Friday, September 13, 2013

On Contingency

by Mary Kate Hurley

(this post was written on 9/5/2013, a little over a week ago. The photo is one I took at Yale in Fall 2011.)

I’ve written – and rewritten – this blog post at least ten times in the past two years. It’s not because it’s a particularly hard blog post to write, but rather because it never felt like the story I wanted to tell was complete. Sitting in a plane somewhere between Ohio and California, looking down at the tops of the clouds and feeling like the world’s been turned over somehow, I’m beginning to realize that stories don’t come to a “finish” point. You stop following them, but they continue on in other forms, in ways you can’t quite expect.

It’s fitting that I’ve been returning to Nicholas Howe’s Writing the Map of Anglo-Saxon England in preparation for a conference paper I gave at Berkeley on the Tiberius B.v version of the Wonders of the East.* In his chapter on Cotton Tiberius B v and Cotton Vitellius A xv, Howe writes beautifully of the stories of geography that these manuscripts tell, the stories of “here and elsewhere.” Perhaps problematically, these stories of elsewhere have the “ultimate effect” of returning “you to a more complex understanding of home” (Howe, 191). A more nuanced reading of what that might mean, and what such a reading of the Wonders of the East would ultimately entail, is part of the work I did in that paper. But for now, I want to write about the places – metaphorical and literal – I’ve been for the past two years.

I spent the last two years working as an adjunct instructor of English at several different schools. I spent time at The Cooper Union, Barnard College, Rutgers, and – for the duration of those two years – Yale University. In each of these institutions, I learned as much and more about myself as a teacher and as a scholar than I had in the entirety of my time as a graduate student. That’s not to underplay the role Columbia played in forming my scholarly personality. But there’s nothing like the pressures of a tight job market and twelve hours or so per week on a commute to teach you who you really are, and what you really value.

I suppose, in the end, this post becomes an encomium Yalensis, although I want to write this work of praise by way of suggesting that while Yale may very well be an exception to the experience of adjuncting, it’s one that higher education and the people who populate it can learn from. When I came to the end of Columbia’s very generous funding package in the spring of 2010, no full-time positions materialized. In the end, I suppose it was as much the two years of writing fellowships I’d had as much as anything that kept me from finding a place, but no one who has been on the job market can doubt that there is no formula for success other than “be the best you can be.” And so I took on the academic equivalent of “odd jobs” – it started with a writing center position at Cooper, and began to look more livable when Barnard’s first-year English program gave me a section of Women in Culture to teach.  A late-in-the-game interview for a composition lectureship at Yale became an offer of two writing courses rather than a full-time gig – a quick bit of math revealed that I could afford both train fare and my rent, and I gratefully accepted what would become the job that gave me an academic home for two years.**

So in a way, this is a story of elsewhere becoming home. I landed in a less than ideal position – no “real” job, not teaching in my field, not even sure if a tenure track job would ever materialize. I was, to put it mildly, nervous. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure why: medievalists, as no one reading this blog needs to be reminded, are a friendly sort. Before I’d even taken my first 6.30 AM train to New Haven, I had heard from the Yale cohort of medievalists, welcoming me to their ranks despite my position as contingent, as adjunct.  It took me a month or so to feel at home enough in the department to attend the weekly medieval lunches, but once I got my courage up, I realized I didn’t need it – the medieval community at Yale was willing to have me for however long my in-between job lasted.

Adjunct faculty face a number of conditions that makes scholarly life well-nigh unlivable. Wages that don’t reflect the sheer amount of work being done.  Lack of the benefits that make a healthy life possible.  My position at Yale was, thankfully, one that allowed me a more-than-living wage, and provided the benefits I’d assumed I wouldn’t get until I was a full time faculty member somewhere. One might say, “of course they can do that, they’re Yale.” And in some measure, that’s correct – but it also reflects an ethical position that I wish more universities were able to take – investing in the people who help the university run on a course-by-course basis is as important as any other investment a university makes.

