Mist-Covered Ramblings: On Returning to Hogwarts and the Kindness of Service Departments

It’s a Hobbit-looking misty morning here in upstate New York, where I’ve been decamped for the past few weeks. Perhaps it’s the Oregonian in me, but I love days like this:

Neighbor’s house near the lake.

Not only does it save me a lot of time applying sunscreen, but mist puts me into a pensive mood, and at peace with myself and the world around me, which is still, alas, rather rare:

Dock and disappearing lake.

Days like these make me want to write, and definitely not ride my bicycle, which apparently I am supposed to go do in about half an hour…blergh. Yes, I know, MIST BIKERS is a great idea for a movie/band/concept performance-art “happening,” but I am way too content staring at the mist from inside, in the only slightly ironic–all right, wholly unironic–embrace of a Snuggie.

At any rate, I am indeed working on about a billion writing projects right now–many of which are legitimately remunerative!–plus ramping up to return to school, where I will now be teaching three courses this semester. I’m trying not to get bummed about the $9900 pricetag on these three courses, because I know that is over twice as high as many adjuncts I know–indeed, my employer pays adjuncts the same rate it pays full-time faculty, minus the pay they get for the enormous amount of advising and service they do. I make about half of what they do, and I do about half of the work they do. Other than the lack of benefits (which I just married into), I believe that my adjunct job is, unlike the vast majority of those in the United States, extremely fair.

This is just to say that it is possible, that some institutions do treat their part-time faculty well. Mine, for example, has part-time faculty present and introduced on the adorable first-day orientation (which involves free food, goofy speeches, some announcements, and raffles emceed by our delightful and hands-on Dean–who, being a consummate Historian, places “This Day in History” flyers next to the free coffee he brews in the lounge every morning…yes, BASICALLY I TEACH AT HOGWARTS NOW, ALL RIGHT?), in all relevant meetings, and invites participation in important extracurricular activities, such as Students v. Professors Trivia Night, where the professors barely lost in 2010 due to an unfortunate tiebreaker that implored participants to produce a condom from their bags (obviously, none of the faculty would do so, even if prophos were present).

I don’t know if it’s coincidence or correlation, but my school–a tiny honors college within a larger regional university–does not have tenure. Full-time faculty are on technically contingent renewable NTT contracts, but they are considered permanent. I know this, because I was a finalist for one of these positions this year, a position that would have the same teaching load I do now (3/3), plus an absolute metric fuckton of service, involving both an all-day open-door advising policy and governance and recruitment. What’s missing here, you might ask? Research. Because mine is a full-service department, as many honors colleges or honors departments are. We are 100% service-focused, and I think that one of the reasons I eventually lost out on the full-time job was that I just have too much research on my CV and nobody believes me when I say I don’t want to do it anymore. (Trust me, I don’t).

Anyway, I don’t think it’s coincidence, I think it is a direct fucking correlation that because my current department doesn’t have tenure, promotion or research expectation, it also doesn’t have backbiting, backstabbing, politicking, lifeboating or any other bullshit. When I got pneumonia my first year at Giant R-1 Flagship Footballvania, my colleagues were all mostly* too busy kissing the ass of a visiting Eminent Scholar candidate to cover for my class, and (true story) I had to teach with a 103-degree fever…and, straight-up 1950s-dad style, I had to walk a mile in the rain to do it. I took the bus home from the hospital (which also, again, involved walking most of a mile to the stop. GR-1FF is a massive campus). If I had gotten pneumonia at Hogwarts, where I teach now, not only would my classes have been covered, there probably would have been a gift basket. Balloons. A card. None of which I would ever expect, mind you! It’s just that kind of place. It really is. And I am all but convinced its family-like atmosphere has a lot to do with its lack of tenure and/or a research faculty.

*ETA: Several of my colleagues were really kind to me and beyond friendly; all of them happened to teach the same time as I did that quarter and/or were pregnant. Just for accuracy, because some of them read this blog and they’re going to be like HEY, I THOUGHT REBECCA WAS MY FRIEND. I am your friend. I like you. I am not talking about you.

