The Exorbitant Cost of Not Hiring Me

This evening, having completed my eighth campus visit for a tenure-track job (this time at Southern Regional U) and with two more to complete before the end of January (of which I am certain), I was struck again by the amazing amount of money that both myself and institutions around the country and, to a lesser extent, world have spent on me without, in fact, offering me a position . I decided to tally up the combined costs of the job search on both my end and the institutional end over the past 3 years I have spent on this market. I am not including the data (AHA registration, 1 interview over but no result yet, 2 scheduled interviews) for anything where the result is uncertain. The last interview I include here then is Ivy League U.

Expenses on my end (not reimbursed by any institution):

Trips to the AHA:

Year 1: $300

Year 2: $0 (home city)

Year 3:  $800

Total AHA travel costs: $1100

Year1 registration for the AHA: $70 (student non-member) 

hotel for AHA (twice split among two or three people for three nights)

Year 1: $210

Year 3: $180

Total Lodging: $390

Per diem food expenses for all away AHAs (3 days for each at $25 a day- which is probably far below what I spent):

Year 1: $75

Year 3: $75

Total Food Cost: $150

Miscellaneous transportation costs (metro, taxi etc.):

Year 1: $20

Year 2: $20

Year 3: $20

Total Miscellaneous Travel Costs: $60

Other un-reimbursed expenses (UK Job)

$550 worth of $800 trip to UK

1 night in UK hostel = $35

1 1/2 day per diem food expense in UK at $25 per diem (again below what was spent) = $612

Underground/train in UK= $50

Total Outlay on My End (Unreimbursed) ~$2200

Reimbursed Expenses 

Travel to Campus Visits

Visit #1 (Midwest R1): $170

Visit #2 (Undergraduate Alma Mater): $500

Visit #3 (West Coast Public R1): $550

Visit #4 (Nearby R2): $20

Visit #5 (UK – reimbursed travel expenses): $250

Visit #6 (Midwestern SLAC): $170

Visit #7 (Ivy League U): $800

Total Travel (Reimbursed): $2460

Other transport (shuttles, taxis etc.)

Visit #1 (Midwest R1): $40

Visit #2 (Undergraduate Alma Mater): $150 (Limo SUV!)

Visit #3 (West Coast Public R1): $50

Visit #4 (Nearby R2): $0

Visit #5 (UK – reimbursed travel expenses): $0

Visit #6 (Midwestern SLAC): $0

Visit #7 (Ivy League U): $30

Total Other Travel Expenses: $270

Lodging (for many of these I do not know, so I am estimating a discount rate at around $100-$150 per night):

Visit #1 (Midwest R1): 2 nights = $300

Visit #2 (Undergraduate Alma Mater): 3 nights = $300

Visit #3 (West Coast Public R1): 2 nights = $300

Visit #4 (Nearby R2): $2 nights = $200

Visit #5 (UK – reimbursed travel expenses): $0

Visit #6 (Midwestern SLAC): 2 nights = $300

Visit #7 (Ivy League U): 2 nights = $300

Total Lodging Cost: $1700

Meal Expenses (Just for me! I’m not even counting the faculty going an hitting every lobster dish on the menu) I will calculate this at $40 per diem, even though I’m pretty sure I have once or twice ordered dishes costing around this much

Visit #1 (Midwest R1): 1 1/2 days = $60

Visit #2 (Undergraduate Alma Mater): 2 days = $80

Visit #3 (West Coast Public R1): 1 1/2 days = $60

Visit #4 (Nearby R2): 1 1/2 days = $60

Visit #5 (UK U): $5 (catered lunch)

Visit #6 (Midwestern SLAC): 1 1/2 days = $60

Visit #7 (Ivy League U): 1 1/2 days = $60

Total Food: $445

Total Reimbursed Costs (Or Costs Born By University): $4880

Total Costs Combined: ~$7000

As stated, this does not include many other aspects of first and second round interviews that could legitimately be included. These numbers also reflect a good deal of cheapness on my part (in terms of accommodation, not registering for the AHA etc.) and I have probably underestimated some of the costs born by the university. Obviously, searches have budgets – the money would have been spent on some candidate so one could argue that I cannot rightfully say it was spent specifically on me.  Still, it was spent on on my visit. And we’re looking at $7000 spent on me – or rather on not hiring me – over the past three years.

