Making Our Expertise Visible

I find frustrating our lack of language to talk about differences in expectations between academic institutions. I think this is a vital conversation for mothers in the academy. When differences are occluded it also means that our work can be unrepresented, invisible, and undocumented, even to ourselves.This year, I am a visiting scholar at a very elite Research I university (I would define a VERI as a PhD granting institution with departments across the university that are regularly considered to be in the top 10 or top 5 of their disciplines, a staggering endowment, and world class medical and law schools). Anecdotally I would describe this as reading my elementary school child’s student-produced newspaper to find that the usual ho-hum interview with a parent about their job was in this case a story about dad who is a faculty member being in Sweden to accompany a colleague being awarded a Nobel Prize. But I digress.

I have found myself falling into the trap of using R1 language to describe my skills or publication record, “oh you don’t need a book for tenure where I teach,” instead of seizing this opportunity to create new language about areas where you do need to excel. A reader of MITACoach directed me to Rachel Epp Buller’s post over at Nursing Clio (I adore that blog; I just missed that post!). Buller discusses the higher expectation of engagement by female faculty outside of the classroom especially at teaching intensive institutions. She does so within the context ofAcademic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family, by Kelly Ward and Lisa Wolf-Wendel (2012) which I am looking forward to reading. The opacity of these norms can be dangerous for both work/family balance and for women on the tenure track, since not participating and nurturing enough can be used as a reason to deny tenure, but can also be such a time-suck that other work like publishing and family care may be pushed to the back burner. Our work and more importantly our expertise at community colleges, liberal arts colleges and master’s degree institutions can be completely different from institutions that offer PhDs. I was always told that work in academic settings other than an R1 would be a difference in emphasis, rather than a difference in kind. I’m not so sure that is true.

Audre Lorde encouraged us throughout her life to not be content with the language and structures we are offered, but to instead build new conversations and institutions that serve us better. If you remember, she also had something to say about silence. In the spirit of her words I’d like to describe the skills needed to do my job, keeping in mind that this is my individual experience working in a women’s studies department, but one which I hope has relevance to others’ experiences.

Being part of a small department at a state-funded regional R2 was more like running a small business than being part of a large well-   funded R1 department with 60-100 faculty members. In a good way, we had intellectual autonomy and were fully in charge of our teaching and research interests. On the flip side, if we didn’t keep enrollments up and students satisfied then we could lose a tenure line. This wasn’t a threat. During the height of the economic crisis many departments did lose a line, including ours. Fortunately ours was restored. The skills I needed to survive and thrive include:

 a. We are all recruiting students all of the time. Undergrads, grads, you name it. Student recruitment and retention isn’t someone else’s job. It’s everyone’s or someone might get fired. Faculty at other institutions might spend a lot of time worrying about placing their article into the right journal. We do that too, but also spend a lot of time making sure that we’re placing the enough students in our class so that our FTE metric doesn’t dip below a certain horrible line on a graph. We talk up further classes students can take, have majors and minors in the classroom as guest speakers, and mentor students outside of class.

b. I learned to call admitted graduate students and keep in touch with them for weeks like I was a Division I recruiting coach. Our master’s program is nationally recognized and usually attracts several international students, but we don’t have all the funding we’d like to support them. When you don’t have money to offer students full tuition waivers, you have to offer what you’ve got, which is yourself, your mentorship and your colleagues. That takes a lot of time and emotional labor. If you don’t have enough graduate students your program gets shut down. Buller talks about the “greediness” of academic life for our time and caring outside of expected teaching and research duties, and I think these two examples really demonstrate that.

c. We have to work consistently to make our classes appealing and accessible to students who range in their preparation and understanding of college. We have students from families who have never set foot on a college campus before they enrolled. We have students who have never been on an airplane. We have students to use part of their loan money to help their families buy food. I’ve had students who were working 40 hours a week at physically demanding jobs who just couldn’t meet with their project group outside of class. We have students who are very prepared, come from middle class families, have travelled, and could have attended much more elite schools, but chose to stay in Minnesota. (Because it’s awesome, obviously.) Being able to make college relevant to people who have not been taught its value is one of the most important and difficult skills a faculty member at my institution needs to have. It is also not one, in my experience, that is taught in PhD programs. Teaching to the kid who is prepared while not losing half of your class is a specialized skill that took me several years to learn. If you aren’t skilled enough to design classes to speak to diverse audiences and to be present and accessible every day in class, you won’t be successful because you won’t have students in your classes.

