Why I No Longer Eat Watermelon, or How a Racist Email Caused Me to Leave Graduate School

Long time no hear everybody! Today, we’re re-posting Robert Palmer’s blog on his experience on grad school. We’re experiencing a brain-drain in academia, if we continue to ignore racism, sexism, elitism and all its nastiness.

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Whatever happened to the Golden Rule of “Don’t be an Asshole”?

Recently, Rachel Leventhal-Weiner wrote a column in Vitae called “What Do I tell my Students?” Like many of us, Rachel is leaving a multi-year VAP position. Like for so many of us, it was long enough to like a place, get to know people, and despite our best attempts to not get attached, leave a bit of ourselves in that place: “I do feel like a part of the place. But I have always known that I really wasn’t — that, eventually, the gig would be over.”

The reactions were visceral. It seems that the Chronicle of Higher Education Website (and its facebook account) is where academic assholery intersects with general internet assholery. There were two, two I quote: “You are not the center of the universe. They’ll be fine.” –“Boo freakin Hooo”—or of course, the philosophical interpretation: “Tell them that the only constant in life is change.” (Seriously, did you read that on the wall of a toilet of a yoga studio?)

There are so many issues I have with these nasty comments- and it’ll be another list to address them:

  1. Contrary to popular belief- our students do notice.  Especially at State Universities, where funding is slashed left and right, students notice. They may not necessarily be angry that the instructor in person is leaving, but they are angry at what it represents. To them it means that they are not worth an education that is characterized by continuity and stability. Especially if they are minorities, first generation college students or just kids who need some attention, then the brutal budget cuts, the large classes, and the large amount of contingent faculty that change every year tell them that they are not worthy. No matter how hard they try, no matter how hard they work, to their legislation and to the College administration, they are not worthy.
  2. The low opinion commenters have of students. True, they drive us crazy, many of them are entitled little brats who in four years will have a salary that exceeds what we will make as full professor, thanks to their daddy’s connections. Yet, they are still your students, and when you signed that contract, you assumed an educational responsibility. Why don’t you spend the time putting others down online and actually listen to your students instead?  It might surprise you to find that  not all of them are ignorant little airheads (and if they are, be the bigger person. It’s not like you have never been young and stupid).
  3. The lack of empathy with others that are not as fortunate to have jobs or contracts renewed. How dare the hoi-polloi talk back instead of vanishing into the nothing? Tenure Track jobs are getting rarer and rarer and those who have them, usually brought great sacrifices. But that doesn’t give you a carte blanche to put everybody else down and declare them lazy and incompetent. Instead being the great gatekeepers, it may serve them well to stand up for those who are less fortunate than you. You know, the whole practicing the Marxism that you’re so fond of teaching.
  4. Aside from a glaring lack of understanding that several complex factors go into the reasons why someone is leaving a place or did not find a position (aka. shit is complicated), the privilege that these nasty comments reveal is astounding. Chances are that you assholes have taught some sort of freshman intro course, in which you told them about the life of the mind, values of community and- wait for it- the value of education for their lives. It scares me that the same people who articulate themselves as eloquently as “Boo-freaking-hoo” and “Narcissistic Drivel. You are replaceable” get to teach a young generation about values, education and prepare them for the so-called “real work.”

I guess it boils down to my title question: Whatever happened to the golden rule? You know the whole “do unto others as you would have them do onto you” or the secular version “don’t be an asshole?” Is it asked too much to show some respect and either respond in a well-articulated manner, or shut the fuck up?

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VAP’s and why they suck- a Buzzfeed-style list

Recently, a well-meaning senior colleague told me that I should be excited to apply to one-year positions. “They can lead to a tenure track, and moreover, it gives you the chance to get an overview of the different institutions out there, before you settle somewhere.

Bless his out-of-touch and away-from-reality heart. Here are the reasons these Visiting Appointments suck:

1) It doesn’t lead to tenure track positions: As Nate Silber of “Das Zugunglueck” writes about his field of German Studies, the chances that you get a Tenure Track job after several Visiting Assistant Professorships is small. Heck, the chance that you get a tenure track job is small, since they are vanishing.

2) Moving expenses: Less and less universities offer help with moving expenses, and if they do, they barely cover a minimum of the actual cost. Those fresh out of grad school will put it all on a credit card, thinking they can then pay it off once the first paycheck comes in. Then, you need to add the cost of traveling back and forth to see your significant other/spouse/family, who live away from you. So, if you live frugally, don’t have any family or medical expenses, you may even be able to save something of their pay for- drumroll please- the next move.

