BIG NEWS

June 17, 2015

I have a literary agent!!!

Long-time readers of this blog might remember that I write YA fiction in my spare time (or what passes for spare time–i.e. my long-ass commute between Upper Manhattan and Brooklyn).

Some time ago, I completed a manuscript, queried it when it wasn’t ready, put it away, worked on something else, and then realized, HEY THAT OTHER THING I WROTE? WELL, I FINALLY KNOW HOW TO MAKE IT GOOD!

Writing: it’s a process, and sometimes it needs to percolate in your brain before it’s right.

And, today, I’m SUPER EXCITED to announce that I’ve signed with Eric Smith of P.S. Literary Agency. Eric is AWESOME! For one thing, he’s hilarious on Twitter and he writes wonderfully enthusiastic emails (though I don’t think he uses ALL CAPS with the same abandon as I do). For another, he’s very tapped into YA (he’s also a YA writer) and has an unmatched love for the category. But, most importantly, he’s on the same page with me about revisions and  about things we think are essential to keep before the manuscript goes on submission.

So, YAY! I look forward to working with Eric on this and many other projects in the future!

Elizabeth Keenan & Katie Rose Guest Pryal

December 2014

Elizabeth and Katie both left teaching positions after the Spring 2014 semester. Katie has taken unpaid leave for a year. Elizabeth began working in real estate in September, while still maintaining her freelance editing business. When Joe first asked us to write this column last spring, we were still teaching as contingent faculty—now, we are post-academics. Thus, we are both to a degree in transition, and our discussion will reflect some of this fluidity.

On Choosing a Topic

KP: Let’s write about leaving academia and trying to rebuild our lives. We could also write about using social media to help us do this rebuilding, via networking, writing, etc., if you think that could work too, since that’s how we met in the first place.

EK: Sounds good.

On Abandoning Academia

EK: I was going to abandon academia in the spring of 2013, more than a full year ago, while I was adjuncting at Fordham and Columbia. I had heard that all of the jobs I’d applied for that cycle had moved on without me—even the ones where I’d made it to the long-short list. And so I wrote a series of thank-you-for-all-your-help-but-I’m-leaving emails to my advisor and other mentors and senior faculty who’ve been helpful to me.

Then, literally two days later, I got a request for a two-day, on-campus interview at an R1 in my dream location. (My husband can transfer his job to only one city other than New York, and this was it.) On the one hand, I felt a little flutter in my heart that maybe, just maybe, the universe was finally throwing me a lifeline. On the other, I knew that I was the sixth of six candidates, brought in after a pause in the search, and that either the job was going to me or to no one.

Once I got to the interview, it was clear that my dream was never going to happen, and that the search would fail. But it was a real heartbreak to be so close to the thing I wanted and realize not only that I’d never get it, but also that jumping into a department that viewed itself as constantly in crisis wasn’t something a sane person should want. At that point, I knew I couldn’t go through another job cycle with likely the same close-but-no-cigar results.

But I didn’t leave. Another challenge complicated my extrication from adjuncting: fertility issues. My husband and I were about to do a round of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) last summer, and the doctors told us we had very good chances of having a baby. Since we believed them, and most of my friends had success with IVF on the first try, I thought I’d adjunct in the fall and then take the spring off to have a baby. Then I could look for a job outside academia at some later date. The first IVF didn’t work, but we were told our chances were still very good if we tried again. So, instead of searching for a non-academic, 9-to-5 job when I knew I’d face tons of early-morning doctor visits, I decided to stay in my adjunct position for another year.

This decision, though practical, led to a lot of frustration. I was no longer treating adjunct position as a step toward a tenure-track job. Instead, I saw adjunct work for exactly what it was: a radically underpaid dead-end job. And then I read a conversation about uppity adjuncts between two tenured folks on Twitter that set me off. So, I started blogging with “How Not to Be a Tenured Ally,” followed by “How to Be a Tenured Ally.” Suddenly, after these two posts, people were coming to my blog and contacting me over Twitter. Blogging (and tweeting, since I’m pretty much on Twitter all the freakin’ time) helped me recognize not just that I wanted to leave my terrible adjuncting job, but that I was really done with the pursuit of the ever-elusive tenure-track job and the “academic” mindset.

So, for me, leaving academia (especially adjuncting, which is a trap no matter how you look at it), wasn’t the result of one crisis, but the culmination of a bunch of them. On your blog, you mention that it took a crisis to make you finally leave. Without getting into that crisis per se, what made you know that this was the time to leave?

KP: My most recent blog post prior to our writing this piece, “What Does It Mean To Be a Freelance Academic?” takes on my identity-shift from someone who was very much immersed in the identity of an academic. In retrospect, my exit began long before I requested my year’s leave of absence back in May, and I should make clear, I’m still planning to return to my contingent academic job.

But I am not planning to return to my identity as an academic. I will no longer be looking at academia as professional fulfillment (even though it has been my career for eleven years). I will no longer be viewing academia as a career. Instead, and this sounds kind of funny when I write it down, the university is merely one of my many freelance clients.

Here is the chain of events that led me to request a year of unpaid leave, and then to take on a new identity as a freelance academic: On the day I was promoted to “associate”—in quotation marks, because in my department, writing faculty cannot be on the tenure track—two other events took place. My sister gave birth to her third child and Nelson Mandela died. I received the call that the vote went my way, and then I went to the bathroom of the coffee shop where I’d been working and bawled. Like, I completely lost control.

When I say that my promotion is meaningless, here’s what I’m referring to: I do not get any presumptive increase in pay. In fact, I do not expect any increase in pay. I do not get more freedom in my teaching—I will continue to teach the same course every semester, year in and year out. Absolutely no benefits accrue to this promotion except one: a contract term that is two years longer than my previous contract term. In a world in which adjuncts are fighting for any sort of job predictability at all, a long-term contract is nothing to sniff at. I know. I’ve been year-to-year.

But birth, death, and the changing the world made my meaningless promotion seem especially meaningless that day. What on Earth have I been working one-hundred-hour weeks for? I asked myself. THIS?

I got my act together, went back to teach this past spring semester, hoped my working conditions would be better, and realized, due to a variety of events that occurred during the spring semester, that my working conditions were never going to be better. I asked the dean—in a fashion that could not be misunderstood—whether I could make a move to the tenure-track. He said, in similar fashion, “No.” That’s when I realized that I’d been working 100-hour-weeks because I’d been hoping that they would let me in the tenure club.

