Hindsight is always 20/20

This is the first post I’ll put out as a series in the course of the Reflective Writing Club (#cccwrite) which I found thanks to Laura, the dearest source in my G+ stream of old. Thanks Michelle for arranging all this!) I (for now) work at a university writing center in Germany and I occasionally teach writing in digital environments. I encourage students to blog for 12 weeks rather than hand in a seminar paper – and tbh one of the reasons is pure selfishness, as I enjoy reading blogs way more than seminar papers. (And, as far as I can tell, students enjoy writing blogs more, too.) I signed up for #cccwrite, because I like blogging in a community: the writing prompts and comments hold it together, they give things pace and six weeks sounds doable.

That’s not me – or is it?

Now the first prompt has us reflect on a point in time in the past: What do I know now which I wish I had known back then? Oh boy. How do I do this without coming across like a total grouch? I’ll try honesty, for this is the reflective writing club, after all. I’ll mimic Lisa, who chose to go back ten years (and who aptly enough for this post of mine specializes in employment law).

early academic life was fine

In 2008, I had just finished my Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics and American Studies. I had been working at university from my first semester on and I just loved it. With Willis J. Edmondson and Juliane House I had two incredibly inspiring mentors, I learned a lot, started tutoring and soon enough got a foot into teaching. Passing on the spirit and motivation that my mentors had instilled in me was always such a pleasure. The years up to my Master’s were a breeze and if I could relive one episode of my life, this would probably be it.

I’ve always known academia as a field where if one door closes, at least two others spring open. That’s why I hardly ever questioned the direction. To me it seemed pretty obvious I’d pursue my PhD, and so I did. With a false start in a field I didn’t enjoy (sociological educational research) and relocation in pursuit of a job at one of the imho best writing centers in Germany that time, it took me eight years from start to book. I came off alright, I guess, but looking back I have to admit that my PhD years also knocked me out of the skies as far as higher education as a profession is concerned.

then reality struck

I’ve seen people treat people in manners undreamed of – and I still see it every day. I had been socialized into academia on quite different terms: my mentors always made sure to treat their students as individuals and aimed for a climate in which tasks, organisation, culture, relationships and individual people would work together in an emotionally acceptable manner and for the benefit of the institution. Now I know this is not the default setting of tenured academics or those competing for tenure. At least not in my neck of the woods.

New public management is taking a serious toll on higher education. While some of the rhetoric gives away the commoditization of education and higher education institutions increasingly seem to be run like companies, some practices would make absolutely no sense in commercial economy. One example – and you probably have something similar in the US: in Germany, since 2007 we do have a law called “Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz” ( “sciencetimecontractlaw” – now isn’t German such a pretty language… -.-) which regulates time

limitations on contracts of academic staff. Roughly speaking, you have six years before your PhD and six years after to work in the academy on a part time contract. If you’re not granted tenure by then, you can basically pack up and leave.

Forgive me that one, will ya….

While in other companies employees get more valuable with every year of experience, to the academy experienced staff get more inconvenient when it’s time for permanency. I myself do have a couple of years left, and, lucky enough, I don’t worry too much any more. But I am working together with excellent academic staff lead on a merry chase by managerial types and presidential departments. And it’s not isolated cases – it’s systemic.

I need to be in emotionally acceptable environments and I am currently not. So: had I known ten years ago what I think I know now, I’d probably have chosen a different course of study, one that still would have allowed me to act on my love for language, but one which would have steered me clear of academia way earlier.

There we go. Do I come across a total grouch yet?

8 Gedanken zu „Hindsight is always 20/20“

  1. Daniel, this is so great! I knew bits and pieces of your story before, but getting to read it as a continuous history like this was very helpful. As you can probably guess from the bits and pieces of my story that you know, I CAN TOTALLY RELATE. I love teaching, and in the U.S., higher education is not really the best place for people who love teaching. I should have stayed in high school teaching: I started out seeking a high school teaching certificate. I did all the extra coursework (my undergraduate and master’s degrees did not count because I had not studied… American literature!), but I quit when I faced some red-tape obstacles to getting certified. It was easier to get a Ph.D. than it was for me to get certified as a teacher in Tennessee in the early 1990s. So I got my Ph.D. instead of a teaching certificate.

    As it turns out, I’ve ended up with a job that I absolutely love, but that is only as the result of a series of traumatic disasters best forgotten… and I am continually reminded at the research university where I teach that I am a total misfit. A happy misfit. But definitely a misfit! I don’t even have an academic department. Weird but true. I hope you will find a good landing place! And soon!

