Thursday, July 2, 2015

Writing as the Only Choice

In response to several queries from friends, a bit more elaboration on my plans.

I applied for a number of teaching posts and have now received the standard letters proclaiming an "overwhelming number of highly qualified candidates" for each opening.

The decision to not teach part-time as an adjunct, at least for now, was best for me. I'm too tired to drive two hours (or more) to teach one class in the fall for 80 minutes. Also, teaching part-time where I wasn't renewed full-time wasn't going to be comfortable. (The hiring process still angers me.) The pay was fair, but the situation would not have been healthy for me. If I teach again, it will be somewhere more welcoming.

My passion remains creative writing, and the rhetoric of stage and screen — followed closely by the visual rhetoric of page design (including digital "pages"). Give me scripts, sets, and camera angles. I'll ponder what makes a great play vs. a great movie, and how both are evolving in our saturated media experiences.

Give me histories of printing technologies and digital type. I'll passionately debate why "hinting" isn't as good as designing font data for visual sizes (Display vs. Body vs. Captions, for example).

In the university teaching interviews I've had since 2009-10, most have asked if I would rather teach writing or be writing professionally. I've argued that teaching informs my writing, making it better because you constantly learn through teaching. Told to choose, though, I always answer that given no choice, I would rather write and hope my audiences learn from my words. Isn't that still teaching? (Trying to "thread the needle" as most writers I know also have to teach or have other careers.) I'd argue academic writing is creative, but not how we currently teach it. Maybe I don't interview well when I do get that far in the process, at least in academia.

This is why I am writing primarily, and taking on some non-profit work on the side. Teaching is important, and I will teach through my words (sometimes, teaching that someone else is smarter than I am via my mistakes).

I will miss teaching. I might teach again, someday.

But, when forced to make a choice, that choice was what it now is… creative writing in all its forms.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Emptiness and Paths Ahead

I completed my doctorate in June 2010. It is now June 2015. Five year after earning the doctorate, there's little to show for it.

I have taught, but at my last post I was not on the tenure track and that is unlikely now. I might be a lecturer or adjunct here and there, but that's not the career I imagined. It's also not the path my wife had imagined, and certainly not the path that we went into debt for, yet again.

Yes, I've applied for teaching jobs. No, I don't really want them, but teaching is the only thing I seem to be able to do, in part because of the schedule. Unfortunately, my degree choices weren't the wisest. The doctorate was an accomplishment, but to what end I don't know anymore.

My wife needs stability. She likes routines and order as much as I do. We both hate any reminders that we are powerless. We organize our spaces, because that is something we can do. Unfortunately, we can organize books and things, but not my career.

We won't know for some months if I have another teaching job. I (might) need the job. I dread the job. It comes too late to transform our lives into what I dreamed of for her and for me.

We have a decent life, but it feels incredibly incomplete. Empty. And I don't have a good path forward right now. A path, but nothing certain and nothing stable. The lack of certainty and stability… that familiar dread that we have no security.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Never a Good Autism / Autistic Scholar

Years ago, when I entered graduate school, I imagined helping students and teachers connect via technology. I wanted to study "writing across the curriculum" and online writing labs. These interests led me to a doctorate… but by the time I completed the degree I recognized that my career was already off my planned course.

When I decided that writing about autism and education would be beneficial to someone, beyond myself, part of that decision was based on the (yes, we should admit this) trendiness of disability studies and all things diversity-based. I could do some good, and the topic would be desired by other academic scholars. It was a win-win.

Instead, I found myself drifting back and forth between what I love (creative writing and the rhetoric of fiction) and what I believed I had to do to secure a teaching job (something autism-related). Not that I don't care about autism, but it isn't nearly the interest for me that it is for some other autistic scholars in writing and rhetoric. I care… sometimes. Most of the time? I want to study what makes a story effective.

