Okay, for whatever reason I just read this:

Mitch Daniels Was Right

I don’t know anything about the scandal that this piece addresses, but apparently someone wrote e-mails criticizing the use of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, others got upset at this “attack on academic freedom,” and now this person defends the e-mails on the grounds that Zinn’s book is terrible history and no one should study it.

My question is this: where is there any evidence that the people using the book were using it as an objective guide to U.S. history? I haven’t seen anyone offer that evidence, and I haven’t seen anyone suggest that the book be used for that purpose. However, I think it could work really well as an example of a particular kind of academic/political thought at a particular moment in time.

I mean, hasn’t anyone else taught books that you don’t think accurately describe the universe, but that you think raise significant points for discussion? (I mean, people still teach Mein Kampf,* right?) The argument that it’s okay to say this book shouldn’t be assigned** because it’s bad history presumes the point of reading a book is simply to acquire the objective knowledge that it, the simple vessel, contains.

*Sorry, Godwin.
**The author above argues that the original e-mailer didn’t attack academic freedom because he only said teachers shouldn’t get professional credit for reading it, not that it shouldn’t be assigned, but that seems like sophistry to me.

This may be unpopular

There has been a remarkable amount of discussion exploding in the last 8 hours (? or so) regarding a job ad from Colorado State University, which reads:

The Department of English at Colorado State University invites applications and nominations for the position of Assistant Professor of English with an emphasis on Pre-1900 American literature and culture. The successful candidate will be appointed untenured and at the rank of Assistant Professor. This is a tenure-track, nine-month appointment, beginning August 16, 2013. 

Required qualifications:

1. Ph.D. in English or American Studies or closely related area awarded between 2010 and time of appointment [emphasis added].

[other requirements that aren't relevant here]

I've spewed a bit (too much) about this on Facebook (sorry, meg!), but so I don't go following this ad round the interwebs and grumping on all the blogs of other people who are discussing it, I thought I should just say something here and then I can shut up about it.

1) Yes, it's a dumb ad. There is nothing magical about 2010 that renders those who earned their Ph.D.s after 2010 more qualified than those who earned them before. This requirement shuts out lots of perfectly qualified people.

2) Yes, in practice it will likely have a disparate impact on older candidates, since often the earlier you earned your Ph.D., the older you are (although if you are like me and take ten wonderful amazing years to earn your degree, you will be eligible for this job longer than the bright stars of your program who finished in six or seven!). However, the ad does not select for age. A 72-year-old who finished their degree in 2011 would be eligible, while a 29-year-old who finished in 2009 would not. That's all the law requires, people. Age of graduate degree does not confer protected status. And disparate impact is not in itself enough to show some kind of age discrimination.*

3) Yes, should ads like this become commonplace (and as far as I can tell, this is the only ad of its kind anyone has found), they will create perverse incentives encouraging Ph.D. candidates to put off graduating as long as possible so they can continue to be eligible for jobs with this kind of a requirement.


1) I have encountered any number of "early career" faculty fellowships that placed a cut-off date on eligilibity. Not all were aimed exclusively at faculty already in tenure-track jobs. This is not an unheard of practice. 

2) CSU is likely trying to limit a) the number of applicants and b) the amount they have to pay the successful candidate (in that they may have salary requirements, whereby x amount of experience requires a salary bump; or simply that someone with a stronger track record may go up for tenure sooner and hence cost more sooner). It's a pretty arbitrary means of accomplishing (a), but that doesn't mean it won't accomplish the objective.

As for (b), if that is part of the reason behind this, it seems that people are shocked, SHOCKED that the university would let costs dictate something like this and put cost ahead of quality. 

Um. Just a reminder: over 1/2 the nation's faculty are now contingent? Which kind of defines putting cost ahead of quality? (with the caveat that yes, I realize that many many MANY contingent faculty are of equal if not HIGHER quality than tenured/tenure-track faculty, but in many many MANY other cases contingent faculty are unable to offer the same experience as t/t-t faculty due to lack of resources/support, lack of continuity – i.e. they work one semester at one place, one semester at another, and so on, rather than being able to support students through their entire college careers – and the like.) Why is putting cost ahead of quality tragic but un-shocking when dealing with contingent faculty, but incredibly shocking when dealing with tenure-track faculty?

3) There are so many great candidates out there, that while excluding everyone whose degree is from 2009 and earlier is stupid, because it's eliminating a lot of great people, it's unlikely to mean that CSU will draw a less-qualified pool. Because there are also TONS of great candidates who still qualify. That's the problem – compared to the number of [tenure-track] jobs, there are too many great candidates. So it's not like this requirement cuts off CSU's nose to spite its face.

4) Those perverse incentives to drag out the degree as long as possible were alive and well in my grad program, where people regularly delayed defending if they didn't get a job, to stay on the university's health insurance and to continue to be eligible for graduate teaching appointments in their departments. 

