Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Unsettled moment

When I was a kid, I was vaguely aware that my grandfather had married and started a family pretty late in life.  I had little sense of relative ages or time when I was that young, but I understood that the family thought it remarkable.  I also remember thinking that I'd like to do that stuff when I was younger, so my parents wouldn't seem so old to my kids as my grandparents did to me.

It just hit me today that in a year from now, I will be exactly the age that my grandfather was when my father was born.

Friday, January 25, 2013

What's it worth to ya?: Monetizing our intellectual expertise

I've been working out my thoughts on an issue of professional ethics that has arisen recently for me, and I haven't come to any solid conclusions.  (I'll have to word this post a bit carefully to preserve pseudonymity.)  I'd be very interested to hear what my social science colleagues have to say about this. 

As I have mentioned before, I'm a pseudologist of Research Country, specializing in the subfield of Damn Lies.  Most of the time, few people outside my discipline really give a toss about Damn Lies, but a whole big lot of people are very much interested for one reason or another in RC.  This means that, once in a while, people outside the academy seek out my colleagues and me to consult our expert knowledge and opinions.  These people tend to be in a) government, b) journalism, or c) 'consulting firms'.  I can't say I've actually fielded calls from anyone directly in government, but the latter two have certainly sought me out over the last few years.  Infallibly, so far, these people want me – even expect me – to let them pick my brain for free.  The few journalists I actually agreed to speak to, with one exception, have not even acknowledged talking to me in their published pieces, let alone identified me as "Dr. Koshary, a researcher in..."  I was kind of hacked off at this, and even more so at the half-assed and uncomprehending way that they wrote up what I told them.  I decided last year to stop talking to journalists, since they seemed not only totally ignorant of their own subject matter, but unwilling even to get my name out by acknowledging that they had to speak to someone more informed than they.

[Slight tangent to clarify what comes next: the Big Union of Pseudologists is currently engaged in a thorny debate about moving to open access for the journal articles we publish, partly due to a hue and cry raised over the apparently lousy deal we signed with a huge academic publisher.  One of the arguments made in favor of BUP moving away from that publisher is that it uses us as free labor to create its journals, then makes us pay for the privilege of accessing our own research publications.  A corollary argument in favor of open access is that, if our expertise is going to be exploited for commercial ends that do not truly benefit us, then we should at least be paid like the experts we are.]

More recently, a 'consulting firm' contacted me and asked for a long telephone interview, emailing me in their request a stunningly long and complicated list of questions.  Had it come from a student, I would have guessed that someone was trying to sucker me into writing his master's thesis for him.  The nature of the request was, as I read it, asking me to tell them a lot of stuff that I mean to publish in my book and articles — stuff that, without meaning to brag, only I can explain.   I was alarmed to imagine a scenario in which I talked so much to the press or the, uh, 'consultants' that my original ideas and insights came to seem commonplace without ever having been associated with my name.

It put me off, but I wasn't sure if I should treat this optimistically as another way to put my name out there in some level of public intellectual discourse.  I asked the opinion of a well-published colleague, giving hir the name of the consulting firm, and asking if I should demand name recognition in the project and/or financial compensation as an expert consultant.  Zi wrote back saying that, since it appeared that this firm primarily did consulting work for the government – meaning the spooky, shadowy side of the government, which we pseudologists tend to view with well-founded trepidation – zi would advise against it; zi would have told me to go ahead and do it, if it had been a non-profit organization.  As zi put it, it's always good to get your name out.

I respect the hell out of this colleague, but I have to say that this response didn't exactly satisfy me.  Think about it:
  • To all appearances, the firm wanted to pick my brain privately, via telephone, so that it could then turn around and represent my (hard-won!) expertise as theirs.  And, of course, they're doing it for profit, although, honestly, I can only guess precisely who the pertinent clients might be.  
  • You can get your name out with G-men just like you can with anyone else.  Maybe more so, if what you say ends up being in Congressional testimony or some such.  (Perhaps not so much, in this case, but that's a possibility in other scenarios.)
  • At the risk of sound like a mercenary, I didn't ask my colleague if this firm looked 'innocent' and NGO-like.  I asked if I should demand money.  The less innocent the firm is, in fact, the more it seems appropriate to me that they not act like speaking to them should be an act of charity.
The only thing I can think of in my colleague's mind is that, if this project were put towards some U.S. government meddling in the affairs of RC, and my name were somehow attached to that project through the interview, I could become a persona non grata within BUP.  I can't argue with that, but that is technically a different ethical matter from compensation.  In any case, though, since this concern is valid, I responded to the firm that I preferred to speak through my publications.

