VI. The Wiki Saturday, Apr 30 2011 

Today, I write surrounded by caution tape: paranoia fueled addiction lies ahead.

Perhaps the worst part of being on the market (and I’m loathe to identify a hierarchy of worsts, since so much stinks about being on the market) is the knowledge vacuum. Even that which seems explicit is upholstered in cushy vagueness. Take, for example, a job listing. Even within self-conscious specificity lies wiggle room and interpretation. For an applicant, however, the real mental wiggles begin after an application has been submitted: how many people applied? should I have received an “application received” notice? have they asked for more materials? have they made MLA invites? have they made campus invites? had they made a job offer?

Enter, The Wiki.

In this digital space, fellow applicants post material pertaining to jobs in more-or-less all academic fields. With some level of correctness, those on the market can find on The Wiki answers to assuage fuel applicant anxiety. If you’ve never been there before, click through a bit and you’ll see all the glory and pain in full flush. There’s lots of information about jobs and the process, and there’s lots of bubbling anxiety, bitterness, and anger.

Use with caution.

My spouse had to put restrictions on me, relative to the wiki. When I’d mope around the house, looking despondent and hopeless, I’d hear a common refrain: “you didn’t go to the wiki again, did you?”

Of course I had. And of course I read some tea leaf that convinced me that I was out of the running for any hope of getting any job at any time. Usually information for specific jobs was accurate, but as a general indication of how the whole process was going…um…usually the information had little relationship to reality. One never knows the timeline of a specific search committee, so even though every other job has listed MLA invites, for example, some other might not have even opened the envelope.

The worst part of the wiki, however, is the way it breeds negativity and snarkiness. Simply, people get angry when they’re on the market. Angrier when they’re on the market a second time, and third, and ninth, and when they’re finding trouble even getting adjunct work, and when the general process feels so unfair, random, and stacked against them.

This, mild applicant, is the mindset that yields to wiki posts of astonishing detail and vitriol. Like the person who searched the websites of “every” (really, a self-selected list posited as representative) program in his/her field in the country, then posted the terminal degree university for recent hires. The point: to reveal that everyone comes from a small set of Ivies, thus there’s no hope for anyone outside of that circle of elite.

That’s the wiki downside.

And as someone whose degrees come from places never even invited to the parties thrown by the Ivies, I can tell you that plenty of people get jobs from outside that circle.

I’m convinced that the Wiki therefore must be dealt with as a text, in exactly the same manner that we literary professionals deal with other constructed texts. The Wiki offers a literal level of interpretation — the dates, the information, the basic and negative vitriol. But when read with careful scrutiny, that same vitriol begins to reveal subtextual detail that, I think, offers comfort.

A) I think it’s fairly safe to say that individuals who write scathing, sad sack, inflammatory, whining or otherwise unproductive notes on the Wiki likely reveal the same point of view in person. So if you find yourself writing such material, you know you need to change your attitude. And if you don’t write such stuff, then you can feel like you have a leg-up in the personality department.

B) There’s a direct relationship between angry posts and snooty academic thinking. Many of the worst posts include some bit about how, “even the regional MA school rejected me.” It doesn’t take a high level of interpretive genius to see the attitude in effect here. Such posters consider themselves far above the wretched regionals, or religiously affiliated, or small town, or midwestern (written as “flyover”) or rural, or Southern, or anything not located in an awesome cosmopolitan urban neato spot…where the teaching load maxes at 2-2. And, again, anyone who feels superior to the university receiving the application will certainly reveal that air of superiority in some way, on paper or in person. And not get the job.

C) This might seem obvious, but people do get the jobs listed on the Wiki. Real people. Sometimes not people actively posting to the site, but people nonetheless. Which is to say, it’s not impossible. It’s just tough. Tougher if you have a mentality revealed in A and B.

D) The process cannot be headgamed, so quit trying. Just be the best you possible. Prepare a cv. Apply authentically. And, as Gary McCord once said of putting in golf, let go of all philosophical relationship to result. The putt will drop or it won’t — you just made the best stroke possible. You’ll get the job or you won’t — you just made the best application possible.

