Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Seductions Of Sedan Delivery; Or, Writing Your Own Academic Job Description


It's difficult to think about it while we still have three to four precious weeks of summer left. But on behalf of all the people who will begin full time teaching in the fall, I ask you to conjure -- for a second -- a week in mid-semester. Feel the pain as you stay up half the night to grade your papers! Experience the fear as you go into class half prepared! Recall being fatally short of sleep as you sit, dazed, through yet another search committee meeting, having driven yourself unsparingly through 100 applicant files the day before! Conjure the self-righteousness and hypocrisy, as you lecture yet another student that s/he could get hir work in on time if only s/he would get organized!

Yeah, baby. The problem is, there is almost no one I know in academia who has a job description that would give them a reasonable sense of where a professor's job begins and ends. Couple this with the reality of being tenure-track (or worse, a full-time visitor), which often seems like an endless exercise in pleasing everybody, all the time, in every way we can. Top it off with the fact that we learn early on not to complain about being overworked because some jackass will look at us piously and say, "You just have to learn to say no to things!" (subtext: say no -- except to me) as if you are overworked because, somewhere along the line, you forgot to say your safeword.

The result is that even many of us who actually have tenure end up hard-wired to do far too much, far more than we really want to do or are capable of doing well, even though we don't really have to anymore. We believe that we are powerless to keep unwanted responsibilities in check, that there are no grounds -- not to say no, but to figure out what and who to say no to -- and the result is a work overload. Inevitably, our health, our peace of mind, our good temper and emotional availability at home, and the pace of our scholarship takes the biggest hit. If you are like me, these marathons of overwork and frustration can produce moments when you start to hear Neil Young warbling:

Sedan delivery is a job
I know I'll like;
It sure was hard to find.
Hard to find a job!
Hard to find!

But never fear. Your Radical is here, with the fruits of a recent rigorous self-criticism. How can this year can be different? How can you create a plan of action that will make this year different? The answer is: Take charge. The answer is: Write your own job description, using these principles.

Knowing your appropriate load allows you to know your overload. In consultation with a senior colleague, figure out what are the minimum number of bodies you are expected to manage, and what the department average is for each category and at each rank of the faculty. In the category of "body management," I am counting major advisees, non-major advisees, enrolled students, honors students, and any other person you need to manage (postdocs, graduate students, other faculty.) These categories can overlap -- but count them twice when they do (for example, a thesis advisee who is also a major advisee = two bodies, as these are distinct activities that cannot be folded into the same hour of your time.)

Whatever the category is, count it and stay at, or preferably under, that number. Anyone extra is an overload. This is the basic outline of your job description, because whatever people say, a full-time teaching job is primarily about the students. That said, you have to come up with a strategy for how -- particularly if you are a popular teacher, or are teaching in an underrepresented field (more on this below) -- you are going to say no to students that you don't have time for; and you will send them away to someone whose job it is to help them. Liberal arts colleges have chairs, field advisors, and honors committees whose job it is to help these students; research universities usually have a Director of Undergraduate Studies as well. Whether you are new faculty or a full professor, don't kid yourself that you are turning a student out like one of the little lost animals of FarmVille if you refuse to take hir on as an overload.

If you have a joint appointment, total the activities of each part of your appointment and divide them in half. This means that you don't do all things in either place except go to department meetings, for which you should repay yourself by taking one fewer thesis, or two fewer advisees. You have to figure this out annually, and you must do so with both chairs in the room; if you are tenure-track, your mentor should be part of the conversation. The reason that joint appointments usually end up as more burdensome is because it is often assumed that "full participation" means full participation in both "homes." Not so. It means doing the equivalent of one job in two places. You did not decide the terms of your appointment: the university or college did, and it is up to them to make their expectations clear without, as they say in factories, "speed-up." If one chair needs more participation from you for a reason, the other chair needs to graciously give way. There may also be years when a particularly large amount of activity in one home pulls you away; that can be repaid the following year.

