[formerly private…

[formerly private entry]

I've been thinking a lot lately about what I want out of academia. For years, I assumed that the goal was to get a tenure-track job. Not particularly because of the added status that came with it, though that would be nice. But simply because it seemed like it would offer the most rewards for the work I wanted to do.

Kevin's job at UIC, for example, is pretty splendid. It started off paying him around $50K, and is now a decent bit more. He teaches 2/1 -- that's two classes in one semester and one in another. Summers are off. (We won't even consider the fact that most of the time he actually teaches 2/0, or 1/0, because that's due to getting grants from the NSF, and they don't give those to humanities folks.) He does a fair bit of committee work in addition to his teaching, but that still leaves him plenty of time for research. He does work hard -- somewhere between 30-80 hrs/week. But there's a ton of time for the research he wants to do, and he's decently compensated for it all.

For comparison, my visiting position at Roosevelt was a bit tougher. I taught a 3/3 load. (If I'd been teaching full-time at a local community college, my load might have been 4/4, or even 5/5. If I'd been teaching at Northwestern or U of C, my load would likely have been 2/2, or maybe 2/1.) It's hard to say how many hours I actually worked -- if you don't count writing time, maybe 30-50 hours/week. If you count writing time, which in theory I'm supposed to, then that climbs to 30-100 hours/week. For that, I was paid about $45K (plus a $1500 travel allowance) annually. So more work and less money than Kevin, with less time available for writing (which counts as 'research' in my field). But a) he's much further along than I am, and b) Roosevelt is just a tier or so lower than UIC. So, to be expected, and generally a manageable, though tiring, schedule. (Also a nice bonus: I get some academic 'credit' for the volunteer work I do with DesiLit and the SLF and Rasaka, which all count as 'service'. Getting tenure is based on your research, teaching and service (in that order at the higher-level schools).)

Now, adjunct work (which I did at Salt Lake Community College and University of Utah is much worse, for a variety of reasons:

  • no health insurance or other benefits (I did get benefits at Utah, but that's unusual)
  • no travel allowance
  • per course pay is around $4-$5K (so that 3/3 load would work out to a pay of $30K max, no benefits)
  • no stability -- any semester, I could be offered anywhere from 0-5 courses at a given institution
  • if not offered enough courses at one school, might end up teaching at several, which requires much more commuting time, not to mention mental chaos as you try to keep track of various schools' procedures
  • generally, no office -- shared cubicle space with other adjuncts, which is minor, but annoying
  • no power in the department, and little choice in what you teach
So it seems clear, on first glance, that a tenured job like Kevin's is the one to strive for, yes? For a working writer, it seems to offer stability, flexibility, and good pay for the work, taking the pressure off the need to make lots of money publishing, freeing you to write the books you want to write.

But now, I'm just not sure it's the right path for me. It's not just the pregnancy -- even before the baby, I was feeling pretty severely burned out and overwhelmed. A full-time academic job was taking a lot more time than I'd anticipated (especially semesters where I was teaching new courses, which require a remarkable amount of prep time). I did manage to write and revise a novel in my first year of the job, but I felt harried and rushed on both the novel and my teaching, like neither was getting the full attention (and enjoyment) they deserved. And the pressure to publish didn't go away -- in some ways, it intensified, because now my academic career future also rested on my publishing well and being reviewed well. True, they don't care so much about how much I get paid for my books, but they care a lot about how they're received and reviewed -- which I have pretty much no control over, which is stomach-churning.

As for baby -- take a look at this brief summary of a recent Berkeley study on how babies alter careers for academics. It's not good news for women. Not even a little bit. I'm apparently having a baby during the worst possible period for someone seeking a tenure-track academic job. And that's not surprising, given the way the calendar works out -- that's what most academic women end up doing. Even if Kevin ends up taking on half of the child-care (and household stuff), that still leaves many many hours of work -- hopefully wonderful, joyful work, at least some of the time. But work that has to come out of one of three places: teaching, writing, or resting. Because, y'know, that's most of what I do. And honestly, I don't know that I can handle losing any more of my resting time; it feels like it's shaved to the bone already.

