academic reorganization · adjuncts · affect · after the LTA · personal narrative · Uncategorized

Repetition with a Difference: Teaching on the tenure-track is different

I’ve just finished my first term of teaching.

No, wait. That’s not quite right. I’ve just finished my first term teaching in a tenure-track position. I’ve been teaching in contract, LTA, adjunct, and sessional posts since 2008. But this term? This was my first on the tenure-track. Here is what I can tell you: it is different. It is very very different.

I have been keeping track of the clear and less-clear ways teaching in a tenure-track position differs from precarious labour, in part because I have spent a near-decade in precarity and wanted to attend to the ways in which this shift affected my heart and mind. In part I have kept track as a kind of watchfulness: what is and is not possible on the other side of the looking glass? A single semester does hardly a quantitative data set make, but nonetheless here is what I can say thus far”

  1. I know how to write lectures efficiently. See aforementioned almost-decade of precarious labour, which often meant teaching 50% more than my tenured colleagues, which in turn meant learning how to write lectures in a timely (read break-neck-fast) manner. This term I’ve had a teaching release and so I taught two classes. One was a third-year Canadian literature course, and the other was a graduate class in… Canadian poetry. Guess what my area of specialty happens to be? Yup: Canadian literature (especially poetry). This is the first time I have ever taught ,my entire course load in my area of expertise. Which brings me to…

2.      Teaching in my area of expertise makes me feel confident and competent.    Seems obvious, right? Well, I can tell you from a whopping single semester of experience that teaching material I know inside and out, which I have taught before as well as written about, presented upon, and am currently researching is *cough* transformative. I did not dread going to class for fear of being read as somehow lacking. I did not have imposter syndrome. I was constantly excited to teach not only because I genuinely like being in classrooms, but also because this was material I knew! Imagine!

3. I am not scared all the time. Do I have to unpack this? Here’s what I mean: I never thought I was going to get a tenure-track position. Not because I wasn’t “good enough” (though I felt that more than I care to admit, and far more than I have ever written about here). Not because I wasn’t “smart enough” (again, not that I didn’t feel that, often). Nope. I didn’t think I would get a tenure-track job because there are almost none out there. Thus far this fall there has been one job in my field advertised in Canada. One. And let me tell you some of the effects of knowing that you are effectively shut out of the job market in the industry you’ve spent 10-15 years training in: alienation. Exhaustion. Hyper-self-surveillance. Self-doubt. A shutting down of generosity. The fear that anything–anything–you do (or don’t do) is cause for not getting a look on that long list, that short list. Any list. That you can’t report injustice against yourself. That you can’t support or report for others, and if you do you’re bound to be written off, and lord, let’s not even get started on how-will-I-pay-rent-how-can-I-be-X-age-and-so-precarious and on and on down the rabbit hole. I am not scared all the time. I know that tenure-track does not mean impermeable. I know, as the inimitable Roy Miki has said, that the university will never love us back. But I am not scared all the time, and that helps me help my students, too.

See how quickly my list moved from practical to affective? I think the largest shift in having a tenure-track position has been psychological. Of course the paycheque helps. Of course the structure and ability to plan long-term is quite literally life-changing. But what I think about most is how, even though I feel more grounded in my own training, more able to imagine and invent and (dare I say it?) be curious more often than I am strategic, it is going to take me a long time to process the emotional and material trauma that was precarity.

In her stunning essay on precarity and survivance T.L. Cowan writes,

What I hope is that the revolution of adjunct faculty is coming and that it will create a new turn in our disciplines.  The ‘Adjunct Turn’ which, as a method from below, will be aligned with what Chela Sandoval calls “differential oppositional consciousness” (2000), coalitional techniques for affinity-based disciplinary and institutional transformations. An orientation away from individualism and the life of a solitary specialized genius, and an orientation towards critical intimacy, towards collaborative, process- and practice-centred distributed epistemologies and an aesthetics of multiplicity and shared resources. A method aligned with what Audre Lorde called in the power of the erotic, “the yes within ourselves” (1984, 57); the yes work of making the intellectual-cultural worlds we desire.

