Off to Work We Go

Week two of summer courses has officially come to an end, and I find myself conflicted by the prospect of actually working for the entire summer.

I have never truly worked all summer. Not to the point where I’ve had to turn down outings and vacations because “I have to work.” While I had “full-time” campus jobs during the summers in college and graduate school, I was always able to leave early for concerts or take off some time for trips. Not having that luxury this time around has left me feeling just a tad bitter. Seriously, I had to turn down an offer for a free week at the beach with my boyfriend because I can’t cancel that many class periods. Even if I could, I’d still have to teach online from the beach for a different school, and that wouldn’t be fun for anyone involved. So I’m just out of luck this summer.

Having said that, though, it feels good to be steadily productive throughout the summer months. My schedule is pretty generous, and I have three great groups of students. My fourth course (online) does not even begin for over another month. Money aside, I would probably be going crazy if I didn’t have anything to do right now. I worked every summer at my campus job in undergrad, had a library job and coursework during grad school, and treated finding a job as a job itself last summer. I haven’t had a true summer “off” since the months between junior and senior year of high school. I wouldn’t even know how to cope.

So, as I gaze out of my classroom window, frantically typing these words as my students complete a writing exercise, I find myself daydreaming of a world in which I have a full-time job, a world in which I get paid all summer without having to teach a single class, a world in which I can work on my article and conference proposals and be free to take any damn trip I would like.

Oh, what a wonderful world that would be. But, until then, it is off to work we go.

Humble Beginnings

As the semester begins to wind down to a close, I find myself reflecting on how I’ve gotten to where I am today.

As lame as it sounds, I honestly wouldn’t be an adjunct today if it wasn’t for Harry Potter. Without Harry Potter, I probably wouldn’t have fallen in love with teaching. I might not have majored in English. Heck, my entire life might have looked quite different if HP had never existed.

Allow me to explain.

I was first introduced to Harry Potter at the age on nine, when my third grade teacher began reading the first book to us. As we moved through Sorcerer’s Stone, I quickly became enamored with the magical world-building, the lovable characters, and the suspenseful storyline. Once we finished Sorcerer’s Stone, Ms. Masten moved onto Chamber of Secrets, and I was completely in love by the end of the year.

From that point, I started to read more and more. I read the third and fourth books, then I began looking for something else that could excite and inspire me as much as HP. While I found other books I loved over time, nothing could quite fill the Harry Potter-shaped space in my heart. Determined, I became an insatiable reader.

Around the same period of time, I began writing my first short stories. I figured that if I couldn’t find the books that were as good as HP, then I would write them. I quickly discovered that I loved writing just as much, if not more, than I loved reading. Every time a subsequent Harry Potter book would come out or I would encounter another excellent series, I just felt more and more motivated to write. By seventh grade, I was working on an elaborate book series and a handful of other written projects.

Needless to say, I have not become a best-selling author or anything like that (yet…), but my interest in writing fiction prompted me to major in English in my undergraduate studies. In college, Harry Potter became the quickest and easiest way to make new friends, especially with other English majors. We geeked out over our favorite moments, bonded at midnight movie releases, and took our Hogwarts houses very seriously. My friends’ house was even deemed the Hufflepuff Common Room, and they had a giant Hufflepuff crest fixated above their faux fireplace in their campus house.

By the end of college, I was still determined that writing fiction was what I wanted to do with my life. I applied to both MFA (fine arts programs in creative writing) and MA (regular English) graduate programs, and got accepted into one of each. After a lot of deliberation, I ended up deciding to stay at my undergrad institution and earn my MA so that I could apply to higher-caliber MFA programs later on. I was offered a teaching assistantship to fund my graduate studies, which meant that I would be teaching sophomore-level composition my second year in the program.

