Realities of the Endless Search

January 10, 2012

SEATTLE -- When Erika Wright started off her talk here at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, she said that this was her fifth straight year on the market for a tenure-track position. A few people in the audience gasped. They were already on the tenure track, or tenured. None of the graduate students or people a year or two out of grad school seemed surprised.

The session here wasn’t about how bad the job market is -- that’s old news. Rather, the focus was on how the search process is changing in light not only of the lousy economy, but of technology, shifts in departmental thinking and the presence of people like Wright (a postdoc at the University of Southern California): long-term job-seekers. For instance, speakers talked about the importance of keeping your applications fresh. That means, speakers said, that even if you’ve put together a great collection of letters of recommendation from your dissertation committee, you can’t let them sit for much longer than a year. You need to add letters from the colleges that are employing you as an adjunct or get your dissertation adviser to update her thoughts on you.

Likewise, those who are taking adjunct positions for several years were advised to be sure to publish if they want to apply for tenure-track jobs at four-year institutions. A few years as an adjunct wouldn’t look bad, but a few years without a publication would, panelists said. (Needless to say, such advice won't thrill many adjuncts who say that they need to spend every hour teaching to get even close to a living wage.)

Here are some of the other changes cited at the panel here:

A new calendar: The MLA meeting (until recently in late December and now in early January) has for decades been the primary place where search committees in English and foreign languages interviewed a large number of candidates and then selected a small group for campus visits. So the fall was the time for the initial vetting of the large pool to determine who was worthy of an MLA interview. Now, the schedule is much less firm. Susan Miller, English chair at Santa Fe College, a Florida community college, said that she has had searches in which money wasn’t available on the regular schedule, but then materialized late in the year. So the college advertised a job last March, "a really awkward time for a fall opening." But she said that the department didn’t want to lose its shot at the position, so it went ahead as soon as it could -- and in fact rushed the process, feeling that until someone had signed a contract, the position might disappear.

Precarious positions: Miller’s fear of a search being canceled is one that others discussed as well. Wright noted that her first year on the market, she made it to the campus visit stage for a job that would have been ideal, and the visit went well. Only late in the game -- after all interviews -- did the provost yank the money for the position. Others on the panel noted the increase in the number of position announcements that state "pending funding decisions" or something like that -- to flag for people just how insecure many openings may be.

Skype vs. MLA interviews: Maureen Reddy, English chair at Rhode Island College, said that more and more departments are skipping MLA interviews and replacing them with Skype interviews. Some departments prefer that approach. Others have no choice. Reddy noted that her college requires all search committee members to be present at all interviews or formal communications with candidates. Since the college will not pay for all members of a search committee to come to the MLA, Skype wins out. And that is increasingly the case not just for junior professor positions, but for more senior posts. Donald Hall, who chaired the session and is the new dean of arts and sciences at Lehigh University, said that his first interview for that position was via Skype.

Raising the teaching bar at community colleges: Miller said that, a decade ago, many community colleges were excited by the idea of hiring more people with interesting research experiences and the potential to become good teachers. Now, she said, teaching is everything at two-year institutions. "The fullness of one’s teaching experience is becoming more and more critical," she said.

Raising the research bar at four-year institutions: Reddy said that even though she is not at a research university, "I see research expectation creep," and that candidates needs to be aware of that.

Skepticism of ABDs: Several panelists said that deans are rejecting proposals to hire ABDs, feeling that in the current market there is no reason to take a chance on someone not finishing up. In cases where departments indicate a willingness to consider ABDs, candidates were advised to be very detailed on how close they are to completing their dissertations (and to be sure they are quite close).

The ethnic studies option: Sandra K. Stanley, who is a professor of English and Asian American studies at California State University at Northridge, discussed differences between literature searches in ethnic studies and English departments. At her university, and at others, she suggested, there may be smaller pools for jobs in ethnic studies programs, creating opportunities for those on the market. But she noted ways that these searches may be a challenge for candidates. A search committee may have only one member who is a literature expert, so the candidate needs to reach out to people whose focus is on the ethnic studies discipline, not literature, she said. Further, in ethnic studies, there is much more emphasis on ties and service to a community than there is in most English departments. In a recent search, Stanley said, “if candidates didn’t demonstrate a social justice commitment, we moved on to the next one.”

New types of specialties: Reddy said her department is doing fewer searches with "traditional period focus" and more on combinations that might not be instantly obvious -- say a Renaissance studies opening with expertise in film studies or new media. Similarly, she said that many departments, worried about a possible loss of majors, are interested in people who show interest and vision in teaching general education courses.

Fear of litigation: Colleges are increasingly worried about being sued, and this is translating, search committee members said, into increased training and stricter rules for those doing searches. One impact is that they are being told they cannot have any unofficial communication with candidates. So several here discouraged candidates from trying any direct communication, even if someone is an adviser’s friend or might be seen as a potential ally.

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