Stop Me If You’ve Heard This Before

Jonathan Bellman

I, too, have been aching inside over stories like the one Phil cites in Exploitation, about the challenges faced by our friend Terminaldegree. Phil rages–rightfully–at the exploitation of (especially young) faculty by understaffed, resource-starved departments, and acknowledges feeling something like survivor’s guilt when he considers his own situation, which has landed him at an A+ institution. The psychological, physical, and professional health of young faculty are very much at risk in the all-too-common exploitative situations, and we are all right to be concerned, to implore graduate students and prospective graduates students in our discipline to have a clear-eyed, pragmatic view of the future, and so on. All too often, the newbie faculty member feels persecuted (which he or she may indeed be), unsupported, un- or underappreciated by students– barely afloat and rapidly taking on water, so to speak, rather than moving confidently to the safe harbor of tenure and promotion.

I do understand. I worked in one-year positions after which…good-by. I had a barely-employed year (the year my son was born, an event for which we had to fly three thousand miles because of health insurance issues)–after the two one-years–which almost drove me out of the field, and out of my mind. My job here in Colorado was initially a revolving one-year position that was not tenure-track and, I will honestly say, I was made aware of my provisional status a couple of different times in the form of not-so-veiled threats relating to my teaching evaluations. (Those administrators are no longer here.) My own travails were at the height of Affirmative Action at its most rampant, so no one wanted to hire me anyway: no extra points, no ancillary funds, nuthin’. So please: I do understand young faculty members’ Dark Nights, and I do not teach at a musicology powerhouse like Indiana. My own reaction is something more like survivor’s pride, with a substantial dose of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God. What I want to do here is offer some few suggestions for ways to face the impossible challenges of the early stages of employment. You can’t change the wind, as the old saw has it, but you can change your sail, so here are a couple of ways for fledgling academics to work smart rather than merely working hard, yea verily nigh unto death.

1.  Hang On. Academic faculty will never work as hard on preparations as they do their first couple of years. My first year as an academic was my second full-time year, when I went from a Piano Performance one-year to a Musicology one-year. My load that year was 3+3 plus five piano students (the top five from my previous year, who elected to stay with me rather than go back to the old teacher). It almost killed me. I remember realizing that had Yom Kippur not occurred one particular week, I would have died–that holiday represented, I think, two fewer preparations, and it made the difference between my surviving and my being buried in Richmond, VA. A twenty-five-hour fast? Oh, man, piece of cake by comparison. Two fewer preps!

Just survive this year, and there will be a tremendous amount you can re-use, the percentage of which will increase yearly.

2.  Teach Defensively. Class limits, independent studies, students with special needs. Friends, you cannot be Mother Theresa in your early years. You don’t have the fat to survive the long winter of students taking advantage of you–and they will seek to do so; that’s human nature. Know University policy about grading and course caps and so on, put it in writing in your syllabi, decide on your policies, and stick by it all. A 3+3 or 4+4 faculty member is absolutely not in a position to add work and headaches, show mercy, extend him- or herself for the greater glory of. Take care of yourself and your record (OK: cya!), and realize that your have to care for yourself on a marathon-runner model.

A possible alternate course of action is to intentionally cultivate beneficial campus figures. For example, Terminaldegree here (20 January 2008) notes how much a campus Coach likes her. (She has never, by the way, presented this as a strategy; I am extrapolating a plausible strategy from her situation.) In many places, if the coach feels good about how you work with his or her students, you’ve got one BIG dog in your tenure-and-promotion corner. I never worked this way, but it is possible. (As a green TA in the Ohio State English department, my father was once approached by one of Woody Hayes’s assistant coaches about a particular illiterate student who was a great football player…)

Beware of putting out too much–overpreparing and so on. The kind of place that has a 3+3 load, and especially those that have 4+4, are not looking for memorized lectures in Latin for every class meeting. Figure out activities, films, different kinds of learning situations. Don’t deplete yourself preparing to teach consistently at levels from which the students cannot benefit. Music Appreciation and its equivalents must be good experiences in addition to whatever hard content they proffer. Remember, you are not on a suicide mission. However worthy or underprivileged your students, no one benefits if you burn out, have to be hospitalized, etc.

3.  Plan Obsessively, Preferably the Summer Before. Get your syllabi set, get lectures prepped, be thinking of exam questions, at least generally. The more you’ve got prepped, the longer you’ll delay the panic attacks. My first year as a musicologist, I had to teach (among other classes) the entire music history sequence from scratch, and without a textbook the second semester. I had my ten Medieval lectures already finished when I hit Richmond–was already into the Renaissance, in terms of my prep. There will be more than enough curveballs coming your way as it is: the more lectures you have in the can, the closer to minimum sleep you’ll get, and the better health you’ll maintain.