I came home and tried to explain to my husband what I was feeling at work—the snub at the coffeemaker, the “Who are you again?” at the copier. He nodded sagely (he does that) and said, “Well, they’re not letting you be what you know you can be.” And that’s when I realized the most important thing that I wrote about in that Freelance Academic post: when you’re contingent faculty, the university is basically saying that it wants the small bits of you that will do the exhausting, draining, underpaid work while remaining at the fringes of academia. And for so long, I pushed myself so hard to try to break in, to show I was good enough to be let in from the fringes.

But here’s the con, the legerdemain, the grift, the whatever you want to call it. And you yourself know this as well as anyone, Elizabeth: it isn’t a matter of being good enough. They truly just don’t want us in the club—whether their thought process is conscious or not. They’re scared and self-conscious, and exclusivity is all they have. They have to believe in their “process” because without their process, their myth of merit, they have nothing.

As soon as I saw the academic house of cards for what it was, I wanted no part of it. It was easy to walk away from the con. It’s not easy to walk away from teaching and from students, though. I love teaching. I love students. Indeed, this love, the “calling” of teaching, has enabled the conning of adjuncts for years, as Rebecca Schuman has pointed out.

On Social Media and Rebuilding

EK:  Adjunct/Post-Ac/Alt-Ac Twitter, more than blogging, made a huge difference in how I started to see my role as an adjunct. I started blogging about adjuncting during Campus Equity Week, which was fortuitous and partially planned. I’ve been on Twitter since 2008, but my followers were a mix of music scholars and people from geek culture acquired whenever my Twitter-famous spouse mentioned me. Discovering Adjunct Twitter was a huge part in how I could start reframing myself. How did you get looped into the contingent/post-ac blogosphere and Twitter? Have you found it helpful in rebuilding your identity?

KP: I never used Twitter at all until I left Facebook nearly one year ago (fed up with their ridiculous privacy rules—oh, and I’ve since returned, but purely for “professional” reasons ROFL). I figured Twitter had to be better, since it only had one simple setting: public. I never realized how dang useful it would be. Once I figured out how to coordinate my blog, Twitter, colleagues, and conferences, it seemed like a whole new world opened up. Adjunct Twitter—I’ve actually never used that term before, but yes—has been very helpful. I’ve needed help negotiating my precarious status in the university, figuring out an identity separate from academia, and networking a professional existence outside the ivory tower. All these challenges would have been much harder without my Adjunct Twitter network.

On Networking as Post/Freelance-Acs

KP: As I’ve shifted my identity from full-time contingent professor to Freelance Academic, I’ve gotten really brazen about networking. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how generous the Adjunct and Post-Ac Twitter communities are. I’ve emailed or messaged folks and asked for referrals or advice about writing for publications; everyone has always not only agreed but also done so whole-heartedly. I’m happy to do the same for others, I just don’t have as much pull in powerful places as others do. Maybe some day.

I do think that academia trains us to not ask for things, to be meek and wait our turns. Or to accept as our due when the spotlight only shines on a special chosen few. We don’t question the spotlight, or the structures in place that create the “chosen few” in the first place. Part of the academic con is the belief in the pure meritocracy. What a load of crap. Outside academia, good hustle is rewarded, which comes as a relief to me. I’m a hard worker (sound familiar, Elizabeth?) and I want to be paid for that work. One way to work hard is to network hard: to reach out to people, with kindness, and ask for their help.

And to always remember to repay the favor.

EK: I’m terrible at networking, in the sense that I am never sure what the boundaries are. Years in academia have led me to expect that everyone is as prickly as a tenured Ivy League professor, but, really, most people aren’t. (I’m not sure if the bias toward white men is still there—or if, in some cases, gender bias is working in my favor in the new careers I’ve been investigating.) The more I reach out to people, the more I see that the extreme kowtowing of academe is a little unusual in most places—sure, people expect (and deserve) respect, but most people are more willing to give up their time more often than I think they will.

In a lot of ways, I should be used to reaching out to people—my dissertation involved extensive fieldwork, and I’ve been a freelancer who regularly checks in with clients—but there’s something different (and scarier) when it’s about a whole, new field. It’s not just about introducing yourself to someone new, but about learning about a new industry while simultaneously pitching yourself as a potentially viable job candidate for some future position. It’s a delicate task made all the more difficult by pre-existing stereotypes of academics (we’re stodgy; we won’t take direction; we don’t pay attention to deadlines; we’re already making a lot of money), as well as real, structural issues within the larger economy.

On Shedding the “Academic” Title, but not the Identity of the Scholar

EK: So, one of the things that really struck me as we were writing this is that we’re both leaving academia in slightly different ways. For me, it’s leaving a job that I find exploitative, while giving up on the dream of a tenure-track job. But I don’t see myself shedding the “scholar” identity any time soon. I’ve got more articles in the pipeline now than at any time in my career, and I still enjoy thinking and writing about music and feminism in a scholarly way. The biggest question for me is: How do I continue to be a scholar without being an academic? Is it even possible to dream of being a public intellectual in this climate? I don’t know, Katie. How are you reframing that scholarly part of yourself as you move forward?

KP: Right now, I have one article that I am finishing up, and two conferences on the horizon. I would imagine that I would stay involved in my scholarly communities (I’m interdisciplinary), but I won’t be immersed. The hustling I will do is for me, not for professional recognition in those fields. I think that’s the main difference between hoping for success in academia and working as a freelance academic: I’ve changed the metric of success. Is my family clothed, fed, housed, happy, safe? Do I have time for them? Am I doing satisfying work to me? Well, then, that’s far more than most people get, and I feel lucky.

As I read Saul Austerlitz’s extended hysterical diatribe against “poptimism,” I almost thought I was reading a parody. After all, who wants to bring back discourses of authenticity/quality/“good music” that privilege white dudes who make mediocre music above women and people of color, who dominate pop music’s landscape?

Oh. Yeah.

