Friday, June 27, 2014

Guest post: Moving Costs Institutions and Communities

My friend and colleague Kathleen Cawsey has written a response to my post from yesterday on avoiding the empathy trap / on moving. Thank you Kathy!!
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Erin Wunker recently wrote about the personal costs of the peripatetic academic life – the emotional and psychological, as well as financial and practical, costs of moving that most grad students and new-career academics face. But there is a flip side to this taken-for-granted culture of ‘go-where-the-job-is’ that is academia. Constant moving has costs not only for the individuals moving, but, I believe, the institutions and communities who host those individuals.

I am blessed to be in a department that often hires internal candidates, and which has three (count them – three!) spousal pairs; but I think this department is probably unusual. Certainly most other departments I have been in, both as a student and a professor, have been less caring about their own.

I have seen, again and again, the phenomenon of ‘hiring from away.’ Usually – even in the days of regular replacement of TT jobs - there is at least a one-year gap between someone leaving and the job being filled, and a sessional or limited term contract employee is hired to teach during that time. Yet rather than hiring that person to the full-time position, search committees almost always choose someone else.

It’s unclear to me why someone unknown would be chosen over a candidate who has already proven he/she could do the job, but it happens all the time. My theory is that we all look better on paper, before the bumps and knobs of our day-to-day real personality become evident. I think too, especially for us Canadians, there is something appealing about the ‘exotic,’ the ‘far away,’ – that if we could get an American from a big American university to come work at our little ol’ Canuck university we would be proving we can play in the big leagues. Or maybe there’s just the hope that someone new will be on our side in all the petty department factions and struggles (we already know where the old person stands).

But this attitude and practice has major problems. I have seen, again and again, the ‘away’ person come in with little or no commitment to the university hiring him or her. Many of them want to get out of backwater small-town Canada as quickly as they can – so either we end up doing a whole expensive search again in two or three years, or we end up with someone discontented, frustrated, and alienated. Or they live in Toronto and only show up on campus for the two afternoons they teach, contributing nothing to the atmosphere of the department or the collegiality of the faculty.

There are other, more subtle costs. Bringing up kids is hard – bringing up kids with no family or social support nearby must be brutal. Although I am far from my family, I am lucky enough to have inlaws nearby who can be here by 8:00 a.m. when I have a kid puking on me and an 8:30 class to teach. I can take a night away with my partner, sans kids, for a blessed recharging and revival. My department benefits hugely, though it doesn’t know it, from the fact that I have a support system nearby.

And because my partner’s family is here, and we have no thought of moving, I can put down real roots and make a real commitment to this community – both to my departmental and university community, but also to the larger community of neighbourhood, church, community groups, local politics, school boards, and local charities.

Departments need to think about more than just what a person looks like on paper before hiring. Of course the person from ‘away’ has twenty publications – the person from ‘here’ has been teaching your classes instead of writing! Departments should choose to hire individuals who might even be second-choice in terms of on-paper qualifications, but who will stay, be good citizens, contribute meaningfully and long-term to the university and community, and who themselves might be better-adjusted because they have better support systems.


A lot has been written recently on the hardships sessionals, adjuncts, and the precariously-employed of academia face, and Erin’s post details yet another. I’m not sure, though, that universities have thought enough about the toll an ever-moving workforce has on departments and the university as a whole. 

Dalhousie University

7 comments:

  1. Thanks, Kathy, for such an excellent companion piece. I desperately hope institutions begin to value those who are close, those who they know, those who have proven, over and over again, that they can and do contribute exponentially to the intellectual and social fabric of the university.

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  2. It's the notion of "merit" and "excellence" -- if there are "good enough" candidates already right here, how much better a colleague we might find in an international search? The grass is always greener the further away from campus you go, I guess. But there is truly this kind of thinking at work. From here is good enough, and for now. But excellence must be 200 candidates from all over North America, and we get to pick the very most excellent out of that.

    It's bullshit, mostly.

