Submitted by Alex Golub on January 12, 2007 - 4:00am
"So ... what do you study?"
This question has become harder for me to answer now that I am a professor.
Graduate students on the job market must know how to answer this question. There are a lot of graduate students out there, and not a lot of jobs. As a result, convincing a department that you are a good "fit" with them is vital. When it comes to fit, what you study is important. But even more important may be how you tell people you study it. Are you the kind of person who can describe their work quickly and succinctly? Are you aware of how much "stretch" is built into your project but unwilling to profess to be an expert in whatever it is a department is interested in? Are you the flame, or the moth?
As a graduate student I had an answer to the question of "what do you study?" Several, in fact. In professionalization seminars and over beer at parties, my fellow students and I practiced the art of "telescoping." We carefully honed our intellectual lives into one-sentence sound bites. (Mine was "I study mining and indigenous people in Papua New Guinea.") I have entire paragraphs -- both academic and for "regular people" -- ready to go on autopilot in case people wanted to know more.
We had other versions as well: the one-page cover letter we sent out for job applications. The 10-page summary that served as the base for our grant applications. The 45-minute talk that was meant to be delivered on a campus visit. But the most extended, un-telescoped answer to the "what do you study" question was, of course, the dissertation itself.
The dissertation is the holy grail of "what do you study." However, none of us are Sir Percival. Writing the perfect dissertation is not the process of obtaining the unobtainable. It is the process of learning to settle for the dissertation you've got instead of That Big Dissertation In The Sky. Remember the scene in Indiana Jones And The Holy Grail where Indy is on the edge of a chasm reaching backwards to the grail just out of his reach, but is gently persuaded by his father, Sean Connery, to let it go? Writing a dissertation is like that.
An intensely narcissistic document, the "what do you study" of the dissertation offers a psychological knot that can never be particularly untied. Isn't what I'm saying obvious? Is it possible for me to say anything new or interesting? Is there an article out there I've missed that has already explained all this? Is my work any good at all?
Now, it's true that some of the old grad student tricks still apply. No one on my dissertation committee coddled me, but none of them were so insane that they revealed to me the heart-breaking truth: The dissertation is actually just the rough draft for your first book. So when asked "what you've been up to" as a young faculty member, you always have the option to just tell people "I'm working on my manuscript."
However, if the life of the mind is a peanut M&M, then the dissertation is undoubtedly the nut. Now that I am a professor, however, I find my intellectual interests have been coated in a thick coating of rich, delicious chocolate. Whereas people once cared about my specialty, they are now much more interested in all of the extra stuff I learned along the way.
The role of the student, I'm learning, is to produce specialized knowledge, while the role of the professor is to pass on general information. People used to ask me what my dissertation was about, but now they want to know how broadly I can stretch in my teaching and advising.
There are many reasons that people are interested in the periphery, rather than the core, of a new professor's stock of knowledge. The first is the inevitable responsibility of all newly-hired profs: teaching intro courses. After five years of extremely dedicated research I find myself teaching intro courses in which I am explaining stuff I last thought about when I was 19. Being thrown back to anthropology 101 is not a bad experience, but it is disconcerting to have to zoom all the way out to the big picture after so many years of illuminating one particular corner of it.
Other teaching responsibilities, while close to the "nut" of what I study, are still definitely in the "chocolate" realm. As a result of my dissertation work I think I could reasonably pass myself of as an "expert" in one or even two ethnic groups adjacent to the one I wrote on. But as a professor, people look to you to teach more general courses. No one wants a course on "Comparative Ethnography of Enga Province." They want courses on "peoples of the Pacific" or "political anthropology" or even "ethnicity". How does living for two years in Papua New Guinea license me to teach a class on a concept that began in archaic Greece and now includes phenomenon as diverse as the Harlem Renaissance and Borat? I feel competent? No. Having focused for so long on the hard center of what I study I have trouble teaching in "my chocolate zone."
I'm not complaining -- I realize that this is just a hang-up that new professors have to Get Over. The ironic thing about the situation is that even as new professors learn to feel comfortable venturing into their "chocolate zone" they must also find its limit. For indeed, every professor must eventually admit that there is a hard, sugary shell beyond which their knowledge does not reach. This is the strange dilemma of being a new professor -- you are simultaneously mindful of the limits of your knowledge and yet always tempted to move beyond it.
People give professors respect. It's amazing. As a graduate student you get no respect. People consider you locked in a state of arrested development, a sort of career limbo. There are many reasons for this, the foremost being, of course, that graduate students are locked in a state of arrested development that forms a sort of career limbo. Moving from this lowly state to that of a professor can be mind-blowing.
Professors are respected and -- most amazingly -- believed. They can opine on topics about which they know absolutely nothing and people will believe it hook, line, or sinker. Or at least they will appear to, since the other feelings associated with professors are fear and boredom. The first inclines students to please professors who have control of their grades, while the second leads everyone to avoid disagreement that may force them to extend a conversation they would prefer to skip.
The intoxicating feeling of being taken seriously is something that the new professor has to take into account. It takes a lot of self-discipline to be modest in one's claims after years and years of not being taken seriously. Are we ever successful? Probably not. And yet it seems to me that we can't do anything else but try.
Beyond teaching there are other situations that force us to find the hard candy shell of our knowledge. Advising graduate students is a good example. By definition, none of your grad students are ever going to write on the topic of your dissertation. They may study topics similar to yours, but not often. Even when they do, advising students requires you to stretch the limits of your knowledge and imagination. What is the role of biomedicine in Brazilian favelas? What forms of subjectivity does obsession with your credit rating generate? Helping students answer these questions requires a willingness to venture outside your area of expertise.
Sometimes you end up working with students for a reason. Since joining my department, for instance, I've been told by a couple of people that one of my areas of expertise might be "youth culture and identity." The reason, I gather, is that I am the faculty member who most recently identified as "young." I thought this pigeon-holing a bit unfair until a female professor reminded me that female social scientists have been labeled as "gender" experts from time immemorial (because "they have it") and if she could take it so could I.
While advising students who don't study "what you study" was weird for me at first, I quickly came to appreciate how much advisors learn from their students. If the transition from graduate student to professor is one from specialized to generalized work, then there may be no better way to increase your general stock of knowledge than to advise others who are writing dissertations. As you learn more about their own specialized projects, your own knowledge grows. Suddenly you know a little about early 20th-century shopping malls in Korea, conservation projects in Kalimantan, and medieval heresies in France.
Moving outside the "nut" of your own area of expertise can be disconcerting. But having some sense of the entirety of your knowledge of the entirety of that M&M of knowledge in your head can also be a welcome relief after years of working on the dissertation. It's a transition that all faculty go through, I suppose, and one that, in some sense, you never complete. Is the answer to "what do you study?" one of these 'journey and not the destination' sort of things? Let me know what you think.
Alex Golub is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who blogs at Savage Minds.
The requests begin in August and, mercifully and hopefully, cease in January. The request can be in the form of a telephone call, email, letter, or, in the worst of circumstances, an overnight delivery package. The recipient of such requests should be honored; as such a request signifies one's status in the pantheon of accomplishment in the academy. However, the normal first reaction evokes the Mark Twain story about the man who was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail -- "If it weren't for the honor, I'd just as soon have walked."
And what high honor would most intelligent academics decline? The dreaded request for an external letter of evaluation for an individual being considered by his or her college or university for promotion and/or tenure. I do not know the exact history of the expectation that candidates for promotion and tenure be evaluated by professionals in their field from outside the candidate's university, but by the early 1980s such letters seemed to be a normative component of promotion dossiers. Those who send and receive such letters know the basic format: evaluate the candidate's scholarship, place the candidate among his or her peers in the field of expertise, and state whether the candidate would be promoted and/or tenured at comparable institutions.
It was a combination of the zeal of youth and quest for professional recognition that filled me with glee and self-satisfaction the first few times I was asked to prepare an external evaluation. Twenty years later I view the prospect of "external evaluation season" with the same joy I experience when I go for a root canal procedure.
It is not that the actual task of reviewing a colleague's scholarship and preparing a letter of evaluation is so onerous -- it is not. What I simply hate is the nearly complete professional disrespect that has become a routine part of the process. The following, in no particular order, are my pet peeves:
The unsolicited request. Granted it is not every time, but at least two or three times a year an overnight package arrives containing a letter requesting an external review, a CV, and a four-inch stack of papers, offprints, and perhaps even a book (which I am supposed to then return).
The "do it yesterday" request. From the deadlines that accompany the request, I assume that my colleagues at other colleges and universities assume I am just sitting around reading The New York Times waiting impatiently for the opportunity to evaluate a colleague. Not very likely. It is incomprehensible to me that the individuals who select external reviewers, probably because of some perceived stature in the field, then go ahead and assume such a person will drop everything to prepare a careful and thoughtful evaluation.
