going

My friend Casie posted this today.
I have a couple of responses to this piece, but the primary one is … yes! Just, yes! That I agree with Casie really isn’t a surprising thing.

We first met at her job talk when I walked up to tell her how much I enjoyed her presentation, and before I could get two words out found myself in tears. True story. Honest-to-God tears, accompanied by those “I’m trying not to cry, but it only makes it worse sobs.” She was gracious enough to give me a hug and let me stumble through my little speech. It was my first year on the job and to describe myself as mortified would be a little bit of an understatement. Still, there were few happier moments in that first year then when I heard she had accepted the position.

What could make someone cry at a job talk?

Valid question.
Some of it was probably the stress of my first year. Few periods in my life have been as lonely and as exhausting. The commute, adapting to a completely new work schedule & environment, being the primary source of income for my family, and on top of it all still being a graduate student — I’ve talked before about how all those things add up, and how for me when the stress adds up it usually results in tears. I’m an equal opportunity crier – if I’m sad, I cry; if I’m angry, I cry; if I’m frustrated, I cry; if I’m happy (you guessed it), I cry. In this case it was recognition.

These days it seems like everyone and their second cousin is talking about what it means to be a working class academic, and about the working conditions for graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty. Three years ago, however, it wasn’t exactly the same. Three years ago being a working class academic was just something Ouiser and I talked about sitting on the garage couch when we were in our cups. Ouiser was the first person I knew to start talking about alt-ac careers and the irresponsible mentoring of graduate students. Consequently, when I sat listening to Casie’s job talk about her research with working class academics, it touched something in me. What I meant to say, and what I hope came out between my tears, was that hearing about Casie’s research was like finally being seen. It was the first time I’d heard an academic describe graduate students who could have been me. It was a naming and a calling into being.

So, I guess you can imagine why three years later I find nothing out of the ordinary about once again seeing Casie give voice to thoughts that have been floating around my head. The only thing different is, perhaps, the context. In her post Casie outlines this great list of questions for graduates to consider as they ponder pursuing a PhD and the academic life.

What is it you like about academia? Specifically, what practices make you happy?
What parts of academia stress you out or make you upset?
Is it important that you live in a specific city, state, or region?
What kind of financial compensation do you need to be happy?
What sort of daily or weekly schedule do you envision as your ideal?
Is teaching/research/administration a practice that you could envision yourself engaging with over time?
What feelings do you experience when you think about not working in academia?
What kind of job could you imagine yourself doing and being happy?
Do you like to research and write?
How do you deal with timelines and independent goal setting?
If you had to describe your ideal day at work—from waking up to going to bed—what would that day look like? What challenges might you encounter? What high points might you experience?
What identities do you call on when you consider your self-worth? Your values? How do you prioritize these identities?

Having finally finished and received the PhD (which I somehow still think will be rescinded every time I find another mistake in my dissertation), I find myself looking at the academic job market. I’m considering which jobs and which locations would be right for me, without necessarily thinking about whether or not this is really want I want. Yes, at this point it is what I’m trained to do, but does that necessarily mean it is all I can do, or that it is even really what I want to do? Technically, I am already in academia, and I don’t know that I could answer any one of those questions. I think I am at a point, like the MA student, where it is necessary to decide do I stay or do I go?

Fall Changes

Fall has always been my favorite time of year.  Perhaps my birthday had something to do with that as a child, but school was always a part of that as well.  The first day of school was exciting for me because it meant a change of pace, and a new order to the day.

Now that we live in the South fall has become even more important to me. The most magical day of the Southern year happens in fall. One day in mid-September the humidity just turns off. Life becomes tolerable again and I can turn off the ac and still sleep through the night. I can stand to touch yarn again, and pick up all the projects I’ve ignored over the summer.  There is a gift I need to finish, and I’m finally feeling the momentum picking up to get it done.

