Steve the Happy Academic, Part I

I’ve been spending some time lately surfing through sites like The Invisible Adjunct, academicgame, and Household Opera, among other web sites. Most of these are linked through the very excellent Invisible Adjunct site. In various ways, much of what these bloggers write about is the sorry state of the academic life. You can probably guess what the “Invisible Adjunct’s” story is (or at least part of the story); the writer of “Household Opera” is a PhD student who is contemplating leaving academia, and the writer(s) at “academicgame” just seem, well, pissed.

These (and others along these lines) blogs are interesting to read because they make good points and observations about academia in the news, they have good links, and they are generally well-written. And it’s not as if what many of these blogs are saying isn’t true or at least potentially true– more often than not, I agree with what I see in these spaces. But at the same time, these blogs bother me. For one thing, they too often move far too quickly from what I read as legitimate complaints to “whining”– and let me say that “whining” is a word I’m not comfortable with here, but it’s the only one I can come up with. I guess what I’m saying is they are telling a part of a story, one that, logically speaking, can only be a part of the story.

There are lots of things wrong with the academic world and higher education, no doubt about it. And yet, even with all of the problems, I still am quite satisfied to be in academia. I am, as the title of this post suggests, “a Happy Academic.” Why? Well, at the risk of sounding like I’m gloating and/or just trying to “put on a happy face,” here’s a short list:

  • I had a “real job” once. I don’t know all the life stories of the “not so happy” academics who run some of the blogs I mentioned, but I have noticed in my own mixings with fellow academic-types that there is a difference between those who went “straight through” from the BA to the PhD, and those who interrupted their studies along the line. I took three years off between my MFA (in creative writing) and my PhD program; during that time, I was an “office temp” and then ultimately a “PR Rep” for a state agency in Richmond, Virginia. The details of the work I did aren’t important for my purposes here, but these experiences put me smack-dab in the middle of the “real world” (well, as it existed in the early 90’s): felt-lined cubicles, dress codes, strict hours, mind-numbing tasks, pointy-haired bosses, etc., etc. Dilbert-land. It wasn’t horrible, but it also wasn’t for me. Further, whenever I get it into my head to complain about the academic life, I quickly recall the alternatives. This always cheers me up.
  • I never tried to make a living as an adjunct. I was an adjunct way back when; during this “working in the real world” time, I worked 8-5 in an office and then I taught one or two night class sections of freshman composition. I did this for two reasons. First, I needed the extra money. But second and more important, it kept my foot in the academic world just enough for me to decide that I wanted to jump back into it full-time.

    But for me, being an adjunct college teacher was never my main source of employment, and I didn’t have any sense that being an adjunct would somehow lead to a full-time and permanent teaching job. I’ll save this for another time, but I think that those folks who are trying to piece together a full-time teaching experience by picking up a few sections at several different schools are making a mistake.

  • I studied and thought about “the market” before I started my PhD. I went into composition in rhetoric because I genuinely like teaching writing, particularly writing to students in classes like first year composition and other “advanced writing” research sort of classes– this as opposed to creative writing. But I also went into composition and rhetoric because of the laws of supply and demand that I thought were patently obvious when I began PhD studies 10 years ago and which I think are still obvious today: there remains a relatively high demand for people who study composition and rhetoric (particularly for people who study things like technical writing, computers, and/or English education) and a relatively low supply of people interested in pursuing PhDs in composition and rhetoric. Conversely, there is a relatively low demand for people who study literature (though this varies quite a bit in terms of period, genre, critical focus, and so forth), and a relatively high supply of people interested in pursuing PhDs in literature. It has been this way for 30 years, give or take, and there is every reason to believe that this trend is going to continue.

    I’m not trying to say that people shouldn’t follow their dreams or that you shouldn’t study literature and that literature isn’t important or what-have-you, nor am I trying to suggest that people should go into fields like composition and rhetoric just to get an academic job. What I am saying is this: Way back when, I found myself torn between going to get a PhD in literature, in creative writing, and composition and rhetoric. I love all of these things. But I knew, because of supply and demand market forces, my chances were better if I focused on composition and rhetoric. Simple as that.