Anyway: Is this indicative of a larger desire on my part to see research faculties obliterated? Eh…..well, not really. I just think that sometimes in the humanities, especially at R-1’s, there is too much emphasis on research and not enough on teaching for my personal tastes, and one of my “personal tastes” involves working in a department where people actively care about each other and the students. One of my former colleagues expressed such open disdain for both his colleagues and his undergraduates that I actively felt sorry for them. I don’t think he was a typical research faculty by any means, but there is most certainly nobody like him in my new digs.

I don’t really have a point today (OBVIOUSLY!). Just mist-yapping. Thinking about what makes a place nice to work at, and what makes a place strike terror into my heart. Avoiding getting on that bicycle…until now. I’ll be making yet another 1,000 foot climb today (maybe two, if my husband has his way)–wish me luck.

10 thoughts on “Mist-Covered Ramblings: On Returning to Hogwarts and the Kindness of Service Departments

  1. OMG, this sounds totally amazing! I’ve been all into free-writing my dreams for ideal jobs this week (because sometimes you need to think positively), and although professor was still on my list, it was qualified with “at a teaching-focused college, where i would get to teach broad intro courses outside of my research subfield, with bonus points if public outreach is part of the job”. Based on my searches of higher ed jobs sites, I was concluding that jobs like that, where research and grant-seeking and achieving tenure are less important than making a difference to the people around you, basically don’t exist in liberal artsy fields. So you have no idea how lovely it is to hear you report that, yes, some do exist. Did you find this school just by applying for a job through some central listing, or by more institution-specific means?

    I think it’s totally fair to be bummed that you’re not being paid more while simultaneously recognizing that it could be worse and that the pay is fairly calculated. Teaching three courses is lots of work even if you’ve taught them before, and if your colleagues are doing twice that amount of work for twice the pay, you are ALL underpaid! But that’s nothing personal – it puts you in the same boat as most of the people in jobs that actually serve the public and explicitly aim to do good in the world, from public school teaching to nonprofit and other government work. Oh, this world.


    • This position was basically a spousal hire at first, that I got at the very last minute (in 2010, right after I defended) because of a faculty illness. Then I was very successful there (which this institution defines 100% as “well-liked by students and kind to colleagues”) so I was allowed to rejoin the adjunct pool at any time once my postdoc ended, if it wasn’t indeed the rocket ship to the tenure track it purported to be.


      • Ah, neat, I’m glad that you had a collegial place to go back to in the midst of transition.


  2. good to be reminded that there are some schools that even the crankiest adjunct could give a passing grade…just not enough of them. Ana Maria Fores is working on a Rate Your Schools project for Campus Equity Week. Readers like the idea and can agree on some basic points to be graded but not all of them. This definitely needs to be one. Different categories would be another idea if it doesn’t carry us too far downstream from KISS.


  3. I am a big fan of academic roles that don’t measure the entire merit of a person solely based on their research output.

    I have seen how the experience itself is very different, (you are valued for your lecturing, service, and one-to-one work rather than it being a thankless addition), but the effect it has on the staff. As you say, there isn’t that sense of “Up or Out”, so people can afford to be more genial and collaborative. But that in turn creates a space where personality, helpfulness and support are seen as strengths to be admired, rather than weaknesses to be exploited.

    You are going to get a better all-rounders in a place like that. Sure you may not have the prestige, but the hankering for that is probably where most of the problems stem from in the first place.


    • WORD. And, especially, because “prestige” can suck a nut. I was “prestigious” for two years, and it was the most miserable time of my life. Not because I was *bad at it*, the R-1 life just wasn’t right for me. It really just wasn’t. Now that I’m out of that world, I look at who the “prestigious” people are and the kind of self-censorship required to attain and keep “prestige,” and it makes me laugh my ass off.


  4. It IS Hogwarts, RIGHT?? I’ve thought that from the moment I stepped foot in it. I mean, Hogwarts wasn’t previously a convent…but besides that I have yet to find an analogy that doesn’t work.


  5. your vacay looks amazing. am headed to upstate NY to celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary in September. and will also be riding a bike–albeit with more enthusiasm than you! 🙂 My marriage had to survive the phd, the adjuncting, the job search, and the leaving. While we certainly feel tested and true, I’m happy for you that you will have a sort of post-ac kind of marriage. best of luck!


    • Oh I love cycling! That day was just so cloudy and cold it wasn’t going to be fun. And actually, we went outside and realized the visibility was too low to cycle safely, and I got my way and we took a walk :).


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