3) Productivity (or lack thereof): Most of the time, all these positions require is a warm body who can teach while so and so is on sabbatical or enjoying other privileges of the tenure track life. This means that you will get a 3/3 or more teaching load, and it won’t be courses you necessarily enjoy to teach. You’ll be teaching intro classes until the cows come home.  Then add office hours, meetings to which you are obliged to go, talks (to show how invested you are in the place)etc. If you do your job, we’re talking about a good 50-60 hour week. Unless you prefer to live like a medieval monk (and hey, nothing’s wrong with that), your research will slow down. You thought one year should be enough to crank out an article and that book manuscript, if you write a dedicated hour every day? It can be done, but mostly isn’t. Which then in turn looks bad when you apply for tenure track somewhere else.

4) Campus Community I: The Pariah: Most of your new colleagues will be… nice. And that’s pretty much it. While there are exceptions (see the next point), most people will be friendly, but they will keep you at a distance. They know you won’t stay, and during the job season they will show sympathy, but at the end of the day, you are not in the same boat. Yes, you do the same work, you are in the same field, but still, they have no idea what it is like to apply for jobs every damn year. And most of them don’t want to know. So, you engage as much as you can, you attend all the talks, you promise to keep in touch, and finally, you leave.

5) Campus Community II: Leaving the Party when it’s in full swing: I made wonderful friends in my last two VAP’s, personal and academic. We worked well together and the numbers of majors enrolled skyrocketed (ok, they rose). They all wanted me to stay, but couldn’t really do anything about it. This led to awkward silences in departmental meetings, personal conversations, and in the end, a lot of heartache.

6) You live in places in which you don’t want to be buried:  Admittedly, I am torn on the issue. Having an open mind is not a bad thing, and experiencing different lifestyles and different opinions hasn’t hurt anybody. But then, try to be black/jewish/gay/liberal/atheist in central Oklahoma, and you’ll ask yourself whether you really have to experience EVERYTHING or whether it’s ok to have read about a few things and only possess second hand knowledge. In these places, the university campus is usually your safe island, and that says it all.

7) Your social life sucks: Granted, living the “life of the mind”, you shouldn’t care about things as shallow and trite as friendships or even relationships. But if you do, be prepared for a lot of heartache. You will slowly start  to get to know people, and then you’ll leave. If you start dating someone, and that’s a big if (see #4),  you will see this expression on their face when you tell them you’re here for a year, and no, you have no idea where you’ll be next year. And then you’ll never hear from them again.

8) Bureaucracy: Breaking leases, extending leases, paying double rent, getting your driver’s license changed, switching insurances, switching whatever benefits your previous employer gave you to the current employer, getting your mail forwarded, telling your bank you’re moving- it all may seem trivial until you have spent two days running around and on the phone taking care of stuff. Most junior academics I know could easily write an ethnography of the DMV’s of the United States  from having spent so much time there.

9) The mental drain of constantly being in limbo: Three months after you arrive on your new campus, you start applying to jobs again. You update your materials, you frantically check the job wiki, you don’t sleep, and you don’t eat.  And at some point, you stop having dreams- whether you’re ever going to have a family or settle somewhere you like seems to be out of your hands.



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Guest Post: How to improve the job search process, from the perspective of a candidate

As the job season slowly comes to an end (except for a few places that will tell you on July 27th that you can move across the country and start August 15th), a thorough evaluation of the process from Dr. Belle, previously posted on “Tenure She Wrote”.

Tenure, She Wrote

Today’s post is by Dr. Belle, a fourth-year postdoc

Job openings are both a blessing and a curse. They can infuse both search committees and applicants with a sense of hope for the opportunities to come, but at the same time the search process is stressful for everyone involved.  Search committees and departments spend their time and energy reading through applications, selecting candidates, and making choices. Are they making the right decisions? Are they selecting the ideal candidate for the job?  But, no matter the stress the current faculty are under, the applicants are under more.  Each of us applicants are applying for dozens of jobs, possibly year after year.  What’s a minor annoyance in one application, such as a system that keeps crashing, or having to ask for yet another letter of recommendation that may never be read, can become a heavy burden when you multiply those annoyances by…

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The Great Brain Robbery

“In politics, If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.” ― Margaret Thatcher