Really, I guess my reaction to the ire directed at the post-2010-Ph.D. requirement is this: this is such an egregious example of the problems with the academic job market? This is one teeny tiny tip of one really huge and all-encompassing iceberg. If I can jump to a different-yet-slightly-related metaphor, anger about this particular job ad strikes me as a little bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The academic job market has way bigger problems than this, people.**

*IIRC, you'd have to show that the policy was put in place precisely to create the disparate impact, and not despite the disparate impact (at least, that's the case for race/gender discrimination. Can't remember if it's the same for age). That is, you'd have to have no other purpose but to discriminate. I doubt this ad would be a violation under that standard.*** Plus, constitutionally, age isn't as highly protected a class as race/gender/national origin/religion. I can't remember all the Title VII standards, though my impression is that proving age discrimination is usually very very difficult. 

**I do still love all my academic friends and this is not intended as personal criticism of anyone for whom this ad is rage-inducing. 

***Keep in mind I could be completely wrong on that.


It’s weird because when I read about legal academics (that is, people working in legal academia), I find myself simultaneously envious, and uninterested.

I’m envious in that they’re doing, on one level, what I wanted to do for so long, and what I’d probably still be doing if a few things in my life had gone differently (and the academic job market wasn’t so terrible) – and, honestly, what part of me thinks I should still want to do. It’s hard to get out of the habit of measuring according to the academy’s yardsticks.

But I also have no interest in doing what they’re doing.

I think I will always have some fascination with academia as a profession; I have an awful lot of friends who are still academics, and I spent too much time in higher education (as student and prof) to walk away from it entirely. I also think that on some level I keep hoping I can reconcile my past and present, that I can make some kind of concrete use of all those academic years, that I can draw on the well of knowledge I spent so many years accumulating to water my current professional path (I know, these metaphors are labored). Basically, I want those years to COUNT. And the easiest way for them to count would be to figure out some way back into an academic life – particularly working in legal academia (I see no way, nor do I want, to work my way back to being a practicing medievalist. Whatever lingering regrets I deal with, that ship has sailed).

But you know what? I have almost no academic interest in law what. so. ever.

Yes, when I was a medievalist, I made heavy use of legal sources in my research. But that’s different – I wasn’t interested in the law, I was interested in the culture and society of the day, and legal sources were a convenient means of accessing that culture and society. I may have said this before, but my driving question as a historian, always, was: What would it have been like to live back then? And since class and gender are two of the biggest things shaping what it’s like for me to live right now, those were things I wanted to know about in the past. So the law, to the extent I learned about it, was purely a tool. (In fact, my understanding of medieval law as an overarching subject was fairly pathetic and late-acquired – you can figure out a lot of ways to use legal records without actually knowing very much about the law).

In contrast, when it comes to studying law, my driving question has been different (to the extent I even have one). It’s closer to: What effect does this have on people right now? What does this mean for Party X? And now that I’m out of school – not really in practice, but at least learning more about how the law works in certain corners of the real world – I find that I very much enjoy figuring out how the law applies to a particular given set of facts. Plop appellate briefs in front of me, I am happy to learn about the most obscure things you could imagine to figure out which party ends up in where.

For instance (and this isn’t at all obscure, it’s just the easiest example that comes to mind), I have had to learn quite a bit about prosecutorial misconduct (short explanation: many many many criminal defendants argue on appeal that the prosecutor made all kinds of dreadfully! improper! and prejudicial! arguments in their closing statement, which require reversal. And sometimes prosecutors actually do this. Pro tip: if you are prosecuting a case in the week or so after 9/11, you should not draw analogies between the defendant and Saddam Hussein. Also, in my state, at least, you can’t spend the closing argument talking about how the defendant (or their counsel/witnesses) “lied.” You can probably say they weren’t truthful, you can point out that every other witnesses’ testimony contradicted what the defendant said, but you can’t call them a liar). And I find it quite interesting to figure out whether a particular kind of prosecutorial statement in a given case counts as misconduct sufficient for reversal. (For the record: it almost never does. But you know, it could happen). 

But I don’t have any particular desire to research prosecutorial misconduct.

I can still generate research questions when necessary. In theory, me-the-historian thinks it could be quite interesting to look at changing rules re: prosecutorial misconduct over the decades (can you say things now you used not to be able to say, or vice versa? why? this could be especially fascinating around race/gender). Or it might be kind of interesting to compare state law about this and see what regional differences exist (if any). (I have no idea if there are any regional differences or if they would in fact be of any interest at all. I’m just talking out my ass here.) Speaking more legally, I can imagine a law review article analyzing a particular kind of doctrine about prosecutorial misconduct and arguing why that legal doctrine is completely wrong (omg, prosecutors should totally be able to compare their defendants to Saddam Hussein!0!0!011!! free speech prosecutorial discretion yada yada!* or, omg, prosecutors get to say absolutely all kinds of terrible things about defendants and it’s completely unfair!!! here’s what they should do instead!!!).

But I don’t especially want to do any of these things. (Which is good, because I’m not going to build a legal academic career talking about prosecutorial misconduct. It’s just the bad example I came up with off the top of my head.) And, honestly, I am not interested in academic study of almost any legal stuff.

There are, maybe, two exceptions. And if it were my job to come up with academic interests about the law, I’d probably find them. But I’m not interested enough to come home at the end of a day filled with research and writing about the law and spend any time on these subjects, rather than exercising, or knitting, or vegging out in front of the TV.

