just when you think it might get better…

… you hear about this panel at the MLA and want to tear your hair out. But at least the fabulous TheProfessorIsIn and the equally wonderful pankisseskafka have already written take-downs of the sheer idiocy and lack of touch with reality that one would have to live in in order to actually believe that not shrinking, nay, perhaps even expanding(!) graduate programs is the right path at the moment.

I’m not going to add any more, I just thought I should post this as a sort of addendum to earlier post of MLA-happiness. The reasons the MLA was good for me were not the reasons it was good for those who are entrenched in a system that has already failed. They were good because I saw old friends and found new ones with whom I feel a sort of solidarity (even if I only know them by their twitter handles!). And no, none of them are the ones quoted in the first article. (Except theProfessorIsIn, of course, who is quoted as being anti-everything the panel stood for.)

How I learned to stop worrying and love the MLA

This past weekend was the 2014 MLA convention in Chicago, a site (albeit nomadic) that fills most early career faculty/graduate students with dread. Last year, my first “real” year on the market (aka my first year with MLA interviews), I felt that dread. I soaked in the anxiety of everyone around me (and yes, it is palpable in those hotel lobbies). I expected this year to be no different.

And yet, it was. I had three times the interviews that I had last year, which I believe is mostly due to two factors: a) the market, while still absolutely shite, is improving, or at least appears to be; and b) I’m in a much better position professionally than I was last year. I also bunked with a dear friend from my MA days on-site (instead of staying with equally dear, non-academic friends an hour away), met up with other colleague-friends nightly, and sat in on several conference panels, including session 418 on “Vulnerability and Survivalism of the Humanities in Corporatized Academia”, the live-tweets of which (mine included) you can see under hashtag #s418. That session, in particular, made me feel both not alone, and even more like shouting about injustices from the roof-tops.

My interviews went well, I think. Under the harsh light of day I am of course starting to second guess almost everything I said, but at the time I thought they went well. Never perfect, I’m sure of at least one flub I made, but I was much more relaxed than last year and acted far more like myself, something of which I am quite proud. Sure, they’re nerve-wracking—this is my potential future we’re talking about—but, like this blog, if you don’t want ME as a colleague based on something I’ve said or written, it probably wouldn’t work out in the long-term anyway. Some of my previous blog-posts, which, if you just interviewed me, you may be on your way to check out now, probably sound angry (and at times they are) but that drive to improve this thing we call The Profession won’t go away even if I do get one of the rather fancy jobs for which I just interviewed. We deserve better, and our students do too. If you still don’t believe that, perhaps you’d like to check out this piece by Richard Moser on the Chronicle?

Social media ‘civility’ and the attack of the flying sock monkeys

This morning on twitter I had an interesting interaction with Rebecca Schuman (better known as pankisseskafka) and Jonathan Goya (amongst others) regarding the recent spate of attacks on adjuncts who dare to speak out against the system and the “lifeboaters” (aka tenured faculty) who insist on maintaining the status quo, in spite of the fact that the so-called status quo has been in decline for the past 30 or so years. I won’t rehash the argument between Schuman and Claire Potter (aka Tenured Radical) since most of the 3 people who will read this will already be familiar with it.

The latest in the “but it’s always been this bad” saga comes at us from historiann, who wants us to come up with (or rather immediately assume without question her version of) a guiding set of principles for academic social media use.

For those of you who just can’t take another “telling you how to do this thing that you should as an intelligent, rational, well-educated person already be able to figure out how to do on your own” post, let me skip to the rules for you. They are directly quoted from the above link:

  1. The Golden Rule:  don’t publish anything online that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.

  2. Don’t make assumptions about the motives or personal experience that may inform the social media commentary of others.

  3. If you are the proprietor of a blog, Instagram, or Twitter account, think before you write and edit before you publish.  Think again:  is my post or comment useful, necessary, or productive?

  4. If you are a commenter on someone else’s social media account or platform:  Consider the intended audience for a blog, Instagram, or Twitter account, and be respectful of the proprietor’s online space and attention.

  5. If someone publishes a nasty or personal post or comment about you or something you’ve written, resist the urge to return the favor.  Read it two or three times to be sure you’re not overreacting or feeding a flamewar.  Consider ignoring it if it’s really inflammatory, but otherwise use your teaching skills to turn it around:  is there something in the comment of value you can address respectfully, thereby modeling the kind of conversation you’d like to be a part of?

