Maria Doe is a former NIH-sponsored researcher who struggles with chronic mental illness, tumbling from the tenure stream into contingent appointments and the prospect of homelessness.
MB: When did you first begin serving contingently?
MD: My first adjunct position was in my own graduate department. The faculty member who was scheduled to teach that class was awarded a large grant to work on an international research committee and plan an international meeting. The university gave him a course release, and the granting agency matched the university in funding an adjunct. I was very well paid at the time, $4000, for the class. I did a horrible job, but I learned a lot about teaching.
The next time I adjuncted, I was in my NIH fellowship. I taught for a smaller private school, and I did a much better job. I don’t remember how much I earned, but I got excellent student evaluations. Another university in the area asked me to teach a course, but my postdoc mentor told me not to. I was struggling with my mood, and having trouble keeping up with both teaching and my training program. He was right.
Just before I took a tenure track position at a small liberal arts college, I taught a course for a small university. I made $1300.
MB: Where did you hope it would lead?
MD: What did I want from adjuncting? The first time, I wanted the money and the experience. I got both. The other times, I wanted the experience. I wanted good teaching evaluations, I wanted something to put on my CV, and I wanted professional contacts and references. As a fellow in my PhD program, I was not required to TA or teach in any way.
MB: What did you imagine professorial work was like?
MD: My dream was to be a scholar.
I cannot tell you how much I loved the exchange and development of ideas, and I was oh, so good at it. I became an expert social theorist, easily crossing disciplinary lines. That’s what I thought I’d do. That I’d have mentors, and that I would mentor others the way I had been mentored. I thought I would spend my working life immersed in the discipline that I loved.
Okay, academia is not paradise. Like all professions, it has its share of bs. But Marc, I’ve had the jobs from hell, I’ve cleaned my share of toilets, emptied garbage, dealt with pissy customers, gotten poison ivy working landscaping—in the end, no matter what, I’ll take the life of ideas. All my working life, I felt I was working towards something, a life of scholarship, a life of the mind, in a discipline that I loved. It was the discovery and the synthesis I loved.
Along the way I did publish, and I started working on grant proposals. I was on my way to being funded.
MB: What was your path into the tenure stream?
MD: My first job out of my NIH fellowship was not tenure track. I landed a year-by-year instructor position at a large, urban, R1 institution, in my specialty. I was very happy there. I had a 2/2 load, and was working with the program director and another anthropologist on a grant proposal. I submitted it, and it was rejected, but I was invited to revise and submit to another program. I was also working with another faculty member on another potential project. I was awarded a small university faculty development grant. I enjoyed my students, for the most part, especially the majors and the grad students. The program had a strong relationship with the School of Nursing, and another program that studied aging. I taught a methods class to nurses, and we had nursing Phd students in our program. My teaching evaluations were excellent.
I enjoyed what I was doing and where I was living. I was getting involved in some community organizations, singing in a choir, etc. I had access to an academic library, which was delicious.
MB: But you were still trying to get a permanent position.
MD: While full time and benefits-earning, this position was contingent on the will of the dean. I didn’t know that my position would be renewed for the following year, until April, and fortunately it was. Here’s the rub. The position was converted to TT, and I was invited to compete for it.
MB: They converted the position, but not the person serving in it?
MD: Yes, and I had two strikes against me. First, I had done my research in the US. Anthropology departments want people with overseas expertise, and I knew they were looking for an Africanist. Second, I continued to struggle with my health, and that did at times interfere with my work. That made a difference, Americans with Disabilities Act or not. My story is as much about what chronic mental illness can do to career as it is about contingent labor.
MB: You don’t feel that your disability was accommodated?
MD: No. So I applied for my own job, and was shortlisted, but under the circumstances I am convinced that my colleagues had no intention of hiring me as a TT Assistant Professor.
I applied for a research scientist job at a smaller university, was interviewed and offered the job IF I took it immediately, that January. So I left my R1 job mid academic year. I didn’t want to do that, but you know, you do what you can. The position was unclassified, with no employment security. I got sick due to a combination of things (moving, new job, inappropriate medication, scattered medical care).
Add to the mix my own incompetence and a lack of professional mentoring. The PIs came down very hard on me, with “counselling” and letters of reprimand. Work became social nightmare. I was often ignored in meetings, one PI would snort when I offered an analysis, there was eye-rolling, back-turning, and constant nagging criticism. I often lost emotional control, having to run to my work space to cry.
