Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Teaching, Illness, and Jobs  §

One of the things no college or university seems to get right is the “sick call” procedure for instructors. I suppose that it never comes up amongst faculty and divisional/departmental administration at most institutions because the full-timers are all a kind of small social network, so “calling in sick” can be synonymous with “calling a friend to complain that you’re sick” and the logistics of class cancellation then gets handled as a kind of personal favor from healthy friend to sick friend.

Or maybe I’m imagining things. I don’t know. What I do know is that for part-time faculty, there’s generally no particular process that’s reliable. As a part-timer calling in sick, you begin by sending an announcement by email to your students, which is probably the most reliable part of the process. (I have no idea what part-timers did before email. I suppose that part of the answer is that the rise of part-timers historically coincides in many ways with the rise of email.)

After email, however, the path is often unclear. As an instructor, your goal is to let your students know what’s happening so that you don’t end up with the three or four that don’t regularly check their email sitting forlornly in an empty classroom waiting for an instructor and fellow students that aren’t actually going to arrive. So you tend to start by calling either the department (if it is near the classroom or rooms in which you teach) or facilities management (if the department is on the other side of campus). Often this leads to something of a runaround and successive phone calls to bewildered staff in various quarters. Sometimes the telephone journey ends where you thought it might, say at the department with the department administrator (“Okay, I suppose what I can do then is just write a note and go across campus and tape it to the door. Would that help? Yes?”), while at other times it ends up somewhere completely unexpected (“Yes, hi. Yes, this is the high performance optics lab. Yes, yes, that room is in our building. Sure, I can hang a sign like that. What’s your name and what class is it? Just let me turn off this laser…”)

Every now and then you get a policy that’s well specified, but that leads to nowhere useful—a voice mailbox for the entire humanities and social sciences division, for example, that lives at the dean’s office and also handles all kinds of other general traffic and that is unlikely to get checked, much less acted upon, by the time your 8:00 AM class begins.

The end result is always the same. The part-time instructor sits at home, ill and in slippers with a cup of tea and a worried look on his/her face, wondering whether any action has been taken at all and also whether he or she has acted correctly given the circumstances or will on the other hand be subject to some kind of corrective or complaint from department chair(s) or other supervisory relateds.

Not ideal. Would it really be so hard to create one extension on campus as the sick extension, and to have one person to take care of all of this sort of thing over the course of a semester? Or to have a form on a website—the sick-out form, as it were—accessible only to faculty and staff that, when completed and submitted, automatically chucks out a sheet of paper from a laser printer in a facilities office somewhere with the classroom and time at the top of the sheet and a notice of absence/class cancellation printed large in its middle, ready to be carried off and taped up by a greysuit with a walkie-talkie?

Maybe I’m just doing it wrong and have been for years. Who knows?

— § —

Talking of teaching, I also want to take a moment to complain bitterly about my favorite peeve, the “advice in relation to teaching” that one gets as a Ph.D. student. They’ll try to tell you all sorts of things. Be sure to do some, don’t do too much, do the right kind, don’t waste your time on it because it won’t get you a job, don’t be an assistant but do be an adjunct, don’t take one-offs but do form long-term departmental relationships, do get observed, no, don’t bother, just do your research and conserve your energy for publishing, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

And of course it’s all worthless and its very existence represents a crack in the polished sheen of egalitarianism that’s ideologically applied to the academy—the moment at which you can see the exploitation and class differences as clear as day. For Ph.D. students like myself, here are the simple realities of teaching:

  • You’ll do it if you can get it because you must work to stay in graduate school, plain and simple. Teaching is one of the few jobs you’re actually still qualified for and likely to get, it’s one of the few jobs flexible enough to give you time to spend on your own research and study and on your (often suffering) personal life, and finally in addition to all of that it’s one of the few jobs that might actually provide some benefit, however small, to the ever-suffering be-all-and-end-all that is your CV. It’s better, in other words, than a part time at the “Craftsman’s Co-op and Consignment Shop.”
     
  • You’ll jump at the chance to TA even if there are adjunct jobs available because the TA gigs are on your own campus and therefore near your department and any other meetings or research responsibilities to which you have to attend, they require less work, often pay just as much, and can be much more stable semester after semester because they’re based on your relationships to faculty and to the institution.
     
  • You get observed and work hard to get good observation and student course evaluations not because you think it’s going to land you a full-time gig, and not because you don’t care about your research, but because it proves valuable, when cold-calling new departments, for landing those additional one-off adjunct gigs that you need in order to meet your income requirements for a particular semester.
     
  • You’re doing to do as much teaching as you possibly can, often exceeding (by adding up two or three campuses) the limits that they place on even full-time faculty for teaching course loads, simply because this is your primary income source and because without taking a whole crazy pile of courses you can’t pay your bills, much less afford the books, professional organization memberships, office supply costs, and coffee costs that inhere in trying to complete at Ph.D.

In sum, all the advice I’ve ever received about teaching and how much of it to do as a Ph.D. student betrayed a singular lack of awareness for the very real differences in class that exist out there in society. Some of us are effectively trying to jump up a class by getting our Ph.D. degrees and really don’t have anyone able to foot the bill for our studies. Yes, scholarships and fellowships are nice and I’ve even earned my fair share, but this is a many-years-long process, you did have a life and responsibilities before you came to school in many cases, and not all schools are equally rich. There are going to be stretches of underfunding or even no funding to account for.

It would be nice if some of the institutional and professional advice began to move beyond the now obsolete imaginary of the young directly-out-of-undergrad hotshot Ph.D. student on a full scholarship who simply needs to TA one course, publish the five brilliant articles he’s already been developing since high school, and then move straight onto the job market at 22 where his good looks and young precociousness will land him a seat at Harvard, Yale, or Chicago.

That’s simply not a representative picture. Most of us are part-timers, most of us are older, most of us have more rocky and varied academic careers, and most of us will spend time while we are completing our Ph.D. degrees working and building personal lives. And yes, we’re going to continue to do it, so let me end by saying that the too-often heard piece of advice that only the young and wealthy should pursue Ph.D. degrees (though it isn’t often phrased in precisely those crass terms) is totally unhelpful and will generally be ignored, both by myself and everyone else.