Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Goodbye to All That  §

After eight years in the college classroom, I am sitting on campus in the early morning giving what may be my last final exam—my swan song as a “professor.”

I put professor in quotes for two reasons—

One, I never actually earned or held the title, and irony of ironies, I’ve earned the full degree, which will be awarded at the end of this semester, at the same time as classes are ending for my students. I’ve always taught as a Ph.D. candidate, and thus have always been merely a “lecturer” or “instructor.”

Two, even if I was to stay another semester or two, I’d still be an “adjunct” rather than a proper faculty member. This, more than anything, may be what leads and has led to my exit from higher education. Having worked for the better part of a decade as an adjunct, becoming a classroom veteran across a wide swath of my field and a variety of institutions and class titles—and having generally earned quite stellar course evaluations—it is difficult to take seriously an industry that has no interest in these things. It is an industry whose stated goals are teaching and research, but which cares not at all about the teaching skills or experience of its workers, and which orients research production by political, rather than empirical, means, and by and large won’t even pay competitively for it.

It’s tough to take the fairly inflated importance claims of the academy seriously when the raw materials of its production are worth so little in its own eyes. I realize that this isn’t necessarily the fault of the faculties, but I’m not even one of them; what’s a poor little adjunct to do? Work for nothing for love of the game when instead I can feed my family and build a future doing exciting work in which I am valued and made a leading member of the team, rather than catastrophically undervalued and made invisible?

I guess you could say that I’m somewhat disillusioned.

(Of course, there are no doubt full faculty out there that would happily take the party line while reading this; I’m not disillusioned, I’m simply “uncompetitive.” So be it.)

— § —

My immediate departure isn’t just about having the word “professor” in quotes; I could continue to adjunct indefinitely, maybe do one or several post-docs, absolutely drive myself in research terms, and probably ultimately land a tenure-track position somewhere.

Perhaps even sooner rather than later.

This may still happen, I suppose; I will continue to do a few of the things that I’m meant to in these areas at least for another year—I’ll be seeking a publisher for my dissertation and will work to have some papers placed and published in the journals, finally. I’ll do another round of TT applications next year, and perhaps even one the year after that.

If this leads someday to academic employment, so much the better. But there’s a limit; I won’t try forever. In no way, no how, am I willing to do a postdoc and to give away my labor for far less than it’s worth on the open labor market today, beyond the disciplines.

The tricky thing is that at the moment, I’m not sure how serious academic institutions are as candidates to become my employers. For the right position (reasonable teaching load, good research support, good institutional culture, competitive salary, encouraging numbers thus far in tenure review cases) I’d be more than excited to come aboard.

But competition for such positions is already ridiculously intense; they’re reserved for those with two dozen journal articles who are still in their twenties yet have already completed four postdocs at R1 institutions. Just as importantly, these kinds of positions pay in the neighborhood of what I am already earning now—yet to have a serious shot of landing one, I’d probably have to stop what I’m doing now and work at a much lower (or even essentially unpaid) rate for a year or two just to have a lottery’s shot at returning finally to a salary that I’m already drawing having done none of this, and probably with worse salary growth prospects. Why?

This really is an important part of the rub. A year ago as an ABD, I was shortlisted for a TT position and at the “demonstration classroom” stage of the process…but the teaching load was relatively high and at the same time the salary on offer was somewhat less than I was already earning—as well-titled professional able to work 99 percent of the time from my home office in an exciting and fast-moving company.

After a lot of thought, I pulled out. I might have stayed in the hunt if the salary matched or at least came near to what I was already earning—but it didn’t. It would have been a significant pay cut.

So instead, I’ve continued to adjunct simply becausee I enjoy the classroom. I continue to read in my field because I’m interested in the phenomena at issue. I continue to read the Chronicle of Higher Education and other similar rags because I’m very attached, in theory, to the idea of the academy.

But substantively participate in it? Hard to see into my crystal ball on what the future will bring.

— § —

Sad thing is, I very much enjoy academics. I’m a meticulous and conscientious researcher with an innovative and unique theroetical perspective and an unusual dedication to critical empiricism. I really get off on classroom instruction and maintain fabulous rapport with my students, semester after semester.

I’ve done and continue to do things that would be considered “service work” of various kinds if I was on the tenure track, but that instead are either paid by some sort of stipend or honorarium or aren’t even paid at all as an adjunct—and of course, as an adjunct, they don’t count for anything and are essentially undocumented and unmeasured, even though as TT faculty, they’d be considered Serious and Required Labor marking me as a dedicated member of my professional community.

I enjoy the environment, the responsibilities, and the lifestyle. I’m good at it. I’m experienced and battle-tested at universities large and small, public and private, ranked and unranked. I’m still relatively young, and certainly no older than many other fresh Ph.D. holders.

But in today’s academy, these things aren’t really tremendously important. What’s missing from my existing CV are publications and social/status-ranking engagements (a.k.a. conferences). Here is where the tenured professoriat says, “Aha, uncompetitive!”

