Monthly Archives: February 2016

Proud to be Union


When I tell folks I’m in a union and am incredibly proud to be, I am usually met with:

“You’re in a union? How are you in a union? You have a cushy academic job, right? I thought unions were for blue collar workers and maybe adjuncts sometimes.”

And you know, that’s what I thought unions were for for many, many years. I was indifferent about them, really, until I started living the grad student and adjunct instructor life and realized that I was a member of a group that had very little say in changes made to compensation and, most importantly health care.

In the middle of my graduate work, Washington University made drastic changes to our health insurance plans, to “comply with the Affordable Care Act”. Strangely, this compliance included doing away with nearly all prescription coverage. All of a sudden I was paying $350 out of pocket each month for my medications. Because I was not on campus at the time (on fellowship in New  York), I could not get free birth control from the student health center, and they would not mail it to me. So I had to pay full retail price for that, in addition to other medicines. And there was nothing I could do about it, other than write letters to the Provost and be as vocal as possible about it with my department and the greater university community. Eventually, they changed and prescription coverage was reinstated the next year.

My job at Harvard is classified as a union job, part of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers. I pay dues every month, have voting rights, and in this last year, I have been made profoundly aware of how important the union is for me. Without it, many of our healthcare benefits would have been stripped away from us this year.

Harvard met with massive criticism in late 2014 over the “restructuring” of health benefits for faculty and non-union employees (see here and here), where, essentially, no one would know how much it would cost each time going to the doctor. Policy makers thought of it as a way to cut costs by having people shop around for better prices on things like MRIs or reducing unnecessary doctor’s visits. The effect it did have was discouraging people from going to the doctor at all and not getting the care they needed until, perhaps, the problem became even worse and required more serious intervention.

Those of us in the union have a separate contract, and the University was pushing to have us take the same plans. But as folks earning the lower ends of the pay scale, we really, really can’t afford to take those chances in our health care. A faculty member making six figures is better able to afford those unknown costs, but a staff member is not.

Negotiations were supposed to be completed in October, but they only recently reached an agreement, and…WE WON. We are keeping our plans, and two days ago we voted on accepting the new contract. This will also ensure our annual cost of living raises, and we will finally all get the back pay we are owed for the raises, going back to October when our previous contract expired.

I must say Harvard does have a very generous benefits package, and I could not be happier with it. They do take care of their employees very well, but in moments like this when Universities are trying to cut costs, health care tends to go on the chopping block, and this is a dangerous direction to go.

I love my job, I am grateful for the HUCTW bargaining unit, and in this case, Harvard did the right thing.


Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night…


How could I miss an opportunity to meet this lovely lady?

…stays this woman from the swift completion of her appointed museum research visit.

Last weekend I had the privilege to go down to Baltimore and examine a couple of Etruscan cremation urns at Johns Hopkins University, which happens to have a wonderful archaeological collection. Campus had closed down for the day due to snow (as a Boston resident who survived last winter, I had to laugh at a campus shut down over 2-3 inches of accumulation), but the curator-conservator I was meeting lived within walking distance, so we were able to go ahead with the visit. We had the entire museum collection, research, and storage space all to ourselves for the day. And it was a glorious nerd fest of object viewing and discussion. If you have yet to visit the collections at Johns Hopkins, please do so. The gallery installation is wonderful, and their storage and conservation are to die for.

My dissertation included a database of 829 of these Hellenistic period urns with reclining folks on the lids, but ever since I finished, more and more examples keep popping out of the woodwork. There are TONS in American collections that have yet to be gathered together and surveyed, and it has become a life goal of mine to get through them, urn by urn.

As much as I complain about being in academia and having to make things work in a difficult job market, days like last Monday remind me why I do this. Without snark or exaggeration, I can say I’m at my most enthusiastic and excited when I get to spend quality time with objects like this and sleuth around for more information on them. Three hours flew by, and a new article on these urns, along with scientific examination of the preserved pigments, will be on the way later this year.

I am able to afford little trips here and there like this, and I am fortunate that I can. No, I don’t have a research budget. Yes, I took a holiday to do this, paid for a plane ticket, etc., but I regret nothing. Do I do it for career reasons? Sure. But my primary reason? I love it.

So when’s the part where I become an adult?