If you are a visitor or a post-doc, do your job well and politely decline to do favors or spend time on anything institutional you have not been hired for. Read your letter of appointment carefully, and have a meeting with the chair at the beginning of each semester to go over your responsibilities. You should also know that most students don't know the difference between permanent and temporary faculty, so that although their desire for your attention is a great complement, it should be firmly and kindly resisted. Don't take on advisees of any kind unless you have contracted to do so; don't go to department meetings, even if you are invited to them (believe me, no one really wants you there); don't agree to meet with job candidates unless they are friends of yours who need the inside skinny; don't get involved in campus or faculty politics; don't let an extra body into your class; don't have unlimited office hours with students who love,love, love you; don't listen to veiled hints that if you go the extra mile for this person or that person that there might be a job authorized in your field this year and you would be a great candidate (this is a lie); and don't bust your a$$ to be the best-est, most creative, Mr. Chips-iest teacher on the planet.

Limit the number of recommendations you agree to write, and be clear with students what they need to do for you. Inevitably, we end up writing recommendations off the clock, and you must set aside some time in your schedule after October 1 for getting this work done at the office within business hours. When done correctly, a recommendation takes between an hour and two hours to write; tailoring an old recommendation for a new purpose takes at least half an hour; and uploading a completed recommendation to an electronic system takes about ten minutes for each school. Insist that law school applicants use the services provided by the Law School Admissions Council. It is also worth your while to have a document, either on your web page or that you can send to students, that tells them exactly what you need, what they must do, and what lead time you need to get the recommendation done.

Inevitably, those of us who teach more students and have more advisees end up writing more recommendations too. This is because students have good reasons for seeing us as allies; because they are comfortable asking for something which is part of our job but that many colleagues treat like a favor; and because -- well, pretty much all students need recommendations for something. But the fact that you are already working too hard, and have no time, does not oblige you to write recommendations that you also do not have time for. Develop criteria and stick to them (for example, that you only write grad school recs for people who have done advanced work with you.) Be honest with a student when you have no basis for an evaluation, or if you can't honestly write a good one. Do not write recommendations if you are not a permanent member of the faculty. Do not "feel bad" when you have reached your fixed and immutable limit and must say no: that's what the other faculty are there for.

And here's a nugget of advice: develop boilerplate recommendations for the B.S. credentialing letters that study abroad programs require. All they care about is that the student can pay, and that s/he is not nuts in some way that will cause harm to self or others.

Do not volunteer, stupid. You know who you are -- whatever your biological gender, you are a girl. You are the one who finds the silence insufferable when the chair has asked for someone to step up, and you think it is your job to make everyone feel good again. Why you? And why now? At least go away and consult your job description before you go all Do-Bee on everyone. It isn't your job to see to it that everything gets done -- it is the chair's job, and believe me, s/he will figure out how to do it.

Underrepresented faculty in underrepresented fields have no obligation to extend themselves without end to under-served students. Sometimes I look around me and it is so frackin' obvious why the scholars who are perpetually sicker, angrier, more exhausted, and frantic about meeting deadlines for their scholarship share certain characteristics. We are queer, we are of color, we are international scholars, we are women, we are feminist men. We are the ones who, in order to make space for what we care about in institutions, do it ourselves. We invent the programs, then we chair them. This is what Jean O'Brien and Lisa Disch write about in an article I strongly recommend (and that partly inspired this post) "Innovation is Overtime: An Ethical Analysis of 'Politically Committed Labor,'" (Aiku, Erickson and Pierce, Feminist Waves, Feminist Generations: Life Stories from the Academy Minnesota, 2007.) We are the ones that advertise our universities' "diversity" when we labor outside the classroom. We are the ones who students seek out to teach the things they never had a chance to learn in high school. We are the ones who students "like us" and the ones who hold similar political commitments flock to in droves.