[This is sort of a long drawn-out post justifying things I don’t need to justify. No one is telling me, You know, you really should write legal scholarship! (Seriously – no one.) I suppose it’s motivated by the kind of academic hangover alluded to above, where you feel guilty that you don’t care about all the things you used to have a professional interest in caring desperately about.] 

*Those are terrible arguments for being able to compare your defendant to Saddam Hussein. Just so you know.


Post-academic life: To write, or not to write

So, I am part of some conversations elsewhere online about transitioning from academic to non-academic jobs. (I feel like I cheated, in that I went back to school rather than trying to convince employers directly that the valuable skills I learned during my Ph.D. make me suited to do something other than teach, publish, or go back to school. But it is what it is, and I take part in these conversations nonetheless.) And recently these conversations have reminded me that although the transition out of the ivory tower is hard, once you're actually out, it's kind of amazing how quickly you can forget your former life.

(Disclaimer: This is just my own experience, not offered as anything universal. My own transition wasn't that bad – just expensive – but there are some good reasons for that. Leaving my last tenure-track job was fairly miserable, as not getting your contract renewed after third-year review sucks, frankly. But although leaving that job was both necessary to and a catalyst for leaving academia, I didn't actually change careers until later. Also, since I went back to school, my first introduction to this new career took place under very familiar academic structures and culture. It wasn't like I got dropped into a law firm and had to learn both the substance and the culture of the law at the same time. Finally, I had had my shot at academia – I worked as a full-time professor for nine years, and while I enjoyed it and left more because I couldn't find another academic job than because I flat out decided academia didn't work for me, I could walk away thinking, "Well, been there, done that." Not entirely – I never got tenure – but I knew what I was walking away from from long experience. I think the toughest transition is for people who wanted academic jobs but never got one. Not that deciding academia doesn't work for you and you need to find something else isn't hard, but in a different way. In any case. I digress. The point I was trying to make is that I can't really speak to the experience of all former academics (or aspiring academics), since I recognize my own experience wasn't really that terrible and not necessarily representative of anyone else's.)

So, as I was saying: it's amazing how quickly academia recedes into the background. I mean, in some ways, not – the fact that I'm so much older than most (though not all) entry level lawyers makes it hard to forget that I'm different, that I've done all these other things before going to law school. But then, there are tons of people in law school who did other stuff previously. They, too, have developed all kinds of skills and abilities that stood them in good stead in school and now in their careers; so in that respect, we're not all that different. I just took more time than a lot of them. 

But when I was applying to law schools I talked once with a former medievalist who became a lawyer, and she said you really quickly forget about academia, and she was totally, completely right. 

(For me, this is generally an excellent thing. I have always been good at making a clean break and walking away from things that didn't work; I'm congenitally averse to regrets. Academia was cool; I had that experience; now I'm doing other stuff. And as I've said before, I don't miss academia. I miss the familiarity, and knowing what the hell I was doing, and not being the low-person-on-the-totem-pole, but I don't miss the actual work.)

And I have changed. It's a cliche that law school makes you think like a lawyer, but it does. NLLDH laughs at me when I see liability everywhere (for instance, we visited his family and bought our niece a donut with a paper sports team logo on it; he and she were wondering if it was edible, and I said, "It has to be edible, because if it wasn't, they'd have to warn buyers it's not edible, or else they'd be liable for any injuries from eating it." This, to me, has become a perfectly normal reaction, but NLLDH thought it was hysterical). I can't read academic work in the humanities anymore – I want it to work the way legal scholarship works, and I get impatient with the long sentences and long chapters and lack of headings. (When I started law school, I disdained headings as the refuge of the lazy – I believed you should be able to signal transitions in the text without needing headings. I have now come to believe headings are so very helpful!) I have a different perspective on higher ed. I don't agree with my academic friends' perspectives as much as I used to (I respect them, but don't always agree with them). Partly, I've gained a new field of expertise that informs the way I look at things, and partly, going back to school reminded me what it's like to be a student, and broke my automatic sympathy with the faculty perspective. (And partly, I just don't care about all of it anymore.)

Perhaps the last part of the academic identity that I let go of was the idea of myself as a writer. Now, I have always considered myself a writer, since I started writing what was really probably fanfiction around 4th grade or so (if you can write fanfiction about Nancy Drew and the like). The cool thing about being an academic was that it meant I legitimately wrote for a living. Sure, a lot of that writing was syllabi and student assignments, but still, there was actual published writing in there. 

During law school, I carved out an identity as "good writer." I won a prize for being the top student in my legal writing section. I "wrote on" to law review. During 2L and 3L, I wrote a seminar paper or the equivalent in every semester (in my law school, seminars were small, writing-focused classes, and you had to take one before you graduated; I took two official seminars and two de facto seminars. To give you some perspective, something like 90 students in my class of ~165 took their seminar in their final semester). In one of those classes I received the top grade awarded. (Yes, law school tells you these things, and you care. It's kind of sick.) Of course, that means I didn't get the top grade in three of them, so I'm not claiming I was brilliant, but still. Profs told me my exams were well-written and I got one of my top grades (and probably near-top grade in that class) in an exam where the prof explicitly told us she was going to grade on quality of writing. (And I got one of my lowest grades on an exam for a prof who, I later figured out, did not care at all about quality of writing and valued only high volume of correct info.)