Tomba dei Rilievi, Cerveteri, an eternal home-sweet-home

I have just completed the second year of my three-year employment contract for a job which is, quite simply, the job of my dreams, a job that many folks do but are not paid for…one that is just part of the other duties one must do when running an archaeological project as a university professor, or part of a grad student assistantship. I am a full-time manager of archaeological data for a major excavation.  It was the job I was born to do, one I trained for, and one I thought would never be possible given today’s difficult market. On top of it all, it’s for Harvard.

At the same time, I am now looking at my third move in three years.

Boston ain’t cheap, folks. The first place I lived was costing me half my take home pay, even though it was a total steal for the area. I’m now in a roommate situation to save money, but she’s moving out of state soon. And you know what? I’m tired of playing Craigslist roommate roulette. I’m a grown woman, no longer a student, and I thought by now I’d be able to just…somehow…afford to rent my own place. I work for Harvard, with good benefits, and yet, I’m worried I won’t quite be able to afford a studio apartment. Cheaper rent would require leaving the city, and I can’t afford the car I would need to do so.

I got the doctorate, I got the job, but I can’t. Quite. Get. Ahead.

Then I think back to my job offer two years ago and the salary negotiation part. I was so excited to get a job at all after multiple months of zero income, and even though I know they legally couldn’t do it, in the back of my mind I was terrified that if I made an offer too high, somehow they’d take the opportunity away. I didn’t know how to negotiate. I blurted out a range, and they gave me the lowest number, and I couldn’t yell “THAT’S GREAT I’LL TAKE IT!” fast enough.

It’s becoming more common now for graduate departments and other resources to explain things like salary negotiations. The Professor Is In blog is a total life saver, as is Kathryn Hume’s book. I read through both. While these sources are geared toward the tenure-track teaching job negotiation and have good advice in general, the alt-ac job negotiation situation is a bit different. Somehow I didn’t feel fancy enough as a 9-5 employee vs. a courted scholar who will mold young minds to warrant making a stand for what I needed.

It is possible my contract will be extended or turned into a permanent job, and then I will have the opportunity to negotiate again. This time I will be ready to lay it all out on the table, because I know I’m the best person for my job, they got me for cheap, and I want to be able to settle down somewhere. To stop feeling like the student I was for so long and to start feeling like the professional I am.

Ain’t no paywall low enough, Part II


“You don’t know how good you have it!” is something we have all wanted to yell at another person at one time or another, especially in academia. I’ve told this story from when I was a full-time library assistant at Washington University in St. Louis countless times:

It’s April, a time when undergrads begin to panic about their research papers, and I see a student come in in a rush, sit down at a library catalog computer, searching, searching, searching, clearly frustrated. She came up to the service desk and asked for help because there were no books at Wash U on Joseph Albers.

I was so confused. We were in the art and architecture library. Albers is a pretty major guy.

We sit down at the catalog computer together, and she’s got a search up with dozens, if not hundreds of hits for Joseph Albers. She looks to me in a panic and says “How am I supposed to get any of these books in time? My paper is due next week!”

I was still so confused.

Turns out that she was looking at the publisher locations on each catalog entry. She thought these books were in Austin, Ann Arbor, New York, Berkeley, etc. This student was a sophomore, in the second half of her second year of college, and she had no clue how the library catalog worked. I was able to point her to shelves of books on Albers and she told me I was amazing.

I wasn’t amazing. I was horrified. How could a student be halfway through her undergrad career and have no idea how to use the library at her own institution? Turns out all the research she’d ever done was googling full-text articles.

Googling full text articles wasn’t much of an option for me as an undergraduate, where I was limited to the small library at my liberal arts campus, the relatively slow interlibrary loan, and limited e-databases of the late 90s/early 00s. And all the undergrads before me could easily yell “You don’t know how good you have it!”

I have been fortunate to have institutional access to paywalled articles for the majority of my academic career, and it’s only recently that I have realized how good I’ve had it. I have wanted for NOTHING in terms of getting the books and articles I’ve needed, and I have a real fear that, should my contract not be renewed, all of that will be taken away. How is an unemployed researcher looking for an academic job supposed to keep up with current research without institutional access to it and/or the ability to pay for it? Living in Boston with easy access to an excellent public library system, I’d probably be ok. If I were elsewhere?

