Wednesday, March 02, 2011

My Bags Are Packed, I'm Ready To Go: The Spring Research Trip

Happy 100th Birthday Ronnie!  I've FOIA'd your a$$!  (Corbis Bettman.)
Dateline Simi Valley.  When I look back at the past four years of the blog, I have filed several series of posts while on spring research trips.  Zenith has a rather unique spring break structure, as I may have mentioned:  two weeks in the middle of March.  I don't know any other colleague who has two weeks off; my guess is that there will be some kind of sunset on this little oddity sooner rather than later.  Zenith is currently in a homogenizing mood, and everything we do is becoming more like what everyone else does.

Here is my current list of non-confidential items that fit this category (yes, they have all been reported on in the campus newspaper.) We now have  summer sessions, in which one can mostly take a dizzying array of introductory science courses (they are now imagining a J-term, which every college student I know thinks is a joke academically, but a great opportunity to ditch Mom and Dad and get back to smoking pot with their friends.)  We spent part of last year working on "voluntary outcomes assessments" (a phrase that makes me wonder what ever happened to the liberal arts) on the logic that someone else might ask us to do it so we should do it first on our own terms.  It's kind of like giving yourself a parking ticket to save the police the trouble.

We have cut research and conference money and simultaneously raised the bar for tenure and promotion.   We are shifting the financial burdens of the institution onto workers, cutting wages through mammoth increases in benefits.  Why? Because it's a $hitty job market and we can.   We are creating more small classes and taking more students without creating the full time jobs that such a reform might infer.  Instead we are funding this minor curricular reform through the novel approach of paying full-time faculty adjunct wages to teach these courses as an overload.  This is an ominous salary policy if you ask me (you really want a raise?  How about doing more work?)

Hey Barack?  That middle class tax cut you gave us by cutting our contributions to the social safety net?  You just gave Zenith another reason to say I don't need a raise to cover COLA, and I can cover more of the health care they would rather not pay.  But maybe you already knew that and the money was never intended for me in the first place?  You White House policy people are smarter than you look.

I'm sure all the rest of you in academia have a similar list of afflictions, and the jobless will see these as not afflictions at all.  But maybe at least some of you will stop leaving comments that chide me for not realizing how lucky I am to work for a rich, private institution?   Soon, barring some kind of mammoth shift in the discourse, we will all live in Wisconsin and New Jersey.  That's my prediction.  So support your friends in public colleges, community colleges and research universities who are doing the direct organizing.  And by the way, Biddy Martin? The flagship that can command private dollars cutting loose all the other campuses pushes everything towards privatization.  Read more about this terrible idea at Lesboprof (who, since she returned to the faculty, is becoming an even sturdier voice in our feminist blogging circle, since she has a keen administrator's eye for important issues that affect all of us. Add her to your Google reader if you have not already.)

But I continue to be rich in at least one thing:  time.  In the absence of money, time can smooth over at least some discouraging trends in higher education.  In my case, in addition to the summer (assuming you don't have to teach to buy the baby shoes this year) we still have the two week spring break.  This is a great opportunity to get some solid research in, particularly if you have jiggered your class schedule in such a way that you can legitimately leave five days early.  Last year I went to London to interview the fabulous Leah Fritz, a long-time feminist and peace activist, and got into some terrific archives about the feminist struggle over pornography in England in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  The year before, I went to San Francisco.  This year it is back to LA, where I have done two stints at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library already, so I have Simi Valley pretty staked out.  I have an archivist who is committed to the project who refers to me as one of "her" researchers.  I like this.  I have a place I always stay at, The Grand Vista Hotel, which fortunately has a new 24-hour drive-in taco place across the street for those of us who get in late from the Other Coast.  I have a new breakfast place to try out (Leslie Harris and I are informally collaborating on what I think of as the Historian's Guide to Breakfast.)

So I'm off:  I'll leave you with an old favorite from my youth, in memory of the late Mary Travers and of course, those I love at home.  Which is the only reason not to go on research trips.


Anonymous said...

Oligarch also has a two-week spring break. And boy, do I miss it.

Shelly said...

Williams also has a 2-week spring break, and I'd love to have one myself (as if).