And throughout law school, I always kind of assumed that I would continue to write scholarly stuff. Eventually, once I'd learned enough law to have something to say about it. I knew I wouldn't continue to write medieval history. I loved it when I did it (very occasionally I suffer a pang that I won't work on the next project I'd identified for myself, which was going to be a study of social climbers. I mean, seriously, wouldn't that have been cool?), but I have always said that I wouldn't be an independent scholar, and that if I wasn't a history professor, I wouldn't keep writing history. (Not knocking independent scholars – just what works for me.) But I thought I would continue to write scholarly stuff, and I sort of kept a mental notebook of stuff I'd be interested in writing about.

And you know what? That notebook is largely blank, and sitting, undisturbed and dusty, abandoned on some mental back cupboard.

I find myself almost entirely uninterested in writing any more. There are a lot of reasons for this – right now, at work, I do nothing but research and write, and when I get home at the end of the day I'm just. not. interested; I've actually reclaimed my non-work life and developed hobbies that I love, and I want to spend my spare time on them; and I find myself kind of conflicted about legal scholarship and the purpose it serves. (I could say more about this but won't right now or this post will never end.) The only thing I'm really interested in writing about (at least for now) is unionization of contingent faculty – and I'm not interested enough to spend any of my spare time on it when it's not my job to do so. 

Initially, it was hard to give up the idea of being a writer. But I feel less and less conflicted about it as time goes by. I watch NLLDH carve out time to do research and write papers, and be tired all the time. I offer to edit drafts for him, and find myself completely irritated by giving my time to such work (even though I offered. Never claimed consistency). 

I may well find myself in a place in the future where writing becomes appealing again. I don't know what kind of writing that would be, but it's possible. Right now, it's more of a relief than a disappointment to let the label "writer" go, slipping into the ether with the rest of my academic identity. 

The adjunctification (or contingentization?) of America

My lovely wonderful SLAC alma mater announced its 39 "new faculty" for 2011-2012.

Seven of them are tenure-track assistant professors.

Quite a few of the remaining "visiting" professors are legitimately visiting from some other institution, or are eminences unattached to an institution of higher ed. But eighteen appear to be in VAPs [visiting assistantships] or the equivalent. 

Granted, a VAP at my alma mater is a pretty cushy job for a year. And no matter what changes are made to the academic market, schools are going to continue to need at least some VAPs, to fill sabbatical and fellowship vacancies (assuming, of course, that schools continue to grant sabbaticals. My alma mater has the money and priorities to fund sabbaticals for quite a long time to come, I think). 

But I still thought that the numbers were telling. 

Oh, Chronicle, you’re the gift that just keeps giving

I find myself quite torn about this column. In it, an academic job candidate talks about the importance of considering quality of life in applying for academic jobs, by detailing her own job interview in a part of the country in which she realized she could never live. That basic message – think about whether you could live in the town where the job is located – is an important one, and everybody has their own dealbreakers. I sincerely applaud people who know themselves well enough to know what kinds of compromises they are and aren't willing to make, and I believe that the lack of choice about where to live is one of the major evils of academic life. No one should have to live somewhere fundamentally abhorrent to them.

But deal god, couldn't the author have managed to sound less condescending and elitist about it?? And, frankly, provincial?

A few examples:

Can a Ph.D. who wears perfume made by an obscure order of French monks find happiness working in a town where everyone buys their clothes at the Farm King?… 

On the train, I was first struck by the differences between what I had been told about the train ride and its reality. The department chair had assured me that the train would be a great experience, with a lovely dining car, reminiscent of the old days of railroad travel when shiny-uniformed porters brought out plates of chicken cordon bleu and rice pilaf to suave and sophisticated world travelers. That, he claimed, made the four-hour train ride bearable. But I don't remember Cary Grant ever having to choose between a microwaved hot dog or hamburger, begrudgingly handed over by a miserable guy complaining behind a stainless-steel counter.

The people on the train, with the exception of the hot-dog guy, were friendly and open. But they did make me doubt all the criticisms I have had of the way rural Americans are depicted in culturally elitist Hollywood movies. Turns out those movies have often done a fairly accurate job. I overheard the sad story of how one young man's dreams of pop stardom were dashed when he failed to break the top 23 in the "American Idol" tryouts and was now on his way home to live the rest of his life in frustrated obscurity. I also listened to a chat about how much better life was in the town I was traveling to now that the new Walmart had opened….

My first meeting was an 8 a.m. breakfast with members of the department's faculty. After a few pleasantries, one of the faculty members turned to me and asked, "Tell me, why didn't the Nazis destroy the Jewish cemeteries and synagogues in Krakow?"

And we were off! The interview had begun. It was clear to me that those people were really isolated from civilization out there, because no civilized people I knew asked questions about genocide before 9 a.m.—over bacon, no less.

[Um, has this person never been on an on-campus interview? That's what they do – interview you. Over meals. Including breakfast.]

