I'm going to follow up on my proposal to begin a series, "What is it like?", with a posting on what it is like to be a VAP (i.e. a non tenure-track "Visiting Assistant Professor"). I hope, again, that other contributors post on what it is like to be them, and that readers submit their stories as well. Anonymized stories will be accepted and posted, provided they satisfy this blog's safe-and-supportive mission.
What follows is a brief discussion of what life has been like for me as a VAP. I will try to describe the experience as even-handedly as possible. I will try to describe my day to day life, what I enjoy about it, and the things I don't. I'll simply be honest about what it's like for me.
I have been been in two VAP positions since finishing my PhD at the University of Arizona in 2008. I started out in a VAP at the University of British Columbia. It was a tough year. Finally making some real money was awesome -- and my colleagues at UBC were great and supportive -- but I was away from my fiance (now my wife), which was awful, and learning how to publish and teach were real challenges. Publishing was tough because, well, I had never done it before. I spent just about every minute of the day I wasn't teaching slaving away on my office computer at paper drafts that went nowhere (to this day, none of the stuff I was working on at UBC has survived). In terms of the publishing game, I felt like someone threw me into the ocean without a life-preserver. I started to panic, because I knew I had to publish to get a TT job. That is when I got insomnia, which crippled me for my first three years out of grad school (but which, fortunately, is very well-treated now). The insomnia -- which I am certain to this day is stress-induced -- was so bad that I literally didn't sleep for days on end (for about three years, I would go between 2-4 days at a time without a wink of sleep). It was that bad. I remember driving to a convenience store in the rain and a daze at 3am to get sleeping pills. They didn't work. I then remember panicking right before the social-political philosophy class I had to teach the next day because I realized I would be standing in front of 100 students and I was half-incoherent. Although I had received excellent teaching reviews throughout grad school (I taught a ton in graduate school), let me tell you: none of your teaching experience in grad school prepares you for what it is like to teach 2-4 lecture classes during the semester. Prepping for 2-4 classes a term, carrying them out, and trying to publish -- all at the same time -- are a rude-awakening. You think grad school is hard? Being a professor (even a VAP) is way, way harder. Oh, and be prepared for students to challenge you. It happened in graduate school, but in my experience it is worse when you're a new professor. I had one student verbally assault me for how I graded his paper. It was awful. But hey, in the Spring I got my first publication, a reply in JESP. Let me tell you: there's nothing like your first pub. Even if it's a small one, you don't have to wake up every morning worrying that you'll never publish. Now you only have to worry that you'll never publish again. Seriously, that's what you'll do! ;)
Although UBC was a very good gig, and Vancouver was a nice place to live -- well, aside from the two months straight it rained (I kid you not: I woke up every morning for two months to it pouring outside!) -- my fiancee couldn't move to Canada, so I tried to find a job in the States. I did. I got lucky and got another VAP at the University of Tampa.
Tampa is beautiful. I love living here. The weather is great, the campus is beautiful, and they treat us well. But things did not start out well. My fiancee and I moved into what seemed to be an upscale apartment complex. It was far and away the worst decision I've ever made. The place is a bona fide slum. Don't take it from me. People have been killed there, it was so poorly constructed that you could hear people breathing in the apartment adjascent to your bedroom. And then there were the college students partying out on their balconies every night until 4am (sometimes 7am) in the morning. My insomnia returned, and day-to-day life was so stressful that my relationship with my fiancee/wife almost ended.
The stress and insomnia carried over into work. Teaching at UT was a far cry from what it was like at UBC. Instead of teaching two 100-200 student lecture classes for 50 minutes apiece like I was at UBC, I was now teaching a 3-3 load of 20-25 student classes, each of which meet for two hours twice a week (I teach for six hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays). I'll tell you this: the teaching strategies I learned at UBC did not work at all. I was prepping more than ever before (all day Monday and Wednesday), but my teaching reviews were abysmal. Life was hell. I started looking on job boards for other lines of work. I really thought I wasn't cut out for this.
Slowly, though, things began to change for the better. I attended a teaching workshop which emphasized the "flipped classroom" -- i.e. getting students to do more work in the classroom, rather than being the "sage on the stage." My wife and mother also suggested that instead of working myself into the ground prepping for classes, I should prioritize getting students to work. I did. I now spend 1/3 of my 2-hour classes discussing mandatory reading responses students prepare, another 1/3 having students do group work in the classroom, and the final 1/3 giving a lecture. It has worked wonders. My student evaluations have soared, and more importantly, my students are improving beyond my wildest dreams. Getting them to work -- to do philosophy themselves, both in the classroom and at home -- works wonders.
