job market · job notes

The beautiful job

Recently I received an email from a graduate student in English who wanted to talk about “acquiring the tenure track job on which my future happiness depends.”

This lovely locution, which I take to stand for professorial aspiration in general, got me thinking: what is that job, as it figures in the imagination? And what is the job in real life? What did I think I was getting myself into? Was I right? And am I happy?

I am happy, but I had no idea what a TT job involved. When I was a grad student – wait, no, my understanding was formed long before that, sometime in my undergraduate Chaucer class, maybe, where every day the professor handwrote a bibliography across both blackboards – or perhaps by reading The Edible Woman at an impressionable moment. I  thought being a professor would involve long periods of quiet contemplation punctuated by scintillating conversations with gifted students or impassioned arguments with colleagues. I expected medicine for the soul, a clean well-lighted place with books, cool quiet and time to think. Noble penury. Principled aloofness. Anguished genius.

Turns out it’s not really like that. Even the noble penury doesn’t last forever.

I thought what I might do in this post is recap last week, which was a really good week, and fairly typical. I thought doing this might give substance to the understanding of what it means to be a professor these days. It’s a bit long, as blog posts go, so if you are not plagued with prurience about other people’s everyday, please click away and make better use of your time. Final caveat: being an associate dean, I do less teaching and attend more meetings than most professors. Still, for what it’s worth, here is a recap of the week of 31 January 2011.

Research day! I used to preserve Fridays, but found I was so tired by week’s end that I would just sit at my desk filing email for hours. So now I take Mondays, and while I rarely spend the whole workday on research, about 2 Mondays a month I do get to work from home. This Monday I reread and prepped the book I had to teach on Tuesday, started reading the book I have to teach next week, graded last week’s blog assignments, wrote a letter of recommendation for a graduate student, drafted the midterm mapping assignment for English 380, talked to an editor on the phone, submitted a detailed course description for next year’s courses, and sorted (but tried to avoid answering) email.

I’m at work early, about 7:45. That gives me 45 minutes to manage email before I meet with a colleague to finalize the participants for the first Banff Research in Culture, our very cool new summer school. At 9:58 I leave my colleague in my office to finish up because I have Associate Deans’ Council. I leave that meeting early for an 11:30 lunch appointment with the director of a research institute – who, fortunately, has to be somewhere at 1pm herself, so I am on time for the weekly meeting with my assistant (the 3 academic associate deans share an assistant). We are trying to understand the impact on Arts departments of a funding change at FGSR, so this week’s meeting is about how to solicit, manage and present financial data in order to advocate effectively. At 2pm I teach, so I force myself to stop writing emails at 1:45 in order to focus. But I also don’t want to forget to stop in the English department to sign a grad student’s travel form, meaning I arrive with my head not really in the game. It’s an okay class, but I feel I’m not teaching at my best this semester. Or rather, since that’s a bit unfair, I feel at this particular point in my career I’m learning how to let go in the classroom and allow things to happen in a less structured way – and I’m finding that difficult to do and difficult to evaluate.

At 3:30 I have office hours but today there’s a reporter from The Gateway to talk with me about tomorrow night’s event, which is a first-ever, experimental pecha kucha competition for graduate students on how to make Arts research public. A colleague and I have set this up and have no idea what to anticipate.

Home about 6 to eat leftover pasta and head out to a new fitness class at 7pm. I don’t know it yet, but this will prove to be the worst decision of the week, at once boring (squats, pushups, situps, pullups) yet painful.

Home at 8:30. Shower. OMGBlog!! Bed.

The early part of the day is unstructured, so I have actual worktime for new recruitment monies, TT hire in Sociology, the CSL component of my class, task force on grad student funding. As always, I spend a ridiculous amount of time managing my calendar. You know what would give me an extra three hours a week? Calendar invites instead of email notices.

At 11:30 I’m slated to meet with the Vice Dean. At 2pm we have Chairs Council. That meeting leads directly into unveiling the teaching wall of fame at 3pm, an installation honoring excellent teaching in the Faculty of Arts. It’s lovely: tea, scones, orchid corsages for award winners, a rousing speech by the Dean, great conviviality, and a satisfying turnout. After chitchatting for an hour, there are only 15 minutes back at my desk before I have to leave for dinner: we are taking the pecha kucha judges out to dinner before tonight’s competition. Walking to the restaurant, I wonder whether four-inch platform boots were the way to go today. Which reminds me to call the drag queen to confirm she’s coming to my class tomorrow.

Dinner is fantastic. The “Let’s Talk: Making Arts Research Public” competition, which will hand out three prizes of $1500, is being judged by members of the actual public we’re hoping grad students can reach. They are my dinner companions: the MLA Laurie Blakeman, the writer Todd Babiak, and arts administrator Amber Rooke, together with my friend and colleague Imre Szeman, CRC in Cultural Studies and tireless, inventive collaborator. The working part of the dinner establishes the criteria for judging tonight’s event, but the conversation ranges all over: the current political climate of Alberta (suddenly interesting), the role of the university in the intellectual life of the city, the affordances and limitations of digital technology for active citizenship, and what genuine partnerships between academics and public intellectuals might look like.