During my professional lecture about my research, the questions were, as is usually the case in job interviews, more about the work of the questioner than about my scholarship: "Why didn't you write about labor union activity in public?" Well, I didn't write about labor unions because the book is about hippies and festivity, not labor unions. It's a monograph, not an encyclopedia. "How did the theories of Bakhtin influence the hippies?" Most 17-year-old hippies had never even heard of Bakhtin, let alone read his theories. Come on, people. This is my research—not yours. Stop trying to show off to your colleagues.

Then I was taken to dinner, where everyone was tired, and the conversation felt very insidery—jokes between friends, etc. I felt isolated and awkward, and couldn't wait to get back to my room. Actually, I couldn't wait to get back home. The next morning, my alarm failed to go off, and I was left with six minutes to get dressed and out the door for the train. I made it, got through the airport and to the plane, and as soon as I touched ground I raced toward civilization for some sushi—the cultural version of electroshock therapy.

These latter three examples, actually – they annoy me because they have nothing to do with the cultural sophistication of the town. They're about the nature of the interview itself, and sound exactly like the kinds of experiences I've had at job interviews across the country. Just because you didn't like the way the department conducted the interview, doesn't mean that the department is full of hicks.

I don't know. On the one hand, I do not want to replicate those people telling grad students/junior faculty that if they want a job in academia they have to SACRIFICE, and be willing to live ANYWHERE, dammit, because I hate that attitude. But on the other hand, yeah, if you want a job in academia you often have to move somewhere it wasn't your first choice to live. There's nothing wrong with deciding NOT to do that, but there's also nothing wrong with deciding TO do that, either. I have a dear pair of friends who live in a state extremely uncongenial to them in terms of politics and weather, because it was the only place they could both find jobs, and he (especially) really really really really REALLY wanted an academic job. They have adjusted and created a pretty happy life for themselves.

I'm not saying that the author of the Chronicle column would have ultimately been happy working at the university she describes – clearly she wouldn't. I just think there has to be a way to get across the message that considering quality of life is important, without putting down the people who do live (and happily!) in the places you don't want to be.

(For the shorter version of this post, see this tweet! I don't know the tweeter, just appreciated the sentiment.)

Upward mobility? No.

Over at Quod She, Dr. Virago asks: "Hey, Ph.D.s, are you better off than your parent(s)?" This is in response to a really interesting conversation, particularly with thefrogprincess, about whether people enter Ph.D. programs in search of upward mobility. (See comments to this post.)

I started to answer there, and then realized I was writing a frigging book, so thought I would take it over here. But anyway, here's an answer from this no-longer-faculty Ph.D.: No, I would not say that I am not better off than my parents in terms of finances or career stability or qualitative factors.

Finances: I never knew how much my dad made (my mom was a SAHM), but I think that tells you something – that I didn't need to know. I am quite sure, though, that it is significantly more than I have ever made (throughout my life, he was the VP of manufacturing for Gillette, though he had done other things earlier in his life to get to that point – he was 48 when I was born). For one thing, he could support a family of four in a big gorgeous house in an expensive part of the country, without my mom working for pay, and we had everything we needed and a lot that we wanted (lessons, activities, that kind of thing) (of course, my mom's labor made a lot of this possible!). When I was 11 my parents had a pool put in our back yard. My sister and I both went to elite SLACs in the northeast that my parents paid for in cash. We had three cars, so I took one to college my senior year, then my sister took it to college her senior year. At 42, I could not afford any of these things, and if we had a kid now, I am quite sure we would not be able to pay cash to send him/her to an expensive private college.

Now, that does not mean that I'm currently badly off, because I grew up a very privileged kid. I'm not in the gutter or the poorhouse or anything like that (though I do currently have a crapload of credit card debt for various good/not so good reasons), and I'm not bemoaning my life. But no, I am not better off than my parents financially.

Career stability: Well, it's kind of hard to compare this, because first, my dad was one of the last people who fit the "work for the same company for 30 years and retire with a gold watch" model. You just don't have that any more. But my career stability feels like much less than my dad's, because I feel like I've never really managed to be established in a career (I taught as a full-time prof for 9 years, which is actually pretty established, but it never felt like it at the time, because I never made it to tenure). In some ways you could say my career stability is better than my mom's, since she was a SAHM, but she was a nurse in London before getting married (and, I think, a very good one), so if she hadn't married at time when you gave up your job and followed your husband, she would have had a very stable career.

Dr. Virago's point about looking at one's parents' lives through a feminist lens is interesting, because as noted, my mom's career was derailed because she got married–and that was what you did, you followed your husband and stayed home and raised the kids and took care of the house. And I'm glad I'm not in that position. But my mom sees me and my husband try to negotiate where to live and what jobs to take and what careers to pursue, and her take on it is that "Life is so much more COMPLICATED these days." And she's right. I prefer this path (but then, I've been brought up to prefer it), but it's not necessarily easier. And honestly, right now (coming off of three years of school/no income) I'm as financially dependent on my husband as my mom ever was on my dad. So, in some ways I'm better off, but in some ways I'm not.

