Friday, December 12, 2008

Whiny, shamelessly self-involved rant. Part 1.

I haven't made a big deal about it—I don't even think I've mentioned it on SHAMblog—but I've been applying for jobs for a while now. Specifically, I've been applying for teaching jobs. More specifically, "professorships." See, I'd been reflecting on the narrative of my life, and it occurred to me that out of all of it—and trust me, that encompasses quite a bit—I was happiest when I was teaching magazine writing and literary nonfiction at Indiana University (1997—2000). And so, in a rare moment of introspective insight, I decided that maybe I should try to recapture that feeling on a more permanent basis. Also, given that I'll be 59 in a few months, I thought it might be time to launch a career from which I can retire someday.

Now comes the whiny, shamelessly self-involved part.

Folks, I have written successfully for a quarter-century, a period encompassing long stretches when I fed myself, my family, and our various canines solely through freelancing. (At left are two of those who were fed: Brutus*, age 3, and Graig, age 11 months.) That is a tough racket, let me tell you. And as most of you know, we're not talking about freelancing for those giveaway rags you see lying in sodden clumps outside the supermarket. Words processed on my succes
sion of keyboards have run in the pages of Harper’s, Esquire, Playboy, The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, etc. I've done hundreds of shorter essays for the crème de la crème of American newspapers, notably The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times; the names that I can drop as personal/professional references rank among the most iconic figures in the biz. Amid all this I've found time to write books, one of which Warner Bros. made into a TV movie (on which I also served as script consultant), and the most recent of which led to over 300 media appearances as well as this blog. I've held prominent jobs on the check-signing, author-irking side of the editorial desk, too. And, just to round out my resumé, I've written PR for Fortune 500-level companies—including "damage control" campaigns that have likely helped soften your feelings about a given company or industry, and annual reports that have taken home first-place honors in major awards competitions in three of the past four years. In short, if it involves high-level writing or editing, I've done it. I’ve even written about writing and editing, contributing chapters to major textbooks on the subject.

Yet apparently I am unqualified to hold down a regular job wherein I teach young people how to position themselves for the same kind of success.

Oh, I might be able to land another visiting professorship, like my IU arrangement, if I searched long and hard enough**. And a few years ago one local college, Muhlenberg, did make me its writer-in-residence for a short span. But tenure? No freakin' way. And you know why?

Simple. Because I lack a string of impressive-sounding letters after my name.
My only degree is a lowly B.A. In academic circles, that barely qualifies me to dust the faculty lounge, let alone eat and/or mingle there.

Before we continue, I should add that my student evaluations—a key factor in academic advancement nowadays—were superlative. I'm told that during the term of my affiliation with IU, I was the only visiting professor in any discipline nominated for teacher-of-the-year honors. My evals at Muhlenberg were similarly glossy.

So let's sum up.

(a) I've shown that I can write.

(b) I've shown that I can teach.

(c) In my experience, writing students are positively desperate for practical guidance and survival skills that will help them prosper (or at least get the cable turned back on every now and then).

(d) None of the above, not (a) or (b) or (c), has any bearing on my quest to find a permanent academic niche—i.e., more than just another visiting professorship or some adjunct slot that pays "would you like fries with that?" wages.
I find this mind-boggling. And I ask you to think about it in the context of my book, this blog, and everything we've discussed regarding self-help over the past three years: In a culture where millions of us entrust our psychological, spiritual and even physical well-being to self-appointed gurus with no meaningful track record (if any at all) in the given realms over which they preside, I can't get a job that allows me to pass on the wisdom born of over two decades of proven high-level experience.

There's a lesson there somewhere.

...More next time...

* a.k.a. The Thing That Tried to Kill All Visitors.
** A successful outcome would hardly be a foregone conclusion. Though I didn't realize it at the time, even my IU gig was something of a fluke. I'd previously developed a very good working relationship with the dean and several ranking professors as a result of our internship program at The American Legion Magazine. Without that history, I question whether IU would have given me a shot.


RevRon's Rants said...

Ah, but you forget, Steve... Those folks being entrusted with the psychological and spiritual well-being of their followers *have* those impressive degrees. Your problem is that the universities are simply too narrow and regressive in their thinking to acknowledge the validity of degrees that are purchased online. And the followers of hustledorks won't pay any attention to you unless you slap a few initials after your name. So rush right over to and pick up a PhD or two. Hell... You might even pick up a position as resident contrarian at one of the metaphysical universities (If you can find one that actually has any of those quaint little amenities called classrooms. Good luck!

Cosmic Connie said...

Steve, it is utterly outrageous that you can't get a tenured position just because you lack the proper string of letters after your name. It truly is too bad that you're not in the New-Wage/selfish-help industry, for if you were (and oh, you probably knew I was going to invoke this), you could so easily purchase yourself a few phony doctorates. Instantly you would be "Dr. Salerno," and the bobbleheads would reverently refer to you as such, while lining up to attend your workshops and seminars.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, guys. There's more to this saga...and yes, it gets progressively more whiny and self-involved. Still, I hope you'll stay tuned (if only because I feel the need to "vent," as they say).

