It was around this time last year that I was told my contract at Oklahoma State University would not be renewed for the upcoming school year (read: this academic year). This was not a surprise to me. I had a pretty good idea of what was happening. Oklahoma’s budget crisis is pretty well-documented, and when you get right down to it, I was a victim of that crisis. While I was a visiting professor (non-tenure track), I was still salaried with benefits which means I was more expensive to employ than the lecturer who replaced me and is considered contract labor which means he’s paid by the course and OSU doesn’t owe him any benefits.
While I knew I wouldn’t be teaching at OSU this year, I was still *kind of* attached to the idea of being a professor. I applied to a bunch of jobs, and I got a couple of Skype interviews, but as time passed, I started to doubt whether that was what I really wanted to do. Part of the reason for this is that, frankly, there are few job markets as terrible these days as the academic job market. Consider:
- According to the American Association ofUniversity Professors, over 75% of all university faculty are adjuncts (paid by the course with no benefits, sometimes teaching at 2-3 different institutions in larger cities)
- If you didn’t go to the “right” school, your chances of getting a tenure-track job diminish significantly
- There are far more newly-minted PhDs than tenure-track job openings
- In religious studies (my field), it’s estimated that there are an average of 150-200 applicants for every tenure-track job available.
The flip side of this, especially for non-tenure track folks of all stripes, is that to be competitive in this horrendous job market, one must have a full CV—journal articles, a book proposal accepted by a major publishing house if not a book, presentations at major academic conferences. However, when you add the teaching and student interaction piece to the puzzle, there aren’t a lot of extra hours in the day. Just take my life for the past five years. During the school year, I spent:
- 10-13 hours per week lecturing, depending on whether I had three or four courses to teach
- 8-12 hours preparing for class (lecture preparation, creating Power Points, finding ice breakers, making sure I had what I needed for students with learning disabilities, tracking attendance in upper-division courses)
- 6-8 hours in office hours
- 2-4 additional hours of meetings with students who couldn’t make it to my office hours
- 5-8 hours trying to wrangle my e-mail inbox—more when I had 400-plus students in a semester
So, without any craziness or unexpected problems, that’s 31-45 hours per week just dealing with teaching responsibilities. 37-40 hours was pretty standard for me. That means that any research, publication, writing, etc. I needed to get done would have to be done at night or on the weekends. AND….we don’t get paid for journal articles; we barely get paid for books; and because most places can’t pay for travel expenses, conference attendance ($2000-3000 per conference for the big ones) has to come out of a professor’s own pocket.
It was at one of those big conferences that my perspective actually began to change. I was at the contingent faculty breakfast at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in San Antonio last November sharing stories about the crazy things college students do (because war stories are always a thing when you get a bunch of professors in a room together), and Whitney Cox, a delightful religious studies professor from the University of Houston, looked at me and said, “Why aren’t you working with student-athletes?” While I had privately entertained the notion, I had yet to give voice to such an idea, so I was curious as to why she mentioned it. She told me that not only had all of my stories been about student-athletes, but I seemed to genuinely enjoy working with them. She was right.
However, change came slowly. Spending five years in a PhD program, reading and absorbing and spitting out again all of the knowledge you can about a subject, writing a dissertation in which you take an original stance on a topic, teaching from a position of authority about a particular subject—all of it creates the illusion of “scholar” as self. Having that taken away from me at OSU created a bit of an identity crisis. If I’m not a scholar of Middle Eastern political movements, of Islamism, of the world’s religions, then what am I? I gradually came to see that “what” I am was actually pretty immaterial; the more important question was “Who am I?” And once I arrived at that conclusion, it unlocked a whole new set of possibilities. Who I am is someone who enjoys walking beside college students as they try to figure out what they want to be if they grow up. I am someone who loves to see the light come on for college kids—academically, vocationally, relationally. And I am someone who has a soft spot especially for student-athletes, an underestimated and underappreciated segment of every college campus.
I started working with student-athletes as an undergraduate tutor at Academic Services for Student-Athletes at OSU. This is a group that either grabs you and doesn’t let go, or annoys the living daylights out of you—there isn’t much in between. They grabbed me. I tutored student-athletes at Wake Forest and Baylor during graduate school. I’ve had over 300 of them in class in the five years I taught at OSU. They are a microcosm of a college campus—some are first generation college students; some have parents with graduate degrees. Some are lazy; some have great work ethics. Some know what they want to do if they grow up; some don’t have the slightest clue. Some come from two-parent households; some grew up with single parents. But they are all far braver than I could ever hope to be because their every success and failure is splashed on the sports page for everyone to see and critique. They have big personalities, but also big insecurities, especially about their academic abilities. They were often allowed to skate by in high school and thus don’t have the tools necessary for success at the college level. But they are just competitive enough to rise to any challenge placed before them.
So, I’m sorry, professoriate, but we’re done. And believe me, it’s not me. This is all about you…you with your terrible job prospects and soul-sucking free labor; you with your complete absence of a work-life balance; you holding me back from what I really love. I’ve found a better place, a better fit. I’ll be over here hanging out with student-athletes, helping them navigate college and adulting. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun while it lasted, and I learned a lot, but this relationship had grown toxic and it’s time to part ways. No hard feelings, I hope, and I know I’ll still see you around, but we’re through.
All the best,