The Don Rickels approach to campus security

Earlier this week, there were a couple of news stories out about the faculty union at Oakland University (which is about an hour north of here in Rochester Hills, Michigan) buying and distributing hockey pucks to faculty, staff, and students as a defense against an on-campus shooter. I learned about this at nine or ten Thursday night, after a long day and while I was thinking about going to bed. Being a little sleepy and fuzzy-headed, I assumed this was some kind of joke. But no, this is very real.

Then I thought “well, this surly must have been the bone-headed idea of some administrator or campus security person or both.” Nope. The Oakland University faculty union’s executive committee took part in an on-campus active shooter training session, and part of that training is about throwing stuff at a would-be shooter. The Oakland University Chief of Police mentioned hockey pucks as an example.

“We thought ‘yeah, that is something that we can do,'” [Tom Discenna, president of the American Association of University Professors] said. “We can make these available at least to our members and a fair number of students as well.”

So far, the union has spent $2,500 on an initial batch of pucks. Each costs 94 cents to make and they are printed with the union’s logo, Discenna said. They are being distributed for free.

The union began passing out the pucks on Nov. 9. So far, 800 faculty members have them, and another 1,700 are expected to go to students. The university’s student congress has ordered an additional 1,000, he said.

I posted about this on the EMUTalk Facebook group and I was surprised by the number of people who thought this wasn’t a bad idea.  I mean, on the one hand, I suppose this is true: a hockey puck is a good size for throwing and it could definitely do some damage if it connected. (The OU Chief of Police also suggested billiard balls.) A friend/colleague of mine who went through an active shooter training at his synagogue told me that experience made him understand the importance of thinking about strategies for what to do, including fighting back as a last resort. So okay, I guess.

On the other hand, c’mon, really? Have we been so beaten down by the every week or so stories about active shooters that all we do now is shrug and think if I every find ourselves in such a terrible situation, I sure hope I have a nice heavy object to throw? Are we that far away from some version of sensible gun control laws that passing out hockey pucks seems like a pretty solid idea? Thoughts, prayers, pucks? WTF?

I don’t know if this makes things better or worse, but deeply buried in these stories is this:

Separately, the union is hoping the pucks can help bolster a fundraising campaign for interior door locks for university classrooms. Each one has an identification number for voluntary donations to the campaign. The union and student congress each have contributed $5,000 toward that initiative.

That’s the real story– or at least it should be. I’ve never been on campus at Oakland University, but assuming it’s like ever other college campus I’ve been on (including the one where I work), the vast majority of the classrooms do not have doors that can lock, certainly not with the turn of a deadbolt from the inside of the room. And let me tell ya: if there is an active shooter on campus while I’m teaching, the first thing I want is not something hard and dangerous to throw. The first thing I want is a freakin’ lock.

So really, this story about hockey pucks as a defensive distraction against a classroom shooter is actually a clever distraction from the real issue. Universities are not doing enough to make their campuses safe. They certainly aren’t investing in locking doors. If Oakland University (or any university for that matter) was actually serious about making its campus more secure, it’d spend less time promoting the Don Rickels defense and more time on something that might actually work, like a locked door that keeps the shooter on the outside.

Oh yeah, and sensible gun control laws, but I know that’s a fantasy.

 

Semi-annual end of the summer/beginning of the school year resolutions: Time passes, bends, repeats

Thirty years ago this week, (give or take a week or two), I was preparing to teach for the first time as a graduate assistant at Virginia Commonwealth University. I had moved to Richmond in May 1988, shortly after I had graduated from Iowa, and that summer wasn’t exactly great. I could only find work for a few weeks with Clean Water Action, which essentially involved going door to door in various subdivisions within about an hour’s drive from downtown Richmond and asking for donations . Let’s just say the premise of the operation seemed sketchy, the money was poor, I turned out to be not very good at canvasing, and I ate a lot of Cheerios that summer– though fortunately, my old friends Troy and Lisa had actually moved to Richmond too and they fed and entertained me once in a while. In any event, some time in August that summer, I was probably in a workshop for new teaching assistants.

Twenty years ago this week, (give or take a week or two), I was preparing for teaching and work at my second (and presumably final) tenure-track position at Eastern Michigan University. Annette and I left Ashland, Oregon where I had been an assistant professor for two years at Southern Oregon University. People in Ashland thought we were crazy to be moving to Michigan because Ashland and that whole area of Oregon is stunningly beautiful. But there is no way Annette would have ever gotten a tenure-track job at SOU, there are no other universities or colleges within 100 miles of there, and truth be told, SOU was (and still kind of is as I understand it) a basket case of an institution. So in the late summer of 1998, we hired a couple of dudes to do most of the loading up of a U-Haul truck we drove east for four or five days with Will (not yet a year old) in a car seat between us while we sang round after round of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” to keep him from being fussy. In any event, I was probably in some kind of faculty orientation thing some time in late August, a session where I remember meeting my fellow cohort hires, Annette Saddik and Jim Knapp, and where I spent a day I will never get back being “orientated” and learning about insurance. As I understand it, the new faculty orientation has expanded  to almost a week of these meetings.

