A Versatile PhD: On being #alt-ac, off the tenure-track, and absent from the MLA
This week I was scheduled to be at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association to participate on a panel called Leaders on the Right Track in the Academy. The goal of this panel, organized by Rosemary Feal, Executive Director of the MLA, was to focus on academics holding positions off the tenure-track. This panel is part of a larger push by the MLA to promote other career options for PhDs in English and the Modern Languages.
In recent years, we’ve seen a greater awareness and understanding within organizations like the MLA that teaching and doing research are not all that graduate students and faculty members are equipped to do. Academia in general has done a terrible job of helping doctoral students to see this. For far too long, faculty members and graduate programs have led its students to believe that finding anything short of a tenure-track job at a research institution is failure. At best, other careers are portrayed as a distant third choice behind being one of the 70% of university and college teachers in the US who are working as adjunct faculty with no job security, few if any benefits, and terrible wages (see the work of the New Faculty Majority and the Adjunct Project for more details).
In 2011, after a productive career as a tenure-track faculty member and administrator at the University of Vermont, I changed career paths by accepting a position with MacEwan University as their Faculty Development Coordinator. In the spirit of full disclosure and openness, my departure from UVM was prompted by a controversial tenure denial. I’ll write more about those events in future (there is lots to say about all that I learned from that process), but one of my most important discoveries was this: many of my decisions that bothered some of my former colleagues — my willingness to take on an administrative role (I directed our internationally recognized Canadian Studies Program for five years), my commitment to excellent teaching and innovative uses of technology in the classroom, the overly-ambitious research project that kept my focus on a long-delayed book without publishing additional articles, and my work with and for our Center for Teaching and Learning — directly led to me acquiring the skills that landed me my current position.
From this perspective, I view my years on the tenure-track as having been incredibly successful; tenure would have been a nice cap to that experience, but from where I sit today, I made a great trade. I miss my friends and former students, but my new job is as intellectually engaging, challenging, and richly diverse as my previous job. An even greater upside to this move is that it brought me a significant raise and a work/life balance that I haven’t experienced since my days as an undergraduate. It feels in nearly every way like a better situation than what I left behind.Thanks to our collective agreement, I am still a faculty member here but one who works in a non-instructional, administrative role. It’s not a permanent position, but rather a three year term that can be renewed once for an additional three years. I expect I will return, then, to teaching full-time, but for now I am working hard to learn and share all that I can about faculty development.
Like most of us, I pursued my PhD because I enjoy both teaching and research. Happily, I’ve not had to abandon either of those passions in my current job. It’s understood that because I am in a limited-term position that I need to keep up with my own research and developments in my discipline; as much of my research involves the history of universities and, in particular, literary studies, there is a great deal of crossover with my administrative work. Because I’m not teaching at the moment, I’ve actually found that I’ve had more time to work on my own research than I did as a faculty member at UVM where because of our low salaries and the debt I carried with me from my graduate studies, I was forced to teach many overload courses.
My job as Faculty Development Coordinator, quite simply, involves helping faculty to become better at what they do. I coordinate programming for faculty, run workshops on topics such as student engagement and the effective use of technology in the classroom, oversee the distribution of professional development funding, and work closely with the Provost and President on initiatives to help improve the lives of faculty and, ultimately, the student experience. As MacEwan’s President, Dr. David Atkinson, said in his address to faculty at the Faculty Development Day I organized this past August, one of the great privileges of working in higher education is that “We are in the business of excellence. We are in the business of being better tomorrow than we are today.” I take those words to heart in all that I do and am hard at work on new programs that will help to promote teaching excellence throughout campus.
I have, of course, faced some challenges in this career transition. It can hard, for one thing, not to get drawn back into that cycle of seeing tenure as success and anything else as “failure” (I’ve got a future blog post in the works about the value of “failure”). Even though my experience has shown me that I’d take this job any day over my previous one, that can be a difficult paradigm from which to extract one’s sense of self-worth. I do also miss the near complete independence I had as an Assistant Prof. Case in point is my absence from the MLA this year, which was the result of my travel authorization being denied. I’m still baffled by that decision, though I recognize I could have also done a better job over the past few months of communicating my plans to attend. It just never really occurred to me that anyone would question the value of my attending such a conference and of speaking on such a panel. It was a great opportunity for me and for our university, I thought. Working effectively with supervisors is a skill that I’m still working on, clearly. Happily, I’ve been able to follow and, today, to contribute something to the #mla13 conversations occurring on Twitter.