I could use this blog space to argue why Austerlitz is wrong musically. There are many things that pop music offers that traditional rock does not: crisp production styles; hybridization of genres; timbres that extend the concept of what music is; skilled session players; and songwriters who hail audiences that, yes, include the 13 year olds whom Austerlitz uses to dismiss current pop critics.[1] I could point out that in the canon of poptimism, there are a hell of a lot of examples of good music, whether it’s Chic’s live-instrument take on disco, grounded in Nile Rodger’s guitars and Bernard Edwards’s bass lines; or 1980s synth-pop’s use of interlocking melodies, made all the more impressive when one takes into consideration the limits of the technology producing them; or, hell, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which indeed won the Pazz and Jop poll. Or I could point out that the Beyoncé album that Austerlitz uses as his entrée to the topic contains complicated, extended song forms, employs a variety of songwriters, and finally puts Beyoncé’s amazing vocal range to good use. Or I could point out that Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake both employ fantastic live bands and pump up the arrangements with skillful playing. Or I could just shout the name “JANELLE MONAE” five hundred times, because there’s a woman who writes pop songs and isn’t afraid of jazz harmonies, sounding like Michael Jackson, or mixing genres in a giant blender.

Or, in contrast, I could point out that all of the indie rock bands he mentions as “daring” are old-fashioned recyclers—even the bands he mentions that I personally enjoy, like Speedy Ortiz, are guilty of that. Or I could point out that a lot of other indie rock bands are moving back and forth into the pop space, too, by writing songs for Beyoncé, or sounding like Fleetwood Mac and Wilson Phillips, or writing songs that draw sonically from R&B and then are covered by indie-loving R&B artists. And I could point out that anything interesting in indie rock in the past ten years has pretty much come from this kind of cross-pollination.

But, you know, that’s a music critic’s argument—and I’m not a music critic. (Though I’d be happy to write about the sonic qualities of the music all damned day. Another time!) Rather, I’d like to look at this purely from the perspective of a feminist ethnomusicologist who focuses on the history of pop music from the postwar era to the present. In short, I’d rather focus on how music criticism is always a product of a critic’s habitus, i.e. their particular social position that incorporates a variety of aspects of identity as well as cultural capital. (That’s a very short gloss on Bourdieu, but this is a blog post and I’m not going to outline all of Distinction here, TYVM). In recent years, though, the old cultural capital standards “high,” “low,” and “middlebrow” culture have shifted into what sociologists Richard A. Peterson and Roger Kern have labeled “omnivorous consumption.” Omnivorous consumption may sound indiscriminate, but the term actually implies that a different set of disctinctions is involved, drawing on both high and low taste cultures. (And, really, Austerlitz is someone who should be very much aware of this. He wrote a book on sitcoms!)

Contrary to what Austerlitz argues, the shift toward omnivorous tastes hasn’t led to a indiscriminate, disproportionate focus on pop, but to a recognition that there are more forms worthy of attention—and, yes, criticism—than just white, middle-class, male-dominated indie rock. That includes, but is not limited to, pop music (and even indie rock—if you look at Pazz and Jop winners, you’ll see that they’re still well represented). It actually means that more forms of music are evaluated than before. “Poptimism” is just one aspect of omnivorous consumption; in terms of Pazz and Jop, it’s also meant that artists like Kanye West have landed in the number 1 spot (more than once).

Even people like Austerlitz, who clings to his indie rock like so much guns and religion, think that it’s fine when music critics cull from high and low in the “long view” of history—very few people would argue that women and people of color got a lot of respect in the early to mid-20th century. This has made a huge difference in the recognition of styles that had previously been shunted from the historical record, including country music and R&B. Jody Rosen, whom Austerlitz “admires” but feels free to criticize, is a wonderful example of someone who is aware of the need to include a wide variety of musics (and people who make them) in the historical record of popular music; Rosen’s recent “100 Years of Pop in New York” for New York magazine is a great example of balancing the race and gender in a list that could easily have been dominated by white dudes. But placing those issues in a historical framework—and only in a historical framework—implies that the conditions of the past do not affect the conditions of the present; additionally, it often allows some critics (definitely not Rosen, to be clear) to think less critically about the present.

And so, we get articles like Austerlitz’s. It’s important to remember that even while there’s a general trend toward omnivorous tastes, not everyone’s going to develop them, and not everyone’s going to understand the new distinctions. In large part, that’s what his critique of “poptimism” is about—resistance to new rules that determine musical worth in cultural terms. (And that’s fine—like what you like!)

But when Austerlitz implies that 1) the critics have the taste of 13 year olds and 2) there’s no criticism in poptimism, there’s something else going on that’s equally worthy of attention. These two implications have something to do with misunderstanding omnivorous tastes, but they also have a lot to do with gender–of the audience, of the critic, and of the artists.

First, the missing word after “13-year-olds” is “girls,” because, let’s face it, the pop music audience is always gendered female. The artists he mentions are women with audiences of teen girls, from Britney Spears to Lorde to Lady Gaga to Katy Perry to Beyoncé to Sky Ferreira to Icona Pop. There’s only one dude mentioned—Robin Thicke—and he has a primarily female audience. If Austerlitz had included artists that 13-year-old boys liked, then I might be willing to give him a pass. But, yes, this is about gender at its core.

The tastes of 13-year-old girls are usually the most easily maligned, whether in pop music or in books or in films. So that’s why Austerlitz uses it—it’s a gendered slam against the critics who earliest embraced poptimism without actually coming out as a sexist.

However, if we take the long view of history, we can see that 13-year-olds (especially girls) can have some pretty damned good taste (in terms of taste as a cultural construct, of course). Thirteen-year-old girls were the first fans of Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys. Thirteen-year-old girls were the target audience for Girl Groups of the early 1960s; while that era was long critically dismissed (aside from a passing acknowledgment of the “genius” of Phil Spector), no one in their right mind would do so today—and it’s not due to “poptimism,” but the long-term covering of Girl Group songs in other genres, from punk to indie rock. (Of course, sometimes teen girls are wrong: If you watch Don’t Look Back, you’ll see a conversation between a teenage girl and Bob Dylan. Like many folk critics of the time, she tells him he was better before he went electric.)

Second, when Austerlitz says there’s no criticism in pop music criticism—that it’s all a celebratory mush of pop excess and fashion and lifestyle, rather than a reflection of a broadened taste palette for music critics—he’s dismissing a lot of writers, especially women. Like, oh, say Ann Powers, who has a very long history of covering both pop and rock with a critical eye, or Maura Johnston, who broadened the taste of the Village Voice in her tenure there. So, it’s also about who’s doing the criticizing, too, and why he might get away with comparing them to 13 year olds.