I also dramatically changed my research philosophy. Doing what everyone else does -- trying to produce uber-rigorous work on small, targeted topics (typically on what others have written in top journals) -- didn't get me very far. Truth be told, getting me to do this kind of work well has always been a bit like trying to force a square peg into a round hole. What I had always been good at, both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, was seeing problems differently. Although I'm thankful for the rigor that graduate school hammered into me -- because I do think it is important to be clear and rigorous -- I've never been as enamored with rigor as most people in our profession seem to be. A lot of academic philosophy has always seemed to me to be a contest of "who's smarter than who." That's not what I'm interested in. I'm interested in truth, and I think insight above all gets at truth. Kant's philosophy, for instance, is a mess -- but it's profoundly insightful. And there were far, far more brilliant physicists and mathematicians than Einstein -- yet what made him great is that he saw things differently. I do not mean to compare myself in any way to these people. I'm just trying to express what I value, and why I value it.
Anyway, I stopped caring much about what people were writing in top journals. I was reading a bunch of biographies at the time, and came across the following quote from Einstein: "Reading after a certain age diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking." I followed it. Aside from teaching, I mostly stopped reading and just started thinking. In teaching Kant, I just tried to come up with a simple and intuitive understanding of what Kant is up to, and I came up with an idea that led to this. In teaching free will in my intro course, I got sick of the usual theories (compatibilism, incompatibilism), wanted to come up with something better to interest my students, toyed around with ideas in the classroom, and came up with this. I taught a course on human rights, and came up with this. All of a sudden philosophy was fun again.
One of the nicest things about being a VAP in a very small department (I only have two philosophy colleagues) is that I stopped feeling like I needed to impress people. I think I suffered from this in grad school and at UBC. I was always so worried that my ideas were no good that as soon as I shared them with people, people usually shot them down, depressing me and leading me to think I'm no good. At UT, I got away from this. I just started enjoying philosophy again, and I'm incredibly thankful that I have. In this regard, being in a VAP can be wonderful.
At the same time, there are tough things about being in a VAP. As I see it, TT jobs require specialization. If you get a TT job at an R1 school, you're encouraged to devote almost all of your energy to research. If you're at the typical SLAC (including UT), you're encouraged to devote the vast majority of your time to teaching and student experience. In a non-TT job, you have to bust your butt to do it all, so that (hopefully) you can land a TT job. In addition to teaching a 3-3 (with unusually long 2-hour class times apiece) and doing research, I have elected to:
- Serve on two university committees
- Supervise the philosophy club
- Supervise another student club
- Volunteer to teach a year-long freshman "gateways" transition-to-college course
- Serve as my department's assessment coordinator
- Coach two debate teams
- Advise 50 or so students
I'm probably leaving things out (oh right: there are the 100 or so job applications you have to send out annually, and, perhaps, running a blog;). Anyway, work is my entire life. It is not uncommon for me to have 12-hour workdays. I have a ton of grading, because I have students in all of my classes submit two assignments per day (individual assignments plus group assignments). I mostly spend the weekends recuperating. I have no friends. Not one -- though I am very friendly with my colleagues (I just hardly see them outside of work). My wife has some friends, and sometimes we do things with them -- but I have no time for any of my own. It sucks.
You know what also sucks? Waking up every single morning feeling bad about yourself. I don't mean to be melodramatic. You (or at least I) really feel this way. I work "my tail to the bone" and yet I wake up every day with very little hope. Every once and a while a student asks me "when I come up for tenure." I have to cleverly brush aside the question. And then there's the Eastern APA. I'm 36. I've published a lot of stuff (though not in top journals). Over the past year or so, my teaching reviews have been exemplary (average 4.8 out of 5). I've coached an Ethics debate team that qualified for the National Finals, beating out schools like Georgetown, University of Florida, etc. I've done all these things...and yet I see bright-eyed 27-year-olds at the APA with no publications, maybe 3-4 grad conference presentations, and no teaching experience beat me out for interviews and job-offers not just at R1's but SLACs (yep, places that claim to prioritize all of the things I think I've demonstrated abilities at). Again, I don't mean to diminish what people in grad school have accomplished...but I feel like Sisiphus. I've done all this...and for what?
My wife tries to remind me that I'm lucky. I know I am -- and, in my better moments, I feel that way. My worries -- my suffering -- are first-world problems. There are many, many people out there who have it far worse than I. I live in a beautiful place, have a wonderful wife, a goofy dog, I love philosophy, I have a great deal of passion in the classroom and derive a great deal of satisfaction seeing my students learn and succeed. But still, most days, it's hard to get out of bed. I want a home. I want to start a permanent life with my wife. I don't want to worry every single day that I'm going to fail her by never getting a TT job, etc. But worry I do. Every second, minute, and hour of every single day.