The pressure for us as graduate students, adjuncts, or perhaps even more so for tenure-track faculty to follow the straight and narrow path to academic “success” is incredible. It’s so powerful that it can be nearly impossible from within to see any other options. More importantly, as I pointed out earlier, the academy works hard to make us feel that pursuing any options other than teaching and research is a sign of our failure as academics. As Bourdieu reminded us, the number one priority of any institution is to reproduce itself and to eliminate anything that challenges its security. It is crucial for all of us in academia, and particularly those in the new faculty majority, to ask whose interests we are serving when we dismiss and diminish other career possibilities for our students and for ourselves.
There are, as graduate students and as faculty, many moments where some of us are warned against doing anything other than what our disciplines and programs see as being the work we need to do to achieve that tenure-track job. Given the dearth of such careers, my advice to current graduate students is to ignore such advice. Make connections throughout campus, work on other projects and collaborate with people from off-campus, even if this means finishing your degree a year later than everyone else. Just as important, make sure to seek connections online. Don’t just follow people on Twitter and read their blogs, enter into those conversations and find something to say. Look for these opportunities, for they may be precisely what lands you a great career. As Seth Godin has argued persuasively in his recent books Linchpin and The Icarus Deception, the days of succeeding by obediently following “the rules” are virtually over.
The term “alt-ac” has been used a lot lately. I’m glad we’re starting to talk more about the variety of career options we have, but I dislike the implication in the “alt-ac” term that these positions are (lesser) alternatives to the careers we really want. I prefer the ways in which the Versatile PhD online community has framed these issues. There is no shortage of things that we can do with our PhDs, some within academia and some wholly outside of it. Those opportunities don’t make us or our insights any less “academic”; in these other contexts, we can use the same skills we do in our research or teaching and feel as creative and engaged as we do in the classroom or library. From my experience, the big difference is that employers may pay us and respect us more for what we have to offer than do the departments and programs that so openly exploit our willingness to do whatever it takes to be in the classroom.
January 4, 2013 1 Comment
I’m happy to announce that I will be back in Burlington for a few days this coming week. I’m one of the people behind a half-day symposium at UVM that is examining the role of women’s hockey in North America. This event is timed to coincide with the IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championships being held in Burlington from April 7-14th. Our goal is to bring together the worlds of hockey and academia for a conversation about how the game of hockey is changing thanks to the rapid growth of women’s hockey across North America. If you get a chance, please come and join us for this event!
PLEASE NOTE NEW LOCATION:
MEMORIAL LOUNGE, 338 WATERMAN BUILDING
(CORNER OF COLLEGE AND SOUTH PROSPECT STREET)
The Face of the Game: Women’s Hockey in North America
A half-day symposium bringing together hockey scholars, writers, players, and fans in celebration of the 2012 IIHF Women’s World Championships.
Thursday, April 12, 20128:30 am – 12:00 pm
University of Vermont
Memorial Lounge, Waterman Building Room 338
“The Face of the Game: Women’s Hockey in North America” is a half-day symposium examining how women’s hockey is literally and figuratively changing the face of the game in North America. “The Face of the Game” will use a roundtable format, comprised of both academics and some of Canada’s finest hockey writers, to foster an engaging conversation about the role women’s hockey (and sport in general) plays in North American culture, particularly in how we understand and construct gender within sport.
The first roundtable, comprised of both academics and some of Canada’s finest hockey writers, will examine the role of women’s hockey in literature and popular culture. The second panel will bring speakers from a variety of backgrounds to examine the past, present, and future of women’s hockey.
