On the surface, I have the job that nobody else wants. I am a contingent faculty member at a Research I institution that values research more than teaching. I asked a previous university president how he would ensure our students would continue to receive high-quality instruction in this era of enrollment-based funding, and he responded that he would hire more adjuncts so that people like me could do more research (not realizing, of course, that I was one of those “adjuncts” who teach). Later, when speaking with another administrator on the problems plaguing non-tenure-track faculty at our institution, I jokingly suggested that we get rid of non-tenure-track faculty altogether. Their reply: if we were to get rid of adjunct faculty, the university would go bankrupt.
Bankrupt? The title of my unpublished monograph is: Daughters of Bankruptcy in Victorian Literature: Narratives of Ruin, Work, and Survival. Overwhelmingly, these narratives feature heroines who reveal a greater propensity for risk-taking and professional growth when they lose their basic financial and social securities. Of course, I had never imagined that I would become a “daughter of bankruptcy” myself, that is, if I consider myself heir to what is clearly a bankrupt system of funding in higher education. Yet here I find myself, in a position that denies me access to the rights of tenured faculty, such as the right to academic freedom and shared governance, and, even more importantly, the right to feel like I am a valued member of my department and institution.
And yet despite all of that, like the daughters of bankruptcy that came before me, I have found myself to be the heroine of my own narrative. I have found that despite the fact that I belong to an unprotected class of faculty, stripped of basic academic rights and securities, that I have achieved greater professional happiness and success than some of my peers who have gone down the path toward tenure.
To be sure, my non-tenure track position, even right from the start, was legions above other contingent faculty positions. In 2012, I was offered a 3-3 teaching load on a semester system with a salary in the mid-40Ks, but this offer was made as a spousal accommodation, and it was extended to me because I had a tenure-track offer at another institution. Nevertheless, I spent my first two years at WSU teaching in the composition program, feeling at times like I was a graduate student again, as if that PhD was nothing more than a certificate of debt and guilt. Even after 6 years at the institution, my lack of value and relevance in my department is enough to drive me to tears, but I have also learned that senior faculty members all across the university have experienced these same feelings of irrelevance.
And so yes, despite all this pain, all this struggle, I have found peace in my professional practice. Increasingly, I choose to place my ethical beliefs and personal values ahead of what I know could bring me greater prestige. Namely, I temporarily abandoned my monograph on Daughters of Bankruptcy in order to build the Passport Program: a humanities-oriented approach to mentoring and professional development. I have formed profound and powerful networks across the university through the Association for Faculty Women. And I have been steadfast in my value that every human being can make meaningful contributions to our community. These three activities form the basis for my advice to English PhDs.
1. Launch your Research into Action.
When I was a post-doc at Georgia Tech, I was given the unparalleled privilege of teaching my research to high-achieving engineering students. What I quickly experienced was a crisis of the profession: why do engineers need literature? I had two years to work through this problem, developing courses on sharing economies, Victorian architecture and design, invention mobs, and posthuman literature. These creative, multimodal, and applied interventions served me well on the job market. But more importantly, they laid the groundwork for my future developments in putting my research into practice: The Passport Program. Professional development is a hot topic in undergraduate studies these days and it’s a market response to skyrocketing tuition rates and declining majors in the humanities. I realized that I had the power to implement my research on confidence, purpose, compassion, and adaptability into workshops for our students, and that these workshops would not follow decontextualized and depersonalized approaches to professional development that are often the norm today.
My advice is that you convert your research into practice, informing interdisciplinary collaborations, student success, a new medical school, or other money-making ventures, not only so that you treble your value as a faculty member and perform better on the job market, but also, because you’ll feel the much deeper rewards of putting your research into conversation with public practice. Even better, your research enables you to provide nuanced insights into otherwise meaningless market-oriented enterprises.
2. Build meaningful human networks.
Ultimately, in academia, you are on your own. You have to motivate yourself to do the work each day. You have to feel good about what you are doing, and where you’re going. It’s hard. It’s lonely. It’s infuriating. The stronger our networks, the safer we will feel in speaking up. A network holds us up, enables us to take principled risks, to be bold, to change lives, and to resist.
It’s not enough to form networks with your academic cohorts. Look beyond your discipline to other players in all sectors of your institution. Wherever you are, and whatever role you are in, I assure you, that you can and should be part of larger conversations in the profession well beyond your academic home, and it almost always begins with you being an active listener and staying in the room when you don’t feel like you belong.
When I first began attending the meetings of the Association for Faculty Women, I felt too young, too adjunct, and too humanities-oriented, in a group of STEM-strong female administrators. But I kept going, and every conversation I had, however awkward or difficult, filled me with new opportunities to learn about the university and its people. Over the years, I have formed powerful and long-lasting professional relationships across the university, and now I’ve been elected president of this very association. In other words, your anxiety that you don’t belong or don’t have anything important to say is temporary and illusory.
3. Know your values.
Happiness, John Stuart Mill writes, emerges from struggle. Perhaps he could not have predicted the number of struggles we would face in the 21st century. We confront racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and much more in higher education. We face too many struggles to capably combat them all. To survive, we play the game and we make compromises. But what values are you unwilling to compromise on? I recommend that you choose to value and struggle against the very injustices that your research points to—injustices you didn’t even know were at the heart of your original study—and put your research into practice, laying the groundwork for institutional change. From these values, you can continue to draw your strength, rise up, and resist.
Increasingly, I have chosen people over publishing. I have chosen students over status. And I feel better about myself as a practitioner in my discipline than I have ever felt before. My advice is that you treat every encounter you have on the job market and in your careers with openness, curiosity, and enthusiasm. Approach everyone and every situation with a growth mindset–be ready to shift, pivot, and adapt. Don’t think of these job interviews and networking opportunities as moments to be judged; think of them as moments to engage in personally sustaining and life-affirming conversations.