Maybe soon I will redo the total with the added costs of an additional year on the market – hopefully to see just how much money it took for me to get a job.

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A Tale of Two Academes

Not long after my rejection from Ivy League University I completed skype interviews and was subsequently asked for campus visits at two other schools, whom we will refer to as Southern Regional Public U and Northeastern Teaching School. For the latter – this being a first in my nine campus invitations – I had been asked to do a teaching demonstration. I announced this to my recommenders and wondered if they had advice.

Advisor, of course, had no experience with the mucky realm of teaching demonstrations. This was after all someone who, bless her heart, once tried to sympathize with my job search struggles by telling me about the time she was turned down by Princeton (only to be later offered the job) while she already had a TT job at Graduate Alma Mater (having left to go there after one year at Top Public University, where she had been hired ABD). Apparently, the experience had been very stinging for her. So she was happy for me – “definitely a good sign.” But of course she knew nothing about this dark abyss of 3-4 and 4-4 teaching loads to which I had apparently plummeted.

Then Third Reader, whose job-searching experience, of anyone on my committee is the one which bares even the remotest resemblance to my own (and even then…), responded to my email. He began with “Great going?”

That interrogation mark made me radically and painfully aware of how different such a job – much like the job I already had just in a different city – would be than the one for which I had just been rejected or the one which my committee members had. Moreover had someone else said this, I would have immediately suspected a typo (which was, post a rather miffed email from me and 10 days of waiting what he explained the question mark to be). But with Third Reader I have become increasingly incapable of telling. And Third Reader had sat across from me at a dinner several days earlier where I preceded to drink a rather unwholesome amount of red wine while regaling an audience of grad students and professors who were safely at various R1 institutions with the various peculiarities of my current job for their appalled amusement. I read this interrogation mark as one which asked me if I was genuinely happy about such a prospect.

And honestly, appalled as I was that he would ask this, I actually was asking myself this question. Could I be happy in a permanent job like the one I have now?

I live these days in two different worlds, both of which are someone classified under the same broad category of academe. On one hand, there is the university where I work, teaching a 4-4 to first generation, relatively racially diverse students over half of whom receive Pell Grants and many of whom have about a 50/50 record with constructing grammatical sentences. There are full tenured professors in my department (history!) who not only have not published a single peer-reviewed article, but cannot accurately define a primary source (more on this later). Meanwhile, the institution for which I work, with its endowment in the mid 7 digits, teeters perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy with every change to government funding and is currently attempting to set up a satellite campus in Arizona to somehow, magically, defer this possibility. The campus reminds me of my high school, or really any high school. All the bulletin boards use that kind of balloon lettering so typical of K-12. When I asked people what I do, I generally say that I am a “teacher.”

On the other hand, there is Graduate Alma Mater, where I still have many friends, where I still keep in contact with my committee, and when I occasionally attend workshops. Graduate Alma Mater is one of the most prestigious schools in the country with famously intense and intelligent undergrads and a well-earned reputation for rigor.  I taught undergrads who had already given multiple papers on Byzantine history at national conferences by their junior year. The faculty includes scholars who among the top in their field, including the president of the AHA and the president-elect, and often openly disdains teaching in favor of research, a scholar’s true vocation. Although money is not readily abundant to the grad students, in every other way it oozes out of the very buildings and foundations.

I remember, back in Year 1, ambivalent about whether I wanted to be in academia at all. I did not want the kind of high pressure job I associated with Graduate Alma Mater, even though these were precisely the types of jobs I interviewed for that year. Now, having seen what it is like on daily basis working at its opposite, I wish to go back almost desperately (well, preferably I’d wish for a school with great undergrads and no grad students – I cannot see ethically teaching doctoral candidates at this point). And yet it seems like this might be, at least for the short term, what I have left.

In the mean time, it is sometimes very difficult for me to reconcile the existence of these two within the same city or under the same title “university.” I feel like some amphibious creature attempting with varying degrees of success to live in both.

