Life in Academia
This life in academia is actually my second career. I am a combat veteran who came to academic life after spending most of my youth in the Pakistan army. In the process I also made the transition from my primary culture, Pakistan, to that of the United States. Thus, even when I try not to think of my two careers in comparative terms, sometimes I cannot help but think of my life in academia in comparison with my life as a soldier.
While this is a reflective essay about my own life in academia, it is also addressed to all of you out there who are planning a career in academia.
First, I must state outrightly that there is only one group in academia that is in fact the raison de’atre of my career: my students. I find my students to be kind, generous, and deeply interested in learning. Every day I walk into my class, they give me hope and inspiration.
The profession itself, on the other hand, is a totally different story. (The Chronicle of Higher Education also offers various reflective articles on the profession) Bear in mind that my reflections are grounded in my experience in the humanities and may translate differently for those in other fields.
I find life in academia to be an extremely isolating; academy is a place where we all seem to be busy competing for the scraps that university administrators throw at us. The sad part is that most of us have internalized the system of power so deeply that we are not often aware of why or how we are doing certain things. We accept the inherent inequalities of our system as natural and most of us only try to perform our role within these predetermined, unjust, and exploitative boundaries.
Take a look at varied gradations of faculty at any institution of higher learning: we have tenured/ tenure track faculty, contract lecturers, adjunct faculty, and graduate teaching fellows. Out of all these, the tenure track faculty are considered the heart of any department: they have higher salaries, lower teaching loads, and more access to departmental resources. In symbolic terms they also receive a higher degree of departmental and institutional recognition. In most cases, these faculty members also develop an implicit sense of their own superiority.
Now this sense of superiority can only be maintained through willful acts of ignorance and only a little bit of math is enough to dispel such views. But since we are humanists, facts usually tend to be pretty unwelcome in our world. But let us take a look at a hypothetical situation.
Let us assume that the funding model in your state is based on student retention and not just enrollment. This means that you get your state formula funding against the number of students you can retain over a certain period. The quality of instruction and faculty engagement play a huge role in this retention. Now, let us ask what role do tenure track faculty play in this vital function?
So, let us do some basic math. Let us assume a department with twenty tenure track faculty and twenty lecturers. The former teach two courses per semester and mostly teach upper division courses: courses for juniors and seniors. The lecturers teach four courses per semester and these are mostly freshman and sophomore courses. This means that if the classes are capped at twenty five, a TT faculty member will teach fifty juniors or seniors, while a lecturer will teach 100 freshmen or sophomores per semester.
Now, we know that the highest level of attrition at college level is within the first two years, and if we want to improve retention we will have to have a highly motivated and well trained instructional pool. But in practice we have assigned this job to the least paid, overworked and often unappreciated class of faculty: the lecturers! Note also that the TT faculty’s role in student retention, crucial to the viability of the institution, is minimal. They are teaching students who have already decided to finish their degree!
But despite these facts, the people who contribute least to the university’s financial future are often found strutting around the department, as if they are the ones holding the proverbial sky on their shoulders.
Academic departments are also prone to factionalism, favoritism, petty grievances, and isolationist practices. The factionalism is built into the way disciplines are organized. In any given English department there is usually a basic divide between the British literature specialists and the Americanists both of whom see rhetoric and composition parts of the department with varied degree of hostility and suspicion, as if they are still perplexed at what their colleagues in Rhet-comp actually do. Meanwhile, the Brit lit people tend to protect their turf against the ever increasing imperium of American literature. In this “colossal” fight, those of us who teach African American, postcolonial, ethnic, or non-traditional literatures are either reduced to the level of bystanders, if we are lucky, or forced to the margins if we make the mistake of being too uppity or too vocal in our opinions. Chances are the term team player, collegiality, and student enrollment will be employed to convince you of your insignificance if any of your colleagues from the real and mighty English studies decide to come down from their lofty Olympus and actually talk to you.
Most of the times, people trained in traditional sub-fields would either be completely unaware of what you do, or would have a very dismissive attitude toward your area of expertise. I once had a colleague who asked me if I was mostly focused on “public” scholarship? In this person’s view, my work, published with established academic presses, was somehow not “scholarly” enough, as it tended to be “political.”
Then in every department you will find a few who are creatures of the system: they are on every committee, are part of the in-group, and pretty comfortable in being apolitical. These system creatures will always remind you of the rules and of the significance of being a member of the team, but will never “pick” you for the team. They also claim to be leaders in the department, but their leadership mostly involves implementing whatever the dean or the provost tells them and they have neither the vision nor the backbone to actually take a stand for their faculty or for their department. Be extra careful about these system creatures, for they can make your life really hard, and they will also be on every committee in the afterlife as well:)
No doubt, you will make a few good friends, but often you will have to create a support system outside your department. Chances are, if you are part of the non-traditional faculty expertise, you will have a hard time being recognized by your own department even though you could be a well respected scholar in your own field.
As a veteran who still has deep relations with my former military colleagues, I find the life in academia comparatively impoverished and void of deep and lasting human connections. So, as someone on your way to join the professoriate, please remember that academia can be a place of exceptional promise but also of the basest pettiness. As a rule, do your work, make a few good friends, and be generous and kind to your students and to the precarious workers in your department.
Do not make the recognition by your colleagues too central to your happiness, but rather focus on your students, for they are the ones who brought you to teaching in the first place and they are the ones who will give you hope when some of your own peers let you down!
Reading this made me a little sad. I hear similar stories from my own professors. Academia seems to be less and less about learning and more about everything else.
But I’m glad to hear about your actual teaching experience giving you hope and joy. I discovered your youtube channel just this year and your love of teaching was palpable even through the screen. Your youtube videos, podcast episodes and blogs have helped me understand and appreciate so much of literature. I’m very grateful to be one of your students, if only online 🙂
Thank you so much!