Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Difficult Decision to Leave…

This year might be my last as a full-time professor; it is too early to be certain, but I have decided against renewing my current contract at the end of the 2012–13 academic year. That's a difficult decision in a tough job market, and it may limit potential paths ahead for me. But, I've also come to realize that an academic post that isn't the right position for me is worse than the alternatives.

Here's the problem I had to consider:
  • Colleges and universities start the hiring process now, as the school year starts.
  • Phone interviews generally take place in November and December, with some later.
  • Campus visits are scheduled for late winter and early spring. 
  • Hiring decisions are made in the spring — sometimes the late spring.
  • My current campus renews contracts for the next year in November or October. We are a unionized faculty with yearly individual contracts. If I renew in November, I couldn't re-enter the job market in good conscience. 
The choice, therefore, not to renew my contract was based on the knowledge I needed to reenter the job market now, in September. This allowed me to discuss the decision with my dean and others, to make sure this was the best approach for everyone involved.

I have decided, based on extensive discussions with administrators and other faculty members, that it is better to complete my contract and move ahead, knowing that my research interests and teaching specialties are not a match for this particular university.

I ended up at the wrong institution for me.

That's not unusual; many people end up at an employer that isn't a good fit for them. In academia, however, the tight labor market in some fields can make leaving a position a painful choice. Many colleagues have tried to "stick it out" in jobs that weren't right, though, and the results have been worse than planning a professional departure from an institution.

I am an autism researcher — specializing in technology and writing. I am interested in how autistic individuals and others with disabilities use technology and communicate with the aid of technology. If I cannot conduct autism-related research, my other interests are digital media / new media and visual design theory. Visual rhetoric and usability draw on my technical skills and coursework in rhetoric. Research projects on UI/UX (user interface design and user experience) and disabilities are badly needed as life is increasingly lived in virtual spaces.

The English Department at the small university where I am working doesn't have digital media or new media courses. It is a "traditional" English Department. New media courses are in other departments.

We tried to launch a new program that aligned with my technical skills as a Web developer. I have taught courses with one student, two students, and four students. This semester, I have two students taking directed study and five students in another course. You might imagine it is great to have so few students… but we are tuition-based institution. Classes and majors without students have to be cancelled.

If my personality were different, if I were only seeking a "job" and not my personal passions, I might have been able to "shift gears" and teach courses outside my comfort zone. However, I don't feel right teaching outside my field. I would enjoy teaching a great many things — and most of them are located within other departments at this university. I could teach Web design, interface design, and visual rhetoric. I could teach courses about disability studies, too, especially courses about autism and language development. But teaching literature? Grammar? I'm out of my comfort zone.

The closest course to my areas of expertise was an ethics course. Again, not a perfect match, but it is better than teaching a literature course. Philosophy and ethics are at least familiar; I've read the books and know the topics well enough to do them some justice. I cannot do a literature course justice, though, and I admit that.

As someone interested in rhetoric, my devouring of history and philosophy texts seems reasonable. I rarely visit the nearby used bookstores without purchasing something from the history, art, or philosophy sections. Give me a programming textbook or a text on the history of printing technologies and I'm happy. I have two shelves of books on how books evolved and the history of typography. I've read two novels in the last two years, and both required months to complete. I read textbooks in days. Amazon just delivered two books on Web portal design; I'll read each of these from cover to cover.

So, I made the difficult decision to admit that I do not fit, that I am unhappy, and that I need to move ahead professionally. There is no shame in being passionate about my specialties, and I want to pursue what I love. I'd rather sit at home and try to publish (against the odds) without an affiliation than feel miserable each day I drive to campus.

Research or Teaching or Something Else?

I love teaching and would like to continue teaching. But, I also would like to complete some research projects, scholarly reflections, and various publications. I attended two research universities and one state teaching university. I thought I would prefer working at an institution focused on undergraduate education. The "crusader" in me wanted to make a difference in the lives of students, so it seemed natural to focus on teaching.

It turns out, I would like to have time to research and publish. That does make a difference in the world and it is important. If you want to do research and that is essential to your nature, then a teaching university might be the wrong place. Some teaching institutions will allow a 2/2 or 3/2 teaching load, but generally that comes with administrative duties. Trust me, administrative duties will consume any research time unless you can find a creative way to overlap the two.

I have colleagues publishing "A" scholarship while teaching five or more courses. I don't know how they do it. The research alone that I need to conduct before writing takes hours and hours. I don't want this to seem dismissive, but writing a paper on American literature doesn't have the same research methods as researching autism and adaptive technology. Working with human subjects, which is necessary for autism-related research, is logistically demanding. Literature can be studied at midnight. An autistic teen cannot (generally) be interviewed at that hour!

Publish! And Publish More!

I presented papers as a graduate student, but none were submitted to leading peer-review journals. I was so focused on completing the doctorate quickly that I didn't publish during my studies. That was a huge, huge mistake. It limited which institutions contacted me for job interviews. I would have been much better off taking time to publish articles and maybe taking an extra semester to complete the dissertation. The conference papers were well received, so I should have (and still could) revise these for publication. I'm working on that process, now.

If you can find any professor willing to have you help with a research project, do it. Volunteer to work on anything that might be published! You need to have publications if you want to end up at an R1 or R2 campus. Not having a publication history or enough demonstrable research means you will be at a teaching university. From there, the odds aren't great that you can get the publications necessary to move "up" to an R1. It is a difficult, but not impossible path. Most R1 professors, though, start at an R1 institution.

Networking

Social, in person, networking it isn't going to happen because of some personal limitations. Yet, I've learned that networking is essential. I wish I had those social skills, but I don't. When I try to force them, things go wrong. Still, if you can network, you need to do so. You need to join professional organizations, attend conferences, and participate in online forums. You need to build relationships if you want to enter the elite circles of higher education.

What is Ahead?

Finding out that I am not happy at one institution does not mean I might not be content at another. But, I also realize the odds are against going from leaving a teaching university to being interviewed by an R1/R2 institution. I am going to have to plan to beat the odds — and I'm going to have to have faith that I can beat those odds.

Right now, here is the plan:
  • Submit papers to as many conferences as possible this academic year and into the next. A memorable conference presentation could help obtain an interview.
  • Submit papers to peer-reviewed journals. I absolutely must have publications if I want to reenter the job market. I might also pursue refereed creative journals, because some rhetoric and new media positions do embrace creative writing.
  • Participate in professional organizations. I am going to renew my memberships in various organizations and maybe join others. This might allow me to network a bit, within the limits of my personality and physical constraints.
  • Consider non-academic positions that might allow me to continue research. There are companies that value research in new media and rhetoric, from places like Microsoft to various "Think Tanks" that need researchers for their senior fellows.
It is not easy to leave any job, and I know most people wouldn't leave without another job on the horizon. That's not how the academic world functions, though. Interviews are in the winter for posts that start in the late summer. You have to decide when to move on from a post without knowing if you will find another job. That's scary, I admit. 

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