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Job Market Year #4: Assistant/Associate Searches WTF

Of my 7 campus visits, two have been for assistant/associate searches.

I am sure there are plenty of circumstances where this is a reasonable and fair thing to do. I am sure there are plenty of cases where beginning (even ABD) assistant professor candidates without book contracts triumph over associate professors at Ivy League schools with one or two very well-received books out.

I just have not been part of these searches.

The first of these said searches, of course, was my infamous Year 1 visit with Undergraduate Alma Mater, where my direct competitor was an associate professor at an Ivy League school who had appeared on the Charlie Rose show. Surprise – I did not get that job. (She, of course, turned it down).

The second of these searches, far more sanely organized but no less bizarre in its own way, took place early in the season this year. The job ad at Ivy League University was for an assistant/associate professor of the history I study but for a time period which predated the bulk of my research (and I work on a country where the divide between early modern and modern is pretty important). I have a degree in Modern European History – this job was for 1500-1815. One chapter of my entire seven chapter dissertation handled anything between 1500-1815. I explained this to my recommenders and applied anyways.

I did not expect much to come of this, and so I was surprised to receive an email from the SCC within a week asking for all syllabi, articles and my dissertation. I worked frantically throughout the weekend to design several early modern syllabi and sent them, along with my research, to the committee. Three weeks later I was startled to receive a skype interview invitation. I told my recommenders – Advisor and Third Reader – and arranged around my 4 prep teaching load for the semester.

The interview itself went well, although it was certainly not my most polished performance. This was largely due to the fact that they kept asking how my work related to EARLY MODERN history and what EARLY MODERN classes I could see myself offering and what the most difficult part of teaching EARLY MODERN Europe was (seriously, they emphasized EARLY MODERN when they spoke). I had to refrain from laughing.

That night I received an email from Third Reader’s Close Buddy, who we might remember from my tangled, highly unfortunate campus visit at R2 University during Year 2. Close Buddy, I should add, is an associate professor who legitimately works on the early modern period of said country. I hadn’t heard from him since his non-apology after my rejection from said campus visit – a year and a half earlier – so the fact that he was suddenly contacting me at my employer university email trying to make chitchat and forwarding me a fellowship application which I think everyone had seen – was suspicious. Then I realized that the words “early modern,” mentioned in the fellowship announcement he had forwarded, were in red letters. Deeply shaken by the memory of that unpleasantness and angered that I was apparently the subject of gossip by people (Third Reader, obviously) who should know better,  I immediately worried about what I saw as the very off chance that both he and I got campus visits at Ivy League University and then he did something crazy like say nasty things about me there, thus effectively ruining both his and my chances. I did not think this eventuality was likely, but just to guard against it I swore not to tell Third Reader anything else.

Three days later I received a call from SCC. They wanted me to come to campus in less than three weeks.

During the next few weeks, I spent every Monday night sleeping on the floor of my office because I did not have time to commute back home. In between the 4 preps I was teaching, I frantically rearranged a job talk that was “early modern.” I resolved to know it so well that I didn’t need notes (“do not read” had been the advice given by search committee chair). I revised and practiced for hours. I told only a few friends and advisor, swearing her to secrecy.

It is hard to capture just how much I hoped against desperate hope that I would get this job, despite all the various ways (time period, rank) that I was at a disadvantage. I contemplated offering to convert to a religion if I could get a said deity on board with the plan, or sacrificing a limb or digit if this would appease the thirsty gods who had cursed me(indeed, I had a list of the very few things – namely the lives and health of my friends, family and cat – that I wouldn’t sacrifice for said position).  All this was despite the fact that I knew that assistant/associate searches are frequently geared to finding associates – and, the night before I left, I realized that I was up against an associate professor at an R1 university, a legitimate early modernist whose work was more conventionally trendy than mine with whom I had been on a panel at a conference once and who had deeply impressed me – even though she had just left grad school at the time – with her polish and professionalism. My heart sunk when I heard this, but, believing in some wild sense of my own specialness, I got on the plane the next morning.

