Saturday, November 7, 2015

On Paper -- Advice to Young Scholars

If professional life is like a race, I am losing. Those with whom I started have accelerated and are already crossing the finish line of career achievement. They are deans, provosts, full professors, muckity-mucks to the maximus. They long ago disappeared over the hills ahead of me as I slogged along the path of a lecturer, teaching freshmen, earning a third of what they earn, and getting little or no credit for curriculum design, for long years of experiment and reflection and innovation, for any achievement related to the practice of teaching.

What, you might ask, made the difference between them, the successful, and myself, the slogging, frustrated malcontent?

Well, interesting you should ask.

It's all about paper, looking good on paper. And paper means publishing, marketing, and playing the academic game. Of course, there is "good" publishing, the refereed, scholarly stuff, and "bad" publishing, essays, editorials about your university in the local newspaper, and things like memoirs, at least in my "field." (My field has always been a mix of teaching, writing, reading, language acquisition, literacy, and exploration of ideas. I jump fences between disciplines as a teacher and writer. I guess that's part of the problem too.)

If you want to move up the academic ranks, you need to do the good stuff. And you need to promote yourself, throw your hat into the ring, schmooze like crazy. You have to be the kid in class who sits in the front row and raises his hand before the teacher even asks a question. "I know!" "I know!"

You have to practically squeal with eagerness, a little cocker spaniel of positivity. You need to narrow, specialize, find your niche and fill it up with expertise. You need to hop to it and learn to make everybody else wrong or inadequate in some way. The old guard had nothing to say, unless they were stars. In that case, kowtow.

If you are the least bit slow, reluctant, critical at the wrong times, or a boat rocker, you might get into trouble, be a bad risk, and be doomed to the basement of academic drudgery. If you fall into that category, and carry the title "instructor," or "lecturer," it won't matter how much you publish, how well you teach, how much community or departmental service you do, you will never rise up the ladder of rank, salary, or position.

Even if you are good on paper, you are damaged goods, persona non-grata.

So, when the gun goes off, at the beginning of your race into the world of academe, start scribbling and keep you nose clean. Find the buzzwords -- socio-rhetorical literacy, digital everything, SLO-driven assessment -- and go for it. The end justifies the means. Push down every door you see. Storm the palace. Jump on the bandwagon. Take no prisoners. This is the war of your life.  Look to those who write the checks and kiss up to them. Start racking up the lines on your vita. Make a name for yourself. Push the rest of your life into the background, because none of it will help you if you don't get that paper kingdom built.

Looking good on paper is part of the political hardball that academic work has become.

Don't look to your experience for answers. There you will find only situations and students that require you to abandon your neat and tidy conceptual frameworks, will require you to act mindfully, to be eclectic, to see that no single theory explains everything in the complicated world of teaching, perhaps contradicting your precious concepts. You will find excitement and confusion and multiple truths. You might have to admit that you were wrong about some things. Buy we can't have that. No. No. That takes too much time, will end of costing too much, transferring precious attention to what's actually happening with students in a lived experience.

It's about the paper, looking good on paper. 

1 comment:

  1. Okay, I have read this. I feel like I'm reading a description of my own experience, although in a different realm of work/study/employment/age, with a different set of characters...or just a different spot on the same trajectory. But, still, it's loud and clear. I have thought that things would get better, if I could hang in there and Learn The Ropes. Now, I'm not so sure. Will give it a little more time. I've managed, although not intentionally, to burn multiple bridges just to get to this place of despair. (some of which you warn against) So, no turning directly around....will need to find the path that leads, well, somewhere.