My mom did find the transition from independent professional life to SAHM difficult. But she adjusted, too, and loved her house and her garden, played tennis and made lots of friends through that, and quilted and did a lot of other creative things. There were occasional tensions over some of the distribution of labor/money, but she was quite happy. (I use the past tense because she's been quite lonely and unhappy since my dad died, though I think it's got better. But I think that's inevitable if you had a good marriage.) I think I'm quite happy, generally, but I would not say that my life is somehow clearly better than my mom's was. I would say my mom lived a life more shaped by patriarchy. But she also reaped the benefits of patriarchy (not saying everyone does, or that patriarchy's a good thing; just that it persists as a system only because it offers benefits to those it oppresses as well as those it empowers, and she managed to stay on the good side of it).

Other qualitative factors: I have had the luxury of pursuing work I enjoy. But you know, my dad also loved his job. LOVED it. It brought him immense satisfaction and he was quite depressed for a while when he retired because (as I think is common for men, especially of his generation) his identity was tied up in his work. But he adjusted, and ended up very much also enjoying his golf/tennis/newspaper-reading/driving around looking at stuff retirement lifestyle. (Partly this was due to my dad's temperament. He was a serious optimist about everything.) But in itself this is something different from my parents: I have no idea if, or when, or how, I will retire, and I doubt it will be to seaside condos in two lovely vacation spots.

I mean, I don't think I'm badly off at all. I'm generally happy and have enough money to survive (even if I'm living off my husband right now). And times are different enough that I really don't think I can compare their lives to mine. But the biggest difference, I think, is that I have never really felt "settled" anywhere, and I have a hard time thinking that's going to change in the near future. I'm 42; when my mom was this age, she had 2 kids, a dog, a house, a social life, and a very established life. She had a stable life. I don't want the kids, but I don't feel like I've ever had that stability (you spend grad school planning for the job you'll get when you finish; you get that job, you plan for tenure, or for how to get a new job; then I left that job, and went back to school, and am now starting over again, in a field that is much less of a guarantee of a good stable job/life than it used to be. My Ph.D. husband has gone through this process, too, just a few years before I did). Compared to my parents, I feel like a nomad.

(It might also be worth pointing out here that my very comfortable life was NOT a life of inherited privilege. Both of my parents came from very working class backgrounds – my dad was a coal miner's son, and his dad was killed in a mining accident when my dad was in his teens. My mom's parents were a vet assistant – which did not mean he had any education; it meant he held down the horses and cows – and a housemaid/nanny. The position I enjoyed growing up was one that my parents had earned and built in their own lives. This doesn't make me better or worse than anyone else – I just think it's relevant if we're talking about social mobility.)

Now, if I'm honest, I'll admit that if that kind of stable, established life was truly important to me, there are probably a lot of different choices I could have made to get that kind of life. At some level, I believe that the fact that I don't have some of this stuff simply means I decided I valued other things more, things that have been incompatible with that kind of settled, established life. 

But no, getting a Ph.D. did not make me better off than my parents were. I can't say I would have been better off than them anyway, because they were pretty well off, and I'm not sure that anything would have guaranteed that kind of life (although it does feel like a lot of my classmates from college have those kinds of lives). But getting a Ph.D. certainly didn't do it.

(And a last note on the upward mobility narrative of the Ph.D.: I didn't go into my Ph.D. program looking for upward mobility, because I was pretty up to begin with. But I did go into the Ph.D. because it seemed to offer stability. My other area of interest was creative writing, but I went for the Ph.D. because it seemed a much more reliable and clear-cut career path. After all, in the next ten years one-third of the nation's faculty were going to die or retire, so it was a GREAT time to go to grad school! Okay, I realize no one gets told that any more – but I did. I don't resent that, and I don't regret getting my Ph.D., but it did influence me.)

Things that frustrate me

So, apparently the former AG of North Dakota is suing Michigan State University's law school for not giving him a job.

Nicolas Spaeth, who graduated from law school in 1977, applied for law prof jobs last year and didn't get anything, and now alleges age discrimination. He has an extremely impressive legal resume, including BA and JD from Stanford; on law review in law school; clerking for the Supreme Court; filing numerous amicus briefs in important cases; arguing before the Supreme Court; working as a partner in a big law firm; being the former Attorney General of North Dakota; and adjuncting at the University of Minnesota and being a visiting professor at the University of Missouri. He's clearly an extremely successful lawyer. And the schools that didn't hire him hired much younger candidates who don't have anything like the same professional credentials.

His suit frustrates me, however, because it's not really about age discrimination at all. Instead, it's about competing visions of what law school teaching should be. 

Law professors are like professors in any graduate field in that they are evaluated largely on their ability to produce scholarship in their field of research. Individual schools may vary in the weight they give to effective teaching – some schools will doubtless not care at all about a professor's teaching ability if that professor is a publishing dynamo; some schools will care only if a professor's teaching is bad enough to merit significant student complaint; some schools probably genuinely care about teaching (somewhat). But in law schools as elsewhere, publishing is the coin of the realm. And in law schools, they mint that coin in law reviews (and possibly some peer-reviewed law-related journals).

Law professors are different from professors in many other graduate fields, however, in that they are teaching in a professional school, which has the explicit goal of training law students to become lawyers – to go out and practice a trade. Unlike professors in, say, the humanities, law profs are not generally training their students to follow their own career path.1 Broadly speaking, humanities profs are teaching their grad students how to do the things that the profs spend their days doing – research, writing, teaching. Law profs, however, who spend their days researching, writing, and teaching, are training students to go into a profession that requires very different skills from those that have netted law profs their jobs.2

Unsurprisingly, there is intense debate about whether this is the proper approach for law schools to take, with much bemoaning of the fact that students do not know how to practice when they graduate, and regular calls for making legal education more practical. This is an important debate, and these are questions that should be asked (even if some of the commentary sounds a lot like the legal version of "Kids these days…!").

