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 academics across disciplines, 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 thirty years ago. The pretentious professor that looks down upon any student that can’t name five prominent theorists off the top of their head. In six years of taking courses and two 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 academic 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.

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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.

 

The Peer Review Problem

As a composition instructor, peer review is one of my favorite things. In fact, it might be my favorite thing about teaching composition. I love hearing students engage in dynamic conversations about writing. I love watching them realize that they do know how to recognize good writing and that each individual has a unique way of approaching the assignment. I love how peer review truly allows students to become active agents in their own learning.

Ironically,  I hated peer review as a student. I didn’t like the written feedback method, and reviewers never really said anything. So, in my first year as a college composition instructor,  I took it upon myself to experiment with different styles of peer review in an effort to find a method that students would benefit from and, maybe, actually enjoy.

Amazingly, I was successful in this endeavor. I found not one, but multiple, methods of peer review that my sophomore students liked better than the standard written response. As I would walk around the room, I would hear genuine and in-depth conversations about the papers, writing in general, and the students as writers. I continually received strong essays from students who took peer review seriously. It was fantastic.

Now that I’m in my second year of teaching entirely on my own, I have tried these same methods with my first year students at multiple institutions. With one group of students, peer review is going fantastically. In the other classes, though? Not so much. They try the methods, sure. They follow the directions, yes. But they’re breezing through the workshops as quickly as possible. For the most part, these students are not having the genuine conversations I am trying to encourage them to have.

It’s all so frustrating because I don’t think they understand how important this is and how beneficial it can be when given the proper amount of time and effort. I don’t think they care about helping their classmates become better writers. I don’t think some of them even care about becoming better writers themselves. But I will keep trying. I will keep experimenting with new styles and gaining student feedback. I will conquer the peer review problem.

Fellow composition instructors, do you have particular methods of peer review that you like to use? Leave them as a comment! I’d be happy to share any of my methods as well!

 

Under Pressure

Before my 8 A.M. class the other day, I ran into one of my friends from grad school out in the hallway. This friend is currently in her second (and final) year as a MA student and teaching assistant, and we were catching up about how classes were going when I asked her if she was still applying to PhD programs.

I knew her answer before she even said the words.

“No,” she said. “I think I’m just going to do what you did and work for a year.” 

Why was I not surprised by her answer? Because I had made the same decision myself, not just once, but now two years in a row.

Since our university only offers a terminal MA program, the pressure to apply to and be accepted into PhD programs is incredibly high. We get this pressure from our TA advisers, our professors, and our department chair. Alternative careers are pretty much only discussed at the grad students’ requests, and, while the faculty would never openly admit it, such alt-ac careers are somewhat looked down upon in the department.

Because of this emphasis on PhD program placement, professional development for MA students is highly prized in our department. We hear about the importance of attending and presenting at conferences over and over again, with CFPs being passed along to us all of the time. In every class, we are told how much having published writing matters and receive tips on how to revise class assignments for publication. We are encouraged to participate in workshops, join department committees, volunteer for campus events, and chair presentations for conferences on campus. All of this is, of course, on top of a full load of graduate courses. Oh, yeah, and we have two classes to teach.

As MA students and teaching assistants,  we are split into three different roles: that of student, that of teacher, and that of emerging scholar. We are supposed to be the best we can be in all three categories in order to better our chances of getting those coveted positions in doctoral programs. Beyond our coursework, class planning, and grading, we are so consumed with conferences and publications that GRE scores, writing samples, and personal statements fall to the wayside. We’re so busy trying to become the best candidates that we can be that we run out of the time and energy necessary to actually apply for these programs when application season rolls around. So, we put off applying, hoping to give our materials the time and attention they deserve the next time around.

And the cycle begins again.

 

 

 

The Changing of the Leaves

Within the pages of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, “life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” I firmly believe this to be true. At least for the last two falls in a row, I have encountered moments that have altered my life path to various degrees.

Around this time last year, I was attending a series of workshops to prepare for graduate school applications. At the time, I was still convinced that I was applying to MFA programs with an emphasis in fiction.  I wanted to be a prolific novel writer, and, if that failed, work in publishing as a back-up. I didn’t want to be a professor or do research; I just wanted to write. I came into those workshops with these firm convictions.