[OK, the truth. I still almost died. That year I was so ridiculously overprepared I probably owe everyone involved an apology. I thought it would “save time” for the students later if I taught them everything I knew in one year so they got heavy-duty early music, all the Ratnerian topics and styles, a research project, blah blah blah. That there were no fatalities was miraculous. This was also the year I learned a couple of pieces (Scarlatti sonatas) that my appreesh students were to hear in a piano recital because we didn’t have any recordings and I wanted to “prepare” them.

Please. Don’t look at me like that! Just don’t be like me. Look how you’ll end up.

4.  Professional Activity is for Summer. No, friends, you don’t get a life–not for a while yet, anyway. Finish an article or two, from your diss, spinning off it, or perhaps something else, every summer. This way you have a “record of scholarly work” for both your evaluations, if it’s relevant there, and for the job market if you don’t want a 4+4 load. Yes, it’s bestially difficult, but you have to keep all the balls in the air to move forward. I once got a phone call from someone interested in a tenure-track job here; I asked her what she’d published and she said, “Oh, I haven’t had time to go back to my dissertation in the last three years. I’ve been teaching adjunct at three different places.” I understand, really. The fact is, though, scholarly work is a necessity, particularly where there are graduate programs, and peer-reviewed journals serve as endorsements of merit. No one ever said anythingwas fair about a life in music or a life in academics. Just find a way to get it done.

5.  Don’t Burn Calories on Blame and Resentment. You need those calories to keep warm in the academic winter. Speaking of what I observe inside your head: your idiot chair, your ignorant university administration, your wretchedly anti-intellectual state are only human–I really do mean “only”–and they are the products of their circumstances too. Your university administrators are being publicly upbraided by posturing buffoon legislators who glory in lecturing them that they will have to make to with less and, incidentally, they should be held responsible for their students’ employability. Said posturing buffoons continue: after we’ve cut taxes for you Real People, let’s do away with tenure fur them lib’rals. Believe it or not, your administrators are often in a terrible vice themselves.

Truly, much of the secret to survival lies in the resourcefulness of your adaptation and acclimatization.

After some very questionable early years, we are now tenured (yes, I was converted to tenure-track); I’m a Full Prof and Deborah the thrice-feared–who got her job via a search from which I was rightfully excluded–is an Associate Prof, and because of various other duties we are not at–umm–4+4, by a long shot. We have autonomy and are trusted, and–perhaps the most important point–our skill sets seem to really match what is desperately needed in this large-but-so-not-IU School of Music. Fine lives can be made in many different kinds of places, and there is a huge spectrum of possibilities between 4+4 and Harvard one-seminar-per-year-if-I-feel-like-it kinds of institutions; it’s not one or the other. the blessed and the damned. (An ignorant exaggeration; I really know nothing about the loads at Harvard and am just making a rhetorical point.) To survive, to succeed, and to flourish, you must look beyond the first years of purgatory, and above all–in the words of a wise, wise friend and former administrator: Grow Where You’re Planted.

Strength, resilience, and resourcefulness upon all of you. For an uncharacteristically sunny close: you were right when you went to graduate school. I cannot imagine a finer life.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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6 Responses to Stop Me If You’ve Heard This Before

  1. MJ says:

    Wise, wise words from you, too, and ones that are applicable to many situations. I’m currently in graduate school (not musicology, but a program that has the possibility of employment in various fields, academic or not). I’m also 43, with an undergraduate degree in piano performance from twenty years ago. Whatever meager performing skills I once had disappeared about ten years ago from lack of use. In the meantime, I got married, had four children, was a stay at home mom, and got divorced. I now am a single mom trying to take care of four children while working three low-paying jobs (secretary, church organist, piano teacher), and taking classes. The exhaustion you speak of is something I know all too well. Your comments are exactly right. (No, my piano students probably don’t need that website I made with links to recordings and articles that THEY ALL ADMIT THEY HAVE NEVER LOOKED AT.) I’m printing this out and putting it above my desk.

  2. Navel Gazer says:

    Thanks for this.

  3. RK says:

    You’ve made the world a slightly better place by taking the time to type this. I’m a doctoral candidate with most of my dissertation work still ahead of me, and in the past few months I’ve been experiencing the trauma of transition to the grown-up scholarly world and all of its responsibilities (or, to borrow a metaphor you’ve used–sort of–, the shock of fresh air hitting my flimsy, underdeveloped butterfly wings for the first time). You are giving me a helpful view of what may come, and I appreciate it.

  4. Michael says:

    You once wrote:
    “You have to do all of it: teach, work on the big project, work on smaller projects, do research, publish…all more or less simultaneously.” (It’s been my screen-saver marquee ever since.) From this post, I’ll take the “teach defensively” most to heart. Thanks, again.

  5. Mark says:

    I’m tenured, and promoted, and still this is good advice. I wish i would have followed it! It would have meant less stress in my life, and probably better productivity as a scholar.

  6. Thank you again for this. I just re-read it. I needed it tonight.

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