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.

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