Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Monthly Archives: December 2014

You start with an idea of something, a feeling of something  §

kicking around inside you and itching to get out and it presses you forward, forward, for a long time.

But every living thing has an aversion to pain and so do you and so over the months and years you adopt things. Not just a dog or a cat, but a good habit, some knowledge, a job, a significant other, good manners, reasonable clothes and savings and preferences and tendencies and all kinds of things and then—then—it is gone.

It is gone but not gone, it is repressed, and while it continues to propel you, now it propels you backward as often as it does forward, into harm as often as it does into sunlight, and never, ever again to you realize the catharsis, the exuberance, or the freedom that was once at the core of it all.

By the time you have two monitors and two kids and two cars, it’s tough to see any longer that thing that will drive you to your ruin and then to your grave. You know that it’s there, and that once upon a time, in theory, it could also have driven you to the solar system or to enlightenment. But now it’s a dynamo at the gravity-center of your inner black hole, which is spinning at an ever accelerating rate, but whose event horizon precludes observation of whatever lies at the core.

That source of energy is now inaccessible, but for the motion that it creates to your final day.

The great things—become costly things. The progress—becomes re-entry and eventual crashdown.

A pity.

But that’s how it happens for everyone.

Life in society.

Coming back out?  §

It's hard to say just what my current frame of mind about academics is. Or rather, it's hard to say what my current frame of mine about my own trajectory in academics is.

How do I feel about the “job hunt” as a process?

How long will I remain “in the game” before writing it off?

How much am I willing to invest, given the dismal state of the academic job market right now, the fact that I still need to do a certain amount of investment to be competitive, and yet that this investment is highly unlikely even under the best of circumstances to pay off in the end? (N.B. I don't necessarily mean “not eventually getting a tenure-track position” here, though that's certain one concern; it's equally important to realize, however, that if it takes five years of all my wekends and spare time to get there, or if it affects my nonacademic income in negatively in the meantime, it will likely have been a matter of poor investment even if such a position is secured.)

One thing is clear—and this may also have something to do with recent shifts in my teaching situation and new post-ac position: something in me is loosening up.

I mean look at me, I'm sitting her openly musing about what is going on in my life like I used to do on my blog way back in the '90s. A year ago, this would have terrified me; to be openly human, to have an opinion, to speak contemporaneously about “the academy” without a bunch of citations in support of every word—these things are all career no-nos for young would-be academics that are not legacies or superstars.

But I do feel free.

Perhaps this is the freedom that comes with having “other options” not just in theory, but in fact now in practice.

In any case, it all makes me think it may be time once again to return to leapdragon.net after years of grad-school-imposed hiatus.

Have I finally returned? Can I finalky be Aron Hsiao, myself once again, rather than Aron Hsiao, aspiring member of the Very Serious And Unassailable Yet Humorless People Club?

“Inspired” isn't precisely the right word for the way I feel. Neither is “liberated.” It's something more along the lines of “reintegrated” after a long period of dis-integration, or at the very least, the management of considerable internal paradoxes and tensions.

“Use it or lose it,” goes the conventional wisdom, and for seveal years now I've been worried that I was, in fact, losing it, if it wasn't lost already. But perhaps the worm has turned—and there is yet room for my mind to function properly again.

The basic problem  §

I’ve been doing a great deal of reading about the state of the academy broadly and about the state of the American academy in particular.

Obviously, this was personally motivated. I am, after all, longtime adjunct and, as if that weren’t enough, a nontraditional and interdisciplinary graduate student that has faced more than one all-out showdown with faculty at more than one university. I’ve had the honor of being called “completely uncompetitive” and a “buffoon” on various occasions, in all cases while other faculty members in the very same departments were calling me “one of the best students we’ve had through this place,” or “one of the best students I’ve ever had.”

At each step of the game, I’ve had to continue to work outside the academy and always felt vaguely exploited in labor and compensation terms inside it. I’ve always taken the tension between most-disrespected and most-respected student in the department as a kind of motivation; it’s pressed me forward all the way through the completion of a Ph.D. program and nearly a decade of campus teaching while at the same time always continuing to build or at least nurse along a career on the side.

But now—now, with Ph.D. done and a very nice full-time post-ac job under my belt for the first time in a decade, I’m in a reflective mood.

