In an incredibly short period of time, things changed drastically for me. I went from being severely underemployed and making no progress on my degree due to rent-paying activities (and seriously thinking this was the end of the road for me and academia) to being employed full time at an actual university, teaching. The upside is JOB! Paycheck! Benefits! Not having to grieve academia!
The downside is that as a non-TT instructor, I am *buried* in freshmen and in freshman comp papers (interspersed with occasional Brit Lit students’ quizzes) and it looks like this will be the status quo for the foreseeable future (assuming my contract gets renewed next year). So I’m still not making any progress on my degree. I’m also not getting any more sleep than I was in grad school. But I am holding out hope that next semester will be easier (no new preps and only two comp sections instead of three – that will make a huge difference, seriously). So I guess I’ll sleep in January!
Anyway, not complaining – no time to complain! – but so busy that I’m often a bit delirious. Still – delirious with a paycheck sure beats delirious and on the verge of starvation any day.
I had my first, and quite possibly my last, MLA interview this past weekend. Fortunately, I have an old Army friend who lives in Worcester who let me crash there, so I only had to deal with MLA for the duration of the interview proper, and said friend drove me into Boston from Worcester, talked me off the ledge a few times, waited in the hotel lobby during my interview (!), and bought me a Guinness when it was over. We hadn’t seen each other in 15 years, but that’s the military sibling-hood, if you will, for you – picked up right where we left off, despite 15 years and a few more pounds and wrinkles between us. So really, I know nothing about the MLA experience that I didn’t know anecdotally, but having been to Kalamazoo, I doubt I am going to feel like I missed anything critical even if I found out I missed a great panel or something. That might be a blasphemous thing to say, I don’t know, but I have always preferred the smaller, regional conferences to the huge, insane ones. And I think it was good for my mental health that I didn’t spend the whole weekend with other academics, frankly. We were a lot younger when we saw each other every day, but there’s a sort of shorthand, besides a whole realm of experiences and shared vocabulary and references that couldn’t really be put into words if you tried. For people like wartime vets, only fiction tells the truth, I sometimes think.
I have no idea how the interview went. I didn’t understand some of the questions, and others were answered in black and white in my application, so I assume they wanted something beyond what I’d written but wasn’t always sure just what. I ended up misunderstanding at least one question quite seriously, and rambled on a bit about something totally unrelated to what they really wanted to know before they rephrased it. Academics don’t interview like non-academic people in charge of hiring do. I was trying to explain some of this to my friend, and only in explaining it did I realize myself that in a small department, it was totally possible that interviewing a new candidate was something a given professor did only once a decade or so. So it’s no wonder, I suppose. Of course all the questions I prepared for and practiced really didn’t come up, though at least very few came totally out of left field and left me stumbling (at least not any more than I usually stumble in an unfamiliar situation).
So, I hope I get the job, or I guess I hope I get to the next step of a campus interview, but I know better than to get my hopes up to the point where I’ll be crushed if I don’t. As it is, unless something really drastic changes with my job/financial situation, I can’t see how I can conceivably afford to attend another MLA interview, especially not if I’m not lucky enough to have an old Army buddy living in the vicinity of the conference next time who can drastically reduce the cost of my attending through helping out with lodging and transportation. The bottom line is that I can’t afford to stay on the market for the amount of time it generally takes new PhDs to get a full time job, at least not unless I get a job that essentially means I don’t have time to do the other things that one needs to do to stay viable as a candidate in academia. It’s always a long shot, in the humanities, and I still believe it’s better to try than to sit around wondering “what if,” but socioeconomic status plays a huge role in this sort of thing far past the point of things like what university one attends. I’m a 40-year-old single mother. Optimism and energy only get one so far, and I think they’ve gotten me as far as they will. I have bills to pay and a kid in high school, and on bad days (of which there are increasingly more), OE deverbal adjectives and early medieval anthropology seem like luxuries. Hell, so do the liberal arts. And this extremely heavy debt I’ve incurred seems like a really bad idea.