Face it: certain faculty lines and programs have come into the academy as add-ons, and there is no intention at most schools to use what we interdisciplinary scholars know to transform the disciplinary paradigms that 95% of faculty are hired to support. There aren't enough of us, our faculties aren't diverse enough, and the culture wars of the 1980s permanently intimidated university administrations from appearing to be "too radical" by allowing what we do to impinge on core curricula. As an individual, yoy can't fill that dissonant gap even if you worked 26 hours a day trying to do so. It isn't your fault that there are too few classes in x; that the program in y is underfunded; that you are one of three z faculty. You didn't make the decision to grant a line to the Underwater Basket Weaving Department for a replacement who will teach ten students a term in the traditional field of Renaissance Wooden Needles that the administration just can't conceive of mounting a curriculum without -- while you are faced with sending forty students away from your Native Studies survey. Worse, the generative political urgency in the various fields that make up American Studies, Women's Studies and Ethnic Studies often moves us to throw our personal energy at immediate needs that are actually the result of long-term institutional dysfunction that our sacrifices help to maintain. Don't make up for the deficiencies of the institution by taxing yourself. Don't. The academic world is littered with broken and bitter people behind who thought that institutional neglect was only temporary.

The best thing you can do for your field is get your damn writing done, get tenure, become famous, acquire influence at your institution in a way that all those suits in the administration understand, and go someplace where the institution is committed to your intellectual commitments.

Which leads me to my final piece of advice for writing your own job description:

Your scholarship is part of your job. Schedule between 25 and 30% of the time you allot for work during the week to keeping your scholarship going. You know you should do this -- and yet, many of us see our writing as the thing that we have time for when our family, teaching and committee responsibilities are done. Which means it can get put off -- sometimes fatally -- for months at a time, causing us to get out of touch with projects we care about and go without sleep at various points in the semester to meet a commitment that has now become a burden.

So the next time you get angry about your perception that you are doing more work than other colleagues, remember: their "normal" is guaranteed by your overwork. Write your job description -- write it now, knowing that you will have to revise it and rewrite it as you figure out how to balance your life. Leave some space for things that may, in the end, be necessary tasks -- and if that space doesn't fill, use it for writing. And while you are performing that exercise, listen to this:

28 comments:

Me, PhD said...

I just prefer jobs that come offers of hire, not the parallel economy ones I've been getting saying "in another climate you would be the hire." Doesn't really pay the bills that way.

Sorry.

I should say that your post is very insightful and sound and . . . true. So very true.

Clarissa said...

What a brilliant post!! Every academic should print it out and post it above their desks at work.

Anonymous said...

"Don't make up for the deficiencies of the institution by taxing yourself. Don't. The academic world is littered with broken and bitter people behind who thought that institutional neglect was only temporary."

THANK YOU. I need to be told this as I start my career as an adjunct, less-than-minimum-wage-earning academic. My title may have the word "professor" in it, but my pay sure has hell doesn't reflect it. I will do no more for them than they do for me.

Janice said...

Even though I've been doing this job for a while, it's hard to define my boundaries. It's also frustrating when the student you're saying "No" to is a worthwhile use of your time compared to another who's already enrolled and not doing any of the coursework!

But, yes, new faculty and term appointed faculty, in particular, need to understand that all the good will and "volunteerism" in the world isn't going to change the administration's attitude toward full-time hiring.

Historiann said...

Janice--good point about the wastage of goodwill (or, in TR's terms, being a girl do-bee, whatever your chromosomal makeup.) In fact, doing more with fewer faculty cheerfully will only suggest to administrators that it doesn't in fact matter if they ever reconvert Anonymous's position to tenure-track.

