Imagine life post-pandemic. You are a dean at a college hard hit by the COVID shutdown, but after a difficult few years, you now have a rare opportunity to make a faculty hire. The search committee has done its work, and you have two CVs on your desk, culled from the avalanche of applications. Both graduated in the same year from the same prestigious doctoral program.
Candidate A is an adjunct professor. She has a handful of publications, one in the top journal in her field, published the same year she graduated. She interviewed for, but did not get, a tenure-track job, and so she and her husband moved to the city where he had secured a job. They settled down. She took on adjunct jobs and applied for any tenure-track opening within 200-mile radius, with no luck. She became the primary caregiver when they started a family. Though it paid next to nothing, adjuncting let her vary her teaching load according to family needs. Teaching at two different institutions and caring for children pushed her scholarly agenda to the back burner, but she is beloved by her students and has been an innovator in the classroom. If she was lucky enough to have remained employed through the pandemic, there almost certainly will be no new lines of publications on her CV. In addition to juggling the transition to online courses, she has had to oversee her children’s distance learning as her husband is an essential worker who cannot work from home.
Candidate B went straight from graduate school to a tenure-track position and is coming up on the final year on his tenure clock. His CV bursts with an impressive run of publications. He is clearly ambitious and eager for an upward move. His wife lost her job to COVID, so she has been able to tend to the small children at home while their daycare center is shut down. He teaches a 2-2 load, including upper-level and grad seminars, and so the transition to online has not been as draining and he has been able to keep up an impressive pace of publication.
As dean, who would you hire?
OK, by now you’re all protesting that this scenario makes no sense. And you’re right. No one is hiring any time soon. And Candidate A would not make it into the finalist pool.
The pandemic feels apocalyptic, not only in the zombie apocalypse sort of way, but also in the very literal kind of way. An apocalypse is an unveiling, and the great inequities of our society are being laid bare.
We’ve seen all the reports of the higher toll of COVID-19 on African American, Latinx and Native American populations. These deaths reveal not some genetic predisposition or poor personal choices, but who is able to practice social distancing and work from home and who must venture out to keep the rest of us fed and safe. The higher death rates are also testimony to the legacy of social and environmental injustice.
Likewise, the inequities of the academy are quickly becoming more glaring. The casualties are mounting: frozen wages, canceled searches, revoked offers, canceled sabbaticals, furloughs and a prediction that COVID could be the death knell of 500 to 1,000 institutions of higher education. Women’s productivity is tanking.
Life as we know it has changed, and no one knows what’s on the other side of the abyss. It feels like a safe bet that things will not return to the status quo ante. This could be a tremendous opportunity, both in the wider world and in the academy to challenge the myth of meritocracy. But to do that, we need a different kind of CV.
A lifetime ago, before COVID had bumped Harvey Weinstein from the headlines, I created a new CV, what I called my RealCV. It was born out of a need to reckon with the impact my own #MeToo experience had on me personally and professionally.
An unwanted advance by a predatory colleague two decades earlier was like the flap of a butterfly’s wing that set off a hurricane in my life: an instantly hostile workplace, mountains of stress, dissolution of my live partnership, an unwanted move across the country, years lost on the tenure clock, single parenthood and chronic illness.
There was no way to represent any of this on a traditional CV, and I remained mired in shame that my CV did not keep pace with my academic peers.
The Kavanaugh hearings brought out years of suppressed rage. When the rage passed, I created my RealCV. I opened up my traditional CV and turned it all to purple font, representing professional successes. Then I started adding in new lines. Work stresses in red font: harassment, rejected articles, etc.; personal stresses in yellow font: move across the country, health crises, financial stress, etc.; personal joys in pink font: cheering my daughter at her soccer tournament, tending a riotous backyard garden; green shading for periods of prolonged, sickening stress.
This exercise served a therapeutic process, helping me to see my professional accomplishments within their larger context of a whole life. It also revealed to me that my accomplishments were dependent on the safety net provided by TT positions, as well as financial support from family that meant I was not buried under student loans. Without that support, I have no doubt the health crisis would have sunk me.
COVID is wreaking havoc on CVs, halting research, stealing dedicated writing time and mushrooming course prep and design. The pandemic presents an opportunity to think carefully about the structural inequities of the neoliberal academy and to chart a different future.
What if our hypothetical dean had something like a RealCV to consider? Some will protest that the result will be a decline in quality and academic standing for the university, that of course the dean should hire the candidate with the extensive publication record.
To glimpse what might be gained -- as opposed to what is sacrificed -- if we used a broader set of criteria in our hiring, just look at another recent article in Forbes highlighting the one thing that the countries mounting the best response to the pandemic all had in common: they are led by women whose leadership shows the impress of lessons learned from all facets of their lives.
Consider the skill set revealed by Candidate A’s COVID CV: project lead on home disaster mitigation including facilitating eldercare at a distance, homeschooling curriculum oversight, meal planning and shopping with harm-reduction strategies, all in addition to online course designer, instructor and student adviser. Candidate A is exactly what our institutions of higher learning need to survive the apocalypse and become more humane in the process.
Rachel Wheeler is an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. She is co-author with Sarah Eyerly of “Singing Box 331: Re-Sounding Mohican Language Hymns from the Moravian Archives” in The William and Mary Quarterly.