Jayne was a bright high school student with high aspirations and limited resources. Unwilling to take on debt to go to college, she chipped away at her bachelor's degree one course at a time while working full time at a local grocery store and raising her family. Jayne, who has given us permission to tell her story, traveled to whichever branch of the state university offered the course she needed at a time she could schedule. After 13 years, she earned her bachelor’s degree, as did her husband, who had adopted a similar slow but steady strategy. They both went on to earn master’s degrees and become educators in rural Ohio. For the subsequent 20 years, they have been guiding students -- often in their own difficult circumstances -- down their own educational paths. Isn't Jayne’s disciplined pursuit, fiscal responsibility, and devotion to community a success story -- not only for her, but for a system of higher education that supported her values and respected her ability to map her own journey?
Apparently not. By the parameters of "success" being discussed in many states in response to the national completion agenda, Jayne’s successes would not "count," largely because of the length of time that she took to get her degree.
The proposed markers of success require more students to complete more degrees in the shortest amount of time feasible. In many ways, these goals are laudable. However, these markers do not measure the financial stability, maturity, and perspective Jayne gained along the way — although surely her 5th-grade students benefit from them daily. Instead, colleges could lose funding for allowing the Jaynes of the world to take their time and mark their own paths. Depending on how states and institutions attempt to meet completion percentages, even if students in difficult circumstances had Jayne’s drive and ability (and that's a big if), they may not be able to receive grant money or get access to classes needed to graduate because those on faster career paths could receive priority.
We fully embrace reforming higher education to increase student access, to distribute resources equitably, and to maximize student success. We don’t deny that many students are wandering around college campuses lacking motivation and wasting resources. As educators in a two-year college, we teach 15 credits per semester, meet with all students individually, grade these students' work, serve on multiple committees, and engage in constant assessment. Thus, we are intensely aware that our time, and that of our colleagues across the disciplines, is one of the most important resources being exhausted.
However, we also have the daily, profound experience of knowing not just one but many Jaynes. We personally have classrooms full of individuals whose life circumstances, like Jayne's, don’t afford them the luxury of attending college in the "ideal" way, as full-time students expending the majority of their emotional and intellectual energy on school work. When standing at the front of the class room, we don't have to look beyond the first row of students to encounter the combat veteran who juggles two jobs just to pay for housing in the projects; a so-called traditional-age college student who at 17 is struggling to raise a child of his own; a bright, multilingual immigrant who is in the U.S. for political asylum; a young woman who, since her youth, has been the sole caregiver of a parent disabled by an accident.
Thankfully, for their long-term health, the majority of our students' lives aren’t quite so severe. Commonly, though, financial needs necessarily trump educational ones as they struggle to fill their tanks with gas to get to campus. They skip class to attend job interviews, they pick up extra shifts at the expense of homework, and they disappear mid-semester to take a temp job because they have to.
This student profile certainly isn't limited to our student body, or even to two-year colleges. As the gap between the upper and middle classes widens, fewer and fewer students can follow the "ideal" path. Many students who go to four-year residential campuses are also working at least part time. Like their two-year counterparts, they may be one life event -- a divorce, a parent's job loss, or a personal illness -- away from dropping out, or withdrawing temporarily until their circumstances improve. Yet amazingly enough, some of them make it through anyway, on their own terms. As one colleague in the Midwest put it, she could instantly think of numerous students who defied traditional definitions of success, but whose success should be honored and even encouraged.
So we don’t believe that the nation should rush to definitions of "success" and make the corresponding changes to mission and policy at the expense of Jayne and, as importantly, without consultation with Jayne. And Jayne is on the chopping block because she doesn't stand out in statistical analyses of efficiency; she presses on completing a bachelor’s degree in 13 years instead of 6. She may also be on the chopping block because the competing demands in her life prevent her from joining the decision-making discussion — or from even being aware of it.
Jayne does stand out to the faculty and possibly advisers who get to know her as an individual, marvel at the work she produces, and witness firsthand her passion and dedication. The faculty know she will achieve great things if the system just stays out of her way.
But in many instances across the nation, the faculty who know Jayne aren't being included in the conversation either. As we informally surveyed faculty from two- and four-year institutions across the nation to put our own experiences in context, several important common themes emerged.
