Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Jul 24, 2010

20 Questions for Academics

Since our relaunch last fall, the Finishing School has enjoyed broadening our student body beyond the gray fabric walls of the cubicle.  Just when we think we know what we are experts on, you remind me that the workplace is not, in fact, universal.
Some of our contributing faculty are, in real-life, faculty.  Miss Bender sighs wistfully at them from across the staff room, wondering if she made a wrong turn at Albuquerque.  (Waltham, it actually was).

Listen in on the first of what we hope will be many “So You Want to Be A….” installments.  As long as the market is down, why not shop around?  (And make our Miss Bender feel less like she begged for private therapy?)

Meet Cathie and Robin,  colleagues at “a comprehensive regional university offering a rich, student-focused learning environment with an enrollment of approximately 4,300 undergraduate and more than 2,000 graduate students.”  We cornered them and their chosen professions for a round of 20 Questions, then we made it look like they were together.  That’s how we do in Virtual Academia – but we don’t lie to you about it.

CB:  How long have you been in your current field?
Cathie: It depends on what you mean by my current field.
Robin: About 10 years as an English professor.
Cathie:  I have been at my current employer for 13 years and then was in graduate school, preparing for my current field, for 5 years before that.

CB:  Have you ever worked in the “traditional office” environment so familiar to Miss Bender – the corporate cubicle, 9-5, and all that comes with that?
Robin: Not really. Though I have had regular jobs since I was 15, never very cubicle-oriented.
Cathie: I worked as a software developer/manager for 5 years and then as a grant writer for 2 years.

CB:  Anything you miss about it?
Cathie: Not really. I loved the problem-solving aspect of developing software and the feeling of accomplishment that I got when I finished some task. But that doesn't really have anything to do with a cubicle environment.  I sometimes miss software development but I do some for myself now. But I don't always have projects in mind to work on and other responsibilities often get in the way of focusing on a software project.

CB: Are there aspects of that environment that would benefit Academe?
Cathie: The sense of having to get things done on more than an individual level. In academia, we can be pretty slow to change things that need to be changed.
Robin:  I think it's good to appreciate and try different kinds of work, so you can be sure you end up doing something suitable to you.

CB: Most of our contributors work in those sorts of office cultures, and may think the grass is greener on the other side of your fence. Is it?
Robin: Well, yes.
CB:  Ok, maybe I mean me.
Cathie: I love the flexibility of my side of the fence although I think I work harder mentally now than I ever did on the other side. And it's sometimes difficult to do things and not see immediate tangible results. That happens a lot with education, because students don't always see the benefit of what we do immediately. But it is very satisfying when they come back after graduation to talk about how important what we've taught them was.

CB:  I have to admit I often draw on that from my own tour of academia – I remember that sometimes you don’t see the results for years.  Sometimes you never do, but it doesn’t mean there weren’t results.

CB: I think there are certain aspects of the campus culture that The Suits never understand if they haven’t lived it.  I remember that when I was in student affairs, I would tell stories about my students’ problems, or issues we were dealing with, like “cultural sensitivity” or administrative politics, and my corporate friends would answer with “you can’t just fire them?”
Cathie: I think outsiders (including the students) don't understand how much time we think about and talk about individual students, trying to figure them out, trying to figure out how to present information to them in a way that they can succeed, that will motivate them. I know a lot about my colleagues' students even when I don't personally know the students themselves because we talk about them all the time. So it's very surprising to me when I ask an advisee what the name of their math professor is and they don't know. We definitely think about them more than they think about us.

Robin:  I think it's true that we have more time off than in other fields. But on the other hand, there is actually NO time off. Like zero. I have gone to weddings with bags of papers to grade. I have been on vacation with piles of books that I had to read (even if I detested them). I have spent most evenings at home working on student papers, and most summers madly catching up with my own scholarship. We have a lot of autonomy and a lot of flexibility, and yes, even a lot of free time. But in other ways, we never, ever enjoy the feeling of having nothing work-related to do.

CB: Did you have any idea how immersive it was going to be? What kind of fantasy about your profession did you have going in, that your reality has disproven?
Robin:  That there would be time to sit around with other smart people and ruminate. Not much ruminating amongst the busy-work. Students and faculty alike are pretty maxed out at my university in terms of workload and time, so there isn't a lot of sherry-drinking, pipe-smoking, and pondering.
Cathie: [I thought] I would work less than when I was in software development or grant writing. That I would have summers "off".

CB:  Do you ever think about leaving the field for “the big money”? What keeps you from doing it?
Robin: Sure I do. I can't do anything that qualifies me for big money. [Ha ha] Mainly, I love my job.

CB: I often say I should have learned a practical trade.
Cathie:  I was making the "big money" as a software developer and it didn't make me happy. I make a decent living now--I don't need more money.

CB:  What does it mean to know you have a “job for life.”
Cathie: This is a difficult one for me because in every job that I've had, I never really thought I would lose it except through layoffs. We in the education field, even with tenure, are not immune to layoffs. The university could close completely or shut down my department and tenure would not help me keep my job. Even before I had tenure, I felt that I would not lose my job (even when I spoke my mind) unless something drastic happened.
Robin:  I prefer to think that I only have my job as long as I am good at it. The other way of thinking is a slippery slope to hell.