As I become more grounded in my institutional legibility — with all the enormous violences these institutions bring — I am dreaming, planning, and scheming about how to  help build those intellectual-cultural worlds we desire.

What I know is this: when I see CVs that bespeak years of precarious labour I will be looking for what T.L. calls the fabulous in our disciplines:

The fabular is the practice of creating and holding what is necessarily generative for ourselves and those who listen to our stories in the face of obvious disaster (Cowan & Rault 2016); it is “a good enough analytic” for these times and I propose that this is the analytic from which we are all working, adjunct and otherwise; to operate securely is to disavow the situation that produces these massive inequities in our places of education.

To be continued. But for now, know this: I see you.

academic work · after the LTA · new year new plan · Uncategorized

Repetition with a Difference

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A funny thing happened this weekend when I stopped by my office to drop off some books and art. As I got out of the car my partner reminded me to have some identification as well as my keys in case I had to call security to let me in. In the past several years we’ve both had trouble getting in on weekends because, I think, of how part-time and contract faculty cards are programmed. As I walked up to the security doors on Saturday they clicked open before I could even pull my card form my pocket. They didn’t quite swing open, roll out a red carpet, and hand me champagne as I passed through them, but the difference was palpable: I have a tenure-track job now. I am legible to the institution.

It is a very strange feeling indeed to return to an institution as a tenure-track faculty. Much of my public-facing work in the last decade has been about precarity, and now I am no longer precarious. My feelings are complicated: I don’t feel guilty about landing a job, not really, but I do feel acutely aware of how very hard the hustle has been. I know I deserve my position, and I am also acutely aware of how many others—my loved ones, my colleagues, my peers—deserve the stability and legibility I’ve been granted.

When I received the call that I got the job several months ago, I burst into tears. I cried (a lot). Then I took a three-hour nap. I slept in a way I hadn’t in who-knows-how-long. My body relaxed in ways I still don’t have the words for. And yet, I’m also more attuned to and more attentive to the ways in which stability is such a privilege. The more I calm, the more I focus, the more time and space I have for carefully plotting out my five- and ten-year research plans, the more I am also aware of how completely precarity is woven into so very much of one’s life.

And so, as I head into a new school year, I’ll be here writing and thinking about the shifting experience of working and teaching within the institution, rather than on its periphery. I’ll be working to structure my time here with the aim and intent of making and holding space for myself and others who are and have been so marked by our precarious times. And, I’ll be doing my very best to strike a balance between having a critical attention and a joyful heart. For, a feminist killjoy’s work is never done.

adjuncts · after the LTA · contract work · ideas for change · media · reform

CAF Bits & Bobs

In lieu of an essay-style post today, I have a request. If you’re a contingent academic faculty member and you haven’t yet taken the HEQCO survey, please head over to their site and fill it out. It’s a little thing, but policy makers are looking to find out what needs fixing, and you’re the ones to tell them. The survey can be found at

And if you’ve missed them, Erin now has four articles in her series on CAF over at Rabble. Check ’em out here:

academic reorganization · adjuncts · after the LTA · DIY · solidarity

Dear Contract Academic Faculty,

I see you.

No no, don’t worry, I’m precariously employed too, so my seeing you won’t change your employment.   I can’t do anything for you, though I would if I could. You don’t need to look like you’re working any harder than you already are just because I am looking in your direction. But know this: I see you. And you matter.

I see you, prepping for your classes every night until midnight (or later). I know you’re teaching more than regular faculty, because that’s how contracts work at your institution. I know you have six or more classes per year and that not a one of them is a repeat. And I know you’re working to make the lectures good, the material innovative and inspiring, and the discussions life-altering even though you’re struggling to get the reading done and the assignments graded.

I see you, teaching a class at this campus, and getting in your car or on public transit or in a carpool to make it across town/ across the city/ into the valley/ into another city/ to the next campus in time to teach the next group of students. And I see you try and smile when you do it.

I see you, trying to jam research into the corners of your life that aren’t filled with prep for class.

I see you, not producing research, because there’s no time, or no money, or the very real understanding that maybe, just maybe, there’s no point.