First, there are many faculty members across the nation who are not even aware that the completion agenda exists. Granted there are likely myriad reasons for this, including the uninterest of some faculty in the politics of education, but at the top of the list is that information isn’t consistently being shared from the top down. Those of us fortunate enough to be in the loop are being included in the “how do we achieve this” part of the conversation, not the “what” or the “why” of goals creation, which is often happening in the upper tiers of the national and state governing bodies.
Second, among those who do know of the completion agenda, there is a pervasive feeling of fear. What if the rush to accelerate completion waters down curricula and generates a population of people with credentials, but no real education? What if faculty jobs, government funding, student aid, and so forth are tied to the number of students we get through, rather than the number we educate? And as Jonathan Lightman of the California Community College system asked in Inside Higher Ed, what if acceleration comes at the expense of bright students who need "time with exploration ... before they know what their talents are."
Further, in an economic climate that allows for the prioritizing of fiscal over human capital, faculty are constantly reminded that they are, in many ways, expendable. As in any other profession, there are hundreds of people waiting for their jobs. The "no grumbling" policy added to the new faculty discipline policy in one community college system justifies the fear that should faculty voice their opinions too assertively, no matter what their motivation or expertise, they risk being not just censured, but unemployed.
Third, the higher ed representatives in completion agenda conversations are most commonly administrators who, however perceptive and well-intentioned, may not have recent firsthand experience with the populations they are representing, particularly at larger institutions where their paths don’t often cross in hallways. Consider, for example, who was actually invited to attend Obama’s Summit on Community College education.
The U.S. needs a well-educated, socially aware workforce — not just a credentialed one. In order to make national reform meaningful and lasting, we need to open the discussion of what higher education success means to all of those invested, not just those who make the big decisions. We know that the people we hope will participate in the discussion have the least amount of time to do so, so we are trying to make it as easy as possible for them to tell their stories.
We are inviting students, college graduates, faculty, advisors — or anyone on the front lines — to share short stories of student successes and struggles that should inform the completion agenda discussion. We intend to collect these stories in a book entitled Why My Story Matters. Because it does matter to us, and it should matter to anyone committed to making our system of higher education work for individual students and for the nation.
Professors of English at Cecil College, Susan Bernadzikowski and Jennifer Levi co-chaired their department for five years.
It seemed for a while during the early 1990s that every new anthology in the burgeoning field of cultural studies contained a paper concerning a subculture devoted to writing and circulating fiction in which Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock were in a sexual relationship. (I am not making this up.) One's memory is selective, and I suppose there were cultural-studies anthologies that neglected the matter, but the scholar in question sure got a lot of mileage out of her research.
As the Roman playwright Terence said to me, “Nothing human is foreign to me." That said, the topic did not exactly seem inexhaustible. But it was exemplary of the main emphasis in cultural studies at the time: the insistent argument that people were not merely passive consumers of the products of mass culture, but found ways to invest them with meaning that were creative, subversive, unpredictable, and otherwise just very interesting indeed. And this is true, up to a point – though once beyond that point, which is soon reached, you end up sailing the seas of profound self-delusion. People seemed to think that having insights into Madonna or "Punky Brewster" meant they qualified as Gramscian organic intellectuals. This never struck me as a plausible reading of the Prison Notebooks, and as cultural activism it was decidedly wanting in either strenuousness or social impact.
On the other hand, it was steady work. The grad student friends I managed to alienate through griping about it are doing all right for themselves, and the woman who wrote all those papers about Kirk/Spock shows up on TV as a talking head in documentaries, though not in her capacity as expert on that topic. Woe to anyone suggesting that consumers are anything but creative, subversive, unpredictable, etc. My recollection from 20 years ago is that people found it urgent to denounce “culture in the Matthew Arnold sense” (i.e., the domain of masterpieces: "the best which has been thought and said in the world”) in order to focus attention on “culture in the anthropological sense” (which subsumes every aspect of life in a given society). Thus one marked the boundary between “elitist” and “democratic” conceptions of culture. The urgency of this distinction has long since faded, and it was always fairly obtuse about what poor old Matthew Arnold had in mind, but you still have to kick him from time to time, just to make sure he’s dead.
