Quit Lit

I have mixed feelings with academic quit lit. To explain, quit lit is the post or letter about leaving academe. The job market stinks and one could spend their entire academic career trying to piece together courses and live at or close to the poverty level. The quit lit genre feels close to home and that is likely one reason why I am uncomfortable. I spent the better part of my career as a lecturer or sessional. Part of it allowed me to get teaching experience and start my family.

The other part of this is the luxury of having a gainfully employed partner and my absolute unwillingness with moving off the West Coast. I insisted that staying near my family of origin was necessary. But, quit lit also makes me sad, as I see most of the posts or letters penned (er, typed) by women academics. I am also reminded of my research about women in political science and all the 1970-1990 early quit lit letters to the Women’s Caucus in Political Science. Yes, the archives included personal stories about leaving political science.

I also have guilt. I ended up moving up the coast and immigrating to Canada to start over. I co-owned a business, applied for government work and had a few interviews, and on a whim, I applied to teach a class at a local university. I got on the part-time track again, but this time after a few years I moved to the tenure-track. I feel like an academic unicorn. The quit lit stories hit me in a sore spot and my sense of empathy is raw. Last hired, first fired. It’s a rough place to live. I remember. I’m including a photo of San Diego State, where I earned my BA in Women’s Studies, and MA in Liberal Arts and Sciences. I’m in town for a family issue. And, it was at State where I decided that I wanted to be a college professor.

Revisiting Course Experience Evaluations

During the term faculty are required to distribute university approved evaluation forms for students to fill out and these instruments field a wide array of responses. The campus where I work is moving to online evaluations and the reaction is mixed. Regarding student evaluation I have heard lots and have blogged about the evaluation process, but these are the most common responses that I have heard recently.

They are not qualified to judge me

It’s a popularity contest more than anything else

I don’t read them

They’re useful

I read them

I bury them

I learn from them

I don’t like them

The comments will turn into a RMPish experiment

I do not want to engage in the online versus paper evaluations for this post. Much of academic life is filled with judgment. We get assessed by our peers, by our department, reviewers of scholarly presses, others up the academic food chain, and by the government and public if you are at a public institution. Frankly, everyone is always weighing in about higher education.

We judge and assess student work, yet somehow we are uncomfortable with this singular act of student assessment of our course or courses. Why? Well, that is cause for a long post. Let me speak to how I have changed my feelings about them. I think that the official university evaluations are a mixed-bag. They provide feedback. Some of the feedback is useful and other feedback is interesting and at times not helpful. I am sure we have all had this experience with a peer review:
Reviewer 1 provides good feedback and you know that they read your chapter or article. Reviewer 2 has skimmed it and refers to some work that you cited, but the reviewer did not bother to notice this. Reviewer 3 did not read your work and really dislikes the topic and offers nothing that is useful beyond you wishing evil upon this person. . Reviewer 4 refers to his or her work and how this article offers nothing new, but there are a few helpful comments.

Student evaluations can work like this, too. However, the rub is that our departments use these evaluations to measure teaching effectiveness or prowess and at times the numbers and comments do not paint an accurate picture or maybe they do?! Perhaps your students really like you and like your courses and the evaluations offer this assessment. But, maybe your students dislike you or the material and the evaluations convey this. And, that is the problem. We need to assess the larger picture and the evaluations offer one part. This is why peer evaluation is also important. But, do not stop there. If your campus has a learning and teaching center, visit it. Take some workshops and avail yourself of the various opportunities and make sure that you add these workshops to your vitae in the appropriate area.

Teaching requires work and preparation and we have a tough audience. Our students are bombarded with distractions and if they are not interested in the topic I feel like I have to catch them. But, alas, no matter what I do, I will not catch all of them.

What does this mean for student evaluations, then? They are necessary. But, faculty can respond by reviewing them and reflecting. Do you need to mix things up? Is it time to have a trusted colleague do a peer review of your syllabus and lecture? Departments also have to invest in faculty and offer opportunities for professional development and insist that faculty work on their teaching dossier. I am biased here as teaching track faculty, but am resolute in my opinion that teaching takes work. I include a photo of Stress Paul, a rubber stress ball.


Revisiting Positive Thinking

Students are really stressed out this time of year. Frankly, so are faculty. November means tons of the usual deadlines, meetings, and a partial “reading break.” What a misnomer that is! Given my profession as a college professor, I am surrounded my young people, by students. And, this year if I could wish them anything it would be more positive thinking. I know that some will scoff and say, “They are so self-indulgent and have a sense of self-entitlement.” Well, that really is a small percentage in my opinion. There is a larger contingent who are really trying to figure things out—who they are in the world and what they want to do.