And now here we are once again with another new (school) year’s resolution(s) sort of post. Time flies and repeats and bends. I visited Richmond (and my friend Dennis Danvers) for a day back in late May and had a lovely trip down memory lane, driving by old apartments and seeing the many ways VCU’s campus has changed. Troy and Lisa (saw them back in March) are now in Brooklyn, and before that they were in Chicago for almost 20 years (with a “stop” in-between for a year in California). I hear once in a while from people who were at SOU, but not much. Annette Saddik and Jim Knapp both left EMU a long time ago. Annette (as in my wife, not Saddik) has been a tenured professor in the department for a while now, and Will is starting his senior year of college with an eye toward PhD programs.

As I’ve written about previously, EMU is in the midst of what I will charitably call “challenges,” a combination of self-inflicted dumb administrative decisions, changing regional demographics impacting enrollments, and a lot of other problems happening all over the U.S. at similar universities. This is a time at EMU where faculty who are able move on to other positions at other universities ought to seriously think about doing so, or where faculty who can’t move on should have a strategy for riding out the storm.

I am in the latter category– not that that’s a bad thing.

I mean, the grass might be greener elsewhere (or it might not be), but Annette and I both have tenured positions and we live in a lovely community. I can’t complain about that. This fall, I’m not involved in any quasi-administrative duties for the first time since 2011, and I am looking forward to being “retired” from that work to focus more on teaching. I’m especially excited about the section of first year writing I’m going to teach where I’m planning on using as Bruce McComiskey’s Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition and where students will research something in the theme(s) of post-truth and fake news. It’s the most politically charged version of the course I’ve ever taught, but at this stage of my career, I think I can handle/navigate it, and I think McComiskey makes a pretty compelling argument about how we live in a time where teaching students about this is incredibly important. So wish me luck on that front.

Scholarship-wise, I’m beginning the last stages of a book about MOOCs I’ve been working on pretty much since Invasion of the MOOCs. It’s revised title is More than a Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs, it’s being published by Utah State University Press/University of Colorado Press, and it should come out some time in 2019. Knocking on wooden things. I had said before that this might very well be my last “hurrah” as far as scholarly writing goes because I want to take a turn toward the more “mainstream” in terms of trying to write and publish more commentary pieces (like this one from Inside Higher Ed from March), and/or some more “popular” non-fiction or even fiction. Then again, I am also going to start putting together the paperwork/legwork for a different project that has the working (and in my head) title “Classroom Laptop Bans are Bullshit.” Plus, with what seems to be an increasing number of proclamations that blogging is “over,” this might actually be the right time to research them again. Stay tuned.

Otherwise, my new school year resolutions are similar to the ones I had last year:

  • Finish the book. Well, “finish.” There will still be production issues and copy editing and indexing and who knows what else, which is to say that the book won’t really be done until it is actually produced. But you know what I mean.
  • Go to the gym more (and generally try to diet, exercise, be healthy, blah-blah-blah).
  • Let it go/stay out of it/unplug from it/let others take it over.
  • Start enough of some new projects so that I can apply for summer and/or fall research support.
  • Blog more, which I realize is at odds with the “blogs are dead now” trend and all of that. But just like everyone else I know, I’m increasingly disillusioned with social media, and I kind of liked when I was blogging “reviews” of scholarly things I had read, in part because it often feels like there is a whole lot more attention spent on making scholarship rather than consuming it/reading it.

The Problem of Refusing Service to Bad People: A Not Completely Right Teaching Analogy

Two wrongs don’t make a right. I’m against all policies that boil down to “we don’t serve your kind,” even when “your kind” are bad people. And like the education industry, I think one of the challenges of the hospitality industry is an obligation to serve everyone– up until they give you a good reason to not serve them.

Most of my students either lean kind of left (thanks to youth and many of them are coming from working class backgrounds in Southeast Michigan) or they are kind of apolitical, so this problem is more hypothetical for me than real. But if a student signed up for my class and it became obvious that he (and it would almost certainly be a he) was all about “Make America Great Again” and whatever, it would be a huge problem if I told him “look, you need to drop because I refuse to teach you, read your writing, or give you a passing grade no matter what you do.” I’d probably get in a lot of trouble and it would just be, you know, “wrong.”

But honestly, I’m not convinced I’m right about this analogy.

Look, I get it. I think these people are deplorable too. I completely sympathize with the owners and staff of the Red Hen restaurant refusing to serve Sarah Hucklebee Sanders and her people– because by all accounts (including from Sanders in her official government tweet) this wasn’t a situation of a group being “thrown out” so much as it was about the owner politely asking the group to leave and the group politely doing so. I don’t fault the owner for this, and if I had been in their situation, I might very well have done the same thing. I am okay with the public protests that have greeted these public figures when they’ve done stuff like go out to dinner or to the movies or whatever because they are horrible people doing horrible things and when they go into public, the public is allowed to express their feelings. That’s protest, and protest is never “polite,” and I think there’s a difference between people protesting outside the restaurant versus proprietors of a restaurant protesting. I’m a little less okay when the protest actually goes into the restaurant or movie theater, but still. Anyway, like I said, I get it.