Writing for an undergraduate magazine at Yale University in the late 1920s, Macdonald antagonized the administration by criticizing, as he later put it, “the crowd-pleasing pop-romantic antics certain eminent English profs went in for to hold the interest of a lecture hall full of future stockbrokers.” From such Menckenian beginnings he went on to embrace, for a time, Marxism (global depressions will do that) and later a kind of anarcho-pacifism. During the 1940s he edited a magazine called politics (the lower-case calling to mind the avant-garde journal transition) which reflected his sense that the Soviet, Nazi, and corporate-capitalist systems were varying manifestations of a menacing new social order.
The magazine published work by Paul Goodman, Simone Weil, Victor Serge, and George Bataille, among others. It also ran an article by the poet Robert Duncan in which he talked about his own homosexuality, as well as a denunciation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for J. Edgar Hoover's inclination towards police-statesmanship. Macdonald himself wrote a substantial part of each issue, much of which he later collected under the tongue-in-cheek title Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1957) -- a book that, like nearly all of his work, remains both highly readable and out of print,
The only volume by Macdonald now available is Masscult and Midcult, edited by John Summers, who has recently taken the helm at The Baffler. Most of the contents are selections from Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture, first published by Random House in 1962. The original hardcover of that volume is at my elbow now, while writing this column; it replaces an old paperback copy that eventually disintegrated from too-frequent consultation. (Macdonald’s work is a touchstone for prose, to borrow an Arnoldian expression, and bears rereading.) The NYRB paperback appears to be made of more durable stuff, and it comes with an introductory essay by Louis Menand, a professor of English at Harvard University.
Menand seems much more concerned with Macdonald’s relationship to The New Yorker (where four of the ten essays first appeared) than with his political commitments. This is unfortunate, if understandable, since Menand is a contributor to the magazine. Less easy to excuse is the lack of any reference whatever to the work of Michael Wreszin, a professor emeritus at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who wrote A Rebel in Defense of Tradition: The Life and Politics of Dwight Macdonald (Basic, 1994) as well as editing collections of the critic’s letters and interviews. The introduction draws heavily on Wreszin’s work, and failing to point the books out is a real disservice to reader.
Cultural studies à la Macdonald had a guiding principle that is simple, even stark: In a society of mass production and mass media, the last place anyone should look for emancipatory potential is the stuff being turned out for our entertainment and uplift. He makes a broad historical argument to try to back this up, drawing on Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses and various essays by T.S. Eliot, fortified by the Frankfurt School theorists, whom Macdonald was reading before anyone else in the U.S. had heard of them.
The gist is that industrialization has destroyed old patterns of life and replaced them with alienation, conformity, stultification. The culture produced and merchandised under this system is a poor substitute for the older forms of High Culture and Folk Culture (the caps are Macdonald's) and merely drugs the public, in the interest of keeping the whole thing running. Anyone who thinks otherwise has been doubly duped. Not that the kitsch producers have propaganda or stupefaction as a goal, necessarily. Mass culture operates with some efficiency because the people programming it have absorbed so much of it themselves. To point any of this out means running the risk of being called a snob, but that is at least preferable to being taken for a chump.
The whole arrangement sounds rather Orwellian, and Macdonald’s neologisms (“Masscult” for mass culture and “Midcult” for its faux-sophisticated middlebrow variant) resemble Newspeak. He first presented his overarching theoretical and historical argument in an essay for politics in 1943, as the Nazi juggernaut was on the move, and expanded it later, at the height of the Cold War, with his friend Hannah Arendt’s recent book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) on his mind. The final version, appearing as the title essay of Masscult and Midcult, came out in 1960. At the time, Khrushchev’s appeal to the United States for “peaceful coexistence” was inspiring speculation over the idea that the capitalist and Communist systems might converge towards some kind of common bureaucratic-consumerist world order.
Which was not in the cards. But Macdonald had been considering the possibility for a long time, and his essays are full of the anger and gallows humor of someone worried that real art and literature are destined to be buried under continuous mudslides of meretricious crap. So far as Macdonald is concerned, culture is exactly what Matthew Arnold had in mind when he defined it (to give the longer version) as "a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically." Accept no cheap substitutes.