    And on the subject of Oscar the Grouch: my nickname as a child was Oscar the Grouch. I grew up with Sesame Street (I was born in 1964)… and I was indeed a Grouch. So of course I was delighted when I found this graphic: have you seen it? Oscar Can. It makes me feel…… empowered. CAN BLOG.

    I am looking forward to sharing this blog adventure with you. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Laura. Your observation that U.S. higher ed ‘is not the best place for people who love teaching’ certainly resonates with me. The challenge then is to not let oneself be depleted of one’s enthusiasm; working with students usually helps a lot. I wasn’t aware you don’t have an academic department – considering all the things you do, this strikes me as super weird.
      I am looking forward to your Oscar story. Been called that time and again over the last couple of years – the role is certainly growing on me… haha.

  2. Daniel, Thank you for opening up and sharing with us. I suspect you are going to have many others from the U.S. who will chime in with similar stories. In the United States today, 70% of faculty in U.S. higher education are part-time. Many have annual incomes below poverty level. I can remember having students with bright eyes come into my office and share their dreams about becoming a professor. I would feel conflicted, as the reality is the numbers are against them. I don’t think you’re a grouch. You’re a human who feels undervalued and that’s never good. You deserve more than that.

    I’d also like to comment on your point about being “selfish” for having students blog because it’s more engaging for you, as the professor. I have often thought about how often we hear the term “student engagement” and how rarely we hear about “faculty engagement.” If the instructor doesn’t feel excited about his/her class, how could students?

  3. Wow Michelle – 70% part-timers, some “below poverty level” – that’s pretty sad. Same here, though. However, I refuse to believe that this is the value we place on education. Thank you for your kind support. With “faculty engagement” you gave me something to think about. I know that some of the staff I work with are definitely on fire for their subject area, but not all are equally enthused by teaching, esp. where students with special needs are concerned. I’ll keep “faculty engagement” in mind as a buzzword, while I’ll be making my way through the upcoming week.

  4. Thanks for your thought-provoking post. It’s sometimes hard not to not be a grouch when we look a higher education and how it is run more and more like a business. Data driven results and cost analysis is important, but sometimes I think it has gone too far in many ways. We have a similar “Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz” in the U.S. Most PhD lecturers (non-tenured) have about 4-6 years to be tenured before they are stuck as “lecturers”. I know some that make $45K a year in Silicon Valley and pretty much live in their cars or on friends’ futons because of the need of the the university to fund the football (American) team rather than pay a decent salary to an instructor. Oops. did I just say that?

    Regarding your students blogging, I have wanted to try blogging in my information literacy class, but because it is only a 6 week, 1 unit class, I’ve been hesitant. By the time the blogs are set up and students get used to blogging the class will be over. Oh, but wait a minute. Isn’t this a 6 week exercise? I think I might have answered my own question 🙂

    1. Thank you kindly, Marianne. In my 12 week exercise, students choose their own topic to blog about. They can really choose whatever strikes their fancy, whatever they’re interested in. I always suggest they go for something they are really passionate about, and I don’t mind whether it is cooking, travelling, or whatever. 12 weeks is enough time for trial and error and students sooner or later learn how to pace themselves to be able to publish at least one post per week.

      In a six week course, I’d probably work with writing prompts as well, like we do here at #cccwrite. Although it takes away some of the freedom, it brings the group together way faster than when they all choose their own ways. Also, commenting on other’s blogs is surely way easier, if they all share the same prompt and therefore a similar experience. Now with #cccwrite, I am even considering to try my 12 week course with 12 shared prompts. I’ll just make my mind up in six weeks time, I guess…

      Be sure to give it a try in your infolit class. It will be totally worth it for you and the students!

  5. What an interesting blog Daniel. I have to admit that because I work for a private provider I’m pretty sheltered from some of the woes of being an academic in an university, which in the UK I understand to be characterised by lots of fixed-term contracts. And I’m a lucky that my job about is about teaching, with some research on the side, rather than the other way around (and again, UK university posts tend to be research led).

    The blog on your course sounds really fun and an example of people thinking about the learning process, rather than doing the same old things.

    1. Thanks a lot, Lisa. It’s always good to hear from people who are happy with their “landing point” (as Laura called it). I have the feeling we all have to figure out ways to not have our buzz killed and it’s so great to learn from the success stories from others.

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