This fall digital changes have happened here at Sur le Seuil as well.  In an effort to get my digital life in order, I finally bit the bullet and bought a domain, and have been working on getting this site in order. The CV is up, as is a rudimentary About page.  Now, I just have to figure out what to put on the Home page.  The only thing harder for me than coming up with a title is writing something like a bio or About page. I’m certain it will be corny around here for a little while.

The Upside

Generally when I talk about growing up working class and how that had influenced my educational career, I do so to point out the inadequacies of the educational system and the cultural narrative that education is always the best way to get ahead. While all that still holds true, this semester the universe has not so subtly reminded me about the benefits of coming from a working class background. Please keep in mind, just as with the negatives I discuss, I think there is much more at play here than just a working class background, some of this is — I think specific to my situation.

The best part of my experience as a first generation, working class student, particularly as an undergraduate, was the freedom. Since no one in my immediate family had been to a university, there was no one around telling me what I had to be. No one pushed me into med school, or law school, and while I may not have made the best choices (that BA in Theater isn’t exactly paying the bills), I was able to do what I loved.

Last week Deanna Mascle posted this image on her blog.


And it is so true that I laughed out loud all day.
I would never in a million years say that I made the best/smartest career choices, but I can tell you how happy I am that they have all been mine.


This is a big year for momentous anniversaries and events. It is 3.1 leap years since the DH and I got married. The first time.


There was a big, if perhaps under-celebrated, graduation.


Then, the big 4-0, and we all know how that turned out.


Now in just 16 days, I will celebrate the 5th anniversary of Stroke Day. I don’t have a snappy picture for that, just some very fuzzy memories and a traumatized husband.

The other thing I do not have from Stroke Day, or its immediate aftermath, is some great inspirational quotation for you. Yes. My recovery was amazing, a gift really. Yes. I am thankful for it, nearly every day. The only thing I am more thankful for than my recovery, are the friends and family who visited me in the hospital, those who visited despite their deep unease in that environment, and particularly those who cared for me during my recovery and babysat me afterwards. (Ouiser, I’m looking at you.)

Yes. It is probably a little twisted to celebrate a day on which you almost died, but I do. I do it because it helps me to remember. To remember what it is like to learn to walk again, to do laps around the floor in my wheelchair, to make pudding with the 80 year old men, to be forced to do everything with my left hand, to need help going up and down stairs, to walk with a cane, to any number of things …

It is easy to forget all those details because unlike the dominant narrative about major illness and/or near death experiences my life didn’t suddenly change overnight. I didn’t get to walk away from the terribly hard work of dissertation writing, or teaching, to chase some long repressed dream or “true calling.” There were bills to pay and work to be done, so like any good working class woman I went back to work. I started writing. I found a full-time job. To this day people ask me, “How?” “How did you recover so well?” “How did you recover so quickly?” And I say, “Because I had to.”

So, I celebrate. I celebrate because I had to and I did, and that is – in and of itself – a blessing.

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Working Class Thoughts on Education

One of the best pieces of feminist writing on the internet inspired this post. Melissa McEwan’s post “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regrettably Struck” is always worth a re-read. The post is a heart-rending examination of what it is like to be a feminist when negotiating relationships with the men in our lives. McEwan points out that while feminists may not hate men, it can often be difficult to fully trust the men in our lives. This isn’t a set up designed to make you think great things about what follows, I don’t pretend that my writing will reach McEwan’s level. I reference “The Terrible Bargain” because it is a piece of writing that carefully considers the consequences of living within the existing structure. In this post, I want to consider what it means to live within the existing culture at the intersection of class and the educational system. As McEwan points out in her post many other people could write this post equally well from different perspectives. I, however, can only speak from my own position (as a working class white woman with a Ph.D. in Rhetoric & Composition, who currently works coordinating a writing center) and in McEwan’s own words work to “make myself trustworthy” by striving to acknowledge and be respectful of those other perspectives.

