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.