And I’m not that interested in “civility” per se, though I think the “yeah, well, Republicans have done all kinds of uncivil things too like a baker refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding, so they deserve it” argument strikes me as a version of “I know you are, but what am I?” For me,  this isn’t so much “Us good liberal people should continue to be civil” but rather “Us good liberal people should try to not be stupid.” The conservative hypocrisy here is thick. But while the self-righteous feelings that come from refusing awful people like this service or yelling at them is satisfying in the moment, it’s ultimately kind of gross.

Plus there’s the bigger picture politics. These public shamings are like pouring gasoline on the Trumpster fire and they do nothing to change minds. Just the opposite. This is all part of the Trump chaos/bully playbook. The bully taunts his victim into doing something stupid, essentially “What are you gonna do? Wanna hit me? Huh? I dare you! Go ahead, hit me!” The victim lose their temper, hits the bully, the bully has the green light to be a bigger bully (because hey, who’s the victim here now), and that’s how the Democrats manage to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory in 2018. 

Plus plus this all seems to me to be just another example of how Trump is starting to make liberals crazy and turn on each other.  I’ve seen signs of this on social media with left-leaning folks being driven slowly insane by a never-ending news cycle dominated by a never-ending series of stories that are some version of “this affront against decency is completely unprecedented” and/or “Trump is going to kill us all.” I read Amy Siskind’s Weekly List.  I think Trent Reznor is right when he noted “the disregard for decency and truth and civility is what’s really disheartening. It feels like a country that celebrates stupidity is really taking it up a notch.” At the same time, there are just too many liberals trying to out-liberal each other, trying to create unnecessary distance amongst themselves over issues with which we fundamentally agree. I write these posts mostly for myself and the tens of others who read them, but there might be a few left-leaning folks reading this right now who think that I’m wrong because what I’m writing here doesn’t fall into the “party line,” so to speak.

And increasingly, I think that Trump et al are gleefully rubbing their hands together as these liberals argue with liberals and cackling “Just as we planned. It is all so easy…”

Anyway, all I’m saying is I think people on the left side of the spectrum– everyone from pretty middle of the road and old-school Democrats to “Bernie Bros” to folks on the more radical left– need to find ways to push back against the Trump administration while not taking the bait. That shit didn’t help Hillary in 2016 (though why and how she lost is a much more complicated matter of course), and it ain’t going to help the Democrats in 2018 or 2020. And that shit gets super real when things happen like Anthony Kennedy retires and you start to realize that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is freakin’ 85!

But back to where I started. Two wrongs don’t make a right, I’m against policies that boil down to “we don’t serve your kind,” and one of the challenges of both the hospitality and education industries is there’s an obligation to serve everyone who comes into the dining room/classroom. But also like I said, I’m not sure I even agree with myself about this.

For one thing, I don’t think it’s illegal to refuse service to someone because of their politics or who they work for, though I honestly do not know where the legal line is. It’s illegal (I presume) to refuse service to a person because of their race, but it is legal (I presume) to refuse service to that same person because you believe they are a shitty person. When it comes to teaching, I don’t know exactly if it’s illegal for me to kick a student out of my class before it even begins based on their politics or their boss or even their race, but it is certainly “wrong,” it would probably get me in trouble with EMU (there are limits as to what even a tenured professor can get away with), and it might get me on some sort of “liberal watch” right wing web site.

Hospitality businesses have other ways to refuse service– dress codes immediately come to mind– and it’s also reasonable for these kinds of businesses to ask people to leave if they start behaving badly. I have thrown students out of my classes for bad behavior, though not often and I’ve never taught someplace where there is some kind of dress code (and there have been some controversial stories recently about what can go spectacularly wrong with dress codes in college courses).

Then again, I might be wrong about this.

I wish we lived in a time where we didn’t have to deal with any of this nonsense.

Two Thoughts on “Volunteer Faculty”

It must be after the end of the school year because why else would I have the time and/or motivation to write not one but two blog posts in less than one week! In any event:

Just the other day, an associate dean of some sort at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale sent around an email to department heads (available in full in a variety of places, including here on the blog School of Doubt and also via “The Professor is In” Karen Kelsky’s Facebook page) floating the idea of “voluntary” adjuncts to help do some various kinds of academic work for free. Supposedly, this came from the SIUC alumni association, and the renewable “zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments” to do stuff like:

…service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.

I have to say my first reaction to this was “this must be a joke and/or hoax,” because it kind of had the markers of “fake news:” an outlandish story that is also very easy for people to believe, especially people who are already upset about the decrease in tenure-track positions and the rise of increasingly bad part-time adjunct positions. But it was/is real, though, as SIUC tries to clarify here, it’s an experiment not meant to replace teaching faculty and all that.

Needless to say, the response from academics who actually have to get paid to do work was not positive. I think John Warner exaggerates more than a tad when he suggests that we should mark April 24, 2018 as “the day public higher education was lost,” but I get his point. The mere suggestion that the work that faculty (both on and off the tenure track) do can be done as well by eager volunteers was enough to piss a lot of academic-types off, and with some justification. I do this work because I love it, but I’m not a volunteer.