My one "autistic" role is as a board member for a regional autism charity that helps connect people to services. I attend two-thirds of the board meetings, schedule permitting, and offer some ideas, but I'm not an active volunteer like many of the parents of autistics manage to be. I'm not involved in ASAN (Autistic Self-Advocacy Network) or any other autistic-centric group. I have no desire to attend "Autreat" and I cannot recall the last time I looked at the online autism communities (probably when I was in graduate school).

When I read about autism as a topic at writing conferences, I don't celebrate this as a "good thing." For all the slogans such as, "When you've met one autistic person, you've met one person," the reality is that the autistic scholarship seems to convey there is a commonality, beyond sharing a diagnosis.

The "autism community" these scholar-advocates know is not that large. It is not universal. The "supportive academic homes" they have found are not the norm. Their experiences of being accepted and celebrated in academia are not mine. And they are not the experiences of so many autistic [former] students I have met.

Academia is not a wonderful, loving, supportive place that stands apart from other workplaces. No. Schools are workplaces. They can be great and they can be lousy. And my experiences have generally been pretty lousy.

At these conferences at which scholars in the audience will congratulate themselves for embracing and celebrating autistic scholars, I find myself an outsider. I don't enjoy the social events, the small talk, the need to schmooze to become familiar and eventually land a tenure-track job.

I'd be the one limping about, wanting to scream at the sensory overload, trying desperately to present one or two papers here and there to prove I am a scholar. And I hated it. I hated trying to read social cues, say the right things, and engage in discussions that didn't appeal to me.

My goal? Teaching writing as effectively as possible.

There is nothing "political" in my pursuits, and I have no grand scheme to promote Marxist critiques or to engage in some sort of social justice. I just wanted to learn how to help students master the dominant American Standard English (sorry, the Anglo-Colonial Dominant Language Tradition). (Yeah, yeah, teaching is "political" by nature… so I taught at two business-centric universities.)

You want to help students? Teach them to communicate effectively within their families, communities, workplaces, and so on. To teach effectively, I don't need to know about the social construction of ablism or what the latest neuroqueer critical theory might be. I need to know how can I help first-generation students and non-native speakers and those with cognitive difference engage clearly and effectively with the world in which they exist here and now. Does that world stink? Maybe. But, if you can't communicate, you can't change things.

So, I wanted to teach writing and teach it well. I wanted to use technology to help teach writing. That's what I wanted to do.

I didn't want to study which dead authors might have been autistic, unless that was going to help me teach Hmong- and Spanish-speaking students the difference between who and whom in a business document. I don't have time to address the rhetoric of social media unless that helps me teach first-year composition students the value of proper citation formats — which they must master for other courses in college.

Nope, I'm just not an "autistic" scholar.

Nobody expects autistic professors in the STEM fields to focus on autism and physics or autism and robotics. (Though there are some very cool projects using robotics to help people with special needs, those are applied projects, not the theory common the doctoral research.) No, it was my choice of field that somehow came with the mandate to be a disabilities scholar, if I wanted to remain and rise in the discipline.

Do I believe there are areas of study that overlap writing and disability? Absolutely, especially in the usability and user-experience areas that I am willing to research. I do care about accommodations. I want to solve problems of writing and reading, so I am eager to use technology to solve challenges. But, I don't care about so much else that seems to be the majority of "scholarship" in my field.

Since I do not have a teaching post and might not pursue another post, I have been reflecting on how strange it is that colleagues assume I should be interested in questions that don't interest me and seem disconnected from my life. I'm sure those scholar believe they could (and have tried) to explain why I need to care about the deconstruction of disability in discourse communities. (Uh… whatever?)

I just want to know if technology X will help person Y communicate ideas and concerns A, B, and C to the world. If that wasn't a good fit for any tenure-track post, so be it.

Now, I have some plays and movies to write. And more people will see any play that is produced than would be touched by the scholarship I have produced. See? I'm not wrong to care about the rhetoric of fiction. The successful stage adaptation of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has more people talking about autism and autistic experiences than all the autism scholarship ever published. I know some autistic advocates have used the play to rally against the lead role going to a "neurotypical" actor. I'm not that passionate about the actor cast in the role, since I thought the book was only okay.