I was a student at another school with a J-term and loved it, and I never smoked pot. I loved it b/c it was time with friends and I got to take classes I never would have (a physics class on light and holography, a documentary photography class, a studio art class, etc). It also made me really excited for "real" classes in the spring. It makes more sense to me than having a break that extends way into January, with nothing to do at home (because even seasonal jobs don't want people for January). Also, I think if well planned (ha!) it could be a great way to test out new course ideas in a short format.

Northern Barbarian said...

We (call it The Little College on the Little Hill) also have the second half of March off. I can get some small research tasks done, but my area is an unfriendly country very far away, so archival stuff is out. We are talking about cutting the break back to one week, however, since the students lose their study rhythm and it's hard to bring them back. I still very deeply fortunate to have landed where I did in academia.

Matt_L said...

At Woebegone State we have a one week spring break but its more like ten days for the students who skip the Friday before and the Monday. (I am not resentful, just jealous... I would skip too if I could.)

Have a fantastic research trip!

My spring break will be spent finishing drywall and painting. (If I had a better salary, I'd be paying someone else to do this work so I could go to the office and finish rewriting an article.)

anthony grafton said...

A little off-topic, but I couldn't resist:

German tshirt motto:

Help the police, beat yourself up.

Lesboprof said...

Thanks for your kind words, Radical. I look forward to reading more about your adventures in research land.

rustonite said...

Jealous! I love my field, but there are times I wish I did something that required travel to Cali. Or France. Maybe Brazil.

Perpetua said...

One of the most appalling part of all the appalling trends that you've mentioned going on at the moment in higher ed (IMO) is this one: the raising of tenure standards while simultaneously increasing teaching responsibilities (sometimes in terms of # of courses taught, sometimes the # of students per course) and diminishing research funds. Why, it's super easy for me to go on an extended research trip overseas on my own dime as an untenured person making under the national average, especially when my salary has been frozen for years! No *problem*. I'll have that book out in no time. It's hard enough to keep a handle on things without *adding* to a junior faculty's requirements.

Anonymous said...

As a student at Zenith, I'd like to remind you that academic calendars for the next three years or so are pretty set and solid, so you can rest easy for now.

I do, however, have a rather broad question for you and your readers. Throughout the internet I have discovered evidence of negative trends in higher education (and towards professors specifically). What would your advice be to a current undergraduate considering becoming a professor? Is it a bad choice?

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

Anonymous @ 8:59: deciding to become a professor has been a losing proposition since the 1980s, at least, if not earlier. When I was a callow undergrad in the late '80s, we were told (by the Mellon Foundation, among others) that there would be a significant shortage of humanities profs by the late '90s. The initial Mellon Fellowships in the Humanities were intended to fill this shortage. As a Mellon Fellow (class of 1991), I can tell you this: rumors of this shortage were greatly exaggerated.

My advice to any undergraduate who wants to be a professor in the humanities is this:

Can you imagine any other career that you would find satisfying? If so, pursue it.

If not, then ask your professors: do I really have what it takes to succeed as a history/English/comp lit/whatever grad student and professor? Ask them to be honest, and don't flinch if they are. The last time I chaired a search committee, in medieval European history, there were 150 applications for one job, and the top 30 applicants could probably have all done fine. If you're not the crème de la crème, then look for something else to do, and read books in your field when you have time. Even if you are the crème de la crème, things might not turn out the way you wish they would. Be prepared to deal with it.

Anonymous said...

@ Brian W. Ogilvie:
Thank you so very much for the advice,

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

@Anonymous: I don't want to hijack TR's blog, so just one more comment, since I was so negative:

If you enjoy research (not just reading, scholarship, but doing it) and think you'd enjoy teaching, then academe can be a great career--if you're both talented and fortunate enough to get a decent job. I love what I do and would do it over again if I had the chance. But I also realize that I have had great good fortune in getting here. And I've seen many of my friends and colleagues who have not had that good fortune choose either to leave the profession or to move from short-term job to short-term job, with significant disruption to their personal and professional lives, in order to stay in academe.

You have to decide whether the significant risk that you will be one of the latter--through no fault of your own--is worth it, given the 8 years (on average) it takes to earn a Ph.D. in history.

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