Perhaps they’re right after all. Hard to say. But if this is what makes one uncompetitive, then academics is and always was a “rich person’s game” from the start. There were a few fellow students that were cranking out papers while in grad school alongside me, and this is certainly laudable, but I couldn’t afford to do that. I needed real work and real wages while getting my degree, and I came to the academy with an existing professional profile. It would have been mad not to leverage it—to work essentially for free in the hallowed halls rather than leverage my background and experience to earn to part-time potential on this basis while studying.

One of the vexing aspects about academics and academic culture is that it appears to make poverty into a moral prerequisite and to frown on, rather than value, experience outside the academy. Earning a wage during the Ph.D. process (which averages 6-9 years at present) effectively makes one less competitive; the most competitive are those that are able to dedicate themselves entirely to effectively unpaid research and writing. (Yes, I know that “unpaid” is not entirely true in this case, which is why I said “effectively,” but in fact the wages on offer are completely disconnected from the professional values of these people as measured beyond the academy, the positions themselves unbenefitted, generally fixed-term and temporary, and of low status within the disciplines).

I suppose what I’m saying is that I realize that I haven’t paid my dues in some ways (and that adjuncting doesn’t count as such dues-paying, no matter how much of it one does) but that in my case it was never a rational decision to do so—and that this probably remains the case and, sadly, this calculation may ultimately mean that today is in many ways my exit from higher education.

— § —

This post is, of course, a ramble. It’s not a paper; it’s not an article; it hasn’t been revised; it hasn’t even substantively been drafted. It has been typed rapidly and in-flow.

It is me making sense of where I am this morning, as the end of Fall Semester 2014 comes to fruitiion and my students gradually trickle out of the final exam room and their faces disappear into a future separate from mine, a sensation that I’ll never quite get used to.

That’s probably the other reason why I’m (at least for the moment) transitioning out of academics. It is often stifling to maintain the persona. Even at the adjunct level it’s difficult, but beyond that? Yikes.

The “I can be a real human” factor is intense. I have opinions. I have passions. I like some stuff. I don’t like others. I watch football games and cheer. Sometimes I read BuzzFeed and enjoy it. Sometimes I take my kids to McDonald’s. I have a solidly lower-middle-class American cultural background. That is not someone that an academic is generally allowed to be.

I ramble on my own personal blog, about non-academic stuff, in ways that are not well-considered, because I *want* to ramble here on my own god damned blog—that’s what it’s for—and about stuff that’s totally unrelated to anything in my professional life.

— § —

So here I sit with five students out of fifty remaining in the room, and time winding down.

It’s been a long road getting here. Once, years ago, sitting here in front of the classroom half my time, conducting research and doing writing the other half of my time—that was my dream job. It still is, in many ways.

But now—now I’m getting paid a lot to do other things. And it’s hard to justify earning considerably less (as in fractions of my current income) to spend time on unpaid or inadequately granted research and adjunct teaching for several years, just to have a shot at “the big payoff” (that is, in fact, merely an “average payoff”) when it’s unclear whether there will be a career waiting for me as a result on the other end. For many, many others, there hasn’t been. And while outside of academics, the sky is the limit, inside, full professor is the limit. There’s nothing wrong with full professor *per se*—but once you get a taste of what else is possible, it’s much easier to draw lines in the sand and suggest that some minimum conditions must be met before one takes an academic job for love of letters and young faces.

Bird in the hand, as they say. Only in this case, it would appear that I have two birds in the hand, and there is only one bird in the bush—and the one in the bush is flighty.

— § —

But I will miss the students and the libraries and the ideas. These I’ll miss very, very much if I never return.

Maybe I will return, who knows. Under the right circumstances, I’d love nothing more. But I suspect that if I do, I’ll do it through the back door—by becoming the kind of professional outside the academy that essentially earns a place by default inside the academy.

Is that likely to happen? Probably not. Are there a lot of these? Not too many. I can hear a few amongst the tenured faculty pish-poshing this idea right now. Only the chances these days aren’t frankly much better coming in through the front door, a fact that many who entered the disciplines decades ago have yet to internalize or, in some cases, even confront.

But you never know. Time will tell. The winds are giving hints of shifting in academics today. What will they look like in a decade or two? Or even in five years?

Hard to say.

But for the moment, it looks like I’ll be out of the classroom, and out of the culture, for my first time in almost a decade.

There was a Northern Exposure eposided titled, “Goodbye to All That.”

Its sentiment and thrust fit pretty well into my morning, here at the end of my “final final” for some time to come, if not ever. It’s not that this is meant to be an endictment or a rant.

It is, rather, a bittersweet lament. Decades ago, as a young person, this was my dream industry and dream career. In moment-by-moment terms, aside from all forms of calculation, it’s still the environs in which I’m most comfortable, most at home, and most happy.

But for the moment at least, it’s time to go. I love the classroom and the library and the field research and the data. But they can’t be ends in and of themselves at the expense of everything else.

— § —

So, with a hint of optimism for the future tempered by a great deal of steely-eyed realism—

goodbye to all that.