• April 16, 2014

I Don't Fit In With the Oafs

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Question (from "Abel"): Ecstatic about landing a tenure-track job last year, my partner and I moved to a place where we'd rather not live. We figured that a few years here wouldn't be bad and, anyway, the university would be something of an oasis. The plan was that I would write my book and some articles, put in my time at Good-Job-But-Don't-Want-to-Get-Old-There University, and then move along somewhere where we'd be happy to settle.

The university has turned out not to be the oasis I had expected. The administration routinely belittles the professoriate and is rife with oafs who don't know or care about how professors in the humanities work. The university does a poor job insulating itself from the local anti-intellectual climate, with many departments hiring underqualified locals to teach many classes, at starvation wages. There's nepotism; there's corruption.

Yet my department is full of nice people, and I am somewhat protected by a kindly and understanding department chair. I am seriously considering bolting this place for just about anywhere else I can get a job. But I wonder if this situation isn't more common than it ought to be. Should I run screaming for any other place that will take me, or should I bide my time here until my book is out and I am truly competitive for a position somewhere I would rather be?

Answer: Ms. Mentor recognizes your songs. "Exiled to the Provinces" and "I'm Surrounded by Idiots" are the best-known, most heartfelt arias in every profession. The real world is a shocking and boorish place.

Scores of graduate students sweat, fret, and fantasize: "When I get out of here, and I'm on my own ..." And then graduate school turns out to have been an oasis. You've been cocooned with highly educated, intellectual people who share your passion for insects and love words like omphaloskepsis. You don't have to hear tiresome tags. ("Math is hard," or "You're in English? I'll have to watch my grammar.") Your research gets automatic respect, especially if your adviser is popular or famous.

You're also unlikely to know about your professors' friendships, enmities, romances, or power plays. You may think of them as always rational, just, fair, and good.

Living can be easy in the graduate cocoon. The wise grad student doesn't collect expensive possessions or debts. If you're in a place like Austin or Boston, the town is full of free diversions and thrills for young people. It's not urgent for you to impress other people, beyond your dissertation committee. You don't need to give elaborate dinner parties: Guests can sit on the floor, with wine in paper cups. You don't have to be able to chitchat with much-older strangers at cocktail events. You can assume a degree of progressive political knowledge, because most college professors are liberals.

Grad school is also your last chance to be an eccentric nerd, hiding in your apartment, eschewing haircuts, writing in 20-hour binges. Grad school can be a misanthrope's dream—until you're thrown out of the nest. On brittle, untested wings, you try to fly.

Which is where Abel seems to be—faced with people much less intellectual than he is. Many angry, disappointed academic newbies have the same primal response. They want to flee.

Abel's original strategy used to be the norm for academics in the humanities. You'd get your Ph.D from, say, an Ivy League or Equivalent Research University. You'd take a first teaching job at less-prestigious "Soybean State," from which you'd publish diligently, network, and self-promote at national conventions. You'd "write your way out"—getting a tenured spot at Ivy-or-Equivalent, where you could curl up in your research-oriented world for the rest of your career. Your colleagues would all be as brilliant and accomplished as you are. Your (few) undergraduate students at Ivy-or-Equivalent would be much more sophisticated and better-read than those at Soybean. They'd be the class you want.

Sometimes, after a glass or two of really good French wine, you'd tell stories about the oafs of Soybean State. Everyone would be impressed with how suave and cosmopolitan you are.

Even with a better attitude, that strategy won't work anymore. Getting an academic book published, especially one without a general audience, becomes tougher and tougher, as university presses struggle and wither. Academic books rarely get the cultural attention they once did. Most sell fewer than 1,000 copies. But even if Abel writes a stellar book, acclaimed everywhere—there are hardly any senior-level jobs for him to move to.

And so it behooves Abel to look more closely at his fellow citizens.

Ms. Mentor wishes she could say that corruption, nepotism, and disdain for the humanities are sins unique to Soybean State. But everywhere, foreign-language courses are cut; governors go to prison; lawmakers tweet, bleat, get caught. In academe, the struggles are more about money, of which there's less and less—and poverty explains much of what Abel rails against.

She hopes Abel hasn't played the Know-It-All Newbie: "This library is a disgrace! Why, at my grad school ...," or "Who lets Professor Senex teach? Students may love him, but he hasn't had a new idea since Seneca fell on his sword." Ms. Mentor has heard of Ivy Leaguers in cotton country who've upbraided their local students: "Truly, how can you stand to live here?"

Because Abel praises his department colleagues and his chair, he seems to recognize the good, helpful people—all of whom could wind up leaving, retiring, dying. The local adjuncts are the ones who'll stay forever.

It does no good to rail against hiring them: All universities today run on the labor of adjuncts, who teach some 70 percent of courses nationally. There's no money for national searches to hire full-time scholar-teachers, and Soybean is at least offering face-to-face instruction, instead of online anonymity. Faced with a live person, students can ask questions and interact with one another, and "student engagement" is the best predictor for finishing college.

Ms. Mentor suggests that Abel get to know local people, instead of insulating himself as many new academics do. Many snicker and practice their hauteur, but the happier ones dig in and learn. They ask students about their hometowns; they go to potato and pie festivals and chow down. They throw themselves into the colorful, strange, and (yes) sometimes corrupt variations of American life. They eat in every restaurant in town at least once and praise the best dishes. They read the daily newspaper and learn who the local curmudgeons and power mongers are, and they're surprised to see that same-sex couples do appear in the engagement announcements.

Or Abel can decide to run away—spending his precious, interesting time at Soybean applying for jobs elsewhere, teaching with half a mind, and worrying all the time. If he flees, his department will almost certainly lose its tenure-track hiring line. His subject matter either won't be taught at all, or it will be taught by local part-timers. He'll be replaced by the people he considers "oafs."

Ms. Mentor never advises martyrdom. If Abel cannot stand Soybean, he should leave. But if he wants to be a good teacher, the best thing he can do is to teach himself about the varieties and vagaries of humanity. That's a lifetime's research, and it can be practiced anywhere.

Question: My senior colleague yelled at me, "Stop being such a bitch!" I had been suggesting mild reforms in our curriculum. Is it all right if I lie low until tenure, planning to put the reforms in as soon as I can, while also applying for jobs in places that might appreciate my assertiveness, while also trusting that the karma of the universe will spike him eventually in some imaginative way?

Answer: Yes.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor knows about not fitting in, as her perfect wisdom has often been unwelcome. She comforts herself with Emerson, who wrote "To be great is to be misunderstood," years after being forced out of his job as a Unitarian minister. He had been too outspoken.

As always, Ms. Mentor invites comments, rants, and queries, especially ones related to the start of a new school year. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily. All letters are confidential, and identifying details are always masked. They'll never know that this month's misfit is you.

(c) Emily Toth. All rights reserved

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her latest book is "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.

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