As readers of this blog know, I'd rather be a good creative writer if I had to choose between general audience creative and academic writing. And if that means I also don't teach full-time at a university again, that's life.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Driving is a Pain

Driving has been causing back pain, which leads to headaches, and some of those headaches become migraines. A migraine is not merely a bad headache, either.

I don't mind driving on fairly flat, smooth, un-congested routes. The problem is that the roads where we live go over and around hills. The weather creates potholes that are small craters. Traffic is heavy, on streets never designed for the number of cars. Basically, driving in and around the city is a nightmare for my mind and body.

By the time I reach work, I'm exhausted. Getting home, after a long day, I'm ready to sleep.

On the way home, I celebrate the moment I cross from one county to the next, because the roads improve. The road noise decreases and my head hurts a little less.

Someday, I want a luxury car just for the reduced noise.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Needing a Job... Again...

If I could, I would write full-time. That is what I want, and what I have dreamed of since first grade. To be a professional writer. 

Teaching seemed like a good way to support writing. But, no luck with that approach. 

Under-employed or unemployed, whatever I am about to be is everything I've hated about life since I left my undergraduate college in early 1991.

Each time I dream of a stable, "normal" future, one with a career that allows for some order in life, the job goes sideways and my plans disintegrate. Attempts to create my own career have ended badly, too, for various reasons. No excuses: I simply am not good at the soft skills needed for success. I've worked on those skills, but they never develop. I am lousy at understanding people, and I lack the superior tech skills or proper degree to overcome that shortcoming.

I can program, manage databases, configure Web servers, but I'm not the next app wizard. I never mastered OS X / iOS programming, but I wish I had. Coding still feels like where I belonged, but I also keep resisting that path because my creative writing takes so much time and energy.

I turn to coding because it is a real skill. People pay programmers and techs. I'm not likely to pay many bills with my writing. Coding would be a better fit than teaching writing courses. Or maybe teaching about tech was the best path. I'll never know.

Teaching about writing isn't a good fit for me, because I am not like other teachers of writing. I am different. I love writing and language. I don't appreciate the views and biases of writing instruction. My success as a writer contradicts much that my discipline assumes about good writing.

Last summer, four of my plays were produced and two had public readings. That meant I had to focus on the scripts. But, those works do not provide income. I'm a sort-of-successful regional writer, but that's not a career. Not a job.

Having completed a Ph.D. in the "digital humanities" (lacking a better, trendier name), with a focus on educational website design, I thought I might end up teaching somewhere. I've taught, yes, but I've never managed to land and keep the full-time, long-term, tenure-track post that is necessary for security. I've been in writing courses, trying to fit in with writing teachers.

What's next for me? I'm tired of flailing about, searching for whatever I can find, only to be miserable and desperate.

I'm a good teacher. My reviews state this. My course evaluations state this. And yet, I cannot master the back-office, beyond the classroom aspects of academia. Outside my classroom, I fail to connect with colleagues. And I find myself moving on, again and again. Not one teaching job has lasted, nor has any job other than a programming and consulting gig I had as a student worker in the late 1980s.

I would like to sit at home and write. That's what I seem to do well. But without financial security, I'm forced to turn to the acceptable tech skills I do have.

My dream was a job. A career. A house. A family.

Life didn't work out the way I wanted. I kept chasing the idea of having a career. That's why I went to graduate school. I completed a degree hoping it might help me as a writer. It was a stupid idea, looking back. I should have completed something technical, because I get along with technical people — at least within academia. It isn't that I don't enjoy teaching writing (I do), but outside my classroom, the colleagues I relate to are the technical faculty, the scientists and technologists.

