The Contexts of an Academic Career


Recently, I’ve read, heard & conversed about a range of issues involving the academic job & publication markets, the relative merits of particular topics & approaches to research, and the risks & rewards of making your work-in-progress public. In thinking & talking through these issues, I’ve referenced a number of personal anecdotes and experiences from my still-short career that I thought might be useful to share here for a wider audience in the name of transparency and making the oft-hidden facets of academic life visible. (And be warned, this is a highly self-reflective post, so if reading somebody’s personal anecdotes bothers you, click away now…) Perhaps some of these experiences can speak to greater patterns and structures, but as always, your mileage may vary.

In fact, that might be the core point: one’s scholarly career path is highly embedded in and shaped by its context, and all of our mileages vary because of such different contexts. Many of us go through the academic training process thinking that we will be molded by our formal education in graduate school coursework to find intellectual (and often political) passions, then set out on an original research path that defines us as scholars and (hopefully) find a job that enables that path to stretch out across a career. Perhaps that is some people’s experience, but it definitely is not mine – the research that I’ve pursued and projects I’ve embraced (and abandoned) over the past decade have been defined far more by my various professional and personal contexts than my formal education or some innate passion or inspiration (whatever that is). We like to think that researchers and writers having stable academic employment (as I’ve been fortunate to have) allows us to pursue the ideas and inspirations that come from within, but it’s an illusion to think that such motivations are truly intrinsic and only negatively warped by “reality” – in my experience, our ideas are shaped by our contexts in many productive and positive (and unexpected) ways.

Some of this contextual shaping started in grad school. My first idea for a dissertation topic was a discursive analysis of television as a medium, offering a cultural history of how television was framed by particular metaphors and negatively compared to other media. I had written a seminar paper on an aspect of this, which later turned into a published piece on the “TV is a drug” metaphor in the anti-TV movement. The proposed project merged my interests in cultural history, Foucauldian theory, and cultural hierarchies surrounding media, and thus seemed like an organic culmination of my background and passions. But my advisor, Julie D’Acci, put up a caution flag – she pointed out that some of the theoretical schools that I would be directly critiquing, such as media effects and Frankfurt School criticism, would likely have adherents on any search committee or department thinking of hiring me. No matter how convincing or solid my research might be, it’s unlikely that anyone would choose to hire somebody whose scholarship was dedicated to proving that their school of thought was based in large part on a fraudulent foundation. As she put it, this was more of a “post-tenure project.” Once I shifted my focus and reconciled myself to putting the initial idea on the post-tenure back-burner (where it still sits, barely simmering in a very dirty pot!), I turned to my project on television genre theory: still a product of my intellectual interests, but shaped & driven more from external contexts than internal inspiration.

Was my choice to heed her advice “selling out” my academic vision? Was I giving myself over to market-based logic and sacrificing my critical impulse by shifting to a more conventionally framed and less inflammatory topic? Perhaps, but if I’d pursued my initial idea and come out of grad school unable to find stable employment or a publisher, how significant would that critical impulse have been? For me, academics are not vanguard Romantic intellectuals bellowing truths from a hilltop; academia is a profession, a career, and a life’s work. If you ignore the way that the career side of academia works, you either become an independent scholar (if you can afford to not take home a paycheck), a writer with a day job outside of academia (today, that’s probably means blogging), or an indentured servant on the adjunct track with no time to produce that earth-shaking research. If your goal is to be a professor, you need to learn the rules of the academic game and figure out how to play along, knowing that trying to change the game carries its risks.

Brief aside: I’ve lately been using the metaphor of a high-stakes poker tournament to explain the academic job market. You need skills to win, but they’re not enough if you’re not dealt good cards. And given the glut of grad students and paucity of decent jobs, there are many more skilled players than opportunities to win, so even strong candidates can easily end up falling short if the cards don’t turn out right. If you’re trying to win, you need to do everything you can to maximize your chances – or decide that there are some ways you refuse to play, and accept those losses. But more often than not, you rarely can explain rationally why you lost a given hand.

The process by which my dissertation became a book speaks to some of the market-based issues in academia as well. In Fall 2000, shortly after I took my first faculty job at Georgia State University, I sent the full manuscript of my dissertation to three top university presses. Within a few months, all had rejected it – with only one sending it out to reviewers beyond the editor – based a variety of criticisms that all stung in different ways: too long, too derivative, too unfocused, no real contribution to the field, poorly written. Needless to say, I backed away from the project for a few months, focusing on our newborn and teaching while trying to imagine how to salvage the project (and seemingly at the time, my career).