That these material concerns – healthcare, money for rent and food – were less of a worry for me allowed me the time and space to appreciate the less material but equally vital concern of finding a community. Leaving Columbia, spending so much time in other places and teaching as much as I did meant that I felt bereft of an academic home. My first year, the medieval faculty at Yale (including Roberta Frank, Alastair Minnis, Jessica Brantley, and Ian Cornelius) all made me feel at home by welcoming me to medieval events and – that most mundane of tasks – being certain I made it on the right listserves and email lists for events. The graduate students were no less welcoming. Fellow Anglo-Saxonist Eric Weiskott made certain that I found the Old English reading group (even when I didn’t have time to prepare, due to all the marking I had to complete for my first year writing courses). Senior graduate students Samantha Seal (now at Weber State University in Utah) and Andrew Kraebel in particular were models for collegiality. In them, I found not only colleagues but friends – people with whom I could share a coffee or pint, lament the state of the job market or celebrate its small successes, and exchange useful critique that furthered my scholarship even as I spent most of my time on teaching. These names stand out in my memory – but really, all you have to do is scan a list of medievalists, both faculty and graduate students, at Yale, and to each name accrues a myriad of small kindnesses that made an intellectual wanderer feel as though she had a place.***

Finding this community – or more aptly, being drawn into the close-knit medieval community at Yale – was, in many ways, a surprise.  But looking back over the past two years, I recognize the theme that had pervaded my scholarly life – generosity. Institutional generosity brought me to a place where the personal and professional generosity of so many colleagues could be adequately appreciated.

I’m not a wanderer anymore. Three weeks ago Sunday my partner Nick and I relocated to the small town of Athens, OH, home to Ohio University and my first tenure-track job.  I’m not contingent anymore. But I take with me the lessons contingency taught me. As a dictionary might tell us, sometimes what is unforeseen or unexpected can change your life. If you’re lucky, it does so in ways that aren’t catastrophic in the way the colloquial usage of needing a “contingency plan” might suggest.

Sometimes, it takes elsewhere, and makes you feel at home.

* Some will remember that my first contribution to this blog was on the occasion of  Professor Howe’s passing in 2006.

** I should also take the time to say that I felt extraordinarily welcomed at all of the universities I taught at in the past two years – Barnard College and Rutgers University in particular. I write about Yale particularly because I spent so much time there in comparison to these other positions. But the faculty and most importantly the students at Barnard, Rutgers, and Cooper were all engaging, kind, and a pleasure to spend my time with.

*** A myriad of other names – friends and advisers at Columbia, many readers of this blog, my co-bloggers, friends at universities from NYU to Berkeley to Austin – also helped make the path less hard. Those names belong here too, those kindnesses recognized, though to do so in anything but this group format would take far too long, and leave far too many people out.


Jonathan Hsy said...

So great to see you blogging at ITM once again, MK! Thanks for sharing, and for giving credit where it's due; sounds like you found a supportive community at Yale (indeed a lovely group of medievalists there) and YOU were certainly part of making that environment all the more better.

This posting is hopeful in two respects: it shows that some institutions can and do treat their non-TT faculty with respect and pay living wages. As a (newly!) tenured faculty member I do feel ambivalent about the real disparities between TT and non-TT faculty. I do my best on a personal level to cultivate an inclusive community on all fronts but institutional change is slower and much harder to effect.

I am hoping that Yale is not the *exception* to the rule when it comes to contingent faculty support; I'd love to hear about other places that are effective in creating an environment where all faculty feel they can thrive.

Ben said...

I'm so glad you posted this, Mary Kate, because it makes a really important point about respect and inclusiveness. Like you, I adjuncted at several institutions before settling into a TT job, and I was lucky that many people at one of them, George Washington University (surprise surprise), made a special effort to welcome me into the community. Because of distance and my obligations as a father, I wasn't able to participate as much as I could, but just knowing that I was welcome made a world of difference to me.

I learned once that, of all the privations faced by the homeless, the most damaging might be feeling that they've been cast out of the human race. If nothing else, I try to look people in the eye and respond directly to them, even if it is to refuse their request. I don't mean to over-dramtize the plight of adjuncts, but they (I'm still inclined to write "we") are homeless in a way, too, and even if we can't improve their immediate job prospects, we can do a lot to recognize them as valued peers and friends.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Jonathan, I think you're very right that Yale can't really be the only exception to the rule when it comes to inclusiveness and support for contingent faculty. I know that I have friends (and readers of this blog, I think) who have had similar experiences in other institutions (those stories are theirs to share, and I hope they will). I just wanted to make sure I made it clear that my experience wasn't "normal" and that being an adjunct can be and for many people IS a really difficult place to be.