CB:  How do you keep it fresh and interesting?
Robin: Well, the students help with that, since they turn over every year, and they truly are unique from person to person and from generation to generation. Also, I like to stay current with scholarship, since all fields are constantly evolving. I think if you do this job well, you really wouldn't have the same year twice.
Cathie: My previous discipline, computer science, is constantly changing and so I was always doing something new, not always by choice. I have recently changed disciplines, to digital media studies, and so I'm still learning, still becoming acclimated to the new field.

CB:  When you counsel students entering your field, what advice do you offer?
Cathie: Be passionate about being creative and hardworking. If you like to work hard and think hard about ideas, you could do well. But with the field as tight as it is these days, if you aren't self-motivated and diligent, you probably won't make it.  Also, you really have to love teaching and sharing ideas. Really. Love. It. Teaching isn't what you do to support your scholarship; that kind of thinking would lead to misery. For most of us in the Humanities, teaching is what you do a lot of the time, and you have to want to be there, and think of it as an asset to your own scholarly development.
Robin: Communication and media studies (my new discipline) is valuable no matter what they decide to do when they graduate. So I suggest that they try to create a curriculum for themselves that will expose them to the things they think they are interested in. And I suggest they do an internship (at least one--some of them do several).

CB:  The rest of the world is jealous of Sabbatical. Why do you think this hasn’t caught on in the rest of the work world?
Robin: Maybe they aren't as smart as us. But seriously, folks. ..
Cathie: Great question.   
Robin: Sabbatical is something I always thought of as an enormous privilege-- maybe even an elitist privilege... But now that I have had one, I realize that it would be good for just about anyone in any field, and would probably yield greater productivity, retention, etc. for most employers. Could even be cost-effective in the long run. Someone should do a study. But not me. I am still on sabbatical.
Cathie: It is so valuable for rejuvenating people and helping them become more productive when they come back from sabbatical. I think, however, that most people think sabbatical means you don't do any work. That's not true. Instead, it is a time when, freed from the normal teaching and service duties, a person has time to work on some sustained project, usually scholarly in nature.

CB: Is that why it has survived in academia?
Cathie: Yes, because good work comes out of them.
Robin:  Sabbaticals actually work-- they produce good scholarship, better teaching, prestige (and admissions) for the universities. But I wouldn't be surprised if they start abating as the economy declines and the right wing gets more snippy about the intellectual elitism (or intellectual growth) of the country. I know tenure is under fire now; I am sure sabbaticals will be on the firing line soon.

CB:  Describe a good day on the job.  I’ll close my eyes….
Robin: A balance of collegial discussion about pedagogy, teaching a class on a stimulating topic, working on my own research, and leaving with enough time left to spend social time with family and friends.
Cathie: A good day is when I have a class planned that I'm excited about and it works--the students understand and are excited about the material. A good day is when I have no committee meetings but can find some time to do a bit of scholarship, some task on whatever current project I'm working on.

CB:  Now be fair – describe a bad day
Robin: Rushing. Being unprepared for class. No time to get to my own work. 50 student papers to grade by the next day. Rushing home for fast dinner, then grading all night while my daughter plays alone with her stuffed animals. Oh, and also, a student walks out of my Feminism class because he says I make him want to throw up.
Cathie: Classes don't go well for whatever reason. Many committee meetings on committees whose work is vague, unclear and unproductive. And I have lots of grading so I spend my free moments doing that rather than something I like.

CB: When you imagine yourself in a completely different professional field, what do you think is most likely?
Cathie: I would be a star on Broadway. Just kidding. Software development again. I gotz skills.
Robin: Gynecologist.

CB: When do these kind of thoughts occur to you?
Robin: When I occasionally feel that my work is too abstract, I wish I were involved in a more grassroots career, that would have a clearer and more immediate impact on the quality of life for people who have been disenfranchised.
Cathie: They don't actually. I'm very happy in academia, even on the bad days.

CB:  Another question that is probably more about me…. Do your parents still send you clippings and classifieds, under the impression that you are “still looking?”
Cathie:  No--they don't really understand what I do but they didn't when I was a software developer either.
Robin:  No, they finally stopped. But they are fond of telling people that their daughter "is a doctor, but not a real one." Shoot. Is this why I just answered that I wish I were a real doctor? Ugh.

CB:  Care to share a favorite fantasy about a personal win in your profession?
Cathie: Interesting question. I guess I have two. One is that there is an issue before the faculty that I feel strongly about. I stand up in a faculty meeting and, using my powers of persuasion, I convince the hostile crowd of the wisdom of my opinion. The second is that I write an academic book that captures popular attention. Appearances on Diane Rehm and Charlie Rose follow.
Robin: I have realized that more accolades lead to more responsibility which ironically leads to increased criticism. Also true: success --> failure.

CB: Is that the name of your still-to-be-written memoirs?
Robin: Memoirs. (Ha ha ha) And no, THAT is not the title.
Cathie: How do you know they are still-to-be-written?

CB:  There were only 19 questions – does that bother you?
Robin: The fact that you are a liar is, I will admit, irksome.
Cathie: No, but only because you've asked this question which makes it 20.

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