Friday, January 8, 2010

Keeping my chin up

It's not easy, people.  Every day that goes by with no word from my department's administrative coordinator about an open TA position for me ages me a little.  It's hard not to feel abandoned by my department, even though I know, in their minds, there's probably no idea of the sort.  I'm sure they feel that they're trying their best.  But, um, their best is kind of pathetic.  But hey, last time they did this shit to me, I ended up getting something at the last minute, which I suppose kinda compensated for such frighteningly high stress levels that I actually became hypertensive and had to go on medication.  (Still on it.  Thanks for checking.)  By comparison, I'm way calmer this time around.

Not that I'm taking this line, necessarily, but a friend of mine in a very similar position -- literally, she was two places above me on that list of students to fund -- is of the opinion that this situation represents a colossal failure on the department's part, at the level of planning.  As she views it, they never should have instituted that triage system I discussed in my last post, and thus de-privileged some of the more productive students (I know, that's a pretty relative term) while giving a boost to some colleagues of ours who lean dangerously close to being deadweight.  Knowing this friend, I can write off some of her fury as the way she is; she fires up the jeremiad pretty fast whenever her personal circumstances are less than optimal.  You know you have an angry feminist scholar on your hands when she begins to grumble about other people's reproductive choices as a burden she shouldn't have to bear.  I mean, jeez, I get what she's saying, but as I've said before, I might have done exactly the same had I had administrative responsibility to sort this out.

But her larger anger is reserved for the staff and chair, who, as she claims, have always been kind of half-assed about doing their jobs thoroughly.  She's especially steamed at the staffer in charge of grad student placement in available TA positions, and here I have to cede my colleague the point.  The coordinator, although a very nice person, has always been incompetent about confidentiality matters: as far as I can tell, she's too lazy to hide her email recipient lists when she ought to, and therefore a few of us knew that we -- all of us, by name -- were in this particularly unsavory position at the bottom of the list.  So that clues me in that she's verifiably doing part of her job wrong.  (I know of other confidentiality breaches, too, because colleagues have dished to me in private.)  As my friend argues, part of the coordinator's formal duties ought to be searching for every available position in every department in the university, whenever our own department comes up short.  And lord knows, I can see her point, especially at the moment!  But I wonder if we could really hold the coordinator to this -- which I suppose in this context would mean going to the chair to lodge a complaint against the coordinator for slacking at her job by leaving us in the lurch.  Honestly, would this stick?  As much as I would like to believe that the coordinator is supposed to search high and low for TAships outside her own department as an advocate for her grad students, it doesn't quite sound reasonable to expect this.  Especially when all of Dear Old University's administrative employees recently had to swallow pay freezes and back-end cuts to their health care benefits packages.  My gut instinct is that asking a staffer who herself feels dicked over by DOU to exert herself strenuously to find money for people who are
  1. not, in any technical sense, her hierarchical superiors on the job, 
  2. not even potentially hierarchical superiors in the way that faculty are, 
  3. in her eyes, coddled and privileged in comparison to the admittedly shit-upon administrative staff, and 
  4. despite items (1), (2) and (3), often high-handed and peremptory with her as though (1) and (2) were true and (3) were false
is simply not going to pan out well.  But of course, my friend's point pertains even if the budgetary situation were otherwise.  And so I wonder: am I giving our coordinator too much credit?  Am I just being foolishly easy on her by thinking that it's normal for me to have to search out potential TAships on my own when she might, perhaps, you know, know what the fuck I do after I've been here since before she even took the job?  Does this sound normal to everyone else?  Is this just a function of attending a state university with fewer economic resources than an Ivy League school?  Or are we just saddled with incompetent, lazy staffers that would make any other department's collective jaw drop?


  1. Hi there, Prof Koshary!

    Ok, here's my take.

    1. I think the triage system is totally screwed up (though I do agree with giving priority to students without work visas for the states), if indeed that is how positions were decided. It's exactly that sort of "system" that made it common historically for "family men" to receive higher salaries than women (who should have husbands to support them, don't you know). Look, some people would be at the bottom of the list whatever the case, and it would suck no matter who ended up there. BUT if you're going to make tough choices that leave some people without funding, when they expected to have funding, well, better to just admit that it sucks and that it's arbitrary than to try to make oneself feel better by pretending there's a "system" that is more fair than any other.

