Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Losing the Faith

I had been thinking seriously about folding up the blog because I started it as an academic life blog, and I'm getting to the point where I don't even want to hear about the academy! Perhaps this is just another phase in the life of an academic -- the point where having gotten on the tenure-track and ruined her life with outrageous student loans, one must ask: is this worth it? Maybe this is what the second year of t-t academic life is all about, losing the faith in what we're doing and then, hopefully, finding it again. But I decided to post today because I really need your wisdom -- especially to know if this is a phase and what I can do to make things better. Here are some of the things that have made me lose the faith in what I'm doing in the past few months (hence my bloggy silence):
  • Morale at Specialized University (lookie! I made a pseudonym for my institution -- that is, the one I work in, not the one I should be checked into) is disastrously low. Money issues have been bad there for the past several years, which has made many faculty members cynical and uncooperative. One of the slightly more cooperative ones even proudly declares that he is cynical. Many faculty members are at each other's throats. Faculty and administration are having a face-off, and those who are more vocal about trying to repair this relationship by listening to the other side are considered by many to be "too soft." Since this blog is one space where I can speak back to this unreservedly, I just want to say: these people who think that barking in administration's faces is going to help the situation are total f***ing idiots. There's a lot of sky-is-falling stuff going on at SU, and I know much of the crap is because people are very very scared. (This is the nicest thing I can say about these people.) I'm scared too, especially having moved Absurdist Family across the country.
  • So what usually keeps me engaged in the work despite depressing institutional crap is teaching. But my last quarter was terrible and really instigated this downward spiral. An us-them relationship developed in one of my courses that I was never able to totally repair. (I repaired things with the ringleader, who was pretty reflective about the whole thing eventually, but it was too late.) Everyone has bad classes, but this was really hard for me because of my situation in the institution. Let me explain: this place is a Specialized University -- not in my specialty or anywhere near. While the mission of the university certainly includes what I do and my department, we're really seen as tangential. Most, not all, students are interested in very practical, non-intellectual things. Everyone agrees that what I teach is important, but generally students don't want to take my courses and aren't good at or engaged in what I teach. I knew that when I took the job. Many of us in the academy live with that. Because of the particular mission of the university and the immediate needs of students, the slant on my core courses is not what I value, though I had worked out a workable compromise that was well within the scope of the class. Perhaps more important, one of my core interests includes a focus that many in my department find absolutely essential for these students. Great! But in an assignment that I gave (to a class that did not blow up), it became clear that many students really believe in something that I think is totally wrong. And much of American society agrees with them. Now, of course, this means that I should spend even more time on similar issues and be proud of getting even one student to think more deeply about such things. Here's the crux though: in order to perform this great educational service of working within and against, I must continue to spend a great deal of my life constantly confronting these mistaken values (I was going to say "evils," but then thought maybe these students, faculty, etc. really are that ignorant -- I'm being charitable here). In short, I have to swim in the ick if I want to try to do some good there. And I'm not so sure I can swim (really live so much of my life) in the ick and keep a hold of my sanity and my best self, which is not only important to me, but to being good to my child and my family. (I'm just not able to completely compartmentalize my attitude or life.)
  • Working at the CSA farm with people who've chosen alternative lower-cost and value-based lifestyles, our bad money situation with my terrible credit even in a place where we could buy a house that costs less than our rent if I only had decent credit and a downpayment, and AL's being totally overworked and also screwed by his workplace have all led me to feel that I've screwed up all of our lives with all this debt. So I feel trapped. AL also feels trapped. We each recently confessed a half-hearted hope to be let go at our respective jobs. (And I took out almost $200,000 in student loans for that??? What kind of idiot am I?)
  • The very latest news that brought all of this to a head yesterday was that I found out that a colleague who got hired when I did is teaching three electives in a row. I, on the other hand, am teaching the core courses. So in two years, I will have taught one elective, while s/he will have taught three. (This is the same person who used my syllabus, that issue I wrote about forever ago and then poofed the post, but it's been so long now that I think it doesn't matter.) Why does this bother me? I realize that Colleague's specialties are sexier, more appropriate to the university and desirable to the students than my specialty. That said, I also found out that another colleague is teaching back-to-back electives. While I am teaching none this year. I haven't made a lot of noise about teaching electives lately because I'm trying to be amenable and flexible. Also, I thought that there were basically a limited number of possible elective offerings. Clearly, I am operating from mistaken assumptions. What's disastrous about this whole situation is that I can't quite teach the courses I'd be excited out of my mind to teach because of certain institutional limitations. But one way of restoring my faith in what I'm doing is to teach an elective I'm happy about, since the focus of the core courses is, for me, a compromise. I thought that each of us basically got to teach one elective a year. I was totally and incredibly wrong. So I'm mad at myself and my chair, who I know gave me the impression of a limited amount of elective availability. So my department, which had been a place where I could at least feel that we were all in this working-against-the-grain together, now doesn't feel so good either.
When I told Best Faculty Friend about my loss of faith in what we're doing at SU and how I want to retire from all the crap and go live on a farm, s/he said that I'm too engaged with political stuff to do that. But I'm not so sure. I would love to homeschool Absurdist Tot far away from any place that brings TV or computers into the elementary school classroom. AL says he wants to spend more time with Absurdist Tot and me, but he feels he's always at work, preparing for work, trying to relax after work. He's actually great, as much as someone who works a full-time job he hates can be. My father sucked at engaging with us kids at the end of his long sucky workday.