Thankfully, I had heeded my advisor’s recommendations a couple of years before, having submitted a few chapters of the dissertation-in-progress for publication as book chapters and journal articles. The first of those publications came out in Spring 2001: my Cinema Journal article “A Cultural Approach to Television Genre Theory,” which provided a fairly succinct overview of the dissertation’s theoretical argument. Within a month of the publication, I got an email from Matt Byrnie, the media studies editor at Routledge, inquiring whether the article was part of a larger project and expressing interest in seeing a book proposal. Routledge was not on my initial list of publishers, in part because I was told that a traditional university press was likely to “count more” for tenure and because I’d also been told that some turmoil at Routledge in the 1990s had raised questions about the press’s reputation. But after my initial round of rejection, I jumped at the chance to be the object of editorial interest rather than a cold-calling author looking for approval, a shift that’s solely attributable to the decision to put my work out there, rather than sit on it until I thought it was perfect. (And in retrospect, I highly recommend sending a carefully-crafted proposal rather than a full dissertation manuscript!)

I lucked out, as under Matt’s guidance, Routledge’s reputation in media studies rose in the 2000s. Routledge’s market-driven emphasis as a commercial press helped it move quickly (at least by academic publishing standards), with the book coming out around 2 years after I first sent my proposal to the press. (Sometime when I’m feeling even more confessional, I’ll blog about the one horrible, nasty review the proposal received during the process…) The speed and distribution allowed the book to be read and sold by beyond just university libraries, and such readership far outweighed any marginal reputation in press reputation for my tenure case. I wrote the manuscript to express some ideas I had; I published the book to get those ideas read and help guarantee my continued employment. I think it’s important to think about those two facets of writing and publishing as separate but intertwined parts of the scholarly process, often with competing goals and strategies.

One of the most challenging transitions I’ve had in my research is moving from the dissertation/first book to the second extended project. In theory, this should be a liberating move – the dissertation must be sculpted to appease a committee of faculty, and hopefully designed to be sufficiently publishable to land you a job and tenure. The second book has few such constraints, as neither of my two employers have the (ridiculous) demand of two books for tenure, nor were there political pressures to publish in particular formats or on certain topics. While an open possibility for research topics sounds inviting, I found it a bit paralyzing, with endless possibilities but few avenues that hit the sweet spot combining pragmatism and passion. Such choices are not immune to the constraints of context. For instance, as a grad student at Madison, I had access to one of the best archives of broadcast history in the country, making archival history a particularly viable research option – neither Atlanta nor Vermont have such resources at hand.

Instead of archival access, at GSU I was located in the heart of Atlanta, a major hub of the cable television industry. I was fortunate to connect with the Vice President of Original Programming at Cartoon Network as part of my dissertation/book research, so I decided to continue that connection and started planning to do an in-depth industrial ethnography of Cartoon Network. That book never happened, as I got my job at Middlebury in 2002 and was happy to sacrifice a research project for the chance to relocate to a region and institution that better suited my personality and goals. When reading job applications from recent PhDs or ABDs proposing their future research projects, I remember my own letter to Middlebury – where I suggested that I would be working on the Cartoon Network project and a short monograph on Dragnet, two projects that will almost certainly never be written (at least by me); such ideas on job letters must be regarded as hypothetical possibilities more than actual projects. For me at least, the research I do is so closely tied to my context and possibilities of location, institution, and family situation that I find it hard to predict what will take hold in the wake of shifting contexts.

My recent projects are certainly born directly out of those contexts. Living in rural Vermont with three kids limits how much time I can (or want to) spend away from home doing research, so I’ve purposely designed projects that are researchable from home or via a small library – within media studies, that lends itself to textual analysis or online research. Thus I found a topic in studying television narrative texts and consumption practices that both interested me and fits well into my personal context. Additionally, being in a department primarily working with scholars and students primarily invested in film studies (rather than a communication department or other type of program), working on issues of narrative gels nicely with my teaching and intraoffice conversations. While there was no pressure to conform to that mode of scholarship, I find that my ideas are shaped by neighborly interactions in productive ways; I fully expect that as the roster of my colleagues & our curriculum changes, my own interests will as well. This choice of topic was not aiming to be trendy or fashionable – in fact, doing formal analysis of television remains a distinctly unhip and marginal area of the field – but rather had the more important dual traits of being practically feasible and interesting to me. It also lends itself to engaging with a broader readership than just media scholars, and my core academic passion is raising the level of critical engagement with television both inside and outside the academy, so a contemporary & accessible topic hopefully helps accomplish that task.

