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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?
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?
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.
Professionalization of a sort
Wednesday through Saturday of this week I was out of town at the big conference in my field. This particular conference happens every two years, and, coincidentally, the last one happened during my first year on the job. Although during the last conference I attended more sessions, I would say at this conference I accomplished more. At this conference, I felt much more a part of the profession, rather than a newcomer/grad student looking in.
The sense of, for lack of a better term, professionalization I felt at this conference highlighted the lack of that feeling in my department at home. Now, I will be the first to admit some of that feeling comes from me. I need to project more of the confidence and authority I felt at this conference within my own office. There is, however, a significant way that I think the current structure is set up to undermine those feelings.
Much of this is a part of my title. As the coordinator of a program, and not a director, there are barriers to my decision making process that inhibit my ability to really plan for change. Sure, I can make a plan, but so much of what I would need to put that plan in motion two or more steps removed from me that it is easy to feel like nothing can be done.
Some of this is how I am treated. Again, I think I have made some mistakes in setting myself up here that have led to some of it, but not all. Much of it has to do with the existing politics and administrative structure of the place. There is far too much “management,” particularly of me. There isn’t much I can do about this, but I am hoping that some of the recent changes and the new QEP will lead to some changes on this front.
What I can do right now is to work on myself. Locking myself down in a way, and only projecting the professional that this weekend taught me I am. There are definitely going to be people around there that won’t like it, but my only goals are to grow the service, and have solid foundation for the next person who holds this position.
It all started with my mother, doesn’t everything?
According to Wikipedia, when I was 10 Post-It notes began to be sold throughout the US. From that point forward I could count on two thing in my Christmas sock: an orange, and a pack of post-its. Although I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her actually use one, my mother is addicted to Post-It notes. Actually, her addiction extends to nearly any kind of office supply; it also extends to my little sister and myself.
Seriously, if you want to cheer one of us up just take us to Staples or Office Depot, stick a cup of coffee in our hands, and let us wander the aisle, stare at the pens, and stroke the notebooks until closing. If you want us to squeal like little girls, give us money to spend. My mother may have ensured that each of her daughters fell prey to her office supply addiction, but of course I have to be special. As my mother likes to put it, I have “champagne tastes on a beer budget.” Yep. Stick me in a room with 3 of anything, tell me to choose, and 9 times out of 10 I’ll pick the most expensive of the bunch. I could probably even do it blindfolded.
So, while the DH might find pleasure in the more traditional internet porn sites, I click on over to Levengers. I might not need, or ever be able to afford, a $100 pen, but sometimes a girl needs to dream. The only thing more useless than an expensive pen is probably an expensive notebook. Of course the Levengers product I most covet is the Circa Notebook. Even I can’t justify those prices for just a notebook, but long ago I convinced myself that I could justify the expense if I got a planner that I could use again, and again. Once I paid the outrageous price for the initial set up, I could just by refills. I know. I know.
The good part of this story is that several years ago Staples tried to get into the customizable notebook racket with a system they called Rolla. Same idea, the ability to move your pages around, and all that. At the time I bought a couple of notebooks, and really did find them useful when I was studying for comps. The Cajun Princess even received one from me as a study aid. For some reason, Staples decided Rolla wasn’t doing it, so they re-branded the whole system Arc. You can probably tell where this is going.
In an effort to get myself out of the funk I’ve been in for the last few days, I went to Staples earlier this afternoon to look for a 2012 planner. One of the effects of accepting the administrative nature of my position, and taking the additional work this summer, is accepting the fact that I am no longer on an academic calendar. Instead of planning from August – June, I need to be able to chart my year from Jan – Dec like everyone else in the world. Hence, the need for a new planner 1/2 way through the year.
Of course the Levenger weekly/monthly planner was on my Christmas list, and of course no one else in the world was foolish enough to pay that much money for it. I’m glad no one got it for me because Staples finally came to their senses and created a weekly/monthly planner refill packet for the Arc system. Yes, it does still fit the Rolla notebooks I have. Look:
Here is the cover. The 1″ discs that came with the notebook were just slightly too small, so I had to get 1 1/2″ discs that are now a little big. I’ll just have to fill the space with notebook pages. 🙂
Here is the monthly view. The only problem with the refill pack was that it didn’t include tabs to separate the months. I bought a couple of divider packs, and now my planner is all multi-colored. 🙂
Here is the weekly view. You might not be able to see it, but the week is divided over two pages horizontally. (Mon- Wed on the left, Thurs – Sunday on right) Personally, I really prefer a vertical organization to my week, but I liked everything else enough to give this a try. Since I’m trying to organize my work more by smaller tasks than big projects, I like the shaded column that divide up the days. One column can be for appointments, the other for tasks.
The best part of this all is that the Arc refill was only $9.99. Even after buying new rings, and two packages of dividers, this was still cheaper than any other planner there.
After Staples I hit the nail place next door to get my eyebrows waxed, so all I have to do is trim my bangs, and I will be ready to go back to work on Monday. The funk is not completely lifted, but going back to work will at least distract me enough to keep me going for a while.
Nearly everyone I know is going to a conference this week. I’m pouting because I don’t get to go with them.
The conference only happens every two years, and this year it is at my undergraduate alma mater. I’ve known for a while that I wouldn’t be able to go, because it is a small, but crazy expensive conference. Today, however, the conference organizer emailed me to find out if I could step in to chair my panel.
I’ve never chaired a panel, and I would have loved the opportunity. Now, there is one more thing I’m missing out on. Today, I felt a little like the “Nobody likes us” guys from Kids in the Hall.