A long mostly non-ranty rant about feeling like the middle child in an increasingly rancorous fight.
Analogies like this are always offensive and imperfect, so if you’re feeling generous, you could take this Brady Sisters thing as an allegory for me in three states, not as “you” personally in whatever stage you’re in.
Remember that “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” episode of The Brady Bunch?
I’m actually the youngest child of two, but in Academic Dust-ups Online (Ado’s, TM), I increasingly feel like the middle child. Groups are formed for many academics based on title (tenured, tenure track, lecture, adjunct, PhD student; Assoc. Prof, Assistant Prof, adjunct, grad student). Sometimes these categories overlap. And sometimes people in one category experience life and labor in ways that are not really unlike those in other categories.
It has been nearly 20 years since I started my Master’s program, so I don’t always fully identify with graduate students even when they are close enough to my own age and my personal friends, because my work responsibilities and experiences are indeed different. And it’s been 10 since I finished my dissertation. I’m not an adjunct, make a good salary (when I’m not feeling pushed into taking an unpaid leave), can apply for research and conference money, and have had steady income and benefits for 7.5 years. I’m also not tenured, though I have some job security in a 2 year contract, and I’m very “unlikely” (official terminology there) to be tenured at my current institution. I’m not necessarily more desirable on the market with my publications and experience than new Phds, and so it’s also unlikely I’ll get another job like the one I have. In that sense, though not others, I’m like everybody else on the job market trying to find something I can count on (and like many of that “everybody”, I’ve lost some hope that I’ll ever work somewhere I believe in).
When I was in the Cindy stage of my career, as a phd student, I was pretty sharp about institutional contexts, in part because I went to two different schools over nearly 10 years; Cary Nelson talked to my cohort in ’96 about grad student unions, and i was a member of the Texas State Employees Union in a Right-to-Work State. I testified before a senate committee in Texas about grad student benefits, & I served on committees with faculty as grad student as well. I really thought I had a handle on things based on those experiences, and although in many ways, I did, I’ve since learned so much more about how things work than I ever could have as a graduate student.
I think a lot of grad students now are rightly pointing out that they are excluded from a lot, and therefore can’t learn as much about institutional contexts that bear upon their futures in academia as they would like or need for sound decision-making. The Cindy Brady Me would have gone to Marsha Brady and demanded I be included too. And Marsha would be in a difficult spot. She might think I’m too young to understand, or, she might not want to keep information from me/Cindy, but nonetheless wants me to finish my F#$%ing dissertation within 6 or 7 years. And she believes that department conflict and university conflict is often demoralizing, which isn’t conducive to focusing on one’s research, or finishing a dissertation with some degree of intellectual rigor and with enough efficiency to limit debt. So Marsha might weigh these things and say, “You know, you really can’t worry about this stuff; instead you should focus on finishing the diss.” This is precisely what Cindy-me was told by my Marsha Brady advisor figure. As Cindy, I took 1/2 the message to heart and the other 1/2 to the union meetings. I finished in a total of 9 years, but back in the 60s, er, I mean 90s/early 00s, you could sort of do this long slog at state publics in relatively cheap cities without debt. In any case, I think my Marsha figure was right in urging me to get the diss done above all else. And another Marsha figure was also right when she said “You don’t do a PhD to get a job; you do it to get a degree you want in a program of study you want. No more, no Less.” That’s a frustrating thing to hear from somebody with a job doing precisely the kind of job you want, obviously. But there’s an intellectual logic to it. PhD programs may change their goals in response to the market, but even when that’s a reasonable solution, it must be said that it’s capitalist logic, not intellectual logic.
Anyway, I should admit that I was pretty comfortable being Cindy, probably because I wasn’t mired in debt (and again, that seems pretty unlikely now for most grad students, and only gets worse for adjuncts). I liked being told that things beyond my control were not going to help me finish my degree because it did allow me to feel justified in working on my dissertation, even as I embraced the opportunities to be an activist against George Bush’s Texas governorship and presidency. And so I finished the terminal degree in 9 years–a bit long, but not much worse than most–with no sense I’d get a faculty job, and no conviction I should feel bad if I didn’t.
I’m not Cindy anymore, and I’m not yet Marsha. As Jan, I am struck by the realization that when I was Cindy, I had absolutely no contact with the people who ran my universities–in the household analogy, Carol or Mike (which, obvs, is where my analogy Brady family is not like the tv Brady family). From the position of Jan, I not only know that Carol and Mike are the real players, but I also know that Marsha and Carol and Mike are really not the same, and don’t always have the same investments, experiences, or opinions, even if they’re all Brady. Marsha, after all, doesn’t share any genes with Mike. Nor does Carol. And if Carol shares DNA with Marsha, she’s still making her decisions in relation to Mike more so than she’s accounting for what Cindy, Jan, and Marsha think. She may listen to Cindy, Jan, and Marsha, but only Mike has the nuclear option of divorce to hold over her head. Cindy, Jan, Marsha can strike and skip dinner, but Mike can still divorce all of them and use his powerful law firm to ensure he gets the house and the housekeeper. Honestly, I think more graduate students and adjuncts are aware of these dynamics now than ever before…when I was Cindy, it wasn’t as dire to know about, I guess, and maybe I was a little pollyanna-ish, like the Cindy on tv. But there’s hearing this, and there’s SEEING this and watching it go down from a powerless position–and I can say I only genuinely understand the magnitude of it NOW. I bet if I were Marsha, I’d understand it even more fully. But that would not mean I was in a more powerful position to act, and that is the sad state we are in.