 d. There will be emotional labor. We are expected to have 8-10 office hours a week. When I compare that to the “by appointment” notices I see here at the R1, I know that the skills required of me are different. I know my students in ways that wouldn’t have been possible where I did my PhD. It isn’t someone else’s job to advise students about their lives, their classes, and their career choices. Your students will need you to teach “college,” and professional skills. They will need your encouragement and belief in them to apply for jobs that require a college degree. This will continue after graduate through email and social media. You will need to learn quickly how to give useful advice based on what is possible (they can’t do an unpaid internship because they are a single mother). You will get good at this quickly, learning how to be empathetic without overstepping professor/student boundaries. You will have no training or debriefing like a trained mental health or job counselor, but you will learn to excel at this because time with students outside of the classroom is your real job. 

 d. You will teach a new class almost every semester until you’ve been there a decade. You will teach classes on topics on which you’ve never taken a class. That’s the deal. And then the curriculum will need to be revamped and there will be new courses. It’s a small department and to offer a full major and minor and a master’s degree you need to teach the full curriculum. You will need to do it well.  This means that you have to be intellectually curious about all kinds of issues within the field and be able to put those into practice at three different levels: general education classes, upper division classes, and graduate classes. You will need to be able supervise undergraduate research and master’s thesis projects that use methodologies, are set in time periods, or address issues in which you have no training. If you do literary studies you need to shepherd students through IRB approval for projects like interviews or surveys. If you are a social scientist whose research involves interviews, you need to know how to direct the student who wants to do their thesis on cultural studies. You’ll need to know your entire field and multiple methodologies like a pro or you won’t be successful. Demonstrating knowledge in your own area and your own methodology isn’t enough. The good news is that you’ll never be bored.

e. There is no cavalry, no group of full professors who are there to run the department so that you can get your research agenda off the ground. You are in charge of the department, in the same way as the rest of your colleagues in your small department. You will spend a lot of time doing work that at an R1 is handled by subcommittees. You will become very knowledgeable about how the university is run, but you will not receive any special recognition, extra pay, or a course release. You will redesign curriculum, oversee tenure and promotion cases even before you have tenure or promotion, discipline students, and work with university policies in the way that senior faculty at R1s do, often when they get administrative course releases or extra pay. However, the access to these conversations as a junior faculty member has a freedom and a power, an autonomy, that often gets left out of discussions of where is the “best” kind of academic job.

 f. You’ll get to make stuff up. New courses, new approaches, new policies. A very distinguished professor at an R1, a nationally recognized expert in her field who won a major prize in her discipline, once told me that she’d never been able to teach a seminar on her area of expertise and didn’t expect to until much later in her career. You may have to teach a lot, but the teaching you do will be interesting and diverse. I have taught undergrad and graduate seminars on any topic I wanted, almost every year. I have never felt pressure to continue publishing within the subfield of my dissertation topic, like many professors do. One of the great freedoms of being at a smaller institution and/or a smaller department is that you are encouraged to have a broad base of knowledge and you are allowed to change and grow as a scholar.

g. You will need to be badass and you’ll need to be brave. In all probability, there won’t be anyone at your institution who researches the same subject as you. There won’t be a stream of intellectually engaging talks every week. You’ll have to create your own writing groups and network within your research area through attending conferences. The good news is that you won’t be trapped within an echo chamber of people making smaller and smaller points about narrower and narrower topics. You’ll get to create a chosen peer group rather than being forced to interact with people simply because they work at your institution.

h. Finally, you will need to publish. I don’t want to generalize, so for me in particular the difference in expectation of scholarly productivity between my institution and a more prestigious one wasn’t the amount or the quality. The difference is that our institution, like many, still has policies in place that are holdovers from when it had a different institutional profile. We have to submit our tenure materials after eight semesters. The tenure clock will not stop if you have a baby. There is no third semester leave. You’ll need to have a strong scholarly agenda and a good judgment about the turnaround time of journals in your field in order to quickly revise and place articles for publication in time for your tenure review. Many faculty members at my institution and in my department have published books. But the timeline between hire and tenure is so short that a monograph sometimes has to wait until after tenure, so that you can make sure to produce publications that will be ready and accepted by the deadline. You will need to be decisive and intellectually agile to be doing everything I just listed above and to publish sufficiently within shorter time frame, often with few resources. For me, this meant quickly taking my dissertation apart and publishing articles and co-editing a book, rather than spending time adding chapters to my dissertation to make it publishable as a monograph. I also had to do this in seven semesters since I had a child and the tenure clock didn’t stop. I simply didn’t have the luxury of time, which had an impact of the form the publications I made took (journal articles vs. a monograph) rather (I hope) than on the quality or importance of the scholarly contribution I made.

Please let me know in comments how you’d like to reframe or rethink your work. What aren’t you being recognized for? If you do teach at an R1, are the stated expectations vs. what you actually do or want to do? For everyone: are there specific expectations relevant to your position: graduate student, adjunct, tenure track, post-tenure, that are not visible within your work place? How would you create language to validate the work you do?



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