The plane narrowly escaped tornado-force winds that grounded several subsequent flights. “Providential,” declared my thesis advisor who had apparently been worrying about this eventuality. And indeed, when I arrived at Ivy League University, it was a bit like dying and somehow being admitted to heaven – everyone was so nice, the weather clear and crisp, the campus gorgeous, so many great conversations amazingly related to my own subject area, everyone was so witty. The undergrads and grad students I met seemed like engaged, interesting people.  In this dream world, people mentioned adjuncts like some exotic phenomenon, complained about not getting writing done on a 2-2, and wondered how I was not only still “alive” but capable of publishing given my load. They said things like “the problem is we just have too many job talks because we’re always hiring people” or “you can’t even really go to all the cultural events; it’s a problem.” Yes, I thought a problem. The SCC took me out for dinner the night I came in at a very lovely restaurant where I had duck. Accustomed as I was to dining with entire search committees, I had thought such an intimate dinner would be incredibly awkward; instead we talked seamlessly about all sorts of things for hours. I gave my job talk without notes and I was roundly complimented for it by faculty and grad students.

By the time I flew back, I was willing to part with basically all limbs to get the job.

Since they were a uniquely humane place, they even gave me a day – December 4th- and a time – early evening – on which the department chair would call and let me know either way. And so I waited. I made plans to meet with friends at a favorite bar to deal with either eventuality. I did not want to be alone. I waited. I watched My Cat From Hell on Netflix. The end of the day arrived. The call came. “I’m sorry….” it began. And so the department chair told me the usual “excellent performance, great talk, very professional, everyone liked you… but the department has needs.” Needs. Like some sort of biological organism.

I made it off the phone with polite words and without tears. I was proud of myself.

That night I got so drunk that I apparently danced in the second bar we went to and yet I have no recollection of this. I also apparently did a lot of hugging.  I puked all over the bathroom and my pants. I tried to persuade the cabbie and my friends that he was going the wrong way on the mile long drive back from the bar to my apartment. I did not stop throwing up until 7pm the next day, after all the green bile in my system has been expiated upon a towel. I called in sick to the last day of school – must have had a stomach bug.

I did not regret this at all. I did what I had to do. My appetite didn’t really return for three weeks.

In one sense, I felt rather relieved that I still apparently cared about rejection this much. After so many over the past four years, I had worried I was going numb, that I had forgotten what it even meant to let myself want. But that only made the pain worse – there was no shell of “I didn’t really want that” to protect me from the pain. Even though there are perfectly legitimate reasons I could have fabricated for the grapes having been, in fact, bitter, I did not. I just let my sadness and disappointment rest on this lost possibility.

The search chair agreed to talk with me about my performance on the phone. He was very kind. He started out by saying that nothing I had done on campus had lost me the job, that the department had needed an associate professor. He explained that I was the only assistant professor they had felt capable of competing at that level and that I was at an unfair advantage against “associate professors with two books out.” He gave me some critiques, preceding each with “This did not lose you the job, but…”

I made it through 45 helpful moments on the phone without crying. I hung up and bawled in the room where my last group of students, a few hours earlier, had taken their final exam.

Within the next week, through my adviser and then more confidently through a visiting tenured R1 professor in early modern history, I learned that the person who had  in all likelihood (“associate professors with 2 books”) gotten the job was an associate professor whose prize-winning first book I had read for a class my first year in graduate school, an associate professor who is a big enough name in the field that one of my friends has published articles disputing his claims, an associate professor old enough to easily be my father.

Well, I thought, that was fair. I realize I should probably be flattered that I have been up against such competitors. At some moments, I can muster this feeling. In most, however, like when the department chair ended his call by saying “I know you will have a great career,” all I feel is that, despite getting as far as I do, I remain teaching a 4-4 load at the third-rate regional university of dubious solvency on a contract set to expire in two years making less per class than I did in grad school and that I have been in this situation for four years despite continually getting close.

I hope I can be forgiven some degree of frustration.

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Job Market Year #4: White Out

I will not go to the AHA this year. 