  • I’m interested in both teaching and scholarship. This is especially important to be a happy academic who teaches English at a “middle of the road” college or university in this country since professors are more or less expected to do both. I’ve met a number of unhappy academics who were almost completely invested in their scholarship, who saw their teaching as an unwelcome burden. That’s not good. And conversely, I’ve met a few unhappy academics who just want to teach their classes, go home, and not bother to keep up with the scholarship. I think most happy academics have found some sort of balance between the two.
  • I realize that when all is said and done, being an academic is a job– nothing more, and nothing less. This is a hard one for me to articulate, and I don’t mean to diminish the nature of the academic job. I think it’s a different sort of job than working in an office or something like that for a lot of different reasons. Being an academic is more of a “calling” than working as a PR Rep for a state agency (at least it was for me). One of the definite perks of a faculty job is you have a tremendous amount of flexibility in terms of when and where you work, though one of the definite drawbacks of this arrangement is it feels like you’re always working. And I also think that being a college teacher– even a part-time or non-tenure-track faculty member– affords you a level of autonomy and freedom that people who work in Dilbert-land can’t even imagine.

    In other words, it’s a good job. However, having said all that, it still is ultimately just a job, one that comes with all of the hassles, petty politics, paperwork, and irritations that anyone who has job has to put up with. I like what I do, but I don’t do this “for fun.” I’m not independently wealthy; I do this for money so I can live and provide for my family, the same reason why most of the other people in our society have jobs.

    I think what sometimes happen is academic-types become disappointed in the academic life when they start to think that being a college professor is somehow something different than being an employee. I’m not sure why this is the case; maybe they are imagining academia as feudal system and being a professor is like being a prince or princess. Maybe they have in mind a television show professor. Maybe they have in mind some abstract memory of a professor they had i
    n college who seemed to have risen to the level of a minor deity. But for whatever reason, I think sometimes folks are disappointed by the reality of it all. There are good days, there are bad days; there are rumors and office politics and backstabbing; there are office parties and water cooler talks. My job is different from a “normal” job in many ways, and it is just like a “normal” job in many ways. Because, ultimately, it is a job.

  • I’ve been lucky.Sure, I have worked hard to get here and I continue to work hard, but it would be foolish for me to not acknowledge that a lot of my happiness as an academic is simply dumb luck and good fortune. While my first academic job wasn’t a good one (for reasons I’ll perhaps go into another day), I have not had to live in an unpleasant place since graduate school, one of the things that makes many academics unhappy. As an aside though, I do feel like I “paid my dues” in terms of living in a nasty part of the country since I did my PhD studies at Bowling Green State University. BGSU was a great school, but wow, was Bowling Green, OH ever an ugly stinky place to live.

    I’m happily married to a brilliant woman who is a full-time lecturer in the department where I work, and we have a great kid– in other words, I’ve managed to have a good family life, something that many unhappy academics have not been able to do because of job pressures or other reasons. My current employer, Eastern Michigan University has plenty of problems– perhaps you’ve read some of my musings here about our president’s controversial new house and the screwed-up nature of the faculty union. But in the grand scheme of things, the school is a good employer and the department I work is great. I like what I teach, I’ve been lucky enough to fall into some good scholarly opportunities, etc., etc.

    I don’t think good luck is ever entirely “good luck;” but I know plenty of people who have worked as hard as I have who have not been as lucky. Again, I’m not trying to gloat here; just trying to acknowledge why I’m happy.

Well, that’s that. I’ve worked on this rant for a few days now, and I have wondered for a while if I should post this. Oddly, it might be more popular and socially acceptable for me to post something about how unhappy I am. But I’m not, so this will have to do for now.

Interesting Article on "Writing the Living Web"

Here’s a link to an article I stumbled across while surfing the web called “10 Tips on Writing the Living Web: A List Apart.” It’s in what looks like a potentially cool web journal about the web called A List Apart and it was written by well-known hypertext guy Mark Bernstein. Interesting reading.