Sophomore-level composition at my university is theme-based, meaning that each individual instructor’s class is a different theme. I had a whole semester to design a course around whatever theme I liked, and I, of course, picked Harry Potter. The course was titled “From Hogwarts to the Humanities” and had units on identity, gender studies, religious studies, and philosophy, all connected to HP. When I finally got to teach the class in my second year, it was even more amazing than I had expected. I loved going to class every single day and reading all the great insights my students were bringing to the HP series in their writing and research. On the last day of the semester, one of the students asked if we could take a “family” photo. It was in that final class period, as we shed tears over a nostalgic HP tribute video and the end of our time together, that I knew I wanted to teach composition for the rest of my life. It probably goes without saying that, when I finished my Master’s degree, my graduation party was also HP themed!

So, while the concept may sound strange, Harry Potter truly changed my life. It impacted my hobbies, my friendships, and my career path. Without The Boy Who Lived, my life would look very, very different. Thank you, J.K. Rowling!

This post originally appeared on my instructor blog, Composition is Fun! You can view the original post here.

Adequate Inadequacies

Honestly, I have to admit that I’m feeling pretty sorry for myself this week.

I’m overworked and over-stressed, a result of a perfect storm of professional obligations, student assignments, and a healthy dose of procrastination. My hands have been cramping from all the handwriting and typing I’ve been doing, and, no matter how many hours I work, I just don’t seem to make a dent in the pile at all. Once I cross one thing off the list, two more just seem to pop right up.

Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve felt this way since I finished graduate school. Even though last semester I was teaching two more courses than I am currently, I did not have any “coursework” of my own. Signing up for a professional development course requiring 6+ weeks of graduate-level work was probably not the smartest move I could’ve made, especially since I found out shortly after that I would also have 3 weeks of extensive training for a new online teaching position.

Needless to say, after I accidentally attached a blank document to a training assignment and was not familiar with the course management site enough to fix (or prevent) the issue two hours before the final deadline, I had a full-blown academia-induced breakdown. I’ve been about a year overdue for one, so it felt sickeningly familiar in some way.

This little breakdown has been the crowning glory in my feelings of inadequacy this week. I’m a perfectionist with a fear of failure, so every little mistake I make seems detrimental. I’m feeling like an inadequate instructor because I can’t keep up with my grading because of my professional obligations, and I’m falling behind in my professional obligations because of grading. I’m feeling inadequate in my field because I don’t have a Ph.D. and, at this rate, don’t know when I’ll get one. I’m feeling inadequate because my boyfriend from an upper-middle class family finally realized how run-down and cluttered my home is compared to his. I’m feeling inadequate because I can’t look the way I want to or dress the way I want to or do all of the things that I want to do.

I’m feeling inadequate because I’m 25 years old and still waiting for my life to really start. But, I guess this is a rather adequate inadequacy to have.

 

Academic Incest

One concern I often face as a young professional is the fear of committing academic incest.

When I was in college and applying to graduate programs, I received mixed feedback regarding my decision to apply to the M.A. program at my undergraduate institution. Some thought that staying at my home institution would be the best decision I could ever make, while others warned that earning my B.A. and M.A. from the same school would reflect poorly upon me later on.

Since I was offered full funding, I did indeed stay at my home institution for graduate school. This experience, as I’ve mentioned before, completely altered my career path and changed my life in so many ways, so I certainly wouldn’t change that decision. But, when I approached graduation, I was faced with the same conflicting feedback again. On one hand, friends and family were lamenting the fact that I couldn’t continue on at the same school to earn my PhD. On the other hand, some of my mentors celebrated the fact that I would finally be moving on, either to further my graduate studies or to start a career.

Of course, that didn’t quite happen either. While I am gaining teaching experience in other schools and contexts, I am still at my home institution as an adjunct instructor. I am now hired to teach the undergraduate student body I belonged to just three years ago. And, if I get things my way, I have no intention of leaving. If a full-time position at my university became available, I would apply as soon as possible. And I firmly believe I would be quite content staying in that role for the foreseeable future.

Several members of our department completed their undergraduate and/or graduate degrees at the university. In fact, many of the full-time lecturers were teaching assistants in the same program I was in. So many of us were so content with our experiences as students that we wanted to return to our roots and stay put. And that’s one of the things I love the most about my department and my university.