I see you, taking on the book reviews, the peer reviews, the jury duties. And yes, I get it. I do it too, because it feels good to be asked. Because it feels good to participate in the profession. Because it can go on the CV. Because it means someone else sees you too. And yes, I know that you likely kick yourself for saying yes at least some of the time, because isn’t that feeding the imbalanced system? But I see you, because you care about the material. Because community. Because CV.

I see you, carrying your students’s assignments in your bag because you have no office/ share an office/ would rather meet in the library than try to schedule time at your shared desk.

I see your students call you “Miss” or by your first name even though you’ve asked to be called by your professional title.

I see those teaching evaluations–the quiet devastation they can bring–either by being better than the department average, or worse.

I see you, writing reference letters for students applying to for study abroad programs, to be residence dons, to get into graduate programs, for colleagues going up for tenure and promotion, and I know: it might be hard to figure out where to print the letters, because I know you don’t have access to photocopiers, scanners, printers, or, heck, hard copy letter head. Not all the time. Likely not after hours when you can do this work.

I see you, meeting with students on your own time or in office hours to talk about their plans for graduate school. I see you waffle, because you still care, because you believe in the work you do even though you’re being shut out, made provisional, living precariously. I see you do it anyway, and do it well.

I see you say no. I know what it costs you, that small action of agency, that protection of your time. I know that “no” is meant to be a proactive word for you, and I know the second-third-and-fourth guessing that accompanies every decision to use it.

I see you, applying for your own position. And I see you not get it, sometimes.

I see you, applying for postdoctoral fellowships, for grants, and asking for adjunct status if that grant is successful. I see you working extra, because the grant means you can do the work you love, and because the grant would mean that maybe, just maybe, you’ve got some leverage (but not a living wage). I see you wobble, because a successful grant may not end up meaning shit.

I see you, competing against your peers, your friends, your acquaintances for the one or two jobs in your area. I see you, writing those letters of application cringing at the lack of research, or, conversely, wondering if this time your well-rounded application will make it to the top. Or, if it matters, because maybe there is another contract academic faculty member who is the inside candidate, and it doesn’t matter. I see your frustration, and I want to say: it’s ok. We all want to be the inside candidate, even though we know that doesn’t always work out either.

I see the unfairness in the labyrinthine system in which we labour–or try to labour.

I see that you’re tired. I see that you’re trying. I see you, working so hard to be able to work.

You have more agency than you think, though its hard to think when you’re so busy or heartsick.

I see that these thoughts break your heart, and I see you wonder if it shows, if other people notice that you do still carry that little spark of hope that things will change.

Things will change, though they may not look they way you thought they would. We need to leave. And we need to stay, but under different working conditions. We need to organize ourselves, despite the extra work that requires. We can do it. We’re resourceful. We care. We can draw on the will and support of tenured colleagues and on organizations such as ACCUTE and CAUT and we can do something, though it won’t happen quickly. And, we can choose not to, we can choose to leave. And that is not a failure either.

But for now, dear CAF, know this: I see you. I care about you. I can’t fix anything for you by myself, but know that you’re not alone.



Ps. Thanks to Lily for the love letter inspiration.

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
after the LTA · DIY · moving

Avoiding the Empathy Trap 2: Frank Talk About Moving

Today, I’m packing up my office. Soon, we’ll have to start packing up our home. My partner and I have calculated that if we combine our individual moves since finishing high school this will be move number fifty-one for us. FIFTY-ONE. I have spent the last forty-five minutes culling books from my collection, because this time I am moving without a moving allowance (though luckily my partner has one with his new position). I have taken all the art off my office walls and piled it up on a filing cabinet. I can’t even begin to tackle the paper that has accumulated over the last twelve months. Despite my best efforts at organization and downsizing it can’t be denied: I have a lot of work-related stuff. And it has to go in boxes. All of it. Again.

Packing makes me angry. Moving makes me tired. What does any of this have to do with avoiding the empathy trap? Plenty. If you are an early career scholar, or a contract academic faculty member the imperative–both to pay the bills and to keep a foot in the door of academia–you probably have to move for work. You definitely have to think about moving and weigh whether or not you will move.

