Being a Professor is Just a Job

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David Calverley

I don’t want my comments to come across as insensitive or uncaring towards people struggling to get a university position. I attended the first CHA panel about precarity in the historical profession. I felt a lot of sympathy for those who outlined their anger and disappointment with either not obtaining a full-time academic position or the stress they felt as they worked to find academic employment. I’m also not criticizing the many valuable suggestions put forth by Steven High in his earlier article.

I’ve followed the discussions around academic employment—specifically the lack of opportunities—for many years. I’ve read numerous essays written by people who obtained their doctoral degrees, but can’t find a job in their field. These essays are often personal. So, in that spirit, I want to relate my experience with precarity and a lesson I learned twenty years ago: Being a professor is just a job.

I started teaching part-time in a history department in 1997. I was ABD and still working on my thesis. I taught on the main campus and commuted to a satellite campus, when required. I filled in very quickly for a professor who, on two separate occasions, took a leave of absence. This necessitated taking on a full-time teaching commitment, prepping for new courses, and additional grading. I put my thesis on hold to help the department.

Eventually, a one-year full-time position came up. My thesis was a few months from submission. I had a publication forthcoming. I presented several papers, written book reviews, and worked as an expert in my field for several projects. I applied, but wasn’t even offered an interview. A much-beloved history professor at the university, one of my former teachers, and a dear friend I often remember broke the news to me as I worked late one night on campus. “You didn’t get the job,” he said to me. “You fucking should have, but you didn’t.” He then gave me great advice: “David,” he said, “being a professor is just a job.”

A few months later, I successfully defended my thesis. I was teaching part-time again and weighing two options: take a one-year position at a Maritime university or attend teacher’s college. I had earlier applied unsuccessfully for a tenure-track job at the same institution and reasoned that the one-year position would go nowhere. There was a demand for high school teachers at that time. I declined the one-year offer and went back to school.

I needed four more undergraduate English courses to get into teacher’s college. My Ph.D. was insufficient to qualify as a high school teacher. I enrolled in correspondence courses from the University of Waterloo. I completed my classes while I taught two third-year history classes. One year after completing my Ph.D., I was a student at the same institution that wouldn’t hire me and attending classes alongside former students. I was determined to complete my B.Ed. It offered a greater chance at full-time employment.

I finished my B.Ed. in May 2000 and looked for supply teacher work as my girlfriend (now wife) began her teaching degree. That summer, the same professor who offered me the earlier advice unexpectedly passed away one week before classes started. The university called me and I filled in for the man who supported me in my Ph.D., who got me my start in teaching, and who I considered a valued friend. I taught a full slate of courses, served on two committees, and revised an article for a forthcoming publication. When the university posted my friend’s tenure-track job, I applied with no expectation of success. And I was correct. Many organizations grant internal candidates an interview to provide them with the practice, but the department didn’t even extend me that courtesy. I did learn a great deal about the hiring process that I wasn’t supposed to know. The walls between university offices are thin, sound travels, and selection committee members talk about more than qualifications.

In a way, it didn’t matter. Several months later, I had half a dozen interviews at various independent schools. I needed a B.Ed. to be considered for these jobs, and the Ph.D. helped me get the interviews. Suddenly, my doctoral degree had value for the first time. I landed a job at an excellent school. I was anxious about the change, but I kept thinking of my friend’s advice.

The point of this long-winded personal anecdote is two-fold: to establish my bona fides as someone who has been there and done that, and to ask those struggling and suffering as they look for an academic job a simple question: Why not work somewhere else?

Those who are currently scrambling for a university position might disagree with my opinion. It is cliché to tell someone to take the road less travelled, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. In the comments of his recent University Affairs article, Paul Yachnin quite rightly observed that, “there is a world for talented teachers and researchers outside the academy, that the world needs them, and that we inside the academy need to work to discover and even help create career pathways beyond the academy.” Steven High writes about the need to make alternative pathways, too.