Read everything the person ever wrote. The sending along a four-inch stack of reprints is just a waste of your money and my time. Most of us are just not going to read all this stuff, especially if we are given a short time frame. If the candidate is stellar and worthy of promotion, at least to professor, we have probably read the good stuff already.
The "reminder." Sometime close to the deadline, if you have not yet submitted the evaluation, the requestor will inevitably send a reminder that the review is due "Friday." Yes, I know the deadline is approaching. I also know you want it Friday to reduce your own anxiety -- it is not like someone is going to spend the weekend reading my thoughtful prose. But the reminder would not be as aggravating if it were not for...
The complete lack of courtesy after the review has been submitted. Here is my scoreboard for this year. Seven requests for external reviews; five reminders, zero acknowledgements that the review was received (even though all were sent overnight -- granted, because I was at the deadline), zero thank you's; and in most years, zero follow-ups reporting that the individual had been promoted or tenured (I don't expect to hear about negative decisions).
OK, so now I have vented. But that will not eliminate the process of impolitely seeking external evaluations. So, now let me propose some minor suggestions for infusing common, professional respect into the process:
Ask the reviewer if he or she has the time and would be willing to prepare an external review.
Think like an academic. Send the request and set a deadline that fits the academic calendar. Never send a request in November and expect a response by December; never send a request in March and expect a response by the end of the semester.
Prune the pile. Ask the candidate to select no more than three (3) of his or her best publications or the like.
Provide a pre-paid overnight mail label. Hey, if you want me to invest my time to do the review, at least invest $19 so you will get it back.
Acknowledge receiving the review. An e-mail or postcard would be just fine.
Say thank you. A note or even an e-mail would be fine. I will admit that some colleges can go a little over-the top. Years ago the University of Notre Dame paid me $100 for a review. That seemed a bit too much. However, one university just sent a colleague of mine a $20 gift certificate to Borders as a way or thanking her for her review. I believe my colleague will truly now look forward to doing external reviews for that institution.
I would strongly advise universities and colleges that seek external evaluations to consider all of the above suggestions. Otherwise, before too long, your requests will evoke the same response that telemarketers get from most people they call, and your response rate will be about the same as those of telemarketers.
Richard J. Gelles
Richard J. Gelles is dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.
After adjuncting for six years in California, I landed a full-time contract position teaching at a Midwest university in 2005. After nearly two years, I will be relocating for a tenure-track position at a community college for Fall 2007. I have the odd feeling of "going home" -- even though I am not returning to the West. After experience in both academic arenas, I can say with certainty that my skills and background are more suited to a community college system.
Most of my colleagues at the university where I am currently teaching consider work at community colleges as either a stepping-stone to better careers, or as a fallback position during competitive seasons. I see them as my past - and my future with no regret.
When I moved out from my mother's place, the community college was the only system that would take me in. At 16, without a high school diploma, much of society had written me off as a failure. Even though it took many starts and stops, I collected units as several community colleges and finally transferred to a state university. I managed two years on the dean's list and graduated with a B.A. in English in 1989. My two sisters had already graduated from college; one immediately went on to graduate school. We were the first in our family to have completed college.
I applied to a master's program at the same university where I'd received my undergraduate degree. When I received a letter of acceptance, I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn't think they'd accept me. I walked away with a master's in English in 1993. In 1998, psychologically weary from a decade in advertising, I started teaching part-time at a community college.
I had finally found my real career. I did everything I could to teach more courses; in 2000, I gave up my day job in advertising and worked for several community colleges and universities at a time to make ends meet. Although I was often physically exhausted, I was never intellectually bored with teaching. And because of my working class background, I felt a close tie to the community colleges that had supported my own education. Although I took part-time positions at universities, I knew that I was simply offering myself as a "bread and butter" instructor. No matter what I did there, I could never be considered as anything other than a fill-in.
Over the years, I started to realize that no matter how much hands-on experience I had teaching at the postsecondary level, there would be times that I felt "less than" the new Ph.D.s working in adjoining offices. I simply did not have the contextual framework to view my own teaching strategies and define what had shaped my beliefs. Luckily, some of the colleges I worked for made professional development a priority; I eagerly attended workshops and training sessions on everything from using rubrics to online grading systems. I was often offered a mentor. I started to make use of them to read up on the profession -- and later, on my discipline. Some of the gaps started to lessen a little. I felt a bit more confident in the classroom. And like any good instructor, my teaching philosophy shifted and changed as I gathered more information and gained more experience with different student populations in the classroom.
Later, my university contract position allowed me to travel to my first conference. I was startled to learn that this was where some of the real research in my profession was unveiled. I trotted from room to room, taking notes faster than I'd ever done before. I smiled, shook hands, talked to strangers in elevators, and felt exhilarated. During breaks, I would fill a plastic bag full of every bit of paper I could find -- an addendum to the conference schedule, catalogs of newly released textbooks, simple fliers advertising positions-and run back to my hotel room to shuffle through them, empty them into my carry-on and return for more. On the flight home, my head ached with ideas. Thoughts about long-standing splits in my discipline, concepts that could shape my teaching, and hands-on strategies for teaching. I revised my syllabus for the next semester; although the changes may have looked minimal on the surface, my underlying concepts were shifting.
I'd always been focused on teaching. And now, in the last few years, I'd become more and more convinced that there is more here than meets the eye. Different populations faced different obstacles: developmental students, first-generation students, non-native English speakers, students with families and jobs. And there was overlap. Some students were overcoming multiple difficulties in order to reach their goal. Although I was there to assist, I could not water down the curriculum to reach them all. I had to find ways to appeal to students in what seemed like a widening set of circumstances.
At the community college level, I had faced this before. Here at the university, I was seeing the deeper implications. I was also seeing the end result for many that entered education: the levels of critical thinking necessary to succeed, the ability to write across the curriculum, and finally, the major that would sustain or inspire them. I feel grateful to have seen the future for these students; this will shape my teaching at the community college level.
Because of my background, I am a very pragmatic instructor. I will always be thinking of how to present a concept in a different light, how to break up another lesson into smaller pieces that incorporate a feedback loop, and how to use a different example that might appeal more to my student population. When a university colleague accused me of "pandering" to student interest, I simply smiled and nodded. Yes, it's true that I had supplemented some of the textbook lessons with current news. I had allowed students a choice of three different topics for their first essay. And I had devised some lessons that had incorporated a short three-minute video segment, a handout with exercises, and a set of flashcards. At the university, these techniques may have been seen as a form of overreach -- of not trusting the students' ability to stay the course and learn that concept. At community colleges, however, the ability to appeal to many different forms of learning worked in capturing a student population that was much more varied in background and ability.
During my first year at the university, I realized that I missed this particular challenge. The constant need to evaluate methods and measure outcomes may have seemed troublesome at the community colleges where I'd taught -- yet this same work was what had stimulated me and kept me growing as an instructor. For those with a terminal degree, of course, research at the university and publishing would be the place to stretch one's limits. As an instructor whose primary area of interest was teaching, I sometimes felt a bit underutilized. Teaching at the university level was challenging -- but I was used to a bigger teaching load, a more varied student population, and an administration and faculty that was often toe-to-toe battling over dollars and programs.
I did miss the variety of students that I worked with at the two-year college. In the first few seats of my classroom, I might have a 22-year-old returning student in a clerical job with no future, a confused 64-year old who'd been let go because of a factory slowdown, and a 33-year old single parent of three who hated anyone knowing he or she was on welfare. And I loved teaching them. I learned about motivation first hand -- and found that many students would rise to the challenge if I approached them in just the right way. Each student seemed to require a slightly different mode of persuasion. The end result was a great deal of success. True, the universities did have students from different backgrounds; but here, the variety was much greater and my skills were tested with every single class session.
In the end, I'm most interested in outcome. Although the journey may be something I reflect on or discuss with colleagues, my main concern is that students leave my courses with the ability to write well. Because I've drawn my textbook choice and syllabus according to my department's curriculum guidelines, I feel confident that have the raw material to deliver what is expected in my courses.
I've been reading a more for myself lately. I picked up Tate, Rupiper and Schick's A Guide to Composition Pedagogies again. This time I kept a notepad close and outlined the eras that shaped my discipline. This made a handy "tip sheet" so that I could talk "smarter" while interviewing and, more importantly, helped me start to fill in some gaps in my knowledge.
I feel as though I am finally dedicating myself to this profession more completely. I'm not sure why this surprises me. Perhaps I felt that the early 40's were going to be the same struggle that my 30's were. I'm not under the false impression that I am reaching a plateau. Because I will be more invested, I will find some of the struggles even greater than the ones I'm experiencing now. Still, I'm grateful to have found the career to which I'm most suited. And I'm excited about the bar being raised. I sense that these next few years will be both exhilarating and exhausting. I'm up to the challenge.
Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.
In a memoir on Susan Sontag in a recent issue of Salmagundi, Sigrid Nunez writes at one point as follows: "[S]he never pretended that a person's success did not depend -- and to no small extent, either -- on being connected, or that she didn't know what Pascal meant when he said that being well-born can save a man 30 years." Once, Nunez adds, Sontag declared about a woman who asked her for a recommendation letter concerning a certain fellowship: "She'll never, ever get it -- not because her work isn't good enough, but because she just doesn't know the right people."
Nunez neglects to mention if Sontag wrote the letter anyway. If not, that's her difference from academics. Sontag, proudly, wasn't one. Therefore, she didn't have to write letters of recommendation. Better yet, at least from her point of view, she didn't have to acknowledge that a letter from her might alone constitute an example of knowing the right people -- and so, according to her own convictions she is almost obliged to produce the requested recommendation. Unless of course the fellowship was so lofty that even she herself was not worthy to breathe its air.
That's the trouble with "networks." They exist. Everybody knows they exist. Moreover, everybody knows knowing "the right people" can be absolutely decisive for extra- or inter-institutional activity -- getting selected by organizers for a panel, getting a publisher at least to pay attention to a submitted article or book, or getting hired by a department for a job. (Networks of course matter intra-institutionally in much the same way. But on a small scale they're not nearly so interesting to consider.) What nobody quite knows is how to define networks in the first place.
How permanent are they? Does it just depend upon the individuals? Are networks institutionally rooted? (But are you somehow automatically a member just because you're a graduate? See Alex Golub's column in these pages on how difficult it is merely to stay technologically connected.) How equivalent are the criteria of membership in a network to common identities of class, gender, or even race? (Or are any of these usually trumped by something else entirely, such as having the same dissertation adviser?) There is no easy or even coherent answer to any of these questions.
Common understanding seems to go roughly like this: Once there was something called an Old Boy network. This was in the days -- 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s -- when boys could be boys because there were virtually no girls. Then there were girls -- beginning in the 60s. What happened to the Old Boy network -- beginning in the 70s -- was one of two things: either it expanded to include the girls (albeit on the same terms as the boys) or -- by the 80s -- it was paralleled by a separate Old Girl network (albeit on the same terms as the boys). Now -- since the 90s -- nobody is really sure if any of this remains true anymore.
Or, more radically, if any of it was ever quite true. Networks don't offer themselves as objects of study. In order to be networks, they abide in informal ways, through casual word of mouth (or e-mail), unspoken assumptions (reinforced at conferences), and shared values that may not be shared at all (anywhere) if they have to be fully articulated. How do these values come into being? My own feeling is, through institutions. Their values, in turn -- ranging from how to dress or how to speak to what political or social attitudes to have -- are most akin to those of class.
The Old Boy network was -- and to the degree it continues, still is -- the product of the best universities in the country, which continue to be the best because they can perpetuate their wealth and prestige through ... networks. (I will set aside their additional, subject-specific, nature, assuming it goes without saying that all disciplines at an elite university partake of its status in the same basic way.) Everybody, top to bottom, knows this, and is stuck with a maddeningly circular argument if forced to try to explain it.
Example: a friend who lately applied to a department at one of the best liberal arts college in the country. (Names have been suppressed to protect the guilty.) Her doctorate is from Pittsburgh. Pretty good. But not as good as Stanford or Yale, which is where everybody in the department has a degree from. "I won't get in the door," she moaned. "No matter how many publications I have, they'll see I'm not one of them." Perhaps in this instance she won't be right. Enough doors can in practice swing open to make it seem like most are not effectively closed. And yet who among us is going to maintain that the department's search committee at this particular college is not going to judge job candidates on whether or not they are, in the vulgar phrase, "our sort"?
This was the most decisive consideration during departmental deliberations at the second-rate state university at which I taught for many years. For most of that time, the odd application from Cornell would send the search committee into a tizzy. ("Is she aware how much comp we teach?") Shortly before I left, the situation changed. There were many reasons, beginning with the job market itself. (At the M.L.A. a decade or so ago I met a recent Ph.D. from Harvard who wailed that he couldn't get a job. "Why else did I go to Harvard?") At the present time, "our sort" -- whatever the sort -- constitutes probably a less stable, more mixed consensus than it has ever before.
But this is not to say that the judgement doesn't continue to be made, every day, in myriad ways. All these are not explicable by the notion of a network. (Any department can certainly be forgiven for wanting to adhere to its own idea of itself as a social unit, and to fear how just one additional person could disrupt it.) But many judgments are. Inquire into any one personal contact, for example, and I believe you usually find a broader base than a single individual, who chances to know another individual known to you. In turn, this base is often united by the structural and organizational protocols we commonly assume when we speak of a "network."
Again, we return to the difficulty of stipulating precisely what these protocols are. Perhaps it is helpful to compare the example of another country. In my own experience, none suits like Japan, because atop its academic summit stands one radiant institution: Tokyo University. None compares to it in presumed excellence or actual prestige. Every other institution is inferior to Tokyo. Whether or not this is in fact so is beside the point. The point is that everyone believes it to be so. Tokyo in U.S. terms is a miraculous fusion of StanfordYaleCornellHarvard.
What astounded me during the time I taught in Japan was how Japanese academics genuflected before the hierarchical fact. The graduate director of my department assured me, for example, that a flagrant case of dishonesty which I knew to be true was "absurd" because "such a thing could never happen at Tokyo University." End of discussion. This same man was an Anglophile, as so many Japanese academics are, part of the reason being that they can convert England into Japan, through substituting Oxford or Cambridge for Tokyo. The common idea is: We know there is hierarchy because of the one lofty example bestowing the idea of distinction upon all other institutions below.
Such a single, or dual, example is harder for Americans to believe in. In many ways higher education in the United States is actually more like Japan, with a bewildering array of public and private universities, each subject to fine status discriminations among themselves. Yet there remains one huge difference: the United States lacks Tokyo University. Thus, in a very real sense, because of this fact alone, the very idea of hierarchy here becomes more problematic, and the reality of networks (whether involving students, faculty, or administrators) more elusive and diffuse. Often, for example, graduate students or junior faculty are urged to attend conferences in order to "network." But usually this means little more than partaking of the opportunity to meet somebody, and then hoping that this person will be able to open up a wider opportunity, unnamed and maybe unnameable.
What to say? It could happen. And again, networks undeniably exist. The closer you get to the top, the more tightly knit and implacable their bonds may appear. Yet we're Americans. We're not Japanese or British. We believe in the power of individual will and the rewards of individual effort. Academic life, like all other forms, may be arranged in terms of hierarchy. Nevertheless, compare business or entertainment. (When the director, Quentin Tarantino, was asked what is necessary in order to make a film, he replied: "Know Harvey Keitel.") We academics believe we have within us the capability to change institutional arrangements that exclude us or to enter circuits of influence that prevent us from seeking the job we desire or publishing the manuscript we wrote.
Alas, though, there are networks and there are networks. Not only do some matter far more than others. Some hardly matter at all. I know of a small community college, 75 percent of whose English department is staffed by M.A. graduates of the largest area university. Do these people take themselves to comprise a "network"? Probably not. They merely happen to have been taught by the same professors or to know many of the same people. The idea of a "network" only comes into play when outsiders exert some pressure on the uniformity of the organization. In turn, the organization itself exerts no pressure on any other. So, although it possesses the integrity (perhaps not the best word) of a network, this particular community college department lacks the extensiveness of one.
On the other hand, the most powerful or influential networks operate nationwide; this is one primary reason they're powerful and influential. In turn, they authenticate the crucial difference between "knowing somebody" and "somebody worth knowing." We all desire contact with members of networks that enable mobility, prestige, financial reward, and other good things, all authorized by elites (or else they wouldn't be elite in the first place). That is -- let's say -- we all want to work at the best liberal arts colleges or research universities in the country. Too bad so few of us can.
Too bad the reasons why can be so crudely stated: there are too few networks and they are too exclusive. Finally, too bad that most of us work in places where the guarantees of the best networks can't even be realized. (Again, Golub's column can be recommended on this point.) Instead, the great majority of us have to try to be content with what we have. Either we enjoy our own networks, such as they are, or else we contemplate the absence of others. Meanwhile, we try not to acknowledge that it was simply never in our experience to have saved Pascal's 30 years.
Terry Caesar's last column was about the lessons he has learned writing Purely Academic.
“Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil veils” (“When you are worth nothing, you should want nothing.”) --Arnold Geulincx (1624-69; with apologies to Louis Menand)
One of the best films of the 1990s was Chris Smith’s unheralded $14,000 masterpiece, American Job. The film follows an uninspired young man, Randy Scott, as he finds and then loses (or quits) a number of dispiriting minimum wage jobs: factory worker, fast food dishwasher, motel room custodian, and telemarketer. One of the best scenes comes near the beginning of the film when Randy is interviewing for a factory job. Quickly scanning his application, the middle manager conducting the interview notices that Randy once had a summer job at a local amusement park guessing people’s ages and weights. Intrigued, the middle manager challenges Randy, if memory serves, to guess his weight. Although at first reluctant, Randy does guess, comes pretty close, and the interviewer is duly impressed. Randy gets the job.
The scene, like the television show "The Office" at its best, is painfully awkward and therefore anxiously hilarious. But in retrospect the scene also terrifies because it demonstrates just how meaningless minimum wage job interviews have become. These jobs are so de-skilled that they could be -- and have been designed to be -- done by anyone. Indeed, we later see Randy at his job, where he pushes a button, waits for an excruciatingly long 30 seconds or so, removes a piece of molded plastic, and then pushes the button again. Given the nature of the work, it follows that the interviews held to fill these positions will have little to do with determining a person’s skills or qualifications. Since the job requires no skills whatsoever, everyone is qualified for it. Rather, these interviews will have more to do with determining a job applicant’s character: his work ethic, his friendliness, his willingness to follow a boss’s order (even an absurd one, like guessing his weight), and, later, of course, his drug-free-ness. I caught myself thinking about Randy and his interview during my own extended interview -- what is euphemistically referred to as “a campus visit,” as though you were there to soak up some local color -- for a job in an English department at a small, regional campus of a large state university system. It must have been my second or third campus visit of the hiring season, with two or three more looming over me. Like changing the oil in your car, campus visits follow a rigid, prescribed routine that one departs from at peril. These visits alternate between events -- meeting with a dean, touring the campus, giving a job talk, meeting with the search committee -- and meals, and it must have been at one of these meals, making small talk with various professors, that I thought of Randy and his interview.
At that moment, of course, I had no real reason to think of Randy. Unlike the factory job Randy interviews for, the job of English professor requires a great deal of skill and training -- depending on how quickly one moves through her graduate work, anywhere from 5 to 10 years in addition to 4 years of undergraduate training. And instead of a single interview stretched out to last a respectable 10 minutes, candidates for tenure-track jobs in English must pass through at least two rounds of interviews: an initial, 45-minute interview at the discipline’s major conference, the Modern Language Association, and then, if they clear that hurdle, a two- or three-day interview at the hiring department’s campus. Indeed, search committees go to great expense to fly me to their universities, put me up in hotels, and stuff food down my face in order to judge how well I or any other candidate will perform at the particular set of skills required of a standard tenure-track English job: the holy tenurable trinity of research, teaching, and service. Unlike Randy’s situation, too, my campus interview existed for my benefit at least as much as for the search committee’s. If I receive more than one job offer, visiting a campus gives me the chance to determine whether I would want to bring my particular skills to this particular campus and community. As a result, everyone is usually -- though not always -- on their best behavior.
If my interview was nothing like Randy’s, I nevertheless frequently ended up feeling a lot like Randy, guessing -- and being asked to guess -- people’s weights and ages. Don’t get me wrong. No one asked me to guess their weight -- or whatever the academic equivalent of that question would be. Rather, just like the weight-guessing question Randy was asked, the banal yet innocuous questions faculty members do ask -- “Where was I from?” “How did I get interested in this topic?” -- become loaded with a significance out of proportion to their actual content. Together, my answers formed me into a certain candidate shape, one which may or may not be the proper and notorious “fit” that search committees frequently resort to in making their final decision. And I realized that despite our hopes to be judged according to what we have done and not who we are, what really gets evaluated on campus visits is not primarily a candidate’s skills but, rather, just like at Randy’s interview, a candidate’s character. Has the candidate worked hard? Is she likable? Does she get along well with others? Can the candidate handle gracefully the at best inappropriate and at worst illegal question someone asks about her spouse and his or her career ambitions? Will the candidate hold her tongue in meetings with the insipid dean who is perversely proud of his lack of knowledge about the humanities? And while there is less fuss made about her drug history -- although that is changing -- how well will she get through dinner with only a glass of wine?
Later that night, flipping through stations on the television, I tried to account for why, if I was right, Randy and I should both be judged on our character and not on our skills. The answer, rather obvious in retrospect, is that while the job of an English professor is certainly a skilled one, there are at the same time countless people trained to do that sort of work. In other words, anyone could push a button and wait 30 seconds. Similarly, there are a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of people who can write articles and books, teach classes in a given area, and adequately serve on committees. (Many rejection letters noted that the search committee received several hundreds of applications.) In which case -- that is, in a case where there is a surplus of people qualified to do a certain task, whether that task is skilled or unskilled -- the criteria for who gets a job and who doesn’t will shift, either slightly or totally, away from a candidate’s competency and towards her character. It is a buyer’s market, and in addition to providing shelter, a house-qua-candidate has to have a certain curb appeal, too.
Economists refer to this as the “sheepskin effect,” although it works slightly differently in the humanities job market. In times of high unemployment, employers will have more applicants from which to choose their employees and, thus, can raise the qualifications for the position beyond what would reasonably be needed to perform the work. When character does not, educational attainment oftentimes performs that sorting function. Employers conclude, rightly perhaps, that someone who could make it through two or four years of college has demonstrated more perseverance and ability than those who dropped out of college or never went. For example, a secretary does not need a college degree to do all or even most of her work, but all things being equal, an applicant with a college degree will be interviewed -- and most likely hired -- before the candidate with only a high school degree. Thus the “sheepskin” effect: the process whereby those with college degrees will be interviewed (and frequently hired) before those without college degrees, even though nothing about their work requires a degree.
In the humanities job market, though, where everyone, by definition, has a sheepskin, sometimes a whole flock of sheepskins, the “sheepskin” effect will still apply but according to other criteria -- criteria nevertheless unrelated, strictly speaking, to the ability of the person to do the job. Distinctions among sheepskins -- Ivy versus state, flagship versus branch -- as well as publications used to provide that sorting function, and still do, but now that more and more candidates are going on the market with publications, hiring committees can begin to be even more finicky about their candidates. Call it the “character” effect, or, in homage to Randy, the “weight-guessing” effect.
Now, I do not mean to suggest that “skills” count for nothing, and it could well be that I am just cynical, fed up with being the plaything of departments and search committees. At the time, I was certainly tired of going on campus visits. And it is also true that I dislike this part of the job search not just because I find it dehumanizing (although I do) but because it puts the shy, the reticent, the impatient, and the substance-addicted among us -- and I include myself in most of those categories -- at a considerable disadvantage. Either we will not demonstrate our collegiality as well as other candidates, or we will feel slightly ashamed for being someone (chatty, obsequious) we are in fact not. Indeed, I will admit that my favorite part of campus visits is the job talk. Not just because I like to hear myself talk, but because it means you’re finally done with all the time-killing and time-serving conversation and can finally speak about something meaningful.
In many ways, of course, this emphasis on character is justified and even laudable. These are tenure-track jobs, which, if all goes as planned and tenure is granted, represent -- failing financial catastrophe -- an institution’s lifetime commitment to that employee. As such, faculty members in a department, especially a small department, need to feel certain that they can live happily ever after with a candidate for the remainder of their career. No one wants to share their workplace with a drunk who wanders the halls and sneaks cigarettes in his office, a faculty member who sits in his office in boxer shorts eating spiral ham with his fingers, or a crank who circulates vituperative, paranoid e-mails to the rest of the department. As you probably guessed, I have not invented these colorfully un-collegial colleagues, but they are very much real. Most of them, not coincidentally, come from an earlier generation of faculty, hired before the reserve army of literature professors came on the scene in the mid-1970s and made it possible for departments to pick and choose among the qualified and collegial rather than just having to take their chances with the qualified.
So, in the end, departments can be forgiven their desire for collegiality. And it is surely nostalgia to imagine that “character” never played a role in who gets hired or fired. Moreover, there may well be no solution to the current “weight-guessing” effect short of returning the profession closer to a state of full employment. But we should remember that that desire for collegiality is a luxury, one made possible by the specific -- and surplus -- conditions of a labor market.
Michael Joseph Donlin
Michael Joseph Donlin, who isn’t sure future colleagues will find this essay collegial, is the pseudonym of a lecturer at a university in the Midwest. For the benefit of future job seekers, he weighs 170 pounds.