One of my professors had become a really important mentor to me my senior year of undergrad, and he was the one leading the workshops. After one of the first workshop meetings, he and I were hanging around and chatting. I can’t really remember how it occurred, but we somehow started talking about my newfound passion for writing centers. He recommended that I look at a couple of graduate programs with a specific focus in writing center studies…PhD programs in rhetoric and composition. He recommended that I apply to a couple of each type of program, and I told him I would consider it.

I went home that night and did some research on the programs he had mentioned. The programs and their classes sounded awesome! After I looked at those two programs, I googled some more in the area. Every single one sounded interesting and exciting. I was utterly convinced that he was right. I needed to apply to MFA programs in fiction AND a couple of PhD programs in rhet/comp.

The only problem was, when I started to write personal statements for these programs as required by the workshops, I found myself utterly consumed by the statements for the rhet/comp programs. The more I read about programs, looked at courses of study, and thought about the work I would do, the more PhD programs appealed to me. I found myself not struggling to fill the page like with my MFA personal statements; instead, the words and ideas were overflowing. I had many clear-cut reasons for pursuing a PhD in rhet/comp., while I was barely scraping by on genuine reasons why I wanted to get an MFA.

Of course, it wasn’t long after this that I completely surrendered myself to rhetoric and composition. I felt guilty about it, of course. Creative writing had always been my thing, and I felt like I was betraying myself by thinking otherwise. I wasn’t betraying myself though; I was meeting myself for the first time. I could think of plenty of questions I wanted to answer and problems I wanted to solve in the field. I could not only imagine doing research on these topics, but actually enjoying the research and writing about it. And I really, really liked the idea of teaching and studying composition and writing center stuff for the rest of my life. At that point, the transformation was complete.

Around this same time, Halloween brought changes to my personal life. Last Halloween marked a crucial point in my relationship with my current boyfriend. We had been coworkers and classmates during my first year of grad school. When he graduated in May, we stayed in contact and ended up becoming good friends over the summer. While family, friends, and strangers alike assumed we were going to start dating, he was adamant that we would not. However, on Halloween, he finally ended up making a move on me that shattered the illusion that we did not have feelings for each other. Even though we wouldn’t actively acknowledge those feelings again until Christmastime, that night was a definite game-changer.

Now, autumn is here again, and I find myself in a similar state of change and renewal.

After having a near panic attack a few days ago over the sudden realization of the time and money immediately required to take the GRE and apply to my full list of PhD programs, I had to think long and hard about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. After some brainstorming, number-crunching, soul-searching, and confiding in my mother, I finally came to a conclusion: kick ass on my application to the only PhD program on my list that doesn’t require the GRE and, assuming I don’t get in, work really, really hard on my materials over the next year. This allows me to save more money, study for and take the GRE over the summer when I have more time, and work on some additional publications in the meantime.

Immediately after making this decision, I felt a certain sense of peace wash over me. I’m going to have great materials for one program that is an excellent fit for me and my research. If I don’t get in, I’ll have another year to prepare my materials and make myself the best possible candidate I can be. It’ll be another year staying here with my family, my friends, and my boyfriend. It’ll be another year to grow up. I can’t lose either way.

So, autumn is and always will be my favorite time of the year, especially October.  I love the weather, the activities, the scents, the food, the clothes, all of it. But, perhaps what I love this most is how it always offers a chance to begin again. Like the changing leaves, in autumn we can detach ourselves from what isn’t working, showing off our brilliant colors as we open the way for something new to grow.

Dangerous Daydreams

Whenever I am faced with a new possibility or an important decision, thinking about it extensively tends to bring about more harm than good. I either obsess over everything that could potentially go wrong, or I obsess over everything that could potentially go right. Surprisingly, the latter is the more dangerous of the two.

Take this recent job application, for example. As soon as I hit the “submit” button on the electronic application, my mind immediately started to sprint through every possible bad outcome: Am I even qualified for this job? Are they going to just look at my application and laugh? They’re probably going to just throw my application away. What if they already hired someone and just forgot to take the posting down? Did I even apply for the right position, or did I accidentally complete the application for another job? This is not a realistic possibility at all, so I shouldn’t have even bothered to apply. The list could go on and on.