Let’s not mince words: moving is hard work. It takes physical energy (are there boxes? Can we actually lift this thing? How do we tell the anxious dog it will be ok? Where the hell is the modem return place?) Moving also takes emotional energy, and that’s the part people tend to forget when addressing work-related moves. There is a real desire to pass over the hard parts of moving and focus on new beginnings. And new beginnings are great, but newness doesn’t always go hand in hand with ease and excitement and a clear path into what’s next. Academics–especially early career academics– aren’t the only ones who move, but as Lee Skallerup Bessette writes, perpetual movement is the modern academic condition. That, friends, is worth pausing to think about for a moment.

One of the many things that I have written about over the years is moving. Four years ago, fresh off my move from Alberta to Nova Scotia, I wrote this post about the implicit imperative for graduate students to move for each degree. I realize now that when I wrote it I was writing from a position of a kind of myopia. I moved for all three of my degrees, and I did so because I wanted to move. I was able to move between countries, provinces, and landscapes with relative ease. Yes, it meant building new communities each time, yes, it meant haunting the liquor store for packing boxes over and over again. Ultimately, though, it was my choice and my privilege to move. I wasn’t tied to a place, I am an only child, my parents were willing and able to visit me wherever. Was I privileged? Sure. Has moving a zillion times taught me some things? Yes. I know I can make a life wherever I go. I know I can pack a house in three days flat. I know how to forge routines until they feel like home. But the imperative to move, move, move has cost me too. I wasn’t tied — rooted — to a place. I wager it has cost a lot of us, and I suspect it costs communities and universities a lot more that the institutions realize.

Over the last few years I have become more and more grounded in a particular place, a particular region of Canada. I have also met more and more people for whom place is sacred. I mean really, truly sacred. Moving from a place means severing daily ties to family (both blood and chosen), community, and the land. It means having to leave your home. It means having to leave your home.

Take a minute and think about the implications of that statement. Be careful not to misread it.

The imperative of moving for work is not a new one. I won’t forget the first time I flew from Alberta to Atlantic Canada. It was a red eye flight and it stopped in Halifax before heading on to St. John’s. It was full of people who were going home on furlough after working in Fort MacMurray on the rigs or on the Tar Sands. The woman next to me asked where I was from and when I hedged she asked why I was going to Nova Scotia. “For work,” I said. I won’t forget what she said next: you’re lucky, she said. We’re all working out west so that we can come home. There are a million different versions and experiences of people having to move for work. There are many ways in which moving can be good, can be positive, can be exciting, and, more simply, can be a way of paying the bills. But in academia–and especially in my disciplines that are in the Humanities–I wonder how well we are doing in thinking through what it means to reproduce a move-for-subsistence model.

So what’s the take-away in this second post on avoiding the empty trap? It is this: on the quotidian level let’s acknowledge that the nomadic imperative in academia means different things at different stages of the career. Moving as a guest lecturer or visiting professor does not mean the same thing as moving for a sustainable paycheque. Is it hard to change a system? Sure. But it won’t happen if we don’t talk about full range of issues.

Now, who wants to come over and help me pack?

#alt-ac · #post-ac · academic work · after the LTA · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · ideas for change · job market · teaching

New Letters of Reference for New Kinds of Academic Careers

University employment is changing. We all know that tenured faculty teach an ever-declining proportion of undergraduate courses. We know that there is a boom in piecework sessional teaching. There is also the possibly cheering / possibly more depressing development in the hiring of short-term and continuing lecturer positions, a kind of teaching-track full-time job, often focusing on writing instruction, that makes sessional work much more highly remunerative and stable.* This is a big change. By the start of the fall term, 4 of our faculty members in English will be Definite Term Lecturers, and 25 will be tenure-stream.

The kinds of “academic jobs” available are changing. And our application, interviewing, hiring, renewing, and assessment practices haven’t really caught up yet. Today, let’s talk about reference letters. Next week I’ll talk about application letters and CVs from candidates.

In my department, we’ve launched three searches for definite term lecturers this year (8 courses per year, 10% research component on writing pedagogy, 3 year position with possibility of renewal and move to continuing status) and two tenure track searches (standard 2:2 load, 40-40-20 split, research position). One of our associated colleges, St. Jerome’s, is also doing a search right now, for two more DTLs on roughly the same terms as our own.