I too cheer on TR's advice about not trying to solve institutional neglect by investing instead your time and your bodily and/or mental health. If the state of Colorado says that it's perfectly fine for intro classes in my department to have 100-120 students, I'm not going to teach the course the same way as if I had only 30 students. It's too bad and it certainly isn't as good a course as it could be if I didn't have to spread myself so thin--but that decision was made years before I arrived, and way above my pay grade. Not writing your book in order to pretend that you teach at a SLAC isn't smart.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Very interesting window into the world of undergraduate teaching/advising/etc. I just have one comment on this:

In consultation with a senior colleague, figure out what are the minimum number of bodies you are expected to manage, and what the department average is for each category and at each rank of the faculty. In the category of "body management," I am counting major advisees, non-major advisees, enrolled students, honors students, and any other person you need to manage (postdocs, graduate students, other faculty.)


This seems to imply that "body management" is implemented with an entirely flat hierarchy: the faculty member in question directly managing all these other people. At least in the natural sciences, this is not the only possible management structure.

More senior post-docs and grad students do a lot of the work of guiding and mentoring more junior people in the lab. And learning how to do this effectively is part of their own training.

This kind of hierarchical structure allows one to manage a substantially bigger operation than could be handled with a strictly flat structure. I have never really heard of this kind of thing, but is there precedent in the humanities for faculty to run operations like this? Like some huge-ass historian has a dozen or so students and post-docs off in the archives transcribing a bunch of shit under the umbrella of the huge-ass historian's scholarly program?

Historiann said...

CPP--a few big-time grad advisors farm out pieces of their work to their grad students. But because history books and articles are for the most part single-authored (or at most co-authored with one other person), what we do really happens inside our own tiny little minds, and isn't really farmable or delegateable.

There are some big-time famous historians whose wives essentially served as co-researchers and co-authors on their husbands' work, but I think extensive collaboration with more than one other person is extremely difficult in the humanities.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, especially for the note on being willing to be silent when the chair/dean/etc. asks for a volunteer. I did this at a committee meeting at the end of the semester - absolutely had to steel myself not to agree to take on a big responsibility - and was happy I did.

The Romper Room Do-Bee was one of my earliest influences! The theme song was initially, "I always do what's right/I never do anything wrong/I'm a Romper Room Do-Bee/a Do-Bee all day long." In the late 60s or early 70s it was changed to "I try to do what's right/I try not to do anything wrong." (This caused a problem for the scansion, which I noted even at a young age.)

Matt L said...

CPP: there are a few 'big science' type operations in history where you have a 'notable figure' in charge of a legion of post docs, co-investigators, and lab assistants. The one I know best is IPUMs over at the University of Minnesota. Its all about census data and demographic history.

But as Historiann points out, this kind of hierarchical lab-style organization is the exception. If a prof does have a research assistant, their tasks are pretty mundane. I worked as an RA and my main job was to update/manage a couple databases. For another RA position I worked as a conference organizer.

Matt L said...

Thanks for the post TR!

I just finished teaching the last meeting of my summer session class (its all over except the grading). So I am going to sit down and write my new job description this afternoon.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Thanks for the info Matt L! If I were a historian, I suspect I would gravitate to that kind of structure.

My personality is very much an "orchestrator" type. (ENTJ, Field Marshall, for those who buy into that dealio.) Sitting in a room all by myself reading and writing and thinking all day, every day is about as appealing a form of scholarly activity to me as hammering nails through my dick.

Anonymous said...

I'm sympathetic to 99% of what you say here but the cheap shot at 'Renaissance Wooden Needles' worries me. Because we all know what is really meant by that, especially when contrasted with American/Gender/Ethnic studies: pre-modern, or at least non-presentist, fields. Blaming the administration for funding those programs is barely code for 'those programs should be reduced'. Fair enough, but it takes time and sacrifices to study wooden needles too, and they are in fact real people with real stakes (big needles, if you will), not just caricature toy-pieces to be redistributed at no cost.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I'm sympathetic to 99% of what you say here but the cheap shot at 'Renaissance Wooden Needles' worries me. Because we all know what is really meant by that, especially when contrasted with American/Gender/Ethnic studies: pre-modern, or at least non-presentist, fields.

