My Alternate Life

My Alternate Life (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

My colleague Lee McClain recently published My Alternate Life, a young adult book that features an amazing computer game that lets adopted children live the life they lost when their birth mothers gave them up for adoption.

If you pass by my office door this time of year, you might see me leaning over a stack of papers, struggling against the powerful urge to blubber “I coulda been a contender!” This feeling usually surfaces when I take a break from grading in order to ponder the remarkable scholarly achievements of others in my field, causing me to imagine what life might be like if I were a faculty member at a big research institution.

Teaching assistants to do most of the grading. Just two courses per term, rather than four (or, counting an overload, five). Time to prepare witty and stunning lectures on cutting-edge topics, which would be the basis for my next book. A faculty club with a fireplace, where I and my colleagues would start gathering around two in the afternoon, lounging on overstuffed wing chairs and familiarly calling each other by our last names.

When I was on the job market the year before last, one of my campus visits was to a huge institution with ambitious goals and ample support for faculty research. At a meeting with a group of top-level administrators, I was asked how I expected my blogging and other electronic activities would be received.

Since I was at the time the author of a brand spankin’ new baby monograph (if I hadn’t been, I doubt I would have made it that far), I was feeling fairly confident in my abilities. I replied that the gold standard for academic achievement would continue to be the scholarly monograph, but that in the area for which I was being hired, alternative methods such as open-source and open-access modes were having an effect on the professional discourse.

Moving to a more specific question, one of the administrators asked, “Is your blog icing on the cake, or another cake?”

“I’d prefer to think of it as a different kind of dessert, somewhere off to one side,” I replied.

I didn’t end up getting that job.

Were I a certain filmmaker with a talent for making politically charged documentaries, I might juxtapose the previous two factual statements in such a way that my readers infer a causal connection. But that exchange about blogging was just one of many opportunities for me to make an impression. Before I left campus I was told that in the same pool of candidates was an essentially unbeatable affirmative action recruit; further, I already had several other interviews lined up — one of which led to my current position, where I am very happy. Not getting an offer from Big Ambitious University didn’t sting for long.

Still, as midterm papers start to pile up, I daydream.

6 thoughts on “My Alternate Life

  1. Dennis, I am glad you did not end up at a large research university, which I can say as I continue licking my wounds after my first year of graduate school at Texas A&M. Based on my experience thus far, larger schools equate to bigger egos and more self-righteousness among professors, reinforced with internal department politics souring the graduate school experience.

    I never doubted your distinct teaching philosophy and I know that you are a contender in your research areas. A friend of mine who is leaving graduate school after his MA in History always associates academic status with where a scholar’s degrees are from and I hate that. I always tell people like him about your path because you did it your way.

  2. “Look back, but never in regret.”

    Derek Umnus
    Technical Writer/Documentation Specialist in Pewaukee, WI
    UW-Eau Claire, Class of 2001

  3. If my blog is not actually considered meat-and-potatoes at SHU, it’s certainly considered more than a sweet treat to be enjoyed only after one has cleared everything else from one’s plate.

    That hits on one of the major plusses of my present position. Instead of having to tapdance in order to sell my online work at a make-or-break meeting, I came to SHU knowing that my online portfolio was considered valuable.

    Of course, I’m conscious of my responsibility to explain what I do so that colleagues who don’t share my speciality will be able to evaluate it, but that’s a very different situation from feeling like I might having to hide what I do from someone who expects more traditional work.

    Further, not being in a publish-or-perish environment does give me more time to enjoy my students, particularly those who work on The Setonian, within an educational community that values (and expects) those kind of personal relationships.

    Regarding the marking load… it’s not really the number of papers that I assign, it’s the fact that, in order to get better work from students, I’ve divided papers up into multiple components, each of which needs at least some brief attention from me. It’s not the number of papers that’s the problem, it’s the pressure I put on myself to turn them around faster so that they will be useful to students as they prepare to move on to the next stage of the assignment.

    Students last year sometimes seemed overwhelmed by my detailed online descriptions of projects, yet it seems they also requested more detailed instructions. I’m experimenting with giving out more detailed instructions closer to the deadline, and arranging sequenced assignments that build on each other. All this means I’ve been tweaking my course website constantly… I always did that when I had the whole schedule on a single HTML page, but now that the components of the course are spread across multiple blog entries, each separate blog entry is just begging, “Edit me! Make me more informative! Add more links!”

    I’m also teaching a lot of freshmen, which means I’m putting in more time than I really want to as I prod them to look at the syllabus and reminding them about upcoming due dates.

  4. You’re not alone, of course, and I think everyone who works at a teaching-centered, generalist school empathizes with your plight to some degree. Of course, you could always move on, but I say never look back. I’d like to talk more with you about these thoughts, because I remember my first few years at the institution, wondering about alternatives, too. It’s like what happens when you buy a house; you can’t help but keep reading the real estate listings. And that’s an unhealthy thing to do! You’d have an “alternate life” fantasy no matter where you’d work, wouldn’t you? The trick is to figure out how to make your labor less alienating to yourself where you are. (It probably would only become more so at a research institute, where good relationships are harder to come by). Grading, teaching, blogging…these are ways of concretely giving something important back to the world you live in and frankly, you’re very good at these things, so why covet others? Indeed, the somewhat parodic fantasy you paint (slyly contextualized as a childish whim by using McClain’s book to introduce it) is the sort of world that can actually become a children’s playground of self-important, ivory tower snobs clamboring over each other for the top of the pecking order in a publish or perish nightmare lavapit without any hope of rescue, at the cost of their students, their health, and their homelives. Not always, of course, but often.

    If you’ve got too many papers to grade, assign less. It can be that simple sometimes.

    Oh: what dessert IS your blog anyway? Sure it’s not the main course?

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