This was not really the turn of events I had expected, of course, but given my track record over the past four years searching for a job, I can’t say this is particularly surprising. And, as pointed out in my previous entry, it’s January and snow tends to happen. My original flight was at 4pm on Thursday, which I thought would leave me sufficient time to get to my interviews. However, due to the weather, that flight going was cancelled; the flight at 9pm was already delayed to 11. After waiting in line with increasingly disgruntled small animal and small child encumbered fellow travelers, I rescheduled for the earliest flight the next morning. I could get in by 10:20 and my aunt had offered to drive me from Dulles to the Marriot allowing me time to register and orient myself prior to my first interview at 1pm on Friday. I went back to my apartment to pet my cat and drink with a friend. Waking up at 4:30am to get to the airport by 6:20am, I soon found that this flight too was cancelled. I called the search committee with whom I had my Friday interview and changed the interview to 2pm on Saturday. After waiting in line for 4 hours, I rescheduled a flight for 4pm. I stumbled away to scavenge a place to sit down in the airport, which looked like some natural disaster film. The happy possessor of not only an actual seat but an outlet, I had no sooner called my aunt to tell her of this change when she informed me the flight had been cancelled. Angered, I then threw something of a hissy fit and was added standby on the 11:15am flight, which didn’t leave until around 2pm (when a captain and crew were finally found). There were around 40 people trying to fly standby, and I did not make it on.  I was subsequently booked on flights at 2:10 and then at 9. Both of these were first delayed and then cancelled.  Could I get out the next morning? My earliest interview was at 10:30, but the next weren’t until later? There was one flight that would get in at 11:20 so I could just make it if all went on time. When I called Southwest there customer service line – which earlier that morning had given a 3 hour hold time for ticket changes – gave a business signal and continued to do this for 3 hours. I contacted two of the search committee chairs who had given me their cell phone numbers and they offered a skype instead. The last chair had offered no number, so I wrote a detailed email.

Today I received a call from that chair 10 minutes after my interview was supposed to begin asking if I had perhaps misunderstood the venue’s location. 

I spent over 15 hours in airports over 2 days, I waiting in line for 5 1/2 hours, I tried 5 times to get on planes. And yet I still feel guilty that I haven’t done everything I could have. I feel that search committees will judge me for this. Indeed, although many flights were cancelled, no one else I knew didn’t make it from Home City to the AHA. Will they believe me, I wonder? Or will they think I somehow didn’t try hard enough? At around 7pm yesterday I realized I could buy tickets for Home City’s less-severely-impacted other airport for an American Airlines plane that left at 6:25am and would get in to Reagan at 9:30. I could have bought them. I didn’t do ALL I could do, and I judge myself for that.

At the same time, I can think of few experiences that more perfectly parallel my experience on the job market. I did what I was supposed to in order to get job much like I bought a ticket that should have arrived with plenty of time for me to make interviews even if it were cancelled or delayed the first day. After that, I tried multiple times to get a flight, but I was just not lucky enough to end up on the one flight that went out the entirety of Friday. Others who had originally booked that flight on Friday – or who had been luckier standing in line for a new ticket after their flight had been delayed – managed to get there (I talked with several of them). And now I am left feeling bad, despite the hours and the inconveniences, that I did not do every insane thing I could possibly think of – spend $600 for a new ticket at 6:25am when I had slept only 3 hours the night before and surely wouldn’t sleep more than that this night – to get to those interviews. I feel, somehow, that if I had REALLY cared, I would have. And I feel they think this “Other people got here despite the weather, why didn’t she?”

Let me rephrase: “Other people got jobs even in this market, why didn’t you?”


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Abolish the AHA Interview

1) Skype/videoconferencing works just as well for a first round interview. Even the odd chance of mechanical failure (which has happened to me and I still got a campus visit out of it) is a good and valuable thing – it allows the job candidate to prove that they can face the inevitable technical glitches that will occur in “smart” classrooms.

2) Hotel (even split between 3 people at the conference rate!) + registration + airfare + two or three days worth of eating out every meal can easily add up to $1500. Add in grooming things (haircut, waxing, new clothes, new shoes) necessary for in person interview and you maybe pushing $1800. For graduate students and adjuncts this is a pretty large monetary investment

3) A single 25-minute interview at the Job Center (where most of the poorer schools are) can cost up to $244. Considering that the poorer schools are frequently the ones interested in the poorer candidates (adjuncts), this is really criminal.