It's tempting to think that teaching is less work than it is. After all, if I teach three evening classes, I'm only gone 12 hours of the week; Kev can watch the baby that time, surely? But the problem is that there's a lot of other work, prepping and grading and admin, and while most of it (except for advising students) can be done at home, that doesn't mean I can watch baby at the same time -- it's work, and mostly needs my full attention when I'm doing it. I need to be realistic about the fact that a full-time tenure-track academic job really is full-time -- that they're expecting a minimum of 40 hrs/week from me devoted to the job.

All of which leaves me here -- in this position where I'm now thinking that a part-time adjunct job may be the best choice (for the next few years at least). To teach 1/1, perhaps, for a measly $10K a year (no benefits). That pay will barely cover my health insurance plus some fripperies, but at least I'd get to keep teaching, which I do love (and which I think is good for my writing). Kevin's hoping that we can find something for me that has a similarly light load but better pay; I'm doubtful, but willing to try. And I wouldn't mind teaching a bit more -- 2/2 sounds do-able, or at least worth trying. That would leave me lots of time for baby, and maybe even a little time to write. (If Kev helps a lot with baby. :-)

In the end, though, it just feels weird, considering giving up even trying for a tenure-track job. Like I'm letting the side down, somehow, by not trying to do it all, to prove that you can be a successful career woman and a good mom too. That I'm being unfeminist. I know that's ridiculous -- feminism isn't about being superwoman. It's about having the freedom to make good choices for what you want to do with your life, and being compensated fairly for the work you do. But still.

What's funny about all of this is that in some arrogant fundamental sense, I actually do think my career is much more important than Kevin's. I mean, I'm glad he loves his math and all, and I'm generally in support of pure knowledge for the sake of itself. But I like to think that my writing has at least some potential for conceretely helping people, and maybe even making the world a better place. (At least it might if I get over my anxiety about addressing political issues.) So I have absolutely no desire to 'sacrifice' my career for his. But it's also clear that right now, our family finances are likely to do much better if we rely on the stability of his income than on mine! And of course, then we come back to the general question of what will actually best facilitate my writing (once baby allows me to write again), to which the answer may actually be: letting myself depend on his income. Weird. Unsettling. Is that unfeminist of me too?

I know some of you switched to part-time work, or full-time parenting when you had babies. Or your partners did. And some of you stayed full-time. Thoughts? Regrets?

What do you think I should do?

3 thoughts on “[formerly private…”

  1. I’m not even going to pretend to tell you what I think you should do. I will, however, offer some other thoughts.

    There is a “third way,” which would be an instructorship. That would help with some of your issues, just not all. It’s more stable than simple adjuncting, and you can do a bit of work shaping what the department does. (That’s what Mark Matheson does here, and this year he’s undergraduate coordinator.) You don’t get to teach graduate courses, unfortunately, and it’s probably only likely an annual contract, but the pay is likely better than per course.

    As for the other issue about your career, I don’t know that academia needs to be the backdrop for your work. In fact, I might even argue that it’s a bit limiting. We’re discussed these kinds of problems before, but you know that there are things you do that aren’t going to valued as much as they should be in academic departments.

    You do have your academic interests and your desire to be taken seriously by this crowd (don’t I understand that). Still, there are just so many writers who look for any opportunity to leave the University, usually prose writers. The poets stay because they mostly have no other choice.

    My two cents.

  2. How severe are the consequences of straying from tenure track? I mean, can you take this decision year by year?

    Esther and I are big proponents of taking time off when the kids are little — we have generally managed to work at most 40 hours a week between the two of us. Ideally we’d like to split that 50-50, but that doesn’t always work out; at the moment I’m working full time and Esther is at home more or less full time, with the idea, however, that we’ll switch later.

    This is, by most people’s standards, an insanely luxurious amount of time available, and I’m not suggesting it’s necessary — lots of people are great parents while working long hours. Other arrangements can be made.

    Another thing to consider is where else you can rearrange your priorities to optimize for what you really want. If you’re both working 30-80 hrs/wk, you’ll need a very strong support system for childrearing — great day care, or a great nanny, or lots of very involved family (blood or of the heart) around, and maybe you want to invest in a maid and lots of take-out as well…!