Creating new pathways, however, will only work if people are willing to walk down them. History doctoral programs need to turn out graduates who can do more than be professors. And those with a Ph.D. need to exercise a little agency. If the academy doesn’t want you, fairly or unfairly, you need to look elsewhere. Find something else to do. Swallow your ego, recognize that a Ph.D. isn’t a free ticket to a career if it even ever was one, and accept that you might require additional training to take a different path.

Perhaps a lesson I once taught my Grade 12 Philosophy students could help here. I always started my classes with a study of ethics and what constitutes a good life. I asked the class to study the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and one in particular: the cause of suffering is desire and ignorance. It sparked a good conversation with my Grade 12 students; perhaps it can spark one with Ph.D. graduates. Your desire for a particular job is making you suffer. You are ignorant of the other options available to you. Once you recognize this, walk away, and take a different path, the suffering will stop. The desire is gone because you’ll accept that being a professor is just a job.

Eventually, you might end up in a university position and realize it isn’t as attractive as you once imagined. Four years after starting my teaching career, I took a tenure-track position in the Faculty of Education at the same university that rejected me earlier: I won the golden ticket. But before the year ended, I gave up the much-coveted professorship. My wife was an elementary school teacher and could not find a full-time teaching job where we lived. Schools were being closed, and one principal told her it would take seven to eight years to get a full-time position, or twelve if she wanted to have children. I considered my wife’s happiness to be more important than a tenured position. I was on a leave of absence from my previous school to try out the tenured job, and they welcomed me back.

The one thing I never abandoned was being a historian. I recommend Donald Wright’s book, The Professionalization of History. His work can help us appreciate how the ascent of universities twisted the notion of who is and isn’t a historian.

I still research. I still write. I still publish. I’m still a historian. Being a historian is a mindset. Being a professor is just a job.

David Calverley received his Ph.D. from the University of Ottawa in 1999. He is the author of Who Controls the Hunt: First Nations, Treaty Rights, and Wildlife Conservation in Ontario, 1783-1939 (UBC Press, 2018). David is the Head of Canadian and World Studies at Crescent School in Toronto, Ontario (where he has worked for nineteen years) and is an adjunct instructor with Nipissing University’s Schulich School of Education. He has also coached Crescent’s Grade 4 Basketball Team to two CISAA championships.

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10 thoughts on “Being a Professor is Just a Job

  1. Catherine Murton Stoehr

    My though process: This is the alt ac (issue is free choice in a free market, not labour exploitation) position on steroids b/c it’s in the mouth of someone claiming to be one of us “been there done that.” Why would Active History publish this days before the CHA general meeting where we had a real chance of real change? Why give aid and comfort to those comfortable with the status quo when they already have the upper hand by a country mile? Were we wrong, are they not allies? Maybe they’re trying to do some “fair and balanced” thing? It’s okay, I’ll just write and ask them to give us space to write a response in advance of the CHA vote. They’ll probably publish if this is a “fair and balanced” move. But I’m teaching 2 concurrent full credit three week courses. So I can’t write it. And we are emailing each other trying to find someone who can even attend the meeting itself to bear witness. Though process grinds out. In other news – sending love to everyone in the historical community. These are hard hard days and we have hard conversations to have with each other and in our own hearts on other matters. Courage and gentleness to all.

  2. Shannon Stettner

    I, too, find this post privileged and tone deaf. There are many problems here. Suffice to say I don’t think anyone is opposed to finding another job. For those of us who do teach, we’d like not to be exploited by the universities and we’d like some solidarity from the FT faculty who benefit from our labour.

    It’s not the same job market that the author of this post experienced. One government job I applied for had over 500 applicants. 500.

    As for the comment “swallow your ego” – really? What ego? Most precarious labouers have been so demoralized by the job market, they don’t even have healthy egos.

    I’m embarrassed for the author of this post and I’m embarrassed that Active History published it. I had already stopped publishing with Active History because I think they have a gender problem. Publishing this post proves they have other issues too.

  3. Isabel Campbell

    Perhaps there are separate issues. One – unfair labour practices at universities. These need to be addressed and changed. Two – possible career paths for history graduates at all levels that are not at universities. These can be rewarding. Third item I’d like to raise is that I think ATIP shops could benefit from hiring history graduates. They often hire people with legal training, but I think history graduates would bring a real strength to the field. So much more to say, but I have other work to do. Courage and gentleness to all.

