I know how my friend, Marvin the Martian, feels. For the second time in 28 months I’m getting kicked to the academic curb and I have absolutely no plan. Teaching jobs are likely out of the question (see below), so I am considering directing my talents elsewhere: academic publishing, guiding academic tours, perhaps even offering private Latin lessons to high school and home schooled students.
My life coach asked me what I’m most afraid of right now. First I said, “Losing my insurance,” which is true to some extent. Until the pre-existing condition clause of Obamacare goes into effect, I’m going to be at risk (Damn skin cancer. And Barrett’s. And fibrocystic disease). But what really terrifies me is the possibility of making another mistake... I’d go so far as to say this fear is paralyzing my next move.
I finished my PhD in 2003 while teaching three classes (when I write “Dissertations for Dummies” Step One will be “Secure outside funding: take out a loan, borrow from your parents, marry rich; but under no circumstances try to complete a graduate degree while teaching full time.”). The next year, the department came to me and said they needed me to teach four classes to cover for a dear colleague who died. Of the four classes, I had taught only one before. Four classes, three new preps, including upper level Latin and upper level Greek. I asked the section head, “But when am I going to find time to publish?” And he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Oh, if you can teach this variety of courses you will be marketable anywhere.” He lied. I believed him. Mistake #1. It wasn’t until a job opened up at that same institution that the bubble burst and the chair said, “We can’t even justify interviewing you without publications.”
I tried to make my escape in 2006, and ended up as a Fulbright U.S. Teaching Assistant in Austria. As I sat in my $275 rented apartment earning half of what I made as a Latin instructor, I made the conscious decision that I did not need a job at a high powered research university to be happy. And I packed up my research on Pliny the Younger and gave 100% to my assistantship. How could I have known that I would be fired upon my return to the U.S.? That was Mistake #2. Mistake #3 was not staying in Austria when I had the chance - but again, I couldn’t in my wildest dreams have imagined that the university would fire someone with my qualifications: Latin, Greek, Classical Studies (including Women in Antiquity, Tragedy in Translation, and cross-listed courses in Anthropology), German, Study Abroad, Academic Advising, Residential Colleges. If you’re going to fire people during a financial crisis, wouldn’t it be in the best interest of the institution to keep the person who can give you the most bang for your buck?
Perhaps I should have taken that semester off and worked on publications - but I was in survival mode. I managed to work two full time jobs (as a tax preparer and an adjunct at a community college), earning a whopping $11,000 which had to stretch until September. And then, a deus ex machina - the Greek and Roman art historian left abruptly and recommended me as a replacement. I applied, I negotiated, I rose to the challenge. I even submitted an article for a proceedings that first semester. My colleagues respected me and treated me well. And when my job was converted to a tenure-track position, they strongly encouraged me to apply.
Mistake #4: Their encouragement got my hopes up that my hard work might pay off after all.
O.K., so my publication record is a little sparse. But I did publish an article when it wasn’t expected or required of me, and I did research last summer at the University of Graz which landed me a poster presentation at an international colloquium in Bucharest - a trip which the university is sponsoring to the tune of $2000. But my application was Not. Even. Considered. I’m the inside candidate, a known quantity, and I didn’t even make the first cut.... or the second cut for that matter. It’s not because I’m not a good teacher. I have high academic standards, it’s true, but if you just do the work you’ll end up with an A or a B in my class. I guess I think the world should work that way, too. Do the work, receive the reward. The problem is that in the business of higher education the only thing that’s valued is research and my research isn’t good enough for a tenure-track position. Without publications, my degree is worth exactly $36,000 a year before taxes. Taking into account that teaching three courses is by far more than a 40 hour per week job (including class prep, meeting with students, teaching, grading and administrivia), I make exactly half of the annual mean wage for my chosen profession.
So everything I thought I was doing to secure a place for myself in the world has blown up in my face like the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator.