54. An Unexpected Run-in with Paternalism

But He Didn't See It That Way

The academic job market, particularly in philosophy, is very rough. Typically, there are 300-400 applicants per job, at least 50 of which are equally highly qualified. There are also many biases at work in how people evaluate an application package. For example, there's a highly controversial informal "ranking" of departments, that many people give way too much weight to. If an applicant isn't from one of the top ten or twenty schools on that list, some people will discard the application: they want "pedigree," it's said. This makes finding a job for those of us who didn't go to one of these highly "ranked" schools extra hard.

Metamorpho-sis_frustrated.pngOne consequence of this is that it's very common for recent PhDs to languish a few years before they land the elusive tenure track job (if that's what they want). The two most common options are adjuncting and securing a visiting assistant professorship. Adjuncting is where one works on a term-by-term basis, and there's absolutely no guarantee how much work one will have from term-to-term; moreover, one often doesn't know how much work one will have next term until a month or two before the term starts. It's very stressful: what if one doesn't get enough teaching to make ends meet? Adjuncting also rarely includes benefits like health insurance.

Visiting assistant professorships (or VAPs) are more stable, and tend to be one year contracts (sometimes longer). They also pay better and tend to come with benefits. They're thus more desirable. VAPs also look better on one's CV.

I first applied for tenure track jobs the year before I defended my PhD, at what's known as the ABD stage: all but dissertation completed. If one goes to a big name school, it's possible to get a job while ABD, but if one goes to an "unranked" school like I did, it's all but unheard of these days. So I wasn't surprised that I didn't get a job my first try (although, it hurt a bit not to even get any interviews). A big change happens in one's marketability when one actually defends one's PhD (we say that they have their "PhD in hand" at that point). So when I went on the market with my PhD in hand, I had lots of interviews and landed my tenure track job (woo!).

But this means that there was a year between defending my PhD and securing the TT job (I actually deferred the job for a year to take up a postdoctoral fellowship), where I needed employment. My two options, as always, were to adjunct or find a VAP. I didn't want to move in order to take up a VAP, and I had had some assurance that the department would find me enough teaching to meet my needs. Now, I had fairly high financial needs given that I had some very big medical bills.

I had a conversation with the department chair (who happened to be the guy still mispronouning me almost a year after my transition) about my financial needs. In that conversation, I said that my *ideal* teaching load was two courses with a teaching assistantship (of my own course: basically, I take on more grading and keep the TA money). And, naturally, during this meeting I got mispronouned once…yay. But set *that* part aside.

Fast forward a few months, and in the summer of 2012, after I defended, I heard that the department was going to hire a VAP for the coming year. I thought: this is odd. They know that I'm available, and the teaching needs are courses that I'm fully capable of teaching. I have a very broad background in philosophy, given that my coursework throughout my three degrees was very diverse (more than usual). Although, it turns out the chair wasn't aware of this.

But here's the thing: they didn't even ask me if I wanted the position. Normally–and I asked him to make sure of this–they'd just offer this position to someone in the department. But since that person had taken on a full time position, he wasn't available. They'd have done this without an official, external advertisement and search for someone to hire. This means that, procedurally speaking, they could have just given the position to me.

They didn't. They didn't even *ask* me if I wanted it. I asked him why he didn't. You know what he said? "We didn't think you'd want it." He decided for me without even asking. His justification was twofold. First, I had had that conversation where I said that my *ideal* teaching load was two courses and a TA-ship. The VAP position would be a 3-3 load. Second, he thought that I'd be better off with the adjunct load they were going to give me.

Wow. That's some straight-up paternalism. He decided what was best for me, instead of asking me what *I* thought was best for me. Moreover, while 3-3 teaching is more than my *ideal* teaching load, he wasn't offering me a choice between 3-3 or my ideal. I would have had the choice between a known 3-3 and the *unknown* adjunct load. He didn't even frame the decision correctly (which is odd, since I'd worked with him for a year on decision theory where my primary project was about how it's critical to properly frame the decision matrix facing an agent). And as it turns out, the adjunct load I was offered was less than my ideal. I was flabbergasted. In conversations after the fact, I couldn't ever get him to admit that he'd done something inappropriate and paternalistic.

But maybe that shouldn't surprise me given his continual mispronouning over the subsequent 8 months.

Yours truly,