4) Even if a candidate has a SINGLE 20-minute interview and NO OTHER reason for being at the conference they are expected to fly to this event.

5) Search committees sometimes wait until two or three weeks (and sometimes DAYS) before the conference to inform candidates of whether they are going. Given how poor the job market is (11 jobs I could even reasonably apply for this year folks!), you may be waiting until the last minute for that ONE interview at the AHA while plane ticket prices go up by the day.

6) Even if the candidate is offered a skype interview in place of an AHA interview, the candidate is generally under the impression that  to accept a skype instead of an in person interview (unless they live on like another continent, have a health problem that impedes travel etc. ) will make them look less “serious” in the eyes of the committee. Even if it their ONLY interview. [It has been pointed out by a committee member that the committee may very well NOT share such a view]

7) For inexplicable reasons sometimes candidates are sometimes asked to interview with places where there is no way in heck their teaching/research profile aligns with the job ad OR where there is obviously a VAP. A skype interview for that is one thing, but flying there?

8) A given candidate has, statistically, anywhere from a 25-33% chance of getting a campus visit off that first-round interview. All things being equal (which they rarely are), a candidate with a campus visit has a 25-50% chance of getting a job from that. You do the multiplication there and then compare that to the financial math.

9) The AHA is held IN THE BEGINNING OF JANUARY. In the Northern hemisphere this month historically coincides with a HIGH PROBABILITY of snow throughout MOST OF THE UNITED STATES AND CERTAINLY MOST OF THE UNITED STATES THAT MUST BE TRAVERSED TO GET TO SAID CONFERENCE VENUE. This means there is always a not insignificant chance that candidates will be caught in a snowstorm. This year, I have had two flights out of Home City Airport cancelled and may not get to said venue at all.

10) The AHA is held IN THE BEGINNING OF JANUARY. In many Western countries this coincides with various holidays. Thus, if you choose a venue like, say, New Orleans you will be competing with holiday goers for tickets and hotel space. And even if you choose a less festive locale, you’re traveling with them.

11) The AHA is like a neurosis incubator. You basically spend your non-interview time nominally paying attention to panels attended by like 4 other people all of whom are actually thinking about their forthcoming interviews or wandering aimlessly around a claustrophobically enclosed convention space (because it is held IN THE BEGINNING OF JANUARY which, in the Northern hemisphere, historically coincides with COLD and SNOW in many regions ) running into all the uncomfortable-looking people who beat you out for grants and reciting their elevator speeches. If Dante was depicting 21st century Purgatory, he could do no better.

12) While search committees have above costs largely reimbursed by their university and thus don’t have to think too much about them, many/most contingent faculty and graduate students do not.

13) Even if attendance at the AHA is reimbursed for search committees, wouldn’t this be an awesome place for a department/school to cut a few thousand dollars out of the budget? Seriously?

14) For many scholars, and for those of us who teach a 4-4 in particular, winter break is one of the few times we get any substantial work done. Also, it is a time for family and relaxing. The AHA cuts right into that period taking as many as five days out of one’s life for maybe 25 minutes of an interview.

15) Flying over from another country for said 25-minute-30 minute interview. Really?

16) Schools that hold “informal discussions” about a job while saying that the actual interview will be later. It is wery hard for a trying to prove they are “really serious” NOT to fly out… again, even if it is just for that. Really?

17) Isn’t it more humane to interview the candidate when they are relatively well-rested, have not just traveled across the country, and are in their a normal environment? Does it prove something about a candidate’s character if s/he is able to perform well under stressful conditions that in no way mimic their potential future work environment? What does it prove pray tell?

18)  Basically no one would go to the AHA if there were no interviews. I have never met anyone who likes going there (compared to, say, smaller thematic conferences). As a conference, it exists merely to feed off desperation.

19) Just because you – search committee member – were forced to do this like some performing poodle doesn’t mean that you need to follow in some hoary tradition and inflict the practice on the young. It’s not some sacred rite of passage. Let it go the way of foot-binding.