We are on tenterhooks for the “Let’s Talk” event itself, but the grad students – of course! – amaze me. Students want to map public art in Edmonton, re-mark the “On to Ottawa” trek, videotape mummers, set up a blog about inactivity as a form of productive political engagement (this one stole my heart), stage sound in random stairwells, coordinate public opinion on downtown developments, listen to children by taking their art seriously, create huge-format Dracula editions building on the vampire phenomenon and First Nations weaving traditions, and make comic books that foreground the history of Jewish immigration behind Superman. The event ends at 9pm with three worthy winners, but students, colleagues, administrators, judges and media stick around, talking, until sometime after 10. I go home happy.

Never made the mistake of opening email before you leave the house! But I do, which means I don’t get in to the office until 11:00. But by that time, I’ve read all six papers, English and French, for the research seminar on Friday as well as a brilliant graduate student’s written exams: her oral is next Tuesday. That leaves me two hours for more email before meeting with the Dean at 1. Class starts at 2 and I meet Darrin Hagen there. Here’s a pedagogical insight from the week: don’t even try to compete with a drag queen’s wit. The class goes so well that the students are still talking when it’s time to move on to the book-signing, so we move that out into the hall. One student has a question about counseling a friend about gender reassignment, and that means I’m late for Patsy Yeager‘s talk at 3:30 – which I don’t want to be, since I’m part of a group taking her out to dinner – but what can you do? I slip in at 3:40. The topic is trash and our attachments to it, and everybody seems captivated. My neck and shoulders are still so sore from Tuesday’s disastrous workout that I can hardly see the videos.

I have two hours between the end of questions and our dinner reservation, and it’s a good thing, because I have a lot of wrapping-up to do. I write to each grad student competitor thanking them for their participation. I reach out to a few students whose work intersected with mine to see whether they want to participate in the Digital Urbanisms collaboratory my research group has just been awarded. I want to write thank-you notes to the judges (which is what you do when there’s no money) to go along with the thank-you notes to the BRiC vettors. I remember errands I haven’t yet done. I really want to get the must-deal-with email back down to a single screen, since being on the second screen is fatal to your chances of my replying.

I do …. some of this.

Dinner is terrific: convivial and intellectual, full of anecdotes and explorations. We talk about the PMLA, the job market, our projects. I learn more about what my colleagues are working on. Patsy insists on dessert, thereby endearing herself to me. Home around 11.

Friday starts with a two-hour budget meeting at 9am: not my department, but one I’m responsible for as an associate dean. I find it complicated and interesting. It’s one of the few times we look at a department as a whole: undergraduate programs, teaching complement, grad numbers, part-timers. This is the first of five such meetings for me this month (the Vice Dean does all 17 Arts departments). At 11:30, after a half hour of email, I meet with a grad chair to figure out how to sustain decent funding and get students through the program in a reasonable time without compromising the quality of their work. Then I realize I’m double booked at 1pm. A student from a couple of years ago is coming by to talk about grad school, and I put that ahead of arriving on time for the CLC research seminar. In the end, I miss the first hour of the seminar, but am there from 2-5pm. One of my grad students presents: as always, she is brilliant. Another one of my supervisees, recently finished the PhD, is there too and asks the first question, which is pointed and generous and helpful. I can’t believe how proud I am of both of them.

I skip the wine and cheese in order to get home for a 6pm skype date with a friend in New York, feeling that I’ve earned this week’s end.

I love this job. But it is nothing like I imagined. There are few periods of scholarly contemplation; instead, it’s a bonus to prep class the night before. There are no impassioned arguments with colleagues, though there’s lots of conviviality and a good exchange of ideas. Nobody told me what a delight graduate students would be, nor, in fairness, how much of a scramble it can be to keep up with them. I hadn’t anticipated this many numbers in my everyday (that’s a decanal thing, I think). Atwood was writing long before email, so it might not be fair to say there’s a lot more keyboard than ironing board; still, I am sometimes gobsmacked by how much of the job takes place through Outlook.

I definitely like the comfortable pay and job security of a tenured position, but there are a couple of things to add to that. First, and this is well documented, people taking TT jobs tend to do so later in life than those who don’t pursue a PhD, meaning their earning years are shortened. Professors also typically take up those positions with student loans to repay, and plough some percentage of after-tax earnings back into the job (to supplement research trips, buy books, etc.): one year a colleague calculated this at 17%. Second, especially in the pre-tenure years but also to some degree afterward, you don’t feel like you have security. Even though you can’t really lose your job, you feel like you are constantly being scrutinized and found wanting. No matter how busy your days or long your weeks, the white space on your annual report – and I believe everybody feels this – comes at you like a moral reproach. Forgive me for saying this in a context where so many people have no job security, but the “tenure” in TT positions often feels tenuous.