I'm tired. I'm back to where I was in 2010. Where I was in 2004. Where I was in 2002. Where I have been so many times, on such a regular schedule. Unemployed. Stuck. Feeling like the only path is to create my own path, knowing that doing so hasn't worked out in the past.

It's hard to explain, this cycle of job loss: attempts to escape, returns to school, and the constant failures. I know I'm a good teacher. A good writer. An okay techie. And I'm forever chasing the elusive career as something, to help pay the bills.

What's next? Not a clue, but I'm ready to stop trying to "invest in my future" because there's no more time or money to invest. I'm out of options and tired of draining the one person close to me.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Moving Ahead, Staying Sane

Companies, non-profits, and educational institutions should hire me as a consultant (or others with expertise in accommodations and supports for cognitive difference) because too many organizations do not know how to hire, support, and develop talented people with personality traits outside the accepted norms.

Readers of this blog know that my experiences in the "tolerant" world of academia demonstrate that "tolerance" is not acceptance or support. I don't want to be "tolerated" (you tolerate bad weather, you tolerate an annoying relative). People with cognitive difference want to be appreciated, listened to, and supported.

This post uses the first-person "I" but it likely represents the "we" of many people with differences society hasn't embraced.

I'm not going to settle for being tolerated. No thank you. Like many advocates, I do not want your pity or your tolerance. I want to be an equal, not a token.

Moving on from a difficult situation seems to be a recurring theme in the lives of many people. For autistics, moving on isn't always a choice so much as the result of being nudged and pushed out of workplaces and organizations.

In late March, I learned that my employment would be reduced from full-time status to part-time for the 2015-16 academic year. Technically, I was a temporary visiting professor this school year following a retirement and a resignation — someone had to cover the courses on short notice and I was available. I did interview for the 2015-16 post, but another applicant was selected and life goes on.

Did my autistic traits contribute to the decision of the hiring committee? I believe they did.

The interview process was a complete puzzle to me, and I considered several aspects unfavorable to my nature. I knew following the interviews (one-on-one and group), if not before, that the odds were against being offered a contract extension.

Hiring has little to do with job skills. Hiring is about cultural fit and some, generally pointless, "behavioral" interview techniques. Plenty of research exists to demonstrate that silly pseudo-psychology exercises seldom result in better hiring.

Word association games? I'm sorry, but what a waste of my time. And I'm sure the professor (not a psychologist) was relying on some text he read to determine what a "good" candidate should answer. Whatever. How about asking me how I teach my courses?

Telling me how great your students are and asking me what makes them special? Get over yourself. I'm not going to tell you why "you" (a graduate of the university) are great, by way of praising the student body. And did you need to insult state universities? My wife and I attended respected state universities, unless you somehow imagine the University of California system and the University of Minnesota are not great research universities? Yes, I also did attend a California State University, in a program that featured nationally and internationally respected poets, essayists, and novelists.

Don't tell me how important you could have been. You sound petty and bitter. Don't tell me how much money you could have earned. Don't whine to me about how much you gave up because you work for the university. If you don't like it, LEAVE. Leave now and make the university a better place.

If these are more "behavioral tests" to see how I reacted, they are dumb. Do not lie about what you think of a workplace. However, since I have heard some of the committee make similar comments in other circumstances, I assume you were being honest. You hate a lot about your jobs, but are proud of where you teach. Status is everything to at least some of the interview committee, or they wouldn't have mentioned rankings and money and famous people they know.

Telling me how much you dislike the university where we work? Stupid. Just plain stupid. How can I respond to that, before or after the interview?

Scheduling my interview for mornings, when I told the committee I was having motor control issues? Whatever. I gave up and accepted a morning interview, knowing I would be in severe pain and have to "fake" my way through the formal process. I threw up afterwards, from the pain. Thank you for listening closely to my needs.

Don't ask me if I'm up to a job I have been doing for much of a school year. Obviously, I am up to it — despite any physical discomfort or limitations. You are crossing a line with this question, and you should know that it isn't a proper question.