It’s not often that someone on my side of the political fence quotes someone from Thatcher’s side in order to support an argument. But I have to give it to her. Maggie has a point. All too often, in the world of politics, men talk the talk, but it’s women who walk the walk. The same goes for academic politics, in which men still dominate, the majority running roughshod over all except the most bulletproof of women academics. Despite the same degrees from pretty much the same, incestuous collection of universities that grant PhDs in the Humanities, men somehow get taken more seriously. This, despite the fact that they will more likely ruin department profile because of their arrogant posture, despite the fact that they still think with the little head instead of the big one, leading to the romancing of undergrad and grad students and lovely aca-babies, despite the fact that their work and ideas are no better than anything women produce. As a matter of fact, based on 20 years of experience, I know more men academics who have lied, cheated, padded their CVs, double-dipped in publications, claimed a book review in a vanity press a legitimate publication, produced absolutely opaque garbage that ends up in some of the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals in the nation and reigned over their departments like feudal lords. I’m not saying women don’t do these things, but most of the women I know in academia have actually followed the rules, produced good research, chased and slayed the publication dragon, something they couldn’t really achieve without support. Most of us know that support comes either in the form of a partner with an income that can sustain them both (I’ve had that luxury at one point, so I ain’t hatin’.), an often painfully-felt absence of children (had that one, too), or an ability to survive on 3 hours of sleep a night (dodged that bullet). If they do decide to get married, have children, have a life outside their laptops, they often pay the price of “failure.” It’s no different inside the ivory tower than outside it. Or perhaps not as many women cheat and lie their way through their academic careers because not as many ever make it into the hallowed halls, mocked and marginalized instead into a demeaning obscurity. Why don’t we hear their voices, why are they gagged and bound, hostage to the academy? Why don’t we see or hear more often from women who—surprisingly—still actually want to participate in a discourse that matters to them?

Simple. The same male academics who mock and marginalize also drain the last drop of lifeblood from any woman still clinging to her position like a misguided barnacle on the underside of the Titanic. Women rarely get heard because their ideas get co-opted and claimed as some man’s. Nina Negroni attributes it to EMS, Entitled Male Syndrome, that condition in which academic men expect or demand assistance, inspiration and ideas from their female counterparts without crediting them for their work and claiming it as their own. Men who suffer from EMS have a tendency to casually pop into a female colleague’s office and strike up an innocuous conversation, leading slowly into mentioning the real reason they’re suddenly acting as though they give a shit about her: they need help, be it with research, curriculum development or communication. He just got this fellowship for the semester, and he’s going to be teaching an upper-division course on Nietzsche, which he knows nothing about. But instead of saying that, he says that this is the first time he’s taught the class to this student body, and they’re so “different” from the ones he taught at Northwestern/Harvard/Wisconsin/Stanford, wherever. How would she structure a class like that for these students? The female colleague, conditioned by decades of being told that she has little worth outside the scope of a man’s appreciation, that she exists to serve men (behind every great man, there’s a great woman) and being shat upon from a height, often, particularly in her fledgling years, might feel a little challenged at this moment, that she will be deemed unfit forever and a day if she doesn’t have an answer for this question, if she doesn’t have materials she can provide to validate her claim. She may perceive the question as an honest opportunity to collaborate. Either way, she will eagerly offer up a suggestion or gladly answer a question, sometimes even her whole syllabus or painstakingly-created bibliography, in the hopes that the male colleague will, for once, be impressed enough to tell another male colleague that she is good at what she does, that one hand will wash the other at the right time, that the male colleague, when he later receives a compliment on the brilliant idea at a meeting or a conference, will say, “Well, actually, it was Suzy’s idea. She was generous enough to share it with me. Isn’t she great?” In reality, she would be thrilled with just, “It was Suzy’s idea.” Even if the male colleague said it through gritted teeth, threatened her family, and shot her in the kneecaps afterwards. She helps him because she is helpful, or because she hopes and expects that he will help her at some point, a perfectly reasonable idea. After all, it is politics. She has done her part. But the male colleague who suffers from EMS, due to neurons sacrificed in the brain to make room for his freakishly large ego, lacks the ability to see past the bridge of his pampered nose. The parts of the brain governing empathy and conscience have been subsumed by entitlement and laziness. Not only does he expect the female colleague to give him everything she has on Nietzsche, but he also assumes immediate ownership of it all, of every sentence he finds appealing, of every idea that tickles his fancy. He sees it as a gift, one among many, that he has been entitled to his entire life. It would never occur to him to give credit where credit is due, no matter how small. But it’s often not that small. I have experienced this at all levels, from my adviser to professors and lecturers to graduate students. It’s not new to me, getting the email asking about a couple of sentences in someone’s article, or the concept of a particular type of literacy related to foreign-language learning. I have stood at cocktail parties or coffee gathering more than once and been asked why so-and-so never credited me for that research or that project. I have learned to keep quiet, most of the time, except when I just can’t resist.

