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.
You can’t judge a book by its cover, as the old saw goes, but every so often the cover art may stun you into long contemplation. Or horror, in the case of Teofilo R. Ruiz’s The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization (Princeton University Press), which greets the prospective reader by way of Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son.”
The ghastliness of the painting never came through when I’d come across it before, in much smaller reproductions, often in black and white. It was inspired by a myth that Freud could have made up, if antiquity had not already obliged. Saturn, having castrated his father (long story), decided to eat his own offspring, which seems like a reasonable precaution given the circumstances. In a familiar version of the story, he swallows the children whole. Tricked into drinking a purgative, Saturn vomits them up and they go on to better things.
Not so in Goya’s rendition. In it, Saturn grasps a headless corpse, pulling away chunks of flesh, bite by bite, with the red insides of the body visible. He is bearded, and he stares at the viewer with a deranged expression while tearing off an arm with his teeth.
The image is unsettling because its grotesquery cuts through gentler versions of the myth to expose a layer of savagery otherwise concealed. Goya’s "Saturn" is part Theodore Kazinski, part Jeffrey Daumer. And, by implication, vice versa: The killers are his avatars. Malevolent craziness seems primordial.
Putting the book down after staring at its cover again, I turn by habit to Google News. It is not a comfort.
In The Terror of History, Ruiz, professor of history, Spanish, and Portuguese at the University of California at Los Angeles, describes and reflects on how people have tried to escape the unending pageant of catastrophe, violence, suffering, and random disorder making up the human condition. Referring to them as “the uncertainties of life in Western civilization” is odd, since things are not appreciably less messed-up elsewhere. Gautama Buddha had pertinent things to say on the matter, some of which Ruiz discusses. (Plus the subtitle inevitably calls to mind the comment Gandhi is supposed to have made when asked for his opinion of Western civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.”)
But most of Ruiz’s cultural references come from European and American sources, and the image from Goya serves to anchor his meditations in the Greco-Roman past. “It is a pictorial representation of one of Ancient Greece’s most telling myths,” he writes. “The god Chronos (time) devours his children out of fear that, as fate has predicted, one of them will overthrow him. And so does Chronos devour all of us.”
It is a very old interpretation of the myth, albeit one resting on an etymological mistake. The Greek counterpart of Saturn was named Kronos, who was not the god of time Chronos, although they probably got each other’s mail a lot. To judge by the work of Victorian mythologist Thomas Bullfinch, this has been going on for a while. Bullfinch also suggests that the mix-up may account for the confusing way Saturn’s reign is depicted in ancient sources. On the one hand, it was supposed to be the Golden Age. On the other hand, there was the constant patriarchic cannibalism. It is hard to reconcile them.
The contradiction runs through Ruiz's book. “We live, as it were, always on the edge of the abyss,” he writes, “and when we think we are happy and at peace, as individuals and as communities, awful things may be waiting just around the corner.” But it is difficult, and maybe impossible, to reconcile ourselves to this; and while hope for a Golden Age is hard to come by, it is our nature “to cling to life, to hope against hope” and create meaning. Drawing on the great Dutch medievalist Johan Huizinga’s work, Ruiz organizes his musings around three grand strategies for finding happiness, or at least mitigating total dread: “through belief (in a whole variety of orthodox and heterodox forms), [through] the life of the senses, and/or through culture and the pursuit of the beautiful.”
Under each of these headings, he arrays quotations from and reflections on a kaleidoscopic array of ancient and modern authors and phenomena: Sophocles, Proust, utopian communes, witch-burning crazes, The Decameron, an insurrection in Brazil in the 1890s, the Marquis de Sade, and The Epic of Gilgamesh, to give a representative sampling. Plus there are memoiristic bits. He mentions teaching “a class on world history from the Big Bang to around 400 C.E.” The book seems more ambitious still.
Insofar as an argument emerges, it is that each strategy to escape “the terror of history” has a powerful appeal, but all of them have a tendency to go off the rails, creating more misery, whether individual or social. For every mystic realizing the oneness of being, you get twenty fanatics who treat homicide as a sacrament. Romantic love is sublime, but it has no warranty. People experiment with utopian communes in spite of their track record and not because of it.
For that matter, authorship is no bower of bliss, either:
“As I sit at my computer, churning out one book or article after another, a suspicion gnaws at my mind. Almost like an alarm clock unpleasantly ringing in the morning’s early hours, it tells me that, as serious as I am about the reconstruction of the past, both the projects themselves and my seriousness are forms of escape, of erasing meaninglessness. It is all a bit delusional. Does my work really amount to anything? Does it really matter? Does it fulfill any meaningful purpose? Early in my career, it meant tenure, promotion, recognition, but now what?”
It bears mentioning here that Saturn also presides over melancholy, often named, along with pride, “the disease of scholars.”