I’ve read a lot of reference letters, if you put these six searches into one big pool. Many of these letters are lousy, in the sense of inappropriate to the position, bordering on the disrespectful to the candidate’s chances, and of the time of the committee.

First, the pool. Most of the candidates applying fall into two camps: first, rhet/comp and writing studies scholars, and second, literature PhDs. The first group is doing more than fine, and doesn’t need my help: there is such a boom in positions for these (mostly American and American-trained) candidates, that the odds are usually quite good they’ve got a choice of tenure-trac positions closer to where they want to live. I will not tell you how many of these candidates have rejected job offers from us over the last several years. But they are numerous.

Much more problematic are the repurposed literature PhDs. I truly, truly sympathize with the desire to get an academic job, any academic job, and closer to the GTA rather than farther, and more stable rather than less. And many of these candidates are award-winning scholars with exciting dissertations and upper level teaching in their area. But their referees are sinking their candidacies before they even really get going.

The highlights are something like this (made-up examples, that get the gist):

  • “I have not had an opportunity to see X teaching, but her interactions with me have always been pleasant and professional.”
  • “I have not discussed teaching with X, but he is an excellent researcher, whose innovative dissertation suggests he will be a creative classroom teacher.”
  • “X was lucky enough to secure funding that removed her from the classroom, and as a result, her dissertation is already at a state to be submitted to an academic publisher.”
  • “The nuance that X brings to guest lectures in upper level courses in his research area demonstrate his readiness to devise innovative courses in your department.”

Stop this. The job ad says we need people to teach 8 introductory writing courses to students from across the university. The ad may indicate that the position may turn into long-term continuing: that is, it can be a career-job. It says there’s no research component, or a small research component based in continuing training in pedagogy. It stresses writing studies and writing pedagogy, or communications studies, or cognate research or training. The letters describe literary scholars with tenure-track dreams and training. They also, in blithely ignoring the terms of the ad, seem to indicate the writer’s and candidate’s belief that no special skills are required to teach writing across the curriculum. This is, if I’m going to be perfectly honest, insulting to the field, the job, and the search committee.

I imagine most of this is inadvertent. These are new kinds of jobs, with new kinds of ads, in new sorts of fields, particularly for Canadians.

I suggest:

  • Graduate supervisors? You need to go watch your students teach. You need to talk to them about teaching.
  • You also need to really encourage your literary students to take advantage of any and all teaching credentialling opportunities at your institution.
  • You need to devise new templates for letters. The research letter is a standard form, that is well-pitched to research jobs, but it’s not suited to all jobs, not even all jobs inside of academic departments

I’m thinking particularly of the literary scholars who are reframing their job focus from TT in their area, to other kinds of stable employment as teachers in departments. The writing studies and rhet/comp people are doing more than okay on this front. And I think our literary grads can become strong, credible, hireable candidates for the lecturer positions that are becoming more numerous. But it’s not obvious from the application materials. Yet.

What reference letters for teaching lectureships, focused on introductory writing or writing across the curriculum might look like:

  • Indicate the candidate is serious, at least for now, about taking up a lectureship like this one
  • Speak specifically about the candidate’s skills as a teacher
  • Of junior students
  • Skills like works well in a team, has good time management, deals well with student conflicts are prized as well

Look, I don’t have any such letters written for my students. I’ll be perfectly honest and tell you I never thought about it before I read something like 200 of them written by other people. I don’t know if I like the stratification of departments into tenured scholar/teachers of upper-level and grad courses, and writing-teacher lecturers with such high teaching loads and mostly junior / non-departmental students. But there are a lot more of one these kinds of jobs than the other. And some candidates really do seem quite happy to reframe toward writing and communication, and to relish the teaching, and to really want these positions. So I’d like all applicants (and there are LOTS of applicants) to produce better application materials for the jobs we’re actually hiring for.