A funny story about all this though: I actually met Mark Bernstein and Michael Joyce and a couple other “big names” in early hypertext theory/writing probably 10 years ago at a seminar/workshop about hypertext and Eastgate Systems. It was held in Ann Arbor, and a colleague of mine from Bowling Green State (John Clark) and I got some sort of huge discount to participate in this one day deal that was targeted to teachers and others interested in writing with hypertext in general and their software, StorySpace. They’re still selling it– it’s available through the Eastgate Systems web site.

Anyway, it was an interesting and educational and obviously memorable time, but at one point in the afternoon, when we were doing a hands-on workshop on using Story Space, either me or John asked about this “new-fangled” thing called the World Wide Web and HTML. I don’t remember exactly what Bernstein and Joyce said, but they weren’t crazy about us bringing the topic up, and I think it’s fair to say that they would still argue that the web isn’t real hypertext. Oh well, maybe they’re right. But it works for me, and I think what Bernstein says about effective writing on the web works pretty well, too.

A Few Highlights of This Morning's Blog Reading

First off, you should support your local public radio; in my case, that’s WEMU, the “news/jazz/blues” station here on EMU’s campus in lovely Ypsilanti, MI. Though, truth be told, I also listen to Michigan Public Radio (which is an all talk format) and to WDET in Detroit. In any event, I give my money to WEMU, about $100 a year, and you should, too.

Having said that, I really dislike pledge drive time, which is what’s going on now. The result has been that I’ve reading a lot more in blog space for the last couple of days. A couple of quick highlights that seem more or less appropriate here:

* A good entry from Teaching Writing in an Online World about a CQ Researcher devoted to plagiarism. I might find a way to make this a piece of assigned reading the next time I teach fy comp, or maybe for my grad classes about computers and the teaching of writing. The address for this PDF file is

* From Wired News Rants and Raves, there’s this item about iTunes being available for Windows. The problem, as the writer points out, Apple wants people who are using MS Windows, with it’s dramatically huge security problems, to turn off things like firewall software to download songs. That ain’t gonna happen; maybe these people should get a Mac.

* The Humanmetrics Site which includes a sort of Jungian version of a Myers-Briggs test, along with a bunch of other kind of fun personality tests. Use with caution. I came across this after reading Clancy “Culture Cat” Ratliff’s blog.

Here's a Post Just To Let You Know Nothing Is New

I’m just busy-busy-busy-busy with school and everything else. I’ve been putting together conference proposals for the 2004 Computers and Writing Conference, which is going to be my one and only conference this year because it’s going to be in Hawaii– lotsa fun, lotsa money. I’ve been working on a web site for a recently retired poet here at EMU, Clayton Eshleman, and I continue to update the web site for the group EMU Professors for a Democratic Union. Plus there’s my teaching, my textbook project, my other writing, my life in general. Busy-busy-busy.

But I felt compelled to post something here, even if it was something that didn’t really say anything because, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do on a blog, right?

It’s funny, but a lot of the blogs I read once in a while are written by people who post something every day. I’m at a loss as to how they have time to do it and also that they actually have anything interesting to say on a daily basis. I certainly don’t. As is obvious from this post.

Anyway, just in case you’ve come across this blog and wondered where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to…

…But Just in Case You're Following My Faculty Union Stories…

In what has to be one of the most “in your face” snubs by the remaining members of my union’s non-functional Executive Committee to date, they’ve changed the date of the October chapter meeting from the 17th to the 31st, this despite the fact that we actually voted on the date for the meeting at the September chapter meeting. It’s such an obvious attempt to stall any hope of progress or change, such an obvious effort to cling to power despite the fact that a significant majority of faculty want to most certainly change the way things are done.

Check out this letter from the EMU-AAUP lawyer trying to argue (basically) that really, the faculty don’t have much say at all in the way things in its union are run, that it’s all pretty much the Executive Committee’s call. It’s par for the course for these people– you can check out the union web site here, if you’d like.