As for the experience of reading The Terror of History, I will report less melancholy than dismay. For a short book displaying enormous erudition, it is awfully repetitive. It stops every so often to tell you what it is about, and every point is restated with some frequency. “I am, of course, not saying anything new here,” Ruiz comments at a couple of points. This invites the distracting question of why it’s being said at all.
In spite of my best efforts to see all of this as deliberate -- even thematic (history repeats itself but we forget what it said the first time, etc.) – the preponderance of evidence suggests otherwise. It appear not to have been edited very much. If it had been, “Santillana’s famous dictum that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it” would have been repaired to give George Santayana the credit. The reference to “Russell Jacobi’s forthcoming book on fraternal violence” would not have made me laugh from imagining an 18th century German philosopher wandering the UCLA campus.
Ruiz twice calls Afro-Cuban music “enervating.” Either he regards the word is a synonym for “energizing” (it means precisely the opposite) or else conga drums fill him with ennui.
He refers to “Nietsche’s elegant dichotomy between the Dionysian (a form of Carnivalesque intoxication) and the Apollonian,” Ruiz equates the latter term with “rational individualism.” Actually the philosopher applies the word to “the beautiful appearance of the inner fantasy world,” which is not someplace where a lot of rational choice takes place.
A good editor would have caught all of these problems (the list is not exhaustive) while gently helping the author through as many revisions as necessary to subdue the redundancies and unknot the thickets. Consider the following:
“The conundrum here is whether to ignore history – though history most certainly does not ignore us, and it is often unforgiving of our neglect – may not be after all far less demanding of our time and strength and lead to far less grief and more pleasure.”
It is possible to render such a sentence into something coherent on first reading. (I have seen this done.) But books are being cranked out by even the most prestigious of university presses without the red pencil ever touching a manuscript, or whatever the current equivalent might be. A gifted editor adds value to the final product. A capable copy editor does as well. Their numbers are thinning; it seems a matter of time before they disappear from the face of the earth. If Saturn isn’t crunching their bones, then Mammon, god of budget decisions, undoubtedly is.
The title of Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd (1960) has taken on a life of its own -- mimicked or alluded to so often (e.g., Growing Up Amish, Growing Up Digital, and Growing Up Dead) that it seems familiar to people who not only haven't read the book, but have no idea there ever was one by that name. As for the subtitle, "Problems of Youth in Organized Society," it named one of the decisive questions of the decade that followed. One of the people interviewed in Jonathan Lee’s "Paul Goodman Changed My Life" -- a documentary released by Zeitgeist Films and screening around the country over the next couple of months -- recalls that for many years it was the one book found in every dormitory. Another says that you couldn't pick up a major magazine without finding Goodman mentioned, or as author of an article.
Within the limits of exaggeration-for-effect, that is actually a fair way to indicate how of a public presence the author had during the Kennedy administration, and he remained in great demand as a speaker, especially on campuses, for some while after that.
Goodman's political stance was unusual -- “anarcho-pacifist communitarianism” about covers it -- and certainly kept him on the sidelines during the 1950s. But his approach to social criticism was only occasionally that of declamatory denunciation. His approach, much of the time, was to make helpful suggestions toward the public good, in a spirit of responsible citizenship. Imagine the benefits of banning cars from Manhattan, for example, or ending the arms race immediately. Of course, trying to do most of the things he proposed would involve radical change, but so what? A famous piece of graffiti from the 1960s said "Be reasonable, demand the impossible." That might as well have been his slogan.
Goodman was anything but a one-book author, and social commentary was by no means his primary concern. The huge audiences he drew after Growing Up Absurd became a bestseller meant that publishers could not wait to re-issue his earlier work -- his novels and poetry, his University of Chicago dissertation on neo-Aristotelian literary criticism, his volume of psychoanalytic reflections on Kafka, you name it.
Ditto for anything new he wrote. Between 1960 and his death in 1972, he published three or four books a year. He was easily one of the best-known and most-read figures in the country, and "Paul Goodman Changed My Life" is an excellent tribute to his memory and reminder of his influence. It should go a long way toward generating more interest in him than has been evident over the last two or three decades -- when nobody, nobody at all, has been reading him.
An exaggeration for effect, of course. I've been reading him for most of that time, for one. Presumably a few other people have, as well. But still, close enough. Considering the scale of public response to Goodman’s work in final years of his life, the eclipse has been astonishing and all but total. The output of scholarly and critical literature on him has been thin in quantity -- and, for the most part, quality. The most important exception is Here Now Next: Paul Goodman and the Origins of Gestalt Therapy by Taylor Stoehr, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, who is Goodman's literary executor. It was published by Jossey-Bass in 1994, and is more far-ranging than the title may suggest. Before fame overtook him, Goodman was involved in a number of academic, psychoanalytic, artistic, and political circles, and Stoehr's monograph is the only attempt, so far, to chart some of his webs of influence and affiliation, at least to my knowledge.