I’m going to be honest here: these are not completely out of the question. As someone who recently (and perhaps stupidly) posted something vaguely anti-gun on my facebook, knowing full well I have gun-loving family members who have access to said facebook, I feel the sting of forgetting my audience. That said, I still believe that my posts were tasteful, respectable, and if anyone takes/took them personally, that’s on them, not me. I’d probably avoid the conversation in person, sure, but I don’t retract or feel remorse for what I said.

The problematic part, however, comes when historiann explains WHY she feels that these should be the rules the rest of us adopt. Again, quoting direct from the above link:

Here are my rationales for these principles, in seriatum:

  1. No one likes a jerk, and when you’re a jerk online, you are performing jerkiness before a potential audience of hundreds or thousands.
  2. You can always ask a blogger or Tweeter why they wrote what they wrote, or ask for further clarification before unloading on them.
  3. Since when is thinking a bad thing?  Aren’t we inteleckshuals?
  4. See rule #1, and remember:  don’t be a jerk.
  5. Let your productive, positive social media presence speak for itself.  If you lie down with the dogs, you’ll get up with fleas.

I personally take umbrage with her rationales, most particularly with #3, which is the one that launched me into the twitter conversation in the first place. You advocate for being less jerky, more civil, etc, and then remind me that I’m an “inteleckshual” and so I should think before I speak? Did you think before you wrote that? Because it would appear not.

Oh, but I’m calling you out on something you said, which apparently would not be civil. I mean, it’s right up there in rule number 5, right? If someone says something nasty on the internet, it’s on me to not respond to it. And yet right there, right in the middle of telling us all not to be jerks and how no one will like us if we are, you do the jerkiest thing of all. I pointed out this inherent oxymoron to Schuman and others:

to which Schuman replied:

Basically if we accept historiann’s new rules of social media use as “professionals”, then we’re over a barrel. We can’t say anything against the rules, as that would be jerk-ish and we can’t call her out for calling us idiots (because if you think calling us “inteleckshuals” is anything other than an insult, well, you’re in the wrong place, that’s for sure).

We also shouldn’t be bothered by the fact that tenured radical thinks (as she so clearly states in comments to historiann’s post on the new rules) that we’re just a bunch of whiny millennials that haven’t worked for anything we’ve got. I quote, from the comment section of the above linked post:

Tenured Radical on 30 Dec 2013 at 8:38 am #

Yep. I keep wondering also whether there isn’t something age related. The folks on the market now are the Millennials who never failed, never got below a B+, got prizes for everything they did. And one response to the terrible job market has been to add *more* prizes: you don’t see a job candidate who hasn’t won named fellowships in grad school, teaching prizes, and post-docs (intended to keep people going in a bad job market, but now just another prize.) There must be something genuinely confusing to many people who have, in fact, done everything right, and failed to win the big prize — or even, in a way, been given a yellow ticket to go to Hollywood at all. You can say a lot of things about Rebecca Schuman, I suppose, but unaccomplished she is not.


Anger is one way to project shame outward: another valuable lesson from years of psychotherapy.

Well, I guess I’m not supposed to respond to this attack on anyone (myself included) who came on to the job market in the last 5-10 years (which is a hella lot of people to lump together and insult in one fell swoop, I might add), but I can tell you that the person described above is not me. I have failed at things, I have been rejected for publication and conference presentations (only at the MLA… but that’s a whole other can of worms), I have, in fact, gotten lower than a B+ in classes in my chosen field. (Which, let’s face it, isn’t a big revelation to any search committee who requested my transcripts.) I didn’t choose the easy path, I chose the one that would push me harder, push me down even, and that I would love enough to get back up and push back against. I haven’t received every accolade in the book, which, given this comment, might appear to some as if though you might gain more respect for me. But in fact, because I didn’t get all those things, because I work hard to master my field instead of it just coming easily to me as you seem to imply it does or should, means that you will try to hold me down even more. In a world where everyone apparently just gets given whatever they want, even while you mock it, you will judge me harder for not getting it. Do you see the juxtapositions in your argument? Do you know how hypocritical you are being in this one, seemingly insignificant comment?

Do you know that the hordes of contingent #flyingsockmonkeys are coming at ya?