So, toward that end (especially for readers who have already read and thought about these SIUC statements and reactions like Warner’s), I thought I’d offer two somewhat related thoughts:

First here’s an overly optimistic, generous, and forgiving reading of this call for “0% adjuncts”  (and I freely admit this is probably too optimistic, generous, and forgiving). Maybe what the SIUC administration was trying to do was to systematize a way for qualified alumni to “give back” to SIUC, and to do so in a fashion that gives these alum credit for their volunteering. So, let’s say that I had a PhD from SIUC and for whatever reason, I was interested in/being recruited to be on a couple of dissertation committees for current students. I guess if I was a 0% adjunct faculty member, I could then do that. Maybe?

Now, I don’t really know why SIUC needs to go through this rig-a-ma-roll. I mean, I’ve been a reader on a dissertation for another university and I didn’t have to do any kind of appointment gymnastics; maybe it’s different at SIUC. Maybe there are some alumni in some departments who perceive this as perhaps helping them in their current positions and/or to find better positions. But again, I don’t really know.

As a slight and related tangent though, faculty do end up working for “0%” on a lot of different things. People who do review work for journals generally do not get paid for that labor, and people who review books before publication don’t usually get paid very much (if at all). I’ve been paid before to do tenure reviews, and I have agreed to do one this summer for free as a favor. So extending the invitation for this kind of volunteer work to alumni serving on various committees is perhaps a misplaced reading of the next logical step.

Also related (and overly generous and forgiving on my part): perhaps the goal here is to go back to the work adjunct faculty are supposed to be doing. I think in an ideal world, all adjunct faculty in all fields would be professionally active in whatever they do and they would teach a course or two at a university mostly as a way of “giving back” to the profession and the institution. I have a friend of mine who has been a journalist for several decades and he teaches a bit part-time about reporting, and I think this is his view of the value of this work. I am imagining a scenario where a doctor or a lawyer or a similar professional teaches a course at the university, again to give back and to share their “real world” expertise.

Of course, this is not what most adjuncts are now.

Second, I am reminded of the advice I have heard about freelancing: never work for free. I’ve never made any real money freelance writing (though one of my goals in the next few years is to try to make as much money freelancing as I used to make teaching in the summer; we’ll see what happens). But one of the main pieces of advice I’ve read/heard from freelancers is you should not ever agree to work for free. Here’s a long piece about by Yasmin Nair from a few years ago, pointing out that some big organizations (like HuffPo) only pay (at least some) of their freelancers with “exposure.” Maybe that’s useful if you’re just starting out or if you have a message you want to get out to the world; but otherwise, it’s not worth it. And it’s especially not worth writing for free for entities/publications that make money in part by not paying for content.

Now, I think this is easier said than done in a couple of different ways. For one thing and as I already mentioned, academics do a lot of work not necessarily “for free” but for little or no compensation. If we stopped doing not directly (or poorly) compensated work like writing articles, writing books, giving conference presentations, reviewing for journals, editing journals with minimal resources, reviewing tenure cases, sitting on dissertation committees, and so forth– the wheels of the academic machine would grind to a halt.

For another thing, what am I doing right now? I’m not getting paid for this. It’s worth it to me because I write in this space to get stuff out of my head and (potentially) out to interested readers, and there have been many things I have been able to do– some of which even paid me!– as a result of the writing I do here. The same goes for the book I’m working on right now: I’m never going to make any real money from it– at least not directly. But besides personal satisfaction and another item to put into my (already full) tenure and promotion basket, maybe this work will lead to some other opportunities, some of which might actually translate to compensation or even money.

So I’m not saying that there are no reasons to work “for free” in academia, and the line between working for free and not is a lot more fuzzy than whether or not a check is in the mail for that work. Nor am I suggesting that this ham-fisted proposal for 0% adjuncts ought to be read as just “normal business” because it is clearly not that. But I am saying that the conditions and practices of academics doing work for free (or at least not for money) was not invented by this odd email.

What’s even more sad is I am quite sure that there are SIUC alumni with terminal degrees who are so desperate to do something– anything!– to find some way into an academic position, and that includes signing up to be a 0% adjunct.

Miscellaneous End of School Year Blog Post

I haven’t been writing here much lately (obviously). A lot of it has been I’ve been busy. A lot of it has been because I’ve had nothing I wanted to say– at least not here. A lot of it has been intensity of the school year.