My wish to students is for more positive thinking. Remember that there are people who believe in you and your success. This does not mean that I am going to give you A’s. No, I do not give grades, students earn them. If you get a grade you do not like, this does not mean that I do not like you or that somehow the rubric was unfair. Instead, take a step back, inhale and exhale and own your performance. Then, think about how much research, time, and writing you put into the assignment. Go into your classes and assignments with a positive attitude. The attitude and interest in your classes can carry you a long way.

Likewise, you really should sleep on the comments and mark and avoid firing off an email. If you have concerns or questions about the assignment, you really should confer with your instructor during office hours or make an appointment. I’ve had many apologies from students face to face–once I’ve commented on an inappropriate email that was sent my way. I do not engage these emails. My usual response is something like this: This email is problematic and this conversation must take place face to face and not via email. My advice to everyone: never send an email when you’re angry, as you’ll usually regret it.

Back to positive thinking and visualizing your success. As I have previously said much of what I do is validate students. Yes, you are on the right track. Yes, that paper topic sounds promising. However, you ultimately have to do the work. Your first step is being honest and optimistic. The second step is planning. Planning your thinking, studying, and writing time. Stop reading this post and get back to work!

Job Application Season in Academe

I’ve served on numerous hiring committees over the last 14 years. Many times as the graduate student representative and now a handful of times as a professor myself. I’ve come to the realization that I have had exceptional mentors. People who always offered to assist me with my file, my interview, and the entire job process. I can see that many committees and mentors are failing their students and not offering enough supervision so that their mentees are sending out the strongest files that they could. Perhaps the applicant is not listening to the advice, but I find that harder to believe.

I have reviewed numerous job applications…not only the academic, but also the administrative staff applications and one of the easy things for fixing–read the job application. Many people seem to not read the job application closely and this influences the file. These are the applications that go in the “no” file immediately.

Specific to academic files for tenure-track jobs not reading the job application is a major flaw. But given the academic job climate people are throwing their files into the ring in hope that people will take notice. There are few jobs! So some applicants are applying for them all, but be careful here. You don’t want to misrepresent your work or your research agenda for a job that calls for a comparativist and your heart is really in political theory. Regardless, it’s important to submit the best file ever. If the application calls for a CV–submit one. If the application calls for a research statement and teaching statement-submit them.

Let’s break this down, though. What does a research statement mean? What are you working on and where do you see your research going in the next five to ten years? What is the next project? And, the next one after that. What is the guiding theme with your research projects? Why are you engaged in this research? You want to explain all of this in such a way that it is clear that you know what you’re doing and have thought considerably about where you are in the field. Likewise, this also afford you the opportunity to speak to grants or awards. I imagine that it varies by field, but I do know that listing the amount of the award is instructive.

The teaching statements is probably harder to write, since anyone who has sat on one committee can explain that the teaching statements will not vary too much in content. You enjoy teaching, want the students to feel safe, use innovative techniques or technology in the classroom, you are open to learning, and have good teaching evaluations. OK, I just ran through that rather quickly, but the teaching statements are often quite similar by most. Where they vary–is the strong writing and the people who have spent more time polishing the teaching statement so that it really reflects some depth. If you have only taught once or a few times–be honest about that. There is nothing worse in my opinion than someone who has taught once and attempts to put together this full dossier based on that one time.

You should have trusted people proof-read your cover letter, statements, and run through the interview questions (if they bother to provide them). If the campus does not provide the questions, your mentors or friends will be familiar with some of the standard questions. They vary, but will include: which classes are you willing/able to teach at the undergraduate/graduate level? What class in your area are you looking forward to teach? How do you mentor/supervise students? Where do you see your research going in five years? Are you prepared to do service? (This might not get asked). But, you see where I am going here.

Things to avoid: If the call asks for hard copies, send hard copies. If there is a deadline, meet the deadline. Many departments will place a sticker or handwritten note on late files. Do not send in a folder or binder, as the file might need to be photocopied and this makes it harder for the staff. If you must submit it in a binder, do so with a three-ring binder and not one of those inexpensive clip binders, as they cut off the first 1.5 inches of the left margin and are a pain.

And, this might sound harsh, but the committee or the staff will not take the time to contact people who are not short-listed. So, please do not expect an email or note in the mail. Some calls for applications will field upwards of 300 applications and there is just no time to contact people. Even if the call fields less than 50 applicants, people will not get contacted unless they are invited for an interview. And, if you don’t get invited–it’s not always about you. It could be about the committee or what the department really wants.

This is a quick, run-down if you will of my primer on the job application process. I will blog more about this, as the topic deserves a fulsome discussion. It’s also important that I add that this post in now way reflects my employer. I am pulling together many hiring committee experiences here and not from one campus, but from three.