DOWN WITH PRESENTISM!!111!!! BVLOGWAR@@!!222@!!11!!!

Tenured Radical said...

Ummm...Anonymous: American/Ethnic/Gender studies are not presentist fields, and some of their greatest achievements are in pre-modern fields, particularly (speaking for history) classics, the Renaissance, and colonial encounters.

CPP, I wish I had time for a blogwar, but I gots to hit the fucking archives. !!!!111!!!!ELEVENTY!!!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

TR, you gotta *make* time for BLOGWAR. Where's your fucken priorities?

Needlelover said...

I don't disagree about the relevance of gender studies to premodern fields, though that's not really how you presented it in your post (coupled with American studies, which isn't hugely relevant to premodern fields). And let's not pretend that the focus of departments and programs in gender and cultural studies is the premodern world, even if the scholarship may be used far and wide. Let me ask the question more bluntly: at whom was the Wooden Needles dig directed and why?

Tenured Radical said...

Needlelover: If you really want to know, I consider it unprofessional to tell people that their scholarship is irrelevant and marginal, so I don't do it: when people do it to me (as an American studies/gender'ethnic/queer studies person) it makes me think they are insecure and ignorant. I particularly hate it when outsiders to *my* field tell me with great confidence what *they* are sure it is about.

I thought that the field I had "named" was so completely divorced from anything real in academia that it could not be mistaken for an insult to anyone.
Never underestimate the paranoia of academics, I guess. But no, there was no dig at any one or any field of knowledge intended.

As an aside: perhaps the pre-modern is not so central to American Studies, but that doesn't mean the field is obsessed with modernity: the Early modern has been a preoccupation since Perry Anderson, and has become critical to rethinking the field.

Lisa said...

This is a fantastic post! Write your own job description is a GREAT practical way to address some of the problems we tried to identify in our essay. I love your line (I'm paraphrasing): "remember that their 'normal' is guaranteed by your overwork." I'll be keeping THAT in mind the next time I'm tempted to overload.

Needlelover said...

I thought that the field I had "named" was so completely divorced from anything real in academia that it could not be mistaken for an insult to anyone.

[Let me reiterate that I liked 99% of the original post]

So it wasn't a real point? And the person in Native studies in the example shouldn't be frustrated by this completely unreal field in this completely unreal dept. which has the completely unreal disproportionate support of the completely unreal administration, etc. etc. No, I think your point was precisely that the person in Native Studies has a legitimate right to be frustrated about some real imbalances in the way a university is run. And so the unreal Basket Weaving dept. or whatever is necessarily just a placeholder for something real - whether you want to put a name to it or not is a different matter, but I think it would be naive to think that other people wouldn't be tempted to put a name to it: medieval studies, German, or any other dept. or program that is sometimes perceived to have disproportionate administrative support simply because they've been around for a while. Should we have a conversation about that? Sure. But passing off real competition between depts and programs as unreal non-allegory isn't persuasive to me, at least.

By the way, telling me that you don't like it when people marginalise your field and then suggesting that I'm suffering from academic paranoia is, well, a little disingenuous. A shame, because I like your blog.

Tenured Radical said...

Needlelover: to repeat, the point is real; the attempt to insult other fields was something I tried to evade, and clearly not very successfully. Your original point, as I recall, was that I was asserting that the disciplines and subjects associated with the earlier periods are not relevant to an undergraduate curriculum.

I don't know whether you are paranoid or not -- again, that wasn't what I intended, although placed with in the context of the piece (which you say you like) your tenderness on this very small point does strike me as a little much. But my point about paranoia was not aimed at you: rather, blogging does excite other people's paranoia, particularly the paranoia of those close to one. In my early blogging days, I was sometime indiscreet in ways that made people angry, and had to learn not to do that. But I also used to make up stories, and colleagues often believed I was writing about *them* when I was not. Ergo, since I am often in actual competition for resources with my colleagues, an attempt not to excite paranoia.