It’s a work in progress for me. I’d love any advice or feedback you might have.

after the LTA · job notes · work

Articulating academic work experience in a non-academic world

Since I completed my PhD last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about non-academic work opportunities for people like me. I’ve discussed the kinds of work I might be interested in with a range of successful, gainfully employed friends and colleagues. When I describe the work that I did as part of my PhD with friends who work in the private sector, they are usually optimistic that my skills and knowledge sets would serve me well on the job market. And yet, in speaking with my post-doctoral colleagues, many of us have struggled to find appropriate non-academic job opportunities. When we do find something to apply for, it seems our resumes simply drift out into the abyss, never to be heard from again.

There is a very clear disconnection between how we articulate our academic skills and the kinds of work experience that are privileged in the private sector workforce. Yet, rationally, it seems that we should be qualified for many jobs. Indeed, when I have participated on committees and special contracts in the private and public sector, I felt that my academic training allowed me to excel in these positions.

The problem, I believe, is one that Aimée Morrison cleverly touched upon a couple of years ago. Her post “The degree is the job: a modest proposal for the PhD” really struck me when I read it. To summarize, Morrison argues that the PhD should be treated as a job, not as a path that leads to a job. The PhD is too long a distraction from life and career building if we use it as a time-out, rather than a career stage. This is important advice (seriously, go back and read her article!).

If we take the degree as a job, then we need to learn how to articulate our time in the degree as time spent working at a job. (We also need to change the way the private sector perceives time spent in graduate school – I’ve started working on this little problem here).

But let’s talk about our skills shall we? Where do all of those little jobs that we have been doing go on a normal resume? The thing about a resume is it is short and to the point. The list of skills that we provide at the top needs to somehow be reinforced by our work experience, which takes up the bulk of the resume. The problem is, a list of TA-ships and sessional positions doesn’t really account for the design, management and completion of a major research project, the dissemination of multiple, peer-reviewed research papers, the mentoring of undergraduates, the committee work, the grant applications, the EVERYTHING that we have done over the past 5-10 years of our lives.

How do we translate academic into non-academic? Here are a list of things that I recommend doing. It is incomplete. I don’t profess to be an expert, but I have done some research… 😉

1) Find a way to incorporate all of the things that you have accomplished over your graduate career into the Work Experience section of your CV. Employers want to see evidence of your skills. Listing “research design” as a skill, then showing an exclusively teaching-based work experience does not convince anyone of this skill. Key terms for describing the dissertation as a job include: researched and wrote; identified research problem; developed evaluation criteria; developed a timeline; public dissemination; public speaking.

2) Frame your experience according to skills, rather than knowledge. What did you actually do? Also, in describing teaching experience, focus less on what you taught and more on skills such as training, scheduling, mentoring, coaching. Get your private sector speak on. Other terms include: delegate; coordinate; manage groups; provide performance feedback; supervision of research team; professional communication; writing; editing.

3) Give it a name! Every research contract or project that you worked on needs to read on your resume like a job. Jobs have titles, duration, responsibilities, employers and supervisors. Research assistant for some professor they’ve never heard of is not a sufficient description. The project needs a tittle, it needs to be compelling, and the actual work you did (not the knowledge that you helped create) must be described in detail.

4) Translate your skills. Read the non-academic job posting carefully and repeat key terms from it in your application (you know, like the way that undergrads repeat the exam question in their answers on final exams). This is especially important for electronic applications which are increasingly fed through a software application which searches for these keywords. If your resume and cover letter do not have them, they will be trashed without over being seen by an actual human. Also, a resume is only two pages (max) and a cover letter is one.

Look, I’m as angry as everyone else is about the corporatization of the university and the steady neo-liberal creep that is deteriorating independent scholarship and forcing precarious labour conditions on ever greater numbers of teaching faculty. I’m not saying go do public relations for an oil company intent on destroying a vital ecosystem. But for what you get paid as a sessional, couldn’t you offer your superior research, communication, and mentoring skills to a non-profit or local company whose mandate or product you happen to agree with? Not only that, but if your job actually involves research, you may actually continue publishing in academic journals – something that sessionals and LTAs often don’t have time to do which then almost guarantees they will never be back on the tenure-track.