    I don’t know enough about academia to know whether it’s very unforgiving if you stray off the beaten track. If you were to drop out of academia entirely for what they call in German a “Babypause” to focus only on writing and childrearing, and the writing went well, would you be in a much worse position in five years if you decided that now it was time for the tenure track?

    One thing to note is that there are definitely seasons in life. I’m very glad that we invested a lot of time in the kids when they were young — it was priceless time — and I’m also pleased (and sad) to see how much more independent they are getting, and how our role is beginning to wane.

    It was Aviva’s sixth birthday party yesterday, and I was thinking about her birthdays:

    Her third birthday was just the extended family and our (adult) friends, a big present-opening, adult gathering — we’d just moved back here from Switzerland.

    Her fourth birthday was a kid extravaganza, but most of the kids were children of our
    adult friends, and I was sort of constantly engaged as ringmaster, corralling giggling kids from obstacle course to pin-the-tail to pizza and cake, *entertaining*.

    Her fifth birthday was somewhat like the fourth, except that her relationship with the kids was stronger. But I was still entertaining a lot.

    But this birthday was totally different. All the friends are Aviva’s friends now — only one of whom is a survivor of the original kids-of-our-friends cohort — and they need no motivating to engage with each other. I came in from setting up outside to find them all clustered in Aviva’s room frolicking over a makeup set (applying nail polish to each other and Noah), and I wisely, I think, retreated. What they did need a hand with was not excluding each other — you have to watch the pack formation at this age.

    And I did end up doing a little herding and a few activities. But rather than being an effort to get bewildered and overwhelmed three-year-olds to relate, I was introducing activities to cool *down* the relatedness (and in particular the Aviva-likes-me-more-than-you moments).

    Anyway, most of that was not really related, but the point is that your role really does naturally shift, and that even when on duty, you are a somewhat-watchful ear from another room, rather than a drained and exhausted parent of a new baby schlepping and singing for the third hour in a row.

    So, getting back to you, try to look at it, if possible, not as planning your ultimate destiny forever, but as optimizing your resources for a particular, brief and intense, period. Whether that means dropping out of tenure-track for a while, or staying with it and getting a maid, nanny, and cook, or taking turns with Kevin doing the tenure-track thing, I don’t know. But do always have faith that “this too will pass”

  3. Mary Anne,

    Happy holidays!

    I’d second Ben’s thoughts above – in my own family, my father left academia AFTER (almost immediately after in fact) getting tenure. He left to join industry and has since had a great career outside of academia, while actually publishing at a faster rate than many inside of academia (so he still to this day gets requests to consider going back to academia and has persued some of them).

    My point is that you may be able to craft a career that is not entirely inside (or outside of) academia.

    As a fan, I actually think your writing (and career) will be served well to be outside of academia. I enjoy reading your works, but also look forward to more works set outside of academia – and addressing a larger audiance (I’d love to read you instead of many of the authors who are published in the New Yorker for example).

    I suspect that many of your future characters will deal with children in a different way from your past characters – and who knows, perhaps you will also write works for Children and Young Adults (and adults) – I have a feeling that you would enjoy writing YA works (and likely children’s stories as well).

    A different question you may want to think about. Unrelated to what work you are doing – where do you and Kevin want to live? Who do you want to engage with every day and week? Clearly with your habit of creating organizations you will always have people around you – but your coworkers and students have a different relationship with you than people you are organizing an event with whom you may see only once a week or so.

    As someone who works for himself, I have been stuggling with this question myself. In 2007 I’m starting a new company – so will have one coworker/cofounder there, but we are seperated by the US (he’s in Long Island, I’m here in San Francisco) so while we will be working closely together, it is not the same as sharing an office with someone.

    My Mom navigated a complex career path while raising my sister and I. She worked, but often as an independent consultant so she could set her own hours. For a time she taught at a local community college (again for flexible hours). Even so, my childhood was full of day care centers and afternoon babysitters. One of my earliest memories is of breaking my arm on the teetor totter set at the day care center when I was a bit over 3 years old. I was there because my Mom was working (and was I think pregnant with my sister at the time). She wrote software for the university where my father taught in fact.

    Whatever career path you take – I am certain you will continue to teach and to write!


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