Academic research is not a level playing field. If you are not already “in”, or if you were but now you are out due to a change in employment status, catching up ain’t gonna be easy.

Ain’t no paywall low enough, Part I


Cartoon by Ward Sutton, The New Yorker

Just when you think you found the right article to help ground your new research, you click and come up against the dreaded paywall. You stop and think…

“Does my institution subscribe to this journal? Hmmm…no they don’t. But the article is $40 to see. Should I wait and Interlibrary Loan it? What if it takes too long? I have to get this draft out, stat. Should I just pay it? Or is reading the abstract enough? I could just cite it and deal with it later. Or do I send out the PDF bat signal on Twitter and hope someone pulls through?” Etcetera etcetera.

You see the story of Diego Gomez who is facing 8 years in prison for sharing a PDF online for research purposes. Many of us do this on a regular basis. What would it take for legal action to be taken against any of us? In light of Gomez’s case, not a whole lot. I have images in my head of clicking “publish” on this blog post and a SWAT team repelling down the building and breaking through the window to apprehend me.

$40 doesn’t seem like a whole lot at first. But for any given research project, most of us have to go through dozens, if not hundreds of articles. Heck, I just made my institution’s Interlibrary Loan office process 7 articles the other day for a new project. What if I had to come up with $280 to pay for access to articles that I’m not even sure I will need to use in my work? I couldn’t. My job does not include a research budget.

My research on the Etruscan world is niche, to say the least, but I have had so many moments of connection with other scholars at conferences, via my online presence, or through a colleague of a colleague where, by virtue of the fact that I’ve prowled through dozens of museum and Soprintendenza archives for information on nearly 1000 objects, I have been able to provide bibliography, research direction, and data.

I don’t want my own research to be paywalled, but it already is. So many people have paid it forward for me, and I want to do the same. However, as an early-career researcher on a term contract for her employment, I feel like I have to try to publish in the “right” journals, the big names, with the paywalls, in order to justify my abilities as a scholar if/when I have to hit the job market again. My dissertation is embargoed at the moment because I haven’t had time to work it up into a manuscript. I cannot afford all the image permissions I would need to pay for what it is in its current state, and I don’t want to risk a publisher considering the dissertation as “published” already if it is available in full via ProQuest.

So I feel like a bit of a hostage to the entire system, on the for-profit publishing end with article paywalls, as well as from the culture of Academia at large where certain publications are “worth more” than others due to the name of a journal or a press.

To be continued…

To or not to


Etruscan objects in the 1874 catalogue of the Athenaeum at Stoke-on-TRent

The academic Twittersphere, Facebook-sphere, and Other-spheres have been abuzz lately with concerns over the nature of, and rightfully so. Even though it is a .edu site, it is a for-profit enterprise, and this fact has been most explicitly revealed in recent weeks via its proposal to charge scholars to promote their papers on the site, much like the same option for posts on Facebook. See this article at the Chronicle, as well as this from Duke University Libraries. Many academics now are supporting the #DeleteAcademiaEdu movement, and my good friend Lucy says it most brilliantly in her recent blog post on the matter, describing it as “a medium that seeks to profit from a desperate desire for career progression, and that is willing to swap endorsements for cash.” Spot-on, if you ask me.

But the flip side to this is perhaps best illustrated in an interaction I had yesterday on the site. I received a message from an individual with the museum at Stoke-on-Trent in the UK, asking me if I could help them with the identification of an Etruscan cinerary urn in their collections, acquired back in 1842 and published in 1874. And I could. In the last 24 hours I’ve been able to provide the museum with additional documentation and publication history on the object, and simultaneously, I learned about another terracotta urn of the type I focused on in my dissertation. Without this information available online via my profile, this would not have happened, and neither I, nor the museum would have been able to make these small, but important research breakthroughs.

In sum, I’m torn. And I feel the same way about Facebook. I love the way these sites can help folks connect and stay in touch with each other, but the fact that they are commercial enterprises that walk a fine, often ignored line of ownership over user-generated content is pretty creepy and, in some cases, unethical. I am a huge supporter of open access in scholarly research, and with the exception of my article freely available from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to which I provide a link, I will not upload any of my papers to However, having searchable citations in this hub has helped me make personal and professional connections.

I know I can’t have it both ways, and I think at some point I will end up deleting my profile, but for now, as an early-career scholar, it does help.