As a child, I thought that being the new kid at school was the most painful experience imaginable. Now that I’m older, I’ve reconsidered. I’d say that being a new tenure-track hire is even more stressful. I like to think that teaching for nearly a decade has helped ready me for my own first tenure-track position, but I know that this next year will challenge me. Luckily, more-seasoned colleagues have given me some valuable advice over the years:
S.T.F.U. or “Shut the frick up.” This advice sounds counter-productive. After all, outsiders are often hired to bring in fresh ideas. This is true -- but know that brash commentary offered at the wrong time can damage a new professor’s chance to be of use to a department in the long run.
This is not to suggest that new faculty should not make suggestions. Still, careful research will help educate those who are less experienced with a campus’s specific concerns. I think seasoned hands are more open-minded to suggestions when they can tell that the newer professor has some understanding of the history of the program and underlying nature of the issue at hand.
For those moving into a first year on tenure track like myself, the challenge will be to sit in meetings, listen, take notes, and say very little. It will help me to remember that if I have a big worry about a topic being discussed, chances are that a more established professor will have it, too. When they speak up, they’ll be able to weather some criticism since they have a history at this institution. By curbing the tongue, pen, and keyboard in the first year, fresh faces like mine will last long enough to make a valuable contribution to a department, program, and college.
Watch out for the pink cloud. An academic acquaintance of mine accepted her first tenure-track job at a university in the Midwest and bought a house within a month of signing her contract. A year later, she wondered if she might have jumped too soon. The department was fractured, research funds were scarce, and the students seemed unmotivated. Worse yet, two hiring seasons later, her fiancé, also an academic, was still two states and a 10-hour drive away.
It’s normal to want to plant roots, find a home, and invest in a community. After graduate school and years of TA'.ing, it’s natural to grab on to that first tenure-track position and breathe a deep sigh of relief. But the reality is that half of the colleagues I’ve met did not stay at the their first tenure-track job. Of those who left, some found that they needed to move even after a second tenure-track position. It’s a sobering thought.
That’s not to say that I won’t stay in my first tenure-track position until retirement. But it does temper the expectation that this job, these colleagues, this area must be perfect because they represent a 30-year commitment.
To those who have never landed a tenure-track position or are experiencing their first, this may smack of ingratitude. But more experienced colleagues have told me that true fit between professor and campus becomes more important with time. It may be something as simple as location. Departmental politics, curriculum, or student population can also influence a professor’s decision to go on the market. Some are just searching for an atmosphere more conducive to development as an instructor, a researcher, or an author.
For those, like me, who get caught up in small details (like noticing the overzealous office supply guardian, worn linoleum, and lack of parking spots), it’s important to keep an eye on the bigger picture. Good questions to consider: Has the college weathered more than a few educational trends? Have seasoned professors held fast, knowing that one weak administrator would eventually move on -- whereas the college itself was solid? Is a key group of faculty that you admire and enjoy working with going to be there for a good part of your tenure? In theory, would you choose to live in this area even if you weren’t tenured at this institution?
Don’t fall into one camp right away. At institutions awash in politics, new hires may be approached by more established professors hoping to get support for pet programs or new curriculum. As a fresh face on campus, it’s tempting to see this as a chance to develop professional contacts and feel more anchored on campus. The down side is that in fractured departments, this alignment may directly influence which committees one is invited to serve on, and even what courses one will be allowed to teach for years to come. For a few, it may even curb chances for promotion and research funds.
At one university where I taught, new faculty were immediately “sorted” into camps according to the institution that granted their graduate degrees, their academic mentors, and the subject of their dissertations. Many assumed that the new hire was of a particular ideology based solely on this information. On top of this history, many immediately received a reputation depending on where they sat at departmental meetings and faculty with whom they lunched. Surely not all institutions are this political; still, it reminded me that the connections made in the first year may be of utmost importance.
Of course it’s important to make connections and encourage professional friendships. These are necessary to teach well, do research, and publish. Yet old friends in academe have cautioned me to make it a point to spend time with professors on both sides of longstanding divisions. When in doubt, be nice to everyone. Don’t gossip. And when burning with enthusiasm after the first departmental meeting, it’s smarter to approach professors in private and ask questions rather than publicly take a stand. In addition to keeping a new hire from being branded with a reputation too soon, making more than a few alliances will help avoid overdependence on one individual and strengthen a professor’s position in the department.
Get over your last college or university. I remember one faculty member at my last institution whose every comment started with, “At Blah Blah U, we…” No matter how important his point, two-thirds of the faculty zoned out as we heard, yet again, how much better his last university dealt with every situation. We often wondered why he left.
It’s natural to want to lend your experience to a committee or to a department. But know that if you fly your last institution’s flag every time you open your mouth, others will not be as open-minded to your suggestions -- no matter how valuable. I’ve already caught myself wanting to name my last affiliation when chatting with faculty and staff at my new position. A few times, I’ve trailed off with, “… somewhere where I used to teach.” Other times, I’ve bit my tongue, reminding myself that this is not my last college. And I need to learn to trust the professors and administrators that are already working with the curriculum and student population at this college.
I’m working on my listening skills so that I’m actually paying attention rather than formulating a response. When I feel the need to “blurt,” I often check my motives. Am I excited about a past experience that will be useful here? Or am I feeling insecure because I’m the new hire? I also need to keep in mind that constant comparisons in my head may be a way of emotionally distancing. Changing positions involves grief. When I admit that I miss my old colleagues, staff, and even the fast copy machine on the second floor, I’m on the way to making room for my new situation. It’s smart, though, to use old colleagues, non-academic friends, and relatives to work through my emotions, rather than burn up my new contacts during this adjustment.
Don’t overextend yourself. After a semester working full-time on contract at my last institution, I was able to make time for a few outside interests. I wrote a monthly column for a local newspaper and volunteered two shifts a month at the regional food bank. At one point, overloaded with committee work and essays to be graded, I cursed the monthly column that had originally been a source of great pride. I already suspected what others knew: academic work is all encompassing. And I’ve heard it’s much, much worse for those working toward tenure.
For those on the tenure track for the first time, it’s tempting to try to do everything to impress senior faculty and administrators. I understand the desire to impress higher-ups and do well. Even while working on contract, I felt compelled to do everything I could to “fill in the blanks” in my annual review binder -- even though I knew that others less qualified would be renewed. And tenure is much, much more difficult to acquire than a yearly contract. I will need to carefully gauge where my time is best spent.
Agreeing to do extra committee work, service work in the community, and advising feels good when one first signs up; in the end, however, one needs to consider the time necessary to do well with the teaching, publication, and research necessary to achieve tenure first. I’ve been told that it’s much smarter to add duties after a semester or two when one has already received positive reviews from a department chair or dean.
I’ve been told to prioritize -- to find out what is most important to my department and draw boundaries when I find myself falling into saying, “Yes” to responsibilities beyond those in the first year. I know that outside interests will have to suffer in my first few years while I work to be a good instructor, colleague, and agent for my students. True, I want to look good to administrators -- but I also realize that being overwhelmed and dropping the ball will be noticed, too. Balance is the key.
Prepare for a deeper level of commitment. Being on contract is like dating for fun. If there is too much friction between the individual and department, temporary faculty can finish out the semester or year and attempt to find another assignment. On the other hand, working toward tenure is like being engaged -- at least according to my tenured friends. Because both professor and institution are more committed, there is a better chance that the union will last. Tenured faculty members often stay during poorly funded years and look to the big picture when faced with a failing academic program or weak administrator.
After nearly a decade of teaching on contract, I know that staying put will be both a welcome change and a challenge. My current CV is a mish-mash of adjunct and contract work spanning eight years. Although I’ve always been deeply committed to teaching my students, it’s painful to realize how less committed I’ve been to my employer’s vision. Still, I realize that there is a greater plan in place here. Working toward tenure is not just the opportunity to step up professionally; it’s an opportunity for me to mature as an individual.
Already I sense a shift in my thinking. On campus today, I passed a maintenance man working with a large rolling cart of student chairs and padded benches. I stopped, introduced myself, and asked if a short bench might be placed outside my office. “Sure,” he answered without hesitation. I motioned back toward the office that I share with a colleague. He walked back with me, then stood for a moment, hand beneath his chin, one finger tapping his lower lip. “A two- or three-seater bench would work here,” he said, looking at me for approval. “Three would be great. If you have it,” I said. He nodded. I thanked him, and as I turned, I started to smile. This was the first time that I’d asked for something to augment my physical workspace. In years past, I’d simply make do with whatever had been given me, confident that I wouldn’t be teaching there long enough for it to make a difference. I suspect this is a one small step toward a deeper level of commitment for me at this college.
Today, I feel more dedicated to the process. Although a bit nervous, I’m excited about being “on track” for the first time in my career. It will be an interesting study to see how well I follow the advice given me -- and how I fit in this new academic circle.
Shari Dinkins has been teaching at postsecondary institutions since 2000. In fall 2007 she joined Illinois Central College as an assistant professor on the tenure track.
Once more, the English department at my Southern liberal arts college will send a team to the Modern Language Association meeting to search for an African American. Oops, did I say that? I mean, an African-American ist -- someone who specializes in research and teaching African-American literature. This search, three years running, has become the most vexing aspect of departmental life, at least in part because of the department’s well-meaning but misguided goal of hiring a black candidate. When the applications come in, there is a more or less unspoken attempt to read the color of the candidate based on the colleges they attended, their names, or their committee work.
The MLA interview can occasionally feel like the dating game, as a series of previously promising candidates enter the room all too whitely. (Even more perplexing are non-white candidates of another race or ethnicity researching in African-American literature, but that’s another subject) However, a lot can happen in a 40-minute interview. After engaging with serious scholarship on African-American literature and culture, it is hard for the interview team to sustain emphasis on the candidate’s body over the candidate’s body of work. So, at the end of two days of intense discussions with ABD’s and newly-minted Ph.D.’s, the interview team comes up with a short list of four very bright, energetic, productive candidates with tremendous research and teaching potential. Odds are that the majority of them, like a majority of the pool, will not be black, and so the real work of the search begins: trying to convince the rest of the department to take these folks seriously.
My department’s dilemma seems paradigmatic of a phenomenon of scarcity throughout the profession: Our significant commitment to diversity, and the historical importance of having a person of color in an English department in the South runs into the reality of a dearth of black Ph.D.'s in the humanities. According to a recent report by the Association of Departments of English, over the last three decades only 2.5 percent of all doctorates in English were awarded to African Americans. The numbers skew higher in recent years and according to field, but experience confirms that when the candidates step from behind the curtain and into the interview room for the first time, the majority are white. Complicating the search, the field of African-American literature is one of the most exciting, advanced areas of humanities scholarship, in recent years drawing from globalization studies, legal theory, and comparative literature in addition to traditional Americanist methodologies. The top 20 African-Americanist candidates are likely to compete for general Americanist jobs as well as field specific jobs, and if only a few of these are black, the competition among departments is intense. Over the last two years, our department’s top offers have ended up at prestigious research schools, most with well-established programs in African-American and/or Africana studies programs. (Meanwhile, we have never been able to get a consensus on second-choice white candidates.) How can we possibly compete?
Perhaps I should ask, why do we compete? Why are we so committed to hiring a black candidate, against all odds? Many of my colleagues take pride in the fact that they worked hard to hire the first-ever African American in the department over 30 years ago, precisely by creating a position in African-American literature. Back then, fighting for the position as a means to diversify was a bold political move on a largely white campus, anchoring the English department’s reputation for progressive politics. Subsequent hires over the years have significantly increased our campus diversity, though our retention is poor. Across disciplines, our university has been a great first job for African Americans, and too often a springboard for an even better second job. Perhaps we should be proud that a small liberal arts college has managed to “place” so many of our minority faculty at competitive research universities. Our “alumni” faculty are happily employed at top-ranked research schools throughout the country. (There must be a way we can use this as a recruitment tool!).
In any case, it does seem that we have progressed from the point where a job offer from a small Southern school represents an all-important helping hand to minority scholars. It may now be the case that we need them and the fields they represent more than they need us. After all, what do we want from our minority hires? Surely not token representation. What if we could move beyond this liberal left-over and create an academic environment where minority faculty research and teaching is well integrated into the mission of the university, rather than as an extra within any given department? This would mean building interdisciplinary programs in Africana studies, postcolonial and globalization studies, and ethnic studies -- fields that productively bring together faculty regardless of race, that are also the common “homes” for students and teachers interested in exploring minority cultures. The point is not to insulate minority faculty in mini-communities of color, but to create occasions where research and teaching on the lives, culture, and histories of marginal people are not marginalized. Typically, our most outstanding candidates for the African-Americanist position -- black and white -- were trained in programs with interdisciplinary resources and field-expanding faculty networks. What if we could envision a similar role for them here, at our small campus?
If your commitment to hiring a minority extends no further than throwing open the doors and hoping one walks through, then it is really no kind of commitment at all. At best, it is a naïve strategy that still presumes the employers’ market of the 70’s and 80’s; at worst, it’s racist, prioritizing color while neglecting the significance of the position itself. Ironically, it is precisely the position that ought to be the focus of the search. While well-meaning liberals fight for the body of the African American, those of us who work in ethnic studies recognize that a parallel battle still rages over the body of work -- canons of literature and curriculum -- classes, not to mention the student body. Yes, there are half a dozen reasons why it is significant to have a person of color at the head of the class. But at what cost? To not offer the class at all for lack of a brown body? Besides exposure to black faculty, all students need to at least have the chance to learn the literature and cultural and social contexts of African Americans. We must recall that there is a wider world beyond the university, and that we are training students to go out in the world and be good stewards of culture, and public models of progressive change. Surely graduating a few dozen students every year who have studied African-American literature and culture is a worthy accomplishment -- and no less so if they were taught by a white person.
Even more progressive than the acquisition strategy of diversification would be a contribution strategy: What if we kept figures and took pride in the number of minority students we were able to attract to our classes, graduate with our majors, send off to Ph.D. programs? What if, rather than trying to gather up what comes out of the pipeline, our department was contributing at the other end; or even better, breaking open the narrow funnels of entry in the first place, by offering our students curriculum and institutional support for comparative cultural study, African diaspora research, and cross-disciplinary opportunities to study African American literature and culture in a global context? Grow the field and broaden the field, bring in new people, I say. Practically speaking, classes in minority literature attract minority students, regardless of the professor, and this attraction may in fact be a lure into the profession for the very brightest of them.
Let’s face it -- there are precious few minorities entering the job market any given year, and the odds that you will hire one are not good. So search inward. Find on your campus the next generation of minority scholars. Provide classes for them (and don’t assume that minorities can or will only study literature of their own ethnic group). Educate them. Tutor them in the thrills of research. Encourage the best and most capable to consider graduate school. Contact friends and acquaintances in Ph.D. programs -- make cold calls for god’s sake -- on behalf your best minority majors applying to grad school and help grow the field. And who knows? Maybe some of these students will actually want to come back and teach for their dear old alma mater upon completion. Meanwhile, it’s still OK to hire the white person.
David Joseph is the pseudonym of an associate professor of English.
Submitted by Rob Weir on December 4, 2007 - 4:00am
The days are shorter, there’s a nip in the air, and the malls are piping in the fa-la-la music. For higher-ed heads it can mean only one thing: Hiring season has started. Forget twinkling pines, Chanukah candles, Kwanzaa feasts, or even the aluminum pole of Festivus -- late fall and early winter is the time in which the dust is blown from moldering vitae, slumbering hiring committees are awakened, and deans are besieged by departmental Savonarolas predicting a looming apocalypse which can only be averted by additional faculty hiring. If all goes according to plan, instead of preparing holiday feasts, faculty members will busy themselves booking flights and hotel rooms for January conferences (which, for some odd reason, are more likely to be in Chicago or New York than someplace rational, like Miami or Honolulu). Cattle calls will ensue and, if the hiring committee members are like most, they will make their one nod to the holidays they just missed: They’ll be seduced by a shiny new bauble and purchase it for their departmental tree. Come the fall of 2008, the newly minted Ph.D.’s will arrive on campus ready to adorn the branches of academe.
I mention this because just about one year ago the popular media sounded alarmist notes about how “gray” the academy had become, especially at top research institutions and elite colleges. Predictable anecdotes were bandied about, sprinkled with a few carefully culled statistics -- apparently we should be alarmed that 2.1 percent of tenured profs are over 70 -- and the call for mandatory retirement policies was righteously asserted. (Odd how the phrase “age discrimination” was so astutely ignored.) Let me play Grinch and put forth a radically different idea: Research universities and elite colleges ought to get grayer, not younger, and for two compelling reasons: quality and cost.
Full disclosure: I am in my 50s and toiled in the second tier for over a decade before growing tired of the grind. I chucked a tenured post and took a leap-by-choice back to adjunct work that was more challenging and interesting than what I had been doing. I hold titles such as lecturer and visiting assistant professor by an act of will, so don’t cry for me Argentina. But I’ve also been at enough different types of institutions to know that the really good ones ought to be hiring people like me rather than bright, new baubles.