You know that if that small business, non-profit, government department, big tech company, etc hired you with your many years of carefully honed skills – your advanced research, writing, and editing abilities – that that organization would benefit profoundly. But you need to get in the door to prove it. Getting them to give you a chance means making sure that your education, the greatest investment you have ever made in yourself, doesn’t count against you. This means communicating your wealth of skills and experience in a language that they actually value and understand. It may be obvious to us why someone with our skill set would be a valuable addition to their company, but this is big picture stuff. The manager interviewing applicants probably doesn’t have that kind of long-term, strategic plan in mind. They’re just looking to check off boxes in a list of required skills and previous work experience, then make sure you aren’t unbearable to work with during your interview. So, don’t be argumentative – outside of the academy, most people find this to be anti-social behaviour. Don’t expect your obvious intelligence to be the key to getting a job. Skills, work experience, and your ability to play well with others are what most organizations are really looking for.

Here are a few of resources I found for translating your academic work experience for the private-sector:

Any readers have experience going from the academic to the non-academic track? How did you articulate your skills?

after the LTA · faster feminism · notes from the non-tenured-stream

Taking Time To Read the Fine Print

On Sunday in addition to the usual flurry of preparation-for-the-week I was also waiting on tenterhooks with the rest of my colleagues. Faculty was waiting to see if we would indeed go on strike today. I had signed up for picket duty already, I knew where I would be walking the line Monday-Friday of this week if conciliation between our union and the Board’s negotiation team failed again. 
Rather than write about strike action, the importance of strong union leadership, and the ongoing war against higher education that is being waged on all sides I am want to think about the importance of reading the fine print. 
When I was offered my limited term appointment at Dalhousie it was a magical day. Literally. I had just finished my first year of sessional teaching (alright, actually I had just survived, and barely). My divorce was finalized. The house that I owned, which had been sitting on the market after three years of Money Pit-like disasters had finally had an offer. It was even sunny, and I am pretty sure that there were birds singing and little animals running about doing choreographed movements. I met my friend and mentor for a cup of coffee and a discussion; she had been contacted by the hiring committee and wanted to talk to me about what I would do if I was offered this ten-month position thousands of kilometers across the country. After our coffee I walked to my realtor’s office to sign the final papers on the sale of my house. Just as I was getting into my now partner’s car my cell phone rang: I got the job. I immediately called my mentor and she gave me one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. She said, “Erin, read the collective agreement. Sit down with a pot of tea and read the whole thing. It will be tedious, but you’ll thank yourself later. Use a highlighter, take some notes, and write down any questions you have. When it comes time for you to negotiate for a full-time position be sure to call me. Women need to be better at negotiation and at reading the fine print.”
Readers, I followed her advice. Sure, I forgot or didn’t understand or simply skimmed a great deal of the information, but reading through this huge document gave me a sense of the sheer amount of fine print associated with this profession. When the DFA entered into pension negotiations I knew where to look in the collective agreement, but more importantly I knew that even as a junior contract faculty member this stuff mattered immensely for me.
The job market is so tight right now that it feels like winning the lottery even making it through to a campus interview (in fact, given the super-saturated market of strong candidates, I think it is a kind of lottery). However, it is crucial to remember that you are in a position of power as well. You must read the fine print. You must find someone to mentor you in contract negotiations. You must realize that even though on the inside you are thrilled to pieces you have been selected for an interview you still need to look at all the paperwork and know what you are signing on for.
The question is: where and how have you learned to read the fine print? Who has taught you how to negotiate for yourself? 

academic reorganization · after the LTA · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · hiring

After the PhD job and before the next job: An LTA’s response to a modest proposal for the PhD

