Jon T. Coleman: Getting a job has changed his attitude

Historians in the News

[Jon T. Coleman is an assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.]

I just finished the second year of my inaugural tenure-track job, and my contentment checklist borders on the obscene.

My kids, growing up fast, have become fixated on potty humor. They're happy. My wife is on sabbatical next year. She does not have to drive 300 miles and spend two nights away from us each week to teach. She's happy. My dog is snoring on the couch. He's happy. My first book, published in 2004, won two awards last year. My department head is happy. The cat will always hate me, but everyone else in my personal and professional orbits seems cheery enough.

I'm a very fortunate assistant professor, which explains my absence from these pages for nearly a year. I began my run in The Chronicle's First Person series with an angry piece, a grim story of a murder most fowl. Frustrated with the job market in my field, I had returned from the annual convention of the American Historical Association and taken out my rage on Lighty the penguin, a plastic Christmas decoration that had been perched innocently on my porch.

Left jobless my first year on the market, I lashed out in print, hurling righteous opinions like hand grenades.

But then I got hired at a good university and my vitriol bottomed out. I wrote about my office, my wife's commute, and my father's death. Yet, while those topics continue to fill me, respectively, with pleasure, consternation, and grief, they hardly rank as earth-shattering outside my peculiar family drama.

How many stories of academics grappling with pregnancy, colleagues, manuscripts, toddlers, parents, hiring committees, students, houses, CV's, promotions, and mortality do we need? After a while, the narratives run together into a single meta-article with a predictable finish: It turns out that life afflicts even highly educated people.

I've felt silenced by privilege before. Ten years ago I enrolled as a graduate student at Yale University. Like most incoming first-years, I worried about GESO, the school's unrecognized graduate student union. GESO (Graduate Employees and Students Organization) had gone on a well-publicized grade strike the semester before, and I found the grievances that compelled that action a tad overwrought.

I knew poor wages and dismal working conditions. I had served as a grader at a public university while pursuing a master's degree. There, instead of being handed a generous stipend, I received 75 students in a large lecture course taught by a senior faculty member. I slogged through their blue books and essays for $10 a head. A fellow grader calculated our wages per hour: "It's a couple bucks," he reported.

At Yale, the university took care of my tuition costs, and, for the first two years, paid me to attend classes. I traveled East to enter a grad-school nirvana, and I didn't want a bunch of wild-eyed union activists ruining my bliss. I joined GESO my first semester in an effort to avoid multiple and lengthy conversations with organizers, not out of any real conviction that a union was the right thing for graduate students.

Yet, by the end of the first year, I had started organizing, and by the end of the second, I was on the union's staff. My journey from grateful silence to open rebellion may appear extreme. However, looking back, I'm surprised by how little my thinking changed.

I still wanted my paradise. Alas, Yale, like all human-run institutions, proved imperfect. I felt that graduate students had both the right to voice their concerns and a role to play in finding solutions to the labor dilemmas that plague higher education. The union fight at Yale continues to baffle many onlookers. What on earth do people who spend their days reading, debating esoteric topics, and teaching a class or two have to complain about?

Not much, I agree. I've seen, and been in, worse situations. But I also believe that we should strive for more than not being the worst. We should be working to make our places of employment as decent and democratic as possible, and those of us with tenure-track jobs, light teaching loads, sabbaticals, health care, and retirement plans have a special obligation to speak out.

Still, what could I say that would make higher education better? Bloggers, forum chatterers, conference roundtablers, and the numerous columnists and diarists writing for this site have covered the terrain thoroughly. They have documented the pain and frustration (and sometimes the exaltation) of job searches. They have described the personal toll of commutes, radioactive departments, and unhappy spouses. They have addressed teaching and harassment, tenure and drinking, publishing and weight gain (and loss). I have little to add.

My personal experience in academe has been both mundane and aberrant. I don't want to repeat stories others have already told, and I can't offer advice. I'm unsure how I wound up here....

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