• Dr. Angie Abdou, author of the bestselling sports novel The Bone Cage and an Instructor of sports literature. (College of the Rockies, Cranbrook, BC)
• Tim Bothwell played 500 games in the NHL, was an Assistant Coach for the Canadian Olympic Women’s Hockey Team in 2006, and the Head Coach of the UVM Women’s Hockey Team from 2006-12.
• Elizabeth Etue is the publisher of WINIH.com, co-author On the Edge, Women Making Hockey History and the author of Hayley Wickenheiser: Born to Play. She was the writer and associate producer of the CBC documentary Chasing the Dream and a columnist for The Hockey News from 2005-2008.
• Dr. Jeff Gerson, author of a recent study on women coaches in NCAA and Canadian University hockey. Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Lowell.
• Richard Harrison, author of Hero of the Play, a best-selling collection of poems about hockey, and co-editor of Now Is the Season, a collection of essays on hockey. Associate Professor of English, Mount Royal University, Calgary.
• Cara Hedley, author of 20 Miles, a widely read and studied novel on women’s hockey. PhD student, University of Calgary.
• Meg Hewings, General Manager of the Stars de Montréal Women’s Hockey Team, journalist, and graduate student at McGill University.
• Dr. Andy Holman, editor of Canada’s Game: Hockey and Identity. Professor of History, Bridgewater State University.
• Dr. Paul Martin. Expert on hockey in Canadian literature. MacEwan University, Edmonton.
April 6, 2012 No Comments
This blog has been long dormant for some fairly good reasons. The main one is that I’m not currently a Canadian living in the US. I’ve returned to Edmonton, Alberta to take a new three-year position at Grant MacEwan University. The institution is growing like crazy and, as the new Faculty Development Coordinator here I have lots to keep me busy. I’m very excited to have joined MacEwan at this important moment in its 40 year history as an institution.
My new job involves many responsibilities that connect to the roles I played at the U of Vermont. I’m responsible here for organizing many big events, including the new faculty orientation, Faculty Development Day, the National Great Teachers Institute, and the MacEwan Book of the Year program. I also run workshops for faculty on topics such as student engagement and integrating technology into their teaching.
I’m also getting some great opportunities to develop new skills and areas of expertise. I’m also getting more writing and research done than i have in a long time. I do miss teaching, but helping other faculty to become more effective teachers is just as satisfying.
I’ve been doing a bit of blogging at the Faculty Commons website, but I’ll be posting longer versions of those entries here from time to time. It feels great to be writing here again. Please do stick around and stay tuned.
January 25, 2012 Comments Off
Course registration begins Tuesday for those of you who will be seniors next year and then continues to open up through the week on the basis of what year you’re in.
For those of you who are currently seniors and are soon to be graduating, I wish you the very best. Congratulations!
Those of you who are currently freshpeople (eventually someone will find a gender-inclusive replacement for freshman, but let’s go with freshpeople for now), are supposed to see me so that I can remove your advising hold. I recommend you do so, but because time is short I will remove those holds right away. Try to come see me this week before registering. If not, come see me after so that I can go over what you’ve chosen with you.
You’ll find after the break a full list of my open advising times this week. I’m trying to set some time aside in each day for you. If you’re a freshperson, please consider choosing one of the Thursday spots so that I can save the Tuesday spots especially for incoming seniors etc. As you’ve done in the past, please email me with the spot you’d like and I’ll slot you in on a first come first served basis.
I look forward to seeing you soon.
April 5, 2011 Comments Off
[What follows is the text of the email I just sent to our local school board. South Burlington teachers are set to hold a strike vote tomorrow. More information can be found at the website of the South Burlington Educators Association and at the South Burlington School District website.]
I’m a parent of two children at Chamberlin School who is very concerned about the decision of the board to walk away from the bargaining table and to impose working conditions on our teachers. I understand your position that you need to keep the fiscal realities of our city in mind when negotiating with the teachers, but imposing conditions like this is a dangerous precedent. I fully support our teachers’ right to strike in the face of such a decision.