The year started before the fall semester with me meditating over the realization (as the result of a “salary adjustment” promotion I earned after being a full professor for ten years) that I’m both getting old and I’m in all likelihood “stuck” at EMU. Also before fall got going, my former department head cancelled a graduate class in the writing program I was coordinating without bothering to tell me. Then this same department head took a different administrative position at EMU, further kicking up the mess of naming an interim department head, someone who is doing a decent enough job but who might also be “interim” for years and years. The faculty union and EMU administration continue to be embattled over various arguments, and, without going too deep into the weeds, I ended up to once again spending too much time trying to argue for courses counting as four credits rather than three, and increasingly, this all feels like it’s all going to shake out in a year or two so that we’re more or less still teaching a 3-3 schedule, which means that all of the arguing about this for the last two or three years will have just been a giant waste of time. My colleague and friend, Derek Mueller, is taking a new job at Virginia Tech, a career move that probably makes sense for him, but a move that will certainly leave a hole for those of us who remain, a hole that will probably take years to fill. More or less out of nowhere, the EMU administration announced in January budget cuts and staff layoffs, including of one of my department’s secretaries, a woman who had been at EMU for around 20 years. The administration also cut a few sports to save money, though there is some debate as to whether or not those savings will be realized, and, of course, the big sports remain untouched. Meanwhile, EMU hired a couple more assistant football coaches, presumably entry-level sports coaching positions that pay more than I make after 20 years and after a “salary adjustment” promotion I earned after being a full professor for the last decade. Oh, and EMU also sold its parking rights to a company with weird agreements in a variety of states, and the money that EMU has earned from this deal (I guess around $50 million?) is likely to be used in large part as collateral to borrow even more money to build sports facilities. I wasn’t teaching in the fall (more on that in a second) and I began the winter term of teaching more ill-prepared than I have been since I came to EMU, and it was unnerving to say the least. The department politics of the semester more or less concluded in another last crazy meeting of the school year, and my school year concluded without any summer teaching– a class I was scheduled to teach (which I am certain would have run) was cancelled before it could be offered.

So it’s been bad, one of the worse school years of my career, the hardest I can recall since my first year on the tenure-track way back when. On the other hand:

I was on a Faculty Research Fellowship in the fall, an award from EMU that bought me out of teaching. While I used (donated?) too much of my time back to EMU to do the quasi-administrative work of being program coordinator, I did “finish” a draft of a book manuscript about MOOCs (another reason I haven’t been writing as much here in the last year). The reviews came back earlier than expected, and while they did not recommend immediate publication without any changes (I assume that never happens), they did recommend publishing and they made constructive suggestions for the revisions I’m working on right now. Liz Losh’s edited collection on MOOCs came out in fall and I have a chapter in it. I quickly wrote and published a little commentary piece for Inside Higher Ed, “Why I Teach Online (Even Though I Don’t Have To),” which even includes a staged photo of me “teaching” “online” while wearing my bathrobe. The only downside to that piece is IHE has still not paid me, nor have they ever specified how much they’re going to pay me. Hmm. Despite a chaotic start, my teaching turned out well enough, I think. I tried to pull off an experiment of a collaborative writing assignment in the online version of Writing for the Web that ultimately (I think, at least) turned out to be not entirely successful but kind of interesting. Among other things, it resulted in this collection of readings and annotations from my students about social media. It is rough rough work, but I did learn a lot about what to do (or not do) the next time I try an assignment like this, and there is a lot here that will be useful for teaching next year. And as an important tangent: one of the things that’s really nice about being an increasingly old fart a senior and seasoned professor is I can try assignments like this and not really have to worry about what the student evaluations might mean to someone or my Rate My Professor ratings or whatever. I can get away with making things “break,” I can be a lot more honest with students now than when I started, and I also know better how to fix things when they break. So I have that going for me.

And just like that, I’m officially done with EMU things until late August (though of course I’m not really done). I would prefer to be teaching starting in May because, well, money. But I have to admit I do like the free time.

The first job (really, the only job) for the next month or so is to finish the revisions on the MOOC book, though I should probably say “finish.” I was talking with my father a couple weekends ago about nothing in particular and I mentioned I needed to finish my book, and he said “didn’t you say you finished that back in December?” I realized that yes, I had finished a draft, but now there is “finished” the revisions, and there will almost certainly be another stage of “finished” after the reviews on the revisions come back that will involve copyediting and Chicago Style (shudder) and indexing and…. Anyway, it really won’t be finished finished until it comes out in print, and that could be a while.

But once that gets off my desk, then I want to turn to other things. I had been saying for a long time that this MOOC book is the last scholarly bit of writing that I might ever do because I want to try to pivot to writing more “popular” things that people might actually read (commentaries on stuff I know about but for the mainstream press, maybe something pitched to a more popular audience, maybe something like the work Steven Johnson has done for years) and/or fiction (which I am under no illusions will find much of an audience) and/or more blogging. Derek and I were just talking about this the other day, that maybe it’s time to go back. Maybe blogging again– as opposed to just posting stuff on Facebook or Twitter or whatever other platform– is like the internet version of a new interest in vinyl.

So, how hard do I actually work?

The answer for anyone in a”tl; dr” mood: when I was in my PhD program, I probably worked 60 or 70 or more hours a week, which is why I was able to finish my doctorate in three years. When I was tenure-seeking and then associate, I probably worked more like 50 hours a week and a lot in the summer. Now that I am full and fuller/uber, it’s more like 40 hours a week (with a lot of multitasking and a lot of work at home) and a lot more time off in the summer.

Here’s the more complicated version prompted by a recent article in The Atlantic, “How Hard Do Professors Actually Work?”

Continue reading “So, how hard do I actually work?”

Potter is not wrong, it’s just…

Clair “Tenured Radical” Potter seems to have struck quite the nerve with her Inside Higher Ed column “Angry About Adjuncting? The radical move might be to quit.”  The gist of the column is basically in the title: adjuncts who are angry and bitter about their working conditions ought to quit and seek employment outside academia. Lots of comments on the column and social media I saw more or less echoed the sentiment of “The Dude” in this exchange with Walter: Potter is not wrong, she’s just an asshole.