In order to talk myself off the ledge of self-doubt, so to speak, I had to do a little bit of confidence boosting: Of course I’m qualified for this job. I meet all of the minimum requirements and the majority of the preferred requirements. This is work that I know and love. They’re not going to laugh at my application. The email notification from HR confirms that I applied for the right position. Since I am well-qualified, this is a realistic possibility. If I don’t get a callback, then I’ll know that this just wasn’t the right job at the right time. After all, I could never get the job if I didn’t take the risk and apply for it in the first place!  

This strategy works well…for a minute or two. Then, instead of reversing back into denial, my mind suddenly does an illegal u-turn into the “what if” scenarios: Well, if I get this job, I won’t have to apply to PhD programs this year. I might not have to apply to programs ever. I won’t have to move away from my family, my friends, or my boyfriend. I would be making good money with good benefits. I could still live at home a year, pay off my car, make good headway on my student loans, and then move anywhere I wanted to in the area. I would have an office all to myself. I could hang my diplomas in my office! What kind of frames would I put them? And so the madness continues, ranging from considering the sense of security and fulfillment a full-time job would bring, clear down to what kinds of forms I would use. The more out-of-control my thoughts run, the more dangerous they become. After all, the more excited I get, the more I can visualize myself in that position, the more disappointed I will be if it doesn’t work out.

I guess if I’ve learned anything from this, it’s that life requires a healthy balance of self-confidence and self-doubt. We need to believe in ourselves, our knowledge, and our talents. At the same time, though, we need to recognize that there is a right time and a right place for everything. We are exactly where we need to be, even if it doesn’t always seem to be where we want to be.

So, is this new job where I’m meant to be? Only time will tell.

Uncertain Certainties

At this moment, my hands are trembling, my heart is racing, and I vaguely feel like I might vomit at any moment.

No, I didn’t get into a car accident, or find out I’m pregnant, or violently wake up from a dream in which I’m falling into a deep abyss. All I did was apply for a job.

Not just any job, though…my dream job. Or, more specifically, the most realistic manifestation of my dream job that I could possibly obtain at my age and level of experience. The real kicker? It’s at a university right here in my hometown. I wouldn’t even have to move. It is truly the perfect job: a true career directly in my desired field, where I don’t have to leave my family, friends, and boyfriend behind or go to school for several more years, with the economic stability a full-time job with benefits brings. Except for in my wanderlust-fueled fantasies, I couldn’t imagine a better situation.

Honestly, it’s all my fault. I shouldn’t have even been looking at job postings. I don’t need a job right now. I’m more than sufficiently employed for this semester, and I am basically guaranteed the same level of employment next semester. I’m supposed to be applying to PhD programs in the coming months, after all, and a “real” job was only to be a consideration next spring if I found out I wasn’t accepted anywhere. I had no business prowling university job postings yesterday.

Yet, I did, and I can entirely blame my tendency to eavesdrop in public spaces.

Allow me to explain. Since I am an adjunct professor, my office spaces are all open, shared environments. I was in one of these said spaces prior to a class I was teaching, just minding my own business (mostly) and polishing my PowerPoint for the day’s lesson, when I overheard two separate, but equally important, conversations: a telephone conversation in which an adjunct was telling his mother that another adjunct had gotten hired full-time at a library, and a conversation between two other instructors about how applications for tenure-track positions were due soon.

Hearing these two conversations, especially within mere moments of each other in the same room, really made me stop and think. Should I already be looking at job listings? Was I missing out on full-time positions?

I can’t stand to be left out, so I decided I would go ahead and take a look. Just for shits and giggles, you see. I knew for a fact that my home institution wasn’t hiring full-time employees in my field, and wouldn’t be until summer (if at all). I was also pretty sure that the community college I’ve been working at wouldn’t have anything either. So, I decided I would look at the public four-year university’s postings. Again, just for shits and giggles.

Imagine my surprise when one of the first listings on the site is not only relevant to my degree, but my damn dream job. Right there, right down the street. And with qualifications I actually meet. I couldn’t believe my eyes, my luck, the chances of this odd encounter with this job posting.