I do understand that our teachers are some of the best paid in the state. Instead of the board and other people in the city suggesting that our teachers have it better than anyone else and should be grateful for what they get, the board could play a leadership role in asking why other districts do not make the choice that South Burlington has made to compensate our teachers fairly. As a taxpayer, I strongly support the decision to pay teachers well here and would gladly go along with an increase in my taxes if that meant that we could continue to do a good job in South Burlington in preparing our children for the future.
Having explained the situation to my daughter, who is 11, she immediately responded that if the teachers go on strike she will want to walk the picket line in support of her teachers. Should a strike occur, she and I, along with many families will be doing just that in support of our district’s fine teachers. I hope, though, that the school board can help to avert a strike by showing good faith in returning to the bargaining table. That spirit of cooperation is what I want to be teaching my children rather than what it means to walk the picket line.
March 1, 2011 Comments Off
In my time here as Director, I’ve been interviewed as an “expert” on Canadian foreign policy, the state of the Canadian media, the Quebec provincial election, the Government of Canada’s apology to the First Nations, current events in Canada, and, of course, the expansion of Tim Hortons into the US. Here’s my latest foray in the Vermont media. Someday, someone will ask me about Canadian literature, right?
Seriously, though, I love what I do and am always happy to speak to media. The media people I have dealt with here always know a lot about Canada and aim to make their audience more aware of Canadian issues. Who can say no to helping out with that?
This photo is of Peter Shumlin and me on Election Day. He was nice enough to hold my Philip Baruth sign while I stepped away for a few minutes. Any Governor who has read Alistair MacLeod and knows him personally is a friend of mine and a friend of Canada’s.
February 15, 2011 Comments Off
Here’s a description of my upcoming Winter Session class on hockey and Canadian literature, which runs from January 3-14th 2011.
“Hero of the Play”: Hockey in Canadian Literature
Books can be purchased at the UVM bookstore or online. Please note, though, that King Leary is not available in the United States. I will be ordering copies in from Canada that you can purchase from me in my office (321 Old Mill) or you can order them from Amazon Canada (amazon.ca). Make sure to buy this from me before leaving for the Christmas break. If you live in the Burlington area, of course, you can buy it from through the end of December.
Registration opens for this class on November 22. Please visit http://learn.uvm.edu for more information.
November 17, 2010 Comments Off
[If you're not one of my more than 40 student advisees, please ignore this post]
Fall registration begins for Seniors on Tuesday, November 16, and opens up for everyone else gradually over that week. Make sure to check UVM’s registration schedule to see when you may begin registering for Spring classes.
I’m setting aside enough 15 minute appointments over the next week or so to meet with all of my advisees. I’ll be available to answer any advising questions and to help review your choice of courses for the spring semester. If you’ll be a senior planning on graduating in spring 2011, you should definitely come to see me before registering so that we can make sure you’ll be set to graduate.
If you’re a student in my TAP class, you don’t need to sign up for one of these advising times. Please see me during Wednesday’s special advising session.
Keep reading after the break for further details and to choose your appointment time.
November 9, 2010 Comments Off
Douglas Coupland’s been getting a lot of media coverage for his Massey lecture “Player One: What is To Become of Us?” which he’s currently in the process of delivering across Canada. The CBC has produced this short trailer for Player One, which is, I would assume, the first trailer ever produced for a Massey lecture. After watching that, check out this interesting (and funny) interview about Player One between Coupland and a journalist from the Ottawa Citizen.
Coupland’s also been getting people talking with two recent pieces published in The Globe and Mail, the first “A Glossary of New Terms for a Messed-Up Future” and, the second, “A radical pessimist’s guide to the next 10 years.” Listen to this interview about the latter piece that Coupland did this week with NPR’s All Things Considered.
As you’ll see from my blog for English 180, my students (and I) have really enjoyed reading and discussing Coupland’s novel The Gum Thief. I’m really looking forward to getting ahold of Player One later this week and to hearing the Massey lectures once they’re available online.