20) For all the reasons stated, above the AHA interview, like so many other structural aspects of the historical profession, gives strength to the strong and discriminates against those who have already been marginalized within the academic system.

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Question Authority

In one of my classes this semester, there is a student of approximately my age. We actually have the same rather unusually-spelled name that marks us as being part of a single generation. In class, she has trouble answering the questions and sometimes seems aggressively rude, but on other occasions she genuinely adds to the conversation.

She plagiarized her second paper. Blatantly plagiarized — copied one half from one website and the other half from another. This was after she had given me three successive stories about why she hadn’t turned it in on time. I caught her on the plagiarism and gave her a zero on the paper. Considering the blatant nature of the plagiarism, I would have had every right to report her to the dean had I chosen. I felt I was generous. So I was pretty astounded when I received an email from her admitting she had plagiarized but telling me that she has a lot going on with her four kids and worrying that she wouldn’t pass the class. I did not respond: Well, that’s why you shouldn’t plagiarize was all I could think of to say.

On the next assignment, she came and saw me. She gave me a rough draft. I suggested corrections. On her final draft, she hardly made any of the suggested corrections and did not really fulfill the stated instructions of the assignment. I gave her a 75%. In return, I received a very angry-sounding email about how she felt she was being “punished” for her plagiarism and how she had come in with her rough draft and I had still “punished her” and now she didn’t know if she should continue putting in “so much hard work” into my class  [this was someone who shows up maybe 2/3rds of the time] because she thought she would fail.

I had to go take a walk before I responded because what was running through my head was “She would not dare do this to an older male.” I felt insulted. I felt almost like pulling her aside and talking to her as a woman. Instead, I wrote a very tactful response, which seemed to gratify her. And then she missed two out of three of the next classes.

Seriously, in what universe does she think this is okay?

In the universe I allow her to inhabit.

I’m still getting into the knack of authority. Perhaps as a consequence, I still feel trodden over a good deal of the time.

A few weeks back, I went through an ugly episode with Department Chair. The immediate situation was as follows: in June I was obliged to submit an activity report to the dean. Without telling me anything about the protocol for this submission, he became angry that I did not realize that I needed to submit to him rather than to the dean and then called me “frustrating and uncooperative” and said my behavior “was getting to be a problem.”

A close friend of mine had just lost a job similar to mine; contracts were not yet out; I started hyperventilating.

For a while, I had trouble understanding what I had done that was so “frustrating and uncooperative.” Certainly getting angered at me for not knowing how to submit an activity report or what he wanted on it before he told me seems a bit irrational. I imagine what really triggered this episode was much more complex. First, as I was informed by a female colleague who has also been on the receiving end of such attacks, before Department Chair became Chair there were some perceived negative feelings among certain colleagues, among them Very Friendly Colleague, about Department Chair’s competence. So he now might be annoyed by the way in which Very Friendly Colleague has taken me under his wing. Very Friendly Colleague and I both graduated from much more prestigious schools than Department Chair– and this is made something of a deal of both by Department Chair (“I come from a very different world”) and Very Friendly Colleague (“the market was so bad that this school got people like us”). Very Friendly Colleague had just presented a glowing report of my teaching to the Chair. And I had just successfully negotiated that contract after receiving the offer from Dream City University (throughout that process, Department Chair became increasingly convinced that this was Very Friendly Colleague’s idea and that I shouldn’t have “gone behind his back” in doing this).

I guess Department Chair was just re-establishing the pecking order. Still, it seemed like a rather elaborate show of force on a person’s whose job– and thus income and health insurance– were as incredibly fragile (and as incredibly dependent on his performance review) as mine is. I’m hoping that in acting contrite and in informing him of everything I do I have successfully downplayed whatever threat I may have caused.

But I don’t know if I have the authority to say that.

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The Amazing Inflatable A

During my first class, there are two students who come in early every day and talk, for about fifteen minutes before class begins, about grades. I do not feel I am eavesdropping on their conversation, since I very much feel they want me to hear it. The gist of the conversation, repeated monotonously every Tuesday and Thursday, is this:  they have so much to do and they really need to get an A. One of the students, who I have in two of my classes, put it this way today, “I don’t understand this [other] professor… I work hard, I do everything he says to do, and yet I’m not getting an A.”

