Just Visiting

September 29, 2005

"Where are you visiting from? You are a visiting professor, aren't you?"

I smiled at the naïve literalism -- as well as respect -- expressed in the student's question last year. I briefly imagined myself an eminent professor, flown in at great trouble and expense to impart my sage wisdom during my brief stay, before returning safely to my home institution.

My own situation was far less glamorous, and far more tenuous. Lacking both status and a home, I was no guest star; I was, instead, a guest worker, a tourist.

In the summer of 2004, after two years of luckless searching, I had found myself caught in the void somewhere between the end of graduate school and the beginning of an academic career in sociology. Having failed to win anything in the tenure-track lottery, I was ready to give up.

As I plunged into despair, the unexpected happened. I got a job. No, not the grand prize, but a lovely consolation gift: an all-expenses paid visit to an exclusive liberal-arts university, just like the ones I used to dream about back in high school, lying in my bed with their glossy admissions brochures scattered before me. At last my chance had come to go to such a place, not as a student, but as a professor. The job had all I could ask for: a light teaching load, smart students, and supportive colleagues. Everything except, of course, the prospect of tenure.

I thought the position would last a year, but one year has turned into two with the option of a third. And as way stations go on my journey toward the tenure track, it's not bad.

In fact, being a visiting faculty member has much to recommend it. Any tenure-track job I could have gotten would likely have offered far worse working conditions and been at a less-respected institution.

Moreover, as a tourist, I am free to soak up the pleasures of the local culture, without having to worry over the drudgery of everyday life. Although not required to attend faculty meetings, I go anyway, eager to explore the mysterious rituals of those gatherings.

What I discovered there -- large doses of official tedium combined with petty one-upmanship -- would surely irritate a native, but this tourist has been absolutely enthralled by the bureaucratic rain dance. I wanted to capture the moment, but bringing a camera would certainly have been inappropriate, not to mention disrupting any chance at an authentic experience. If only there had been a souvenir stand, where I could have picked up a few postcards to send my friends back in grad school: "The faculty meetings are sublime. Wish you were here!"

Tourists, so long as we respect the indigenous customs and stay out of trouble, are free to go our own way. When the students and administrators clashed over competing visions of the university's future, I felt free to sit back and enjoy the spectacle, knowing the outcome would take effect years after I had gone. My "objective" position allowed me to hear and sympathize with the concerns from the players on all sides. I was thus able to develop a nuanced stance on the issue, which I was happy to share with anyone who asked.

Not that anyone did.

Sightseeing does come at a cost. Being free of responsibility trivializes as much as it liberates. Over the past year, I have grown to care deeply about the university and what happens to it, a feeling that is sadly unreciprocated. People here find it nice to have me visit, but they wouldn't want me to live here.

Rarely objects of respect, we tourists more often find ourselves the butt of jokes, or ignored altogether. My impermanence impedes developing relationships with students. Smart and savvy, they know better than to work with someone whose days are numbered.

And my transient nature is hard to conceal. I'm already on my second office, and was recently warned not to get too comfortable as I'll soon be reassigned to a third. I travel from office to office, filling the spaces left behind by professors on sabbatical, a perk of tenure that makes visiting appointments such as mine possible. Visitors, in turn, make sabbaticals possible. Someone has to teach the classes.

Away from the campus I'm no longer a visiting professor. I'm just someone visiting. Every decision is viewed through the lens of my unstable situation. The landlord wants to know if I plan to extend the lease or if I would mind having prospective tenants stop by for a look. New friends would be nice, but would take far too much time to find and cultivate. Why bother, anyway? It's not like I am going to be here long, right?

I may be a tourist, but I am definitely not on vacation. Young assistant professors rightfully have a reputation of being worked to death to get tenure, but the life of the visitor can be even more stressful. If my CV doesn't grow rapidly and radically, I can't expect to fare any better on the job market than in previous years. And my judges are not just my peers at the institution, but every search committee from every corner of the academic universe.

I had never intended to return to the university this academic year. With my Ph.D. in hand, teaching experience at a prestigious institution, and the combined wisdom of several turns on the job market, I had fully expected this last search to turn out differently.

Reality was not quite so generous. Despite some on-campus interviews, I neared the end of the academic year -- and the end of my visiting position -- with no job and no idea what to do. The fortuitous combination of my current department's failed search for a tenure-track position and my strong teaching evaluations have allowed me to hang on for a bit longer, two more years, in fact.

Friends and family excitedly trumpet how those events portend a glorious future for me at the university. Surely, if the department likes me enough to keep me around for three years, it will like me enough to offer me a tenure-track job.

I know better; I am the teaching mistress he will never leave his tenure-track wife for. In the eyes of department members here, I am a worthy understudy who does not have what it takes to be a star, at least not at this university.

My contract extension doesn't solve all my problems, but it at least buys me time. Time to relax, time to breathe, time to work on my research rather than cover letters. And more time, unfortunately, to worry.

Even as I contemplated a holiday from the job market, I already knew that it was little more than fantasy. Who could say what I might miss taking a year off? The coming year might offer the best job prospects in recent history, with plum jobs there for the picking. And the year after might be the worst ever, a wasteland of heavy teaching loads in remote locations.

Once you start looking for jobs, you might as well dive all the way in. Selective searches may save postage, but they don't save much time or mental energy. I want to be optimistic, but don't know if that means planning to stay here for only one year or two. At least this year, I can comfort myself with the knowledge I won't be left hanging at the end of a failed search. My visit can be extended, if only for one more year.

"Will you be back next year?"

Now my students are less interested in where I came from than in how long I will stay. Will I be here until they graduate? I don't know. As with any visit, sometimes I feel I never want to leave. But the excitement of a tourist's life wears thin with time. The longer I stay, the more unsettled I become. At some point, my visit must come to an end, and it will be time to go home. Wherever that might be.

Lynn Owens is a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Wesleyan University.