Let’s start with what should be (but seldom is) obvious: Over time academics worth their salt accumulate knowledge, have become experts in their fields -- and have the vitae to prove it -- and know how to teach. The latter point cannot be overemphasized. According to the Department of Education, 60 percent of students graduate from a different college or university than the one in which they first enrolled. Surprisingly, cost and homesickness are not cited as reasons for transferring as often as bad teaching, lousy advising, and desire for a more prestigious education. It does not take a mathematical genius to figure out that a failed assistant professor hire can cost his or her institution tens of thousands of dollars in lost tuition fees; at elite colleges that number quickly leaps into six figures, not to mention future losses related to alumni giving.
With due respect to the many wonderful and talented novice assistant professors, one is more likely to encounter shaky teaching among rookies. Higher education, unlike nearly all other levels of education, usually requires no formal training or practice teaching as a prerequisite for instructing undergraduates. The vast majority of newly minted Ph.D.’s have little classroom experience beyond serving as a teaching assistant and in some fields -- most notably the hard sciences -- many graduate students working on research grants have had no direct student contact at all.
Another reason why young professors are often so-so teachers is simple: They’re too busy producing the research necessary to secure tenure. Since they’re bright people they pick up -- often by trial and error -- the tricks of the teaching trade, but if they’re at a university or elite college, they’d better crank out papers, articles, and books or teaching evaluations are moot. And they’d better be on a handful of time-consuming campus committees to boot.
Like too many things in higher education, we’ve structured things backwards. Young folks can sharpen their attack knives for the next remark, but if the academy ran according to logic, nearly all new hires would begin their careers at colleges that place more emphasis on teaching than research. Freed from publish-or-perish pressures, they’d be able to craft their teaching skills more quickly and in the company of seasoned mentors. They’d also produce the research necessary to go to the next level in a less-pressured environment. In certain fields -- math and physics, for example -- one could make the case for letting young scholars work in the private sector before we even expect them to begin teaching. Although the data of researchers such as G.H. Hardy and Thomas Kuhn have been challenged, a significant percentage of important findings nonetheless occur before mathematicians or scientists hit 40. As for humanists, yes, it’s harder to give conference papers or get a book out if your teaching load is 4/4 instead of 2/3, but this is where we grizzled vets turn off our empathy. I published four books in years in which I shouldered loads of 4/4 and 5/5, and I’m not so vain as to believe I’m exceptional. The bottom line on this is simple: If a college wants good teaching and a distinguished faculty, go for those with a proven track record.
If that’s not persuasive, try the economic bottom line. According to the American Historical Association, in early 2007 the average starting salary for an assistant professor was just a tick over $48,000, whereas an associate professor begins at roughly ten thousand dollars more. Forget the ballyhooed star system; in routine hires it makes economic sense to hire older professors. How often have we seen this? A new hire -- roughly 30 years of age -- is made on the basis of his or her “cutting edge” research. Enough is published so that, approximately seven years later, that individual is tenured and promoted to associate professor. Academe being what it is, by then the research isn’t so “hot” any more, but that prof is still on the books for another 28 to 30 years.
Consider an alternative scenario. Let’s say the same college decides instead to hire a 55-year-old with tons of experience and publications, and that person agrees to come in at an associate professor’s salary. If we factor in annual raises of about 4 percent (generous these days) and assume that the individual with be made a full professor in five or six years, the college will invest roughly $800,000 in salary on said individual before he or she reaches retirement age. It would take 13 years for the 30-year-old to reach the same level of investment, but remember: They’re still aboard for quite awhile and you’ve got to keep compounding bumps for raises and promotions. For less money than the costs of a full career for a new Ph.D., an institution could hire two experienced associate profs sequentially, plus have money left over for several adjuncts.
So why do some deans tell hiring committees not to look at Ph.D.’s minted more than five years ago? Beats me! Logic would dictate that, metaphorically speaking, this holiday season hiring committees ought to stay away from the mall and head for the used bookstore.
Rob Weir is a reasonably well-adjusted freelance educator and writer living in western Massachusetts and making the rounds of local colleges. He plays hard to get, but would probably say "yes" to the right suitor.
As has become the annual tradition, the American Historical Association is out with its report lauding the health of the academic job market in history. The report, culled exclusively from job listings in Perspectives (an AHA publication) and Ph.D. completion statistics reported by history departments, shows that there are more available positions than there are historians produced. Other disciplines issue similar reports. While the AHA report may be viewed favorably by some such as scholars in Asian history, the most underpopulated field for historians, for others it reflects a general lack of concern from the association for the untenured and the graduate student. And the problems discussed here apply to many other disciplines as well.
As a national organization and the most powerful entity in the historical job market, the AHA has done surprisingly little to help the newest members of their profession. On the whole, historians pride themselves on their concern for social justice. In 2005, for example, the Organization of American Historians uprooted its annual conference and moved it to another city in a show of solidarity with hotel workers. When it comes to the plight of the discipline’s own working class, the unemployed job seeker, this compassion and concern is absent. In its place is an annual report from the AHA talking about how good it is for some. For others, there isn’t much the AHA can do. I find this lack of action, especially when compared to what is normally shown for the less fortunate, disheartening.
While the AHA can do nothing to overcome the dearth of tenure-track positions (which is a reality that deans, trustees, and legislators control), the association has a great deal of control over two things: job market statistics and the interview process. These areas, which some might say are of secondary concern, have made the job search a very inhospitable place. For one, the association could conduct a statistically sound study of the job market based on an actual survey of departments and job seekers. Drawing attention to the total number of jobs and the number of Ph.D.’s produced in the past year overlooks the fact that visiting faculty and independent scholars are also on the market. A more thorough census would provide better information to AHA members and possibly even a snapshot of many other employment concerns, including how the positions stack up in terms of pay, tenure-track status, and other key factors.
More importantly, the organization could do a number of things to reform the poorly designed hiring process that leaves applicants floating in a limbo of uncertainty throughout much of November and December. The lack of communication between search committees and job seekers is so common that it is now taken for granted along with death and taxes. Job applicants no longer expect any professional courtesy. While this results in a good bit of anxiety for anyone on the market, it can also lead to undue financial hardships that could easily be avoided. As a former editor of the H-Grad listserv and one currently searching for a tenure-track position, I can safely say that these concerns are pressing on the mind of most applicants.
The key to these job market reforms is the AHA itself. As the group most vested in the hiring process, it has done little to actively rectify some of the more egregious concerns with the job market. I have compiled a short list of changes that could be adopted with one vote at a business meeting. And most of these changes would benefit not just the AHA, but other disciplinary associations, especially in the humanities, where good, tenure-track jobs are not widely available. While this will absolutely not correct the disparity between job seekers and open positions, it will go a long way towards making the process a more fair and equitable institution.
1. Take a more accurate census of the job-seeking population annually. There is a glut of history Ph.D.'s. Everyone knows this. Yet for the past three years, the AHA has been trumpeting the idea that the job market is improving based solely on data that have no correlation with the actual situation. The AHA, like other associations, bases its data on job applicants solely on the number of new Ph.D.’s, ignoring the fact that so many of the past few years’ new doctorates remain either unemployed or in temporary positions, off the tenure track and with low pay and benefits. By only counting the new Ph.D.’s, the figures for job-seekers are significantly lower than they should be. The research being produced by the AHA needs to be more accurate so as to guide job applicants and graduate students as to their chances of finding a position. Since candidates who utilize the AHA Job Register at the annual meeting have to be registered as a meeting attendee, the AHA should include a census form with the conference registration. Questions such as "Are you a job seeker?," "What is your area of specialty?," "Have you ever had a tenure-track position?" and “How many years have you been on the job market?” would give a more accurate picture of just how truly dire the job market is. A follow-up survey every April would round out the study and enable applicants to assess their position in the market for the following fall. Job seekers could then make career choices based on tangible facts, rather than hearsay and propaganda.
2. Make the Job Register service a privilege that has to be earned. The AHA has a good deal of influence on the job market but has yet to utilize it in any significant way. Since most tenure-track positions are advertised in the AHA Perspectives and interviews are conducted at the AHA annual meeting, the AHA should mandate certain conditions that must be met before interviewing and advertising space is sold. If those conditions are not met, the AHA should deny departments the right to use their facilities and their ad space, thus adding substantial cost to the interviewing institutions. University HR departments and academic deans, often cited as the reason search committees are unable to communicate with applicants, would either allow the departments to comply with these provisions and foot the bill for a more expensive interview process. Lack of communication and the posting of identical positions without a hire for three or more years are two of the problems that stand out at the moment, but the usage could be expanded in future years to address new situations as the AHA sees fit.
