Monday, October 31, 2011

Brian from Birmingham Is Blue.

I teach at a community college. The faculty don't want to be here. The students don't want to be here.

Among my teaching cohort is a large group of humanities PhDs from the great humanities bust generation. We're overqualified, heavily in debt with student loans, and teaching intro courses in fields where we've been expansively prepared to teach something else.

The students can't find classrooms, have lost the ability to read an email if it comes from an instructor, don't "get" why they have to attend every class meeting, and would like to take tests over and over until they pass. They are, after all, paying for their education.

I've been on the job market for 4 years and have had 3 conference interviews, 4 Skype interviews, and one campus interview.

I teach full time, 5/5 load, 80% freshmen. I don't have time to write, not if I want to do all the grading. I hate my life. I eat too much, drink too much, started smoking in order to hang with a couple of pals who've also given up, and my main pastime has become sitting on the couch, thinking about the mess my life has become, and watching cartoons from my youth.

Yes, I know I could turn things around, focus on the good parts of my life. I know I could make time to write, and be encouraged by the occasional good student.

But no, I want to sit here, in the last few minutes before I start a triple header of back to back to back intro courses (for which about 60% of my students will attend, at least half of them having not done the reading), and bitch about what a fucking lie I was sold about being a college professor.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Oh boy are you singing my song. I almost didn't get the TT job I now have (with tenure) because I was adjuncting, teaching 6 classes a quarter--5 of them composition sections--(plus working part time at a Waldenbooks). The hiring committee wanted to know why my professional development was so thin. Fucking idiots.

    I teach 4/4--3 comp, 1 lit-- so I'm in a bit better shape, but I feel for you, buddy. This is not the life I imagined while visiting my profs during their office hours, that's for sure.

  3. I guess my one question to you would be: if someone had told you how it was, would you have listened? Really listened? Because I counsel students all the time to avoid grad school at all costs, and absolutely to avoid thinking that they will ever get a decent job teaching. I have been doing this for years, before the crash, because the writing is on the wall with tenure-track positions. Administrators are just using the economic slump to speed the process of devaluing tenure and hiring more and more adjuncts.

    Not one student has ever listened to me. Not one. They all go in thinking that however bad things are, the situation will resolve itself, or that somehow they'll be the exception to the rule. "I figure something will come along..." said a student after I told her that going into debt for law school was lunacy. I even sent her links. The daughter of a colleague is as we speak applying to Ph.D. programs in English. Mediocre ones. She will not get a job either.

    I'm not saying you did this. But that even when people are warned that their dream career will probably become a nightmare, they don't want to believe it.

    These days a student is about as likely to become an astronaut as they are to get a great tenure track job teaching English. But when you tell them that, they still want to be an astronaut.

  4. I always thought
    that this post from March
    captured some of the
    peculiar misery
    that is
    the cc system.

  5. If you click on the community college label at the bottom of Brian's post, you'll find other old CM articles that will make you want to blow your brains out.

  6. Dang, Brian! I teach *high school* and my teaching load is only 4/4, with 65 kids total. How can CCs expect people to do research with that kind of workload!? Is this common at CCs?

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  8. Yes, the load is typical. I was doing an insane load when I was teaching full time at a community college on a temporary basis. Most of the faculty is doing 5/5. I did somewhere along the lines of 7/7 with four classes in the summer to help pay the bills. All intro courses too. To be honest, I gave up trying to work on research and writing as there was barely any time to sleep.

  9. Students who think they want to be faculty never listen to me either. Though one post-doc did tell me that my experience was clearly a-typical because 'I won't be such a doormat as you'. Yeah, great, I'm sure that will help you in future... but it will not help me give you a great reference!

  10. Hello StellafromSparksburgh and JaneB,

    Almost a decade ago, when graduate school (in the humanities) was but a gleam in my eye, a few people did try to warn me as well. But not in the same drastic terms that I now warn my students. In fairness, the situation was not yet as bad as it was going to get.

    This year (my first on the market) there are 5 jobs, 5, that I am remotely qualified to apply for.

    People told me it would be competitive, but when I got into a top program in my field, I thought it would be ok. I wasn't afraid of the competition, I'm still not; I'm afraid that there's nothing to compete for.

    So when I discourage my students from pursuing a PhD, those are the terms I put it in. I also try to hammer home that 10 years seems like one thing when you're 20 and another when your 30.

    The limited job market means as well that we are increasingly likely to get the Bachelor's, get the PhD, then spend another few years as an apprentice, in a post-doc (if you're lucky) or in a lectureship (if you're not). Who is insane enough to train for 10-15 years for a job that could wind up paying you less than a secretary?

    Whew. Sorry, had to vent. Just wanted to give you some material to throw into the discouraging speech!

  11. I hear you Brian. I'm in the social sciences, but I'm already scoping non-academic jobs. Like a lot of other areas of society, the market is flooded and we're all fighting over scraps for pretty crummy starting salaries. I could move boxes for UPS, make more money, and NOT have to grade papers at the end of the workday.

    Life of the mind my ass.

  12. I am not sure if it makes you feel any better but here it goes. All proposals have been declined. Even those that I thought were perfect [I don't think I can write better ones]. No financial support in foreseeable future meaning no grad students working on tons of ideas I used to have. Administration doesn't give a shit on innovative curriculum development and doesn't want to support any new courses. I am basically stuck in teaching "physics for idiots" and "physics for dummies". P&T is coming up pretty soon..... And I thought to myself "ok, bro, you are in the middle of cluster fuck - one way or another you have to quit smoking [I was a smoker for 20 years]. Better to quit now since my life sucks anyway rather than later when it gets better [I hope]".... Quitting smoking sucks even more than not having grants, teaching shit to idiots.

  13. On my first day of grad school, my adviser asked me if I was prepared to be poor my whole life. 'Sure' I said. What the hell was that supposed to mean?

    I had just finished jumping through an ass-ton of hoops to go from local mediocre third-rate State to one of the top programs in the country. I had been pushed along by my undergrad profs, all of whom glowed about me.

    What there is out there on the job market is not just being "poor" in some abstract form. Nor is it the glowing rosy picture my undergrad profs painted. It is factory-style work, circa 1825. There is soot in my eyes. I am exhausted working 12-14 hour days. I beg for a day off.

    There is no HOPE. Why don't people explain this? Since year one in grad school, when I finally understood what having to steal food was like and that this was most likely going to be my life, I began a more aggressive version of grad school. DO NOT DO THIS AT ALL COSTS.

    And I'm a lucky one. I have a good series of jobs strung together, a chance to be with my loved one in the same discipline, and access to good university resources.

    Frankly, Stella, I'm a little pissed off at your words here.

  14. I'm truly sorry you ended up with a career you hate. I put my share of the misery up here, but I actually like teaching at my community college for the most part. I went into this with dreams of working at a SLAC. Who knows? Maybe someday that's where I'll end up. But the college I landed at turned out to be a good fit for me. Maybe it's an atypical community college.

    Yes, I have a 5/5 load. I could have 6/6 if I wanted. Other departments allow 7/7, but not English since it's already the paper mule of the college. I have to be the equivalent of a Swiss army knife, teaching developmental, freshman comp, technical writing, and sophomore survey lit courses. But my CC also has a great little out called the "special topics" course. If I'm lucky enough to be one of the few who gets it in a term, I can make my own course: detective fiction, modern American novels, greatest hamster poetry ever written, or whatever my heart desires. Our survey courses are comparable to the ones I took my junior and senior years of college but with fewer research papers. The developmental courses break my heart, so I can usually bring myself to do just one or two every couple of years, yet once in awhile those students surprise me too. Most of my colleagues prefer to teach Freshman Comp II, which we use as an intro to lit course. I would rather pull my eyeballs out with a rusty spoon than teach "A&P" again. We are expected to research, but not in the same way as research university proffies are. We are expected to give conference presentations and keep current in our fields. We often do institutional/classroom research as part of our jobs. Some people do publish articles or books, but it's not expected as part of our duties.

