Wednesday, November 07, 2007

On the Market

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote the post below, and then upon further consideration (i.e., the strong suggestions of certain wise people I married), I decided to hold off posting this until I had a job of my own. Well, I got that, but other people don't just yet, and it is, once again, the most dreadful time of the year. Come back, old post, let you and your years-old links be resurrected!


I have a little TINY SHRINER contribution here, all links on the job market, for the many of us who find ourselves caught up in the hunt. From Wormtalk and Slugspeak we get the (hilarious) complaint that the MLA interview process and the processes of culling that lead to it "probably could not be worse if you hired Dr. Evil, Stanley Fish, Newt Gingrich, Sideshow Bob and Stalin to put together a process that is simultaneously bureaucratic and subject to the whims of insane people, tedious and capricious, utterly stressful and incredibly boring." The Ancrene Wiseass declares, contra conventional wisdom, "using clothes and jewelry as props to help you pretend to be someone you're not in a job interview is a very bad idea." Given my resistance to getting a "real" hair cut for MLA (i.e., one not done in haste in my own bathroom, straining somehow to get the back of my head right without lopping off an ear), I'm highly sympathetic. Jodi Dean offers hints in poisoning your chances: wearing sweatpants to your job talk (I suppose this means I have to retire my tweed sweats?), and this, too, "Answer[ing] questions during the office interviews with one word. This makes you seem mysterious. When asked about your research agenda, stare blankly at your interlocutor. If pressed, talk only about your dissertation until your interlocutor falls asleep." Oso Raro, at Slaves of Academe appalls me (with his details) and thrills me (with his style) about the job hunt, one of a set,
"The Voluptuous Horror of the Academic Job Market (Part One): The Beauty Secrets of Searching," where he describes the "racism, colorism, potential GLBT issues, as well as plain old unpleasant revelation of fear and intolerance" that's (apparently) all too common in the hiring process and suggests that certain offers should be met by "pack[ing] it up now and open[ing] a hot dog stand in Finland, cause dollface, you will be eaten ALIVE!" On a related note, Slouching Towards Extimacy likens the acculturation to the academy to boot camp, which I imagine rings true especially for anyone (like me) who's the first member of their family to go to college:
We are willing to undergo an incredibly lengthy, often alienating and disorienting, and sometimes very mysterious process of 'professionalization' to get into that office behind closed doors in 'the academy,' and while it’s true that we don’t have to do pushups or shoot anyone, it’s also true that we are willing to pay a significant amount of money for the privilege. And we may very learn that we can, in fact, put up with just about anything in order to hang onto our developing senses of professional identity.
I'm sure there are tens if not hundreds of other guides to and stories of the market and becoming an academic: I encourage our readers to throw up a few more links, and share their own stories, below.

Here I am in the present, with a few of my worst moments from last year. If I remember correctly, one school wanted someone who covered England 900-1300. That's the job for me! I do trilingual England. Well, they wanted, as became apparent only during the interview, an Old English person, and they found it merely a lagniappe that I did French. Nowhere in my material did I lie by claiming any ability in Old English, but, well, I faked it in front of a committee of, I kid you not, 10 people. "How would you teach Old English?" "Oh, well...I'd start with the riddles and work my way toward longer pieces" (thinking, too obviously, so I could have time to learn the goddamn language). "We have a very strong interest in Old English here. It's a year-long course." "Huh. Wow. Seriously?"

At another interview, I talked about a class in Warriors (!) I wanted to teach that would run from, oh, the Aeneid to Coriolanus. The Early Modernist in the room got a bit excited because he just loves the play. Me too, I gush, and I burst with my favorite line in it: "Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him!" I may have added an extra "kill." Or two. No doubt my slavering red-faced excitement helped me lose the job.

Someone elsewhere asked me how I'd teach the hunting scene in SGGK, because, you know, I'm an expert on animals. Now that I've finally taught it, I know, but then, I just mumbled something about Dinshaw and just waited to slip away. At another, they spoke of the community service component of tenure, and all I could offer was my work on the grad student union at Columbia and, er, this blog, because ITM saves the world. !!

Your turn if you want it.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

The academic job search process is, as you point out, deeply flawed. I'm waiting for someone to invent something better ... but most universities can't afford to do without the centralized interviewing that MLA offers, so they are stuck with a rather crazy schedule.

As a job seeker many moons ago, and then as a beginning participant on the process from the other side of the table, it dawned on me that one reason why the interviews are especially fraught is that academics -- some of whom are socially a bit awkward to begin with -- don't have any training in how to conduct them effectively. Thus the hotel room exchange is often uncomfortable and uneasy on *both* sides of the table.

Anonymous said...

