Monday, April 27, 2009

A book review and giveaway in which I confess I'm ready to move on to (what may seem to you to be) weirder things

Many months ago, I volunteered, via an invitation on Pamela Slim's blog, to serve on an informal advisory board while she drafted her book (due in stores on April 30) Escape from Cubicle Nation. Periodically she would send out e-mails with insightful questions asking for anecdotes about a time when something in our lives as corporate drones went off the rails, or how we made our own escapes from cubicle nation. I never felt quite ready to give Pam an answer to any of these questions because I hadn't really worked for a big corporation, though I certainly have spent time in cubicles and their equivalents. I escaped, for many years, from cubicle nation by going to graduate school, which I thought would forever secure my release from office dronedom.

As the months passed, it became clear that much of what Pam was writing was geared at people who already had experienced some success and garnered some respect in their corners of corporate America and were wondering if they were crazy for thinking it was time to jump ship to, in one of Pam's examples, a doggy daycare business. I began to suspect I might not be in her target audience.

So I remained silent, and thus I felt a bit guilty when Pam sent a signed hardback copy of the book to me, as she did to all members of the book's advisory board. But as soon as I cracked open the book, I knew, finally, that I am--as are many of you, I suspect--the implied readership of Escape from Cubicle Nation.

Those of us in higher ed have known for a long time that the research university is in bed with corporate interests. (For an excellent overview of this phenomenon, see "The Kept University" in the March 2000 Atlantic Monthly.) And those of us who have worked as faculty or staff (but oh, especially as staff) at universities, or who have read Dean Dad's blog for any length of time, know that the university itself is increasingly organized along corporate lines. We know what it's like to be managed, to not be listened to, to be hired on one pretense and then asked to do something else entirely, thanks to that "and other duties as assigned" clause in our job descriptions. Increasingly, as universities slash their budgets, we're learning what really matters to them. (Hint: it isn't teaching, and it isn't the arts, humanities, and cultural studies.)

I'm fortunate to have a position among truly excellent peers in a teaching center whose (retiring!) director shields us, I suspect, from some of the mandates from above. As his time with our center wanes, I'm growing increasingly nervous about what will happen to our center's mission--and with good reason, as no one has invited anyone from our center to participate in the search for a new director (each director is a Senate faculty member and serves a three-year term). Some directors are very laissez-faire, letting the staff develop programs as we see fit, while others are more interventionist. In the case of our current brilliant director, the intervention has been much appreciated, but I fear I will not enjoy the intervention so much when it becomes managerial. Currently, I have a good deal of freedom to design and implement programs and communications for the center, as long as the programs don't cost us anything beyond my salary and perhaps a few hours' time from our administrative staff.

But, as I've said before: In December, we're literally moving from our lovely windowless basement offices to cubes in a 50-year-old "temporary" building/tin shed. We'll be sharing two big cube farms with staff from related units (synergy!), and in each room there will be about 15 people, with one "hotelling" office we can reserve for when we need to have a private conversation. You can imagine how well this plan is going to work. . .

Add to this disappointment my experience of the job falling through at Awesome University. From what I can suss out, there was a difference of opinion between the faculty and staff on the search committee and the administration, with the administration winning, as administrations tend to do. So even at Awesome University, things can suck. Yay.

Anyway, back to Pam's book. I knew from the moment I saw such chapter titles and section headings as "If It Is So Bad, Then Why Am I Afraid to Leave?" and "I Am 35, Divorced, and Live in a Van Down by the River" that Pam was speaking to my fears. After all, I worked damn hard for my Ph.D., and I desperately wanted that tenure-track faculty job. When I didn't get it, and I had to settle for the consolation prize of adjuncting or a staff position, when I accepted my first staff position (as an instructional technologist) I felt that at least I was applying my knowledge and skills in the arena where they were most respected and perhaps needed. I also felt grateful for being able to stay at the university where I had already cultivated a broad network of contacts among faculty and staff.

Why the hell would I want to move on to something else? (Aside from the fact that my therapist pointed out I might be making twice as much money if I were working in private industry.) I have health insurance, decent (by university staff standards) pay, and I believe, to some extent, in the mission of higher education--insofar as it advances liberal arts thinking and enriches community life.

I'm not crazy

Pam's book tells me I'm not crazy. Which--although I appreciate my friends' moral support when I express my dissatisfaction--is such a relief to hear from an objective outsider.

My therapist cautioned me today that I may be still mourning the loss of the opportunity at Awesome University and therefore in peril of investing too much hope into Pam's book.

Still, I keep telling myself: I'm not crazy. I'm not crazy. I'm not crazy.

I like my job, but I don't belong at this university any more.

I'm not sure if there is an organization where I belong.

This frightens the bejeebus out of me.

It's really hard to admit to academics and to my family of educators that I have an entrepreneurial streak. I believe in Creative Commons, I believe in open source, I believe in open educational resources--I believe, in short, in all that great stuff that so often gets set up as the opposite of the marketplace and of the dreaded "monetization."

But at the same time I desperately want to find a way to "monetize" what I know in the form of services and, yes, products I might provide. I feel I could have an impact on far greater numbers of people by working outside of the academy than I do as a staff member inside of it. (Note: by staff, I mean "not tenure-track faculty.")


I also know that I'm in no position, financially speaking, to quit my current job.