But whether you think legal education should be this way – whether you think it's appropriate for profs to be judged on their scholarship rather than their accomplishments in practice and their ability to impart those practical skills to their students – I hardly think it controversial to say that this is how it is. You only have to look at the categories of positions found in law schools: First, there are your typical tenure-track positions. Second, there are positions dedicated to teaching only legal writing and research. Finally, there are clinical positions, in which faculty oversee student forays into the real world of practice (most states have laws under which second- and/or third-year students can represent indigent clients in court). The positions that teach skills most directly related to practice are distinguished from your general tenure-track position (which is the kind of position for which Spaeth applied).

And the thing is that Spaeth has no track record of original scholarship. As I said, he has incredible legal accomplishments. He has even edited a legal treatise. But he has no articles in law reviews (which, again, coin of the realm).  

So it is entirely unsurprising to me that he wasn't hired for a tenure-track position. It's even unsurprising to me that younger people than he were hired. The complaint alleges that these younger candidates had less prestigious credentials than Spaeth did (which, as an aside: barf. If you went to a law school ranked lower than third in the rankings, you are unqualified?), and that these younger candidates did not have law review publications. (However, the complaint alleges that "on information and belief" the younger candidates did not have law review publications, and my understanding of that phrase is that it means you believe in good faith that it's true, but that you're not acting on firsthand information, so…). But even if they didn't have law review articles out (of which I'm not convinced), I also believe it's possible for a younger candidate to have demonstrated a greater commitment to original legal scholarship than Spaeth has, given that in his multi-decade career Spaeth hasn't produced any.

I don't mean to suggest that Spaeth would not be a good law professor. I'm not entirely sure where I stand on the whole theory/practice divide; I understand the complaints about legal education and its lack of practical application, but as a former academic, I also have to firmly defend the importance of scholarship for its own sake. So I have a great deal of sympathy for the law-prof-as-academic model. I realize that may change as I actually start to practice law myself.

My point here is mainly that I don't think shoehorning criticisms of the academic standard governing law professor hiring into an age discrimination complaint is very productive. Because law schools didn't decline to interview Spaeth because he's old; they declined to interview him because his record doesn't demonstrate the kind of commitment to producing original legal scholarship that is a necessary qualification to get a tenure-track job. You can disagree with that choice, sure – and I'm not going to say you'd be wrong. It's just that age discrimination complaints are really hard to win as it is, and I don't think this kind of suit helps any.

And I guess I also think that either this guy genuinely believes he was discriminated against on the basis of age, or he doesn't. If he does, then he doesn't understand what it is that a tenure-track law professor is expected to do. And if he doesn't, then I find his tactic of bringing an age discrimination complaint kind of distasteful. (Admittedly, however, it spurs discussion of the issue!)


1 Two caveats here: First, I actually believe grad school in the humanities is a professional program designed to produce college professors, but that's fodder for a whole different discussion; and second, ideally, humanities graduate programs would train students to do more than just follow in their professors' footsteps [which they don't even really do, given how even those students who get tenure-track jobs don't usually get jobs that look like their grad advisors' jobs]. But go with the generalization for the moment.

2It's true that law students/lawyers need to know how to research and write, but they don't need to know how to do academic research and writing. Professional research and writing is not the same as academic research and writing. I'm not saying that if you're good at the one, you can't be good at the other, but they are different skills.


So, if you follow me on Twitter you know I got a job offer the other day (if you don't follow me on Twitter, don't worry, you're not missing anything. And guess what! I got a job offer the other day!). 

Which is all very exciting, and I'm very pleased, but I continue to be amazed/amused at how arbitrary hiring can be. People who like my resume REALLY like my resume, and seem to want to interview me just to make sure I'm not some kind of troll or antisocial freak, because they seem determined to hire me unless I suck in person. And let's be honest – they like my Ph.D. They look at the Ph.D. and think, "OOoooh! She can research and write and will do so without complaint! Snatch her up!" 

On the one hand, this is perfectly great. I am happy to trade on whatever employment capital having a Ph.D. gives me. On the other hand, it feels a little bizarre when legal employers consider a history Ph.D. "impressive." It's true that the Ph.D. is a proxy for some academic ability (and discipline/perseverance, although really, if I were truly disciplined, I would have taken less time to get the damn degree!). But it is by no means an accurate proxy for legal brilliance or competence. Having a Ph.D. does not guarantee law school success, and while I've been a fairly successful student, I'm not at a super-top-elite school, and I'm not at the top of my class. I haven't set the legal world on fire.

And the fact is, many employers are perfectly aware of this. Given their lack of response, it seems clear they look at my resume and think, ""Law school record good but not completely outstanding. Oh, and she's done some other stuff. That's nice. Pass." This is the case even with lots of employers who say they really really value research and writing. 