Having been on both sides of the table a few times now, I have come to feel that we (candidates and committee members) place far too much emphasis on an academic job as the culminating achievement of a successful intellectual career. I know plenty of academics who have, and have had, very successful careers outside the traditional halls of academia. The talent, discipline, and sheer tenacity it takes for someone to undergo scholarly training is a sure sign that said person can be extremely successful in other environs. In fact, some of the most creative academics I know have been very unhappy in traditional department settings...

And indeed, I also have come to believe that the "socially awkward" academic thing is simply an excuse that we use to indulge (or perhaps to indulge in) socially awkward behavior. There are socially awkward people in every profession; in other fields people just call those folks "assholes" and leave them to their unhappy isolation.

Whenever I go through files, I am completely amazed by the fullness of candidates' profiles (I should say, rather, their lives, because they have them!). And, even when we are looking to fulfill a specific curricular need, it is so exciting that candidates can do so many things in addition to those basic (and often reductive) things we've asked for in the ad-written-by-consensus.

I'm someone who's strongly in favor of the excess in candidates--and I strongly hope that candidates really prize that about themselves. I don't think I really did that when I was a new, but I wish I had; in particular, I wish I'd not fallen into the trap of overvaluing every academic job that I could apply for. Instead, I wish I'd been more clear-eyed about what I'd be giving up about myself to take any academic job, no matter how dreadful. Luckily, I didn't get one of those jobs, but there was a time when I would have taken practically any job, in any place, working with any faculty.

And that's giving away too much, I think. I know people discover great places they never would have considered by going through the job process; for that reason, it seems good to apply fully and openly. But if a faculty ends up being uninteresting or prejudicial, then there's no reason to spend a moment of regret on such a job. I take it that the goal of an academic career is to keep learning. If a dept. doesn't offer that, why go there? Go learn to do something equally interesting and challenging--become a gardener, a lawyer, a social worker, or a music writer. At the end of the day, these fields might be more rewarding! I've never learned to cook, but I might if this whole tenure thing goes awry...

In short, I would encourage candidates to stop convincing themselves that they can do nothing else in life, and I would encourage committee members to stop convincing themselves that academic jobs are the best thing going. Both are true in some cases, but those are quite rare.

Best of luck out there,


Jeffrey Cohen said...

in other fields people just call those folks "assholes" and leave them to their unhappy isolation.
Boy do I disagree with that one. When I wrote "socially awkward" I meant it in the endearing sense of someone whose life is so full of so many things (especially books and thoughts) that sometimes the give and take of quotidian converse with them goes awry: that is, there can be something off balance and a bit unpredictable about them, but they are well meaning, good hearted (most academics I know actually are good hearted) and anything but assholes.

Every profession has those, I guess, but acting like one is neither endearing nor excusable, especially in the job market. Awkward is one thing; aggressive, obnoxious, demeaning and so on, quite another.

The rest of what you said, Holly, is good and sane advice. I know that if my academic career had not worked out, I would have been fine with doing something else. I was fortunate enough to get a job during what was definitely going to be my last year on the market.

Anonymous said...

sure, I see that personality type in the mirror every day. But after reading Karl's links, I think we are talking about a different sort. I guess I thought that's what you meant, too, when you said "socially awkward." My mistake.

And, by the way, I think those links are great, Karl. I just think they are more disempowering with regard to candidates than they need/ought to be. I don't know why we assume that candidates must be ever-so-grateful, hoping to get whatever job is on offer. I know the market is brutal; it might not be worth it in some instances, and I think we should say that more openly.



Karl Steel said...

I just think they are more disempowering with regard to candidates than they need/ought to be.

Have to write quickly here....I'm inclined think that now too, but perhaps for a different, less generous reason: namely, I have a TT job and a degree now, and I was 'just' an ABD adjunct when I assembled that post. I'm inclined to find those links too pessimistic--grimly funny?--because I have the luxury of thinking so.

This is I'm sure not the ground of your critique. I do wonder, however, how much comfort a humanities PhD can take in the possibility of excelling at a job outside academia. Given my training, the expectations put on me, and my wishes through the near-decade from first MA to PhD, I can't help but think my colleagues, my school, and my advisers, and I would all have felt I was settling by doing whatever medievalists do when they're, well, no longer medievalists but instead folks with a terminal degree, notwithstanding how happy I could have been outside academia. Lord knows I went into graduate school precisely because I was tired of being outside academia, but perhaps with a degree, I would have a bit more imagination for finding work than I did back in my mid 20s.

I do wonder if it's possible to train someone simultaneously to desire and work for an academic job and to be happy with some other kind of job if that's where they...well, not end up, but flourish.

Anonymous said...