I’m all for unions, and I think the fact that EMU has an active faculty union that protects our rights and ensures that procedures for tenure and promotion are fair is a good thing. But anyone who thinks that unions aren’t easy prey for the corrupt or the power-hungry haven’t seen how the show has been run lately with my union. I hope that the PDU, the group I’ve been working with (here’s our web site) to effect change in our union, is successful so we can finally get on to running a union that really is most interested in the faculty. If not– well, I don’t know what will happen…

Your Mac Sure is Pretty…

I was surfing around in blog space this morning (which is one of the reasons why the links column on the right have changed a bit, rearranged and with some new blog links– more on that another day) and came across several blogs that had linked to this article from SF Gate: Lick Me, I’m a Macintosh Essentially, it’s a praise for Apple’s cool n’ groovy design.

I agree with everything that Mark Morford writes in the article– Macs are more pretty than PCs, Apple clearly cares about design issues more than PC makers, and I think that the design of the machines is one of the reasons that I most certainly prefer working on a Mac than on a Windows PC. But I think that Morford is being a little hard on the look of PCs. We recently bought a Dell in the Krause/Wannamaker home, ostensibly for our six year old son to play games and to learn more about computers. In reality, I’m the one who has been playing with the thing a lot– games, but also with the Windows XP and such– and I have to say, this new Dell is a slick looking machine, too. Black as a trendy NYC art gallery patron, it has a stylish flat screen monitor, buffed silver colored buttons, a gentle feeling keyboard, and slightly curved speakers. It’s not as pretty as my Mac, but it’s still pretty. And Windows XP is clearly trying to take a lesson from Apple’s OS X (I guess 10.2 now).

But like I said, I’d much rather work on my Mac, I suppose because of a “design” feature that isn’t just all looks: it works better. With OS X, my Mac doesn’t crash. Ever. Oh, and all of the software works the way its supposed to work, a “design” feature that hasn’t seemed to caught on in the Windows world.

How Mcuh Deos Seplinlg Cnout?

I’ve come across a couple of different blog and email posts lately about how we can usually make sense of words that are misspelled because of the way our brains work. Here’s an example of the sort of thing I’m talking about, which is an email my father sent me (that was obviously sent to him from someone else):

Aoccdrnig to rscheearchr at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy , it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae . The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm.Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe .

Amzanig huh?

So why did we waste all of that time in school learning how to spell?

I like what Scott Rosenberg said in his blog about all this: this demonstrates why it’s hard to catch typos and it suggests that reading slowly is a dying art.

But I guess there are two other things that I find interesting. First, all of this is kind of true and kind of not true. This entry from Uncle Jazzbeau’s Gallimaufrey blog suggests that the “original research” on this seems to have been actually about speech. Obviously, that’s different from the written word, though it makes sense that we are easily able to read these mixed-up words because we’re smart enough to make a reasonable guess. This is slightly different than trying to interpret truly bad spelling, though. I’ve had students who were such poor spellers that it was near impossible to make a reasonable guess about what they were trying to spell.

But perhaps more important to me as a teacher and as a chronically bad speller myself is I think that these folks are misinterpreting the impact of bad spelling. Being a bad speller doesn’t mean people can’t understand you; being a bad speller makes you “look” bad. It’s like most of the other details of writing, proof-reading, minor grammar issues, word choices, and the like. Doing it right makes you look like you know what you’re doing and it makes your writing more persuasive. Doing it wrong does the opposite.

Personally, I have always believed “good spelling” to be a genetic feature that some people have and some people don’t have, kind of like the ability to roll your tongue. Use a spell checker and keep a dictionary reasonably handy.

Sam's House in the News Again

The front page story in yesterday’s Ann Arbor News was about the EMU Regents conducting their own investigation about the various rumors and reports about the spending on the new University House, better known to folks on campus here as “Sam’s House” since it is the home of EMU’s president Sam Kirkpatrick. Here’s a link to yesterday’s article, and here’s a link to an article that ran in late August about the same issue. And just to share what the administration has to say about the house controversy, here’s a link to a bad picture of the house while it was under construction (you can still get a sense of how enormous this thing is), and here’s a link to a “Q & A” about the house from the administration’s point of view.

