Friends of Pan Kisses Kafka Guest Blog: Tales from the Trenches I

By far the best thing that came out of “Thesis Hatement” was the outpouring of mail I got from folks all over the world sharing their experiences. Sometimes, these messages thanked me (what? no, thank YOU for reading!!!) for my willingness to put my name on an experience that so many of us share, but that very few have little enough to lose so that they can speak about it freely (I spoke exactly as freely about it today in the Chronicle of Higher Ed—this piece is available to subscribers only, which has protected me from the usual torrent of vitriol).

ANYWAY. One of the best messages I got—really have ever gotten—was from Dr. Rachel Burgess, an English PhD and an essayist who pays close attention to all the variations of Belizean and Caribbean creative nonfiction. William Pannapacker tells us, wisely and rightly, to listen to long-term adjuncts for the real story of working in academia today. 

Dr. Burgess’s story appears below in her own words, and is the first in an ongoing series of guest blogs by Friends of Pan Kisses Kafka (hereinafter FoPKK, catchy, right?). I couldn’t pay much, but I paid for this contribution—and if you have a story to tell about your experience in academia, I will pay you for yours. Email me or leave a 100-word pitch in the comments.

And now, without further ado…

On Having a J-O-B

When former students run into me rocking my United States Postal Service uniform on the streets of northeast Portland, Oregon, they’re pretty surprised.  With my navy blue satchel around my waist, flats resting on my left forearm, a stack of letters in my left hand, and letters-to-be-delivered in my right, I’m walking at a pretty good clip to cover about ten miles of terrain.  While they’re answering my questions about their current classes, their lives, and “Are you still writing?”, their nonchalance betrays the “But you have a Ph.D.” look on their faces.  A few even seem to feel ashamed, sorry, for me—as if I took a step down from something great.  In their estimations, my having a Ph.D. means that I should be teaching at a university, not carrying mail.

The student I ran into at the Dollar Tree store, for instance, peered above her spectacles to sneer: “So you’re working for the post office now.  Okay.”  Why, indeed, I am.  I have a full-time job where I am respected, where I make a living wage, and where the union has historically done well to protect the rights of letter carriers.  As an adjunct, I was continuously grading over 120 essays in their various stages of disarray, I was a long way from being respected and, worst of all, when a worker in the Human Resources Department where I taught made an accounting error that overpaid writing instructors for their office time for three years (three years!), the union failed to protect them from having to pay a portion of that money back to the institution.  Thanks to their mistake, I had to pay the institution to work there.

I was getting absolutely nothing in return for doing such emotionally taxing work.  I was not getting financial support to attend conferences that would help me remain abreast of all the awe-inspiring knowledge production that happens in the groves of the academe.  I was not making enough money to keep up with my affiliations.  I was most certainly neither writing nor doing my research.  I taught the same courses each quarter, read basically the same tortured essays, and none of that work helped me to remain competitive for a job market saturated with humanities Ph.D.s.  On adjunct wages, I couldn’t afford to keep up with my professional affiliations or fly out to MLA, AWP, or ASS conferences (much less pay for registration fees and room and board). And I’d have been a fool to put any of that debt on my credit card, to be paid back when I got that dream job at Hampshire.  Not.  There are narratives of those who have managed, despite being an adjunct, to land that tenure track or visiting professor position, to jump off the adjunct track and onto one of those vaunted lecturer positions teaching glorified composition with Writing Programs at Duke, Stanford, Princeton, or Wake Forest.  But that’s not my narrative or the narrative of anyone I know.

I needed a job, so I went and found one. And (check this out, Pannapacker! —Ed.) I listed all of my degrees on the application.  I took the postal exam and a urine test, passed both, and I got a job.  The student at Dollar Tree didn’t seem to quite understand how important it is for me to have a job during these times of diminished employment opportunities.  I could not afford to keep going on the market when it was so very, incredibly, clear to me that I wasn’t going to get that kind of job.  I now have a job where the rules for letter carriers are explicit enough and aren’t hidden under some department chair’s someone-pissed-in-cheerios-today button. In my job, I get a steady paycheck, and the union actually works to protect my rights.

Though I didn’t like the Dollar Tree student’s response, I understood her reaction.  For many, a degree in a specific field equals a job.  Whether one goes to a non-profit, a state, or a private educational institution, the current rhetoric around education and the narratives this rhetoric produces frame the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. (and all the others) as essential to landing a job in one’s chosen specific field.  And, sometimes, this is true.  For a multitude of people, the credential functions exactly as it is supposed to.  The Ph.D. is nothing more than that—a credential.  It signals a number of things to potential employers, namely that the holder is capable of being trained because said person has the capacity to learn how to do a job and can do it well.  In some situations, it signals that potential employees are too overeducated for work that underemploys them.  In others, the credential opens up the door to slightly better or much better employment.

The Ph.D. was supposed to land me a job specific to full-time university teaching and research.  I did not land too far from the teaching patch; however, I landed in the throes of a denselybarbed adjunct bush.  I was never going to get a full-time teaching gig at the community college where I taught; there’s a list of adjuncts ahead of me (years, decades, ahead), an even longer list of higher ups (and sycophants) to propitiate, there’s nepotism, and there’s the whole “not a good fit” drivel with which to contend.  And just because I love to teach and am good at it does not mean I should continue to teach in a setting that depresses me, both financially and emotionally.  The students I’ve run into believe I should still be teaching because I’m a good teacher.  Yes, I love teaching, and, yes, I am good at it, but I needed a job.  A J-O-B.  All caps.  Seriously.

