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FROM PHD TO LIFE

Transition Q & A: Joseph Fruscione

By JENNIFER POLK | December 2, 2013

Joseph Fruscione earned his PhD in English from George Washington University in 2005. Since 1999, he’s taught university-level literature and writing courses at GW, Georgetown, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He’s now teaching first-year writing in GW’s University writing program. He’s published a book — Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry (Ohio State UP, 2012) — and given a lecture about it at the Library of Congress; he’s also published articles and presented at various academic conferences on topics concerning 19th- and 20th-century American literature, film studies, and first-year writing pedagogy. Follow him on Twitter @ProfessorF74 and @AdjunctYoda.

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

Like many PhDs in the humanities, I initially hoped for a full-time, tenure-track professorship at a university. I was actively on the job market from 2006-2010, but probably applied to only 50-60 schools total (much less than others). Although we were quasi-warned in graduate school about the surfeit of humanities PhDs and dearth of full-time positions, I kept my hopes up at some level. We kept hearing about those “older professors who’ll be retiring soon,” though in hindsight I was too idealistic and gave the university system too much credit in thinking my career ambition would work.

I’m hoping that more graduate programs (especially in humanities) are now training their students for different kinds of career paths. When I was in graduate school (1998-2005), it was sort of a “tenure-track job or bust” mentality — there weren’t any meaningful conversations or formal workshops about finding “alternative-academic” employment (the term wasn’t even in vogue then), and there was little formal guidance about writing cover letters, preparing dossiers, and so on.

Now, I’m at peace with my decision to leave after this year: I’m set up to do some editing and writing-consultation work, for which I’ll draw on the skills and knowledge I’ve gained in the last 16 years in higher ed as a student and teacher-scholar. I’ve always been a great editor and proofreader, and I’m happy that I’ll employ these skills regularly in the near future.

What was your first post-PhD job?

My first new post-PhD job was an adjunct position in Georgetown’s English department (2006-2012), although I taught as an adjunct in GW’s English department while pursuing my doctorate. Since I never got any fellowships or other departmental funding while in graduate school, I had to teach — both for income and for ascertaining whether being a professor was a wise career choice. In the classroom and with students, it was wise; in the big picture of the job market and institutional overuse of contingent faculty, it wasn’t wise.

What do you do now?

Currently, I teach in GW’s University writing program, where I’ve been since 2007. I’m also a freelance tutor with two DC-area agencies — Varsity Tutors and Private Prep — and freelance editor with a friend’s nonprofit. Since summer 2012, I’ve regularly taught adult-enrichment classes at Politics & Prose bookstore: I’ve done two classes on Faulkner, two on Fitzgerald & Hemingway, and one on Moby-Dick; I’m slated to teach classes on Invisible Man and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the winter. I’ve also just been appointed column editor for a new monthly feature on Inside Higher Ed, “Adjuncts Interviewing Adjuncts.”

For most of this semester, I’ve been phasing myself into a post-academic career as freelance editor, writer, and tutor — which is why I’m not too nervous or anxious about the one university professorship I applied to. I’m done, and I’m at peace with my decision.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

Beyond the usual class prep, assignment redesign, and office hours, I do the typical balancing act: I write, tweet, blog (sometimes), and read relevant articles on the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, and other outlets. I also engage a lot with colleagues on my campus and others. I’ve done some research on a book project that will examine several American authors — among them Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, and Toni Morrison — who worked meaningfully in academia as lecturers and/or writers in residence. When I started this project in the summer, I thought of it as a scholarly book project; now that I’m transitioning out of academia, I’m going to reframe it as an intellectual work for a more popular audience.

There’s also the fun stuff each week: walking the dog, laughing with my wife, exercising, playing hockey, and so on.

What most surprises you about your job(s)?

Lately, I’ve been surprised by how wedded to high-school writing practices my students are, as well as how some have become much more forthcoming (almost confessional) about their daily lives. I care about my students pedagogically and intellectually, but I don’t care that they’re tired, overbooked, and/or busy with extracurricular activities—i.e., the kinds of things I never would’ve shared with a professor when I was in college. (I know, I know: it sounds very Stay off my lawn or In my day.…) Students have changed quite a bit — especially in the last 2-3 years, when we’ve seen an upswing in grade grubbing, grade challenges, overly confessional emails, and a general lack of intellectual curiosity (learning for learning’s sake, I mean).

At the macro level, I’ve also been surprised — though not pleasantly — at how many contingent faculty there are nationally: around 70% of university faculty, according to statistics. There are a lot of us, we care deeply about our teaching but feel frustrated, and the 70% number promises to go up before it goes down.