My options, as I see them, are these, each of which is mutually exclusive from the other because of time constraints:

- Buck up and deal, and continue to adjunct elsewhere so that I can (a) keep my teaching skills sharp and (b) make some extra cash.

- Cut down pretty dramatically on my living expenses so that I can cut back on my working hours a little bit. Rededicate myself to research, try to get a book contract from my dissertation, and throw myself back on the (incredibly depressing) academic job market in the next year or two in the hopes of getting a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college.

- Again, cut down on my living expenses so that I can cut back on my working hours. Experiment with creating products and services on the side, related (and I don't want to disclose too much here, both out of an embarrassment I'm still trying to overcome--and I think Pam's book will help more with that--and out of a desire not to reveal my idea to potential competitors) to K-16 education and/or museums.

All of this is tempered, of course, by Mr. Trillwing's employment in the increasingly perilous newspaper industry and his desire to move over to life coaching and writing, both of which he's very, very good at.

Back to the book

I haven't read all the way through Escape from Cubicle Nation yet, but I will tell you that I'm looking forward to chapter 11, "Test Often and Fail Fast: The Art of Prototypes and Samples." The chapter title appeals to me as a teacher, as isn't teaching often about prototyping and testing and, often, failing and learning from our mistakes? But it also addresses some fears that are, I'm sure, familiar to academics:
  • What if it doesn't turn out the way you had imagined?
  • What if no one likes it?
  • What if no one buys it?
  • What if someone else does it better?
  • What if you have been wasting your time and should have done something else?
Pam's book talks us through these fears and hesitations--and once we've convinced ourselves that what we want to pursue is worthwhile, she offers a chapter titled "Dealing with Your Friends and Family."

Book Giveaway

The book is definitely worth checking out. And, as it happens, I have a second signed copy because Pam offered a "buy one, get a second signed copy free" deal, and my second signed copy arrived the same day as my free advisory board copy.

I want to give this second copy away to an academic or (recently) former academic who, like me, feels he or she is at (or approaching) a transition point or (let's call it what it is) a crisis of conscience.

To get this second signed copy of the book, you need to do the following:

Share with me your own thinking on this topic of moving to a new place within or away from academia, and why you think Pam's book might help you. Address in particular why you think a book that is pro-entrepreneurialism would be a worthwhile resource.

You can share your story in one of three ways:

1. Blog it, then leave a link to your post in the comments of this one.

2. Leave your story in a comment on this post.

3. Send me your story in an e-mail to trillwing -at- gmail -dot- com. I understand some of you aren't as eager as I am to come out of the entrepreneurial closet, so I won't reveal your name or identifying details if you contact me in this manner.

I'll be picking the winner on Friday, May 8 and either announcing the winner on my blog or contacting the person privately, as appropriate.

Please blog and tweet about this giveaway as the spirit moves you. I'd love to hear from fellow academics (and former academics) what you're thinking about where you are and where you're going.


Unknown said...

Heh, you know my story, and I'm not angling for the book. It should go to someone who hasn't made the leap yet. If you want a partner in crime in entrepreneurial ventures, let me know. It'd be great to have a partner on the west coast. Even if you want to do it on the side. It'd be great to be able to offer something to people where they don't have to fly me all the way from the east coast.

Most of my options were/are the same as yours although I know I don't want a t-t job. I have the added benefit of having both my kids in public school. My work day pretty much coincides with their school day. It generally starts between 7:30 and 8 and ends around 3, with the occasional extension until 4 or 4:30 (during which time they do homework anyway). I hope you find what you want, and I think you will eventually, and you'll be amazingly successful.

Emilie said...

Wow... I'm actually not an academic, but have been considering going back to school to become one. I'm currently in the arts (musician), with a cubicle day job,and I've been going through a lot of, um, life-evaluation recently, so this sounds like a fabulous book!!! If I don't qualify to win this by not being an academic, so be it, but thanks at least for alerting me to the fact that it exists!!! (And if I do qualify anyway, thanks for the chance, LOL!)

emvark at gmail dot com

Tk said...

Just a couple observations, since I don't know you well enough to have any conclusive opinion nor do I have enough experience to send a parallel instance.
First: If you're moving to a cubicle farm, why not just dismantle the cubicles? I'm not talking full-on "Office Space" deconstruction, but with a little ingenuity you and your colleagues can change the space to an open, collaborative one.
Second, you might want to read "Nudge" (Amazon: I haven't read it, but my wife's boss praised it. It sounds like the book provides some guideposts for making incremental but significant changes.

Leslie M-B said...

Hi TK,

Thanks for your comments! Unfortunately the issue isn't open workspace vs. cubicles--it's that we offer confidential consultations to faculty and grad students in person and by phone, by appointment and when folks just drop in. Any kind of open office space compromises that confidentiality. I'm a fan of open office space in theory, but in practice for my job an office with a door makes a lot more sense. Open space or cubicles also become problematic because we have old Scantron machines that are almost always in use and they make a LOT of noise--possibly more than OSHA allows, in fact.

I'll check out Nudge. Thanks for the recommendation!

Tk said...

Scantron?! Yikes. Hrm, well, I'm an incurable optimist as well as a lover of the well-tempered hack, so I'm convinced there's still some way to make it happen -- casters on some of the cubicle walls? Some pieces of plywood with foam attached to cushion the Scantron noise? I'm not trying to bully you -- heaven knows you probably have more important things to do than space-plan the new office.