Although the postal service certainly has its share of major issues and some believe the handwritten epistle is a dying art, it is one of the last bastions of a participatory democracy (as are public libraries and museums) in this country, the one we all claim to live in.  As long as there’s mail, there will be a letter carrier (me) to deliver it.  Working for the postal service in no way halts or interrupts the mentoring I still do.  I am in contact with students who took classes I taught three, five, seven, years ago.  My recommendations get students into the schools of their choice; it gets them scholarships and internships.  My advice helps them navigate their own graduate school adventures.  I can actually do this work much better now that I am no longer adjuncting.

A fellow letter carrier at the station wants to call me Dr. Rachel.  He asked me one day, “I understand you have a Ph.D.?”  I blushed at this, my mind racing to figure out how to respond.   “All it means,” I paused, “is that I spent five years studying a set of particular subjects.  It neither means I am the smartest person in the world nor does it mean the only place for one with a Ph.D. is in academe.”  He still insists on calling me Dr. Rachel—which is fine because that is my title.

Rachel Burgess lives, writes, and works in the Pacific Northwest. 


I’m sorry… ‘JUST’ Teach High School?

One of the many suggestions I’ve gotten in the past few months is that I should try to teach high school. This is a terrific suggestion—and, in fact, I am in the process of researching how to do this, right this second. I am working with a kind friend who went from PhD to prep school a few years ago and has straight-up offered to do me a solid and mentor me—helping me turn my CV into a resume, arrange informational interviews with Heads of School, etc.

I’m aware that this blog has been kvetch central for the last few weeks (and make no mistake, I am still very broken from four years on the academic job market, and wouldn’t wish the anguish it caused on anyone), but I would really like to be taking my life in a positive direction right now.

BUT. In order to do it, I have a lot to learn—a whole new industry to learn about, with its own serious challenges.

And this brings me to—soooprize—a  kvetch I have with some of the suggestions that I teach high school. Not from friends, but from strangers, like this excerpt from a piece of hate mail I got a week or so ago:

At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, did you get into this job because you love teaching, you love German literature, and you love reading, researching, and writing about it, or did you get into this job because you wanted to find a magic bullet that will let you coast through life?  

DIGRESSION ANALYSIS (haha, get it, my Social Science homies?): That is what we in the humanities learn to recognize as a “false dichotomy.” I got “into this job” neither because I “love” German literature enough to do it for free (see my previous post on the “love” fallacy for why that is offensive), NOR because I want very mixed set of metaphors that will give me an easy life. I started the PhD in literature for the hell of it because I had no idea what else to do with myself—and then during graduate school I somehow metamorphosed myself into an academic Ungeziefer (which I write all about in my next piece for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, out any day now!). I was—am—good at reading, researching and teaching German literature, so I thought it would be a good job for me to have. “Love” was somewhat involved, but “magic bullets” had nothing to do with it. Granted, this particular hate mail was from someone who did not understand that I don’t actually think tenured profs work five hours a week and can’t be fired for any reason, so, you know. ANYWAY, here’s my point:

If it is the later (sic) reason, then you should consider teaching German in high school.  It will only take two years to get tenure, after which, depending on the school district, there is a very good chance, no matter how bad your performance, you will not get fired.  You will get summers off, health insurance, and a pension.  You will not need to waste your free time doing research, staying abreast in your field, or serving on committees.  Since you will not need to publish in peer reviewed journals, you will never be evaluated, and you can inflate the grades in your class by giving all your students A’s, whether they earned it or not.  No one will be the wiser.  Yes, you will be very overqualified for the job, but it fulfills everything you consider important, so maybe it is a better option for you.

There’s so much to unpack here—where do I even start? BULLSHIT OVERLOAD! CHAOS ON EDUCATIONAL BULLSHIT MOUNTAIN! All right, I will try my best.

Falsehood #1: I want a job that is easy. What am I, a millennial? Hahaha, buuuurn. (“Buuuurn,” by the way, is an expression that Gen Xers used in the 90s to convey satisfaction with the extent to which they…what’s the correct millennial term? I think it’s “pwned someone”? That’s not a real word. AAAANYWAY. I am 36 human adult years old, and have had one job or another—sometimes more than one at once!—since I was 15 and quit gymnastics and had my afternoons free. I like to work. I like to work hard. I wanted to be a professor because it’s hard work that I happen to find very rewarding.)

Falsehood #2: High school teaching is easy, and so I should “just” do it because as a PhD with college experience, I am obviously overqualified for it. This could not be further from the truth. That’s like saying: well, you have an MBA and experience at a hedge fund, so you are waaaay overqualified to teach high-school math. Both an MBA and I are “over”-qualified in subject matter (maybe?), but as my kind friend has recently pointed out to me very eloquently, subject knowledge is like 20% of successful teaching, max. It’s important, make no mistake, but more important is actually being able to connect with and inspire students to learn. And even more important is actually liking students in the age group you’re working with, and knowing a little bit about adolescent development! In this vein, both the MBA and I are tragically underqualified until we learn us some important and challenging new shit that we might not even be good at learning, who knows?!?

Falsehood #3: High-school teaching is not as prestigious or important as university teaching, and thus people who do it must suck more than college professors do. This one just gets a nice big /HEADDESK/ because it does not even deserve my time or yours. This is not how I feel, nor is it how anyone should feel, unless that person is an asshole. The end.

So…anyone out there teach high school English or Social Studies? Anyone transitioned from PhD to prep school, or PhD to public school? Advice? (Besides “try to get represented by Carney Sandahoe”…or “try to get represented by Cal/West”—they both rejected me out of hand).