Actually, no— I don’t think Potter was being an asshole. I think she was trying very hard in her column to be kind with her mostly sound advice. It’s just not exactly the kind of advice adjuncts want to hear, especially if one is an adjunct and feeling trapped, depressed, desperate, on the edge of financial ruin, living in their car, contemplating sex work, etc. 

Seth “Here Comes Trouble” Kahn had a good blog post about this, where he points out the problems of Potter’s “just leave” advice (though I don’t think that’s exactly what she’s saying). He’s right– it’s not just that easy to give up sometimes because of personal and emotional investments, not to mention because a lot of adjuncts are “stuck” geographically or for family reasons or what not, plus a lot of adjuncts are “golden handcuffed” to the work in that it’s just barely enough money to get by and they don’t want to risk losing that. Though I think Seth kind of agrees with Potter too.

I’ve blogged about adjunct work and the job market frequently over the years because it has been a concern/topic in the academic media since I started caring about academic career things almost 30 years ago. I used to read the excellent Invisible Adjunct blog regularly. She (it was an anonymous blog) left academia and closed down her blog in 2004, and I do wonder once in a while how things turned out for her. I hope well. My point is none of this is new and there was never a golden age for being an adjunct, either real or imagined.

So while I realize that Potter’s advice might make her sound like she’s being an asshole, she’s still mostly right. I guess though I would add three other thoughts, all of which I’ve written about many times before:

  • Being an adjunct should be a temporary thing. Unless you can afford to work part-time because of life circumstances, being an adjunct should be a “transition” to a career and not a career in itself. Of course, this is advice to heed at the start of one’s adjuncting career, not after being in it for 10 or 20 years.
  • Don’t quit your day-job; make a gradual transition. I was an adjunct between my MFA and PhD studies, but I taught at night and had an office job during the day. This was really important for me professionally because I got a chance to see at least a taste of what a “real job” was like and also could (sort of) pay the bills and had insurance and such. But I think this advice works the other way too for the full-time/part-timer: that is, while I think there is a certain purity in Potter’s advice of just quitting, it seems to me the more sensible thing for the adjunct trying to leave academia is to try to ease into non-academic work a bit more gradually.

I should add that I am not speaking from experience on this one because I’ve been a professor/had the same job for about 20 years. But I will say that entering my fifties and the state of affairs at EMU has made me at least contemplate briefly a different career. I guess if I was serious about leaving my job, I would start by researching career counseling services, or maybe even temporary employment services. That’s how I got a “real job” oh so many years ago.

  • Higher Ed generally (and composition and rhetoric specifically) needs to find ways of cutting our dependence/addiction to cheap teaching labor. I blogged about this here with my “Modest Proposal” about MOOCs; in brief, I think my field needs to stop requiring every single college student to take first year writing. For me, this is not an argument about the value of the course because I think it is valuable. But the universal requirement perpetuates the exploitation of part-time instructors. In other words, part of the solution is of course on the “supply side” of things, which is what Potter’s advice and the call for decreasing the number of PhD students in the humanities (especially in fields like literature) are trying to address. But Higher Ed and the profession also needs to address the demand side of the equation as well.

The random opportunities of an alt-ac career path

Somehow– I’m not really sure how– I have found myself on an electronic mailing list for the Kimble Group, which is a “recruitment search firm focused on the hiring needs of Fortune 500 companies as well as small businesses nationwide.” I must have clicked on something at some point, maybe at one of those moments where I think that I’ve “had enough” of academia or something, I’m not sure.

Anyway, here is a selection of the hundreds of different jobs these emails have suggested I apply for:

  • Substitute Teacher/Paraprofessional
  • Assistant Manager, Checkers Drive-In
  • Team Leader-Optical Dispenser-OptimEyes
  • Licensed Cosmetologist-Detroit Airport Spa
  • Assistant principal, Secondary (Detroit Int’l Academy)
  • Food and Beverage Supervisor, MGM Grand
  • Detroit Red Wings – Red Patrol Member
  • Executive Producer, McCann Detroit
  • Disk Jockey
  • Assistant Professor of Journalism – Public Relations
  • Medical Assistant
  • Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies – Filmmaking
  • Detroit Tigers Foundation Intern
  • Medical Assistant-Infectious Disease
  • Assistant General Manager, Taco Bell
  • Division Head, Hematology/Oncology – Henry Ford Health System

And so forth.

To be fair to the Kimble Group people, I think I was getting random job suggestions like this because I never updated my profile, though that was because I never quite understood how I started getting these emails in the first place. Once I did update it to stuff I could probably actually do (freelance writer and content strategy, for example), I did get an email for jobs I could kinda/sorta apply to.

Still, it’s amusing to me to think that what the Kimble Group was doing was sending me their best guesses as to what someone who has been a college professor for 21 years might be qualified to do, which is to say everything, anything, and nothing all at the same time.