Finally, the view that criticism about pop isn’t real criticism is also about the gender of the artist; again, note that the overwhelming majority of artists he dismisses are women. Austerlitz’s parallels to literature reveal that he’s not a very broad reader despite earning money from reviewing books, or else he’d know that this same debate has been raging there for a long time, too. He doesn’t seem to know that authors such as Jennifer Weiner have called out reviews sections in The New York Times and the New York Review of Books for disproportionately choosing to review books by male authors. He doesn’t know that what’s considered “literature”—like what’s traditionally been considered  “good music”—has everything to do with the gender of the author, and not the content of the book (though I will give him Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer). He doesn’t know that YA author Maureen Johnson did a series of gender-swapped book covers that demonstrated the arbitrary notion of “boy books” and “girl books” for that teen audience he so flippantly dismisses.

So, there’s definitely something else about Austerlitz’s habitus at work here: it’s the insecurity of the white, male critical voice in a world that has opened up to women—as audience members, as artists, and as critics—as much as it has opened up to tastes that draw from both high and low culture. While I don’t really care what Austerlitz listens to in his free time, I do wish he’d be a little less certain that his kind of taste is the only “good” taste out there.

 

 

 

[1] Yes, I know some indie rock bands do this, too—but it’s not like Austerlitz was citing them. He’s talking about The National and The Strokes.

Back when Heathers was released in 1988, I didn’t see it–pretty much no one did, because it was a flop. But, starting about a year later, I would see it a lot. My older sister and her friends would hold Heathers-themed parties, where they would eat spaghetti (lots of oregano) and corn nuts, and drink blue Kool-Aid (a stand-in for the drain cleaner that killed Heather Chandler) and Perrier (the drink that cemented Kurt and Ram’s homosexuality). 

Eventually, they let me join in. I was three years younger than my sister, and this was huge. It meant that I wasn’t being seen as the annoying little sister anymore–at least not always. I would have watched Heathers with them every time even if I hadn’t loved it–but I did, and that made it so much the better. The movie was dark and funny satire, bringing life to all the stereotypes of high school. Even though the characters were totally campy at times, they weren’t entirely cartoons, but somehow perfect representations of late 1980s teen angst bullshit. 

So, when I heard that a Heathers musical was in development, I wasn’t sure which elements of the film would translate well. Camp? Yes. Teen angst bullshit? Maybe not. The thing that worried me the most was that the genuine, teen angst core at the heart of Heathers‘ satire would get lost in a haze of 1980s nostalgia–I couldn’t see how that particular ache would survive the translation to musical numbers and the streamlining that musical theatre always necessitates.*

Now, I’m happy to say that I was wrong. Heathers the Musical does amp up the camp–there’s a super-catchy number called “My Dead Gay Son”–but it doesn’t lose the core of genuine feeling. In large part, this is due to Barrett Wilbert Weed’s portrayal of Veronica, which offers a more sympathetic, less jaded, and more nuanced characterization than in the film. The lack of jadedness in the musical is, I think, a result of our collective ’80s nostalgia: no one quite wants to admit just how jaded the late ’80s were (cf The Goldbergs), so productions that draw on those memories somewhat smooth them out. I might have a problem with how Heathers the Musical sometimes makes Veronica more innocent (and less complicit) than the film did, except for the fact that Weed is so damned good in the role.

Weed is a very different Veronica than Winona Ryder was. When we meet HTM‘s Veronica, she’s still a nerdy outsider, planning a weekend of movie-watching with best friend Martha Dunstock (the musical collapses Betty Finn and Martha into one, a change which both makes sense and gives the excellent Katie Ladner a larger role in the production). Veronica’s transformation from outcast to fourth (maybe third) most popular girl in school gives Weed a chance to portray a greater range of feelings, from guilt to ambivalence to glee at finally being popular, than Winona Ryder’s jaded Veronica, who has already been absorbed into the Heathers’ world. At times, this difference is a pretty major reconstruction of character: Weed’s Veronica excitedly loses her virginity to J.D.; Ryder’s Veronica schools Betty Finn on how sex is really not that exciting. At other times, it gives Weed a chance to shine, especially through musical performance. In the song “Dead Girl Walking,” Weed’s voice powerfully conveys the sense of anger, fear, and frustration that only getting kicked of the most powerful clique in school can inspire.  

Another place where Veronica’s innocence comes to play is with J.D. When we first meet the dark horse prom contender in the film, he points a gun at Ram and Kurt; in the musical, no gun, just some (admittedly amazing) choreographed fighting. Was a gun too much in this day and age? Or is it just so unbelievable that our more innocent Veronica would fall for a dude who appears at least a little psychotic in his first scene? Also, I’m not sure I would believe that film Veronica ever thought she was in love with film J.D., but the more wide-eyed stage Veronica declares her love quite easily. Again, I don’t think this would work if Winona Ryder played Veronica this way, but with Weed, it makes more sense.

The Heathers themselves start off a little more vicious and a little more cartoon-y than their movie versions (well, except for Heather Chandler, who was always vicious). Last night, Charissa Hoagland stood in for Heather Chandler, the queen bee of all queen bees (usually portrayed by Jessica Keenan Wynn). Hoagland’s Heather was the strongest performance of the three, especially in the first act song “Candy Store.” Hoagland brought a palpable bitchiness to the role, which made it a shame that, well, she’s the first Heather to die. (But it’s also nice that she gets to return as a ghost.)

Other stand-outs in the cast are Evan Todd (Kurt Kelly) and Jon Eidson (Ram Sweeney), who spend most of the second act as ghosts in their underwear, and Katie Ladner (Martha). Kurt and Ram’s song “Blue” is, well, the best song about blue balls I’ve ever heard (not that I listen to that many of them, but…) HTM gives a little more insight into Kurt and Ram than the film, giving them both aggressively macho dads (who have their own, er, moment in “My Dead Gay Son”). Katie Ladner infuses Martha with Betty Finn’s innocence and an eager boy-craziness all her own. Even though a very bitchy guy behind me suggested that her second act solo, “Kindergarten Boyfriend” wasn’t necessary, I disagree: it was worth it for the opportunity to get a few more minutes of Ladner on stage, especially since she gets to show off her wide range.