In the nutshell, one of Kirkpatrick’s fist actions when he came to EMU was to insist that the university build a new president’s house that would be more appropriate for entertaining and fund raising. I was in the old president’s house once when I came to EMU, and Kirkpatrick’s argument does make a certain amount of sense. It was indeed a dated, small, old house, probably fine for a normal family in the 1950s, but not the sort of thing that looks very “presidential,” even for the president of EMU. But instead of making a modest upgrade, Kirkpatrick decided to go “big time” and built a house/facility that is 10,000 square feet and is probably one of the biggest, grandest, and (in my opinion) ugliest houses in the county. It’s a monstrosity built on a plot of land that faces a Walgreens and an auto supply store on Washtenaw Avenue, which is one of the main drags for fast food places and such through Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. Sure, it’s near the EMU Convocation Center and football stadium, which was the reasoning for putting it over there instead of closer to campus in the first place. But despite what the official university documents say, it’s probably more accurate to describe the Convocation Center and football stadium as being around the corner and out of view from the house. Right off the front yard are the back ends of Walgreens and the Washtenaw strip.

The current controversy is about how the house was paid for and how much it cost. Kirkpatrick et al have always said that the house was paid for NOT with tuition, but with donations from individuals and corporations. But this is a bit of a dodge since money that comes from these sorts of sources could just as easily gone into the endowment or some other operating fund. In other words, even if the actual dollars didn’t come from tuition or state appropriations, the money that was used to pay for the house obviously could have been used to pay for other things– faculty, books, etc. And even if the administration wants to argue that the donors specifically said that they wanted the money to go to the house, clearly Kirkpatrick and the rest of the administration made an argument to donors that they needed the money for the new presidential mansion and not for other things.

The potentially more problematic charge for Kirkpatrick is the different reports about the final cost of the project. The administration said that it cost about $3.5 million; rumors abound that it is closer to twice that amount. I don’t really know who to believe, but one rumor was that the house cost $3.5 million, but the extensive landscaping and other things around the house cost another $1.5 million (give or take), and those expenses came not from these donations but the university operating funds. Like I said, I don’t know if these rumors or true or not; just what I’ve heard.

If nothing else, Sam’s house and the controversy around it seems to me to be the most obvious of a series of examples of what must be Kirkpatrick’s “vision” for EMU, and it strikes me as a remarkably destructive vision. While tenure-track faculty numbers have decreased, administrative lines have increased. EMU is still attracting lots of students despite tuition hikes, and to teach the additional classes, the administration has hired more and more part-time and non-tenure-track full-time faculty. Plans to refurbish woefully inadequate academic buildings like the one I teach in have been put on hold because of funding issues, and yet we’re moving full-steam ahead to build a new student union that no one on campus really seems to want. And just to add insult to injury, the plan for the old student union is to convert most of it into administrative office space.

Well, I wish the regents luck. I hope they do a real audit, I hope they hire an outside firm, and for once, I hope that the rumors of how things have been going turn out to be false. One way or the other though, I know the entire EMU community will be following this story closely…

The University, Inc.

An interesting article in the Saturday September 6, 2003 New York Times called The Academic Industrial Complex. It covers old territory about how the “commercial” and “business” world is creeping into the “academic” world; or, perhaps a bit more accurately, it discusses how the academic world is becoming more like a business. The interesting and useful thing about this essay to me is that it cites a bunch of recent books that discuss the issue from both sides of the coin. And at the beginning of the semester, it’s always a good discussion to have.

I don’t have a problem with the idea of acknowledging the commercial/business values and purposes of what we do in academia. The fact of the matter is our students are coming to universities for both philosophical and ethical versions and for capitalistic ones. This seems okay to me because it seems in line with the reasons for all but independently wealthy faculty for working at universities: it’s a noble and ethical profession, and it pays the bills.

What does bother me though is when university administrators try to focus their efforts on how to make money, when they try to put the emphasis on “profit centers” in the university. Maybe the book store or the fast food places in the student union can work like that, and maybe there are some departments (in business or the sciences, for example) able to attract grant money in a way that makes them profitable, but obviously most academic departments (like English) can’t make money in this sense and still continue to do what we do.

I have nothing against making money; I don’t even have anything against a responsible and enlightened version of capitalism. But not everything of value is going to make a buck.