I haven't told BFF about this latest development of my totally misunderstanding elective availability, but I'm sure I will very soon. I'll see what s/he thinks.

So, supposing you've actually made it down this far, what do you think? How do you find the faith again in what you're doing? I don't want to poison my classes or my work or my life with all this. I want to find a constructive thing to focus on. BFF gave me a good idea for revising one of my core courses to focus on one of my interests, so at least I'd be reading things I'm interested in. (I don't usually "theme" my courses beyond the subject matter, but I'm excited about what I'll be able to accomplish by theming this one. And I need something to make me excited about these classes, so being this tiny bit selfish seems much better than what could happen if I don't try to reinvigorate the work for me.) I trust that many of you have been through these kinds of things before me -- I'd love some advice.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Well, I'm not on the tenure-track, but I am often disenchanted with the academy. I frequently think to myself, "God, I took out 100+K in student loans so I could teach composition?? WTF, life??" I found that I could cope a lot better when I was also teaching Shakespeare, but I haven't done that in a year.

I don't know. If you get joy from teaching, I suppose the thing to do is to concentrate on that. Everyone says we don't go into teaching for the money, but you know, we also have to live. I do love being in the classroom and talking about ideas. But I hate grading. What's a woman to do?

I suppose that we should take comfort in the fact that no job is perfect. Even your "dream" job is going to have some pitfalls. Making the most of it is all we can do.

What's funny to me is that my parents' generation would say, "Cut your whining and be happy you're employed at all." That generation may be the last to feel as though a job is a job and whether you enjoy it or not is irrelevant. But that generation also had the advantage of not being so completely doused by their jobs. They could go, do the work, and come home without having to think about it much more. Teachers have never really had that luxury, but general workers have. That's why going into editing appeals to me -- I can have a life outside my work! A very novel concept for a teacher.

Anyway - sorry to ramble. I just think about these things a lot, and I have a hard time coming to any conclusions. I love being in the classroom, but I hate most of the other parts (the other 90%) of teaching. Ugh. If you come up with a solution, do be good enough to share. :)

Bardiac said...

I think there's a ton on your plate right now,and maybe it's a stage that you're going through that will get better.

About teaching core courses: here, we value our core courses a lot, and we value the people who can teach them, especially the ones that are harder for other folks to step into. But for sure make the core your own while working towards the institutional goals for the course. If that means you teach skills in writing through X, then go for it.

I don't know what it's like to teach in the situation you describe at Specialized U, but I know some folks who do. My sense is that they find their satisfaction in a couple ways: one is by swimming in the muck and teaching potential soldiers (for example) to read, understand, and appreciate poetry. Another is by keeping contact with their field through conferences when possible, or through a reading group if you're near a bigger U that has such things.

The loans thing is just scary. Sorry, but it is. I don't know what to say, except that I hope you can balance all the financial requirements and come out okay.

ps. Don't stop blogging, please.

Mary Anne Mohanraj said...

I think you sound miserable enough that you should job-hunt for a better fit. Not a national wide-open search, but keeping an eye out for the good possibilities. This year may be too late, but maybe next year? And maybe the possibility of an escape hatch, a back-up plan, will make this easier to bear?

I think it can be helpful to trace out exactly what would need to improve for you to be happy with the situation. (Child sleeping more, etc.)

And also, what would be too much to bear. Talk to your partner, figure out where your lines in the sand are. I've found that helps me feel less trapped, knowing that if it gets to X (3 months of feeling utterly miserable, etc.), we will make a change, no matter what.

Best of luck with it.

undine said...

Is there any way to talk the powers that be into giving you more elective courses? It would help, and it's not fair that others are getting so many of them. If you had that to look forward to, the rest might not be so bad (although like Bardiac I don't know what to tell you about the loans).

rented life said...

Have you talked with a loan advisor about the loan situation? You're not in my area, otherwise I'd recommend some.