Some aspects of Macdonald’s thinking are schematic or otherwise underdeveloped. Any claim that industrial society is profoundly more degrading than what came before seems a dubious notion, for example, unless Aztec peasants enjoyed considerably greater fulfillment than one imagines. Still, Macdonald's concerns have outlived the Cold War framework, and his essays have more than an antiquarian interest. As an example, consider this passage:
“[O]ur writers produce work that is to be read quickly and then buried under the next day’s spate of ‘news’ or the next month’s best seller; hastily slapped-together stuff which it would be foolish to waste much time or effort on either writing or reading. For those who, as readers or as writers, would get a little under the surface, the real problem of our day is how to escape being ‘well informed,’ how to resist the temptation to acquire too much information (never more seductive than when it appears in the chaste garb of duty), and how in general to elude the voracious demands on one’s attention to think a little. The problem is as acute in the groves of Academe as in the profane world of journalism…. The amount of verbal pomposity, elaboration of the obvious, repetition, trivia, low-grade statistics, tedious factification, drudging recapitulations of the half-comprehended, and generally inane and laborious junk that one encounters suggests that the thinkers of earlier ages had one decisive advantage over those of today: they could draw on very little research.”
So Dwight Macdonald wrote in an essay from 1957. In the words of Dwight Eisenhower, “Things are more like they are now than they ever were.”
Virtually every professional organization committed to addressing the academy’s dependence on contingent academic labor presumes that tenure-line faculty must take an active role in this cause. As Steve Street wrote in 2008 in an essay on contingent faculty rights: "It's you, the tenured and tenure track faculty, who can effect ... change. Adjuncts need you to, just as you have needed and will continue to need us. We need not just your expressions of empathy but your help in bringing us in — your votes on budget issues that can get us equitable pay, benefits, and job security — because you ... have the institutional power."
Unfortunately, most contingent faculty rights advocates would acknowledge that engaging permanent faculty in meaningful ways has been difficult. What follows are some thoughts on this impasse, and on what might be required of tenure-line faculty as we join our contingent colleagues in facing the uncertain future of higher education.
We all know, in theory at least, that it makes little sense for tenure-track (TT) faculty to stick their heads in the sand concerning this issue; by any reckoning, most faculty members nationally are now off the tenure track, making those of us with tenure lines less relevant, less central, with each passing year. The New Faculty Majority, a national advocacy organization for non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty launched in 2009, was named with precisely this trend in mind. The status of tenure is eroding, not gradually but precipitously, as the sheer numbers of non-tenure-track faculty engulf the remaining dinosaurs of the old higher education landscape. If we care about tenure, so the argument goes, then we can't afford not to concern ourselves with the deteriorating state of the faculty labor system. The balance of power will tip, the tenure-line faculty members will find themselves marginal to the enterprise of higher education on a national scale (as has already happened in some cases on the institutional level), and it will be far too late to reclaim what is lost.
We can hardly fail to hear this message; after all, it is repeated frequently, in increasingly insistent tones. Yet it is the atypical TT faculty member who has consciously and actively worked for change, or even educated himself or herself about faculty labor institutionally or nationally. Various reasons for this indifference have been advanced, many focusing on the perceived insularity or even arrogance of the TT faculty body. Name-calling, however, is far too easy, and in most cases it misses the mark. I believe that the failure of most TT faculty members to attend seriously to NTT issues has far less to do with self-absorption than with a tendency to see contingent labor use/abuse as merely an employment (i.e., market economics) issue rather than a problem framed by questions of social justice and academic freedom. Viewing contingency hiring purely as a market issue, of course, allows us to dismiss it as something largely beyond our control; viewing it in reference to social justice and academic freedom, however, makes it continuous with earlier struggles in the academy, and suggests that the problem must be resolved by those within the system.
