Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Big Thirsty: why'd you sign up?

In the course of commenting on posts over the last while I've noticed commenters frequently say something along the lines of "I'm not here to ..." or "I didn't sign up for this job in order to ..." or "I didn't come here to ..."

Well, what DID we sign up for? Why did we become academics? We all had choices; why did we choose this? What was it about this job that made you think you wanted to do it? I bet we all have different reasons and I'm curious to know what they are.

For me, it wasn't the teaching, though I enjoy teaching for the most part, but I never thought about it when I was an undergrad, or even really in grad school. It was, partly, the research, though I have to say I don't enjoy actually writing things down, and only do it under duress. But what I really liked about it was partly "the life of the mind", as that xtranormal video says - the idea that I could spend my life tracking down interesting ideas and seeing where they went. What a great way to spend your life! I thought, and when I do get to do that, I must say I have not been disappointed.

The other thing I'm here for is of course that I get to hang out with other people with the same priorities, who also thought 'the life of the mind' was a keen way to go.

As for how I picked my particular specialization, well, see the diagram below:

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  1. I signed up because I wanted the free toaster.

  2. You got a free toaster? All I got was a piece of paper printed in Gothic script, in Latin. And a job, Gott sei dank.

    I joined up to avoid the real world, natch.

  3. I signed up so I could be called Doctor without a single credit in Biology!

    Oh, and Big Thirstys only happen on Thursday. There's the rare Friday Thirsty - which happens on Friday. Everything else, I believe, is an Early Thirsty. I mean, we can't have anarchy!

  4. I had a true believer experience. I walked into a classroom in my discipline (which is not generally taught in high schools), listened to a lecture, and thought "This is what I think about ALL OF THE TIME." A couple of semesters later, I realized that not only did I really like the discipline, I liked inflicting it on others (ie--teaching.)

    It sounds sappy, I guess, but I truly love and believe in what I addition, there's some coercion. A rumor started circulating in the part of Starvistan where I work that I was leaving. The elders convened a community meeting at which I was informed that I was "one of them" and as such, could not simply "give up on them."

    Maybe it's the atheism...I gotta believe in something, my discipline happens to be it!

    Uh...I guess this is where we let the mockery begin...

  5. Aren't Big Thirstys on Thursday...I mean, that's where the name came from. This is an early thirsty.

  6. Oh, and I love Black Dog's experience. Mine was a bit more subtle, but along the same lines. I was in college already, stumbling, stoned, etc.

    I finished one semester and thought to myself, "Shit, I wish that one class kept going all summer." That's how I knew.

  7. Actually that second article from Kiro5hin is pretty much on the money.

    I wanted to write sentences and get paid for it.

  8. My experience (as opposed to my attempt at humor) is much like Black Dog's, except that they teach chemistry in high school. That's when I knew.

  9. At first, it was the subject. I had a natural talent for it and had been complimented for my writing and interpretive skills since grade school, so I figured I may as well study it as much as I could. But then I had my "true believer" experience my sophomore year of college.

    After enduring a truly awful English proffie whose idea of teaching and learning was lecturing and regurgitating, I thought I might change majors. But the next semester, I ended up in a modern British lit class that showed me what I wanted to be. I had a truly amazing proffie: a smart, funny guy who was interested in discussing what we read, delving into a wide range of possibilities, and helping us learn to think. He cared about informed opinions and guided us without being overbearing. He rocked my intellectual world. He was the first (and only) instructor to whom I wrote a thank you note at the end of the class.

    By the time he was through with me, I knew for certain it was the teaching, the helping people see the field through a whole new lens, that was what I wanted to do with my life. The added bonus of continuing to learn about English my whole life was the sprinkles on top of the cupcake.

    Ironically, Truly Amazing Proffie bolted for administration about 5 years after I began teaching and is now a VP at some other college. He said he was tired of being broke.

  10. I liked the research and writing. I was pretty good at both. And I had the right background skills to have a good chance of doing both well enough to have a shot at an academic career, which seemed like a decent way to get paid for doing some shit I liked to do anyway. That's about as much as I had figured out when I started grad school. I knew the odds were still against me, but I also was willing to take the risk and retool if it didn't pan out.