Thoughts on JHU’s strategic plan

For background on the current situation at Hopkins, see the JHU newsletter article that first brought it to the public’s attention, and Colleen Flaherty’s article from today (12/11/13) on Inside Higher Ed.

As a graduate of Johns Hopkins, I cannot say that I was surprised by either the proposed plan (which, granted, still has not been released publicly to my knowledge, and therefore has been unavailable to me thus far) or the reaction of the graduate students. For several years prior to my graduation, various departments in the arts and sciences held “futures seminars”, inviting leading scholars from within and out of the school to discuss what the future of graduate school would look like

At the time I took umbrage (and still do) to suggestions that humanities graduate programs should become two-tiered; one tier for those who would go on to become “real” academics, writing a full dissertation and following in the career footprints of their advisors; and another “phd-lite” style program that would be on a faster track, potentially paid for by students or outside funding, with no (or a very short) dissertation, geared towards MBAs (or anyone, really) who wanted to show that they could read and write critically and/or be creative. Pixar was cited as an example of the sort of company that would be beating down the door for these second-tier PhDs.

Around the same time, graduate students in my program met with our then chair, William Egginton (now Vice Dean of Graduate Education) and aired out grievances, festivous-style. Money was on the forefront of many a mind. We explained that our stipend was hardly enough to live on, and more difficult still when, come May, the pay cheques dried up. From mid May to mid September, we were on our own. That, plus the belief (ahem, well-known fact) that our colleagues in similarly ranked institutions were paid much more for the same (and sometimes fewer) responsibilities, made it a particularly harsh reality. Likewise, we discussed the somewhat delicate issue that those of us who choose to study literature in a foreign language often get teaching assistantships that are a far heavier load (teaching, prepping, and grading a class entirely on our own from day one) than those in, say, history or English departments who generally T.A. under a lead professor, at least for the first year or two.

For these reasons, amongst others, it was clear that the vast majority of grad students believed that they deserved a higher stipend. The national average, as per glassdoor, is $25,000, which puts the current JHU stipend $3,000 below the mark (as per the Inside Higher Ed article linked above). The plan proposes raising new graduate student stipends to $30,000 and raising current students stipends by approximately $5,000. The issue that current students have with this plan is that in order to do so they will cut the acceptance rate by approximately 25%.

Those opposing the plan claim that cutting already small cohorts by 25% would effectively kill some programs. My own cohort was made up of 4 people, although they very well could have accepted more (and probably did, as they have in previous and subsequent years), some of whom may have chosen to go elsewhere or forego pursuing a PhD for whatever reason. So, it is not to say that my cohort would have automatically become 3, but it could have meant that some of us may not have been accepted in the first place. Whether three students instead of four would have greatly changed my perspective on or experience within the program is difficult to say.

As a former student I am torn. I understand the argument that cutting already fairly small cohorts could affect the quality of programs. However, as a current Assistant Professor who is also on the job market, the plight of the adjunct and contingent faculty that now make up over 70% of higher ed faculty in the US is often in the forefront of my mind and I am pleased to see schools responding to the oversaturation of the market. It is the other side of the plan, “leaning junior” in new faculty hires, and, in particular, the adjunctivization of undergraduate instructors, that concerns me most. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against them hiring more junior faculty, I think it might actually do them a lot of good. Junior faculty will probably be on the forefront of their respective fields. They’ll also probably be willing to teach more than the one to two classes per semester taught by current senior faculty. It is the hiring of “adjuncts with master’s degrees” to do the work of the soon-to-be missing graduate students that worries me. Hopkins may be on the right path to empower the students they do accept to both graduate with less debt and with higher prospects for fulltime work, but replacing those “missing” students with adjuncts, instead of having full time faculty teach undergraduates negates any good will the plan might have generated, at least for me. Why any parent or student would pay a total of over $60,000 for tuition and room/board combined per year just for their classes to be taught by underpaid, uninsured, MA graduates with little or no job security is beyond me.

As I stated above, I have not had the opportunity to read the plan. If anyone has a public copy that they would like to send me or that they can link to in the comments, I would be very interested seeing it. 

¡Bienvenid@s! Welcome!

My name is Erin Cowling, and I am an Assistant Professor of Spanish at Grinnell College. My research focuses on the Golden Age/Baroque periods of Spain, specifically how characters of the Other (women, Indigenous peoples, etc.) are portrayed in the theatre.