If social justice is about equal access and the equitable distribution of advantages and benefits, then there is little doubt that maintaining an undercompensated subsidiary workforce whose members have fewer rights and perquisites than their TT colleagues constitutes an instance of social injustice. On the most basic level, it is simply inappropriate that some people with the same credentials as TT faculty are being offered less secure jobs and less pay but are expected to do the same kinds of work. And for those NTT faculty members who lack certain credentials (a Ph.D., perhaps, or an active research agenda), fair compensatory arrangements in line with their qualifications, offering reasonable job security and suitably circumscribed job responsibilities, are far from the norm.
It seems essential to mention here that widespread NTT hiring has yet to be rationalized convincingly on pedagogical grounds — even if we concede that such hiring can sometimes appear to benefit students by enabling institutional flexibility to meet their evolving curricular demands. The resulting lack of consistency in course offerings, advising and mentoring opportunities, and general faculty presence, however, surely compromises whatever flexibility is gained; moreover, an underrecognized faculty workforce is never to the advantage of students, whose learning conditions are directly tied to faculty working conditions. To be sure, the immediately compelling motivation for extensive NTT hiring is not pedagogical but simply economic; if the economic incentive were eliminated, institutions would be far less likely to pursue such hiring, and would presumably do so only in limited contexts. It falls to us as TT faculty, then, to invest our energies in more reflective hiring practices and compensation policies that will both advance our educational goals and build an equitable community of colleagues.
Without arguing for the precise forms that equity might take (should we compensate NTT faculty on a pro rata basis? sustain a range of faculty contracts denoting varied job responsibilities? eliminate tenure?), it seems valid to expect TT faculty to interest themselves in these issues, especially on their own campuses. For one thing, we have an obligation to our colleagues — and I use that term in its widest possible sense. Genuine collegiality means more than friendliness in the hallways; at its best, it includes an active interest in the professional development of those who share our pedagogical and disciplinary interests. Back in 1979, David Malone argued that faculty development as a concept should be of primary concern for all of us, positing the bildung genre as the proper model for faculty life. In 2001, Richard Moser of the American Association of University Professors, argued that participating in efforts to address the inequities of NTT employment is central to what he termed "academic citizenship." It is time that these exhortations were taken seriously. Who are we as educators if we concern ourselves with the development of our students but turn a blind eye to the career paths of substantial numbers of our colleagues? And what are students to think about our paeans to social justice when they discover that we don’t take care of our own?
But attending to NTT issues also makes sense in the context of our professed goals and preoccupations. For one thing, battles over inclusivity are hardly unmapped terrain for us. The late decades of the 20th century saw an unprecedented agitation in the academy for attention to marginalized groups of all kinds; the results included dramatic changes both in the overall makeup of the faculty and in the shape and range of the curriculum. Especially puzzling, then, is the lack of perceived continuity between the philosophical perspectives that launched, say, feminism and multiculturalism and those that now underpin contingent activism. After all, one might expect those who once fought vigorously for representation — on the faculty, in the curriculum, and in published scholarship — to feel a sense of connection to what is now a beleaguered majority of higher education faculty, especially in the humanities, who are systematically denied a full place at the academic table. As with the canon wars of recent generations of humanities scholars, the nature of faculty labor is pivotal to our current understanding of our roles as teachers and intellectuals — and yes, to our expressed commitment to inclusivity. To perpetuate the current system’s inequities, actively or passively, is to sanction an elitism that we have rejected in our modes and objects of study. It suggests, indeed, that we care more about texts than about people.
We need to recognize that the presence of large numbers of faculty members with insecure appointments and uneven opportunities for fair assessment severely constrains the sense of curricular and scholarly capaciousness that is the legacy of late 20th-century academic progressivism. This is because faculty members without reasonable job security represent collectively a blow to one of our core values: academic freedom. NTT faculty — the majority of higher education faculty in the U.S. — simply do not, for the most part, have it. They literally cannot afford to speak their minds on the departmental or institutional levels, nor is it difficult to see why they might legitimately dread student evaluations. They are forced to curry the favor of colleagues as well as students, potentially limiting their effectiveness as teachers and contributing to grade inflation. Most important, however, is that they cannot pursue their intellectual interests as vigorously as our professional code would suggest is best for all concerned — the teachers themselves, their colleagues, and their students. The free exchange of ideas among intellectuals is little more than an illusion when many faculty members operate daily under the threat of censorship.
