09 September 2005

Shreds & Patches Gather No Moss

About a month ago, I responded to a call in the Chronicle of Higher Education for submissions by "graduate students, faculty members, and administrators who will be on the job market in the 2005-6 academic year and would be interested in keeping a diary of their job search."

Yesterday I got the reject slip, so there's no need to keep it under wraps any longer. Its original title was "A Thing of Shreds & Patches," with the alternative title "Gathering No Moss." Submittants were permitted to use a pseudonym to protect their tenuous hold on current employment; I chose Nestor Didaskalos, for reasons which the following may make clear.

Without further ado, have at it.

A Thing of Shreds and Patches
(alternate title: Gathering No Moss)

by Nestor Didaskalos

I've been an irregular in academe for over thirty years. The first fifteen were spent in tenure-track positions that didn't pan out; since then I've lived the gypsy's life of perpetual adjunct instructor and part-time administrator, at institutions ranging from large urban universities to a tiny rural community college. For much of that time, I've been more or less content with my lot, because in the beginning I told myself that I was only doing this college stuff to support my habit of writing (poetry, plays, fiction, hypertext), and then I found I had the knack for it and enjoyed the work, and eventually got good enough to think I could maybe make a living as a professor, and so I have, after a fashion.

But recently the grasshopper's perspective on getting and spending has grown pretty tired, not to mention nearly suicidal in today's economy, and I've begun to adopt the ant's industrious and systematic approach. In short, admittedly late in the game, I find myself in the market for a full-time job.

Like most academic nomads, I've had to turn my hand to many different tasks along the way -- student counseling, curriculum development, program directing, publications, communication design, faculty training, tech support, online course development, and -- oh yeah, teaching: dramatic literature and theatre history, writing of all kinds (from stage plays to electron lit), all manner of interdisciplinary studies, and, most recently, in an ironic plot twist no fictioneer could ever get away with, speech communication, the only course I ever failed in college (well, it *was* 1968...).

At the moment I'm going after positions in instructional technology, in part because I love playing with the toys, but also because I really like helping people figure out how things work -- it's the master motif in every one of my lectures, for example -- and one of the most challenging problems in most of our lives today is persuading all our devices to cooperate so we can get our work done. My dream job would be one in which I'd often get the chance to say, Sure, I can help you with that.

I just got back from a two-day conference of people who hold down such jobs as I'm applying for, and a jolly time it was indeed. Some of them teach, some write books, some run stables of other techies, some are the only one of their kind at the school they serve. But all are finding new ways to look at the world through technology, and, in a practical way, explore the media environment that claims more and more of our time and attention day by day. After the plenaries and workshops on each day of the conference, we all repaired to the local watering hole to tell tall tales, share war stories, and occasionally find a solution to a problem -- conceptual, professional, even personal.

With ant-like focus on my objective, I did the networking thing, trying not to act desperate while also letting folks know I was in the market for a job like theirs. I hate this part.

In later installments of this diary, I'll no doubt relate much of the saga whose ever-unfolding plot has landed me in my present uncertain situation, but I believe I'll dedicate this episode to an account of the first lesson I learned about having an academic career, maybe any career: things change, and you need to find out whether you're willing to change with them, or should follow your bliss somewhere else.

A dramarama in college, I'd gone to grad school to make plays, not write papers on literary theory or research theatre history, though of course I was resigned to having to jump some academic hurdles to get my MFA, at that time a terminal degree. This I did without stealing too much time from writing my scripts.

If there was a job *market* when I first started working in higher ed, I didn't know about it. My first offer came about almost by accident: I'd dropped in to the Assistant Dean's office at the first school I visited -- with no application, no inquiry, no resume in hand, and no idea if there was even an opening there -- and it just happened that the fire escape from her office led right across the roof to the fire escape of the office that a brand new drama department was temporarily inhabiting. The Dean herself walked me across to make sure I didn't get lost. It was a different world then.

This brand new drama department had a killer business plan. There already existed a conservatory-type theatre program at the university, with a student-faculty ratio of about five to one. The new department took in the rejects from this conservatory program and farmed them out to professional training schools throughout the city, then brokered the rest of their BFA requirements through the university's Arts and Sciences college. Technically, no instructors were actually needed here, though the Dean at least tried to make it look like a regular department, by letting our chairman teach a course or two, and by hiring me.

My first year, we had maybe 125 students, all freshmen and sophomores (the conservatory program had only 50 in all four years). By the time I lost a tenure run-off ten years later (to a colleague I'd helped bring on board, of course), the enrollment was nearly 1000; today it's close to 1500, and the number of faculty (I was #2, after the chair) is nosing into three digits.

When I later read accounts of life in start-up software companies in the early days of the dot-com bubble, I was immediately in familiar territory: the long hours, the staggering amount of work, the certainty that we were changing the world, the unquestioned loyalty towards each other, the overall sense of *mission* -- it felt like the Wild West, and we were building the New Jerusalem.

Sounds terribly self-important, I know, but only from a perspective outside that heady, adrenaline-drenched state of mind that makes boot-strapping any something-from-nothing enterprise possible.The rush beats the effect of any drug you can buy, because it comes from inside, and when the trip's over, you've got something to show for it, something lasting, something others can pick up and take even further.

Which is exactly what happened, duh. It wasn't really the Wild West, it was a university; we didn't build the New Jersalem, but a viable department in a school of that university. Sooner or later we had to stop acting like cowboys and start behaving like academics, to quit pulling new programs out of the ether and begin making the ones we'd already invented work better.

It turned out that I wasn't so good at this second-stage endeavor, perhaps because it was too safe, too normative -- too much like a small town, actually -- but also because my relative position in the new power structure was much more constrained: I couldn't just make up a course I felt like teaching, it had to be formally proposed, then passed on by curriculum committees, and finally approved by the Dean, a process that could take a year or more. (By contrast, the so-called "feeder school" where I now earn my crust turns such proposals around in a matter of months, sometimes weeks.)

I won't say I rejoiced in being denied tenure and promotion, but it did eventually present another opportunity at frontier-farming, as it were, and over and over again since that time I've gravitated toward situations where some pioneer has opened up a patch of wilderness that now needs a town built on it, and once again, to mix metaphors, I can turn my hand to whatever's needed to get wheels under the wagon so it can go.

The world of instructional technology has been around long enough that at many schools the transition from frontier town to provincial burg is well underway. At such venues I probably won't even get an interview, which is fine with me: I'd probably hate it pretty quick. Besides, in a few years they'll likely be blindsided by a new gizmo some eleven-year-old is right this moment dreaming up in his or her basement, whilst I sit here sweating the page breaks on my latest CV.

On the other hand, I learned a hell of a lot about the local terrain at that conference last week. We'll see what the human resourcers and officer types make of my checkered credentials.


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