Posts Tagged ‘academia’

Yesterday, Benjamin Szumskyj emailed that his Fritz Leiber: Critical Studies, was now officially out of print. I turned sombre at the news, because that anthology marked the last remnant of my academic aspirations.

In any number of alternate universes, I am probably teaching English at some university. For years, that was my intention in this one. But finances, family, and a reluctance to work towards a doctorate put an end to those ambitions years ago. I was so disillusioned by academia that I even stopped my critical work on the American fantasist Fritz Leiber and emerged myself in the world of technical writing. All that survived was Witches of the Mind, the revised version of my master’s thesis, selling a few copies every year and being praised by the half dozen other people in the world who were interested in the subject.

Several years later, Szumskyj, then a semi-professional fantasy scholar, contacted me, praising Witches and eager to lure me out of academic retirement. Mostly, I resisted the temptation, but he did manage to coax from me a contribution for Critical Studies, “The Allure of the Eccentric in the Poetry and Fiction of Fritz Leiber.”

The writing of the article was a painful reminder of academic discourse; as Phred Nguyen, the member of the Vietcong in Doonesbury said when hearing Marxist jargon for the first time in a long while, I kept thinking, “Man, I’d forgotten we talk this way.” I enjoyed writing it as a prolonged daydream of what might have been, and I think I managed to say something original, but after it was done, I had no desire to follow up with more articles. Literary analysis was no longer what my life was about.

Still, now that the rights have reverted, I like the idea of giving the article a semi-permanent home. I’m posting it here under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license for any who might be interested in what else I write when I’m not discussing free software. After all, it’s not everyday that you get to read a relic of an alternate universe.


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For academics, their thesis defense is often a highlight of their lives. Not for me. My defense was over so quickly that I almost felt disappointed. In fact, it was so quick that sometimes I almost wonder if I’m really entitled to the Master’s degree that the diploma says that I earned.

Probably every grad student sweats over their oral, and, nine times out of ten, I’m told, it’s wasted anxiety. A successful grad student is a form of prestige in academia, and few supervising committees will let a candidate defend unless they are likely to succeed. A failing student makes their committee look bad, so, while committee members may harrow a student who’s preparing, and ask a few tough questions at the defense, they’re generally not out to cause problems.

However, as a grad student I didn’t know the situation. It didn’t help that the one defense that I witnessed so I would know what to expect was a last ditch effort to squeeze the student out the door before she used up her time in graduate school. Unlike most defenses, that one was testy, especially since the candidate obviously had trouble thinking on her feet and several inadequate answers resulted in extended cross-examinations. When she was finally told that she had passed, you could see the tension draining out of her. Watching her, I got the idea that a defense was an ordeal, and success was by no means as pre-ordained as it usually is.

In addition, I had my own reasons to be nervous. I was writing about science fiction – and not science fiction old enough to be of historical interest, like the H. G. Wells thesis that had been successfully defended a few years earlier. My subject, the fantasist Fritz Leiber, was new material, and, in many department members’ eyes, somewhat dubious. I had heard enough remarks to realize that, were I to fail, several tenured faculty members would not be unbearably disappointed, and never mind that my thesis was original work and almost guaranteed publication.

As if that wasn’t precarious enough, my thesis supervisor was the department’s token humanist. By working with him, I had announced to the entire department that I was not in any of the popular critical camps, such as the feminists or the post-colonials. It wasn’t that I disagreed with these camps politically or socially, you understand – quite the contrary. But, unlike members of these camps, I had been heard to express a number of heresies. Books were to be enjoyed, I had insisted at departmental meetings, and not simply studied. Moreover, I had often said that conscientious critics should fit the theory to the work, not the work to the theory. Such ideas amounted to a questioning not only of critical method, but of how most members of the department worked. Under these circumstances, I didn’t feel I could take my defense for granted.

My particular worry was my second reader. The thesis supervisor wasn’t a problem, or he wouldn’t have been working with me in the first place, and all his objections had already been handled while I was struggling with the drafts. Similarly, the external examiner was a minor fantasy writer, so he was unlikely to be hostile, even though he would probably ask some questions to determine the extent of my knowledge.

However, the second reader was a problem. He had made the odd comment that suggested that he disapproved of my subject matter, and he hadn’t had time to read my thesis until just before the defense, so I didn’t know what points he was likely to bring up. About all I could do was prepare some explanations of why my subject was worthy of attention, readying a defense in depth that guarded against every attack which I could anticipate. And, being imaginative, I could anticipate a lot of possible attacks.

With these worries, I spent a fitful night the day before the defense. The morning was worse; tap me on my shoulder from behind, and I would have exploded like a Prince Rupert’s drop. Mercifully, the defense was early in the morning, or I might have collapsed in fetal position in the nearest corner.

I sauntered into the room with all the nonchalance of a condemned prisoner being taken for execution. But to my amazement, my own defense was nothing like the one I had witnessed. My supervisor and the external examiner asked a few questions to probe my knowledge, and I found I could not only speak but summon some eloquence as well.

However, all the time, I waited for the second reader to pounce. To my eye, he looked abstracted, a little impatient, as if just waiting for his chance to shoot me down. Yet, apart from a comment that Leiber hadn’t done anything in forty years as effective as his story “Coming Attraction,” the second reader took no part in the discussion, although my supervisor turned to him several times.

