17 years in the tenure track
1995: I earn my MFA.
1995-1997: For the next two years, I work as a full-time instructor, teaching a 4/4 for less than $20,000 a year. But I have health insurance for the first time in my life. I’m 26 years old.
Note: Titles for contingent faculty:
- Visiting Lecturer
- Visiting Writer
- Visiting Assistant Professor
- also: Assistant Professor
1997-2000: I get my first tenure-track job at Mankato State University, now Minnesota State University-Mankato. I work with wonderful people. However, my then-partner gets a job out East.
2000-2005: I get my second tenure-track job at The College of New Jersey, formerly known as Trenton State College. I don’t bring any years toward tenure with me, nor do I think to ask for them. I work with wonderful people. With sadness, my partner and I part ways. In 2004, my first book is published and I receive a positive vote for tenure, but it isn’t official until the Board of Trustees votes on it. In an effort to get closer to family, I go on the job market.
2005-2010: I get my third tenure-track job at the University of Pittsburgh, aka Pitt. Again, I don’t bring any years toward tenure with me. I’ve now spent eight years in the tenure stream. Again, I work with wonderful people. In 2008, my second book is published. In 2009, I get married. A few months later, I get an email from someone at Ball State University (where my brother went to college) asking me do I care if a bunch of students turn my first book into a musical? Sure. Whatever. Then I go visit the Virginia Ball Center and hear the music and meet the students and faculty (making the musical is their only class!) and fall in love a little. A month later, I find out Ball State is hiring a fiction writer. And even though I’m just a few months away from turning in my tenure materials at Pitt, I decide that I really need to apply for this job at Ball State. It’s probably my last chance to get a job in my home state, which–I’ve finally, finally realized–is where I want to live and work and serve. And miracle of miracles, I get the job.
2010-present. I get my fourth tenure-track job at Ball State University. This time, I negotiate and bring three years toward tenure (I’m very grateful for this, thank you, thank you). I’ve now spent thirteen years in the tenure stream. I’m 42 years old. Again, I work with wonderful people. In 2011, I apply for promotion to Associate Professor. In 2012, I apply for tenure. For reasons I can’t fully explain, these things take lots of time to become official, and now, seventeen years after I got that first job at Mankato State University, I finally have tenure. I’ll be 46 in a few months, and on July 1, I will start a new job as the Assistant Chair of Operations of the English Department at Ball State. Most people my age have been serving in administration positions for years; let’s just say I’m due.
It took me a very long time and much, much heartache, and I don’t even want to talk about the lifetime earnings I’ve given up, sigh, but I’m finally in the exact right job in the exact right place. I don’t know too many academics who are fortunate enough to get a job in the geographic location they desire most.
I’m very lucky.
I think that if was 26 today, not 46, facing the academic job market in creative writing, such as it is, I probably would be writing my own “QuitLit” essay here instead of what I’ve written.
I’d probably be a contingent faculty member somewhere, or else be in a TT job in a place where I don’t want to live. I think I’d probably be contemplating leaving academia and getting a job in Indianapolis or Cincinnati.
I recognize that I’m fortunate to have gotten not one but four TT jobs, and at least part of that reason is pure chance, dumb luck: I entered the job market at a fortuitous time. Look at the chart below. Look at how many new BA/BFA programs were created between 1994 and 2004, the time I entered the job market! Also consider how many potential applicants for those jobs were being produced by the much smaller number of MFA and PhD programs that existed at that time.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling crappy, I think: What if I’d stayed at Mankato or TCNJ or Pitt? What would my rank be by now? How much money would I be earning at this point? But then I realize I wouldn’t have written the books I’ve written nor met my husband. I wouldn’t have been able to help my grandma die. I wouldn’t have been there the day my nephew was born. I’d see my parents less. I’d be helping young writers in Minnesota or New Jersey or Pennsylvania. I’d be an expatriate Hoosier. Once, that was my dream, but then I got older and my dreams changed.
This is the way my life turned out. This is my employment history, but as Sarah Kendzior says:
You are not your job. You are how you treat people.
To that I’d add: Your identity as a writer isn’t dependent on the school where you teach–or even if you teach. Your identity as a writer depends on your answer to one very simple question: Does your job (whatever it is) make it possible for you to keep body and soul together and get good writing done?
I’ve been asking myself that question for seventeen years, and finally, the answer is yes.
I ask myself the what-if questions all the time. In fact, that’s what I write about.
Thanks for the well-written, thoughtful account of your journey through academic.
So many people will appreciate this first-hand account of living in the trenches. Today there ARE many more creative writing programs, but there are also many fewer tenure track positions. At some universities where the norm used to be 100% tenure the new “norm” is 80% adjunct. There needs to be broad reform in universities–
Even twenty years later, your first FT $20,000 job from 1995 would be a MIRACLE to today’s adjunct instructors. Imagine only four classes? Imagine health insurance? Wow.
Thank you. I think about, talk about the situation in higher education a lot–mostly on FB and Twitter. I see you’re following me there.
Cathy, Congrats on your well-earned tenure and thanks again for making the journey transparent so we all can get a glimpse into academia. Thanks also for those last two inspiring paragraphs.
Thanks for an insightful commentary. You clearly show the power of making choices and listening to your inner voice.
Always enjoy your essays, Cathy. There’s so much to think about here. I really admire the way you’ve stuck to your values, and so glad you decided to come back home.
I find myself wondering a basic question about this essay: So what? This is what I get: a young MFA graduate finds a life of four tenure track jobs, moving from one to the next until finally she finds the one that feels right. Partly good fortune is a matter of timing as well as talent. While the moves have cost her something, the happiness she feels outweighs the cost. What am I supposed to feel at what appears to be a remarkably fortunate career. No revelation of her own struggle to be human in situations that so often seem to be run by the MBA administrative mindset, no compassion for or hardly any mention of her untenured colleagues, and so on. The essay feels Lite to me.
Well, it’s a blog post, Gene. For what it’s worth, my second book Comeback Season is at least partly about my struggle to be human. You might like to read this essay which touches on my feelings about academia and the job market for positions in English.