The loss is ours as much as theirs. And it is most certainly a loss for our students.
What are we to do? The answers will most likely be complicated, inflected by local circumstances, and not conducive to easy formulae. But the most basic need is for involvement, particularly of TT faculty. NTT faculty have already begun to organize effectively, and their numbers are growing; we want to be with them, not against them, and most certainly not external to the conversation. To be sure, other constituencies, including administrators and even the general public, also bear obligations in regard to this issue, and NTT faculty themselves must consider seriously their own complicity in a system that is not to their advantage, as has been noted recently in the blogosphere and elsewhere. But TT faculty must take a leadership role in recalibrating the faculty labor system. We still retain substantial influence in local, regional, and national higher education contexts, and we have much at stake if this problem is not resolved.
Leading the charge, however, will not come without costs. There is little question that ensuring reasonable job security and hence academic freedom for more faculty members will be expensive. The sticking point, then, is how to pay for it, especially within the constraints of the current economic climate. And perhaps this is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. It is not that money is unavailable for such an undertaking; it is that most institutions have declined to prioritize it. In short, money will have to be reallocated from other pots, other projects — and TT faculty will inevitably have to give something up. All the hand-wringing in the world will not compensate for the genuine material sacrifices — of dollars or of pet projects — that TT faculty must make in order to create a faculty labor system that is more ethical and more genuinely reflective of our stated goals and priorities.
Of course, to remain passive is also to give something up — namely, our voice. Until we acknowledge this we will continue to flounder, making vague noises of discontent while avoiding the messy work of fixing what is broken. Yet there is an alternative, and it lies in action:
Educate yourself. Know the faculty labor statistics, institutionally as well as nationally. Investigate the relevant website materials offered by the Modern Language Association, the AAUP, the American Federation of Teachers and the Canadian Association of University Teachers. Read one (or more) of the many recent books that address the contingent labor issue. Familiarize yourself with the agenda of the New Faculty Majority.
Commit to exploring change. Look down the road and imagine the faculty labor arrangements you would like to see 5, 10, or 15 years from now. Be a part of your institution’s necessary evolution.
Be a genuine colleague. Interest yourself in the professional development of all faculty members, and take the idea of academic citizenship seriously. It is more difficult to ignore the circumstances of those you know on a personal level.
Prepare to make sacrifices. Consider the possibility that you, or your department or institution more generally, may have to forfeit something tangible in order to advance the cause of building a fair faculty for all. This is not to say that we should stop agitating for increased resources for higher education; it is merely to acknowledge that the professionalization of NTT faculty cannot wait.
The ab/use of NTT faculty labor is a major academic issue of our time, and it is becoming increasingly awkward to stand by and fail to engage in it — or worse, to harbor uninformed opinions about it. The responsibility to fix the system belongs to all of us, but the role of TT faculty — especially those with tenure — in leading exploratory initiatives is, at this juncture, absolutely essential. To refuse to take on this charge is to compromise the claims of expansiveness and inclusivity on which we have staked our professional lives. Our integrity as both teachers and intellectuals is linked, most decidedly, to our willing participation in the conversation.
Janet Casey is a professor of English at Skidmore College. Previously, she was a non-tenure-track faculty member for 15 years.
This spring, I watched my colleagues run away from their mailboxes. Like most soon-to-be humanities Ph.D.s, they would do anything to escape the onslaught of job rejection letters. Believing that good news seldom comes by post, they would barely glance at the letters, then stuff them in drawers, under stacks of books; delete them from their inboxes.
I, too, was being rejected. But rather than trashing the letters, I became obsessed with them. They came in many forms. Some on thick creamy paper embossed with heraldic shields, some on photocopied letterhead, some in unsigned e-mails. Some were ethereally short — compensating with brevity for their lack of elegance. Others took up a whole page, including remarkable details about why a department had chosen not to hire, about whom the department had chosen to hire (and why they were preferable to the rest of the field), about the possibility that the department might hire in the future.