    Of course I can't complain about how it all worked out--I've been very fortunate both in terms of the reception my work has received and the different jobs I've held over the years.

    I'm in the luckiest percentile in the profession. I know that. But looking at the whole system, and knowing what I know now about what a corrupt and crappy system it is, I can't in good conscience encourage anyone else to enter into it.

  11. Despite my moniker, I am a True Believer in the University and its value to society.

    I signed up because this job lets me use all my strengths - teaching AND working one-to-one to mentor/coach students AND research AND the odd bit of organising and systematising (yes, I like doing my share of administrivia, especially the less trivial bits and curriculum stuff). I like the long term, slow build of a research project (which can easily be 4-6 years from idea, apply for money, get money, do work, write paper, get paper published, get feedback on paper/see idea being used) coupled with the short term rewards of the classroom - a class can be written and taught within a couple of days, ticked off the list, and if it went well and some of the students reacted positively then, great, it even feels like it was worth doing.

    I like THE job, I can't imagine another line of work that would let me do all of these things. I don't always like MY PARTICULAR job.

    Like Archie, though, encouraging others into the profession feels like a not-very-right thing to do. I tend to repeat the lecture I had from my supervisor when thinking of/starting the PhD, which can be summed up as "if you are doing this because you think you will get a job at the end of it, think again. The odds of you getting a post-doc are less than evens. The odds of you getting a faculty post are not zero, but they are close enough to zero that at this point you can't see the difference unless you squint. Your overall employability peaks with a master's degree (insert reference to actual figures). Choosing to carry on to the PhD makes you LESS employable in most sectors of the economy. Only carry on if you understand and accept those odds. Imagine yourself at the end of your graduate studies. Imagine that you end up working as a graduate trainee in an accountancy firm earning the same as fresh college grads despite being five years older (UK system, 1+3 is the norm for masters and PhD). Will you think "at least I had a great time for those years and I'm pleased I had the chance" or will you resent them? And if you do choose to carry on, I will do everything in my power to help you succeed, but you must never, ever say no-one told you how hard it would be". Yeah, I'm sure most of them don't listen, or don't hear. But at least I tried!

  12. I've always loved reading, research, and writing, and fell in love with research libraries (archives and restricted-access stacks) my freshman year in college, when I discovered I could go read reviews of Victorian novels in the same newspapers and magazines that had sat around on my college's reading-room tables in the mid-19th century (now bound and in the stacks, but still bearing the stamps from their original use as leisure reading). It sort of snowballed from there, and I eventually wrote a senior thesis which won a couple of prizes, which in turned opened up some nice grad school opportunities (and some funding based on the premise that faculty would actually be needed in the 1990s, so I didn't think too much about the job issue).

    Partly because of my freshman research experience (and definitely influenced by my high school training in writing and research, which came mostly in history classes), I actually *wanted* to start my teaching with freshman composition (rather than a TA-ship in a literature class), and did (which was probably a mistake since I got very little guidance for either my teaching or my dissertation proposal, which I was supposed to be writing at the same time, but so it goes). As it turns out, I'm still teaching mostly composition with a strong emphasis on research, though it's now mostly a more advanced "writing in the disciplines" course.

    I can't say I regret any of it, though I really need to make more money sometime pretty soon. And I'm not at all happy that my own research and writing has basically turned into a hobby (my last several vacations have been partly or wholly archive trips, which is fine, but it would be nice if I also took the other kind of vacation).

    Perhaps the saddest part of the picture, though, is the fact that, when I "signed up," I pictured myself being part of an academic community engaged in a common purpose, and, because of the relative stability of academic employment, putting down roots in a larger community as well. I was aware that staying at the first institution where I landed a job might limit my opportunities in some ways, but that's what I really wanted, more than the most "prestigious" job possible. I have the community roots (because I decided to choose a place to put down roots when it became clear that the job market was unlikely to choose one for me), but am considering giving them up to try to find the former (since my current job, which doesn't include service, leaves me feeling marginalized as well as poor). Though I may eventually have a bit of both (and do, to some extent, now), I don't think I'll ever have quite what I envisioned (but, then, who does?)