But, as the conversations I had with my seatmates both to and from Boston remind me, giving up on academia would involve some pretty serious grieving on my part. I sat next to someone in romance languages on the way out, prepping a presentation on a work I didn’t know, and I sat next to someone reviewing an Old English textbook on my way back in, who works in historical linguistics (what are the odds, even on a flight out of the city hosting the MLA?). One other thing my conversations with my old Army buddy reminded me is that, while we have a certain shorthand, I also have a certain shorthand with friends and colleagues in academia, most especially in these dead languages and obscure homilies and poems I study. There are certainly conversations I would probably never have again if something doesn’t somehow miraculously work out with this job-in-academia thing. I would like very much to find a way to fill my belly without feeding on my soul. But everything is up in the air right now, and very little of it feels like it’s really in my control, so there’s nothing to do but keep trying to pay the bills and keep my head above water. (Actually finishing the dissertation ends up pretty low on the list of things to do, most weeks – it’s all Maslow’s hierarchy of needs around here, and a job I really don’t love that pays dirt is not helping the outlook much.)
But on that end, I suppose I should be aware that I have joined the leagues of plenty of folks in this day and age, and at least my power is still on.
Staffordshire Hoard: Gold fragments found in Hammerwich, from the BBC
This isn’t the easiest piece to get through due in part to its format. But it discusses quite a few issues that veterans returning to the classroom face, and I recommend it. It’s pitched mostly at admin but also has something for students and faculty.
Issues I can nod my head to in sympathy:
It can be really hard for a veteran coming back from active duty to feel comfortable in classroom situations organized around discussion and group projects. This is not, as the ignorant have sometimes assumed,[*] because veterans don’t know how to think for themselves, take initiative, or do anything without having a clear-cut set of directions in front of them or a set of direct orders. It is because you are asking a 30+ year old sophomore who has been around the world and had some heavy responsibilities to consider 19-year-old classmates with comparatively little life experience as his or her peers. That’s not always a smooth adjustment.
Older returning students will understand some but not all of this. Older returning students will face some of the same prejudices and pressures: they have life and work experience, they are more mature, they have additional pressures and obligations related to family and career and finances, they will sometimes be mocked or looked down on (overtly or not) by other students, and they are sometimes assumed to be less intelligent. It can be difficult for an adult student facing serious problems at home or work to find the leftover energy to get deeply invested in a group powerpoint presentation or a discussion they see as abstract or self-indulgent or naive. They will, at the same time, generally care a lot about the value of their education and their progress in class. However, they are also fairly likely to speak up and voice their concerns to the professor, if only during office hours (though this is by no means true across the board, and adulthood is no guarantee that they will always voice these concerns constructively or in a way the professor or classmates appreciate).
Veteran students deal with all of this and more. The link outlines some of them; I’ve discussed others in other posts, and those are really only the tip of the iceberg. And every student is an individual — blanket statements fit veterans-as-a-group as poorly as they fit students-as-a-group. My first experience teaching a veteran student didn’t turn out so well, in fact; I can’t call it a teaching failure, exactly; the bottom line is that the student had other life priorities that were a lot more pressing than his intro-level English class for him at that time. He made a decision about his priorities and dropped the class. That happens, and sometimes it is for the best. Classes can be put off until later; children and spouses cannot. But there were elements of his situation that were unique to his status as a veteran too, and there was not much institutional support for that kind of thing. It was a lot bigger than just one class. But it made me even more keenly aware of the issues veteran students were facing post-9/11.
Anyway, the linked article is worth a read as an intro to some of these issues.
[*] Yes, many people will assume that you as a veteran will not stack up to the other students in the intelligence department. The assumptions and resulting subtle but quite important dynamics are a source of stress, even when one is not able to quite put his or her finger on where that feeling or stress is coming from.
Nice aerial view, though the article … well, I could have done without “upkeep” as a verb. I don’t know why that of all things bugs me when I’m not getting twitchy over “Beowulf-type activities,” but there you have it…
This could be a real job ad, except that the Jutes and Picts left no love poetry:
“Notre Dame University is hiring an Assistant Professor of Medieval Studies. Fluency is required in at least seven of the following: Middle High German, Old Dutch, Old Norse, Middle Welsh, Cornish, Galician, Catalan, Occitan, Provençal, Anglo-Saxon, Old French, Frisian, and Gothick. Secondary specialties in Jutish or Pictish love poetry and steampunk fiction highly desirable. Teaching duties will be 4/4, seven of which are Beginning Latin for theology students.”
Adam Cohen, U of Toronto, on hidden inscriptions in MS Arundel 155 f. 133r.
spreading the word…
I am pleased to announce the formation of Summer Academic Working
Groups for the 2012 season.