I'm not tt either but I did feel rather disenchanted for awhile. Now that I'm on the other side, the one that was supposed to be so much better or easier, well I've found that it isn't better out here. It's even more isolating that academics can be, and in my case, mind-numbingly stupid.

Private College was very much like your place (I forgot the pseudonym already, sorry), the last year I was there. People were being laid off left and right and no one seemed to be able to effectively handle any of it-admin, faculty, students. I just focused on what I could control--bringing up interesting topics in classes, trying to find novel ways to engage, etc. It ended up being my best semester ever evals wise. Some of the other stuff though is probably (hopefully) just a phase. You sound like you need a break (AL does too). Is there any way to schedule a mini vacation during semester break?

and don't stop blogging!

Anonymous said...

I agree that perhaps, despite the headache, you might want to consider the job market again for a better fit. It might be too late this year, but perhaps it might be best to seriously start considering it as an option for next year to see if you can get the chance to do what you *really* want to do in the classroom before throwing the towel in, although I know how you feel. While not in the same situation as you, I felt this way last year. A few people here didn't even think I was going to show up in the fall. But this year, I feel better, mostly.

One thing that I think has helped is that while most of my life is still core classes, the "theme" idea really works for me in those kinds of classes. That way I can keep it interesting for me which probably makes me a better teacher of the material. And it makes me feel like what I'm doing is relevant which helps with my attitude which helps with my overall teaching.

I don't know. Just my $.02. Hope it helps. I miss you btw. We need to set up a phone date.

P said...

Hi EE.

First, let me echo the plea that you keep up this blog. I think the reason we all enjoy it is because we can identify with your stories, including, to varying degrees, this one.

(I'm a mom on the tenure-track as well and I know how challenging and demanding that is. We like to think things might be different for us, but there's simply no getting around the fact that rearing children while working full-time is damn hard work. We want our children to thrive and be strong in this amazingly complex (and often hostile) world, so we put as much time, thought, and energy into this job as we do the other (or maybe more).

All this is to say that I do think you have a lot on your plate. In addition to teaching against the tide, you also have research (I assume) and that can also wreak havoc on one's nerves.

I do think that it's always a good idea to keep an eye on The Market. You can use another offer for a salary increase -- or perhaps a more desirable teaching load. And you might just get an offer you couldn't refuse.

You got this job at a time when doing so was nearly impossible. So who's to say you couldn't do it again?

As for changing gears entirely and going into sustainable farming. Well, I say go for it if you find yourself really unhappy and stuck. I imagine you'll excel in whatever you do. And, at the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, you can't put a price tag on doing something you love.

As for the loans: Mr. P and I have serious student loan debt and yet we managed to buy a house. Not a huge house, but one that fits us (esp. now). Once your credit recovers, which it will, you'll find that student loans don't keep you back as much as you think. Our mortgage officer said that banks consider SL debt a good debt, one that doesn't indicate a spendthrift. It helps to have no credit card debt, though.

Then again, in today's world owning a home isn't all that.

So, I think you're wise to reflect and I trust that because you are you'll find that everything will work out for you big time.

Earnest English said...

Thank you all for your lovely and helpful comments. First off, I appreciate immensely that so many of you said I should keep blogging. Yes, I should, because it's helpful. I should blog more. This is a good time for resolutions, so maybe that should be one.

Yes, I should pay more attention to the Job Market. It's just so lovely not to, especially after being on a search committee last year.

And the loan thing isn't as bad as it sounds. I've consolidated everything (I think, so there's a teensy bit of worry there) and am on income-contingent loans at this point. I do have fantastically screwed up credit, mostly due to being so poor and stupid prior to getting the job that I didn't deal with my money problems, but instead hid from them in shame. Not good.

I did go to my Chair and ask for more electives, which s/he said was fine. So that helped as well.

Thank you all so much for your kind thoughts, ideas, and concern. You have no idea how much I appreciate it -- most of you have never even met me!

Spanish prof said...

Hi, I just discovered your blog, and read this particular post. I started blogging last month (, for similar reasons. I am on my 4th year in the tenure-track, and despite some rough patches, I am quite happy with my institution and my students. But I teach Spanish and Latin American literature, and sometimes it is difficult to reconcile the fact that students are taking my classes for pure utilitarian reasons while I try to instill critical thinking in them.

My worst semester was when I had to teach Business Spanish, and my students seemed oblivious to the ethical issues I presented to them as far as doing business in Latin American countries. They have no concept of history and they do not understand power. You think: I spent 7 years on a PhD so I can teach students how to conduct "business" in my home country?

But in my case, I finally reached an agreement with myself. I derive my greatest joy in teaching, and in seeing how I open a new perspective to 1 student in 20. And that is enough for me. I hope you can find that point too.