But it happened again just last week in the office I share with other lecturers, usually women. This semester, a male colleague is sharing it with us. He’s just there for the semester, teaching a course on the Frankfurt School. He currently spends his time outside of class working on an article, in the office, when I am supposed to be sitting in it alone, according to the system most lecturer schedules go by. I keep my answers mostly monosyllabic, and he doesn’t seem compelled to fill the silence with conversation, either. But then, last week, he became quite chatty. “Can I ask you a question?” He turned halfway in his chair to see me stuffing salad into my mouth. “I don’t want to disturb you.” Men who suffer from EMS do not realize that they have already disturbed you at this juncture. Instead of first turning and seeing whether I was free, my colleague simply assumed I would suddenly become free for him, paying lip service to the idea that he should be considerate, because he was raised to do so. “What do you need?” I asked once I’d finished my bite. I answered also out of the politeness that I’ve been taught, instead of saying, “Can’t you see that I’m trying to eat my lunch in peace? Piss off.” “I’m working on this sentence, but I don’t know exactly how to write what I want to say.” My monosyllabic responses have never revealed that I work in applied linguistics and composition, that I have taught academic writing since 1997, that I obsess about syntax and word choice. And my desk implies exactly what I want it to: that I’m a simple, good-natured language instructor who has no other interests. But my desire to solve a sentence puzzle outweighed my desire to stay mum. “What’s the sentence?” Once I understood that the sentence a) said nothing and b) did it horribly, I asked him to please explain to me in plain English what he wanted to say. After a much longer than expected tedious process of teasing out his key terms and engaging in reflective listening, I recited the sentence I’d come up with. “Oh my god, that’s perfect!” he said. And when he said that, I realized I’d just written a topic sentence for one of his primary arguments, if not the thesis statement itself. “Wow. Thanks a lot. Let me know if I can ever help you with something.” Dude, you can’t write your way out of a paper bag! How will I need help from you? And help with what? Language instruction, English composition, pop culture or translation courses? I don’t think so. Did he offer to credit me for the help I gave him? Of course not. Will I ask? Of course not. Life is too short, and I should have known better at this point in my career. It just makes me terser than before. As a matter of fact, I eat lunch elsewhere now. Maybe Maggie’s steely determination had nothing to do with her conservative values. Maybe it was just her digging her heels in because she wanted to do instead of be stolen from. Maybe it was her being the first—and still only—Prime Minister of Great Britain. Love her or hate her, Thatcher was pretty bulletproof. Come to think of it, she would have become chair, don’t you think?

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Academic Bullying

I had already given up on finding an academic job after graduate school when the call came. It was a three year visiting position in a remote, small liberal arts college no one ever heard of, but whatever, it was a job! Within two weeks, I decided to move across the country, spend whatever savings I had on the move, and tried to be positive about moving away from friends and family. And there were things to look forward to: A decent salary, conference traveling allowance, and my own office. MY OWN OFFICE, YAY! As a first job- not too shabby.

The sobering reality set in before I even set foot in a classroom. My new “mentor”, whom I will name “Ursula”, pulled me aside, and told me about a “terrible mistake” I had made in my teaching demonstration during the campus interview. I had used the textbook instead of a power-point. I listened and shrugged it off. After all, we all have different teaching styles. In my third week at the new college in the new state I had just moved to, Ursula announced she’d observe me. After the first observation, I got a 45 minute lecture on how crappy I was. She followed it up with a lengthy email on a Saturday at 11.30pm, followed by one on Sunday at 8 am asking whether I’d care to reply. I happen to have a specialization in pedagogy, have won teaching prizes, have gone to conferences on teaching, and have outstanding evaluations- I know that I am not a bad teacher. Yet, since I came from an R1 institution, it was clear to Ursula that I was unsuited for this small liberal arts college. When I asked her why I was observed so early in the semester, I was told that I needed to be “broken in.” Also, if I continued this way, she wouldn’t be able to hire me for a second year. Her suggestion for “helping me”: She wanted me to report to her once a week, show her my lesson plans for the weeks ahead, and observe me once a week as well. When I politely declined, the threat to not re-hire me was made again. My chair, responding to my complaint, told me that really, it wasn’t all so bad- Ursula was just clumsy and trying to “help me”. My Dean was apologetic but essentially did nothing, and that’s when I realized: Ursula was tenured, I was not. I would be gone in three years, she would still be around. Why would the Dean protect me? Ursula was amazingly good at berating me (“helping me”), but when I asked for actual help, it was declined. She categorically refused to share syllabi, so that I could “to grow and learn.” She then secretly interrogated students on how I taught and told them that I just didn’t know what I was doing but they should be patient with me. When I published three articles in the midst of all of this, she told the chair that, clearly, I didn’t have the right priorities. That I commuted to work also demonstrated my lack of commitment to the college, despite the fact that I arrived at 9 am and left around 8 pm most days. Since I occasionally get a haircut and wear professional clothes, I was superficial and lacked the intellectual depth and gravitas for the job. In every department meeting, she pointed out my junior status and lack of experience. On another occasion, she literally took my laptop away from me in order to; again, “help me” write an email to a student.