Don't tell me that I need to be flexible. You think I don't know that good workers need some flexibility? Telling someone with cognitive differences to be flexible is inherently insulting. After explaining my need for routines, you then insult what is a neurological difference? Thank you for (not) listening to what I tried to teach you.

Don't ask for copies of my research, which is auto-ethnographic and addresses cognitive and physical challenges, and then say you didn't realize I had special needs. Seriously, if you read even the introductions of the two papers, you knew my physical and cognitive limitations. If you didn't read my papers, then I'm even more disgusted by the hiring process.

There's more, but readers will get the idea. It wasn't a good process.

And yet, I love the university and its students. It was the first place in many years where I felt like I belonged. The students are wonderful. Most of the academic programs are outstanding. I love the campus, however weird it can be and hard to navigate for someone with mobility issues. It is a special place, overall, and most of the people with whom I've interacted have been professional and supportive.

But, the interview process was horrible.

Not accepting the part-time offer for next year was easy. I tell my students, if the people interviewing you don't like their jobs, don't seem interested in you, and have negative answers to your questions, don't accept a job offer. Walk away.

Did I want the job, even after the horrible interview? Sort of. I wasn't sure I would accept, if an offer to renew was made, but I also know I'm going to miss teaching the courses I designed.

Disclosure didn't help. Asking some colleagues for help didn't work. I should have contacted human resources and disability services early in the semester; I didn't because I was sure that doing so would be viewed as putting the interview committee in difficult position. Getting HR involved in my situation earlier would have been awkward, certainly.

And so, I am moving on. Maybe I'll never have a tenure-track or full-time teaching job again. Time to move forward by moving back to writing at home for a time.

Yes, writing this blog post violates basic advice I would give my own students and other people with special needs: never talk ill of an employer or coworkers. But you know what? The system is broken. It needs to change. People need to change.

I'm tired of having to pretend to be someone I'm not and I'm tired of stupid "tests" in workplaces. If I have to be anything and anyone other than myself to succeed in a workplace, that isn't the right place for me.

When an organization does more than tolerate difference, it benefits a much larger community.

So, if you want to be part of a better organization, listen to self-advocates and experts. Hire us to help you become better employers. Listen to us.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Autism Awareness Month... Blah

April compels me to offer my standard reaction to "Autism Awareness [Day, Month]" and a short thought or two.

Reaction: Blah.

Thought: Great. We get to endure a month of "inspirational" stories on families raising autistic children, a few successful autistics will be profiled, and then people can congratulate themselves for believing that acceptance (whatever that means) is sufficient.

Feel free to read posts from past Aprils. I'm sure my opinion hasn't changed much.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Career Anxiety

It is that time of the year when I check the job market with the goal of being employed after the school year ends. The anxiety is accompanied by the self-recrimination for not obtaining a STEM degree to qualify for the jobs I know I could do, including teach in those fields.

The disappoint in myself never fades, though it should. I'm a success, by many measures, with a great wife, good (feline) kids, and a nice house. But, I always know I could do more, and could have done more, with my skills.

I lacked discipline, I suppose, along with people skills.

Given a chance, I am going to fix things… somehow.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Research Project

Research participants needed! A graduate student at UMass Amherst is interested in your experiences regarding your education, employment, hobbies, and interests. Your input is very valuable and will help the researcher gain information about daily life of adults with Autism. To participate in this confidential survey, we ask that you are over 18 and diagnosed with Autism, or Social Communication Disorder. This survey will take no more than 10 minutes and can be found at http://bit.ly/MoroneySurvey. Your response is confidential and will be used only for research purposes. Participants will not be paid for participating.

For more information, please contact Katharine Moroney at kmoroney@umass.edu.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Autism and Workplace Teams

As is often the case, I write a blog on a topic I'm not currently exploring in my research… only to discover that I'm about to delve into the depths of that exact topic for an academic article or presentation.