So why is there such a stigma against academic “incest” anyway? After all, who knows the campus and the students at a university better than those that have been students there themselves? Doesn’t this show commitment to the university’s values and a loyalty to the department that bred us? I’m not sure I can buy into the idea that this is a negative thing.

What are your thoughts on so-called academic “incest”? Share them below!

 

And a Happy (and Healthy) New Year

Academia is certainly not a profession known for the healthy habits it induces. After all, academics spend a good portion of their time inside behind a desk. They spend long hours staring a computer screens, reading books and articles, grading essays, and attempting to decipher student writing. Meals are sometimes quickly procured and consumed in-between classes, office hours, grading, and research, meaning that the vending machine has probably served as the selection for fine dining on more than one occasion. All of this is topped off with countless student questions, department expectations, committee obligations, professional deadlines, and, oh yeah, personal lives.

However rewarding it may be, academia can also be a stressful, tiring, semi-depressing, and even isolating profession. Heck, when I was a TA, our offices didn’t even have windows. I would go HOURS without ever seeing natural light or catching a glimpse of what the weather conditions were like outside. I ate meals straight out of the vending machine more times than I would really like to admit, and I was a solid ball of stress, anxiety, and borderline depression for the vast majority of my time in the program. The most notable exercise  I got, except for the rare occasions that I ventured across campus to the faculty dining hall, was my countless trips between my office and the copier room down the hall. Now that I’m an adjunct instructor, I am slightly less overwhelmed and in an office with several windows for optimal weather viewing, but I still find myself constantly consumed with stress, anxiety, and unhealthy habits.

I’ve decided that I’m going to try to NOT live this way next semester, especially since this next semester also marks the start of a new calendar year. I’m going to try to do small things to live a healthier and happier life within the unique constraints of the academic lifestyle. Whether you’re an academic or not, maybe there are some things that you might want to try too! Here’s my starting list of ideas and recommendations for tackling 2017:

  • Do some writing that isn’t for work. This could be fiction, poetry, stream-of-consciousness mental wanderings, journaling, diary-keeping, letters to loved ones…the list could go on and on. You can certainly write about work (by which I mean vent about work through writing), but this shouldn’t be writing for work. No assignments, no articles, no conference papers, no book proposals, nothing with a deadline and/or a professional purpose. This is writing for you and you alone. While I do all sorts of writing, one of my main things is that I consistently keep several journals at once…a teaching journal, a health/fitness journal, and a general life journal. Writing about these different areas helps me to reflect on them and gives me dedicated personal time to just think about and write for myself.
  • Make time for exercise. And by that I mean real exercise, not “I’ve walked to the copier and to the mailbox so many times today” exercise. Not only does exercise contribute to overall fitness and wellbeing, but experts often note how exercise can be a great stress reliever. The beauty about this is that, if you’re used to pretty much zero exercise, there’s no wrong way to start exercising. Experiment with different methods and styles to see what works the best for you. This is something I personally really need to work on; I’m going to try to get back into yoga because I love how yoga offers exercise and meditation all in one.
  • Strive for three healthy, balanced meals a day. Teaching 8 AM classes makes it difficult to wake up and get breakfast in before reporting to the classroom. Especially for adjunct instructors, teaching several classes across different campuses within a single day often means that lunch isn’t until late in the afternoon. Otherwise, “lunch” ends up being fast food hurriedly consumed in the car, or a “meal” slapped together out of vending machine food. Not only does this pattern have the potential to make for some hangry faculty, but not eating nutritious foods at regular intervals can lead to headaches, mental fogginess, hair and skin problems, and a weakened immune system. This is something else I really struggle with, so I definitely need to work on this in the coming year.    
  •  Join a writing group (or start one). Writing groups are nothing short of the best thing ever. I have been in graduate student and faculty writing groups and have found them to have countless benefits. Basically, a group of individuals gather together (usually at a coffee shop) for dedicated work time. At the start of the session, those present talk briefly about what they’re working on, and then a timer is set. While the timer is on, the members cannot get up from the table, talk to each other, get on Facebook, check their phones, grade papers, or do anything that isn’t directly writing related. When the timer goes off, then the members can discuss their progress, share bits of their writing with others, and ask questions. While they may not always be as regimented as what I’ve laid out here, writing groups are a great way to establish a sense of community among peers, give individuals dedicated work time, and make everyone accountable for getting something done. I honestly don’t think I would have done as well as I did in graduate school without writing group, and it has been a practice I have continued regularly as an adjunct.
  • Spend time with others who understand what you’re going through. Going along with the benefits of writing groups is spending time with your peers outside of your offices and department meetings. Your fellow academics are enduring the same things that you are. They, too, are negotiating busy schedules, conflicts between their personal and professional lives, teaching and grading woes, and the ever-present dread of deadlines. Basically, these guys and gals get you. So spend time with them. I use faculty writing group for this purpose, but I also try to stay in touch with members of my TA cohort. Even though several of my TA friends (including my boyfriend) are not currently in academic jobs, they’ve been there and done that. Establishing relationships with others in your department is an invaluable resource for advice, ideas, a shoulder to cry on, and a place to vent.   
  • Invest in an essential oil diffuser. One of my TA friends is a huge advocate for and user of essential oils. She has a small diffuser in her office and always has some sort of fantastic blend running if she’s in there. When I was still in the program, her office quickly became the popular spot to hang out because it always smelled so good, and we all just felt different breathing in that air. I became super interested in getting a diffuser for myself, and this Christmas I finally got one. While I haven’t purchased a full set of oils yet and am still perfecting blends of the oils I do have, there has been a noticeable difference in the way I feel when I’m diffusing oils. I highly recommend that every academic considers getting an essential oil diffuser, whether for work or for home.
  • Create the perfect playlist(s). Music can have a great influence on mood. Spend time perfecting a playlist for different situations. Find an upbeat, motivating mix to help push your workouts to the next level. Put together music for grading and writing. Create a refreshing, relaxing mix for when you are unwinding at home. Think of what music you might even bring into the classroom for writing days and workshops.
  • Reorganize/redecorate your personal spaces. Especially at mid-terms and finals, being in academia can make you feel like you’ve lost control at times. While you might have little to no influence over university regulations, department expectations, student learning outcomes, and grade submission dates, you do have control over your own personal spaces. Use stylish containers to reorganize your supplies, or invest in some new décor for your office walls. As a TA, I found that my office was a much more welcoming work space when I cleared former TAs’ stuff out of my bookshelves, bought cute storage for my office supplies, and hung up meaningful artwork on the walls. I even brought in Christmas lights at the holidays. This helped make my corner of a shared office feel more like mine and more like home, and not having this opportunity now is one of the things I dislike most about being an adjunct; I don’t have any personal space to make my own. If you have already personalized your office to the max or are not allowed to make these kinds of adjustments, then consider doing something at home. Move your furniture around, buy new bedding, paint a room…just make some kind of change to reinvigorate your living space and renew your sense of self.
  • Remember to let yourself break down once in a while. It is okay to cry. It is okay to have a complete meltdown. These are natural consequences of working in a stressful environment. The key is not to let these moments of overwhelming emotion take over your life. Allow yourself to break down once in a while, but, when the breakdown is over, let it just be over. Instead of helplessly thinking how you will never get everything done or will never be able to fix the problem you’re facing, take a deep breath and start thinking of an action plan. In my academic life, there have been plenty of meltdowns and freak-outs where I was convinced I would never make it all happen. But, spoiler alert, it always came together in the end. I always made it happen. Going forward, I want to try to remember this. No matter how lost and overwhelmed I feel, I need to take a moment to collect myself and then push on forward.

So there you have it. Some of these are things I already do that I would like to continue, some of these are things that I know I need to try to do more, and some are things that I’ve been neglecting completely up until this point. If I incorporate all of these things into my life, I am convinced that I can live a happier, healthier, and more productive life in 2017. Maybe a few of these ideas can help some of you in the new year as well!

Do you have any of your own ideas and suggestions for staying sane in academia in 2017?  Or just living a better life in general? If so, please feel free to share them in a comment!