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  3. Thank you for posting about these issues. I wonder how we can begin to *change* the "hiring away" and other engrained attitudes used to preserve the ever moving academic workforce? It seems to me that unless department faculty actually change their practices/policies and become mindful about the economic hardships for their colleagues along with the associated costs to community and the university, nothing will change in real terms. Beyond the academic politics and factions, it seems that often some of the jobbed do not mind that others need to uproot young children or leave their homes as long as *they* don't have to... They may even happily proclaim that they remember when they needed to get their spouse hired in the same city and had young children ... Cognitive dissonance? I am one of those who has had to juggle family responsibilities through the MA/PhD with very limited resources and support (besides my partner when possible)--yes, single-parenting through the first two years of the PhD, no daycare except for a few semesters, no after school programs, very limited family support, closed rural community so lack of usual supports/resources, a 200+ km one-way commute (door-to-door) often 3-4 times per week in every kind of weather while also juggling and driving back to meet the usual scheduling activities/necessities for children, school drop-off/pick up times, driving between cities for work at different institutions to make ends meet for years, limited to no work opportunities in the summer etc. (Relocation was a complex issue in a complex situation). Now comes the next stretch for me and I have a three-pronged plan in place. I have been reading about Erin Wunker's struggle for some time now. I think, perhaps, it is time to lobby at a different level--the administrative level or file grievances for undue hardship due to entrenched university policies. I resist the notion that policies cannot be changed or hiring committees must "hire away"... Or the excuse that we do things this way just cuz that's the way it is...;) This is never an excuse in my book. To rely on the old cliche: where there is a will, there is always a way--it is a matter of gathering people of will together.

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  4. I think there are two things in Kathleen's interesting post that it might pay to disentangle.

    First, I completely agree that many academics are terrible at evaluating what makes a good hiring decision. Things like "likely long term commitment to the department" or "willingness and ability to provide excellent teaching and service as well as publishing up a storm" are very often, in my view, greatly undervalued. And people often benefit from what we might call "lack of opportunity to disappoint": as noted above, by not having a chance to show their personal foibles because you've only ever met them on interview day or, relatedly, because they have a newly minted PhD and letters testifying to their brilliance, but no track record of even genuine competence, and yet they are ranked ahead of people with a solid record over years. Kittens and shiny toys come to mind ... the 10% shot at the moon and stars vs the 100% shot at just the moon ...

    But, especially in an era of extremely scarce TT jobs, I think it's a good thing that universities have policies requiring departments to do open searches. Getting these policies in place was a battle at many schools, and they are a key tool in the arsenal of those trying to advance equity. We don't want to go back to the days of "Oh yes, we know him. He's solid. We don't really need to look for anyone else."

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  6. Sure, but there are interesting situations and cases where the "local" hires do meet all of the criteria. I do not think anyone on this blog is arguing for blatant disregard of high standards. The issue that seems to be voiced most strongly among adjuncts is a lack of systemic fairness to the detriment of highly qualified (and often equally qualified) people, student base, community, and the university. Often people with strong research records and all of the other criteria are forced to frequently relocate. If an individual is forced to work between institutions, or worse, relocate a family every two years or less, this instability will begin to take a toll on health, finances, certain forms of productivity etc. If one moves frequently, the general instability along with the continual hours dedicated to the next round of jobs, finding a new home in a different place, new schools--the tangible materialities-- means continual, substantial upheaval--never mind the emotional, economic, and physical taxing of energy. The system then is responsible for the decline and ruin of its own "product" (to be crass). It could also be the case too that those who have not had to struggle in this kind of "ever moving academic labour force" or have not had to struggle for very long ever may find it easiest to avoid opportunities to change systemic issues and policies that effect/affect their colleagues--like length of contract terms or the type of contracts offered. Maybe it is easier to assume the negative without weighing multiple perspectives, including finding out the realities from those people actually working in these kinds of situations, or it just might be easier to give blanket statements, "Oh, but perhaps all of these people complaining about systemic unfairness just do not meet the criteria"... Possible. Sure. Highly unlikely? Yes. I watch these encounters and stories closely because it is our responsibility and obligation as participants in the system to ensure it does not create and perform unjust, unfair, and unsustainable situations for people--no matter where or how they are positioned. The disjunction of teaching certain subjects and methods while also working to maintain a "status quo" or fostering attitudes of "it is not my/our reality so I don't need to worry about it" is highly problematic. I wonder how difficult it is to hand out the criteria card without actually addressing what seems to be a systemic fault.

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