A Brief Breath of Spring

Teresa Mangum sees a few hopeful developments in this year's gloomy job market.

April 28, 2010

Maybe it’s just that spring is bursting so gloriously in Iowa City this year, but in the very muddy field of the job search, I see a few green shoots.

As placement director for my department I have been holding my breath along with our job-seeking graduate students. Writers for Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle, and Academe keep rightly reminding us that many schools are not only unable to hire, but actually laying off visiting and adjunct faculty. Even many tenured and tenure-track faculty members face “furloughs” and “downsizing,” those managerial euphemisms for salary cuts and unemployment.

My university, like many others, is cutting graduate programs. Departments are reducing the number of graduate students they admit, trying to strike a balance between supply and demand, between having enough students to support a strong curriculum and facing the economic and academic recession responsibly.

It also feels as though faculty members are not only waking up from winter but also from a period of mourning. True, the symptoms of instability and affliction have loomed for years. But knowing people we love are seriously ill rarely readies us for their passing. The fact that the person was often frustrating doesn’t assuage the grief either. I think that can be true of institutions, too.

And yet recognizing all of the ways in which higher education is failing and my corner of the university, the humanities, is fraught, I still want to take time to honor those who have been and still are on the job market this year — for their aspirations, their hopefulness, their disappointments, and their successes.

Like job seekers across the country, the graduate students in my department have worked hard to complete their degrees, to explain their work in letters and C.V.s, and to communicate how deeply they value learning and teaching. I am grateful for those who have found jobs and worried about those who have not. But the search process unearths so much more about those who are struggling to survive it than the outcome alone.

I deeply admire students who, though faced with an uncertain future themselves, make time to share their classmates’ good fortune. Again and again, when a job comes through for one student, I see others set aside anxiety, envy, and despair to celebrate — a quietly heroic altruistic gesture.

I marvel at the students who have responded to this employment desert by roaming farther afield than we trained them to do. Many of our students have applied to community colleges this year. During their interviews, they were often deeply impressed by the students, the faculty, and the mission. The students fortunate enough to be hired by strong community colleges are eager to assume their new positions next fall. Others, knowing all the perils and problems of adjunct teaching, have found temporary positions. With eyes wide open, they have decided short-term jobs can help them to weather the next year or two. They plan to hone their skills as teachers while they decide how to approach the future under these tough circumstances. A few students, confident that doctoral work has prepared them for careers outside as well as inside academe, are applying to teach writing within a professional setting or to join companies focused on education.

I also feel envious. Summoning a spirit of adventure, several students applied for international teaching positions. They have interviewed with colleges in Beirut, Amsterdam, and Chittagong. I can hardly believe that one of my own Ph.D. students will begin her career at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh. If you are unfamiliar with that institution, visit the Web site of this ambitious educational experiment, funded in part by the Gates Foundation. You’ll want to go too. As a new faculty member in this inspiring enterprise, Joanne will help build a university from the ground up. She will be working with talented faculty members and students from around the world. A year ago, I suspect she would never even have read the advertisement that has opened a world of possibilities for her, for her family, and for what promises to be generations of amazing students.

So, yes, yes, the job market is hard ground and the future looks stormy. I truly don’t want to give would-be graduate students false hopes. But for one bright moment, as Bartlett Pear trees stretch blossom-laden arms to the sun and lilacs stroke passersby with perfume, I hope you’ll join me in honoring hope, daring, imagination, versatility, and adventurousness. I am grateful to the job seekers in my world for the reminder that the winter of our discontent has turned, however fleetingly, to spring.


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