Thoughts on culture, education, and having been a Canadian in the US
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Versatility trumps conformity

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. 


1 comment

1 Anna Bean { 01.05.13 at 4:38 pm }

Paul, so much of what you recount here rings true with my own controversial tenure denial and subsequent awareness that the many of the skills I developed during my tenure-track years have directly fed into my finding happiness (though not the perfect work/life balance, still working on that!) as a high school teacher at a high-performing, high poverty charter school. Thanks for this.