Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Who Decides What Our Success Should Be?

I earned my Ph.D. two years ago and took a tenure-track job at a teaching college a year before that, while I was still ABD. I have a strong and interesting research agenda, and my teaching college has been very good about supporting my conference travel.

Every time I have a prominent role in an academic conference, however, it's only a matter of time before the questions begin.

"Why are *you* at a teaching college?"

"You're still watching the research university job listings, right?"

"How long do you really plan to stay there?"

My answers involve stating that I am happy where I am, and that I enjoy a nice quality of life through my current arrangements. But in response to these answers, the judgments (couched as compliments) begin.

"But you're such a good scholar. You deserve better than the job you have."

"You received such fine training at [Reasonably Good University]. You were prepared for an R1 job. You're wasting it where you are!"

"We have a great position open at My Prestigious University, and we only want the best. You should apply. I'll advocate for you."

When I demure and say no thanks, not now; but I'm keeping up with my research, so maybe someday; the threats begin.

"You better watch out. Every year you stay at a teaching college, it'll become that much harder for you to make a move."

"You should have no loyalty to your current institution--or any institution, for that matter. They'd drop you in a second, you know."

"You think now that you're going to stay productive, but just wait--in that kind of environment, you won't keep up with your research. You won't be publishing anymore before long."

Over lunch at a recent conference, I had this very conversation with yet another well-meaning senior scholar. These conversations always throw me off center. On a day to day basis, I am very happy at my current job. I try to resist dominant definitions of what makes a "good" academic job, because the "prestige" that comes with the "good" jobs, which meet the formula for "success," isn't necessarily a motivator for me. But these people--these senior faculty members--boy. They are like high-pressure salesmen. I see through their strategies, but they are all motivated by good intentions, so it's hard to be mad at them. But they really do mess with my mind. It's stressful.

I shared this complaint with an empathetic musician friend. He commented that in music, too, there are very rigid rules for what constitutes "success"--and he lamented that too many musicians he knows have done everything right, and still wind up waiting tables. "At least," he said, "there are more secure jobs for academics than there are for professional musicians."

But I pointed out that just as musicians can do everything right and wind up waiting tables, so too can academics. The problem is that landing the good job is only part of the equation, since tenure is never guaranteed. Academics at the R1 gigs can follow every single rule, excel in every category, and STILL be denied tenure for vague and non-contestable reasons. And so in only six years, the life you've been slaving away for is no longer yours to keep.

So who are these senior scholars to tell me that there is only one path to "success" in the academy? Can we not define success for ourselves? After so many years of education, I certainly hope we all have the critical thinking and analytical skills to judge what is right for ourselves.

Besides, why should I put all my eggs in the same basket that they've been using, when the risks seem higher and the struggle for job security substantially harder? I don't trust their basket! It's been around for at least 20 years now, and the game has changed since they were granted tenure all those years ago. Hasn't it?