Saturday, September 29, 2012

Shocks versus non-Shocks: The Great Divide of My Generation of Academics

Surveying my generation of academics (those who got their PhDs in the last decade or so) I’ve noticed a very clear experiential divide between those who are working or who have worked “temporary” jobs (as in adjunct, “visitor” etc.) and those who landed on the tenure track straight out of grad school. These two groups tend to see the academic world very differently.

I’ve decided that we need some terminology to describe this difference, so I would volunteer the term “Shock” to describe the survivors of the untenured labor market. It is partly a bowdlerized acronym of “school of hard knocks,” a reference to the “shock workers” of the Soviet Union whose back-breaking work was supposed to set an example, and lastly, symbolic of shocks of wheat. Like the grain, the labor of Shocks is harvested and milled so that others may eat, i.e. the permanent faculty.

While I myself am a Shock, having spent two years in a thankless “visiting” job, I should start by saying that I do not hold a grudge against non-Shocks generally, and do not think the Shock experience necessarily makes us better. I am very happy for the friends of mine who have managed to make the transition from graduate school to the tenure track seamlessly, they have been spared a great deal of pain and aggravation. I also think that Shocks are more likely to become the excessively bitter person who is incapable of enjoying their job and provokes much eye rolling in response to their indignation at faculty meetings.

Shocks are almost always marked (perhaps scarred is a better word) by their experiences. When you teach more classes than tenured faculty at your university and still publish more in two years than many of them have in their entire careers, that tends to erode any notion that the profession is fair (not that these should have ever been believed in the first place.) When some of these same people refuse to acknowledge your presence when they pass by in the hallway, the rage begins. When you spend seventy hours a week in your first semester working so that you can prep new classes, write job applications, and work on the publications you need for the said job search and you see a tenure track colleague who calls in “sick” for a quarter of the semester, the indignation rises. And when you get your meager pay packet for all your troubles, and then lose most of it paying for emergency dental care not covered by your substandard insurance, it goes through the roof.

A lot (though not all) non-Shocks that I know take a rather rosy view of the profession. And why not? They’ve gone from the poverty-stricken yet exciting life of the mind offered by graduate school to a job where they get their own office, can expect respect (this is what I liked most about my time on the tenure track), teach the classes they’ve always wanted to teach, get money for conference travel and research, and have graduate assistants and office staff to do a lot of the day to day busywork for them. Some non-Shocks (not all or even most) look at this state of affairs and do not consider themselves blessed or lucky, but in fact more WORTHY than their grad school counterparts languishing in visiting and adjunct jobs. These non-Shocks see the academic class divide in a Victorian fashion: the academic working classes simply lack the merit required to rise into the bourgeoisie. Though this may be true in some cases, it is mostly a conceit, given the ratio of applicants to jobs available on the tenure track.

The one and only great advantage possessed by Shocks is that their desperate struggle for survival usually engenders a strong work ethic. In order to get a job, a Shock needs articles or even a book contract, and they need to happen fast while the Shock is teaching over one hundred students. This means a great deal of intellectual elbow grease and the forfeiture of the notion of the “weekend” and “break.” What often hurts non-Shocks by comparison is that they come into their jobs with their tenure clocks ticking while they are trying to adjust to full-time teaching (by tenure track standards.) At least when I took my t-t job I had two articles under my belt and had made a great deal of progress on my book manuscript.  Now that I am no longer in academia and teaching at a private high school, I think my experience as a Shock and working in a very Shock-like tenure track job prepared me well for my new career.  I got used to teaching outside of my area of expertise and busting my ass.

I think there needs to be a greater dialogue in the academic world about what it means to be a Shock or a non-Shock (until we find a better word, of course.) Is the Shock experience the enlightening school of hard knocks, or just a breeding ground for permanent embitterment? Are Shocks too haughty or judgemental of non-Shocks? Does the divide flatten out over time? I’d like to hear your thoughts.


Debbie said...

Buddy, you know what I think. I just wanted to shout hurrah for this line, "These non-Shocks see the academic class divide in a Victorian fashion: the academic working classes simply lack the merit required to rise into the bourgeoisie." --debbie

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Yeah, whenever I used to catch glimpses of that attitude I would start seeing red. It's amazing how such a supposedly "progressive" profession like academia where professors compete to be the most radical can be so completely blind to its own oppressive class system. When I describe the system of contingent faculty to people I work with now, they are literally stunned in disbelief.

Brian I said...

I am in my second full-time, non-tenure-track job and my fifth year of non-tenure-track employment. My book came out this year and my third peer-reviewed article is coming out in a couple of months. My teaching reviews are stellar. Yet I keep losing jobs to ABDs who started graduate school when I was finishing my dissertation, and at least one of my tenure-track "colleagues" has referred to me as "some adjunct." In short, I'm not even sure if "shock" does justice to the way I feel about my career, my future, and my life right now. Maybe "shock and awe" would be better. I should be going up for tenure this year or next, not dreading another round of entry-level assistant professor job applications and AHA annual meeting expenditures.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Brian, of all people I know you have been the most dis-served by the utter insanity of the current academic system. You should have added that your book got positively name-checked in a nationally-syndicated newspaper column recently. There are days when I miss being a scholar rather than a teacher who is failing at doing scholarship in his spare time, but I then have to remember how messed up and awful the hiring situation is. Good luck and godspeed on this charge at the job market cannonades.