Saturday, April 14, 2012

Post-visit ruminations

I'm back in Ghosttown, after a whirlwind visit to, er, Tinytown, home of Cute-as-a-Button University.  CBU brought me in for a campus visit, and it all felt so positive and collegial that I am left with some hard questions no matter what comes of the visit.  Let me see if I can organize my thoughts a little.
  1. CBU faculty are happy people, and Ghosttown U. faculty are unhappy.  You know how you don't notice how miserable you are until you get to taste how happy people live?  That's what I experienced during my visit.  I didn't quite realize how much tension, distrust, and pettiness circulate in my department at Ghosttown U. until I got to hang out with CBU faculty.  Of course, I didn't realize it partly because I'm sort of beneath the notice of my department's politics, but that stuff seeps into everything after a while.  
  2. CBU students care about learning, and Ghosttown U. students don't.  Plain fact, for the most part.  There are exceptions aplenty, but the general trend is as stated.  There is merit in forcing academically apathetic and mediocre students to try hard and to succeed, but I have to admit that it's getting to be a real grind.  CBU more closely resembles my own beloved Alma Mater College than a typical university: liberal arts focus, an expectation of academic intensity, and, for the faculty, a priority of teaching students well, rather than gritting one's teeth and getting through classes on the way to publishing some more.  Witness the fact that my tour guide at CBU talked about her academic opportunities and classes she enjoyed alongside the sports and extracurriculars of the school; at Ghosttown U., the tour guides hardly mention academics at all, and concentrate their pitches on how old the campus is, and the great party scene fueled by Greek letter organizations and the athletics teams.
  3. CBU faculty derive a sense of meaning and self from their teaching, and Ghosttown U. faculty do not.  At least, that's the general trend.  Within my department, most of the faculty seem, from my perspective, awfully lackadaisical about their teaching, and regard it as something that just comes with the job.  The few of us who really care about making the students struggle, and about making students learn things they did not know before, are all a few steps away from burn-out — even the new hires like me.  
  4. I might be happier at a liberal arts college than an R1 university.  I know, not exactly a stunner; lots of people have this realization.  At this point in time, I feel like I'd have to run myself ragged to rack up the number of publications that R1 schools demand for tenure.  My work comes a little slower, partly because of the nature of pseudology and partly because I'm not one of the hardcore theory geeks of my discipline.  I don't think I could pound out a major theory article each year, even with a gun to my head.  Somehow, I didn't quite put it together that a liberal arts school, which values (and valorizes!) good teaching, might rank that higher than publications in some ways.  Whatever happens with CBU, I may want to step up my game in some fashion for apps to liberal arts schools, to drive home the point that I get what these places are about.
  5. I hate Ghosttown.  There's no getting around it.  Yes, there's a great bookstore in town, and yes, there are a few lovely places to eat and drink.  But that doesn't really compensate for the fact that this place makes me existentially unhappy.  I felt a sense of relief and even impatience to be on the plane to CBU, as a respite from Ghosttown.  And I felt dread as I drove back into town.  My therapist has already noticed my distaste for my current locale, and has suggested we talk about it.  And, generally speaking, this has been the unhappiest academic year I can remember, including that rough final year of dissertating.
    Now, mind you, Tinytown isn't exactly my utopic vision.  It's actually half – half!! – the size of Ghosttown, and has even less to recommend it in a general way than has Ghosttown.  But it's less isolated from the, uh, civilized world than Ghosttown, too: only about 45 minutes away from a really big metropolitan area with lots of stuff to do, lots of people around, and a nice straight shot down a highway from Tinytown.  (Ghosttown is about twice as far away as that from Major Regional City, and that is partly so because one needs to drive half an hour just to pick up the main highway that leads to MRC.)  Most faculty at CBU, as I understand, live in one of the suburban areas of the big city in order to take advantage of the city's offerings, although of course Tinytown is dirt cheap for real estate.
So the upshot of this is that I don't think that I'll be very happy, in the long term, if I remain at Ghosttown U. or go to another such large state university with relatively little investment in teaching or intellectual engagement.  Obviously, I can't just demand to go wherever I want, but it's worth remembering that some jobs are better for me than others, even as I spam applications each year.  I also would be happier, in the long term, in a living situation very unlike Ghosttown, but that is, to some degree, an epiphenomenon of where I work.  I went into academia partly because I wanted to do work that I loved and found satisfying; if all I cared about was living in a convenient location and making a lot of money, there are a lot of other things I could have done.  It's a scary and potentially embittering realization that being a professional academician could leave me in a sadder situation than if I had, lord help us all, gone to law school.  I need to make sure I don't become one of those sad, bitter characters one finds in some schools, who wish they had gone some other route.


  1. Dr. K, I'm so glad it was a positive experience--and the realizations you've outlined above are priceless. Woohoo! Crossing my fingers for you. It sounds like a wonderful place.

  2. I sincerely hope that it works out! I, too, couldn't picture myself at an R1. It's just not me. I like research, but I love teaching. The SLAC atmosphere suits me very well!

    And honestly, if you're that miserable in Ghosttown, it may be to your benefit to move to a better location and spam local universities with letters offering your services as an adjunct. When we lived in California, I got three jobs that way -- just sent an unsolicited letter and CV to local places, even though they didn't have ads up saying they were hiring. I don't know about your field -- maybe it's not as easy to do that as it is in English. English programs always need lackeys to teach writing.

    But! In the meantime, let's hope CBU comes through and that you'll have a better set up for the coming year. It's never a good feeling when you think you should have done something else, when deep down, you know in your soul that there's nothing else you ever possibly could have done and been satisfied. Best of luck, Dr. K.

  3. I really, really hope you get the CBU job. I'm also a teaching-focused person, and it's been pleasant to be at a place that rewards that. (I think over the summer we should swap & crit each other's application portfolios. Job search buddies!)

    Whether to stay in Ghosttown if CBU doesn't make an offer is a hard choice. I mean, we're staying here, even if I'm unemployed (jury is still out), because the place makes us happy--despite the fact that, if we moved in with my mom, I'd have access to approx ten kajillian colleges to spam with CVs, or if we moved back to the city we'd have a whole network of people to work for getting jobs, just because the place works. Place matters, a lot. But perhaps, if you can a) find other sources for intellectual & teaching community during the year, and b) get the fuck outta dodge a lot during the summer, so as to recharge your batteries, staying at Ghosttown U for another year won't actually cause your brain to melt out your ears.

  4. I love SLACs better than research universities too. And for the most part, I feel happy where I am. Just a word of caution: don't idealize how well or not a department gets along based on your campus visit. It's easier than you think to put a united front for prospective new faculty, when reality may be different. I know from experience.

  5. Good luck! It's great to learn about your own preferences and desires, but the problem with that in this economy is that we feel we have to grab at whatever comes up regardless of whether we want it or how well we'll fit.

    I hope you can spend the summer away from Ghosttown no matter what the outcome is.

  6. I am a fellow R1 grad who thought I belonged at an R1. My experience this year at NJU, a fairly good liberal arts school, has convinced me that R1 jobs are a sucker's game. If you want specific advice about marketing yourself in that way, let me know. I have had far more action this year (er, job search-wise), and it's because I opened my search up in that way.