I was suicidal, lonely, a mess. I resigned in lieu of being fired. I gave them six months notice. I accept that my failure at that job was my own; I was incompetent, and a lack of emotional control was immature and inappropriate for a professional workplace. But, in my defense, let me note the PIs treated other employees the same way. The work group even had a name for it: The Squeeze. Another research scientist called me about a year after I had left, to see if I would take part in a legal action against the PIs and the university.
MB: And after that?
MD: It took me a year to find a job, and this time it was TT. The institution was a religiously affiliated SLAC, with a 4/4 teaching load. Teaching anthropology at an increasingly orthodox religious institution became very difficult.
I was in a three person department, and one of my colleagues was extremely conservative. He refused to teach some of the sociology courses because he would get too emotional.
MB: He was emotional? With respect to his religious beliefs and scholarship or teaching?
MD: He refused to teach Marx in social theory, he refused to teach the sociology of marriage and family and the sociology of religion, he strongly disapproved of the teaching of human evolution (a cornerstone of my discipline). He had started the same time I did but he came on board as an associated professor, with a three year tenure clock.
There was more. I won’t go into it. The school was toxic for me. I broke down, failed miserably, made some of my own mistakes in terms of my relationship with this colleague, and in toeing the ideological line at that school.
MB: You feel that things could have been different if you’d made different decisions about your teaching?
MD: Here’s an example of a big mistake on my part. I taught the race and ethnicity class, and one year I presented a unit on Muslim and Arab Americans. I wanted to challenge my students’ assumptions and prejudices. I found a photograph of a woman wearing a hijab made out of the American flag and incorparated that photo into my PowerPoint lecture. Big mistake, for I offended many people, students and other faculty.
Meanwhile, I ran through the $25,000 lifetime limit on psychiatric care. Lousy health insurance is an important part of my story.
I resigned in lieu of being denied tenure.
MB: It doesn’t sound as if the mistakes are all on your side.
MD: The school was not able to fill my 4/4 position the first year after I left. They interviewed several people, and made someone an offer. It turned out that I was acquainted with that candidate. He declined the offer for three reasons: abysmal pay, horrible health insurance, and the campus culture.
MB: Tell us about your economic situation today.
MD. I was unable to find a job after I resigned from the religiously affiliated institution. I had to abandon my house,and move to another state to stay with family for a while. My house has now been foreclosed. I abandoned almost all of my scholarly journals and books, and most of my belongings. I liquidated my TIAA-CREF accounts to have something to live on.
Twelve years of American Anthropologist went to Africa via Books for Africa.
My first job in my new state? Cashier at a big box store, $7.50/hour. A family friend, who is a faculty member in a science department at the local Mega University, gave me a temp/casual job as a research assistant. He paid me very well, but the job lasted only 90 days. I was not able to find another job I went into treatment this summer, and have continued with that.
I have been looking for some professional-level jobs. I have interviewed with the state department of health, with county governments, with non-profit organizations, others. No go.
I have lost my professional references That is absolutely the most painful part my story. The people who mentored me through grad school, postdoc, and my first two years out have told me that they will no longer support me in my attempts to return to academia.
MB: This is because of your disability?
MD: It makes me wonder if I had tried just a little harder to deal with and cover up my mental illness, would I still be employed? In teaching at a religiously affiliated institution, should I have just gritted my teeth and avoided controversial subjects, like comparative kinship and human evolution?
MB: Are you working right now?
MD: Yes, 12 hours a week at a retail job, $7.25/hour. I’ve thought about applying around for adjunct positions, but I don’t know what to say in the cover letter. I am applying for SSDI.
MB: May I ask where you get your health care?
MD: I get excellent health care through the VA. In fact, if it wasn’t for the VA, I’d be dead.
MB: You’re a veteran? Can you tell us about your family background and what made you think about
academia as a career?
MD: My father was a refugee from Central Europe; he came to the US as a boy, with his family, as part of the Displaced Persons act of 1948. My mother comes from a working class family in New England. My grandmother was 16 when she had my mother, and Grandma never finished high school. My mother left a turbulent and abusive home at age 18, met my father, got pregnant, married, and had my brother. My father got a position playing in a major American philharmonic, and the family moved to the Midwest.
My mother was driven, and she went back to college when we were still small, working her way through college and then an MA in history. I remember her sitting at the dining room table, typing her MA thesis. My father was finishing up his BS in Music Education.
My mother was accepted to a history PhD program in a Great Lake state, so we moved. My father taught music in a public middle school. I was 8 years old at the time. My parents’ marriage was falling apart, in a very nasty way. Add to the mix the a good dose of mental illness. My mother had become ABD, and had moved into university administration. She eventually married a colleague in administration, formerly a very famous historian.