My textbook, Television & American Culture, derives from being in a teaching-oriented institution where pedagogy matters. Had I been at a research oriented-institution, I probably would not have been encouraged – and might have even been discouraged – from putting in the classroom work that led to the book’s approach and structure, and helped inspire me to contribute to the pedagogical materials available to other faculty. And I’ve heard that many institutions do discourage working on such teaching-oriented publications, especially before tenure. And to be frank, having three kids meant that the opportunity to write something that might actually produce non-negligible royalties was particularly appealing.

Finally, my practice as a blogger (however intermittent it may be) was definitely forged by my institutional and geographic contexts. When I arrived at Middlebury, I got to know a number of affiliated faculty who were experimenting with blogs, and worked with the still-evolving organization NITLE, all of whom gradually demonstrated the possibilities of using a blog as a platform for working through my thoughts in public and creating an online community. I was the only tenure-track faculty who researched and taught directly about digital media, and thus there was certainly some pressure to be an innovator in engaging with digital platforms – although such work was never directly encouraged by my colleagues, I felt that my own grounding in media studies could offer some important perspectives locally about blogging and digital pedagogy. Additionally, being isolated in a rural environment with few colleagues sharing my interests, a blog was a useful way to forge and maintain connections to a broader community, one that I might not have needed so tangibly had I been at an urban institution or in a larger media studies program. (I’ll save my further meta-blog reflections for another post…)

To me, all of these biographical anecdotes add up to a simple point: we do what we do for a variety of reasons, and the choices we make in a career are a confluence of personal and practical concerns, not easily reduced to simple buzzwords or trends. Maybe such stories mean something more or less to you, but I hope sharing them might be a bit useful to academic earlier in their careers.

5 Responses to “The Contexts of an Academic Career”

  1. Jason, some excellent points here about how academic context shapes our publication practices. In my case, I had a similar experience in that I don’t have easy access to a lot of archival materials, so it made sense to do research that involved textual examples and online documents. For that reason, it made sense to write something like Reinventing Cinema that could address some recent changes in film narrative and distribution while using documents that were generally available to the public.

  2. 2 Katie

    I find them very helpful indeed! I’m heading toward the end of my PhD and trying to determine how best to proceed into an academic career, and hearing just these sorts of personal stories is a very welcome. 🙂

  3. 3 Dick Lucier

    Jason, Our daughter, Kate, forwarded your blog and wondered how my experience compared to yours. Here’s that story.

    I taught economics at Denison Univ. in Granville, OH for 31 years before retiring in 2002. I did my Ph.D. work at Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, CA. At Claremont, we chose 3 fields of econ to study and bring to qualifying exams in addition to 3 required fields in theory (micro, macro and econometrics). I was fortunate–this is not false modesty–to get 2 articles published as a grad student, 1 in public finance and 1 in labor (2 of my 3 chosen fields along w/ international econ). Thus, I was very broadly trained and job openings in many fields in econ were a potential fit. I had a liberal arts undergrad background (Beloit College, WI), a liberal arts graduate education and was more attractive to a liberal arts college like Denison than to a research-oriented university. I applied for an opening at Denison teaching econometrics, probably my weakest field, which I didn’t tell them. Fortuitously, the micro/intl economist whose house we were going to rent was denied tenure so I was to offer courses in fields in which I had much greater confidence.

    I published a 2nd article derived from my dissertation (in the field of public finance), but I was not teaching public finance. I then wrote a paper as a result of a year’s leave working at the US Treasury Dept. on a micro-econ topic. So that leave position at Treasury determined my research topic. I wrote a book on the intl political economy of coffee after reading an article in the Wall St. Journal. I was interested in a topic which had intl and micro dimensions because I regularly taught those course at Denison, and I was interested in the political economy aspects of coffee production, distribution and trade because of my broad public policy interests and education. I taught seminars using my coffee book.

    I wrote a second book, on public school finance in OH, due more to personal interest–rage–at Ohio’s unconstitutional, inequitable system. I used that book in several Freshman Studies classes I taught as did colleagues in Denison’s education dept. So I circled back to public finance near the end of my teaching career.

    In summary, I agree that institutional context has a great deal to do w/ one’s research agenda as does serendipity and interests which one has the luxury to develop and pursue at a liberal arts college–especially after being tenured!

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