I couldn’t understand it. But, finally, my supervisor asked the second reader if he had any questions. The second reader muttered something, and my defense was over, fifteen minutes after it began. I followed tradition by leaving the room while the merits of my work were discussed, and, anxiously fretted to Trish about what the second reader might be saying without me in the room.

But I needn’t have worried. Less than twenty minutes after my defense began, I was called back and told that, apart from a few exceptionally minor corrections, my thesis was accepted and I had my second post-secondary degree.

The second reader disappeared almost immediately, and the supervisor explained his strange behavior. The second reader was subject to petit mal, moments of mental blackout in which he could barely function, and an attack had hit him during the defense. However, rather than plead illness and ask for a rescheduling, the second reader preferred to act as though nothing was wrong and nobody had noticed the lapse.

To this day, I still don’t know if the second reader planned to give me a tough time. Possibly not; he had a reputation for being exacting and a bit grumpy, but also fair. But after all my uncertainty leading up the defense, his reaction was so much of an anti-climax as to be ironic. More relieved than I could possibly explain, I went off to treat my supervisor and external examiner to an afternoon-long lunch, at which I polished off a bottle of retsina by myself, and barely noticed the effects.

Later, I started wondering if I had missed something. I wondered if I could have been better prepared for life as an academic if I had faced a withering and ruthless quizzing and managed to stand my ground. It all seemed too easy somehow, and, although no one complained, to this day I often feel like I obtained my Master’s under false or irregular circumstances.

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At the start or end of my morning run, I often meet one of my neighbors running for the bus. He works as an on-call English instructor at various institutions around the city, and often gets the call to teach at the last moment in the morning. He doesn’t seem to mind, except for the irregularity of his pay, but I never meet him on his way to work without being thoroughly thankful that my own days as an itinerant instructor are long-past.

For the last few decades, most people with a graduate degree who hope to have a career in academia spend at least some time as a sessional instructor, scrambling for each semester-long contract, and often scrambling between community colleges during the work week to cobble together something like a regular pay cheque. My own experiences include a semester when I bused out to Fraser Valley College (as it was then) two days a week, and more than one time when I had fourteen hour days in which at least two or three hours were spent travelling. That’s time that I could have dearly used for marking or lesson preparation.

Sessional instructors have the lowest rank in academia, and everything about their working conditions reminds of them of the fact. Often, they don’t get a teaching assignment until a week or less before the semester starts – sometimes the night before. They get paid half what tenured faculty get, and often do twice the work, since they frequently teach lower level classes with more students. Most of the time, they have to share offices – or even study carrels in a crowded room. Officially, they don’t get paid for research, yet, if they don’t publish, they have less chance of being hired. Similarly, they are looked down on because their focus is teaching, but, unlike a tenured professor, they lose their position if their student evaluations are poor. Their rehiring is at the whim of their department, which means that wise sessionals will waste hours at every meeting and function, even though they have no voice. Yet they endure all this in the hopes that one day they’ll rise to the height of being a lecturer – which means they’ll be doing the same work for about the same pay, but not having to scramble for it. Meanwhile, they dream of winning a tenure position and dwelling in the halls of academia forever.

Sessional work is especially hard at the community colleges. For one thing, the classes are larger than at universities, and more assignments are required. For another, community colleges – even now, when they have morphed into degree-granting institutions of a kind – are often the continuation of high school under another name. Faced with the choice of finding a job or going to college, many middle-class kids will immediately register for college, which is cheaper than university and easier to treat lightly. For the sessional instructor, that means that the lesson that works in the more serious atmosphere of university has to be largely remade for use at a college. In fact, when I retreated after a few years into teaching only at university, the first thing I noticed was how much lighter my work load became. And I needed the respite, because, although I was young and healthy, the work was steadily grinding me down, especially since I needed to teach year round in order to keep above the poverty line.

Despite these disadvantages, I loved the work, especially dealing with the students. I was kept going, too, by a vague promise at one university that I would eventually be hired for some kind of full-time position. Dozens of Baby Boomer teachers would be retiring any day now, I was continually told – and when they did, I would be first in line for their jobs, because I had established myself as an effective teacher.

Then, slowly, the die started being weighted against me. My non-dogmatic approach to criticism was out of fashion with the then-dominant Post Colonialists, and, although I muttered jokes about being the token humanist, I was increasingly looked at askance. Then the chair changed, and the new one announced that, instead of reserving sessional positions for those who have proved themselves, the department would use the positions in order to trade favors for its grad students at other universities. Suddenly, my income became precarious. And, right about then, I noticed that, when tenured staff retired, they were either not being replaced or else being replaced by relatively lowly lecturer positions.

Seeing the writing on the wall, I made the jump to technical writing. From there, I was so busy leapfrogging into marketing, consulting, and eventually journalism that I’ve had little time to look back. If my new work was just as unsettled, I appreciated that it paid much better, although ordinarily I have only a minimal interest in money. It also had new challenges, such as taking on responsibility for large projects and developing customer relations.

Still, when I do look back, I sometimes wonder where I would be if I had stayed on the fringes of academia. Then I look at my neighbor and other people who started as sessionals the same time as I did, and I have my answer: In exactly the same place that I was.

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