Sorely tempted as I was to interject, I somehow controlled myself.

Frankly, almost none of my students genuinely deserve an A, if an A means what it theoretically is supposed to signify. Even if it doesn’t mean a genuine “expert” or “excellent” grasp on the material — and, during my entire secondary, post-seconday, undergraduate and graduate years when my transcript was written in narrow pointing beams, I never genuinely believed I had an “excellent grasp” on material — an A should not be granted for just doing what you’re told and showing up on time. Most of my students — including the one who uttered this remark– grapple with the basics of writing let alone analytical reading of texts and the creation of arguments. To me, getting an A on a history paper — let alone in a history class—  should signify you can proficiently demonstrate all of these skills. Yet I am giving As on papers to which I really feel I should give Bs and Bs to C papers and Cs to papers that are objectively catastrophic, but submitted punctually and make some effort to address the prompt. Every time I grade — and this last week of teaching marks the beginning of that one last long unpleasant week of having to give these students these arbitrary letters– I do so with revulsion at the grades I feel compelled to give. And with fear. Because I don’t know how long I am going to be able to with revulsion. Each time I give an undeserved A, an undeserved B, I feel cheapened, degraded, hollowed out. By the end of a batch of papers, I long for a shower.

I’m glad at this point I can still feel the nausea in my throat when I start off with the euphemisms “You raised some good points… it is very insightful when you say…” I’m glad I am not numb– that I do cringe– when I assign a paper a B. I feel though that soon this will go away. I will forget what it was ever like to grade the paper of 20-year-old who can write truly thoughtful sentences like a rational adult (to be fair, I do have a minority who genuinely can. And some for whom that is a goal in reach. But they are far less than half of my students).

A question could be asked… why don’t I give each paper what I think it “really” deserves? And I will truthfully answer, I do not have the time or the investment. With 100 students and my own research to do, I am not going to fail half the class. I tried that last semester. It was unpleasant for everyone and unproductive all around. Even after multiple revisions and office hours where I talked over mistakes, the students could not write. And my evaluations were stinging. This semester I consciously — at first– started inflating each grade I gave. A- became and A, B+ an A- and so on. That is how the creep started. As I grade this batch of admittedly more disastrous than normal papers where I made the mistake of asking survey class students to formulate an actual argument, I feel it has come up even higher.

And this is how grade inflation works. They are taught from earlier on that As are good and important. They go to high schools which, I can only imagine, are so poor that as long as they don’t cause discipline problems and turn in their work punctually they pass with gold stars. Then they get to college and meet a coterie of faculty increasingly like me (or adjunct).  It’s more convenient for me (read: less futile, read: I do not have tenure) to give them closer to what they want. I don’t want to be hated. I’ve seen how morale decreases when I give low grades. It’s so easy for me to think: well, I pick my battles. They are already going to “pay for their A” by it being an A at Employer University. They are not going into this field anyways — and why would they? There are no jobs. Why should I hold them to some sort of excellence in writing? What I give them doesn’t matter. I’d rather class be productive for them — and my evaluations not too scathing so that I don’t ruin my own chances of moving on — than hold so closely to my standards.

And thus I become yet another part of the problem.

The problem is, as has been documented in appalling detail, epidemic on high school and college campuses. I think of it as part of the massive self-esteem delusion that has been foisted — willingly, I will add– on the American public over the past twenty to thirty years or so with such disastrous consequences. Everyone is special and unique. Everyone deserves an A. Everyone deserves a house. Everyone deserves a good job etc. etc. Maybe it’s a human tendency to overestimate how good one is compared to other, but from the people I’ve met elsewhere I’d say it’s certainly a trait honed to perfection in America. I know I myself bought into this mentality — how else can I explain my bitterness about my post-doctoral fate? Still, the idea of expecting an A as my students do — when they just do not seem like A students — strikes me as kind of disgustingly self-delusive. Look at yourselves in the mental mirror, I feel like screaming.

But alas, the mirrors have all become a carnival show.

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