When people talk about tenured professors and describe them collectively as if they are monolithic (and usually assholes), I think “well, not me, I’m not one of those tenured people.” But I also think, “honestly, why would you talk about people as if they are all the same, and uniformly bad? My academic training told me not to do this, to see nuance, and even see nuance within structures–we did get to Post-Structuralism, after all. I also think “jesus, if that were your mom or dad would you feel ok about somebody saying stuff that way?” (And yes, this makes me a lieutenant on the tone police force, but I still believe in respecting people who have experience I lack, and if my tenured colleagues sometimes seem clueless, I still believe I should try to point this out with tact and not assume some superior moralizing position or name-calling or whatever). I mean, most college administrators aren’t as cool or kind as Mike Brady, and maybe many tenured professors are the worst. But many aren’t the worst, and we need responsible responses to data that recognize the diversity of academic labor and are attuned to institutional context and disciplinary norms–as well as organizational structures, since disciplines like History are sometimes placed in Social Sciences, sometimes Humanities, and Rhetoric is sometimes in Liberal Arts and sometimes in Communications. (And NB, Law/Business Profs are pretty different from other kinds of Profs too).
When I hear that some Full Professor was making ridiculously oblivious claims about the way the academy works, there’s part of me that thinks “Marsha Marsha Marsha!” And I do get angry. I marvel, for instance, that she’s so worried about her nose, when I’m stuck in my Jan-ness over here and don’t even get to be in the same yard space where Greg and the boys are throwing their football. At least you’re close enough to get hit by the ball, Marsha, so take your swollen nose like the f$%king compliment and sign of access that it is.
When I hear somebody who has not held a full time professorship making broad generalizations about professors, and specifically tenured professors, however, I also get angry. There’s part of me that thinks “Cindy, when I was doing my PhD, I totally thought that too.” Usually, I still think that *and* I also see this other thing, because now that I’m in the middle stage of my career, I have access to information, experience, and a wider view. And, though I’m juggling a bunch of different things, I also have a bit more breathing space and security in which to look around me. That is, trying to finish a book because I am a scholar is not the same as trying to finish a doctoral dissertation because I need to stop paying tuition and I have the freedom to look for work without also being accountable to an advisor, committee, & registrar. I am still trying to keep my head down and do my work like my Cindy version of myself, but I’m also allowed/forced into the world in which Marsha, Mike and Carol are talking. They are sometimes even talking about ME, and what to do about ME…I’m not them, but unlike my Cindy-self, I know more about what they’re saying and why they say it because now I’ve become Jan, and it’s made me aware of things going on in multiple directions. People show me documents with a lot of institutional statistics. One thing my Cindy self never saw was enrollment stats, credit hour information, and the degree of difficulty that comes with scheduling a curriculum for majors and non-majors, taught by people with different ranks, benefits, payscales, credentials, and talents.
Another thing my Cindy self never saw was my professors working on their teaching, and that led to my feeling that tenured people didn’t really do much work on that. I based this largely on the way some of them ran grad classes, where they’d come in and have us do a lot of the talking, or would go off on tangents. Was I correct?
Not really or necessarily, I must say in retrospect. My profs weren’t *just* teaching grad students who carried the weight of discussion, after all. And maybe some of them were not stellar undergraduate professors, simply using recycled materials every year, giving the same lectures, relying on TAs to grade papers and deal with student apathy about content the TAs had no control over. But several of them were very much putting effort into their teaching at all levels; those who weren’t, that unused time wasn’t free time, and every one of them was taking seriously the mandate of those with the luxury of research support: to advance knowledge in the field. Some of us can’t do that so easily, and those who can really must, or grad students can’t actually learn new material from people who are doing specialized advanced research. This sounds incredibly selfish, but as Jan, I benefitted from this apparently selfish thing. Advanced coursework is tied very tightly to advanced research; admitting fewer grad students obviates the need for more specialized coursework, or limits the diversity of graduate curricula. It’s just how numbers work. If you want to study modern poetry, but the program only has the numbers to fill one advanced seminar, you will simply have to take Shakespeare or whatever the one thing offered is when you’re looking. Or you can take another couple years extra in your PhD to ensure you get to take the course you actually want–which nobody can afford.
