Sunday, May 21, 2006

Life lessons at Kalamazoo

(Post 4 in K'zoo series)

I mentioned in passing in an early post that my first year at Kalamazoo as an assistant professor (two years ago) provoked in me some anxiety that I wasn’t as successful as some of my peers from graduate school, that I hadn’t landed as good a job as they had at various flagship state universities, Ivy Leagues, and prestigious SLACs.  But the last couple of years at Kalamazoo have taught me that those anxieties can be terribly misplaced; as Erma Bombeck once wrote (hey, my mom loved her and her books were around the house in my childhood), “the grass is always greener over the septic tank.”

Sure, some members of my cohort may never have “tag-glance” anxiety because their affiliations are so impressive, and their lives among high-power colleagues and intellectually engaged students may seem rosy, but each of them has a set of problems and anxieties associated with that prestige that I have not had to face.  One friend tells me that he won’t get tenure unless his book is accepted by a high-prestige university press (and we know how much harder that is getting day by day for first-time authors).  Knowing this particular friend, he’ll swing it and I sincerely hope he does; but in the meantime the pressure he has experienced – starting in his very first year – has been extreme.  Another has had to deal with a long-distance relationship and one of those universities where assistant professorship are rarely tenure-track. She’s on the market every year trying to get situated more permanently closer to her husband and now she has a baby on top of that.  And then another former colleague, in just a few words, expressed to me how oppressively insular and crazy-making her SLAC is, and how changeable and seemingly arbitrary her tenure requirements can be.  Where she has previously been told to take her time getting her book accepted by the most prestigious press possible, now she’s been told she needs a contract by the fall.

All of which is not to say that my professional life is a cake-walk and all I do is sit around talking about LIT’a’chure for a fat paycheck.  Good lord, no!  I work my ass off!  First of all, there’s the fact that my teaching load is higher than all of these folks’ loads and many of my students much less well prepared.  And I’ve got serious publishing requirements, too, especially given my teaching load, and I’ve been striving to meet it (my book, by the way, has a May 2007 publication date – just in time for K’zoo!  Woo-hoo!).  I’ve estimated that I work at least 60 hours a week during teaching semesters, and 40 in the summer or during semesters on leave from teaching.  BUT, the expectations and requirements of my job have been, thus far, clearer, more consistent, and more realistic than any of theirs.  This is, in part, due to the supreme sanity of my colleagues, who seem to have a more realistic view of the state of the profession than some people.  But it’s also the result of being unionized. Unlike some of the bloggers out there who’ve been preparing third-year reviews I’ve put together three annual reviews so far (or rather, two annual ones and one semi-annual one in the case of my first year).  And actually, I’ve done three of the big dossiers that go to all the college and university-level committees and big wigs, and then three shorter, departmental ones for the purposes of merit review.  And before all that, I signed a document that laid out my pre-tenure expectations in language guided by the terms of our union contracts, and each year my chair and I set the percentages of my workload agreement according to how much emphasis we both expect me to place on teaching, research, and service in a given year.  All of that may sound like a ton of busy work, but I’m here to tell you that it marks the difference between the sanity of my job expectations and the stress and potential insanity of my friends’ jobs.  Because there’s a yearly paper trail at all sorts of levels, because it comes in smaller increments than the traditional third-year review, there are multiple opportunities for the people in charge of retention and promotion to tell me I’m not doing enough or that I’m doing just fine, or that I’m showing exemplary progress towards tenure, or whatever they determine.  And those determinations are (ideally) based on the statement of expectations and the contract governing my employment terms.

In other words, it’s as if I’m in a class where there’s a syllabus with all the assignments and requirements set out or at least enumerated – along with the respective weights – and as I complete each of those assignments, I get a grade.  The professor may be a little rigid and unglamorous, but you really learn and you know what’s expected of you in the process.  My friends, on the other hand, are in one of those classes where the professor may be famous and/or fabulously engaging, but where the grade is all based on some mysterious final assignment or assessment, the rules and expectations of which are clouded in mystery.  I had both kinds of professors in college and grad school, and while I managed to do well in both such systems, I can tell you I preferred the first kind, where I knew where I stood.

It took going to Kalamazoo three years in a row and running into and talking with my old grad school cohort to figure this all out, to realize that there’s more to a “good job” than the prestige of the institution.  The first year I spent feeling a little inadequate, while the second and third years started to bring this enlightenment.  My point here is not to delight in the difficulties my peers face – I’m keeping my fingers crossed that things work out for each and every one of them – but to remind myself and others reading this that the success of others is not always what it appears to be.


What Now? said...

Amen, sister! Thanks for a great post.

Murky Thoughts said...

That read like a bona fide public-service announcement. i.e. In a good way, and without the annoying buzz-tones before and after and without the "if this had been an actual emergency" part.

Virgo Sis said...

Those same parameters of expectation serve in any job/profession. Although in business you are ultimately judged by bottom line results, or should be, I have had bosses who had all sorts of unspoken expectations, and others who not only laid it all out, but secured the resources for me to get the job done.

The only reason I am commenting is so I can explain the word verification - kdzumoo: What you get when a southerner goes to Kalamazoo.

Tiruncula said...

You're so right about the value of regular review and clear (and realistic) expectations. I benefited from the same thing at my regional SLAC.