And the thing that strikes me is this:

Not much good can happen inside the American academy right now because its basic mission, vision, business model have little to do with teaching, with knowledge, or with inquiry—sadly.

The American academy’s business model is to exploit faculty to do whatever it takes to secure cash honoraria from this society’s cultural conservatives in government. The conveyances of these honoraria are brazenly burdened by vast transactional costs that accrue and that are paid by the same conservatives in ways that enrich the business class that are their constituents. The faculty are willing to be exploited because they essentially have no other options—the very same business class has conveniently and collectively declared the faculty to be unemployable anywhere else.

The result is a great bottom-to-top wealth-transfer and conservative ideology machine cleverly dressed up as its precise opposite: a top-to-bottom wealth-transfer and liberal ideology machine, which is how the popular cultural imaginary continues to see it—even while members of the popular culture are continually being pickpocketed (both themselves and their children, in a wide variety of structural ways) by the system for the enrichment of the business class at its top.

— § —

What is to be done about this?

Shit all if I know. And increasingly, I am losing my religion, my faith in this system’s unfulfilled potential.

I’m not sure it can be fixed.

— § —

But what it does tell me is that it’s not a system that I want to blindly sacrifice for; it exists primarily to try to exploit me.

My best best is not to be seduced by my “progress” or “success” and to realize that all is as it always was; the system is a machine whose founding goals so long ago were laudable but which exists now to digest me, to chew me up and spit me out.

To serve the founding goals, I must remember to do what I have always done: approach it on my own terms, with a hard-headed awareness of the conditions and limitations involved, and be willing to walk away whenever and in any case in which my own terms can not obtain.

— § —

I might like to work within the university, but I’m certain I won’t be the one to fix it.

I’m quite certain that every one making the claim to be the one to fix it—is a part of the very same wealth transfer and ideology machine. At some point, you begin to suspect that the card trick isn’t “magic” after all, but clever, if banal, manipulation.

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.

Strange Stuff  §

The date in all of my posts in Chrome is wrong until I edit it. In Safari, all works well.


— § —

Asimov said that creativity couldn’t happen if one had contact with other people or responsibilities.

Totally agree. Responsibilities are the great creativity-killer; they make you conservative, and creativity is precisely the opposite of conservative.

— § —

Is there an exit to the past here somewhere?

Doubt it.

— § —

Trying to figure out how to streamline posting. That’s another thing that’s changed here; back in the day, I did it from the Unix command line through a bunch of scripts, and I was always sitting at the command line. It was my life. Now?


Sad story for someone that was once a crack programmer and that edited a bunch of books on same, including at least two that involved shell scripting. Also wrote a bunch of chapters on the topic in my own books, now entirely obsolete.

— § —

Mixed Leinenkugel’s Cranberry Ginger Shandy and some Wild Turkey. It’s a great mix. Great. Absolutely great.

— § —

I am sick to death over a bunch of things, but especially over the pedestrian nature of everything I do. It’s all grunt work, top to bottom, industry to industry.

I’m sitting here with an Alphasmart Neo and an Alphasmart Dana and wanting to find ways to integrate them once again into a low-friction blogging flow. Especially the Dana, which has wireless. I’ve downloaded the source code to an old Palm OS blogging app. Can I hack it up to make it compatible and to use the full display? Do I care enough to? Do I have the time to? Probably not.

But I might do it nonetheless.

— § —

A red envelope, a white envelope, two screens.
A shot glass, an empty bottle, another empty bottle.
A wireless trackball. A wireless trackpad. A wireless keyboard.

File under: permanent desk views.

Not really a desk, sadly. More an alcove.

I know I ought to be grateful for my office (“There are children in China that don’t have an office!”) but in fact I’m not a fan of this office. It’s yellow and overbright and overbusy and doesn’t play to, or inspire, my strengths.

— § —

Chess computers.
When’s the last time I played a complete game?
Last year at this time, vintage chess computers were everywhere for cheap, and I had a intuition.
And I bought two.
One has since given up the ghost, the other has been sent elsewhere with my regards.

Point being: This year, they’re exceedingly rare, and what I paid $20+shipping for last year (with more inventory available) is this year going for $150 at minimum.

Not that I can play chess skillfully.
Or even passably.

— § —

Where have all the flowers gone?

