This is a follow-up and personal lament to the book review from earlier this week.
I submitted my PhD dissertation in late 2016, and received my pass in March 2017. I graduated in September of that year, and it’s now 2019. I had already begun to realise how difficult it was going to be to move into any academic position. That awareness of the difficult reality of academic employment dawned on me once I came back to pursue my doctoral studies full-time. In 2016 I applied for 7 positions, without any hint of success. I applied for a further 17 academic positions in 2017. Since then I have barely applied for any, partly because I have seen almost zero positions in my field.
My field, strictly speaking, is patristics. My department was Ancient History, but really I studied patristics, and this puts me at a disadvantage for every job. I’m not familiar with the core areas of “Ancient History” – I couldn’t teach a class on core Roman republican history or classical Greece. I’m not a classicist for Classics departments – it doesn’t look like I know my classical canon of Greek and Latin. And I’m a rough fit for theology and history departments too.
Since 2017, I’ve been working primarily for two institutions, both small colleges. One involves online ‘tutoring’ – the materials for those courses are pre-constructed, and I am on sessional contracts to provide online interaction, guidance, email support, and marking for students. Students main point of ‘human’ interaction is supposed to be me, but it is all mediated, and I do not ‘teach’ material directly. The other involves me teaching my own course, but it is again asynchronous, and feels rather disconnected. A student approached me for a reference recently, a reference I’m reluctant to give because even after serial courses, I barely know them, and my reference is barely going to count for them anyway.
I do these jobs because I don’t know what else to do. If you include the courses I taught while holding a Masters and living in a 2nd world country, I’ve taught 31 instances of 19 courses. I have a specialised doctorate for which they are not even job openings. My current positions provide a liveable wage, only because of Australia’s strong unions, and the minimum hourly wages for academics remain decent. Nonetheless, I work long hours, late nights, and have no time to do research, the one thing that would make me actually employable. I attempted to persevere with research in 2017, with some success though no real publications, but my ability to do that has dwindled to practically none. It took all of 2018 to see an article go from submission to review to resubmit to rejection.
My experiences, and desires, suggest I could be a very effective teacher, but I do not feel capable of realising that potential. Anything I put into personal development comes out of my own time, and my own pocket. I have every reason to believe I could continue to do important, significant, valuable research in my field, but without any capacity to support that, it will also remain unrealised.
During my PhD I began language tutoring, not for the first time, but since then this work has expanded, and this year I have begun to make it as much a business as possible. I’m constantly amazed that people come to me with 2, 3, 4, or more semesters of Greek, and yet by their own admission have not really learnt Greek. That’s thousands of tuition dollars given to institutions that ought to have taught Greek better. I’ve invested heavily in time, and some money, in developing my own Greek and Latin, and ability to teach it communicatively, because I believe it’s truly worthwhile and effective. And yet even here my ability to do so is subject to the real contingencies of freelancing. A lost student is significant. Class sizes determine whether a proposed offering is viable or not. Nothing is guaranteed.
In academic circles, the practice of ‘passing’ is common. Anything to avoid being thought of as an adjunct. Even with those who know your employment, the tendency to ‘flatten’ differences in Australian culture serves to maintain a practice of just pretending these differences don’t exist, that we’re all equal members of an equal club. We’re not, because the salary for an entry level academic position is about 2.5-3x my current earnings. I never lose sight of the fact that we’re not equals, because we never can in our current conditions.
Among friends and acquaintances, the pretence is just as bad, in that there is a regular assumption that I have some kind of job with decent pay, leave, and at least some of the usual benefits of employment in Australia. I have almost none. Last year I fell sick at the end of semester and had to cede much of my marking, and thus part of my income, to someone else. ‘Leave’ means ‘not working and not getting paid’. Few of those around me understand, or could understand, that I am the academic equivalent of a burger-flipper.
I regularly feel exhausted, trapped, and unable to change my circumstances. I’ve trained myself into a career that doesn’t exist, and now work in positions that offer no advancement, and preclude the very opportunities that would allow escape. In response, I have and continue to try to carve out alternate forms of language education that both escape the systemic problems that plague classical-language teaching in universities, and rescue me from the grind of marking identical essays on identical topics by almost identical students. I don’t know if it will work. But the idea that I might once have genuine teaching relationships with students, or produce meaningful and useful research, seems more and more a delusion.