Only a few weeks ago, I confessed that I had not maintained an active awareness of research on cognitive empathy and business communications. Much business scholarship on empathy studies "normal" (statistically representative and generalizable) groups. Seldom do I stumble upon detailed discussion of autistic traits in the workplace and the challenges those present. Those discussions more frequently appear in psychology journals or publications with a narrow focus on autism.

Having acknowledged my lack of awareness, being steeped in the rhetoric of economics for a potential book project, today I stumbled right back into autism while preparing for an academic presentation. 

My Carnegie Mellon University colleague Anita Woolley, along withThomas W. Malone (MIT) and Christopher Chabris (Union College), has been studying cognitive empathy and ToM, publishing excellent scholarship that directly addresses how autistic traits negatively affect collaborative teams. 

Recently, Woolley and her collaborators published a paper revealing that successful online teams reflect the same high levels of cognitive empathy and ToM awareness that face-to-face teams demonstrate. For an autistic worker, this could explain workplace experiences and identifies a challenge we must address, somehow. 
Why Some Teams are Smarter than Others
http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/opinion/sunday/why-some-teams-are-smarter-than-others.html
In a new study that we published with David Engel and Lisa X. Jing of M.I.T. last month in PLoS One, we replicated these earlier findings, but with a twist. We randomly assigned each of 68 teams to complete our collective intelligence test in one of two conditions. Half of the teams worked face to face, like the teams in our earlier studies. The other half worked online, with no ability to see any of their teammates. Online collaboration is on the rise, with tools like Skype, Google Drive and old-fashioned email enabling groups that never meet to execute complex projects. We wanted to see whether groups that worked online would still demonstrate collective intelligence, and whether social ability would matter as much when people communicated purely by typing messages into a browser.
And they did. Online and off, some teams consistently worked smarter than others. More surprisingly, the most important ingredients for a smart team remained constant regardless of its mode of interaction: members who communicated a lot, participated equally and possessed good emotion-reading skills.
*** This last finding was another surprise. Emotion-reading mattered just as much for the online teams whose members could not see one another as for the teams that worked face to face. What makes teams smart must be not just the ability to read facial expressions, but a more general ability, known as "Theory of Mind," to consider and keep track of what other people feel, know and believe. *** 
A new science of effective teamwork is vital not only because teams do so many important things in society, but also because so many teams operate over long
periods of time, confronting an ever-widening array of tasks and problems that may be much different from the ones they were initially convened to solve. General intelligence, whether in individuals or teams, is especially crucial for explaining who will do best in novel situations or ones that require learning and adaptation to changing circumstances. We hope that understanding what makes groups smart will help organizations and leaders in all fields create and manage teams more effectively. 
Findings that explain why autistics struggle in collaborative environments help us defend the need for research on ways to address these challenges. Until we prove there is a problem, we cannot research how to address that problem. That's the nature of academic research. Now, thanks to Woolley and her collaborators, we can bridge the Theory of Mind research among autism scholars with the research of business communication scholars. If organizational behavior research indicates success at work correlates to ToM and cognitive empathy, I see openings for research proposals that seek ways to mitigate the effects of autistic impairments in the workplace. 

Autism is defined by social impairments. Assuming we accept the APA DSM5 criteria and the standard assessment instruments, the same traits that reduce team effectiveness define the autistic experience. 

-

Forgive the non-APA citations:

Reading the Mind in the Eyes or Reading between the Lines? Theory of Mind Predicts Collective Intelligence Equally Well Online and Face-To-Face
David Engel, Anita Williams Woolley, Lisa X. Jing, Christopher F. Chabris, and Thomas W. Malone
Published: December 16, 2014. [DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0115212]

Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. [http://www.sciencemag.org/content/330/6004/686.full]
Anita Williams Woolley, Christopher F. Chabris, Alex Pentland, Nada Hashmi, and Thomas W. Malone.
Science 29 October 2010: 330 (6004), 686-688. 
Published: 30 September 2010 [DOI:10.1126/science.1193147]