MB: So you were a faculty brat—of a sort.
MD: Of a sort. I didn’t do all that well in public schools. I graduated okay from high school, and I joined the Army in the early 1980s. When I got out in 1986, I entered college at a big midwestern research instituion. I got into the honors program, ate it up, I loved college. I have always had my own difficulties with mental illness, but I got through summa cum laude, did an honors thesis, and was awarded a fellowship to the PhD program in anthropology at a respected school. Because of my chronic illness, I did not attempt to go overseas; I did my fieldwork in the US. In terms of my career, that was a big mistake.
My mother eventually finished her dissertation and landed a TT job as a historian. She has edited or written maybe 9 or 10 books. Two have won awards, and one was nominated for a Pulitzer.
MB: Have you asked your mother or her second husband for advice?
MD: I got a lot of support and encouragement from my mother and stepfather in pursuing a graduate degree. They were proud of me. In one of my mother’s books she acknowledges me for helping her to look at gender as social theory. When my career fell apart, my mother expressed some guilt about encouraging me to pursue the PhD.
I was encouraged to adjunct to develop my teaching portfolio. Then later, my mother encouraged me to look for adjunct positions as part of making a living.
MB: What are your mother and stepfather’s views of the academy’s accommodation
of disability and mental illness?
MD: My stepfather was born in 1915, and had a very old school view of mental illness; You didn’t admit it, you didn’t discuss it, it was a failure, especially for men. My mother told me never to discuss my illness with colleagues, or let perspective employers know that I had a mental illness. Members of a search committee would not consider a person with a psychiatric disability in part to protect themselves from litigation. In her view, a search committee would fear that a candidate with a disability would sue for discrimination if not hired. That may be true.
For many people with mental illness, there is always the hope, indeed the conviction, that each crisis will be the last crisis. The reality is that many people like me have a severe and persistent mental illness, but can be highly functional and able to hide their illness for a long time.
I think disabilities in general make people uncomfortable. Psychiatric disabilities are worse. The problem with seeking accommodation is disclosure. Look up “Normal is a Place I Visit.” It’s a paper by a physician who has bipolar disorder. She states that when you have mental illness, and others know, you lose your right to simply have a bad day.
MB: How do you think the academy should address chronic mental illness?
MD: You would think that academics, and especially social scientists who supposedly stick up for the poor and marginal, would be more comfortable with and forgiving of mental illness, but they are not. It’s part of a larger social phenomenon of stigma. There’s a lot of work being done on mental health recovery (not cure) being done at Yale. One of the team there came to the VA here to give a talk, I can’t remember his name. He pointed out that meaningful engagement in productive work was a big part of recovery. The idea is no longer to get someone completely stable and then back into the world, but to foster recovery by getting people back into the world with support. He then pointed out that employers were very reluctant to hire people with psychiatric disabilities, and that was a problem difficult for the care community to address. Employers often have to be given financial incentives to hire people in psychiatric vocational rehabilitation services.
MB: Not just academic employers, all employers?
MD: Right. These are almost all low wage employers. Clients placed in those jobs tend to leave after six or seven months, and that was thought to be a problem until somebody noted that six or seven months on the job was typical for all employees in these sorts of jobs. At any rate, I wish I had access to that literature to back up what I am saying.
Somebody in the audience asked the speaker what he thought about insurance parity for psychiatric care. He said it was great for people with relatively minor conditions. For those with more severe conditions, unless they have extensive personal or family wealth, they will end up very poor. As I can attest.
When somebody else asked him about social skill training for the mentally ill, he laughed and said it was overrated. Many of his high powered Yale colleagues have horrible social skills.
MB: That’s true anywhere–plenty of lawyers and plumbing contractors have poor social skills. So what should the academy do?
MD: Well, first it should live up to its ideals. One finds an ideology of enlightened inclusiveness in the social sciences and the humanities, but when it comes down to real colleagues, stigma takes over. What should we do, send everyone to NAMI talks? Maybe. What if all the members of the academy who have struggled with mental illness were to “out” themselves? It would shake up the whole academy when we find out that at least 20 percent of us have struggled with mental illness, and not just garden-varity take-your-Prozac depression that often seems fashionable. I say, let’s tell the world about the voices, the suicides, the ECT, the antipsychotics you take that make you fat, the failed relationships, crushed hopes, the shame, the debilitating insomnia … I think that I deserve a hell of a lot of credit for my considerable accomplishments given the difficulties I’ve had. Give me, and others like me, that credit!