While Heathers the Musical isn’t the Heathers of my youth, it still captures the fear and dread of high school in a campy, yet resonant, way. Oh, and the music is fantastic–if they release a cast recording, I’ll review it here. 

A final note on nostalgia: while I enjoyed the music before the show, it was of a certain ’80s style that no one would have been listening to in 1988/89. This lack of historical specificity always bothers me, but most people will just revel in the catchy pre-show tunes. But, occasionally this happens in the show, too. For example, in the party scene, the Hipster Dork is wearing a Depeche Mode Violator t-shirt. That album was released on March 19, 1990, making it unlikely that anyone would wear said t-shirt to a party in 1989.

*Mind you, this streamlining isn’t necessarily bad. I have a great deal more sympathy for the Sally Bowles of Cabaret than the Sally Bowles of Goodbye to Berlin.  

Back when I was looking at different grad schools, I knew that I was coming in with some disadvantages. My background was in music history, with an almost-double-major in journalism, but I didn’t have the background in social or cultural theory that a lot of people from fancier institutions almost certainly had. But I made a decision to acknowledge this void, rather than try to hide it. It was a gamble, I knew, but I figured that people would either appreciate this boldness or not.* 

So, everywhere I went, I asked everyone the same question: What books would you recommend to someone in my position? 

A lot of them recommended traditional ethnomusicology texts. Sure, that was fine, but whatever; I had already figured those out, and they were for the most part as un-theoretical as my undergrad experience. Two people at Columbia recommended the same book, though: Resistance Through Rituals, edited by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson. Both of the dudes recommending it seemed pretty cool (one of them would later become my dissertation advisor), and they actually got my question. 

I’m not joking when I say that the book changed my outlook on popular music studies. And, though 22-year-old me thought everything in the book was ridiculously dated, it still offered a sense of possibility for taking popular culture as a serious object of study. And, as a bonus, all the bad rock music criticism that attempted to do sociology now made sense to me. 

Armed with the Birmingham School and its descendants (especially the work of Angela McRobbie), I now had a research framework for my grad school applications. And, though I ended up moving ever more resolutely in the direction of feminist and queer theory, I’ve built that on a foundation of cultural studies that understands identity’s importance within popular culture. 

And, for that, I have to thank Stuart Hall (and Tony Jefferson and Angela McRobbie and pretty much anyone in the first two generations of British subcultural studies).

OK, so, all of this is to say that I got into grad school to write about popular culture, and I’ve been doing that for the past fifteen years. It’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do, in fact; however, I’m not doing it now. For the past six months, I’ve mainly been writing on this blog about adjunct issues, which has turned out to resonate with far more people than I ever expected. However, writing about my failure all the time is pretty exhausting. So, here’s what’s going to happen: I’m going to keep writing about adjunct issues, because I still have a lot to say on that topic. But I’m also going to write more about music in this space, too, because that is what I love.

There won’t a set schedule for this, but I’m guessing it’s going to mean one adjunct post and one pop culture post per week. 

*I got in everywhere I made this gamble, so the gamble worked. 

On Recognizing Privilege

February 7, 2014

By now, you may have seen this post on the Chronicle Vitae site. In it, Kelli Marshall, a lecturer at DePaul University, talks about her job as an adjunct as a pretty pleasurable experience. And, really, reading her description: it’s not so bad. She apparently makes more than most adjuncts (almost the starting salary of an assistant professor, she says), has a decent commute, has an office, and is fairly secure in her situation. Oh, and she has a husband, also in academia, with a full-time job.

Now, if you caught me on a really good day, that description could be me (except that my husband is not in academia). On a bad day, like today, when it took me over an hour to commute 3.7 miles via bus, you will only get scowls from my general direction. I’ve been teaching at the same two institutions for the past five years. When one of them had a one-year vacancy, I was given a real salary and benefits for a year; I’m also their preferred adjunct, getting first choice at classes. So, they like me! They really do. (That’s a Sally Field reference, for you youngins who didn’t get it.)

I also enjoy various benefits of the flexible adjunct life: I work from home three days a week (note: I did not say that I had those days off); I can go to the gym or the pool when it’s dead quiet, which is usually around 2 p.m.; I can occasionally meet a friend for a run and maybe tea afterward; I can schedule a haircut in the middle of the afternoon at my usually busy salon. (Yes, this is deliberately obnoxious–I’m driving a point home.)

However, just because can do these things does not mean that the system of contingent labor in academia is not massively fucked. Nor does it mean that I’m happy in this position–I really do not want to be a housewife with a part-time job. My husband and I would definitely have more economic security if I had guaranteed work. I’d very much like to get rid of my debt, so that maybe we could actually afford to buy a house someday. But, the reality is, I can do a lot of things that other adjuncts can’t because I have a significant amount of economic privilege (not to mention the racial privilege that landed me in a good school in the first place). And I’m not so blind as to let my privilege obscure my critiques of the system–I know others do not have that privilege, and that they are infinitely more screwed over than I am.

Marshall and I fit the traditional image of the adjunct–white, female, married. As Kay Steiger writes in The Nation, academia has a long history of adjunct positions as “Mrs. Professor So-and-So”:

Before women were allowed to be full professors, colleges often allowed them to teach at the adjunct level and wives of professors often picked up extra work as adjunct instructors. As Eileen E. Schell, the author of the 1998 sociological work Gypsy Academics and Mother-Teachers: Gender, Contingent Labor, and Writing Instruction, said that the reputation for adjunct teaching as a women’s profession was so strong that adjuncts were dubbed “the housewives of higher education.”

So, forty-odd years after the women’s movement started, here’s someone in a Mrs. Professor position telling the rest of the world that adjuncting doesn’t have to be that bad. Well, no, it doesn’t, when someone else is taking care of you. But, despite how much privilege Marshall (and, yes, I) may have in our adjunct positions, we are not the reason to accept the system as is. In fact, we–and I include myself in this 100 percent–are part of the problem.

I said this before in my own Vitae piece: When academia views adjuncting as a job for privileged spouses, everyone suffers. The labor of teaching is devalued, treated as a hobby, and paid equivalently. This screws over the vast majority of adjuncts, who, unlike the traditional-but-outdated portrait that both Marshall and I fit into, are not working for pin money.

So, when someone tells you adjuncting isn’t that bad, consider what other resources they have in their lives.

