Director’s Corner (NeMLA Blog Post #22)

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UIC East Campus Quad (photo by John Casey)

Greetings from Chicago!

After an extended period of warm weather, fall has made its appearance in the upper midwest.  It’s now the tenth week of the fall semester on campus and this semester has been an incredibly busy one for me.

As usual in the fall, I’m teaching four courses instead of my usual three to meet the greater than anticipated demand of undergraduate enrollments.  All four are Composition I courses and focus on analyzing genres of writing and formulating arguments.  My students are finishing up a group project on a Code of Conduct for students on campus and are now beginning an Opinion Piece on immigration law.

In addition to my undergraduate teaching, I also spent seven weeks working as Interim Program Coordinator for Graduate Studies in English, helping graduate students prepare for preliminary exams and the job market.

These commitments on campus have kept me from doing much else (including writing a blog post).  Today is the first time in some time that I’ve been able to turn my thoughts to issues not related to student reading, writing, and advising.

What I’d like to talk about this month is the term “Independent Scholar” and how it reflects the need for a change in how scholars and scholarship are understood in the US academic context.

I owe this topic to Megan Kate Nelson, a historian of the post-Civil War Era United States, who gave up a tenure track job to speak and write outside of a university context.  She wrote a blog post in September of this year titled “Hey Academics, Please Stop Calling Me an ‘Independent Scholar” that got me thinking about how and why institutional affiliations matter in the creation and distribution of knowledge and what the future of that system might be as the ranks of academic labor continue to be filled by part-time and teaching intensive positions.

Scholars have always written and discussed their work outside of an academic context.  These have been, historically, the true public intellectuals.  What seems new, however, is the obsession (at least amongst academic circles) of qualifying the status of such writers and speakers as “Independent Scholars.”

To a certain extent, this sobriquet makes sense.  Universities and colleges are obsessed with branding in an era of scarce resources.  What better way to brand than have faculty travel around the globe to present their research with an institutional name prominently displayed on their book jackets, name tags, and event brochures?

The moniker of Independent Scholar becomes a way of simultaneously welcoming “outsiders” into academic discussions on a topic of common interest while at the same time reminding them that they are, in fact, outsiders.  Their research is not connected to a brand and (sotto voce) perhaps not as worthy of our attention as this other material vouched for by an institutional affiliation.

Most of my readers won’t be shocked to hear that academic life retains something of the men’s club environment of the 19th and early 20th century.  When you’re in you’re in.  When you’re out you’re out.  No amount of “Gatsby-like” success will change that.

What makes this problem particularly acute right now, however, and demanding of every scholar’s attention, is the continued decline of the tenured professorate with its emphasis on research, teaching, and service and its replacement by a precariate whose primary tasks are teaching and service.

Amongst the precariate, I enjoy a privileged position.  I work full time (3/3) with benefits and I’ve been at my job long enough to obtain a two year contract.  However, my teaching load is predominantly First Year Writing, which makes up the majority of courses taught in my department, and comes with an expectation of departmental service.  Except in the fall when I teach four courses for the extra income, my teaching load is not especially burdensome.  Nor is the departmental service requirement.  Right now my main tasks are to evaluate one other colleague’s teaching and serve on the Steering Committee, a position I was recently elected to.

The pressures I face are  primarily income related, the need to find additional work to supplement my full time income so I can afford to live in Chicago, and course selection related.  I tend to teach the same courses on repeat and it takes effort to not get burned out on them.  Especially when I’m teaching a group of students who often need a lot of additional help in order to succeed.

Into this hectic schedule, I somehow manage to shoehorn my research, usually in the spring semester and also over the summer.  However, that research doesn’t count towards anything with my employer.  I am evaluated primarily on my teaching evaluations and observations as well as the record of my departmental service.  Thus, for me at least, research is a hobby that I (sort of) can indulge thanks to my job.

I wonder how many scholars are in a similar position with research relegated to a hobby they do in spite of their work rather than as a part of their work.  I also wonder how many scholars are doing their work mostly as a way to keep and advance their employment position.  I can count on both hands the number of disappointing monographs I’ve read by authors who clearly needed the book for a tenure file or to move up in status from visiting to permanent faculty.

The pressure that the changing professorate is placing on research will someday (probably soon) make us all “Independent Scholars.”  As a result, I think it’s time for us to consider Dr. Nelson’s request that we drop institutional affiliation from our conference badges and programs and refocus our attention on the point of scholarship in the first place–the ideas.

One of the things I enjoy about attending conferences such as NeMLA is the ability to be judged on the merit of my research and writing rather than my pedigree.  At my home institution, I tend to be invisible amongst the research crowd because I’m part of the “teaching pool” assigned to manage courses no one else wants to teach but that must be taught.  Not so at NeMLA.  I (at least) don’t care what your employment status is.  I want to geek out with you for a while on the ideas you care most passionately about.

Taking away one more barrier to participation is the least that academic events can do at a time when financial pressures make it difficult if not impossible for people to attend these gatherings.

Until Next Time…

John Casey

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  1. #1 by VanessaVaile on October 30, 2017 - 11:29 am

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    On conferences and the unaffiliated or precarious profin a changing professoriat

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