Whether short or long, there would seem to be good reason to flee from letters of rejection. But, as I read and reread my own rejection letters — and the more than 100 others I have collected from friends and colleagues — I began to see a less sorrowful story. While the letters show remarkable variance in mood and tone, one noteworthy strain runs through them: affirmation. While prophets of doom hold forth about the death of the humanities and the collapse of the professoriate, these rejection letters tell another story. They find, against all odds, much to celebrate. Not only do the rejection letters applaud and cherish those whom they reject, but they praise the departments and universities in which they are written, and the discipline as a whole.
In what follows, I will elaborate this message of hope — both for this year’s job seekers and for all of us who care about the fate of the humanities. While my goal is not so lofty as to launch a new area of humanistic inquiry (say, Job Rejection Letter Studies), it should go without saying that my ambitions here are purely academic.
Affirming the Applicant
Many letters begin by affirming the applicant with their salutations. One opens "Greetings!" hailing its recipient like a familiar face at the faculty club. Indeed, many letters drive this point home by simply assuming all applicants are already faculty members: "Dear Professor," "Professor," "Dear Prof. O’Rourke," begin three letters in my collection — all addressed to people who were still graduate students. How flattering!
Of course, it’s easy for committees to be confused given that — according to the rejection letters — each applicant, whether an A.B.D. candidate or a seasoned scholar, is truly excellent. The rejections pull no punches in praising the quality of those they reject. The letters are filled with breathless descriptions like "remarkable," "impressive," "outstanding," and "extraordinarily strong." Some departments, rather than be overly simple, use complicated language to praise rejects. One university writes that the rejection "should not reflect poorly on the quality of your work." This subtle phrasing has an almost Kantian ring to it. Others — like this public college in New England — are more effusive: "you should be aware that the keen competition among excellent candidates made this decision difficult in light of the unique strengths and contributions offered by each person." How wonderful candidates must feel to know that their work is excellent, unique, and strong! One might be inclined to read such praise "against the grain" and note that vapid compliments can hardly mean much when hundreds receive them. But the letter’s praise is clearly not only true; it is a thoughtful palliative that can really boost a reject’s self-image.
Perhaps the most brilliantly affirmative letter in my whole collection is a rejection for an Ivy League teaching position. It praises the applicant and focuses "in particular" on "the thoughtful remarks on your teaching philosophy." The precision of this compliment sticks out, even among the undulating swells of praise that gently buffet job rejects. Until, that is, the applicant learns — from two or three of her colleagues who, no doubt, applied for the position as well — that this is a form letter. The two copies in my collection are identical, except for the addressee. Some might call this mendacious, but there’s no need to jump to conclusions. No doubt every applicant did have a truly extraordinary teaching philosophy. This was, after all, an Ivy League position.
For such excellent candidates, future success is assured. Not only are the candidates excellent, but surely — as so many letters imply — they will not be rejected by many other institutions. "Your candidacy for this position was very strong," writes a regional school in the Midwest. "We believe that, given your credentials and experience, you will meet with much success even in this challenging job market."
With so many incredible rejects (who will, of course, necessarily land jobs elsewhere), it’s no wonder that many letters are tinged with regret, often from their first lines: "I am sorry," or "I am very sorry" or, "I regret to inform you," or "I am writing to let you know that, unfortunately." Some, rather than reject the candidate, simply note that the problem is not the candidate. One short letter — puffed up in bold font (perhaps to make it seem longer?) — notes, "Our needs are different at this particular time." It’s not you, it’s us, the letter seems to admit.
A few sad letters remain so despondent at the necessity of rejection that they never actually reject applicants at all. One such letter notes the completion of the search, acknowledges the applicant’s labor in applying, and ends wistfully, by "wishing you the very best." Another offers the chair’s phone number for follow-up questions. Who can doubt the strength of the scholarly community in the face of such evidence? Other search committees, even more pained by the need to reject, wait months and months to send out their letters; in July I received a rejection for a job I applied for in October. Other departments — the most pained of all — simply rely on silence. Avoiding the muck of language altogether, these institutions — around one in five of all advertised jobs, according to my informal polling — simply do not reject candidates at all. While some might call it rude, we must agree that the silent rejection accomplishes its task with a dignified linguistic economy. And, what’s more, it saves face for everyone: the excellent candidates don’t have to read another unfortunate rejection and the excellent departments never have to hurt anyone’s feelings. You are so wonderful, its silence implies, we simply cannot reject you.