Elizabeth said...

Steve, there is nothing "whiny" or "self-involved" about your predicament, or your desire to talk about it.

I agree with Connie that it's a deep shame (your difficulties finding a decent teaching job). But I'm also not surprised. This is a tough time for job-seekers in general, and perhaps even more so in the academia.
And the issue of missing "proper" letters after your name is one that makes me outraged as well (on your behalf, but also in general terms -- yes, I do have stories to tell on the subject).

There was an item on the news (don't remember the station, sorry) about un-tenured college professors with the titles and teaching experience, who hustle various jobs to make ends meet (and barely so), earning 4 times less than their tenured colleagues. Colleges like it this way, apparently, it saves them money on benefits, among other things.

It is objectively tough. Nothing whiny about it. By all means, vent.

I'm thinking there are some regular SHAMbloggers who teach writing for a living, perhaps they could offer some pointers.

An aside: Brutus is beautiful. And fierce. That look on his face says, "You come close to this baby and I'll rip your head off, kapish?"
But a great-looking dog (and Craig is cute too, of course :).

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: One nitpick: It's Graig with a G. (Named him after a baseball star of that era.) But don't feel bad; everybody calls him Craig. Even people who know the correct spelling.

The funny thing was, I didn't appreciate my gig at IU, in part because I didn't realize at the time how rare and wonderful that opportunity was. They were paying me full faculty wages for part-time work--two classes per semester and just three days per week (or less) on campus. I had no administrative responsibilities (though I was welcome at all major faculty meetings). So I had the best of both worlds. And I foolishly assumed that if IU was willing to pay me that much money, a college on the East Coast would gleefully fork over, oh, a couple mill.

Little did I know that, without the PhD, in most cases I wouldn't even be able to get my foot in the door for an interview!

Elizabeth said...

The funny thing was, I didn't appreciate my gig at IU, in part because I didn't realize at the time how rare and wonderful that opportunity was.

Isn't that usually the case...

Chad Hogg said...

It is unfortunate for someone like yourself who has proved competence in their field through actually working in the field, but colleges are simply not going to consider hiring someone who does not have a terminal degree except in very unusual circumstances. I can think of three reasons for this:

(1) Having faculty members who do not hold a terminal degree drags down your ratings, making it more difficult to attract students, employees, research funding, and charitable donations. It sucks, but no one from the agencies that compile these sorts of statistics is going to know or care that you are otherwise qualified.

(2) If a college is willing to hire someone who does not have the usual degree requirements for that job, it brings into question the necessity of degrees in general. No self-interested college is going to go around promoting the idea that you can learn just as easily outside the classroom.

(3) Like it or not, completion of a dissertation provides a fairly uniform measure of ability. If you have written a dissertation that was approved by a reasonably qualified committee, then you must have the ability to do research at the level expected in higher education. A long and successful career in freelance writing may also show this, but it requires that the faculty search committee look much more closely at your work to verify that it had academic merit.

Although I understand the trend, I do not like it. Some of the best faculty members at places I've attended have been forced out because they lacked the necessary degree. Although I am enjoying working on my dissertation, if I could get a good college-level teaching job without going through it, I certainly would.

Have you considered going back to school to add the "letters after your name" to your professional experience? If you want to be certified to teach writing, a 2-year Master of Fine Arts degree would probably be sufficient. If you want to do criticism and whatever else academics in English do, you could probably get through a Ph. D. program fairly quickly as well by basing your research on work you have already begun.

Steve Salerno said...

Chad, those avenues were actually suggested to me by someone at the University of Iowa, when I interviewed for a plum position there but fell short at the last minute, partially because of the missing "letters," and partially because of the pallor of my skin. ("Diversity" is another topic we could get into, but I don't want to muddy the waters at this time. I make my feelings about diversity-mania quite clear, however, whenever I interview.)

Though I can't do much about my skin color, I guess I've resisted furthering my own education on principle because, well, I just don't want to play the game. I want to be judged--for better or worse--based on my oeuvre, if you will; my body of work. I resent being told to go back and get another 2-year degree when, from my POV, I've already got a 25-year-degree. I plan to address this further in subsequent posts.

For the record, Chad, I do understand that "it is what it is," as the saying goes--which is to say, that as long as I cling to that pigheaded attitude, nothing much will change.

Emily said...

I know this sounds too simple, but the problem is probably your resume. It's "those who can't, teach."

Anonymous said...

"Diversity-mania", Steve? And once again your true feelings on race are coming to the surface.

Steve Salerno said...

See, this is what gets me. I'm not going to get bogged down in a protracted discussion of race and racism (or reverse racism) here, because that's not the topic, and I think I've made my feelings on the matter clear over the course of any number of posts. But are you implying, Anon, that because I rebel against the patent racism practiced by "diversity-minded" college programs, I am therefore a racist? So it's racist, now, to insist that candidates be evaluated solely on merit, and to expect that I will be evaluated fairly despite the whiteness of my skin?