The issue is not only stigma, but trust. Let me just add that we are all one happenstance – an illness, an injury – from disability. In five minutes, your whole life can change. As they say in the old Army training films, This Could Happen To You.
MB: How would you characterize the relationship between the tenure stream faculty and faculty serving contingently?
MD: I think benign neglect would be a good term. Work is more than just money, work is identity, dignity, and social relationships. Contingent faculty don’t have those things. Why should permanent faculty reach out to contingent workers when the contingent workers may not be here next term?
I also think that there is classism involved. Adjuncts may be invisible to TT faculty, the same way service workers are often invisible. TT faculty may also feel disdain for adjunct faculty. Why bother with losers?
I was fortunate that my colleagues in my first job were supportive of me. As a full time faculty member, while not TT, I did have daily interaction with colleagues and was able to form those professional relationships that are so important for professional development. And for the pleasure of friendship. I had time and office space to give to students, which most adjuncts don’t have.
MB: Why don’t more more employers understand how important that is to the educational relationship?
MD: Money. What did the religiously-affiliated school do to cover my classes after I resigned? It hired an adjunct, at $1800 a class. The adjunct was willing to teach all 8 classes. Do the math: that is $14.400.
MB: What’s the worst thing about serving contingently?
MD: Pay. Lack of other resources to do a good job. Lack of professional relationships. Lack of professional respect. Lack of belonging.
MB: What is your next step? What do you hope for now?
MD: I was denied SSDI. My most important goal in life is to prevent myself from becoming homeless. My next goal is to stay “homed” and able to keep my dog with me, too. I am now in a 3 week 75 hour course to become a Certified Nursing Assistant. It’s pretty tough work, but health care is the only sector of the economy that is hiring. In fact, the enrollment in these courses, in my case offered by the Red Cross, has increased dramatically due to the recession. My class has 31 students, and many of them have degrees. Many are desperate.
MB: So a lot of people doing this work originally hoped to do something else.
MD: The work of a CNA is often hard, demeaning, and dangerous. Nursing assistants often suffer from back and shoulder injuries and are frequently assaulted. Pay is low, about $10/hour. I cried for two weeks when I realized it may be my only option to prevent homelessness. It’s important work, needed work that deserves more remumeration that it gets, but I worry about my ability to do it, physically and emotionally. My illness makes it dangerous for me to work overnights. Someone who is familiar with job turnover studies will know what I mean when I say that I am going into this work with “the intent to leave.”
However, I am trying to make something of this by approaching it as a opportunity to be an anthropologist. There is a ton of ethnographic research on nursing homes. There is a ton of research done on nursing assistants. There is nothing written from the NA’s point of view.
MB: It’s all from the point of view of patients/customers or management?
MD: I am extremely concerned about patients in long term care and their families. But there is nothing about the content of the CNA courses or the way CNAs are trained. Most of the research on CNAs is based on survey data. It’s an opportunity. I’m keeping a journal of the training and doing content analysis on the text book. I’m all over Google Scholar looking for literature. It’s out there. Unfortunately, without access to an academic library, it is very difficult to get full text papers, and next to impossible to get the scholarly books. I was rebuffed by a librarian at the public library here when I approached her as an “independent scholar.” I wonder if in the world of public libraries, “independent scholar” means “quack.” At any rate, getting a scholarly book through ILL in my local public library is not free, and it certainly is not easy.
Library! give me a library!
My postdoc mentor has responded so positively to my approach to being a CNA, and that is a gift from heaven.
My hope is that I can produce some scholarship that will improve the working lives of first-line caregivers as well as the people they care for. All the literature I’ve see indicates that where nursing assistants are better off, nursing home residents are better off. I think low wage workers and the frail elderly are vulnerable groups whose voices need to be heard, and whose needs deserve to be addressed. That’s me, the critical social theorist.
MB: As an anthropologist, do you see issues with academic culture that you’d like to see explored?
MD: Real versus ideal behavior. Anthropologists tend to be socially, economically, and politically liberal, some even radical. But it is easy to make moralistic statements about social justice from a position of relative financial and social priviledge.
Right now, my anger and resentment make it difficult for me to formulate clear, unbiased research questions. I’m angry, I have my share of self righteousness, but if you were to offer me a place at the banquet, I’d fawn all over you.
Next, video featuring Paul Lauter, Paula Rabinowitz, Gary Rhoades, Jamie Owen Daniel, and others. Contact me if you’d like to tell your story: I’m particularly interested in talking to faculty serving contingently, graduate student employees, and undergraduates working while in school.
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