(Cover-my-ass/I'm-an-idiot admission: I was actually so intrigued with the possibility of presenting myself as an expert consultant whose time was worth real money that I completely forgot to look carefully at the nature of the firm.  Upon closer inspection, my colleague was absolutely right: I don't want to be caught dead anywhere near the kind of clients that this firm tends to take on, even if I were well paid.)

For an opposing viewpoint, I just ran across an announcement by another very serious and well-published colleague, in which zi declares quite plainly that zi does not give expert consultations for free to anyone but other scholars and non-profits.  Not that zi is greedy, to my knowledge: zi is a very busy person, and has published plenty of good stuff that anyone can consult with little effort.  Since hir time is valuable, zi isn't about to faff around repeating what zi has already said in print.  And, if a journalist wants an interview, then this colleague has a whole list of prerequisites: at least a little familiarity with hir scholarship, an explanation of the purpose of the article, the journalist's CV, etc.  Basically, the point comes across that this person is not sitting around by the phone wishing someone would call to validate hir; zi is an active researcher at an R1 institution, and has better things to do than coddle someone who should be doing their own work.  If you're so hot and bothered to speak with the expert, and you intend to make money from your work, pay up.

These colleagues are equally distinguished researchers in pseudology, and both are tenured professors at very fancy R1 universities.  Neither outweighs the other, in my mind.  But, if I'm honest, I prefer the second approach.  The first colleague's advice only makes sense to me if these petitioners actually write my name into their work as a scholar they consulted, and so far, no one has really done that.

On the one hand, charging a consultation fee would be a more honest recognition of my place in the system as an intellectual worker, one whose time can be spent in more or less remunerative ways.  On the other hand, this idea arguably flies in the face of the whole concept of open access to scholarship.

On the one hand, I wonder if treating my expertise as monetarily as well as intellectually valuable would impress upon petitioners that I am not a monastic who cheerfully labors in poverty.  No one would dare call up, say, a Wall Street recruiter or i-banking executive and expect a gratis master class in business — unless, of course, that recruiter is a woman, who must then pointedly refuse to give away her intellectual stock-in-trade.  Why should we academics allow laypeople to treat our expertise any differently?  (Especially when we usually carry a lot more student loan debt than most i-bankers you'll ever meet!  Lord knows I could use the extra money.)

On the other hand, I am a long way off from being as important and recognized as these two.  Can I even attempt the paid consultant approach at this stage of my career, just a few years out of school, with no tenure-track position, no book in hand yet, and no major research articles in publication?  Would I (or any other comparable colleague) look like an arrogant bozo by demanding to be paid for consultations?  And either way, is it a good idea?

Sigh...as usual, I can see both sides of the issue, leaving me in Tevye's position at 2:50.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The North Pole I have charted...

Now that I feel the icy, sepulchral fingers of professional development on my pseudological shoulders, I figured I should start pushing myself to work a little faster by putting up meters for my progress on the two big writing projects of the moment.  I'm also trying to exercise again, since I've gotten pretty sick of the spare tire I've grown in recent months.  (And since I just bought a year membership at the local gym, I might as well go and get my money's worth.)  Wanna know how all of my efforts to write, edit, or get to the gym today have gone?  Consult Ms. Holiday.

Ugh.  Some days it feels like there was no point to waking up at all.  At least it's happy hour now.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

What is your academic (class) identity?

Get a comfy seat, I'm posting a thought piece.  I've been thinking about the project of identity construction in which academics engage.  Class is no small matter for anyone in American society, even if we like to pretend otherwise.  I'm starting to wonder if we academics don't repeat in microcosm the general American tendency to misinterpret our own class status — that is, not just in general society, but within academic society.

For decades, it was a truism that many, if not most Americans preferred to identify themselves as middle class, no matter how they looked to outside observers.  I have a suspicion that this tendency might fade a bit in the next few years, now that the U.S. economy seems to be contracting on a more sustained level and the differences between haves and have-nots become much starker to people who hadn't noticed such stuff before.  But anyway, my point is that academics of my acquaintance often mirror this historical tendency by thinking of themselves as just getting by in the system, when in fact they're doing much better than a great many of their colleagues elsewhere.  (Just take a look at the, uh, exchanges that break out between tenure-track and adjunct faculty all over the academic corner of the internet.)

All of the foregoing is just to frame my thinking.  What really captures my attention is that this tendency seems to start way before we land our first jobs.  I recall a lot of this identity construction underway back in grad school.