3. Require that search committees inform applicants of their interview status via e-mail 30 days before the annual meeting. Graduate students, visiting lecturers, and independent scholars are, on the whole, not independently wealthy. Traveling across the country to stay at an upscale hotel in a major city just after the holiday season is a lot to ask, especially if a candidate has no interviews. Applicants, though, are at the mercy of the search committees, some of whom notify interviewees a week or less before the annual meeting. Applicants are forced to either keep their rooms and plane tickets past the cancellation date in the hopes that their phone will ring or pay higher airfares and higher hotel rates for last-minute bookings. Letting candidates know their interview status a month in advance would alleviate that situation and prevent the least paid of the profession from shouldering the heaviest and most burdensome travel costs. The AHA should set guidelines that search committees must let all job applicants know whether they will have an interview at the AHA 30 days before the annual meeting or face some sort of Job Register sanction up to suspension from its benefits for a set period of time as determined by the AHA.
4. Establish a general listserv for search committees and job seekers. Search committees are notorious for their lack of communications. Job seekers have pooled their resources into a number of academic career wikis, but these can be misused and are dependent on the truthfulness of the poster. The AHA can alleviate this uncertainty by creating a listserv and mandating that those who use the Job Register would agree to notify the AHA by e-mail at important phases of the job search process. Which steps those are would be open for negotiation, but everyone, committees and candidates alike, would know what those benchmarks are ahead of time. The AHA, and this is the critical step, would aggregate these notifications and send them out via a daily listserv to all job applicants who choose to subscribe. Under this system, for example, all who applied for the position in Pre-Modern China at Boise Valley State could know that the search committee has made AHA invitations, has made invitations for on-campus interviews, or that Dr. Damon Berryhill had accepted the position. Job applicants, who usually have no idea how the searches are progressing, would be more informed when fielding other offers and would no longer need to contact each institution directly for updates. Participation would also be in the hiring institution’s best interests, as it would reduce the need to communicate one on one with job candidates (a very time consuming task for search committee members) but still create a much more open system of communication for job seekers.
It is frustrating to me when scholars who have spent years examining the forces of reform and progress will take no action to better the lives of their fellow historians. Individuals who have studied the great reformers and crusaders of the past will simply throw up their hands and exclaim “its just the market!,” when confronted with horror stories of graduate students and visiting faculty on the hunt for tenure-track jobs. These people do nothing as if, by some sort of divine incantation, the injustices of the hiring process are set in stone and beyond human control. This is the attitude that needs to change the most.
It is worth mentioning that graduate students make up the largest constituency group of the AHA membership. As the H-Grad listserv and the academic careers wiki continue to gain popularity, it will not be much longer before job seekers figure out how to organize themselves and make their voices heard one way or another. One anonymous poster on the job wiki for American historians has already suggested that all job seekers flood this year’s business meeting and vote no on every provision until the AHA takes up job market reform. The leadership of the AHA should adopt these reforms, or at the very least make a reasonable effort to study them, in order to make the job market a more tolerable place for the profession’s newest members and to take the first steps toward a more equitable and open hiring process.
Michael Bowen is assistant director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service and a visiting lecturer in the history department at the University of Florida.
It’s different sitting on the other side of the table.
Last fall, I was on the job market for the first time. This fall, having been hired as an assistant professor, I found myself on a search committee interviewing candidates at the American Historical Association convention. For me, this was a startling turn of events. In reflecting on my experiences on both sides of the table, I am surprised by how much they differed and by how much I learned being an interviewer.
As a candidate, I grossly overestimated the amount of mental space search committee members devoted to me. I remember being certain that I was not a finalist for the job I now hold because none of the search committee members came to my presentation, the day after my conference interview. I remember thinking, “If my interview went well, surely, they will send a representative to my panel to further evaluate me.” I see now that was preposterous. As a search committee member, I didn’t even register for the conference or glance at the panel schedule. I knew I’d be inside a hotel room interviewing job candidates all day.
As a candidate, I also misjudged the level of scrutiny my application would receive, as well as the overall tenor of the conference interview. I spent hours preparing for all sorts of hard-hitting and obscure questions about my dissertation and previous experience. I was almost disappointed when the questions were never posed. As a member of a search committee, I followed the lead of my more senior colleagues and asked open-ended questions (“Tell us about your project,” “What might you bring to our university?” “What courses would you most like to teach?”) that allowed the candidates to steer the conversation and strut their stuff.
All in all, I came to view the conference interview less like an oral exam and more like a cocktail party, minus the cocktails. Sitting on the other side of the table, I actually had fun meeting the candidates. It was a treat to hear more about their fascinating projects, intriguing experiences, and hopeful plans for the future. Toward the end of our marathon day, I remarked, to the surprise of my colleagues, that I was disappointed we had only two candidates left because I was having such a good time meeting them all. A far cry from last year.
As a recent-candidate-turned-interviewer, I vacillated between advocating for the candidates and winnowing the pool on behalf of the department. Was it my role to ameliorate the process for applicants or rigorously scrutinize them to ensure the best fit for the department? To what extent did membership on a search committee make me complicit in the often absurd demands placed on job seekers? Could I do anything to make the process less grueling? This internal debate played out in the way I approached my presence on the committee. At first, I felt more allegiance with the candidates -- even when they were represented simply by folders in the file cabinet -- than with my departmental colleagues. My contributions at our initial meetings tended to translate the candidate experience for the other committee members and lobby to make the process more humane. The issue that I felt the most strongly about during our deliberations had to do with timing: I pushed to have our 30-minute conference interviews scheduled 45 minutes apart so that candidates did not have the awkward hallway run-in with other contenders for the same job, but this proved impossible due to the committee’s scheduling constraints. I settled for having tissues, throat lozenges, and water readily available, which, as a recent candidate, I knew might come in handy.
Serving on the search committee also forced me to grapple with the uncertainties and anxieties of the job market from a new perspective. Who was I to evaluate job candidates, many of whom had credentials far superior to mine, when I had so recently been in their shoes myself? To get around this dilemma, I focused on fit -- which applicants best matched the stated job criteria and which ones had specialties that would add the most to the department -- and I did my homework, carefully reading files, letters, and writing samples. In this regard, my experience on the search committee validated conventional wisdom: Most job searches are primarily about fit, not about determining who is the smartest scholar, or the best researcher, or the most engaging teacher (even if discerning these things would be possible).
When I left the hotel room after our conference interviews, I stopped by a reception hosted by my Ph.D. alma mater and ran into several friends who are currently on the job market. “What was it like to be an interviewer?” they wanted to know. And, what advice did I have for them? So, for what it is worth, I’ll share my response.
1. Do your homework about the university and the department to which you are applying. Be familiar with course offerings, faculty, programs, and major university initiatives. At some point in the interview, you’ll be invited to ask questions. Use this time to inquire about specific items of interest, rather than general questions that could be easily answered with a quick visit to the Web site. When a candidate asked about specific course sequences or opportunities to collaborate with other university centers and programs, I knew she’d carefully thought about what she might contribute to the university. Such preparation not only shows your interest, it also enables the search committee to imagine you as a colleague.
2. If there are any updates to your CV or any syllabi that you did not include in your initial application, bring printed copies to leave with the committee. This was not something I did as a candidate, but, as an interviewer, I was impressed when applicants said, “Yes, I look forward to teaching the introductory survey, and here is a sample syllabus I have developed for it;” and
3. Smile and be yourself.
These are hardly original suggestions, but, from my point of view, they made a difference.
Serving on a search committee so soon after my initial foray on the job market required some mental gymnastics. And perhaps this is why I was invited to be part of the committee in the first place – to force me to shed my graduate student skin and to facilitate the transition to professor. While my colleagues frequently solicited my opinion and enthusiastically welcomed me to the fold, my original plan was to be seen and not heard. I soon found, however, that I am constitutionally unable to keep my mouth shut, and I began voicing my opinion, including disagreeing with senior faculty members, and even making jokes (though these contributions were often followed by bouts of, “Why did I say that?”). As the semester wore on, though, I tired of trying to be on my best behavior at all times and grudgingly accepted that all I could do was be myself.
Ultimately, I am not sure what my presence added to the search committee, but I do know what serving on the search committee has meant for me. As anyone will tell you, the first year as an assistant professor is hard. Really hard. Maybe even harder than being on the job market. And, for me at least, it has been filled with lots of existential questioning, such as: Who am I? What am I doing here? Have I done the right thing? A strange thing happened during the conference interviews when candidates asked questions of me. In speaking on behalf of the university, explaining its various programs and campus culture, I actually began to feel like I belong here.
Kimberly A. Hamlin
Kimberly A. Hamlin is assistant professor of American studies and history at Miami University of Ohio.