Helen De Cruz graciously offered me the opportunity to contribute to this series as a contingent faculty member. I want to commend her and the other Cocooners for including VAPs in this, since fixed-term appointments are the “real job” reality for a HUGE portion of folks working in our field. Though my narrative will be much different than theirs, I’m going to borrow the rough format of my friends John Protevi and Eric Schwitzgebel for the following. (Thanks, guys!)
I’m currently in the second year of a 3yr VAP appointment at Christian Brothers University, a Lasallian institution serving a broad and diverse student population in Memphis, Tennessee. I did my graduate work at Villanova University (M.A.) and Penn State University (Ph.D.), finished in 6 years, went on the job market the year I defended my dissertation (2007) and before the economy tanked, landed a TT job right out of the gate at a small SLAC (Rhodes College), and labored away in that very small and very dysfunctional department (which was in receivership for 5 of my 7 years there) before eventually being denied tenure.
There is life after tenure denial. In my case, a very good life.
I decided to *very* selectively apply for jobs again in 2014—no more than 5 or 6—as I was more comfortable with leaving the academy than leaving Memphis at that point. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to leave either.
Like most VAPs, the lion’s share of my work revolves around teaching. I have a 4/4 load, on the semester system, with my regular assignment being 3 sections of Contemporary Moral Values (a general education requirement in most Catholic colleges and universities) and one “other” course (usually an upper-division course like Philosophy of Race or Philosophy and Film) per semester. Because we have a shortage of philosophers in my department, my 4/4 is regularly supplemented with at least one “overload” course each term, most often in the form of a continuing-education/adult course, an online course, or a “hybrid” course. I also teach in the summer. In the 2014-2015 AY, I taught a total of 13 courses.
That can sometimes make for a beast of a schedule. Last fall, on Mondays, I taught at 8am, 9am, 10am, noon, 1pm, and then again from 5-8pm. Yes, you read that right, 8am to 8pm. That was an unusual case, the consequence of some staffing emergencies and ad-hoc reassignments, but it can happen. And as any VAP will tell you, when a department has emergencies or needs a volunteer, you step up. You have two jobs as a VAP: (1) the job described in your contract, and (2) making yourself indispensable before that contract runs out.
[An important aside: as someone who served in a TT position—who hired and worked alongside colleagues in contingent positions—it’s really important to me to speak to the harsh reality of our profession, namely, that MOST departments function FOR THE MOST PART on the back of precarious labor. When I said above that VAPs have 2 jobs, it should be understood that, iff VAPs want to be anything other than temporary laborers, it is *only* the 2nd job, unremunerated and formally unrecognized, that matters at all.]
A lot of teaching means a lot of students and, correspondingly, a LOT of grading. However, it isn’t a lot of prep, or at least isn’t so anymore for me. In my previous position, I had a 2/3 load, but with 5 new preps every year. Now, with a 4/4 load, I only have 3 preps per year… though, because I regularly teach the same courses over and over, it’s really zero “new” preps, except for when I elect to change the content or format of one of my courses. There is a world of difference between a teaching load and a prep load. This is one of those fine-print truths that we should warn graduate student about more often.
I love teaching. I am very committed to designing innovative, timely and challenging courses, and I think I am very good at what I do in the classroom. So, I’ve never really thought about teaching as a burdensome part of this profession. Not so for grading. (My good friend, Art Carden, used to say: “I teach for free. They pay me to grade.”) Over the years, though, I’ve tweaked things here and there to make the grading load more manageable, but it remains the case that any job that is primarily about teaching will involve a massive amount of time with students (either in the classroom or in office hours) and their papers.
I don’t get much time to do extended, concentrated, article-generating research—see above—though I am slowly realizing that I have exponentially more time for research, broadly-speaking, than I did at my previous position. That’s partly a consequence of not being buried in departmental business and new preps and the TT grind, but more so because I’m older now and I think about research much differently. I read a lot more and write (mostly digitally) a lot more than I used to, I do a lot of collaborative work, and I have more time to engage interests and concerns that are not primarily aimed at turning out peer-reviewed publications. I do some sort of research every day.
As a VAP, you cannot possibly do enough “service.” (Remember, you have TWO jobs!) Currently, I’m on the Faculty Affairs Committee, which meets more frequently than I anticipated and which is charged with clearing up a lot of administrative/bureaucratic issues related to the normal operations of faculty business. I’m also the Parliamentarian for the Faculty Assembly, a not-insignificant assignment that I do not complain about ever because I am an incorrigible proceduralist. I serve on the CBU Institutional Review Board (IRB) as the resident ethicist and I review roughly a dozen research projects per semester in that capacity. I also work closely with the CBU chapter of the NAACP, the Black Student Union, and I am one of the faculty advisors for CBU’s digital magazine The Galleon. I’ve organized speaker events for our department (most recently, Jason Stanley’s visit) and I am the point person for our assessment of the Contemporary Moral Values gen-ed requirement.
I’m not being at all disingenuous when I say that hardly any of the above feels like a burden. I genuinely like the day-to-day maintenance of a body politic. That said, however, I also realize that it falls disproportionately to contingent faculty and female faculty and faculty of color to see that these sorts of housekeeping duties get done. If I had my previous appointment (at Rhodes College) to do over again, I would have said “No” a thousand more times than I did. Not because, on principle, I do not think this is important work and not because I do not enjoy doing it, but only because I know that’s how already-vulnerable people get sunk.
As a VAP, though, you’re not trying to not-sink. You’re trying to get-to-swim.
A Normal Day
I am a very early morning and a very late night person, so my “dead” time is late-afternoon (which is when I schedule office hours). On a normal weekday, I get up between 5:30-6:00am. I check social media, answer emails, catch up on the news, grade papers, and put whatever finishing touches are still left to be made on my class preps for the day before I go to my 9am class. I teach from 9-11am, after which I have about an hour for lunch. I usually grab lunch on campus and bring it back to my office to eat. I try not to look at email or read or write or think at all during lunch. I put my earbuds in and listen to music and eat, that’s all. Then, I teach again from noon-2pm. After that, I have office hours (read: email, grading, reading, and writing). I leave the office between 4:30-5pm, prime brain-dead hour for me, and I go home a veg a bit before dinner. I DO NOT work after dinner. I have a life, which very often requires that I get out and I stay out late into the evening.
On my non-teaching days, I still wake up very early (6am-ish), but I spend my early mornings researching, reading, and writing. I also do all of my grading on my non-teaching days. Most of my committee meetings are on non-teaching days as well, which means I can bring my grading/reading with me and get it done in pieces as time allows. On non-teaching days, I also DO NOT WORK after dinner.
Saturdays and Sundays are still 6am wake-up days, but otherwise they’re a toss-up. Sometimes I commit the whole day to work—especially at those points in the semester when I am buried in grading, or when I am dedicated to some reading or writing project—and sometimes I disavow work altogether. I am single and childless, so the weekend is often as much about cleaning, shopping, and errands-running as it is about hanging out and having fun.
I’m very fortunate to live in a city that is also my “home.” Involvement and participation in my community—as a citizen, as a friend, as a family member, as an activist, as an intellectual, as an artist and a lover of the arts—is tremendously important to me, and each of those roles are essentially bound to this particular place. I have a full and rich life “outside” of academia, which is absolutely essential to my intellectual and social health and to which, at my age, I am no longer willing to compromise my commitment. I go out (often), I hang out (late), I remind myself in a million significant and insignificant ways that there is a living, breathing, interesting, complicated, beautiful, ugly, and thought-provoking world out there beyond the classroom.
And then I bring that back into the classroom.