I’ve also been a little surprised at myself, in a good way, for how outspoken and public I’ve been this year about contingent labor issues and my own frustrations. A year ago, I never would’ve thought that I’d be on the news, write pieces for Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle, and be part of a video project for the Chronicle, “Adjunct Voices.” In a way, deciding to leave academia has freed me up to speak out and be critical. I’m not concerned with getting a full-time professorship anymore, so I’m not particularly worried that a hiring committee will see or read some of these things and judge me accordingly. Let them judge, if they want.

What are your favourite parts of your work?

I’ve always loved the collegiality with my fellow teacher-scholars, whether we’re discussing teaching, conference travel, students, and/or new teaching methods. I still like the day-to-day energy of a good class discussion. Students change a lot every year — in terms of attitudes, writing processes, knowledge, and so on — which keeps me sharp and dynamic as an educator.

Lately, I’ve also grown to love my social media connections with other teacher-scholars, many of whom are similarly contingent. There are a lot of strong, meaningful relationships among contingent faculty in cyberspace; I feel close to many people I’ve never actually met in person. We have a strong community on Twitter, Facebook, and other sites, which has helped me tremendously in this last, very transitional year.

What would you change about it if you could?

Like many, I’d change how contingent faculty are overused, underpaid, and (institutionally speaking) disrespected. We’re not cheap, renewable labour. We deserve to have some kind of regular pay raise and promotion in our contracts, instead of so many of us effectively hitting RESET at the beginning of each year.

Universities know what they’re doing in overusing and exploiting contingent faculty. The sooner university administrations realize that faculty working conditions are student learning conditions, the sooner we as contingents will see meaningful progress, recognition, and promotion. At this point, being critical feels natural.

I’m lucky — very lucky — to be married to a supportive woman who’s also the breadwinner. My frustrations and anxieties are largely personal; our mortgage and bill-paying aren’t dependent on my salary as they were when I was single. I know everyone doesn’t have this luxury, which is why I feel especially fortunate.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

Freelance editing and writing consultation — which will be conducive to the next Big Life Thing coming up: my wife and I are adopting a child, and I’ll be the at-home parent. I’m eager to start the editing, and I already have a few potential client-partners lined up for writing consultation. I edited and commented on a former professor’s book manuscript (400+ pages) back in the spring, and he said I gave him stronger feedback than his peer reviewers. I’m ready to start this new stage of my career.

I still have one semester and two courses left, and I’ll be fully engaged with my teaching and the 30-odd students I’ll have. Professionally speaking, I’m simplifying things in the spring: just my two classes and work on some teaching panels I codesigned for an upcoming conference. My last students will get all of my professional attention — more so than I’ve ever been able to give students in the last 14+ years.

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?

  1. Look beyond a full-time professorship as your career ambition. Things are changing rapidly (and problematically), and tenure-track positions may be going away. Give yourself realistic and manageable expectations — if you teach as an adjunct or short-term contingent, have your eyes on something else, too.
  2. Prepare for a non-academic (or at least non-teaching) career: editor, reporter, writing coach/consultant, and so on.
  3. Connect with other graduate students and contingent university faculty via Facebook and Twitter.
ABOUT JENNIFER POLK
Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and writer. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website: FromPhDtoLife.com.
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  1. Curious / December 4, 2013 at 11:22 am

    I enjoyed reading this. Since Joseph was so open, it would have been nice to learn from him how much he earned annually as a contingent faculty member, and how much he anticipates earning as a freelance writer and consulting editor — something every PhD in transition would like to know.

  2. deb / December 9, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    “The sooner university administrations realize that faculty working conditions are student learning conditions, the sooner we as contingents will see meaningful progress, recognition, and promotion.” -so well said!

    Joseph,
    Really enjoyed reading this. We have quite a few things in common. First – we have connected a few times on twitter as I find your inverted sentences insightful and hilarious. I earned my phd in 2004 at UMD just up the road from you. In fact, I almost went to GW, so we would have been classmates. I spent hours in the library writing my dissertation with a GW student/friend who must have been a classmate of yours. I remember the upheaval at GW when they revamped freshman comp into their current “writing program.” My friend lost her long-held adjunct job without a word of explanation during that transition.

    I also quit adjuncting to be a freelance tutor and writer/editor although I lasted for a much shorter time as an adjunct (just two years). So I quit in 2006 and started writing a book about the experience that I’ve yet to finish (kids and work!). I can tell other readers that tutoring is very lucrative – $50-$100 an hour where I live. I am only just trying to increase writing/editing gigs recently as I’m feeling a little burnt out on the tutoring after so long. That said, I noticed the announcement for your new column on IHE the other day and thought – “wow – what a fun gig to get!” so congratulations on that!

    Thanks for sharing all this, and good luck with the transition!
    deb

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