  13. I couldn't think of anything better to do.

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  15. I signed up to explore the Universe, and I did get to do that. I also signed up to teach science at college level. I did not get to do that: my course is more like middle-school level, but that's the best my students can understand. This -is- better than what the general public understands about science, which is just about nothing, so I won't give up just yet. Still, I for dang sure did -not- sign up to be a psychologist, social worker, police officer, bouncer, personal assistant, or scapegoat for people who don't read instructions.

  16. I didn't sign up to enforce a bunch of stupid rules that I don't believe in. My current institution is super conservative and business orientated. We're in business professional dress every day. No eating and drinking in the classrooms. Have to wear socks. Men must always wear ties. No khakis. No open toed shoes. No sweater dresses. No corduroy. Hair must be "done" (I always assume this means curled if straight, straight if curled.)

    I don't like enforcing this stuff in my faculty, especially if they are good teachers, and I really am not as much of a hard ass as I must seem to my students.

    What I signed up for?

    I fell in love with teaching when I was 14 and started teaching karate with my black belt. My parents, however, told me I wasn't allowed to become a teacher or else they wouldn't pay for college. Unfortunately, they ended up not really being able to pay anyway but I was already on another career path.

    Things have a way of working out though, and when a job offer I had accepted fell through I found myself in grad school and fell in love all over again.

    I signed up to be a teacher, researcher, mentor, colleague and friend. I signed up to by that "new media person" that is a wizard at microsoft word. I signed up to get to influence people that English courses don't have to suck. I signed up to get to continue to learn and write and research for the rest of my life. I signed up because I love what I do so much that I can't imagine ever retiring, while my engineer friends are counting the days by the time they turn 25 (nothing against engineers, that was just what I first tried to be).

    I signed up, though I didn't know it at the time, to make some of the best working relationships and friendships that I could ever imagine. I've gotten to watch some amazing lightbulb moments. I signed up to watch a girl with cerebral palsy that our schools had failed learn how to write sentences, then paragraphs, then essays, then apply to Pharmacy school and get in. I signed up because someday a student would tell me that she loved writing now and regularly journals and writes poetry (and was recently published).

    And, although I should shut up, I signed up because my students are funny, fabulous people most of the time. There have been more insane, crazy, and wonderful moments in the past ten years than I could ever dream about. I'm not sure I would get this anywhere else, and I sure as heck don't want to go searching for what I've already found.

  17. @My Little Proffie:

    You have to wear socks? You realize that Albert Einstein would have been fired over this?

  18. You'll laugh at my story because it's so bound to illogical conclusions....

    I spent 14 years training to be a classical musician. It involved intense, 5 hour practicing sessions, traveling all over the world to visit one old master in the field for a single lesson, preventing myself from doing anything practical like raking the yard or cutting vegetables lest I hurt my precious hands.

    Then medical catastrophe intervened. I was unable to compete musically anymore.

    So, recovering, I began reading books. The books that fascinated me most were in my current discipline. And I thought (and here's the kicker):


    Not until my first year of grad school did I finally have that facepalm moment.


  19. Three reasons, listed in descending order of influence.

    1. I wanted control over my schedule. My first job after my Bachelor’s degree was with one of the (then) “Big Six” accounting/consulting firms. I hated the lack of control over my own schedule. I could share many stories, but suffice to say there was a reason that we used to joke, “The only two reasons your vacation can’t be cancelled are for your own wedding or the funeral of an immediate family member. And in the case of your own wedding…”

    2. I am innately curious. I love the question “Why?”

    3. I had two classes during undergraduate with Gary Kern. He seemed to be having great fun being a professor, which caused me to think there might be something to such a career.

  20. 1. I fell in love with my discpline my first semester in college.
    2. Books and fieldwork in exotic places.
    3. My professors I had/still have tremendous respect for them. They seemed to love teaching and sharing their knowledge.

    Academia seemed magical place, somewhere that would accept me for who I was/am...

    What I did not bargain for is that I would have to deal with nasty entitled UG and grad students who think
    1. the world revolves around them.
    2. have been taught that any critique should be met with tantrums/accusations of unfairness
    3. that every instance of their lives is a crisis waiting to unfold in my office.

    And, most importantly, I am so tired of students that do not take joy in learning.


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