    I realize I was very, very lucky. I beat out over 400 people to get this job. When I was on the market, people were already talking about the Great Boomer Exodus. It still hasn't happened, and things are even worse now than they were then. Few people leave even as our system is making working conditions more and more intolerable and students are getting snowflakier by the semester.

    I guess my point is that community colleges have their share of misery, but so does all of academe at the moment. It's nothing like what I expected going in. All this accountability that's about numbers, as if numbers are an absolute way to prove everything, has turned much of the joy of teaching into a burden. I don't advise anyone to go into teaching now at any level as it seems to have become more about standardized tests, customer service, and productivity goals. Somewhere along the way, those in power became people who know about management but not education. They forgot (or maybe they never knew) that a big part of teaching and learning is the joy of discovery, and that's a messy, inelegant process that can't always be quantified in business practices.

  15. @StellafromSparksburg
    It's the whole "I told them not to do it and they did it anyway" element; calling the grad students "astronauts", etc. People here are hanging on to frayed shoelaces for dear life; remember that.

  16. Strel--those people need to drop off. Seriously. I've honestly not met one single person who's left academia and ended up worse off. Not one. And every single person is happy to be out of it. Most of them are significantly better off, materially and emotionally. I was prepared to leave myself and start fresh as a temp after losing my first job. I have no doubt that if I hadn't gotten the one I hold now I would be one of those people who was glad to leave. Academia is not the be-all and end-all. When people convince themselves it is, that's where the trouble starts. Get out while you can and find something else to do. You won't be sorry.

    I'm not saying I don't love my job. I'm saying that you can love something, be good at it, and feel angry and mistreated all at the same time, and know you deserve better. That feeling is pretty present with me for a variety of reasons, and I am a full professor with tenure. The idea of duking it out as an adjunct and trying to cobble together a life on that--it is not the thing I would encourage anyone to pursue, anywhere.

  17. I don't really feel sorry for you. I am an adjunct at a community college and would kill for a full time job. You have steady employment teaching, which at some point you must have wanted to do. I love my job. I get that teaching only intro classes can be tedious when you are faced with students who are disinterested and uninspired. The fact is you are teaching at a community college which means the type of students attending are there for a variety of reasons that are usually different from other four year universities. I find I am constantly adapting and changing my style of teaching, requirements and structure of the class in ways I hope can reach out to more of the students without lowering my standards I expect of them. There will always be students who have no real interest and there isn't much you can do for them, but I focus on those I am able to help and every time a student has told me for the first time they have enjoyed the subject I teach and learned more than they have before.

    I would do anything and am still actively involved in trying to get an elusive full time position that I fear is far away. If you enjoyed teaching at one point, maybe while you are waiting to find another position you think will be a better fit, you could attempt to work to make things better and appreciate the fact you have a job thousands of adjuncts would give pretty much anything for. Just my two cents.

  18. I feel incredibly lucky that I ended up a full prof with tenure (and it was indeed a matter of random luck), when the market was bad but nowhere near this bad. Still, I endured it for 5 years. And I think one thing I can give back is respect and support for grad students who decide not to do this and drop out of academe. I don't have enough undergrads who want to go to grad school that I have to give the "don't go" talk more than once every 5 years or so. But I often have grads in my office weeping and ashamed that they don't like the poverty and uncertainty, that they are afraid for their future and think they made a mistake going to grad school. And despite the pressure on us to retain students and place them, I think it's humane to let them know that I will always respect them intellectually, that there are lots of brilliant people outside of this profession, and that I will do what I can to help them find a non-academic position.


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