It’s Not Your Fault (You Don’t Suck)

I talk to people all the time—inside and outside of academia—who don’t have the faintest sense of why it’s so hard to make a living teaching at a college or university. Many, of course, don’t even realize that it IS hard to make a living as a professor. The term “professor” is still associated with upper-middle class intellectuals who don’t know how to tie their shoes but exist in an idealized, ivy-covered dream world and get summers off.

Those of you in academia know better. But what bothers me the most is that so many people who teach at the college level have internalized harsh, soul-crushing judgments that simply aren’t backed up by the numbers. Primarily: you think you aren’t “making it” in academia because you just aren’t good enough. 

My darlings, that’s just not true. 

Of course, as in any profession, there are people who aren’t really great teachers, and people who haven’t written their best work yet. Also, as in other professions, some of those less-than-stellar people get the best positions, or at least some of the available jobs. However, there are thousands and thousands of college teachers in America who are excellent teachers, writers, and researchers, and they can’t get jobs that pay them enough to live on. The reason? There are fewer good teaching jobs available now. A LOT fewer.

perks-scaled-03_0What’s happened in higher education over the past 40 years is a complete flip-flop in tenure track positions and contingent positions in academia. Tenure track positions aren’t just plum jobs because of the job security, but because they are the highest paying faculty jobs–entry-level tenure track professors generally make at least a third more than even long-term full-time non-tenure track teachers ($60,000 to $40,000, in English and creative at least). And part-time faculty, also known as adjuncts–get paid as little as $1500 per course (common here in Memphis), and almost never more than $4000 per course.

Notice the line with the sharpest incline in that chart: part-time faculty. Tenured and tenure-track faculty have been in steady decline, somewhat sharply since around 1992, when I entered the job market with a freshly-minted MFA in poetry from The Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an absolute love of teaching.

There are many articles that discuss the reasons for this shift–I lean towards the running of universities like businesses, the proliferation of administrators, and the general movement in the U.S. economy of a higher and higher percentage of wealth to the CEOs/1%. But the biggest danger, it seems to me, in failing to recognize the numbers in the chart above is that people will believe they don’t have good jobs because they just weren’t good enough. We live in a culture that believes it is a meritocracy, and it’s difficult not to think higher education, that bastion of higher ideals, must be a meritocracy.

But it’s not. The professors who get tenure track positions are lucky. They won the academic job market lottery. Oh, they also worked their asses off—they wrote, published, networked, applied for jobs (in academia, a process that takes at least 20 hours per application to do well), taught, went to conferences on their own dime, did professional development, wrote letters and reviews, and did a ton of unpaid work as editors, mentors, and conference planners. But the vast majority of the people who didn’t win the academic lottery also did all that work. 

Why am I bothering to tell you all this, when it’s so fucking depressing? Not because I think this little post will change academia (though there are organizations dedicated to doing that). Not because I want you to give up your dream and go sell cars for a living. But because—if you’re in academia and haven’t won that fabled tenure-track job—I want you to remember that you ARE talented, intelligent, and highly skilled. You are as good a teacher, writer, and researcher as the people who seem to have “made it” (I say “seem to” because tenured professor salaries have gone down, when factoring in the cost of living, since 1975, and continue to drop, even while teaching loads, committee work, and publication requirements continue to rise). You’re not damaged, and you sure as hell don’t deserve to be 2nd or 3rd or 5th or whatever class in the unfortunately rigid hierarchy of higher education.

In short: you don’t suck. The system does. If you can keep writing, researching, learning, and even teaching under the oppressive conditions of your unfair job, then that makes you a hero. If you decide you can’t—forever or just for a while—then that’s totally admirable too.