  4. Isabel Campbell

    Looking further at the comments here, I would like to acknowledge my own privilege and the ridiculous job market facing graduates in all fields in all jobs. Sorry if my post implied anything different from that. What I really mean to say is that history graduates have such valuable skills to offer us all.
    And I’ve learned something by this discussion.

  5. David Webster

    I dunno, it seems pretty condescending to think that people working in precarious jobs have never considered looking for other work and are still teaching at universities out of some sort of selfish “ego.” Or that they ae not applying for other jobs. I am a professor because I got lucky, no other reason. We need to destroy the idea that academia is a meritocracy. I think the message to precarious historians conveyed here was said much better, and more clearly, and with more compassion, when Jeremy Milloy said “give up hope” and offered constructive thoughts from a place of solidarity.

  6. deanbavington

    I have to say that this commentary in Active History is a real disappointment. It is like there was no consideration of the context we are in right now and what all academics but especially those who are precariously employed (the majority) are going through. We have had a whole university closed, History, Geography, and many other disciplines. There is a war on the Humanities and just giving PhDs the equivalent of professionalization and CV skills is not going to solve a systemic problem, just make people individually suffer and blame themselves for their own exploitation and oppression. It seems like a neoliberal call for individual responsibility rather than a collective call to action, right before a vote at the CHA. Disappointing.

  7. David Calverley

    I want to thank everyone for their public comments on my article. I also want to thank the people who contacted me privately and said they appreciated the piece. I knew it would elicit strong responses.
    I want to address some of the issues and concerns raised in the discussion board.

    Dr. Stoehr is right on one point: I am arguing that there is free choice in a free market. Perhaps I’m caving to neo-liberal forces. However, if your employer treats you poorly or there are few job opportunities in your chosen field, you should leave. A lot of people do this in other endeavours. I appreciate that many people have unique circumstances that limit their ability to exercise choice, but it is a good idea to consider options for those who can.

    I agree that universities exploit part-time professors. I’m not in favour of the status-quo, as Dr. Stoehr writes. Part-timers across all departments and faculties need to unionize so they have real bargaining power. Dr. Campbell also pointed out how part-timers are mistreated. Steven High outlined many valuable suggestions to address this within history departments. As I noted in the first paragraph of my article, I agree with the suggestions Dr. High put forward, and I hope conditions improve for part-time professors. I will admit, I’m skeptical.

    Dr. Stettner is embarrassed for me. I’m not sure why. I’m not embarrassed by what I wrote, and I stand by every word even if some people are reading things into the article that aren’t present or implied. Active History also does not need to be embarrassed.

    Dr. Stettner states that the job market has changed. I don’t doubt that; however, I would argue that the academic job market was horrible twenty years ago. Government jobs were also scarce. I applied for dozens with not one response, even with my experience writing government reports. A friend who worked in the public service told me to apply to Carleton’s two-year MPA if I wanted a federal job as the government typically recruited students at the end of the program’s first year. A Ph.D. alone wouldn’t get me a job, let alone an interview.

    This is what I mean by “swallow your ego.” You might need further education or training. I had to put my ego aside, accept that my Ph.D. didn’t make me a history teacher, and get further education. I continue to take additional university courses to further my career. I completed four in the last eighteen months while working full-time, writing, and publishing. There is no guarantee that these courses will advance my career; however, I know that my Ph.D. and my B.Ed will only get me so far.

    Dr. Stettner rightly states that many precarious professors are demoralized and “don’t even have healthy egos.” I don’t doubt that, and I know exactly how those people feel. Imagine how much better your ego will be when you leave, look elsewhere, and realize places exist that will value you, your work, and the contributions you can make.

    None of this is easy. When I attended the 2001 CHA at Laval, to both give a paper and chair a session, I told people I was teaching high school in September. A few of the senior historians told me I was wise to get out. Most of my contemporaries looked at me sideways. Perhaps the issue is not so much devaluing precariously employed historians as devaluing those who work elsewhere.