Let me begin by thanking my co-blogger: Aimée’s post has garnered more hits and more conversation than any of our posts in the last year! We average between one to three hundred views per post, yet as I write this “A Modest Proposal for the PhD” has almost 2,500 views. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say this post struck a chord!
I have spent the last few days thinking about how to respond to this post in a way that both acknowledges the limitations my friend has set for herself  opens the conversation further. As I see it, this is a post predominantly about current or soon-to-be PhD students, which is also addressed to the faculty-administrators shaping, mentoring, and managing graduate programs. Excellent! These are issues that need to be addressed, and they are clearly ones people want to talk about. However, as a limited term appointee, I don’t fit into either of those categories despite being connected to them both. 
I’m entering the conversation with a ‘Yes, and’ frame of mind. As a limited term appointee who looks like a faculty member, acts like a faculty member, and yet is decidedly not a faculty member, I feel compelled to say in response to the very sound advice offered to PhD students and faculty ‘yes, reform how you run graduate programs; yes, treat the PhD like a job, and don’t forget about those of us who did all of those things and remain in tenuous positions.’ In other words, what follows are some of the thoughts I’ve had in response to  Aimée’s post.
The Funding Conundrum:
Is funding important? Yes. Is it problematic? Definitely.
I had the very good fortune of winning a SSHRC doctoral fellowship in the second year of my PhD. It wasn’t a huge amount of money, as we all know, but it was enough for me to live on. I also received small scholarships from my university and, as was the case in Alberta (though not as far as I know in Nova Scotia where I now teach), I was the recipient of what were called Graduate Teaching Stipends. This meant that, as a PhD Candidate, I was paid substantially more than a sessional lecturer with a PhD in hand. Was I aware that this was problematic? Sure, but I happily took the money because I knew it allowed me to teach less and write more. And write I did. I wrote—or worked on writing (researching, reading, editing, fretting)—between 8-9 hours a day six days a week. And when I finished my dissertation and taught as a sessional for several thousand dollars less than I made when I was a student, I was prepared for the shift in pay scale. The extra stipend helped me finish my dissertation, just as it was meant to do.
But funding alone doesn’t guarantee timely completion. Indeed, I was one of the students with the lowest funding in my incoming cohort of PhD students. Having little to no funding for my first year was a huge motivating factor for me (read: I was terrified). For some students, having a massive amount of funding relieves the pressure of a timely completion, while for others it ensures timely completion. So, while I certainly think it is crucial to consider funding very carefully for all the reasons Aimée suggests (no guarantee of a job, crushing debt load), having funding in hand is only part of the equation. Faculty need to continue to make funding agencies and the government accountable for deciding what projects get funded and why. 
What happens after the PhD? Or, when should I jump ship?
As Aimée writes and as others echo in the commentary, if you want a PhD you should do one, and you should go into it with open eyes. Yes, people change jobs all  the time, and the PhD is just one discrete part of your life…
But! For those of us who have completed the PhD and are in  sessional or LTA positions, the situation becomes a little more complicated. Again, I’ll use myself as an example. I did not receive postdoctoral funding despite submitting every year I was eligible. Should I, or any PhD, have quit at that point? Maybe. But I didn’t, and neither did many of my peers. And now I’m in a position where I live contract-to-contract and work to compete for the few jobs that come up. Do I think about transitioning out of academia? You bet I do. Have I found the time to come up with a viable plan B? Not yet.
I have the great good fortune—and I mean that genuinely—to have landed in a department where my colleagues treat me as, well, their colleague. I go to department meetings, I teach courses, I supervise honours students, and this year I will be teaching a graduate course as well as supervising graduate students. All of these things are wonderful for my CV, and I want to do them because I love this job. However, I work approximately 90 hours/week. I work on weekends. I work this much because in addition to teaching 3-4 courses per semester I am also trying to keep my CV competitive. I’m competing against those folks who did are coming right out of their PhD, I’m competing with peers who have done one (or more) postdoctoral fellowships, and in this climate I’m also competing against faculty who are already on the tenure track and want to change universities. I’m not complaining here, but I do know that unless I keep up this breakneck pace I’m going to fall behind. As is every other sessional and LTA instructor who is still applying for long-term work.
My point is this: as several of you have noted in the comments section, these conversations about restructuring the PhD are necessary starting points. As we continue in our crucial dialogue, let’s please not forget to include those people who have made the choice to complete a PhD and, in some cases, to treat it like a job, yet remain on the margins of the profession.
Let’s keep this conversation going. Administrators, PhD students, MA students, undergrads, send us your thoughts in a post. We’d be happy to publish continued commentary!