As Jan, I often feel as if my tenured colleagues aren’t doing as much as as me, but I suspect that’s not because of tenure so much as generational shifts in my field and training. Because I taught loads of Composition, where extensive commenting was conventional practice, I have a different sense of what it means to give feedback to students than some of my older colleagues. I also have been trained to do all kinds of other things in the classroom, using technology and busting the canon, changing what I do often, and making a student-centered environment rather than a top-down, I-lecture-you-listen-and-fill-in-the-blank environment. This is better teaching to me, but it’s not entirely fair (or fair at all) to assume 1)my colleagues don’t also do this in different ways 2) my colleagues’ methods are less good than mine, 3) they are all lazy and the cause of exploitation of others. Yes, to say this is giving them the benefit of the doubt, and perhaps it’s overly generous for some (and indeed, I know it is). But there’s a lot of my bright-eyed adorable Cindy left in me; I think generosity is how we should treat people who are our colleagues and positioned toward the common goal of educating students in our courses.
The fact is that Marsha, Mike, and Carol Brady may be in a position to share those goals, but honestly, my experience with Mike-types as Cindy was nil, as I’ve said. And as Jan, I only get mostly 3rd party conversations with Mike types. And honestly, there’s people beyond who have more power than even he (these CFO types who are all numbers all the times). They only share the common goal in name only.
For instance, they want class sizes to signify small and intimate for parents, just like profs who want to teach small, intimate classes. But they don’t actually want us teaching small classes, because then we’d not be working hard enough for the pay we get. Or, because they’ve heard about MOOCs, and think they aren’t getting enough bang for their buck unless we all have hundreds of students. They want to assure parents we know all our students names, but they don’t think its cost effective to allow for environments where it’s possible to know names, recognize an individual’s work apart from others, and offer close and thoughtful guidance to each student.
As Jan, I see that arguments from Cindy that Marsha seems to barely do any work are basically the same as the Beyond-Mike types who say “only 19 students in that class? That’s underenrolled! Your department doesn’t need any new tenure lines, and in fact, it can afford to lose all its assistant profs.”
As Cindy, I might not have understood this–surely there are enough classes and students to justify having professors around. But I understand now that these numbers are really about what an institution wants to pay, not what it can afford; and they’re about shrinking departments and numbers, shrinking union sizes and coffers, and cutting off the departments that are actually cheapest to run. So when I think “Marsha Marsha Marsha,” it carries a new degree of sympathy. Whatever else it might be, it’s not an accusation or a flip comment.
As Jan, I also see why, as Cindy, I was a necessary and important part of the system–something that maybe Marsha took for granted at times, and didn’t acknowledge nearly enough. Graduate students have a major intellectual contribution to make and a have more energy and curiosity and freshness than their middle and older sisters. They drive things forward as much as the most research-focused Marsha-figure does, and they can be less fettered by conventions and rules because they have been brought up to respect those rules but also are in a position to get them down and re-imagine or reject them. Sometimes, this manifests in rejections of Marsha altogether, but I think this tendency to dismiss input from tenured people as “tenuresplaining” is profoundly disrespectful, and the conflation of a single tenured person with all tenured people is unproductive and shortsighted.
As Cindy, I wasn’t personally circumspect enough to see that my professors and advisors were people whose differently situated lives could not be generalized about. As Jan, I know how different I am from Marsha and Cindy, and so I can understand Cindy’s struggles while also seeing them as new and not like my own; I can also see that Marsha’s high school life can suck a lot for people in it, and even though a lot of them are way less than fortunate than Marsha, that the student council president really can’t bring a jacuzzi into the gymnasium, even if the student body votes for it en masse.
I usually hate the use of analogies to describe academia, so I have no clue why I feel compelled to write this myself, except that I just feel besieged on all sides by arguments and stuck in the excluded middle (which, as we know from my favorite novel, is bad shit). I suspect this one will earn me some ire from people who do not want to be compared to little blond girls or lumped into heteronormative 60s family structures (although we should remember that Mike Brady’s actor was not hetero and siblings Jan and Greg were messing around, so it wasn’t entirely normative off-screen). I’m not actually blond or in support of marriage (except that everybody should have equal access to it, even if they decide, like me, I don’t want in), or one of three sisters, and neither maybe is anybody else reading this. [What about Tiger, you may ask; who's tiger? Is somebody supposed to be the Dog in this scenario?]
But I suppose whatever category you imagine yourself in as you choose your camp for solidarity in opposition to another, remember there’s more than just tenured and untenured, and that there may be a lot more of us in the middle than you think. Folks in the middle with me, insofar as we’re even a group to ourselves, don’t really appreciate the blanket denunciation of people we work with after one comment from some tenured person we don’t. And we also don’t like people with apparently secure positions to condescend to those without them—they are the life and future of our disciplines, and those who haven’t had real opportunities to see how an academic profession works from the inside simply can’t know all the important insights that the insiders have. But rather than talking down or excoriating, I think we all might do better, from our various positions, to explain how situations work where we are, how decisions are made, and where some attitudes come from. We can start by recognizing that some people may be both clueless about various struggles people face and also know more than we do about the academy. At the same time.
The thing is, you don’t actually have to be Jan to understand that…and my former Cindy and my current Jan-self takes comfort from that.