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve- You shoulda taped a sign above your monitor that says "Don't Feed the Trolls!" :-)

Lana said...

What about looking into a university that grants degrees based on experience?

Steve Salerno said...

Lana: Thank you for weighing in.

Such programs do exist. In fact, increasingly, colleges are offering so-called "professional-in-residence" programs for people with fewer letters after their name. However--and somewhat oddly, at least to me--at better schools (which offer the better pay that someone with my resume would expect), many of these programs still insist on a Master's/MFA at minimum. And such "back-door" programs seldom offer the full faculty standing & perks that you get when you come in with the traditional academic bona fides. Also, such positions tend to be doled out to recognized heavyweights from the broadcast realm. The programs thus become a form of PR for the school.

As a matter of fact, when I went through the protracted interview process at Iowa--I survived as far as the Final 3--I was assured that the lack of a PhD would present no obstacles. And yet during my formal sitdowns with assorted faculty, two or three different people asked me--in effect--how I planned to compensate for my lack of a "terminal degree" and "relevant studies." Furthermore, though the job posting emphasized the "extensive history of successful publication" that was expected of applicants, I ended up losing out to a (minority, female, PhD) applicant whose resume included almost no history of publication outside academia itself. Now maybe it's just me, but when a position asks for an "extensive history of successful publication," I don't expect it to be in small-circ journals with titles like Zephyr of the Ephemeral Consciousness....*

* I made that one up, and I've used it before. But it's not far off the mark.

Chad Hogg said...

Regarding an "extensive history of publication", it is possible that this has a different meaning in a field based on writing. However, this same phrase is used in all fields of academia, and it has the very specific meaning of articles in peer-reviewed, academic journals. Even if I were to publish a series of articles on the relationship between technology and humanity in a general-readership publication, it would not be at all appropriate for me to include this on my C. V., as they would not be scholarly articles explaining original research.

I would guess that in this case the other applicant had *exactly* what they were looking for.

Steve Salerno said...

Point taken, Chad. Except that I don't think--for the most part--the young men and women taking these classes have aspirations of publishing in Zephyr of the Ephemeral Consciousness. They want to publish in the mainstream; they want cover stories in GQ and Cosmo or, if they're a bit more upmarket, The New Yorker. We have to ask ourselves--and the colleges should be asking themselves--whose interests are we serving here?

Who's going to teach students the practical side of what they need to know? Who's going to teach them how to balance aesthetics against marketability (the latter being a dirty word in academia)? In my experience, many academically trained professors (and their programs) actively discourage the precise approaches and attributes that are most valuable in penetrating the world of commercial publishing and sustaining a career there.

I guess that's my point in a nutshell. Academic writing instruction is not career-oriented. It's theory-oriented. It often produces a very stilted, unsalable form of writing (wherein, say, as just one small example, students actually put abstracts of their work at the top of their work, as the lede paragraph or two). I'll go into this in more detail in subsequent posts.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I guess that's my point in a nutshell. Academic writing instruction is not career-oriented."

So forget the standard model of the halls of academia, Steve, and start doing workshops on real-world writing. Hell... Poynter is making a good living at it, and helping a lot of would-be authors in the process. There's no reason you couldn't do something similar for aspiring journalists. Trust me, most journalism majors would give their left... front tire for a taste of the real world, rather than the stuff their academically-oriented professors throw at them. Just a thought...

Elizabeth said...

What exactly would be the point (and/or substance involved in) a doctorate in journalism? Is there even such a degree?

It seems to me that journalism is pretty much all experience-based -- the proof of the aptitude is in the pudding, so to speak (i.e. in the writing skills and the body of one's journalistic work). I don't think PhD or M.A. should be required of journalists (but then I'm not one, so what do I know).

Elizabeth said...

Steve, to add to Ron's suggestion, I strongly suspect that you would be welcomed with open arms and many (great) perks of the academic life in European schools of journalism. Their approach to higher education is quite different, much more specialized, and I think someone with your experience and skill would be a fantastic academic "catch."

And then there is the food... Mmmm... But I digress.

Of course if you are not travel-inclined, this may not be a route for you.

Lana said...

Your experience would drive me crazy!

Actually, I had a taste of such nonsense while interviewing for a magazine editor position several years ago. The executive editor really liked me, but it became clear after talking with several editors there that my lack of pedigree was a big issue. Competence didn't seem to matter as much.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the world of academia!

I start my Ph.D at Stanford this winter, but I just got my Masters about a year ago and teach English at two community colleges. I have never heard of anyone teaching with just a BA unless they were Pulitzer Prize winners! You were indeed lucky Steve.

I am staying with community colleges, even after I get my Ph.D. I got into teaching, because of how horrid some of my professors were. Teaching is a talent like anything else and not everyone can do it. Unfortunately, I have many colleagues who are just overeducated asses getting checks. What else can they do with all those years of schooling?