Anxious Academics

I don’t really talk much about my anxiety. I don’t know why I don’t. I’m not exactly ashamed of it. I guess I just always feel like I would sound like I am looking for attention (which I’m definitely not) or exaggerating a nonexistent problem (which I’m pretty sure I’m not).

Some of my friends are less bashful than I am when it comes to talking about issues with anxiety. Among my peer group (broadly conceived), not having anxiety issues seems to be less common and more unusual than actually having them. Since a lot of my friends are around my same age with graduate degrees in English, this makes me question whether this simply generational, if this is a product of the high-pressure world of academia, or if English as a discipline simply happens to attract individuals with similar idiosyncrasies. Or, you know, a dangerous combination of all three.

When I think about stereotypical portrayals of English academics, a few things come to mind. The absent-minded professor that is so wrapped up in their own research that they forget things like scheduled office hours, committee meetings, and whether or not students turned in an assignment. The tenured faculty member that is still teaching off the same syllabus they first developed 30 years ago. The pretentious professor that looks down upon any student that can’t name 5 prominent literary theorists off the top of their head. In six academic years of taking courses and 2 and a half teaching them, I have definitely encountered professors that have fit into each of these categories.

So is that what I and others like me are becoming? A new option on the list of possible professor personality profiles? Anxious academics. Introverts forced to fake extroversion in order to make each class happen. Instructors that cry over their piles of textbooks and ungraded essays from a combination of stress and exhaustion. Fake-it-’til-you-make-it individuals that somewhat dread meeting a new group of students every term.

Anxious Academics. We’re a burgeoning demographic in English departments everywhere. New tenure-track professors and full-time lecturers might be them. Your TA is almost certainly one. The trick is getting us to come out of hiding.

The Compositionist’s Song

Oh, sweet literature. The pride and joy of English majors everywhere.

My boyfriend studied literature in his Master’s program. In fact, most of my friends from my graduate cohort focused their studies in literature. My uncle, too, has a graduate degree with a concentration in literature. Out of a pack of literature scholars, I am the lonely compositionist.

I became an English major in undergrad simply because I loved reading and writing more than I loved anything else. While I certainly did love the reading I got to do in college, I found myself not enjoying the writing as much as I had hoped. I loved the writing I was producing in my creative writing courses, but I hated academic writing. I did not enjoy literary analysis papers at all, and, naively, that’s all I thought English majors could ever write. I thought that was the extent of research for English majors.

Everything changed, of course, when I entered graduate school.

As an M.A. student, I selected writing as my concentration. I was still operating under the impression that I was going to pursue an MFA and be a prolific fiction writer, and the writing concentration allowed more easily for a creative writing course than the literature and teaching tracks. But, since I was a teaching assistant, composition studies quickly became a large part of my coursework whether I wanted it to or not. Since we all had to teach composition, we were expected to know composition pedagogy and be familiar with significant research in the field.

These studies, paired with my experiences working in the campus writing center and my first ventures into planning my own second-year writing course, eventually made me start falling head-over-heels in love with composition. Being in my own classroom later on pushed me right over the edge into full-blown obsession. I couldn’t remember what life was like before composition, and I didn’t want to imagine a future career without it.

I love how composition studies is so heavily based in the real world. This is what our students, regardless of background, major, or career plans, are doing on a day-to-day basis. They are composing constantly, for school and otherwise…essays, research papers, lab reports, Facebook updates, group texts, tweets, blog posts…the types of writing our students are doing is practically limitless. Composition instructors are not just teaching students how to write a paper that will get them an A; we are teaching them how to be effective communicators and critical thinkers in our classes, in all of the students’ others courses, and in students’ professional lives beyond college. Campus writing centers further serve to help students become more independent thinkers, writers, and students, and don’t even get me started on how many other wonderful things writing centers do.

Will universities ever truly appreciate the work that composition instructors and writing centers do? Probably not. Will students ever truly appreciate it? Definitely not. But that’s okay. We as compositionists will continue to quietly serve our students and our universities anyway.