So, today, I updated my CV, wrote a new cover letter, and applied for my dream job right here in my hometown. I, the girl with three jobs, responded to a job posting I never should’ve seen in the first place. It’s been one of those weird, cosmic-aligning instances that my entire career has been based on.

Now, I’m left with bated breath and a nervous heart, waiting to find out what fate holds for me.

 

 

Future Hearts

With everything that has gone on in the past week, I find myself imagining several possible futures:

Scenario 1: I apply to all of my PhD programs and get into two or three of them. After campus visits and plenty of pros and cons lists, I finally decide on one. My boyfriend finds a job in the same city and moves there after me. I graduate, get my dream job, and get married. We live happily ever after. Obviously the ideal scenario.

Scenario 2: I apply to PhD programs and only get into one. It is the one furthest away from home. My boyfriend and I break up amicably and remain friends, because five years is a really long time to do long-distance. I graduate and get my dream job, but I’m always left wondering “what if.”

Scenario 3:  I don’t get into any of the programs I applied to (or I don’t even apply to them). My boyfriend and I both get hired full-time (with benefits) at the same university. I decide that I’m perfectly content with this life for the foreseeable future. We get married and start a family. It isn’t the life I had envisioned for myself, but it’s a good life.

Scenario 4: I don’t get into any of the programs I applied to (or I don’t even apply to them). A full-time job never comes up. Nothing changes. I spend the next year doing what I’m doing now, feeling like I’m still waiting for my future to start.

Scenario 5: I don’t apply to programs because I don’t want to leave my boyfriend. Three months later, we break up. I have to wait another year to try again. In the meantime, I work the same job I have now, feeling yet again like I’m waiting for my life to start.

Why are there so many variables? How do I know what the right path is, or what the future holds? How will I ever make these decisions?

Only time will tell.

Adventures in Adjunct Life: Week One

Well, my first week as an adjunct is officially over. After five days of teaching four different classes at two institutions across three campuses, here are the pros and cons I have noticed so far:

PROS

  • being able to do work I love doing (aka teaching composition)
  • actually getting paid to do this work
  • making more money than I did as a TA
  • faculty parking privileges
  • not just faculty parking, but FREE faculty parking
  • the thrill of having students call me “professor”
  • ability to take 1 free class a semester (at 1 of the 2 schools)
  • dedicated work space with printing/copying privileges
  • additional teaching experience
  • resume booster

CONS

  • severely underpaid compared to full-time faculty
  • no health benefits
  • having to travel from school to school and/or campus to campus
  • no personal desk space (adjunct work spaces are first-come, first-serve)
  • the feeling of not being regarded as “real” faculty by full-time faculty
  • excluded from department functions I was not excluded from as a TA

That’s what I’ve got so far! Overall, the benefits outweigh the negatives right now. I’m interested to see how my experience as an adjunct continues over the course of the semester and into the spring.

Are you currently an adjunct or have you been an adjunct in the past? If so, what would you add to these lists? Comment below!

A Semester to Remember

In about a week and a half, fall semester will begin. On the first day of classes, students will emerge from their dorms and campus apartments, their backpacks laden with overpriced textbooks, and will stumble into the classrooms where they will spending the next fifteen weeks. And so begins a semester of studying, homework, partying, and learning (hopefully).

For the first time in my life, I will be completely on the other side of the campus equation. No classes to attend. No coursework to complete. No essays to write in-between grading student papers. No lesson planning during lectures. With the end of grad school also came the end of negotiating dual teacher-and-student roles.

I’m teaching three courses across two universities and three campuses.In addition to teaching, I’ll also be working as a professional writing tutor in an online writing lab. As if the planning, teaching, and grading attached to three classes and online tutoring wasn’t already enough to occupy my time, I’m also entering into Ph.D. application season. That means I have weeks and weeks of GRE prep, personal statements, and writing samples ahead of me. And having enough of a social life to hold onto my boyfriend and friends is also somewhere on this list.

I don’t know what the “professor” life is completely like yet. What will teaching be like when I don’t have student responsibilities to adhere to as well? Will this be the best semester of my life or the semester from hell?

I don’t have the answers to these questions yet. All that I know is that I’m equal parts excited and terrified for this semester to begin. It is sure to be a memorable one.