Writers Having to Work for A Living, a #firstworldproblems

The Book Review section of the Sunday New York Times includes a couple of essays in the “Bookends” section under the collective headline Do Grants, Professorships and Other Forms of Institutional Support Help Writers but Hurt Writing? Siddhartha Deb (who I think is a professor at The New School) laments bitterly how creative writing/artist like Deb are increasingly expected take on the duties and responsibilities for being a professor:

Unless teaching at one of a few select places, writers are increasingly required, apart from their teaching duties, to attend meetings, serve on committees and be on email 24/7. They are also expected, in an era when students are customers, the university a brand and everything a matter of opinion, often to put aside whatever knowledge and expertise they might have acquired in order to assuage the varying sensibilities of their customers. Otherwise, as in the case of the poetry professor in Wisconsin attacked for teaching material with L.G.B.T. content, one might be taken to court in order for an F to be changed to an A.

In the second short essay, Benjamin Moser (who has been a translator and a columnist or editor at Harpers and The New York Review of Books, just to name a few places) also laments bitterly how “writing” doesn’t pay. He writes “Many writers enjoy teaching or journalism or translation or editing, but many do these jobs because it’s hard to survive on writing alone. Money clearly communicates the still-prevailing attitude: that writing is not a real job.” Moser goes on to suggest, basically, that society ought to simply pay writers (again, of the capital L “Literature” variety):

But literature is not made by society. It is made by individuals who, like anyone else, have bills to pay. Those whose job it is to enunciate other values often find themselves punished for the attempt, though we all need those values: Nobody wants to live in a world whose only measures are financial.

So does the world owe writers a living? We have grown so used to subordinating everything to money that the question seems absurd. But it is easy to imagine a society in which art — like health care and education, care of the poor and the elderly — is a public good: in which we delight in work and workman both.

Oh, boo-hoo. Two writers who have careers and jobs that most other writers would literally kill a sibling to obtain are complaining that it is a shame they have to labor to support themselves, despite the fact that they are artists, God-Damn It! Boo-hoo-hoo.

Coincidentally, the next piece I came across on the NYTimes web site while looking for the link to this piece was this column by Tracie McMillan, “Who Do We Think of as Poor?” McMillian begins with an anecdote about how when she was working on a book– ironically enough about poverty!– she went on food stamps to make ends meet.

In any event: yes, “creative” writers (more on “creative” in a moment) are not and never have been paid just for making art. If robots automate so much of the workforce that a basic income becomes a thing in advanced capitalist states, then that might mean there would be lots of people who could afford to do whatever they wanted, including make art. Short of that, the basic challenge of artists has been balancing a way to make art and pay the bills.

Maybe it would be a good idea to pay all artists to make art. On the plus-side, there might be a lot more happiness in the world if more people were spending their time making art. On the down-side, I am sure the world would have a lot more shitty art. Regardless, pretty much every novelist or poet that you can think of either had a day job, was an academic (which is also a day job, though a somewhat odd one), was independently wealthy, or had a patron of some sort. I’m reading a book about Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises right now and it’s pretty clear that in the early years, Papa sponged off of his first wife’s trust fund.

But I guess this pair of essays irritates me for at least two other reasons. First, one of the most annoying academic colleagues out there is the one who treats the position as patronage instead of as a real job. At the kind of university where I work, we need faculty members who are going to participate fully in the job, which does indeed mean meetings, advising, grading, paperwork, and all of the other real job stuff of being a professor. So while I understand the appeal of a job where your responsibilities are basically to do whatever you want, I can speak from experience that it’s kind of a pain in the ass for the rest of us to deal with these folks.

And for the record: all of my current colleagues who teach creative writing are fully engaged and involved faculty members, so I don’t have any of those folks in mind at all. But I have had (still have?) colleagues who take this approach and not all of them have been (are?) in creative writing.

Second, these two essays assume a narrow and frustrating definition of “writer,” an attitude that persists even among some of my students who are majoring in Written Communication. Journalists, editors, and translators are all writers. Social media writers/editors, content managers, technical documentation specialists, advertising copy editors, and so on are all writers. And I’d argue that if you are any good at teaching rhetoric and composition courses, you’re also a writer– or you had better be someone who seems themselves as a writer.

Maybe the problematic term here is “creative,” which in English departments means writing in the form of poetry, fiction, and drama. Separating creative from other kinds of writing  suggests what the rest of us practice and teach is not creative, which is clearly unfair. A better term might be “art” writing in the sense that writing a novel or a poem is more about making something to be appreciated, as opposed to writing that attempts to do things or persuade an audience. But that distinction doesn’t work either since of course art also is always trying to persuade and do things, and there are plenty of examples of writing that became literature only after readers and scholars decided to call it literature.

Regardless, anyone who has a guest column in The New York Times and who has received support for their writing as academics or from grants and then whines about how the need to work hurts their writing has got a whole lot of #firstworldproblems.

How to respond when a non-academic wants to talk about how you “don’t have to work in the summer”

I’ve been meaning to write something about summer work in academia along the lines of what Alex Reid did back in mid-April. But I hadn’t gotten around to it until now (and this post took me over a week to write, off and on), I suppose because I was on a vacation for three weeks in May, right after the Winter term ended at EMU. That’s not meant to be ironic or anything in terms of a post about “work” in the summer; it’s just the way it is.

