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.