Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Cost of Tenure

I spent some time this week thinking about tenure, which we discussed in detail in class this week. Since my focus is on teaching and clinical work, as opposed to research, I don’t know if I will ever be in the position to go up for tenure. However, I decided to do some research about the pros and cons of tenure, just to get a better sense of why it is so important, supposing that everyone in higher education is supposed to have the right to academic freedom.

What I came across was a really interesting and poignant speech, “The Great Shame of Our Profession,” delivered by Kevin Birmingham upon winning the Truman Capote award for one of his books. Birmingham, the first adjunct instructor to receive the award, used this platform to discuss the difficult relationship between tenured and non-tenured faculty. He talked about how adjuncting is a precarious lifestyle, one that makes planning long-term risky and difficult, and yet many universities depend on adjuncts to do the majority of their teaching. This is no coincidence: students have most of their contact with adjuncts so that tenured faculty can devote more time to their research. Graduate students and postdocs carefully tailor their projects and experiences in an effort to secure one of those precious tenure-track jobs, and if they don’t obtain it, they sometimes feel that their years of training were wasted.

This speech was very powerful and it struck me after reading it that the author is describing sacrifices at multiple levels. It’s disappointing and a bit ironic that others have to sacrifice academic (and other) freedoms in order to support the tenure-track system, and even more so that graduate students seemingly have to choose between true academic freedom (like pursuing an outside interest or investigating a controversial question) and the kind of path that is most likely to lead to a tenure-track seat. No wonder my image of a tenure-track professor is that of a tired old man who wants to do the least amount of work possible — anyone would be exhausted after that uphill battle. Moreover, who would want to take the risk and spend the energy to try to change the system once you’re at the top?

So many people suffer at the hands of the tenure-track system, and yet it seems like blasphemy to think about getting rid of it. Is tenure necessary to operationalize academic freedom? Or would higher education be better off without it?

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Filed under Preparing the Future Professoriate

Communicating Science

The Communicating Science workshop we did in class this week was really interesting. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we started, but what I eventually realized is that the workshop was meant to teach me how to monitor my non-verbal cues and show more of my natural enthusiasm when discussing my work. We did an interesting exercise where we went around the circle and introduced ourselves and our research, and then did it again while introducing ourselves and listing some of our hobbies. People seemed much more open, casual, and relatable when discussing their interests as opposed to retreating into their specified research bubble. There was less emphasis on choosing precisely the right words or making your work sound important or complex. It reminded me that all of us in academia have a “private” life (i.e., when we are at home in our sweatpants on the weekends) that is often very separate and different from our “public” and professional life.

The workshop helped me to reflect on the fact that I am lucky to be in psychology. I find that my work, although it requires a knowledge of jargon and appreciation of complex constructs just like any other science, is often more palatable and interesting to the general public, as most everyone has taken a personality quiz or read an article about an unusual social phenomenon at least once in their lives. At the end of the workshop, when we got a chance to practice injecting more passion into our descriptions of our research, I felt like it was relatively easy to connect my work to pop culture and get a few laughs from my audience. I imagine this would have been a more difficult exercise for those in other fields.

I’m curious about what everyone else in class thought of the workshop — share your thoughts below?

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Filed under Preparing the Future Professoriate

Intentional Self-Care

As a clinical psychologist, you would think I was an expert on self-care. And I’m great at reminding my clients about the importance of their self-care. I am quick to tell my students and research assistants that it’s okay to take a day off if you’re feeling sick or overwhelmed, no worries, we can always catch up when you’re feeling better. All the while, I’m thinking about which “healthy” freezer meal I picked out for a meager lunch today and worrying about where I can possibly fit in 1/2 an hour of exercise in my busy schedule this week. I’m pretty sure the last true vacation I had was eight years ago, when I was on my honeymoon. When I take a weekend “off,” I still find myself getting that irritating itch — should I spend it doing schoolwork or housework?

Over the past year or so, I have become more intentional about taking care of myself. Partly, this is because I have simply run out of juice and could not delay my self-care any longer. Part of it, though, is because I’ve come to recognize that a critical piece of my vision for post-grad school life is a good work-life harmony. I’m never going to be one of those academics who works 80 hours a week chasing grants and top-tier journals. I want my life to be more balanced, such that I enjoy my work and find it productive and fulfilling, but with a healthy dose of time with my family and time to myself, doing things I enjoy. So, as I approach the conclusion of my time as a graduate student, I have begun to shape my life to better match my vision of the future. For me, this means that I spend less time typing while I watch TV and instead enjoy a show or movie without distraction. It means that every 2 weeks or so, I turn off my phone and enjoy a hot bubble bath or trip to the nail salon. Do I still try to save money? Heck yes. But I also feel less guilty for “turning off” when I get home.

Graduate school is what you make it, to one extent or another. If you want to work all the time and never take a break, I doubt there is anyone telling you not to do that. (If you have someone, that is wonderful and rare, and be sure to thank that person and keep them close!) But I see people burn out, just like I have, all the time. There comes a point where you cannot do good work anymore, because you are hungry and exhausted and isolated and can barely think straight about your project. I challenge you to learn how to act before you reach that point, so that you may prevent the worst of it. It’s like dehydration — learn to realize you are thirsty and drink some water before you collapse. I think this is doubly true in the current climate, when many of us are working overtime to support social justice on top of our many 8-to-5 obligations. Sit for a minute before you fall over.

I am hopeful that VT GrATE will be able to bring some cool self-care events, opportunities, and ideas to you this month. Regardless, you have to figure out what works for you. Learn to recognize small moments and use them to support yourself in meaningful ways. Don’t force yourself to wait until graduate school is over before you start to live your life. There will always be “something else.”

And about those people who are reminding you to publish or perish:

Sometimes you are all you have, and that’s good enough. Don’t forget it.

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Filed under Teaching Tips

When Teaching Becomes Resistance

I am of the opinion that education, by its very nature, is threatening. True education, not indoctrination — the kind that involves critical thinking, open discussion, and questions that may not have one right answer, or a right answer at all. More than ever, though, it seems like teachers are now in the position to make a major difference in how the upcoming generation perceives and responds to our political climate. There is a sense of urgency in my teaching now.

In conferring with colleagues from various disciplines and in various positions, I have come to realize that many of us share this sense. Every day there is a new example that I can use to bring the message home to my students. It’s hard not to care about stereotype threat when people are being actively blocked from entering this country based purely on their religion or national origin and people already in the U.S. are scrambling to distance themselves from the image of an ISIS terrorist. Healthcare access issues just became very, very relevant for my ongoing Abnormal Psychology class.

Of course, getting political in your teaching tends to draw fire. I have puzzled for long hours over how to balance my gut feeling that I need to say certain things in my class — things that should be nonpartisan facts — with my desire to be supportive and inclusive for all of my students, even those who voted for Trump. After all, talking over them is no way to help them see the mistake they made. No one has made waves about this yet, but I do worry sometimes that I will say something that goes too far or talk about something in the wrong way and the complaints and censorship will roll in.

So, I reach out to my colleagues — are you bringing current political issues into your classroom? How are you walking this balance, if at all? And what is your view on your role as an academic or educator in this very unfriendly time?

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Filed under Diversity, Preparing the Future Professoriate