academic work · after the LTA · classrooms · guest post · moving

Guest Post: Academic Alternatives

It’s a well-known fact that after defending one’s PhD, a person is in want of direction. Few of us have the strategic training to line up a tenure-track job while ABD, were there an adequate supply tenure track jobs. I defended in January 2008. The time after my defence was exhilarating. I felt like a crack addict who tasted the world anew. But with all drugs, the euphoria passed and I plummeted into the dark dungeon of the academic job-market, exacerbated by the post-economic-collapse of the 2008 mortgage crisis. The attrition of tenure-track jobs was a lethal combination with the absence of conversation and advising about alternatives to academia, well documented by Hook and Eye, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and others concerned by the corporatization of the university. 
Out of fear of disappointing my advisors and myself for failing to obtain a position at an “acceptable” research institution, I took an Assistant Professorship at the American University of Dubai in 2010. To my great surprise it transformed and invigorated my desire to teach and to pursue my scholarship. With housing and a tax-free salary, it was also financially sound. An overseas academic job was for me, and friends, a circuitous but fruitful path. Though I taught four courses a semester, and often two during a summer term, I found time to write and think and travel. In the three years I lived in Dubai, I published four peer-reviewed articles and a book review, and traveled to nearly fifteen countries in addition to paid visits home every summer.  
There are many, many problems with working and living in the Middle East, including the exploitation of the labour class, the for-profit university model, and the rampant racism and sexism. It would be easy to dismiss Dubai and the American University in Dubai for all manners of social justice and environmental crimes, and one day I might write in more detail about these, but on the ground I was also able to encounter incredible people and their narratives, to witness and to learn about colonial legacies, and to challenge my Western-centric political assumptions about the Middle East, globalization, postcoloniality, capitalism, literature and religion. Many of us talk about learning from students in our pedagogical statements, but this was not really true for me until I witnessed the many social, cultural, and political negotiations my students undertook everyday: Emirati students were full of joy and pride for their country’s rise, but unwilling to attend to the enslavement of construction workers; brilliant Indian and Pakistani students whose families helped Dubai grow were pained by exclusionary policies which prevented their families from obtaining Emirati citizenship; Nigerian and Kenyan students sought to understand their countries’ neocolonial legacies and corruption, while embracing Western culture; bright Iranian women worked assiduously to prove themselves to their families, but feared feminism; Kazakh students espoused conservative Muslim beliefs, although they enjoyed hard liquor, fast cars, and sexual promiscuity; Egyptian students brimmed with excitement during the revolution Arab Spring but understood little about their country’s history. They all, admirably, spoke three or four languages, respected their parents, and held professors in high esteem. As a quirky, unmarried, enthusiastic, socially-attuned, and reasonably young woman, I felt that I also offered a model for a differing subjectivity that alerted students to richer possibilities than what cultural and patriarchal norms establish, almost universally. (These same issues also surface in classrooms in New York, which shows the extensive convergences between “East” and “West.”) 
Not all of us can go overseas or desire to live in blinding heat and under a liberal Sharia law, but for those who love teaching and the possibilities of the world, there is much to advise about seeking academic work in Asia, the Middle East, or Eastern Europe at schools accredited or affiliated with North American institutions. 
My Dubai experience of teaching a diverse student body surely helped me to obtain a tenure-track position at Hostos Community College in 2013. Hostos belongs to the City University of New York consortium of 24 colleges and has a special history of serving the underserved Hispanic and Black communities of the South Bronx. Its faculty are devoted, long-serving, and passionate teachers and scholars. My colleagues are amazing. They support and pursue teaching innovation, encourage rigorous scholarship, provide mentoring about the tenure process, and nurture junior scholars. My scholarly presentations and publications are received with enthusiasm, not with competitive jealousy. The tenure process is clearly outlined by the union and the college, rather than obscured and ambiguated. Collaboration is encouraged and lauded. Because it is part of CUNY, I would venture that Hostos functions like some small postsecondary institutions in terms of the culture of scholarship and opportunities for pedagogical and research development. There is an awards officer who works closely with us to produce successful grant applications, and both the Provost and the Dean of Academic Affairs wholeheartedly advocate time and funding for conferencing and research.
There is something incredibly human about Hostos. Space is limited, supplies are modest, work is abundant, and energy is seemingly unlimited. The teaching load is, as it was in Dubai, four courses a semester, half composition and half literature classes. I have fewer students than adjuncts who teach two or three courses at larger institutions. My students might work full time, live out of a shelter, have childcare responsibilities, experience gang violence on a daily basis, be victims of domestic abuse, and battle racial and ethnic brutality everyday. I sense that some have been nearly hollowed out by social abjection. Never have I been more convinced of the necessity of power of education. I have learned that students are the same everywhere, that they try, fail, try again, if there is the right engagement from their professors. I don’t yet know if I am succeeding. I do know that I am thankful for this work, for this job, and for my colleagues. 
It takes some imaginative work to carve out your own path after the defence, and that path should be broader than the dream of a position at an R1 (first-level, research) institution. There is a snobbishness about teaching positions, whether at a technical school, a community college, a writing center, a liberal arts college, or a non-research institution; it implies that one has not made the cut or is less “intellectual”. It is also an unstated rejection of the labour of academia, which we would rather contract out to adjuncts. This attitude is particularly baffling in light of my alma mater, which structures the PhD package so that most candidates teach first-year classes from the start. Many of us benefitted intellectually and pedagogically from these classroom experiences, and yet it was always understood that we should aim “higher” than a teaching position. On the contrary, teaching positions have enabled me to do the work that I love: teach. I don’t glamorize it or marry my life to it. I experience my rewards when students arrive at a breakthrough or offer small thanks. I worry about the ones who sift through urban war-zones and private minefields to get an education. At the end of the day, I try to leave the weight of my students’ troubles at the office. Other friends who have landed permanent work at liberal arts or non-research colleges (Vancouver Island University, Quest University, NAIT) enjoy a similar experience as I: we do the work we trained to do.

Many states and provinces have college consortiums (Texas, Georgia, California, Illinois, New York) and online application systems that will list positions from their various colleges. University Affairs has international job listings for those interested in overseas positions. Look for schools called “American University” or “Canadian University”. NYU has several global campuses, including one in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. Writing Programs and Centers at these institutions yield interesting positions. Don’t be afraid of venturing into a two-or-three-year contract. There is no guarantee, but it will be an adventure.

Hostos Community College

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Academic Alternatives

  1. Thanks for this fabulous post, Tram. I love the sense of adventure and open-heartedness you've brought to your career. Your post is a useful reminder of our core values, and it's also a useful reminder of our cultural blindnesses. I learned a lot from reading it.

    Like

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