Alex was initially responding to an article in CHE (now behind a firewall but I think I recall at least skimming it) called “Making Summer Work” that was offering advice to academics about how to make their summers “more productive.” Alex’s points are all spot-on, about how it’s weird that professors are characterized by the rest of the world as having cushy/lazy jobs as it is– and you don’t work in the summer!– but how professors themselves focus on the intensity of the 60+ hour work week and how it just keeps going and going and going in the summer too. It’s a losing battle; “[n]o one is going to sympathize with the plight of academics trying to figure out how to make their ‘summers off’ productive. Not even other academics. I would be reluctant to play into any of these commonplaces about working harder, putting in hours, and increasing productivity.”

I can relate to all of this. Back when I was in graduate school and when I was just starting down the tenure-track, my mother (or some other well-intended but not academic-type) would say something like “it must be nice to have such a long summer vacation like that” and I’d go on a tirade about how there was no such thing as time off in academia!

Now I’m a lot more likely to say something like “Why yes; yes, it is nice,” or “Yes, though I don’t get paid to work in the summer.” Though it’s still complicated.

For starters,  I used to teach (e.g. “work”) in the summers. I didn’t teach two summers ago because I was on sabbatical, but other than that, this summer is the first since I came to EMU in 1998 where I am not teaching and thus contractually not obligated to do anything. Summer school here is divided into two 7.5 week terms, and I usually taught two courses during one of those terms– or sometimes three courses, one in one term and two in another. The reason I taught in the summer is simple: money. EMU pays faculty 10% of their base salary per summer course. You don’t need to know my salary to know that being able to make 20% of my base salary for teaching two courses in a little less than two months is a good deal.

I’m not teaching this summer for two reasons. First, summer teaching at EMU– at least in my department, but I think this is broadly true across the university– has almost entirely dried up. Second, I’ve gotten to the place financially where I can afford to not teach/work for EMU for the summer. I mean, I’m not saying I’m never going to teach in the summer again because never is a very long time and I still like money. But I’m not planning on it.

Then there is the definition of “work.” I work all the time (including in the summer and while on vacation) doing stuff like planning classes, meeting with students, reading academic things, and writing academic presentations/articles/books/blog posts because I’m a professor and it’s my job, but also because this is work I enjoy and it brings me a great deal of personal satisfaction and meaning. It’s not the kind of “work” that Tim Ferriss has in mind in trying to avoid in the 4 Hour Work Week, the kind of work one does only for the paycheck.

So all those caveats and qualifications aside, yes, I do not have to work in the summers. Or maybe a better way of putting it is I don’t get paid to work in the summer when I’m not teaching, so I only do “the work” I want to do. This summer, I’m working (too slowly) on my MOOC book, I am reading things that might be interesting for future projects, I’m meeting with students about their MA projects, I went (briefly) to the Computers and Writing Conference in Findlay this past week, and I might even agree to go to a meeting or two. “Work” I won’t be doing includes program review/assessment documents, attending official department committee meetings (there aren’t any in the summer because I’m far from the only one who won’t do that), doing writing program administrator stuff, responding to irrelevant paperwork requests, holding specific office hours, and so forth.

The “contractual obligated” part of things with the EMU faculty union is taken quite seriously around here. I was in a discussion on Facebook with someone at another institution about all this and this person insisted that faculty should think of themselves as year-round employees no matter what. I understand that perspective, but that is not part of the local culture. I had a colleague a few years ago (this person has since retired) who left at the end of the winter term, did not come back until the fall term, and was completely absent in the summer. This person had an auto-reply on their email that said “email me back in the fall.” I was on a university-wide committee several years ago and whatever administrator wanted this committee to meet in June. The only way that faculty on that committee would agree to that meeting was to be paid a couple hundred dollars each to show up– and by the way, that was clearly a waste of money since nothing got done at that meeting anyway.

Besides, my base pay really is for eight months of work a year. I’m not complaining about my salary, but I also know that if I was an administrator and working 12 months a year, I’d be making much more money than I’m making now. The same is true if I had a “real job,” too. As an academic, I already do too much work for free; that doesn’t need to include the summer.

Anyway, to sum-up:

  • If you’re a graduate student or tenure-seeking/relatively new faculty member, you legit probably don’t have your “summers off,” at least not entirely. You’re probably doing something like writing a thesis or a dissertation or something to help your tenure case, and perhaps teaching as well. Work at this stage of your career is a mix of pleasure and pain, and it’s undeniably harder to explain to non-academics how you actually do have to work in the summer. Try “yeah, but if I don’t finish my thesis/dissertation/homework, I won’t be able to graduate next year;” that might work. But try to take at least some time “off,” even if that only means reading academic stuff while sitting in a park someplace once in a while.
  • If you’re newly tenured and a non-academic tells you “it must be nice to have your summer off,” reply “hey, I’ve been working my ass off for the last 10 years finishing my PhD and then getting a tenure-track job and then getting tenure. So yeah, it is nice having a summer off finally!” Seriously, take some time off. Do those home repairs/remodeling you’ve been putting off until you got tenure. And/or go on a trip, take up golf, etc.
  • If you’re an established academic-type, tenured and promoted and such, and you’re still working 16 hour + days, including in the summer: why? Why are you doing that? There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the work, but no one is going to think any less of you for giving your garden some attention. Except for those non-academic-types who think you never work; just tell those people that having summer off is really nice, thank you very much.