As wonderful as last week was, I don’t think this is the only job that I could love. On surveying the past week, what gave me the most pleasure was building things – the Banff summer school, the pecha kucha competition. Second, I liked the conversations. Notably, these did not involve just academics; in fact, for me the week’s most interesting dialogue was probably with a politician, a journalist and an arts administrator. Third, I know I like teaching in all contexts, but as I’m constantly lamenting, this job usually doesn’t involve enough of it, given the other demands on my time. Fourth, notice the relative absence of research in my week. I like the projects I’m involved in, but writing scholarly articles is not basic to my sense of intellectual vitality.

I’m not saying you’re like me, or you should be. I offer this post as part of an ongoing discussion about the post-doctoral job market. If you found this useful/interesting, I invite you to write your own weekly recap for this blog. I think an archive of academic women’s everydays, whether new professor, old graduate student, contract instructor, non-academic staff, etc. would be inherently interesting and potentially valuable. (Let’s agree they don’t all have to be as ponderous as this post!)

If that works, maybe we could branch out into the everydays of highly educated women who don’t work in the academy: I suspect that one of the reasons we don’t think beyond the professoriate is that we don’t have a concrete sense of what non-academic professionals do.

But I must fly. That email won’t answer itself.

10 thoughts on “The beautiful job

  1. I am so grateful for this honest itinerary! It does, however, confirm my growing suspicions that the work is far more–how to put it?–managerially than it is educationally oriented, which is very, very far from where my personal skills lie, not to mention my personal interests, and a huge part of my hesitation regarding throwing all my eggs in the University basket.
    I also noticed that you had little to no time for a private life during the work week–including reading–and am wondering whether this was an intentional omission in your summary, or a genuine omission in your time?


  2. @Danielle: good catch. Honestly, reading is the one thing I have NEVER managed to figure out, in 17 years on the job. I read what I teach, and I read what my grad students write, obviously, but reading for pleasure or for general education – let alone to keep up in the discipline?: I don't know how to do that, it works at such a different pace. It's the biggest regret of my professional life.

    The personal life is not so hard. I make time for it. (Notice skipping out on Friday night to skype with a friend, e.g.) Saturdays are sacred no-work days – Sundays too, as much as I can make 'em, and although I don't socialize with friends much on weekdays, my partner and I assume weeknights are for each other – which is to say, we don't assume they are for work (though that's sometimes the case). I normally take a Pilates class on Friday mornings, too, but that is subject to cancellation.

    Managerial rather than educational? Not sure I'd agree with that. But I'll spare you my soapbox rant about collegial governance vs managerialism – I'll save it for another blog post! 🙂

    Thanks for your comment.


  3. Accepting that managerially might be the wrong word, I also think that your week looks a bit like that because of your associate dean responsibilities.

    I think this exercise is valuable. And having other women academics contribute similar posts would be even more so, not least to show that not every academic career is the same, even in the same department or institution. In fact, your own job will look different when you are no longer an associate dean.

    I also think that those people thinking about academic careers can ask people about the job in ways that would elicit this kind of information. In the careers world these are called “informational interviews” and they are widely recommended in relation non-academic searches but this post illustrates that they could also be useful for academic career planning. (my next post for the University Affairs Careers Café blog makes this point. It should be up next week)

    And this post in particular, is likely to be valuable to anyone already in academia who is wondering about whether to take on an associate deanship or direct her career in a slightly different direction.


  4. That's an interesting view of what the job can look like. As JoVe said, there are a lot of ways it can look (my week looked nothing like that and I'm in the same institution as Heather). Our academic lives have seasons, and so five years from now, just about everything could be different. That's what I like about being a professor–things don't stay the same and neither do we.


  5. I'm kind of taken with having lots of day-in-the-life posts from a wide variety of us… Could be so nice to get pictures of what we are all doing under this big umbrella called 'academy'…


  6. Thanks Heather for describing your days—I thoroughly enjoyed it, and you do get a lot done in one day! What struck me was the variety of things that you do and the variety of skills you develop doing them. Speaking very honestly and for myself only, I find your description fantastically refreshing since as a grad student I always worried about what I saw as the possible monotony of a professor’s life: teach course after course and do research and write articles. (I am conscious that I am speaking as someone who has chosen not to be in the academy, at least for now!)
    I don’t like the managerial vs academic split—not only could it veil a suspicious hierarchy of sorts between “real” intellectual work and the rest, but it is also not representative: teaching is in itself a very managerial business yet it is very much what life in the academy is built on.
    I think what I like most is that your description posits creative possibilities for doing intellectual work in the academy: who is to say that the most valuable academic thing you do is write, whether articles or books, or even do research? Why could it not be creating a Summer Programme or challenging oneself, one’s students and one’s colleagues to conceive of research in a more public manner, or, or, or?


  7. @Maisaa: I agree with you. I've always found administrative work creative (of course that's not the same as finding all admin work creative – just as the grunt work of finalizing citations is anything but). And I agree, also, that much of what goes into teaching is good management: being organized, being able to understand the relationship of one task/skill/assignment to another, being able to see something all the way through, and troubleshoot.

    It's so funny to think about monotony: my job is anything but! In fact, my partner Mo and I were talking about “exception management,” an IT term that aptly, if ironically, describes everyday life.


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