I’m sure you’re right about the ways in which positionality inflects attitude in this process. I guess I would like to register a hope—but maybe it is just a fantasy—that candidates can exercise some autonomy when applying for jobs. I know that people take bad jobs all the time, particularly in professions outside academia; I guess I advocate setting limits to what one is willing to do (and for oneself, not one’s advisors, although I also know that part of why we do what we do is because they continue to inspire us). My first tenure-track job involved a cross-country commute; I put a time limit on that situation, and it made doing my job much more easy as a consequence.

And I completely agree: I cannot imagine that I would have aimed for a career outside academia during my academic training. But I also got to the point late in my Ph.D., when, really as a comfort to myself upon confronting the job market, I realized that I am capable of doing something else in life. Also, through that process of reflection, I gained confidence that I could make “whatever that might be” interesting if I worked at it with the same kind of resolve I’d shown in grad. school. Particularly in some humanities fields, there is this myth that the professorish-type, no matter how endearing, wouldn’t make it outside the university. I don’t think that view is particularly good for students, even if it helps them sharpen their dedication. I don’t want my students to think that they have somehow missed the mark if they don’t end up in academia (Be just like me or I’ll think you’ve *settled?* Not a good attitude to impart, no matter how fantastic your students are). I’d like students to value their training for the opportunities it potentially affords, not for the outcomes it supposedly guarantees.

Because, and admittedly here’s my own pessimism creeping in, the insecurity you grew familiar with as a graduate student will not go away until you are actually awarded tenure. You will, unfortunately, have to face the prospect of doing something else with yourself and your training, no matter how benevolently your faculty has mentored you in the tenure process, and no matter how completely you’ve fulfilled your institution's requirements for tenure. Even if tenure is practically guaranteed, you’ll still have to sort it out for yourself, too. And that’s because, I think, moments of formal evaluation also prompt moments pf self-evaluation; and, instead of allowing all forms of evaluation to come from others, it seems to me worthwhile to figure out what your limits are with regard to the profession, and what your options are with regard to other fields.

Really, I guess, I responded to your assembled links because I always try to caution myself about smuggery when I’m evaluating candidates—sure, I love my job and I’d like our recruits to be excited about getting a job in my department. But I don’t see myself as inhabiting some privileged place of evaluation when I’m reviewing candidates; I’d like to think that candidates might equally be assessing their interest in me and my colleagues. I don’t want to think of any candidate as desperate for a job, first, because I don’t think candidates should be desperate for just *any* job, and second, because I don’t want my future colleague(s) to be subject to desperation! Seems like a very weird way to start what I hope will be a long collegial relationship! I’d like to be equally grateful that a person chose to accept our offer, that’s all. Reminding candidates that they may have some ability to decide that certain faculties are full of jerks seems like a minimal acknowledgment of their autonomy in a process that is probably stacked against them in that area.

sorry so long,


Karma said...

I've been a fast food grrl, a waitress, a stripper, a private, a platoon sergeant, a woodworker, a teacher, a babysitter, a gardener, a professional Tarot reader, someone who had to dress up like a banana for minimum wage, and a whole dizzying array of office-managery-thingies -- and here I am at 35 years old in my first year of a PhD program trying to be -- not just a medievalist, as if that weren't insane enough -- an Anglo-Saxonist. While I get where Holly's coming from in theory -- and it's true that I am doing what I"m doing from some slightly insane obsession with A-S poetry in particular and literature in general -- I imagine that is very hard to put in practice in, well, practice. From where I'm sitting, the MLA gig can only be funny, in that sort of dark, not really funny way. I'm sure my tune will change when I'm forty and sitting in that chair (if I'm lucky enough to have a chair) at MLA. So I'm really getting Karl here... at the end of the day, I could have learned OE on my own, could have read all these books while actually generating some income and retirement savings, could have done any number of things. I knew the market was brutal going in, but I didn't go in thinking I would do something besides the market when I was done dissertating. I already knew what I could do outside academia. My decision to re-enter it after a long absence was essentially a decision to bank a good chunk of years on the idea that I might actually get a job down the road. My decision was very, very conscious, though it involved a lot of "I just won't think about the math and will just choose to have faith" moments. So I guess my perspective on this is different from yours, Holly, though I do get your point, I think. Just from a really different place.

Eileen Joy said...

Karma: if it's an encouragement, you've done exactly what I did back in 1993. At that point I was 31 years old and had done every non-academic job imaginable, including gardener and office-managery-type jobs like you, but not platoon sargeant, stripper, or banana [damn, I'm envious]. I got my first tenure-track job at the age of 41 and I am now 45, so, anyway, go for it. Passion is about all that matters, plus knowing that, yes, there is a whole world outside of academia. Since you know that already, you're in good shape.