Sunday, February 17, 2008

Glimpses of another time

Squadratomagico has a post up about what academics (and implicitly academics in the liberal arts) give up when they choose academics as a career. Among the things that she discusses are proximity to family, choice of a place to live, sense of a self outside the job, and even separation from one's partner if one follows the job instead of the partner to a new place and hopes for a better placement in a few years.

It's been this way for at least thirty years, as everyone who has gone to graduate school since the 1970s has always known before going into a Ph. D. program, but that doesn't make the situation good. It's been the same for several decades and despite occasional spasms of hope ("Urgent need for more Ph.D.'s in English predicted, studies say"--remember those headlines?), the employment situation doesn't seem to be changing.

There was a time, though, when the situation wasn't like this, as I've heard from older colleagues, so I thought a glimpse of those times might be interesting--or maybe would call them into being again.
  • An older colleague once told me about his experience at MLA back in the late 1960s: "I had six interviews, but when I walked into the pit (the interviewing room), search committees from other colleges would try to flag you down and get you to interview with them. They would try to sell you on their schools as you were walking by." I think he was ABD at the time when this was happening.
  • Another colleague told of going to MLA on a lark ("lark" and "MLA" are two words that do NOT belong in the same sentence these days) with some friends. They took some resumes with them and planned to sign up for some interviews with schools while they were there, because back then schools posted job descriptions and signup sheets. If you were there, and you fit the description, you could sign up and get an interview, apparently.

    Let's hope those days aren't gone for good.

    Horace said...

    I made my decision to enter grad school right when the 1989 Bowen report (shortage of English profs!) had achieved a kind of critical mass, and right before it became clear that the report had misrecognized the labor machinations of universities.

    The baby boom that occasioned the stories you relate (and the one of a recently retired colleague who got his job here after a single year of PhD work at an ivy) seems not to have been matched by the echo-boom that has enrollments growing while full-time TT faculties are shrinking, and adjunct labor is exploited more and more. More to be anxious about from the corporate university.

    Anonymous said...

    My father finished his degree at Berkeley in the late fifties and his dissertation director made a phone call and placed him in a tenure track job at an R-1 in a nice city in the Northwest. They stayed there for a while, with Mom staying at home. She did not like the weather up there so my father wrote or phoned his dissertation director and asked if there were any jobs in California. The dissertation director said no, I cannot get you one, meaning there was nothing open at an R-1. My father said he would take *any* job in the sunshine. The dissertation director said the best he could do was an R-2, and was surprised that my father said yes, I'll take it.

    That was how it came to be that I grew up in a beach town, while my father helped turn the institution from an R-2 to an R-1. Around then hiring started to really happen at the MLA so he would have to go to it to recruit. He was trying to recruit senior faculty away from the Big 10 and the Ivies. These professors would get to their interviews and say, well I accepted this interview and I will consider the job, but my institution also wonders whether *you* would come to *us.*

    Yes it was an easier life then, and we weren't rich but it was possible to support a family on only one salary, and my father was home by 5 every evening and only brought work home during finals, and got regular sabbaticals, and wrote a lot.

    undine said...

    Horace, the Bowen report was the one I was thinking of; thanks for supplying the name. I recall people thinking positively about that even when it became clear that corporate universities had learned new ways to avoid hiring t-t faculty.

    cero, thanks much for that picture of life before the current madness. I had heard of things like this (jobs through a phone call) but had never known of this at first hand. Kinder and gentler time indeed--imagine bringing home work now only during finals.

    Anonymous said...

    The advantage though to that R-2, as opposed to the Northwestern R-1, was that the R-1 didn't pay well enough at the time for people to survive without also teaching in the evening school for extra pay.

    I can just barely remember being about 1.5 years old. He'd feed us while practicing evening lesson, which was always on a beginning foreign language, on us. If the how-to-talk exercises worked on me, they'd work in his class.

    After the evening class we would have bedtime stories and they were often excerpted from the books he was teaching the next day, and we would look at pictures, and they would be the paintings and photographs he planned to show. He was a model of efficiency in this way, knowing which of the materials would also be of interest to preschoolers.

    Also: I don't remember him bringing other work home, but apparently he did write his first book in longhand on the living room couch evenings when we were small and went to bed early. All the others, however, were written in the office during the week, between 9 and 5.
    Mostly the secretary typed them, but I seem to remember that he typed the later ones himself.

    It seems like another world but he assures us that he experienced it all as rushed and non idyllic. Really during the day they were dealing with transitioning themselves into becoming a major research institution and also navigating '60's turbulence, Governor R. Reagan calling riot police to campus, etc. But what I saw was someone leaving the house in the morning with interesting books in the car, and coming home at night with new LP records, by the bands recommended by random students he'd picked up hitchhiking to class.

    Things were perhaps just differently bad, but the *huge* difference I notice is that they kept having instructor lines turn into t-t lines, whereas now we have the opposite.

    undine said...

    Those are lovely memories, a nice blending of academic and family. It does sound so relaxed (writing in longhand on the couch after the kids are in bed) that it comes as a shock that your father remembers it as harried and not peaceful.

    It's startling to hear that an R1 didn't pay enough to live on in those days, though.

    Anonymous said...

    I think the pre-tenured harriedness had to do with having preschoolers. He says the job was like having joined a club: it wasn't a leisure club, it was a work club, but it was a community of scholars and that was what they were up to.

    The real harriedness he remembers the most lasted longer and was post tenure, with administrative duties, during the phase of morphing into the corporate university (and also getting ethnic studies, women's studies, etc., which were big shakeups with sturm und drang). All of this was during the last stages of Viet Nam so there were questions such as whether getting arrested at a protest while chairing a department would or could morph into a case of dismissal for cause, how to handle the fact that chairs were directed to fire people who held class off campus so as not to cross picket lines, etc. etc. - very stressful he said at the time although my thought was that at least something interesting was happening.

    Pay at the R1 - of course now one would have one's wife degreed and adjuncting instead of doing it oneself (said Z archly). The interesting part of that was the conversation later, when they upped pay to become competitive. Many faculty apparently feared it would attract "the wrong kind of people" (i.e. people who thought in terms of the business model).

    undine said...

    Priceless. Only in the academy would people who wanted to make a living wage be scorned as the "wrong sort."

    Your father should write a memoir about those days in college administration--talk about living in the midst of interesting times!