In stereotypical fashion, I was an upper-middle-class college student who thought I was merely middle-class.  Alma Mater U., much like the high school I had attended, did relatively little to challenge this self-perception, since a fair number of my peers came from flat-out wealthy families next to which I really did look petit-bourgeois.  Sure, I knew people from truly poor families on full-ride scholarships, but that only bolstered the idea that I was in the middle stratum. My awakening as to where my family was positioned on the national scale – as opposed to the rarefied world of my hometown – took some time.  But after a few years, it started to sink in that I had a lot more class-inflected advantages growing up than most people could claim.  The mere fact that I had been only vaguely aware of what AMU cost my family per year suddenly meant something to me one day, after years of it meaning nothing to my conscious mind. 

And then I went to grad school at Dear Old University, a huge comprehensive state school.  There, I began to understand on a deeper level that I was not only privileged growing up, but that some of my new peers wouldn't even see a meaningful distinction between me and those rolling-in-dough rich kids from college.  (Even though I certainly did.)  It hit me that, judged by my friends who had graduated from various state universities or more obscure liberal arts colleges, or who had had to pay their own arduous way through their college educations, the fact that I had gone to AMU meant that I could not possibly call myself middle-class with a straight face.  It must have sounded to them like the Eddie Izzard bit where some fabulously wealthy aristocrat modestly acknowledges, "I'm...comfortable."

But here's the curve ball: as I moved through my graduate training at DOU, my self-perception altered downward.  I was clearly not living the rich and easy lifestyle, and after a few years, I became one of those grad students who chafes to open his undergrad alumni magazine and read about his former classmates graduating from medical school or selling a hedge fund for Croesus' fortune.  I was keenly aware that I didn't have money, and that I was training in a field that would not make me rich.   (Not by American standards, at least.  Globally, we're all the 1%, yadda yadda.)

Plus, I was comparing myself to my colleagues at Ivy League graduate programs who seemed to enjoy access to unlimited funding and a great deal of mentoring.  DOU guaranteed me a few years of funding, but not a full ride by any means.  Since most of that funding was in the form of TAships, we were encouraged to put them off as long as possible by winning external funding.  I got accustomed to writing grant proposals to support myself as a matter of course.  I began to feel – go right ahead and laugh if you want, since it is laughable – like DOU was the mean streets of some impoverished urban neighborhood, and the Ivies were the graceful suburbs of affluence.  In other words, I started to fantasize that I was a working-class academic.  I told myself that the blessing in disguise of being at a school with limited funding was that I was forced to become proficient and prolific at grant-writing.  (Understand that I'm blushing slightly as I write these lines.)  I told myself that I would come out of this a better academic worker than my Ivy League colleagues who – as I imagined to be the case – were simply handed opportunities on a silver platter in grad school and consequently were unaccustomed to churning out grant proposals to be read by unfriendly eyes.  I told myself that DOU would make me tougher and more of a survivor than the 'rich kids' at Harvard and Yale.

This risible fantasy actually served a purpose: it kept me from despair when I was toiling on my grant proposals, and later on my dissertation.  It provided a bit of comfort during some hard times.  It also reminded me that I needed to treat academia as the dog-eat-dog world it really is, and that I would have to be both aggressive and tenacious about seeking out a living.  I daresay I underestimated how much every academic needs to do this, but it's hard to see past your own nose when you're absorbed in the lonely, isolating work of diss writing, and living as cheaply as you [believe you] can manage because your funding has fallen through.

But now, just a few years later, I look back at this self-identification stunt and shake my head.  Just as I was oblivious to my class position in college, I was oblivious to how good I had it at DOU even at the worst of times.  Let me list the ways:
  • I entered graduate school without any student loan debt from college.  'Nuff said.
  • DOU is hardly podunk: it's a good – one might even say great – state school with more money than most of its peers, and, the gripes of my professors and classmates aside, it truly is an R1 institution with some world-class researchers and facilities.  (Oh, to access that library again!)  My colleagues and I were deeply privileged to study with those people, in those places, with that stuff.
  • I never felt exiled to the edge of civilization, like so many do at, say, Compass Directional State University.  DOU-Town was really a fabulous place to live, even (or especially) for twentysomethings with limited budgets for entertainment.  It was not a harsh existence.
  • I managed to eke my way through nearly a decade of graduate study with only a modest amount of student loan debt.  Sure, I'll be paying it off for twenty years, but I don't fear that monthly automatic deduction the way some people do.
  • I hardly ever consented to share a dwelling space with a roommate, because I value my privacy, and I was able to find spaces cheap enough that I could foot the rent bill myself.  Granted, that last apartment in DOU-Town was a cockroach-ridden shithole, but still.
  • I never had to take up a full-time job that jeopardized my ability to move through my program.  
  • I never suffered from a catastrophic illness that forced me to take off years at a time to recover.  
  • I was never responsible for the welfare of a spouse, or children, or infirm relatives.
In totality, it looks like I was beginning to associate sustained hard work and frugality with impoverishment, rather than what they are: commonplaces of most people's lives.  I was playing misery poker as misery solitaire.