I also think that your attitude of respect and inclusivity is part of what makes change possible. I remember that when I started graduate school, being an adjunct after finishing seemed like a terrible fate, a referendum on one's ability to be part of the profession. As grad school started to come to a close for me, around my fifth year, and I watched more and more friends go through the process of applying for jobs and not getting them, I realized something that should have been obvious from the beginning: there are too many talented young PhD's out there and too few jobs. That's a systemic problem in all fields of literature. And as a result, good people -- people with amazing ideas and great articles and everything we've been told we need to succeed -- don't get tt jobs, at least, they don't get them right away and sometimes they don't ever get them. Treating them differently because they aren't on the tenure track doesn't seem fair. And those personal kindnesses and inclusions make the slower (glacial) pace of institutional change more urgent and possible, because more people realize what's at stake when you treat contingent faculty as less than full scholars (assuming of course, that's what they want to be -- there are other reasons to teach part time, obviously).

Ben, your experience at GW sounds similar to mine at Yale -- knowing the door is open and that you are in fact welcome to come through it is a huge relief when you might otherwise feel as though it's best to stay distant and hidden so as not to remind anyone of unpleasant realities of life.

I don't mean to over-dramtize the plight of adjuncts, but they (I'm still inclined to write "we") are homeless in a way, too, and even if we can't improve their immediate job prospects, we can do a lot to recognize them as valued peers and friends. THIS is precisely my point in writing this post, put more succinctly than I possibly could have done. Treating adjunct faculty as scholars is the first step towards treating them as something other than expendable. Yale did that for me, GW did that for you -- and in my case (and perhaps yours as well), it made all the difference.

I also think things might continue to change, maybe even on an institutional level, as people who went through one or two or four years as an adjunct end up finding more stable work, tt or otherwise, in the university. We can't (and shouldn't) forget what being contingent taught us, and what it made possible for us. Yale and my colleagues there made me a better scholar -- by treating me like one.

Myra Seaman said...

I'm re-reading this in light of the recent attention to the plight of adjuncts that has swirled around the article on the death of the adjunct in Pittsburgh. I spent 8 years adjuncting at four different institutions in LA and Portland--6 of them as a PhD student (our program at Claremont couldn't place us at the different Claremont colleges), and one after finishing--before landing a year-long visiting gig and then my tenure-track position in Charleston. And what I most missed, throughout, was any comfortable sense of community, of having a place--beyond the community I always felt with my students, and eventually in Portland with my adjunct colleagues. My sense of the experience of adjuncting changed, and no surprise, once I'd finished my PhD. and started to see this as potentially my only option within academia. That was a very dark year for me.

As an adjunct, I really learned how to teach, especially composition, and how to understand and value learning much more expansively. But I felt quite lost, as a professional, and I also came to see myself as a teacher--and not really a scholar--since that's what I was being paid for in that position. I haven't been able to shake that identity orientation ever since.

All of which is to say that I'm so happy to hear about your experiences, while I am also acutely aware that it is a far cry from the common one.

Candace Barrington said...

Thanks for the lovely post, Mary Kate. It’s good to hear that you’ve settled into a new community at Ohio U. They are lucky to have you among them!

I want to second your observations about the warmth and inclusiveness of the medieval community at Yale. I’m also an outsider but in a different way. I may be a tenured professor but not at Yale; instead, I’m at a nearby (well 40 miles away) state university. Over the years, I’ve seldom had a teaching schedule that allowed me to attend regularly the events sponsored by the medievalists. But when I can (such as this term), I appreciate the generous welcome I receive.

Generally, I’ve felt that it’s been a rather one-way relationship. I benefited from their (invariably stimulating) gatherings and ate their (consistently wonderful) food, but I seem to have little to offer in return. With the terrible job market, however, that’s changed. I’ve been able to provide the perspective of someone who’s been on hiring committees at heavy-teaching, non-research-oriented departments. I know what departments like mine are often looking for, and I’ve been able to share that knowledge with graduate students who are expanding their job possibilities to include these highly satisfying (though less prestigious) jobs.

In order for community to thrive, it seems to me that we must find ways to bring in more voices into more conversations. I think our medievalist colleagues at Yale do that in fine fashion.

Jonathan Hsy said...

@Candace: Thanks for offering your insights here and you are so right that we need a wide range of voices in these sorts of discussions. It is interesting to note -- speaking from my experience in DC -- that faculty who are in close proximity (i.e. within the same city!) don't interact as much as they could (or should). And it's important for jobseekers and people advising jobseekers to have some broader understanding of what different types of institutions and departments are "looking for" and what they need to thrive.