P.S. There’s an unrelated issue at the bottom of Marshall’s post, where she notes that you need to make connections to get a job. Of course that’s true, but to insinuate that other people are stuck in their crappy adjunct jobs because they’re bad networkers–and not that most adjuncting jobs are crappy–is a bit off mark.

Earlier this week, I read this column at the Chronicle, which compared the academic job search to Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. On the surface, I should have loved it: I write YA fiction in my spare time,* and, as part of my commitment to that element of my writing life, I read a lot of it–widely, from good to bad, and in between. I love The Hunger Games (well, at least the first two books), and I could see how the brutality of the academic job market made for some darkly humorous parallels.

But, as I read it, I felt deeply annoyed, and then unsettled and somehow angry. It wasn’t, as Rebecca Schuman pointed out, that the column was needlessly anonymous (though it was). It wasn’t that the columnist grossly mischaracterizes the leads of The Hunger Games. Katniss is the least “plucky” YA heroine ever. She’s frequently moody, presents terribly in interviews, and has regular bouts of self-doubt. And, Peeta–well, would you describe someone who becomes a master of camouflage as clueless? Maybe in the movies, but certainly not in the book, where he’s definitely more astute than Katniss about playing for the cameras in the Capitol.

Eventually, I figured out what bothered me. Although the article is a bit of black humor about the market, it misses the real tragedy of both The Hunger Games and the academic job market: that people’s lives are regarded as disposable in both cases.

Now, one of these is fiction, and features real death, while the other is real life, and is possible to recover from. But the parallels are actually more depressing. The Hunger Games takes place in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian United States, in which the citizens of the Capitol live off the wealth produced in the twelve Districts. Every year, 24 children–a girl and a boy from each District–are chosen to participate in a fight to the death broadcast on live television. The Games both provide entertainment and ensure that the Districts do not form alliances and rebel against the Capitol.

While it’s a bit heavy-handed, there are moments of real emotion in the novel. One of these is when Katniss (our not-at-all-plucky heroine) mourns Rue, a tribute from District 11, by covering her body with flowers after she’s murdered. For the reader, this moment drives home the brutality of the Games; after all, Rue is only 12. And (spoiler alert) it’s this waste of life that Katniss continues to fight against in books 2 and 3 of the trilogy.

In the Hunger Games column in the Chronicle, “Atlas Odinshoot” hits at the disregard for academic job candidates in his opening paragraphs:

If you’re on the faculty job market, or will be soon, you may find yourself explaining the real possibility of failure to well-meaning family and friends.

Doctoral students are usually type-A overachievers, and so your loved ones have faith that you’ll come out OK because, well, you always have.

But the academic job market is a process that necessitates failure. Your application materials will end up in the slush pile at dozens of departments, regardless of how well suited you are for the position or how carefully you tailor your materials. Outstanding candidates can easily fail to find a position. 

The fact that the academic job market “necessitates failure” is key here. And, not just failure–failure of “outstanding candidates,” people who are the stereotypical best and brightest, who should be able to succeed at anything. Why is such rigorous training provided to so many people to do a job that will be available to so few? Why is this process so wasteful, so brutal, with such a disregard for the humanity of the job applicants? Who benefits from this system? Why are some people with tenure encouraging the expansion of graduate programs, even in the midst of a clear, ongoing, and progressive contraction of the academic job market? Why are outside connections–especially ones that could offer future employment–discouraged during grad school? And why are people who leave–even when they go on to good jobs and to do exceptional things–still considered failures within academia?

These are only a few of the questions that underly the issue of the job market’s necessary failures, but they are hard to ask without teetering from a cutesy, gallows humor comparison of the Hunger Games into a pit of despair about the utter likelihood that you’ve wasted a good decade of your life and you can do nothing to change the structural issues of the academy. (Or, at least that’s how I’m feeling.) The job market, in its brutality, fosters competition and prevents alliances between the underclasses of academia, and when people decide to leave it–really leave it–they are as good as dead to anyone in academia.

Now, some of you may be saying, “Elizabeth, you volunteered as Tribute! You cannot have expected the outcome to go any other way! You knew the market was bad! It was always bad!” This is true, though the market is markedly worse than when I started (yes, those figures are for German, but it works across the humanities). It is also true that the thing I heard most often in grad school was, “There’s always room for people who do good work,” paired with reassurance that I did good–nay, excellent–work. And yet, here I am, as an adjunct. I guess that’s where there’s room for me, eh?

So, yes, I may have volunteered as Tribute. I don’t have to play the game anymore; I can leave, and I will, as soon as I can find a job elsewhere. But that does nothing to change the system, and I have no idea what to do about that.

======

*I’m not a published YA author. And, no, I do not write Hunger Games fanfic or vampire stories, so you can just take those jokes elsewhere. I’m currently revising a manuscript and will be looking for agents somewhere in mid-2014.

 

I’ve been meaning to talk about this for a while–in fact, my column for Vitae alludes to my own credit card debt. But with Karen “The Professor Is In” Kelsky’s massive, anonymous Google doc of graduate student debt and Kate Bahn’s “On Privilege and the PhD,” I felt it was time to talk about how you can get into debt even when fully funded.

Now, I’m  not going to give you the exact dollar amount of my debt. That’s between me and my credit card companies. But I certainly have it. Here’s how it happened:

Year 1: My stipend is $12,000, my rent $600/month in New York City. My dad helps me pay rent, because he can see that $400/month is not enough to live on. I also have substantial savings from college, mostly because I had a full scholarship that included both tuition and room, and I worked every weekend. Over the first year, my savings dwindle.

Year 2: With my stipend going up to $13,000, there still isn’t room for any financial error. I start working for the Columbia Bartending Agency, which really and truly exists. It’s a great way to make money, but, as I start writing my master’s thesis and TAing, it becomes hard to juggle. I get pressure from both professors and my then-boyfriend to quit bartending (really, the boyfriend, who is rich via his famous mother, wants to dominate my time).

Year 3: I still bartend a little, but it’s hard to keep up with coursework and teaching my own class for the first time. The debts are starting to rack up. Graduate stipend rises to $13,500, but, of course, my rent is going up each year, too. I start attending conferences locally, which isn’t so bad. In the “bad” column, my boyfriend asks me to go on an expensive ski trip with him–his mother’s paying for my ski rental, lessons, and lift ticket. When I get there, it turns out that she is not paying for anything, her present to me is a Nalgene bottle, and I’m out over $1,000. This is not really grad school debt, but I thought I would put it here since it’s the only radically stupid thing I paid for.

