I am here, despite it all

The elections have taken over everything. It’s been the dominant topic of conversation I overhear in the streets and on the bus; it’s what my colleagues and students talk about over breaks and occasionally in the classroom; and it’s all over my Twitter and Facebook feeds. People are rattled and they are truly afraid. Too many posts have been written about this at this point for me to even try to link to them all.

I want to use this post to offer a slightly different perspective. I am a foreign scholar, currently on a temporary contract and looking to find permanent employment in the United States. A few months ago I applied for a Green Card, and I’m still waiting for that process to run its course. This post is about what it’s like to decide to adopt a country that seems to have decided it may not want to adopt you back. I say this despite the fact that I know not a single person who’s expressed this thought to me, but clearly those people are out there. So while my American friends are talking about despairing and even leaving the country, I am working hard to become a member of their community. I’ve had several conversations with them about why I chose to come and stay here, and what my other options might be. Their desperation seems commensurate with their awareness of what things are like outside the United States,* so this post is my attempt to explain my own thinking on this topic. Continue reading

Getting out of a(nother) hole

When you’re in a hole, it’s so hard to see your way out of it. What’s worse, for a while there, I didn’t even know how deep the hole was. I was getting by, and on paper you would even think everything was going great. But in reality, for about two years now, things haven’t been good at all. Mental Illness Awareness Week was two weeks ago, and it is time for me to reflect on my journey out of a pretty dark place and to stand in the light.

The last two years of my life have been objectively pretty shitty. My spouse cheated on me not long after we moved to a new city for me to start my postdoc*, and the relationship eventually fell apart; a close family member had some serious health problems and I was too far away to help**; a TT job offer got rescinded because of toxic*** backroom politics of the kind that I don’t think I’ll feel safe talking about even when I’m old and tenured; and inner-departmental politics were unhealthy and I was caught between students who were desperately asking for help and an abusive faculty member who was too powerful for me to take on.

Unsurprisingly, this has generated a lot of anxiety. Continue reading

Figuring out a new department

The first day of class is upon us. I am at a new school, and doing my best to figure out the culture of the institution, the students, and my department, without committing any major faux pax. Faculty orientation gave me the institution’s official beliefs about who it thinks it is, and that is useful. I am very glad I went. But that can only go so far. How do I really find out what the undercurrents are? I can’t see them, but at every institution that I have been at, they have inevitably existed. I am in a temporary position, but it is one that the department is most likely going to begin a TT search for in the coming year. So in many ways, this is an extended job interview, and my job is to not mess it up.*

They talk to me about enrollment numbers and bringing students into the major. I hold back from telling them that with them losing all the faculty in my sub-field and bringing me in just a few weeks ago, it would be a bit much to expect students not to take notice and act accordingly.** They encourage me to begin new initiatives and join multiple projects, but it’s not yet clear to me that there is funding around to support any of it. At least among the faculty members who I interact with more regularly, there seems to be genuine good will. I do really like the enthusiasm, but I do my best to both guard my time and make smart choices about whose suggestions I take seriously.

Since getting here, I have taken several steps to try to better understand my department’s culture: Continue reading

The dreaded question period

The Q&A – arguably the most angst inducing part of one’s entire talk. Inevitably someone will raise their hand and ask a question which the speaker did not anticipate and which they are not prepared for. But who is that someone? On occasion, it is a young scholar, itching to make him or herself known by asking a smart question. Often, it is the senior (male) academic who is sitting in the front row and raises his hand after each talk. Where are the women?

At two recent conferences, I kept track of who was in the room: who were the presenters, what was the proportion of men to women in the audience, and who was asking the questions. The first, a small conference of about 50 participants, had a roughly equal proportion of men and women in the audience with only a handful more men than women. There were 12 male speakers and 12 female speakers. Across the different Q&As, there were a total of 66 questions asked by men and 25 questions asked by women. The second conference was larger, with roughly 150 participants, with a more skewed audience with only 35-40% women. The talk distribution similarly reflected this makeup of the audience, with 14 male speakers and 9 female speakers. The Q&A then featured 73 questions by men and only 13 by women. In both cases, the majority of questions were asked by senior scholars, the majority of whom are men. When young scholars raised their hands, roughly a third of the time, they were overwhelmingly men, as well.