    One commenter thinks it’s wrong to give “PhDs the equivalent of professionalization and CV skills.” I disagree. It is exactly what they need because not everyone will become a professor. I don’t think there has ever been a time when that was true. Graduating people with doctorates many of whom will be limited to part-time employment is disgraceful.

  8. andreaeidinger

    Hi David. Thanks for your post and comments. I do take your point, and I do agree that looking outside of academia is always an option.

    But here’s the thing: it might be helpful to think about why so many people continue to work as sessional instructors despite the deplorable conditions. I myself am guilty of this, having worked as a sessional for over 10 years. There were several reasons why I continued, including my passion for history and my love of teaching. I was also worried that I didn’t have the skills to work outside of academia. But the main reason was exactly what you meant: I kept being encouraged by individuals at all levels to “not give up” because academia was not a job, it was a calling. That there was nobility in suffering, but that if I just worked hard enough or waited long enough, surely I would find a job. The prevailing attitude in academia is still that anyone who leaves is a “failure.”

    The second issue I want to touch on is training. You mention that that there are many alt-ac opportunities and re-training is always an option. You encourage your readers to “swallow their ego” and think outside of the box. There are a couple of problems here. First of all, as someone who has been working for the government for over a year now, I can tell you that your PhD does not prepare you for work outside of the academy. Those speaking about alt-ac would do well to remember that the goal of a doctoral program is to produce professors and scholars. It is not to produce individuals with job skills for outside the academy. The continued inability of most departments to provide any kind of training for alt-ac positions just compounds this problem. And second, it’s not pride that makes me not want to go back to school. Many of us who got PhDs spent a decade in school, and are not eager to repeat the experience. But more so than that, it’s expensive and it’s time consuming. I don’t have four years to go back to school. I am a single woman living alone, and as someone who has already lived off of student loans, I am not eager to repeat the experience.

    While I appreciate the goal of your post, which was, I think to encourage folks to find themselves a better work situation, my suggestion would be to spend a little bit more time talking to individuals who have lived as precarious instructors for an extended amount of time. And above all, to think about your words might affect others, and whether, sometimes, it is better to listen than to speak. Empathy, kindness, and compassion are all important skills as well.

  9. David Calverley

    Hello Andrea

    Thank you for your comment. It is very thoughtful. You make some very astute observations.

    Some professors gave me the same advice when I was in your position. The advice, I think, stems from two things. First, most history professors have never had another career. They don’t know what else is available for students and, more importantly, how to get into a different career. I also think the advice is sincere and meant kindly. However, buried in this advice is another perhaps unintentional message: you’ll get the job when you’re good enough. After ten years of rejection, you begin to doubt yourself, and you forget that you are a talented, intelligent person.

    I know exactly how you feel about going back to school. I considered law school after my Ph.D. but couldn’t stomach the idea of another three years of schooling and a year of articling. The MPA was an option. Carleton offered me a lot of funding when I applied. However, I liked teaching. It wasn’t an easy decision. The additional English courses I needed cost me quite a bit. I already had $40,000 in student debt, and I used my savings (from my government contract work) to finance my B.Ed. My girlfriend (wife) was also a student – she had less money than I did. There was no partner with a good job to support me financially. It was a hard year.

    You are 100% correct that doctoral programs don’t prepare you for work outside the academy. One adjustment I had to make was getting used to a regular working day. Doctoral students and professors have a lot of flexibility in their days. Since 2002, my day starts at 5:30 and ends by 4:00 to 5:00 in the afternoon. I teach 6.5 hours a day, coach eight out of ten months, serve as department head, have parent/teacher interviews, meetings, and many other things.

    I also realized that getting a Ph.D. and working as a professor didn’t prepare me to be a teacher. Teaching is a very different occupation than professing. It’s a lot to go into, but professors aren’t teachers.

    I have talked to people who are or were precariously employed. I read essays written by people who are in the sessional lecturer trap. A member of my family is in this identical situation. I appreciate that my argument can be wounding; however, I wonder if I’m causing as much damage as the professors who advise part-timers to hang on or look down on those who decide to leave and try something different.

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