Year 4: At the end of Year 3 and beginning of Year 4, I take my comps. I pass with flying colors! However, it’s the last time I get to celebrate: Faculty relationships rapidly deteriorate over the fall semester. By the order of various administrators, people are not talking to each other. I cannot get my dissertation proposal approved, because the people who need to approve it are not allowed in the same room with each other. In January of Year 4, I’m sent on fieldwork with junior faculty approval, having to revoke the paltry amount of funding I did receive, because I lack the paperwork proving I have passed my proposal defense. This is my biggest mistake. It will cost me $20,000. (I finally get a proposal defense date after a giant fracas that involves a professor being forcibly retired. It was BIG DRAMA.)

Year 5: I go to my first national conference, flying from Seattle to Miami. That is not cheap, and, though my flight is funded, the rest of it goes on the credit card. I finish my fieldwork in Seattle and move to San Francisco to conduct more fieldwork and move in with my horrible boyfriend. San Francisco is incredibly expensive; it’s the worst site for fieldwork, ever. After my horrible boyfriend “accidentally” deletes my conference paper, I attend my second national conference. I can’t get funding for this one, because we’re limited to one per year. I do, however, stay with a friend and his wife, which dramatically cuts down on the costs of the conference.

The Year Off: I get stuck in San Francisco for another year, due to a fuck up with funding that was partially my fault and partially due to someone deleting something from my computer (again!). For obvious reasons, I move out of my apartment with the horrible boyfriend. I work all the time, for the worst boss I’ve ever had, and everything sucks. Just as I’m about to go to a conference (even in my year off!), my boss fires me from my $30/hour independent contractor position when she forgets that she gave me permission to go to the conference. It’s either keep my job–flushing the cost of the conference down the toilet–or go and lose my job. I leave, because she is driving me crazy. I end up working at the Gap and a yarn store for six months until I go back to New York. This erases all the progress I’d made on my debt, and adds to it.

Year 6: To make up for the SNAFU that happened the year before, one of the professors in my department makes sure I get a dissertation-writing fellowship, which is $19,000/year. My rent in my sublet is $1,025/month, meaning that I cannot leave my house unless I want to increase my debt. I make real progress, but I do not finish my dissertation by the end of the year. However, the two of the three chapters that I write that year will later win prizes in their conference paper versions. This will not help me get a job, but it’s something. In March, I end up getting evicted when the woman from whom I’m subletting tells the university she’s not returning. In a miraculous turn of events, I end up in the best and cheapest apartment in NYC. However, it requires 1) a broker’s fee and 2) first, last, and security. I borrow money from my dad, who, thankfully, has money to spare and does not want to see me homeless.

Year 7:  This is my last year of funding. I’m told to conference, conference, conference. I do. I go to a conference in Hawai’i. I go to a conference in Seattle. I go to a conference in Montreal. The only cheap conference is in Ithaca, NY. These conferences add up rapidly. Even Montreal, which can theoretically be done on the cheap, costs more than it should: the conference is during the Grand Prix de Montreal, which means that any restaurant within walking distance to the conference hotel was raising their regular prices or using prix fixe deals.

Year 8: While adjuncting, I finally finish a draft, but have a hard time pleasing one member of my committee. Another member of my committee, who sees me struggling, encourages me to really put myself out there on the job market. “You never know how far a good conference paper will take you,” she says cheerily. I believe her, but I should not, because no one goes to grad student panels. I go to conferences in Columbus, Seattle, and San Antonio. I defend the same day that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy; the day my diploma is issued, October 11, 2008, the head of the IMF warns of potential international collapse. Jobs disappear, and I find myself stuck adjuncting.

In the years after graduation, working as an adjunct and VAP has meant that I’ve never gotten ahead of my debt in the way that I’d like. It’s always there. The adjunct pay cycle is not conducive to getting out of debt: even if you save during the semester, the pay is so little that it will not cover expenses during the summer.

I worry that this post will just cause people to call me an idiot (see: My Year Off), or to say that I do not deserve to be in academia if I couldn’t hack it financially. But the reality is, aside from dating a terrible human being for four years and going on an expensive ski trip, I don’t think there’s much else I could have done. I went to the best grad school I could, I got as much funding as I could, and I tried to live frugally. I spent money on things that would directly advance my career, such as research and conferences. And I still have debt, for a career that I’m leaving at the end of this year.

Grad school: it’s just not worth the damage to your bank account.

Yesterday, I had an interview for a job outside academia. It was absolutely normal and wonderfully refreshing–pleasant, even. The questions were about the job, and how my experience and knowledge is relevant to it, and I answered them to the best of my ability. So, if I do not get the job, I have no regrets, because I was treated like a human being.

However, I can’t say that about my academic job interviews. Of the conference and on-campus interviews I’ve done, there’s exactly one that stood out for being a truly humane experience: it was a small liberal arts college in Maine, where everyone was polite and professional, from the start of the day to the finish at dinner. I didn’t get the job, but I still have an incredible amount of respect for every single person there.

Otherwise, it’s been a series of WTF to just plain wrong. There was the time when I was scheduled on the same day as another candidate. After the committee took too long at lunch, I was asked to start my interview an hour late, and, oh, by the way, they’re not taking me to dinner (which meant they’d already decided on the other person). There was the time when a scholar whose work I really admired turned his back on me and refused to shake my hand because he disliked one of my letter writers. I could go on, but I won’t.

Mostly, though, I’ve heard a ton of bizarro questions. Here are six of them that stick out in my mind:

6. “What do you think about specificity?” This was a real question at an R-1 university. Although I’ve done a lot of thinking about specificity, especially when it comes to writing, I had no idea what this person meant. Specificity is good, in any kind of writing: In an article, you want specific details to prove your point. You see this blog post? It has specific questions, all of which I really experienced. But the vague quality of the question made me unsure if I was supposed to answer about research, teaching, or, say, the lunch menu. This person is a wonderful scholar and probably a good colleague, but this was one of those questions that demonstrated how out-of-touch R-1 academia is with the rest of the world.