Anyway, I originally started this post a few days ago, and I've been wondering why I find this so baffling, this contrast between people who want to hire me and people who don't. Lord knows that academic job applications are similarly arbitrary, in that they're all about "fit" – there are a lot of things that a given employer will want in an applicant that won't necessarily make their way into a job ad, and so even if you have all the specified qualifications, someone else may just "fit" the job better (maybe they attended a similar school for undergrad and you didn't. Maybe they taught high school before going to grad school so can guide the department's education program, and you didn't. Maybe they don't overlap with the department star's research interests and you do, or maybe they do, and you don't. Maybe they match the hiring chair's image of "ideal" candidate in race, gender, age, persona, whatever, and you can't). I don't even think "fit" is necessarily a bad thing. It's frustrating for job candidates, because you can never really know what a search committee is looking for, but it's inevitable that a department will have preferences and desires you can't know (and can't meet, because it's impossible to be everything to everyone). 

What I just realized today is that I find law hiring baffling because somewhere in my subconscious I still believe that there is a "right" way to do things, and that if you do things the "right" way, certain identifiable results (jobs/opportunities) will follow. I have, of course, tried to do as many things "right" as I can (though I have not done all the right things, like be in the top 10% of my class), so I keep thinking I should be able to predict the results that ensue. In fact, I think I find the employers who want to hire me (at least in part) because of my Ph.D. more baffling than employers who don't, because hiring me (at least in part) for my Ph.D. feels like not hiring me for doing the "right" things. 

I have no idea why I think this about law when I think I got over this about academia. Maybe it suggests that there really is (or I think there is) a more-defined accepted path that one is "supposed" to follow for academic success? And that law is just enough broader than academia that you can't target the "right" things as easily? I don't know. Maybe it's just that I'd been in academia long enough that I did become able to predict how a given employer was likely to react to my application – I could parse the different cultures/requirements at different schools well enough to know how I'd look as a candidate, and I haven't been in law long enough to figure that out. 

Anyway. It's just kind of weird, and kind of frustrating in that I'm not very good at predicting who will think I'm qualified, and who won't. That's an important job-hunting skill that I'm still developing. But hey! I got a job anyway. 

*I really wanted to call this "arbitration," except of course that means something else entirely. It just feels like there should be a better noun to mean "something that is arbitrary."

An observation (which is really choosing a side, because yes, I think there are sides)

Although I suspect I will piss off a bunch of people by saying this, here's a problem that I see with a lot of very well-meaning and in many ways very valuable advice that tenured/tenure-track faculty give contingent[1] faculty:

Tenured/tenure-track (TTT) faculty tend to give advice that is intended to help contingent faculty become just like them. It's advice that is based on future prospects, on the assumption that contingent faculty will ultimately join the tenure-track ranks, and that envisions contingent employment as a transitory stage in academic life. You will earn a Ph.D., you will probably (unless you are very very lucky) work in temporary positions for some period, and then you will either get a tenure-track job or you will leave the profession.

After all, this is the model with which many TTT faculty are familiar. In the current job market, I'd be willing to bet that many more TTT faculty have a few (or more) years of temp work under their belts than don't, and they probably all know people who found contingent employment unsustainable and left the profession. So naturally, such TTT faculty think that they understand the way the whole contingent faculty thing works.[2]

The thing is, there is a whole cohort of people out there for whom contingent employment is their career. It's not a transitory stage. It is what it is. Sometimes this is because those faculty wanted tenure-track jobs and couldn't get them, sometimes (many times) it's not. But in either case, it means that contingent faculty actually occupy a completely different position from TTT people. They're not proto-TTT faculty. They are something else entirely.

For people in that position, much of the advice intended to transition them to a TTT position is not helpful and does not address the realities of their lives. Many contingent faculty are not trying to get a better, permanent job in the future, because they know that isn't going to happen. Instead, they want help configuring their current position to be humane and sustainable. That is not the same thing as advice on how ultimately to land a TTT position.

Hence, quite a bit of both sides talking past each other. 


[1]People use the term "adjunct" to mean all kinds of completely different things, so much so that I think the term has become pretty unhelpful. I'm following the practice of labor activists to use the umbrella term "contingent faculty" to mean anyone who is not tenured or on the tenure-track or on some kind of contract-based equivalent. If I say "adjunct," I mean people who are hired by the course on a temporary basis. Pay is by the course, often not providing benefits. You can be a full-time adjunct, but usually by stacking courses at different institutions. To refer to people who are temporary but who teach full time, who usually are paid a salary and receive benefits, I use the terms lecturer/instructor interchangeably. I also use the term VAP, or visiting assistant professor; I tend to think of these as people who are explicitly filling in for someone who is on sabbatical or to cover a line that is definitely going to be filled with a tenure-track person in the very near future (like someone who fills in during the year a department runs a national search for the line), although this definition may be my own little creation. It's the visiting thing, though, that to me implies the kind of limited term that, for instance, a sabbatical replacement mandates, and distinguishes these people from lecturers/instructors.

[2] To be fair, I used to think I knew how it all worked based on my own experience as an adjunct/lecturer before getting on the tenure-track, and after getting off the tenure-track. The observation I make here is based on seminar research I did earlier this year, which helped flesh out my perspective a bit beyond my own experience.