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.