Do you think you could rethink whether you should actually be insulted by me, since at no point have I meant to insult you, and we could leave it at that? I'm glad you liked the piece.

Needlelover said...

earlier periods are not relevant to an undergraduate curriculum

No, I didn't think you were asserting that they were irrelevant, just that your choice of a premodern field in the example revealed (whether subconsciously or not) a (widespread?) feeling that many premodern areas of study are disproportionately supported by conservative administrations, often at the cost of newer or more interdisciplinary areas of research. All I was saying is that the example you used suggested that there are areas of study out there that are not only arcane but pointless; in my experience I've rarely found that to be the case (though perhaps I'm arcane?).

My prickliness on that point springs from a feeling that public politeness about the great liberal party that is the humanities masks an underlying war for resources (what is already a small pie compared to the sciences and social sciences). I've already seen colleagues both in other depts and in the administration undervalue the work of departments just because it doesn't attract a lot of students or doesn't have an obvious presentist appeal. Have you not come across this? And if not, good for Zenith.

Look, I'm a literary critic - it's my job to read too much into things. But can you really blame me when the example was about someone in a newer field having a gripe about the bizarrely over-supported person in an older field? I didn't think you had a particular field in mind; I was just concerned that you might be subscribing (consciously or not) to what I see as an overly reductionist view of what people do in the more obscure (though NOT arcane) parts of academia.

Finally, no, I'm not especially insulted, but I hope you see that it's not necessarily academic paranoia to be worried about the state of ALL the humanities (including the areas that start earlier than 1600).

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Do you think you could rethink whether you should actually be insulted by me, since at no point have I meant to insult you, and we could leave it at that?

Sheesh. That's no way to conduct a fucken blogwar. TR, you gotta bone up on your Sun Tzu.

Anonymous said...

Well, as someone whose anthropological fieldwork involved basketweaving, I am highly offended.

Seriously, though: I want to make it clear that my situation is not in any way the fault of overstressed and overworked faculty above me in the hierarchy, because I understand why they don't want to serve on all the committees they're asked to do or mentoring fifty thousand students.

BUT. Refusal to volunteer or do this kind of unpaid work results in the next level down being asked to do it. As an adjunct, I now spend about 5-10 unpaid hours a week on student mentoring and committee work rejected by assistant and associate profs. I also have to do my own curriculum design and propose and teach new courses. There's a possibility that soon I will have mandatory training in everything from travel and purchasing to departmental advising.

Anyone who says "no" doesn't get hired back the next semester, meaning I lose my chance at making a maximum of $6K per semester, and... and... wait, what's the punishment again?

Again, I don't blame the uphill profs for saying no to an unfair workload. Shit rolls downhill, is all.

Jennifer said...

Excellent post! I have been sending it to junor faculty, adjuncts, and faculty who work too much. Plus, I love your humor, TR. Yeah, baby.

One serious query -- how does one write service into the job description? By service, I mean serving on departmental and college committees. You know, those fascinating College-level committees with titles like the "2015 Strategic Planning Committee" or the "Liberal Education Designator Committee." These are not only dull beyond belief -- and a complete waste of time -- but at my institution, raises are based on "scholarly productivity." Working on these committees yields nothing -- and yet, we are still assigned to work on them.

My strategy has been to schedule my office hours for meeting with my students at the same time that these meetings are held. I am curious how others handle this.

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Recently Tenured said...

Thanks very much for your insights! I particularly appreciate the advice for people in two departments. (It seems I am constantly trying to prove to people in both of my departments that I am not a slacker!)

Anonymous said...

Wish I had had someone tell me all of this when I was starting out. I mistakenly believed that I was showing institutional solidarity and loyalty when I did all that extra work. Too late for me, but thanks for helping all those people just starting out.