Three Years Wednesday, Apr 20 2011 

Like all card-carrying English professors, I listen to NPR on my way to and from work. Yesterday, I found myself cussing aloud after hearing about Ohio’s new push for three year college degrees. In particular, I gaped at a so-called “liberal arts college” that means to pilot a three-year, non-summer, undergraduate degree, apparently by cutting fluff that lies outside a student’s major.

1) Isn’t it the fluff that makes it a liberal arts college? That a communications major might actually need to know something about tv AND literature AND biology AND philosophy?

2) Isn’t trimming a degree by 25%, but charging more-or-less the same per-year charge kind of like the way peanut butter jars increase the size of the little bubble on the bottom, limiting the amount of peanut butter, but leaving the price unchanged?

3) Isn’t it likely that “streamlining” college degrees by getting rid of annoying distribution requirements (e.g. the part of education that develops critical thinking and interdisciplinary literacy) also makes it less likely that the newly-degreed will be less able to critically think about the bum deal students are getting in the U.S.?

Spring Fever, Student Evals, and the Short-timer Sunday, Apr 17 2011 

I. It’s been spring here for awhile, apparently, which was meant snow, rain, wind, gray skies, cold temperatures. But certain things are inevitable rites of the season: the semester is almost over. With the bad weather, students haven’t yet begun to stop showing up for classes to play in the sun. I guess this counts as one negative (the November-ish weather) and one positive (butts in seats), weighing out to a wash.

II. Student evaluation packets infested mailboxes a few weeks ago, begging to be infected upon our student population. I think ours are more annoying than others, since they have to be administered by another professor. And because the eval coordinators don’t actually coordinate who does whose. Thus a frenzy of emails circulates among the professors, each edition begging for a swap no one really wants to make.

III. As a sum of I and II, the product can be clearly interpreted as the near end of my run at my PA state school. Not a moment too soon, I’d say. This week, the university shut down applications because the incoming freshman class will already be the biggest in school history. This week, the state system announced the probability of faculty furloughs and retrenchments, since the 50% state funding cut will apparently have a negative affect on individual school’s ability to, um, keep the lights on. This week, the union filed a grievance against the system because the notification of potential furloughs and retrenchments didn’t follow the contract (which apparently means the notice should have announced specific furloughs and retrenchments instead of offering just a heads up). The union’s take: the system is just trying to strike fear in the hearts of professors since contract negotiations are currently underway. The union is afraid some professors might be swayed into retirement or job switches based on news like this.

My take:

A) I have a new job. Thank goodness I don’t have to stick around and watch all this b.s. materialize.

B) Student evals. Hmmm. Passive resitance, methinks. I ain’t playing. No email tag. No grovelling. No pretending that the info in the evals actually means something to someone leaving. Or really, that much to people sticking around.

C) Two weeks. And outta there. Nice.

D) Better start packing up the office.

E) I think the system AND the union are playing dirty politics, going round and round, not focusing on the very real financial crisis in the state budget. Just posturing, clacking antlers, going through the motions of trying to intimidate the other party.

F) Record enrollments and reducing numbers of faculty. Fits nicely with the school marketing schlock: “Beyond expectations.”

Mount St. Helens: beyond expectations.

Charlie Sheen: beyond expectations.

Bernie Madoff: beyond expectations.

Pittsburgh Pirates: beyond expectations.

Two weeks…

V. Apply, Apply, Apply Sunday, Apr 10 2011 

Job season defies logic, at least in the humanities. And based on conversations with my brother, it’s the same in the sciences. The best platitude out there is simple in idea, even if hard to grasp: it’s not you.

Because, really, it isn’t necessarily. Sure, sometimes it is you that wows a committee or, um, doesn’t, but in the early stages of an application process, randomness reigns. When 100, 200, even 300 people are vying for the same position, the initial review of CVs centers on mysterious criteria. Many fine candidates don’t slip over the “bar” established as a means to plow through the pile. So it’s not about you.

This knowledge, coupled with a hallway conversation I had this week, reinforces the directive of post #5 here: send in the application, because you never know. Stretch. Reach. Apply for every job that seems to meet your qualifications at all. Apply for jobs you’re even a little unsure of, because geographical pickiness, for example, could lead to employment absence.