5. “Why is this music so angry? There’s too much shouting, and it delegitimizes their feminism.” This was from a professor who identifies as feminist, and she was tone policing the music I was talking about in my job talk. You might think that this was a legitimate question, but it’s not. I could have talked more about why the music was so angry (and, in fact, about a third of my job talk was about that), but the second part is key: the declarative statement showed that she didn’t have room to even hear an answer. This is the worst kind of question to get after a job talk, because it means that the person is already a no-vote, and the best you can do is hope your answer makes you seem collegial yet firm.

4. “How do you see the role of this new hire in your department’s growth?” OK, this is something I asked, and I hope it’s not really a terrible question. I have no idea why it caused the following to happen: One of the committee members slammed his hands down on the table and shouted, “I don’t see us hiring an ethnomusicologist!” He then got up and left, slamming the door behind him. I had fifteen minutes left to ask the rest of the committee questions, but no one would say anything. Worse, no one apologized for his behavior; instead, they acted like it was normal. Dear committee members at that school, if you happen to read this: that’s not professional.

3. “The kids are going into finals. Could you cut your teaching presentation from an hour to, say, 25 minutes?” This was asked as I was getting ready to teach and the students were filing into the classroom. If I had been asked to prepare an alternate 25-minute lesson, this would have been fine. If I’d have been given a day’s notice, this would have been fine. Hell, if I’d have been given a half hour, maybe. But this was just impossible, not to mention incredibly dismissive of the work that I’d put into my sample class.

2. “Can you give me a compelling reason why we should hire an adjunct, when we are trying to raise the profile of the department?” I was adjuncting at a state school, teaching courses for someone who was (no joke) no longer allowed in the country because the university had messed up his green card. Despite the bad karma involved in such a position, I applied when it came open and became the inside candidate; however, the dean had issues with adjuncts in the department, regardless of pedigree or degree obtained (almost universally, the music adjuncts had PhDs, while the tenure-track faculty did not). The school ended up passing on me and a former adjunct who had two well regarded books on excellent presses. They hired someone ABD, because, you know, potential.

1. “So, do you have any kids?” Normally, I’d be happy to talk with people about my plans to have children. But the only reason people ask a woman that in an interview in academia is to suss out whether she’ll be taking leave in the next few years, and/or whether she’s a “serious scholar.” This is also not legal. Yet it’s happened at almost every interview I’ve ever been on.

This past week, Ani Di Franco became relevant for the first time since the late 1990s in possibly the worst way. Her “Righteous Retreat” was going to be held at Nottoway Plantation, a resort between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that also happened to be a former slave plantation. An internet fracas ensued, as people rightfully criticized the location. Di Franco issued the worst apology I’ve ever read (The Toast’s parody was spot on). In it, she called the criticism about the choice of location “high velocity bitterness,” generally took a smug tone about being a progressive white woman whose choices should not be judged, and compared a music school for impoverished kids in the Cabildo in New Orleans (another slavery site) with a resort catering to rich white people.*

Perhaps the thing that’s most troubling to me is that last bit. I’ve been to the Cabildo, and it’s nothing like going to a plantation. It’s been part of the Louisiana State Museum since 1908; that’s over a century of functioning as a public entity, complete with educational programs and a permanent exhibition that places slavery in context. Just as importantly, as Ani acknowledges, the work that educators do within the Cabildo–like the Roots of Music group she cites–transform the historical building into a space that benefits people rather than actively, intentionally harms them.  

I’ve also been to Nottoway, twice, a long time ago. Back in the 1980s, I went on a lot of plantation tours throughout south Louisiana. At the time, I didn’t have a choice: most of the tours were school field trips with my classmates from my predominantly white Catholic school. At the time, I didn’t think about these houses as being built by slaves or that these houses’ existence was a product of the system of slavery: I was a young white kid born in NJ but growing up in LA, and, to me, the plantations were just beautiful houses with unique architecture. 

And then, when I was in middle school, my older cousin went on a tour with my family to Nottoway Plantation. 

“Don’t you think it’s weird,” she said, “that no one’s mentioned slaves at all?”

She was right. They hadn’t. It had been “servants” throughout the entire tour: servants selected the cypress beams that were resistant to termites; servants worked in the plantation’s sugar cane fields; servants took care of the family; servants took the “whistler’s walk”* from the outdoor kitchens to the family’s dining room. 

It was a jolt to 12-year-old me. Suddenly, I felt a lot less comfortable in the beautiful (but, no joke, completely white) ballroom where we were standing. It wasn’t just a house we were touring. It was a place where black people had been exploited, abused, and even killed just so that white people could live in luxury.

Now, this was 25 years ago, and a lot has changed at Nottoway. The website now acknowledges up front that slavery was a part of plantation life, and that John Randolph, the plantation owner who built the house, had a long history of slave ownership (including the 20 slaves who were part of his wife’s dowry). On its history page, the plantation’s current owners describe life for the slaves, from field hands to household workers. But it repeats the idea that John Randolph was an especially nice owner, though it’s sure to point out that he had economic reasons for being relatively less terrible than other slave owners.

Although the plantation no longer hides its past as a site of slavery, it isn’t a transformative space, either. It’s a resort that replicates the kind of luxury the Randolph family enjoyed in the antebellum era. You can stay in the Randolph family’s bedrooms, which are filled with period-specific antiques. You can stay in the overseer’s cottage–yes, the overseer’s cottage–also with some fine antiques. Or the carriage house or the “cottages,” which are designed like modern hotel rooms. The “cottages” are on the site where slave cabins once stood. In them, you can enjoy all the amenities of a first-class resort. You know, just like those slaves did back then. 

Staying in a plantation owner’s or overseer’s house with period-centric antiques isn’t transformative; rather, it glorifies a system of owning other human beings by replicating the conditions afforded to the upper classes at the time. Nor do tidy “cottages” with modern amenities represent the kind of conditions slaves lived in. Rather, they mask the horrors that made places like Nottoway possible.

It’s not transformation. It’s erasure. And no one should be comfortable with that. 

 

 

*As I was writing this, Ani DiFranco apologized again. It’s better, but still not great. Additionally, many of her fans continue to think it’s A-OK to stay at a plantation. 

**Strangely, our tour guide didn’t omit a definition of a “whistler’s walk”: To insure that no one stole food or spit in it, slaves had to whistle as they walked from the outdoor kitchens to the plantation house. 

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