Enter Title Here  §

So the Ph.D. is done. I was just looking at some posts I made in 2002 about that being one of my big goals in life. It took another 12 years beyond that moment, but it’s done. (Actually, anticlimax, it’s been done for a couple of weeks now, I just couldn’t be bothered to post about it.)

Thing is, it’s introduced a sort of malaise to be done with such a big thing, something that I’ve been working toward for so very long. It’s almost as though I can curl up and die now.

Okay, not really. But there’s at least a touch of that sensibility at work.

I’m having trouble getting things done. I’m having trouble caring. It’s thrown a giant wrench into the works.

— § —

Part of my post-Ph.D.-personal-reflection-therapy has been the intuitive process (just getting underway) of taking stock of my life and figuring out where I am, where I want to be, how far apart the two are, and where—as a result—I go next.

One of the conclusions I’ve come to already is that I’ve become one of the dreaded Serious People that I used to really not take very seriously. Is there a way to remedy this? It’s hard to say. My life may be structurally incompatible with my preferred tendencies by now; it may be that I just have to bite the bullet, swallow it, deal with it from here on out.

Or maybe not. The next several years will tell.

— § —

One of the things that academic jobs in my area often ironically say they want is a strong persona and brand. Of course, they only sort of want this; what they want is a strong brand that matches their institutional brand (stodgy, serious, professorial, and so on). This is not the brand that I cultivated for myself before the world of academics took hold of me.

I could be active in writing, social media, broadcasting, and so on, but it would likely lose me a job rather than earning me a job. This vexes me constantly; I do want to be myself; I feel that I, myself, am a strong brand in the public sense; but I also realize that my strong brand (any strong brand that I could happily achieve) is incompatible with many forms of gainful employment, including academic ones.

— § —

I’m taking stock of things that I used to do well and enjoy, and that I don’t do much any longer. The list:

This. Blogging. Online participation. I was amongst the earliest people out there doing this, and was active. If I’d continued it, who knows what/where I could be today. I stopped because of more immediate concerns—the everyday need for everyday money from everyday jobs that can’t have real individuals working for them (this goes for academic work as well). But I always enjoyed Web Life, and I was good at it. It may be time to think about taking up this mantle again, particularly if academic life/positions don’t work out for me.

Creative writing. I once wrote a lot of poetry and short fiction. I had aspirations in that area that were just budding as I took my hard turn into the social sciences. I haven’t written much since. That’s a damned shame, since it once mattered to me a great deal, and in retrospect—going back and reading much of what I wrote—I was damned good at it. (This is a difficult sort of evaluation to make in the moment, but looking backward ten years later with a critical eye and much more maturity, it’s safe to say that I’m impressed with my former self.) This absolutely has to get rolling again somehow.

Geekery. It’s hard to know just how much potential there is for this kind of stuff these days, but I do know that I was once very involved in computing and technology (I mean, six books written and a dozen edited, for god’s sake, founded two tech startups, even if they went nowhere) and I know that there are more than a couple of apps/platforms I’d like to write/develop. On the other hand, my skills are now very out of date, and at the same time, the level of enjoyment was a much simpler, more superficial one than the other two things mentioned above, like the difference between enjoying a couple of television episodes and enjoying the view from the top of Mt. Fuji (this one would be the television episodes). Has the ship sailed? Is it a ship I want to board again?

Photography. I have 100,000 photos in my library. I have thousands of photos already on sale at stock agencies from a brief period more than a decade ago when I got very serious about this. It still earns me some money. I have thousands more that were shot for stock purposes but never keyworded and placed for sale; instead, I got accepted to grad school and the rest is history. Taking pictures, however, was one of the greatest joys of my life. I’d very much like to get back to it. Problem—I only enjoy the actual shooting part of things. The business side, and the labor of agencies, keywording, sales, and archive management? Hate it. I’d have to find an assistant or an employee. I also don’t like shooting people, which always limited my marketability. Once upon a time I thought I’d combine photography with visual sociology. That ship has sailed for the moment at least, but I do still wish I took more pictures and could find a way to fit this into my life.

What else? Are there other things?

One of the enduring threads of the last several years, and one that feels much more acute today, is the sense that I’ve somehow lost my identity over time—in particular, over the graduate school and Ph.D. period.

What other things have I lost that in each instance formed a core part of who I used to be?

And who do I want to be going forward?

— § —

Figuring this out is going to be one of the central projects of the coming year, whether consciously or unconsciously, and whether I want it to be or not.