Around the time my long term partner and I were separating, I had dinner with a good friend. Having recently gone through a separation, she spoke about her experience with the feeling I was having, namely, the strong urge to have a ‘post-mortem’ talk with my ex, and cautioned me against it. This urge is about more than two people 'getting on the same page' and agreeing about what the relationship meant; it is about individual reassurance - that I had done everything possible within the context of the relationship. That I was a good person, that I was worthy of love, that it wasn't my fault.
There is a similar urge after an interview for a position you are ultimately not offered. You want to know: could my talk have been clearer? Did I make too many assumptions about what my audience knew? Did I talk too much at dinner? Not enough? You want feedback from the committee (when possible). I want to caution my fellow academic job seekers the same way my friend cautioned me: don't go for the post-mortem.
I am not suggesting that you should not debrief with trusted friends and mentors who can help you prepare in the best way possible for the next interview. But be wary: as with the post-relationship decompression, post-interview stories can also be told from several perspectives.
In the case of job interviews, hiring committees need something to justify the decisions they are making in the cut-throat marketplace. They know, as we all do, that in today’s market, these decisions are arbitrary. With the quality of the applicant pool ever expanding and the pool of available jobs ever shrinking, the current ‘buyers’ market’ means that decisions must be made between qualifications that would have been useless ten, even five, years ago. (It also means a culture where folks who are offered a job are terrified to negotiate the offer.) All of the candidates who reach a certain level are so equally well- (and many times over) qualified that the decision making comes down to a matter of chance. In other words, my fellow post-mortem seeker: yes, you may have talked too much for one committee, but you may have talked too little in the eyes of another.
One of the most important things we can do in these circumstances is not take it personally. As my mentor reminded me after my latest rejection: “One of the ways neoliberalism works is to make the individual feel responsible for structural impossibility... this is particularly true with regards to the current academic job market.” Seeing the larger structure, though, is tricky, because of what we want to say in the event that we do get the job: Yes! I'm amazing! My hard work is paying off!
Truly, it is much more difficult to acknowledge that the 'payoff' is also arbitrary; I could be writing the exact same post after having been offered the job. Recognizing this is difficult because it reminds us, as Elizabeth Keenan does in her piece on the academic market and The Hunger Games, that we are all disposable in this game. Many of us work and work, are amazing scholars/teachers/colleagues/lovers/friends, and still we fail to get that payoff - at least the payoff that symbolizes ‘success’: a permanent, full time, academic position. But just because we recognize that the structural nature of this failure does not mean that the emotional impact can be ignored. I wholeheartedly agree with Jessica Lawless, who in a recent conversation with a fellow precariously-situated academic, states: “we have to find ways to address our emotional collapse, the loss we have experienced in having a brick ceiling laid over our heads at every turn as we tried to build careers. We have individual and collective grief that has to be recognized in whatever organizing we do.”
In that spirit, after my latest ‘failure’ (and I use that in the Halberstamian sense of the term), I've decided to write this post not as critique, but in solidarity. Solidarity with all of us in this impossible system - from the committee forced to arbitrarily decide between what I have no doubt were equally incredibly well-qualified candidates, to my fellow rejected candidates, who, like me, spent weeks (well, actually, months) pouring their intellectual and emotional hearts into a job they did not get, and who may be, like so many, considering leaving academia. I say to them: the system sucks. You are not to blame.
And, for those who may be wondering, I never did have a post-mortem with my ex. But I do know this: it was not my fault.
Gwendolyn Beetham is associate editor at University of Venus, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Brooklyn College, and curates the series The Academic Feminist at Feministing.