While McEwan’s post inspired this piece, the point I would like to discuss isn’t necessarily a direct analogy, but in the same way that McEwan questions the cost women face when choosing to take a feminist stance in the world, I want to explore the cost to working class students when they choose to become a part of the educational system. Working class students receive very specific messages about education and they are expected to play a particular role within that system. For example, as a high school student in a small, economically challenged, logging town in the Pacific Northwest. Education was always considered good. Going away to college represented a chance to get “Off the Harbor,” to find somewhere with more opportunities. Additionally, more education was always better. If a BA/MS could get you a better job/life, then an MA/MS would certainly provide you with something even better. I can honestly say that during high school I couldn’t even fathom having a Ph.D. The underlying “more education is always better” message certainly got through, however.
Who knows, maybe in someone else’s experience, this all pays off. In my experience, though, I can’t say it has.

As the conversation about working class graduate students and faculty expands and becomes more visible, I’ve noticed a trend. Someone writes a piece about some aspect of the working class experience in graduate school, which gets published somewhere like The Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed, and while there maybe a few supportive comments, invariably they devolve into a chorus of, “X should have known better.” “They should have known x, y, or z about graduate school.” The most frustrating part of it all is that generally all the comments miss whatever the point was in the article. The commenters fail to engage with the larger critique of the educational system/institution. Although I learned early on Never to Read the Comments, and I’ve almost got to the point of just not even reading the articles, I just don’t want to ignore, what is to me, a vital aspect of who I am in this system. Consequently, I have been trying to why it is so disturbing to so many people to hear working class graduate students/faculty talk about their experiences. The answer I have come to is, as I think you get by now, wholly informed by my own experiences; but, I think the discomfort and antagonism comes from when working class individuals stop being consumers of the educational system and attempt to become members of that system.

As with many of the ideas snarled up in the American myth of class mobility, “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” and “getting ahead,” education is supposed to get you ahead, but only so far. Working class students are supposed to be users of the educational system, but only to a point. They should pay to take those business, nursing, accounting, elementary ed courses, and then they should go out an get the appropriate job. The problem stems from those of us who aren’t good at business, or accounting, and don’t want to teach in the K-12 system. For those of us who find out that what we are good at is “school” and have the temerity to want to teach at a college or university, we make the dangerous from users of the educational system to participants in the system. Becoming, or trying to become, a part of the university system is a mark of reaching too far, of getting out of our place. The X should have know comments are a way to try to maintain a boundary and distance between an “us” and a “them.”

The result of this constant “us” and “them” positioning is that working class graduate students and faculty have a precarious relationship with the educational system. On the one hand it has gotten me away from where I was, and given me opportunities, but it has also not paid off in some pretty significant ways. More education is not always better. Maybe it’s true; maybe I should have known to stop when I reached the end of my MA degree. I should have thought — the PhD is a research degree, and because what I really want to do is teach I should just stop here. But I didn’t know that, and in the face of a lifetime of being told variations of “more education is always better,” I chose to continue on with my PhD. Perhaps I should have been able to tell earlier; I should have known how stupid it was to leave my full-time with benefits Starbucks job, to get teaching experience as an adjunct. But shift work at Starbucks looked just like the shift work my parents did for years without getting ahead. In many ways I won my gamble. I have a full time job at a university.

Now, however, I know. I know I should have stayed at Starbucks because I could be making the same life for myself without the insane amount of debt now hanging over my head. I know I could have/should have stopped at the MA. Heck, I should have gotten over my unease around rooms full of small children and become a K-12 teacher. Now, however, I am a part of system that I no longer trust, a system that won’t hear my experience, won’t accept my calls for change. I don’t know that there is an answer to any of the issues I have raised here, but I my experience, my feminist experience tells me there is value in recognizing and acknowledging the problem; my working class experience tells me the problem is that I’ve moved beyond the consumption of education and become a part of the production of education.