And here is where Jonathan Lee’s documentary gives hope. It does an excellent job of evoking Goodman’s peripatetic and ramshackle career -- the stints teaching at Chicago and Black Mountain College, the years as a lay psychotherapist, the role he played with the off-Broadway Living Theater group, both as playwright and house philosopher. The composer Ned Rorem recounts setting his friend’s poems to music. We get a glimpse of how contemporary students respond to one of Goodman’s essays in a class taught the by adjunct English instructor Zeke Finkelstein at the City College of New York. And, best of all, there are numerous clips of Goodman being interviewed or speaking.
While not charismatic, exactly, he is certainly fearless, an admirable quality in an intellectual and particularly valuable for its scarcity. The interview on William F. Buckley's show "Firing Line" in 1966 is a case in point. The documentary begins with Buckley introducing his guest as “a pacifist, a bisexualist, a poverty cultist, an anarchist, and a few other distracting things.” Before responding to Buckley’s first question, Goodman objects to how he has been described. “I’m not a poverty cultist," he says. "I do think it's a sign of a good society that it is possible to live in decent poverty, especially if you so choose, that is, if you have more important things to do than to make money.” (He goes on to correct Buckley for misusing the word “axiomatic,” as the host concedes.) But what Goodman doesn’t respond to at all -- noticeably enough -- is the reference to his sexuality. He was candid about it to the point of losing at least a couple of teaching positions. It also got him beaten up.
Goodman could be prickly, egocentric, and not shy about communicating the assumption that he was a genius. Plus he made passes at everybody. He must have been difficult company at times. Some of this comes through in the documentary, and it serves as needed balance to any hagiographic impulse. On the other hand, there was never a valid criticism of Goodman that he hadn't made about himself in a poem or essay somewhere.
The film ends with a suggestion that Goodman's influence and example might revive. Fair enough: some of his work has been reprinted of late, and The Paul Goodman Reader, edited by Stoehr and published by PM Press, is a representative sampling of his work in several fields and genres.
But the possibility of a revival does not explain why his influence and example waned in the first place. During an e-mail discussion with Lee, I asked him why he thought Goodman's star had faded. One thing the director stressed is that Goodman “wasn't a specialist,and therefore did not become a star in any specific academic discipline. His brother Percival told me that if he had written only in one discipline, he would have become famous as an author in that discipline, say psychology, for example, and there would have been an academic constituency to carry him forward.”
At the same time Goodman’s work “is more intellectual, more rationalist, than say a Jack Kerouac, whose [On the Road] is in print. Paul Goodman challenges the reader to think, to act, and reading him is not a dumbed-down experience. I think that we've been continuing a dumbing-down of our public life -- certainly what's available and popular in the mainstream media -- and Goodman is too smart to satisfy the demand for easy, non-challenging material.”
Valid points, as far as they go, though they don’t exhaust the question. Not all of the failings are on the side of the public. The range of subjects in Goodman’s work is great, but so is the range of quality. You have to read a great deal of his work to see how parts of it hold together. He seems to have cobbled together a kind of intellectual framework from elements of Aristotle, Kant, Freud, Dewey, and Kropotkin -- an interesting list, but a slightly odd one. And Susan Sontag’s description of Goodman’s prose is exactly right: “What he wrote was a nervy mixture of syntactical stiffness and verbal felicity; he was capable of writing sentences of a wonderful purity of style and vivacity of language, and also capable of writing so sloppily and clumsily that one imagined he must be doing it on purpose.” (Then again, only a mediocrity is always at his best.)
But there is a passage from the introduction to his book Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals (Random House, 1962) in which Goodman explains himself as clearly anyone could want, and with a kind of eloquence.
“As my books and essays have appeared," Goodman wrote, "I have been been severely criticized as an ignorant man who spreads himself thin on a wide variety of subjects, on sociology and psychology, urbanism and technology, education, literature, esthetics, and ethics. It is true that I don't know much, but it is false that I write about many subjects. I have only one, the human beings I know in their man-made scene. I do not observe that people are in fact subdivided in ways to be conveniently treated by the ‘wide variety’ of separate disciplines. If you talk separately about their group behavior or their individual behavior, their environment or their characters, their practicality or their sensibility, you lose what you are talking about. We are often forced, for analytic purposes, to study a problem under various departments — since everybody can't discuss everything at once, but woe if one then plans for people in these various departments! One will never create a community, and will destroy such community as exists.... I make the choice of what used to be called a Man of Letters, one who relies on the peculiar activity of authorship -- a blending of memory, observation, criticism, reasoning, imagination, and reconstruction -- in order to treat the objects in the world concretely and centrally.”
There are worse models of intellectual activity than this, and Jonathan Lee has done a useful thing by reminding us what it looked like in person.
Scott McLemee is an essayist and critic and the Intellectual Affairs columnist for Inside Higher Ed.