I’ll “help” you!

Who could I talk to? After all, I was the only one of my cohorts to get a job! To whom was I to complain? Wasn’t this the career I had chosen and worked so hard for? I began to drink a little too much and sleep and eat too little. When I met my parents that Christmas, the rings under my eyes were so blue Picasso would be envious. I was physically too weak to pull my own suitcase, and randomly broke into tears.
When I finally confided in my adviser, she said that the same thing had happened to her 15 years earlier. I was shocked. This was a thing? I was criminally naïve.

Because it is “a thing.” It’s called bullying. Unfortunately, Ursula was rather the norm than the exception. My friend Jennifer was introduced to students by her first name- because according to her colleague she had not “earned” her title as “professor” yet. Another friend was told by his chair that, with his “youthful looks”, he probably wasn’t into heavy-hitting scholarship. A young, pregnant scholar received an anonymous note “from a well-meaning friend” suggesting to abort, if she wanted tenure and an academic career. A recently married VAP in a long distance relationship was advised to not be “so attached”, because seeing your wife once a week shows a lack of commitment to the college (which employed him for a two year visiting position). An adjunct arrived at her desk only to discover that her colleague had used her desk as his personal book shelf- he didn’t think she needed her desk. A month before tenure review, an untenured professor was asked by a generally supportive and friendly colleague whether she could teach all of his courses for the next ten days as he was going to a conference in Bali. Not for free, of course, he was going to buy her a beer –“or an appletini if you prefer”… sometime.

“But that’s what unions are there for!” you might say, or “ Go to HR and complain!” I would, and so would all those others, but one word keeps us from it. Tenure. Unfortunately, one of those helpful colleagues will have to write us a recommendation letter for the next VAP position to which we are applying, one of them might be on our tenure committee, one of them might be on the committee for the next research grant, etc. Unless there are structural changes, Ursula and her cronies reign supreme.
I was also told that “It’s just like hazing, once you’re one of them, it will be fine.” Well, when my students sit in my office after rush week, sleep-deprived and teary-eyed, I ask them why they want to associate with people who treat them like crap and pay a fortune to do so on top of it? Pot calling kettle alarm! And if you shut up until you have tenure- will you still have a voice by the time you are tenured?

I know, I know: I am arrogant/ bitter/too sensitive/whiny. This is the way “the profession” is, I should have known it all before (see above: I admit to being idealistic and naïve). And yet, I wonder why we readily accept that we treat each other so poorly? It’s not a case of “if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen,” it’s a case of how much boiling water can you pour on a person before they are burnt. I don’t want too much at this point, but being treated like a human being is on the list.

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Hangin on that Tree of Knowlege- Grad School, the Album

Fresh off of the success of his hit single, “R.E.G.R.E.T,” Erudite the Terrible, that Reaver of Rhythms and Butcher of Backbeats, is proud to announce the release of his first full-length LP, “Hangin On that Tree of Knowlege.” The long ship isn’t set to make landfall until Æftera Jéola, but this track list should tide you over until the needle hits the wax!

1) The Weather’s Hot (and so are you)
2) Steamy Noodles (instrumental)
3) Hot Body of Work
4) (Shake those) Endnotes
5) Scholastus Interruptus (instrumental)
6) One-year Position (How far I’ll go)
7) Why why why
8) Freud’s Suite: The Phallus Palace (has no basement), Pleasure Principle, Our Love is Uncanny
9) You Know How (to stroke my ego)
10) Dead-end Road

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