While anecdotal, these numbers speak to a current trend in my field. Conference organizers are generally aware of gender biases and do a decent job of accepting both male and female speakers at encouraging numbers. They also almost always make sure to have both male and female invited speakers.* And yet clearly there is still a problem. Continue reading

Life on a work visa

This year, like the two that preceded it and at least the next to follow, I will be unable to make summer plans. As someone with a non-permanent position, I am constantly chasing opportunities and gearing up to take the next step, move on to the next position. I expect to live in a different location from one year to the next. As a non-permanent resident, my journey is compounded by visa complications that make me unable to travel for anywhere from 2-4 months around the summer months.

This means a not insignificant amount of lost opportunities for me. I never accept invitations to teach at summer schools or speak at conferences or workshops. I don’t even apply for summer conferences, I just don’t know where I’ll be over the summer and in the following year. In fact, right now, as I worry about a commitment I foolishly made two years ago to attend an event this July, I am unable to make travel plans because the one thing I do know is that I will not live in the same place in July as I do now. But where I will live – and more relevantly, where I should book a flight from/to – that is at the moment a mystery. These difficulties, and the anxieties that they give rise to, are shared between all of us who have temporary jobs.

Being born a citizen of the “wrong” country brings with it an additional layer of complexity, beyond that experienced by other transient academics. Continue reading

Good times

My last few posts on TSW have been less than positive. It is time to reflect on the good things in my life.

I am on the job market again this year. This is not in and by itself a good thing; but I am getting pretty damn good at it. I got a good number of interviews, and just got back from my last campus visit a few days ago. I won’t hear back for another week or so, at least, so this is when hope is at its highest. Even when I don’t get offered a job these days, colleagues on search committees reach out to tell me about the good aspects of my application and to give me feedback on why the choice went another way. They don’t have to do that, and I appreciate it very much. I actually really enjoy the visits themselves — traveling to new places, meeting faculty members I didn’t know before and interacting with bright students, giving a talk and getting asked good hard questions, getting to think about my future and how I would like to shape it. I also have an excellent support system that helps with everything from listening to me practice my talk over Skype twice in one week to fixing page breaks and font issues in my handout the night before the talk. I am very lucky. Continue reading

Being a shadow advisor

My department has several wonderful faculty, working in a variety of areas, producing great work and supporting their students. There are also a handful of faculty who are not as great: toxic toward their students, condescending, generally hard to work with. As luck would have it, they are all in the same subfield, which I happen to have an expertise in, too. From my perspective, this has been a rather sad discovery: on paper, this is a great career opportunity. I am at a place with multiple famous researchers, who have work that clearly and obviously interfaces with my own, and who would be great people to talk and work with. However, it became clear early on that they are anything but great to talk to, so I have been keeping one-on-one interactions to a minimum and instead have opted for large group meetings and presentations, so I still get the feedback on my work that I require. I’ve also been cultivating interactions with others on and off campus. I feel like I’ve been fairly successful at that, so it’s not what I want to concentrate on in this post.

I feel particularly bad for these professors’ students. Over the time that I have been here, several of them have reached out to me. Some simply looking for a sympathetic ear, someone who can help them navigate their difficult relationship with their advisor. Others needing a confidence boost, after being repeatedly told by an advisor that they were not good enough. With some, I have also begun a more substantive advising relationship, since I have expertise in their areas of research. And this is where it gets tricky: some of these professors are also isolationists–they have told their students that they shouldn’t talk to anyone other than them. So, I have been meeting with students “off the books,” because I want to help, but this entire situation is clearly unhealthy. Continue reading