notes from the non-tenured-stream · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications

Being frank feels risky: Notes from the non-tenured stream

It is mid-afternoon on the last Sunday in September and I have been sitting in front of my computer for about five hours already. This has been my schedule for the last two weeks. Not because I haven’t got my lectures ready, amazingly I have (ok, mostly). Nope, this ennui is all about grant-writing season. Tomorrow is the internal deadline at a university where I will be submitting a postdoctoral application, and Friday was my institution’s internal deadline for faculty research grants. I’m throwing my hat in both rings because a) I want to think about new research projects amidst all the teaching I am doing and b) I am feeling the (constant) pressure of covering my bases for next year. Of course there is no guarantee I’ll receive any funding, or any jobs or renewal for that matter, but that’s the way this game goes. As I sit here trying to conjure something witty-yet-insightful-and-provocative to post (or at least witty and insightful) while I stare at the labyrinthine system for inputting my life onto the Canadian Common CV I find myself reminded of Aimée’s post on Friday: the personal is professional.

So here’s the truth: I’m exhausted.

I find I don’t often want to admit that to my colleagues, much less to an unknown number of readers on the interwebs. After all: I’m a contract worker. But behold how I can time manage! Behold my powers of teaching 3/3 and ability to research as well! Stand amazed at my stamina for filling out grant applications while hosting a visiting speaker! In other words, I don’t want to admit I’m tired because I don’t want to appear incapable of handling it all. I don’t want you to think you shouldn’t hire me, in other words.

I don’t like typing any of this, because frankly I’m concerned about navel-gazing. But the fact is that I am a contract worker who is—like so many—staring down the barrel of another year of applying for everything while maintaining a research profile and writing competent and exciting lectures (& welcoming my students in to my rather chaotic office). But the fact is that I don’t have anything funny or witty or particularly optimistic to say today. All I’ve got is honesty. Oh yeah, and about five more lectures to write.

4 thoughts on “Being frank feels risky: Notes from the non-tenured stream

  1. Oh, Erin, you are so very right in your insights here. One of the wonderful things about peer-review within academe is the notion of meritocracy (which hopefully works out more often than not), but the ugly flip side of being trained to be reviewed by peers at every turn, is that we can get caught up in a rather unhealthy feeling of living in a fishbowl. How is it that we're now grown ups, but yet at times our profession makes us feel like teenage freshmen worried about what the much cooler seniors will think of us? (Forgive my use of Hollywood cliches to make my point – it's Monday morning.) And the stakes are so much higher now; if those seniors didn't like us back in the day, well, I don't know, maybe we didn't go to the “cool” parties (which we probably didn't care about anyway), but now if they don't like us, we risk not only the real downsides of not landing the grants/jobs we desire, but the more nebulous sense that our colleagues will somehow think less of us, which, in turn, just might make us think less of ourselves as well. I, for one, commend you (and Heather and Aimée for that matter), for giving voice to some of the neurosis that our profession tends to engender. And for the record, I do think that your post is both witty and insightful. Now it's time for some coffee…


  2. Great post, Erin, and I applaud you for writing it.

    One of the craziest things about this job is feeling like we've always got to be 'on', and it's even better if you can indicate to others how you're working 24/7 but it's GREAT! Your position is precarious and the ambient stress on top of all the specific stress is enough to sap the optimism out of anyone.

    On this side of the hiring line, I know I am loathe to ever complain about feeling overburdened, overwhelmed, or overworked because my job seems so 'easy' compared to life in the 'real world'. It's not like I'm digging ditches, or filling out a daily time sheet in 15 minute increments, or suffering a ridiculous dress code, after all.

    I'd make you a cup of tea if only you weren't so far away …


  3. You have my empathy and sympathy. Like Aimee, I can't complain – I make more now than most couples on the island (which is weird reversal from being a grad student) and I get to do something I love. But even as a probationary tenure track faculty member, I feel like I can't show weakness. I'm an emotional person – at home we joke that I'm a) made of water, or b) a reincarnation of Margery Kempe – and there's been more than one exhausting day, conference paper, or meeting that's left me weeping in my office. But I feel like I'd be seen as unprofessional if I let others know how distressed I sometimes feel.

    At the same time, I worry about narratives of martyrdom. By bottling up our emotions, do we simply shore up expectations of emotionless sacrifice? We compete (and are rewarded?) for being able to claim the greatest amount of exhaustion/overwork. There's a wierd pride in people's voices (including my own) when exclaiming about working late or having six things to finish before the end of the week. Do we really have to work that hard? Or by competing in these narratives are we creating the expectation that we should?

    I fear we are all still feuled by the grad school fraudulence complex. We feel guilty about our well paying, fulfilling jobs when there are ditch diggers and factory workers out there barely surviving while doing gruelling work. We _know_ their work is crucial to the operation of society, and we doubt the value and validity of our own contributions, so we engage in masochistic martyrdom, placing unreal expectations on ourselves, expectations that then become institutionalized.

    Maybe the real feminist act – for ourselves and our future colleagues – is to refuse to accept overwork as a given. But that's a lot easier for tenure track faculty to do, and by the point we get tenure, overwork is a bad habit… maybe even an addiction.


  4. Thanks to all of you for these insightful and engaged comments. I am struck by the reticence to reveal what (my interpretation, my word) might be perceived as weakness in our work.

    SC, I take your last statement as an astute and cautionary observation: what kind of questions should we be posing to the system if overwork (not to be used synonymously with good work, dedicated work or thorough work) is so often what it takes to be rewarded (literally or emotionally)?


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