    2. I'm under the impression that the people who are left in the lurch this semester had been led to believe that they had funding at the start of the academic year? And that this is a relatively new development that people won't be funded? I think the department should have notified people much earlier than the past month if they were on the chopping block. Teaching schedules are decided in like August or September for spring. They could have alerted those who would lose funding then, which would have given people time to line up adjunct gigs, find other TAships, etc. The only reason not to do so is because the departments' scheduling needs were put ahead of its students' needs. At least that is how it seems to me. They wanted to keep people hanging on the line just in case. Not cool.

    3. I agree with you that it's totally unreasonable to expect office staff to find graduate students TA positions outside the department. I've never heard of such a thing, and while I didn't attend an Ivy I did attend a private PhD program with (at the time) excellent resources. I think the issue here is this: the department expects its advanced grad students to be adults who are responsible for their own situations (unless of course they have families to support, or unless their immigration status makes it impossible for them to find outside work). I'm sure they're just assuming that people will get jobs waiting tables or whatever if they are left without funding (which of course, is possible if one is a citizen, and is oh so convenient for people without families). Fair or not, I think that's pretty common. But no office staff I've ever heard of has scouted out TA positions for students, and, to be totally honest, I've only rarely heard of faculty members who did so (and then only for their pet students).

  2. And a warm welcome to the illustrious Dr. Crazy!

    Regarding your second point, I should clarify that all of us at the bottom of the funding list kinda-sorta expected funding, but (and this is the important but) we were never guaranteed it. Full funding packages are unknown in our department, although the faculty makes a habit of grumbling about our uncompetitive offers to many students. Those of us who were left in the lurch for funding were a year or two beyond our guaranteed packages, and simply understood from historical precedent that something would be found, and we'd hear the month before classes started. But of course, economic conditions undid those assumptions.

    To be fair, the department let us know about a month before classes will start that we don't have funding, so we could look for other stuff. But the notice is always couched as "we'll see what else we can do, and we'll let you know, but in the meantime, you might want to start looking elsewhere..." I have of course looked elsewhere, and will keep doing so, but the reality is that no one anywhere in the university has escaped budget cuts, and thus there is a degree of universality to the problem. I'm sure I have plenty of counterparts in other departments with better claims to those TAships than I have. Barring unforeseen developments, my only practical hope is that one of my departmental colleagues gets a research grant or goes on leave, and their spot opens up for me.

  3. Yuck. Ok, that totally and completely sucks, and I hear you there. *But,* it sounds like your department is actually pretty together with it if they have a clear triage plan and are sticking to it (and keeping it transparent). Yeah, it sucks, but it is actually worse to be in a dept. where they just randomly decide who to fund in a completely different way each semester, depending on the color of your shirt or who walks into the office that day and says, "hey, I need some funding", so that you never know when you're doing well or going to be hosed. The other method is for the profs to hold cage matches to win funding for their pet students, which means they make you do all sorts of nasty shit to get higher up in their lists of patronage. Trust me, it's not fun to see that happen either.

    Go hit up the other departments --- any ethnic studies programs or area studies programs that don't have grad programs? They got me through my degree. It may be late in the game though, since I had to get on their good side a long time before they actually started finding me stuff.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, Sisyphus! (And you too, Dr. Crazy!) It's genuinely comforting to hear that this is not a total disaster; it's hard to get perspective on these situations when one is so absorbed in one's own departmental matters. Lately, I've also been wondering what lessons to draw from all of this, if I ever get a professorial job myself. If, God help us all, I someday end up chairing a department or overseeing such a project, how would I go about it for maximum fairness? I seriously don't know yet, but at least I know that this model is not the very worst option. (I'm well aware that for many academics, the best option is forever and ever the one that puts their needs first, no matter what havoc it wreaks elsewhere.)

    The other departments and programs so far have nothing for me -- I'm burning through other options fast. I don't believe that I could (competently) teach a literature or language course, but just about anything else in the humanities/social science areas sounds reasonable to me.

    Oh, and one little quibble about transparency: it's not transparent, really. I know what I know partly because the coordinator is foolish about confidentiality practices, and partly because I'm friendly enough with other staffers that they spilled the beans to me about how they ran the numbers. I don't think most of my colleagues have the slightest idea how all this is done.