October 18, 2010 Comments Off
For over a half century, UVM students have been participating in our annual Ottawa field trip. Students from UVM courses on Canada this semester and students from the Canadian Politics class at St. Michael’s College will be headed to Ottawa for three days. During our stay, we’ll attend Question Period, meet with Members of Parliament, tour the House of Commons, visit the Museum of Civilization and the National Gallery, and attend an Ottawa 67s game. Students will also have ample time to explore and experience Ottawa on their own.
Needless to say, this trip is a huge amount of work for me and the three other faculty involved. It is also, however, our favourite event of the year, by far. Most students tell me years later that this trip was their favourite experience during their entire four years at UVM. I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to take my students there each year.
Here is the full itinerary for this year’s trip:
• Depart from south side of Waterman Building (College Street) at 7:00 AM sharp. Participants will arrive no later than 6:45 in order to assure a prompt departure, because Parliament won’t wait for us (and we won’t wait for you). Students ought to be dressed for Parliament (i.e. “business attire” -jackets and ties for men) because there is no time/place to change once we are on the bus. We will plan on arriving at St. Michael’s at 7:05 to pick up the St. Mike’s group.
• Brief lunch at the Rideau Centre in Ottawa before walking over to Parliament.
• Walk to Parliament for tours and to go up the Peace Tower and view the Memorial Chamber (if time allows). Tours for Massell students (Group A) are at 12:15. Tours for Ayres and Martin students (Group B) are at 12:30.
• 2:00-3:00: Attend Question Period
• 3:00-4:30: Meet with MPs in room 209 West Block.
• Group photo outside of Parliament.
• 5:30: Quick group meeting after checking in at the Lord Elgin.
• Dinner on your own.
Friday, October 22:
• Breakfast on your own.
• 9:00-3:30: Tours of the Grand Hall and Canada Hall at the Canadian Museum of Civilization and tour of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada. Group A will report to Lord Elgin lobby by 8:45 AM and bus will leave for Museum of Civilization at 9:00 (9:30 tour). Group B will report to Lord Elgin lobby by 9:15 AM and bus will leave for Museum of Civilization at 9:30 (10:00 tour).
• Lunch on your own at Museum of Civilization before heading to National Gallery. Group A and B leave for National Gallery at 12:30 PM (1:00 tour).
• 3:30: Both buses leave National Gallery for Carleton University.
• 4:00-6:00: Author reading and reception with Richard Harrison
• 6:45: Bus leaves for hockey game, Ottawa 67s vs. the Brampton Battalion at Ottawa Civic Centre.
Saturday, October 23:
• Breakfast on your own. Morning free for shopping, sightseeing, touring, etc.
• Check out of Lord Elgin by 12:30 PM.
• 1:00: Buses depart from Lord Elgin. Arrive in Burlington around 5:00 PM.
PARTICIPANTS SHOULD NOTE:
Crossing the border: A passport, passport card, or enhanced driver’s license is now required to cross the US-Canadian border. Students will need to present such documentation before boarding the bus.
Dress Code: Dress is “business attire” Thursday, and “neat and clean” Friday. In general, pack for chilly weather.
Money and Food: We will provide refreshments at the Carleton reception and vouchers for concession food at the hockey game. $75 – 100US should cover other meals. We strongly suggest that students exchange at least some of this at a local Burlington bank (including the Chittenden bank inside the Davis Center) before October 21. You may want to bring a few snacks.
Ground Rules: Attendance and participation at all scheduled activities is required. “Downtime” is your own. Be very aware that your conduct and actions represent UVM, St. Mike’s, Vermont, and the USA. We expect and require nothing but the most respectful and responsible behavior while you are on the trip.
Students who violate the UVM or St. Mike’s student codes of conduct during the trip will be asked to leave the trip and return home by their own means. We have done this before and will not hesitate to do it again. These incidents have been incredibly rare in the over fifty-year history of this trip. The students from Vermont have a stellar reputation with the Lord Elgin Hotel, the House of Commons, and every other institution we visit. Each year, our students are recognized as being great ambassadors for the United States. You do not want to be the person who breaks our very successful record in Ottawa. If you do, we may just feed you to this giant spider at the National Gallery…
October 3, 2010 Comments Off