It's taken me two years to grow my claws, MOTHER...!
Well, the Bitch is BACK! And honey, she is STILL the fiercest bitch in town, at least in this town. This is the rebirth of a blog which started, briefly, in the summer of 2003, then was killed for a variety of reasons, but after a couple of unhappy years, a serious job change, and a lot of pondering, the quill is poised, the ink well moist, and well, girlene is ready for her close-up, however minor. I thought to explain a bit about the changes since the original version of this blog I'd post something I sent to the Chronicle of Higher Education (unprinted, natch; too angry perhaps? Or more likely, too close for comfort) for their annual call for contributors on the academic job market in 2004. Well, I'm not on the market, at least not at this moment, thank goodness, but I thought it would help, um, *situate* where I'm at.
PS Oh, yea, the tagline to the header: Baby, you know it! JUNGLE RED!
First Person/Careers Column Submission Chronicle of Higher Education August 2004
“Back To The Perfume Counter”
Like the hard-as-nails showgirls, chorines, and shop girls of George Cukor’s classic 1939 film The Women, I am putting on my war paint. As the embittered but worldly Crystal Allen, played by Joan Crawford, ruefully announces, “Well girls, I guess it’s back to the perfume counter for me.” However, unlike Crystal and her stable of gold diggers, I return not in search of a male meal ticket, but the rough academic equivalent: another tenure-track job. My contract was not renewed at my third year review and I am back on the market.
I have been an assistant professor of American and Ethnic Studies at a small, private liberal arts college for the last three years. I landed the job after a year of soul sucking adjunct work following the completion of the doctorate from a famous interdisciplinary graduate program, and felt happy and relieved that I had moved onto the next phase in my professional life. The campus seemed ideal, the students smart and challenging, and given the small size of the college, I had a freedom to design and teach pretty much whatever interested me, with no set curricular requirements. My hire was intended to revive the program and restore the confidence of both students and faculty in the academic focus.
But all was not well on Paradise Island. Caught between a domineering and autocratic president and a teaching ethos of intense interaction that was an enormous burden on time and energy, faculty at the college were in general not happy. I also arrived at the college at a strange institutional moment. Long known as a kind of artsy finishing school for the children of the wealthy, the college was moving towards what became known among the faculty as “The New Rigor.” The crisis in admissions over the last twenty years had made even second-tier colleges like my current institution highly competitive, with a corresponding inflation of institutional ego. With a largely undistinguished senior faculty and no endowment to speak of, but a close proximity to a large important city and a few notable “names” that do not really teach, the college is in the process of reinventing itself, almost whole cloth, into a boutique institution, with administrators breathily comparing the college to its first-tier competitors, like Williams and Swarthmore. The idiosyncratic culture which had always made the college somewhat unique, as well as kept it relatively impoverished, was being left behind for a new regime characterized by accountability, “excellence,” splashy new buildings, administrative heavy-handedness, and four-color brochures.
Junior faculty, who had survived the smelter of graduate school and emerged intact as consummate and pragmatic professionals, took these changes as a good omen. But every silver lining has a cloud. The eccentricity that had once made the senior faculty, although deadwood in all but name, offbeat and interesting, also made it, in this new age, reactionary and narrow minded, caught in a time loop of academic debate from before the 1960s. The generation gap between the tenured, who had been granted tenure without a book, largely not been professionally active, and were still playing out concepts learned in graduate school in the 1960s and 1970s, and junior colleagues freshly burnished by post-structuralism, theory, and cultural studies, as well as a brutal job market, was deep, wide, and treacherous.
Regardless, I arrived on campus energized but cautious, concerned about the preexisting tensions and histories, as well as making a good impression. Under the guidance of my immediate senior professor, I labored through the first year, marked not only by the events of September 11th, but also by the struggle to figure out the complicated calculus of a small institution with a powerful president and resentful and infantilized faculty politics. By my second year, I had my sea legs. I began to develop new and successful courses, developed a network of collegial friendships, and in many ways blossomed and matured both as a colleague and teacher. Someplace along the way, my senior mentor and I lost the thread of daily interaction, and she seemed increasingly distant and unapproachable. It had become clear to both of us that our styles, both personal and professional, were markedly different. While concerned, I also felt that I needed to reposition myself with senior faculty more amenable to my particular academic interests, and began to do so in earnest. It was during this transition between senior mentors that my review was scheduled.
As I approached my first review in my third year, I was largely unaware of what would confront me. I have always considered myself fairly inept at institutional politics and my lack of killer instinct would ring true here. While my review started out well enough, very quickly it was brought down by, of all people, my original senior mentor, who was the very person who had hired me. With Machiavellian sophistication, she placed tepid but supportive comments in my file then turned around and undermined me the old fashioned way: slander, innuendo, and a passion to destroy that was profoundly personal and also explicitly outside of the file.
Aside from the intense feelings of betrayal and the deep wound to my self-confidence at being dismissed for no cause before the end of my probationary period, in the wreck of the aftermath I pondered what and where had gone awry in what had seemed a challenging but relatively straight forward task at the beginning of my time at the college. I had done everything I should have, with the crucial exception that I clearly had not paid proper attention to my senior mentor and her signals of disenchantment. It is clear to me now that one of the most important reasons for this was generational mistrust and misunderstanding. She could not recognize in me and my interdisciplinary focuses her concept of the scholarly, a conceptualization with inflections of race, sexuality, and identity as well as scholarship and teaching pedagogy. My work and teaching, as well as my personal projection of pedagogical persona, deeply threatened her worldview. While I took our intellectual mismatch with a live and let live attitude, she masked her personal fears in professional critiques, and since tenure is forever, even colleagues who supported my work and felt enthusiastic about my presence on campus had to retreat when she threw down the gauntlet.
Following my non-renewal, I’ve had to reevaluate my personal and professional goals and limitations. Was my scholarship rigorous? Where could it be stronger? Was I committed to a specific pedagogy and why? How would I make up for lost time in my professional publication record when I had foolishly devoted my time to teaching and service for the last three years, optimistically hoping I would at least be granted the probationary period to produce? Was I capable of conforming enough to achieve tenure? But more importantly I had to figure out if this is what I really wanted. Did I want to be working with damaged professional sociopaths like those at the college? What about the quality of my personal life? Would I be happier doing something else, with more reasonable people? As I struggled with these questions through the winter and spring, I also had to figure out how to continue teaching, maintain a relationship that had been severely strained by the review process and subsequent dismissal, and beat back a ferocious depression that threatened to drown me in darkness. In the end, my dismissal was a backhanded blessing. The college, paranoid and filled with the rumors of courtesans and spies, is not in the end a productive work or personal environment.
I am still angry about everything that happened to me, but I have decided to stay in academia, for the moment, and give it another go, with the hopes that another institution will be better able to understand, and more importantly, appreciate what I can contribute as an interdisciplinary teacher and scholar. I am dutifully compiling the new dossier, securing new letters, and have been in contact with colleagues, my advisor, and others who have assured me of the craziness of my particular situation and have urged me to continue on. And along with the wounds, I have a lot under my belt now that distinguishes me: a strong teaching record, service, and a modest but promising publication record. So what the college taketh away, it giveth as well. While I am under no illusion that academic politics of the rough and tumble sort I have come to live with are atypical, I am optimistic about the possibilities of being in a healthier and happier, or even only slightly more normative, professional context. And as I look forward to the potential professional life to come, I can only hope I can play academic politics more skillfully, and that the particular dystopia I have been in for the last three years is a part of the college’s legendary institutional peculiarity that I can leave behind.
Did it all end in tears? That remains to be seen....