Affirming Department, Administration, and Discipline
With scholarly excellence abounding, it’s no surprise these letters find themselves so richly complimentary of those they reject. Rather than dwell in sadness, most rejection letters allow the excellence of the applicant pool to lead them to a range of generally optimistic conclusions.
Many letters look to a bright disciplinary future. In such missives, the mass rejection evidences not just strong candidates, but the vitality of a particular field of study: "as a result of this search, we can speak confidently to the representation that Ethnic U.S. Literature has throughout the world with teacher/scholars like yourself." Bravely, this letter assumes that its many hundreds of rejects will, indeed, garner tenure-track positions elsewhere and continue their excellent work. Its abiding faith — particularly in an often-marginalized field of study — is tremendous indeed.
More frequently, though, departments find more local reasons for optimism — as in the letters that use rejects to affirm their own department’s excellence. A prestigious New England college, for example, notes the "impressive number of applications from a range of candidates that included nationally recognized figures in the field." Another letter announces that the "search yielded a highly competitive field of six hundred and forty-eight qualified applicants." Other letters describe the competition as "difficult," "stiff," "keen," and "fierce." While such exciting language reflects well on the rejected candidates, it also highlights the excellent quality of the rejecting department. What’s more, it rather generously allows rejects to see, firsthand, the elite company in which their application mingled.
I must single out one particularly subtle variant of this departmental affirmation. This letter, from a large private university, begins by announcing its “unhappy task” of sharing that the search "has been canceled — at least for this year — by the dean’s office." It goes on to cite budgetary constraints and continues: "Needless to say, we are unhappy with this decision, which came as a surprise, as we have been able to hire four new faculty in the past two years." One might see in the letter’s annoyed tone a pointed lack of affirmation. But the attentive reader will note that while the letter evokes sympathy from the rejected masses for the department’s difficulty, it also manages to boast of the department’s stellar hiring record. Quite a feat!
While some letters are tinged by complaints about administrative constraints, many rejection letters manage to affirm the importance of administration. One letter, from a Midwestern university, thanks applicants for applying to "B4833 ENGLISH"; another, from a large university in the west, alludes to "position 000293." The inclusion of Human Resources codes in these letters gives the rejected applicant another behind-the-scenes glimpse of the modern university — and gives her a chance to develop her fluency in this language. But, more importantly, such letters assert the absolute centrality of administrative bureaucracy in all of the college’s functions. Some show this simply by sending photocopied rejection letters — addressed to "Applicants" or "Mellon Postdoctoral Applicant" or, simply, "Dear Candidates" — that don’t reference the candidate or the particular position at all, as in the letter that begins, "Thank you for your recent application to one of our English Department searches."
Affirming our Future
The affirmative richness of these rejection letters cannot be questioned. Indeed further study would no doubt reveal subtler gradations and flashier linguistic pyrotechnics. But for now, I hope to have drawn from these rejection letters a powerful lesson for applicants: there is no need to fear! If there really were a structural imbalance in the humanities job market, would committees really be receiving so many excellent applications? If the disappearance of stable, tenured jobs really was leaving hundreds of highly qualified applicants with little to do but face rejection, year after year, could committees really find so much to affirm in their candidates, their departments, and their discipline?
Job applicants, even when you receive letters with blunt phrases like "This letter is to inform you that we have decided not to pursue your candidacy," or "We have concluded the search and hired someone for the position," or "Unfortunately, we've decided to suspend the search for this year," do not fear. You may be rejected from a slew of jobs over many years. But you are still remarkable. To remind yourself of this, don’t hide from your rejection letters. Read these brave, generous, and hopeful missives closely. You will be affirmed.
Indeed, we all can be. For the lessons of these letters are not just for applicants, but for the discipline as a whole. While some critics would tell us these are dire times for the humanities, each spring’s flood of rejection letters can help us see the truth: our field is thriving, our potential is great, and brighter days have already arrived.
Nicholas Hengen Fox
Nicholas Hengen Fox teaches at Portland Community College.