I'm trying to keep all of this in mind so that I can properly appreciate the tub of butter I've fallen into at Cute-as-a-Button University.  And, perhaps, so I don't take it too seriously when my (tenured!) colleagues here start to complain about their overworked, under-appreciated lot in life.

So, tell me, friends: what is your academic class identity?  How did (does) your graduate training affect your self-image as a classed body?  How does that image stack up against the wider world of higher education?  How hard did you laugh at this post, based on your own experiences?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

May I please—oh, bite me.

I would like to observe that hunting down potential copyright holders so that I can request permission to use their images in my book is really fucking annoying.  Is this is an aggravation for most other disciplines, or even for other pseudologists?  As it happens, most of the images I want to reproduce are publicity photos of one kind or another, some of them created by companies that may no longer even exist, for all I know.  And all of them, I'm willing to bet, don't expect to earn one red cent on those photographs.  The photographs aren't the product; they advertise the product.  I didn't even get these photos from any original source — I downloaded them from the internet.  They lack absolutely any identifying data in most cases; I'm lucky if I can even determine the parent corporation behind any particular image. 

The whole stupid business feels like looking for a needle in a haystack.  But in my case, the needle may not actually exist, the haystack on which I should be focused might have been eaten already, and the farmers who own the relevant haystacks don't give a good goddamn about me and my book anyway.  Oh, and since some kinds of images can be reproduced without formal permission as fair use, I should add that I could find out by the end of the hunt that I never needed the fucking needle in the first place.

Can't believe I have wasted an entire workday dealing with this idiocy.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Chill, dude

Ever get antsy about people's lack of communication?  I've been in a state lately, since it seemed that I wasn't hearing back from anyone I had emailed about practically anything, personal or professional.  It was remarkably like grad school: I started to panic that I had somehow offended this person or that, and had no idea what to do about it. 

And then, strangely enough, everyone suddenly got back to me today.  I mean, literally, today.  All of them.  The senior colleague whose advice I sought, the junior colleague collaborating on a project, the friend I invited to lunch, the woman I'm trying to organize a date with — all within mere hours of each other.  Apparently, today was Get Back to Koshary Day.

Odd.  But I'm glad to see those emails in my inbox!  And, just like when I was in grad school, I must remind myself to chill the hell out and stop being paranoid about ordinary delays in correspondence.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

RBOC: New year edition

  • I'm doing my best to maintain a social life over winter break, so that I don't cloister myself in my apartment and get all weird and stir-crazy.  Mixed results so far, but at least I occasionally get to hang out with Fie and her family.  Fun to start the new year with some good old-fashioned hang-out sessions.
  • Speaking of Fie, I can't believe that teh internetz still have not commented at all upon this photograph.  The sheer cuteness has overwhelmed all of you, hasn't it?
  • I am righteously sick of planning my spring syllabi.  Can't these things just work themselves out? I'm starting to feel dread when I sit down at my computer and see my unfinished syllabi sitting there.  More than anything else, it's planning out the day-by-day schedule that irritates me.  It's not how I conceive of the material I teach, but I guess it's hard to avoid doing this for the students' sakes.
  • Reading what I just wrote above makes me realize that a vision of my own private hell is a split consciousness in which half of me is my professorial self, and the other half is me when I was a junior in college.  Both halves would deserve the other, I fear.
  • Might as well admit it: I'm fussing with my syllabi partly to procrastinate from working on my manuscript revisions.  I need to get my head into that game for real, now that we're into January and my winter break no longer feels like an endless Siberian hibernation.
  • The thermostat in my apartment appears to be partly a theoretical construction.  I am always a little cold nowadays, and as a result, I have become obsessed with acquiring woolen clothing.  I'm trying to convince myself that I've already bought all that I need, especially now that the clutch of crew neck sweaters has arrived.
  • To continue with obsessive acquisition, I recently indulged in a small online shopping spree of goods relating to my vainest, geekiest interest: nice shaving gear.  I'm getting to know a little badger-hair brush that I acquired, and I have a slightly larger one on the way.  I'm also currently working my way through a sample pack of aftershave splashes and colognes, all of them variations of a particular scent that I like.  My life may be an unending stream of chaos and confusion, but damn it, I will confront all of it with an amazingly smooth, close shave, and smelling good.  (I finally grok my female friends who just don't feel capable of leaving the house until they have applied their lipstick and mascara.)
  • Unless some more deals get worked out in Congress soon, I expect to be paying more in taxes this year.  Please remind me not to buy any more shaving stuff until I settle on an aftershave.  And maybe a cologne.