In my own successful run to employment, I applied to 55 departments during my final job season. 52 rejected me without an interview, while three wanted to see me in person. One didn’t quite like me enough, and two invited me to campus. At least one of those — the plum on that year’s market, as far as I was concerned — wanted me to join the faculty. The other might have, but I turned down their campus visit after I accepted the other position.

The ad for my job asked for someone specializing in my creative writing area, with secondary interest in stuff I could sort of make a case for. And they preferred a published book. And they happened to be a prestigious school of national reputation.

I happened to be a recent Ph.D. from a not-so-prestigious graduate program, with a strong portfolio of little magazine pubs and no book. I read this matchup of job listing and cv lines as a no-go, maybe a long shot. But I liked the school a lot, so I applied.

My hallway conversation centered on that lack of a book. I chatted before class with a similarly non-TT colleague, who congratulated me on the job, then asked about my book status. The “none” flashed in his eyes as shock and anger: he had one coming out, but he hadn’t experienced the job season success I had.

Apply, apply, apply.

If I hadn’t taken the reach, I never would have been considered for the job I have. I would have prevented myself from finding a great fit with a great school. I would have been trying to psyche out the market, which always defies analysis.

Case in point, post-hiring, I continued to receive rejection letters in droves. So, so many of them were impersonal “we hired someone else” form letters that marked the only contact I’d had with these departments since sending in applications. And so, so many of them were from regional institutions, low-prestige places, the kind of “safety” schools where I thought my credentials would sell best. I’m not trying to be superior in saying that most of these rejections came from places far less accomplished than the school that hired me. Yet I am saying it.

Apply, apply, apply.

What’s easily lost in job season is the human reality of the process. Everything feels so big, so distant, so chaotically random and machine-like. But real human beings are reading through the applications, which accounts for all of the chaos and weirdness. If a machine really were reviewing everything, applications would be a simple process of bean counting. Instead, conscientious individuals mull over a pile of diverse and impossible-to-compare CVs. Then they compare them, applying their own idiosyncratic criteria, and find order within chaos.

To me, this is the saving grace of the process. It is a human one. We apply not to schools, nor departments, nor to a Committee, but to people. Living, breathing, caring individuals whose minds we cannot know. And counting beans might sort applicants in a certain apparently rational ways, but it ignores the intangibles that actually make an individual a good hire, a good colleague, and a good professor. The intangibles can only be computed by human beings, and it is within this nebulous region that “fit” arrives.

Sometimes, it just all clicks between reader and applier. That click is the “fit,” the irrational but supremely important criteria that makes the difference between a successful applicant and a rejection, that makes a hire a good one and not a disaster.

No solace there, for sure, when 52 rejections wind up in the mailbox. But I offer the cliche: it only takes one. And you never know which one that might be.

An Interlude of Fiduciary Betrayal Saturday, Apr 2 2011 

Currently, I teach at one of Pennsylvania’s 14 actual state schools (Bloomsburg, California, Clarion, Cheyney, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Mansfield, Millersville, Lock Haven, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock, West Chester), not to be confused with Pennsylvania’s semi-state schools, who rely on state funds for a significantly smaller portion of their operating budgets (Pittsburgh, Penn State, Temple, Lincoln). Needless to say, in this Defund Education Now! political climate, all of these schools have suffered a recent betrayal of the public trust. Governor Tom Corbett announced a budget that cuts funding to the 14 state schools by 50%.

You probably know this. You’ve probably heard about this.

As you might expect and hope, there has been some (though hardly enough) public outcry about this asinine proposal. A few public rallies in my university’s quad, for example, have drawn small crowds enjoying the opportunity to chant in the open air. And education supporters on the campuses have begun a postcard campaign, with the hopes of flooding the governor’s office with physical representations of our outrage. I guess the idea is to produce some kind of Miracle on 34th Street moment, when a stream of postal workers carry in bag after bag of postcards and dump them on the governor’s desk.

I believe. I believe. It’s stupid but I believe, says some little girl when thinking about her future public education in our state.

These aforementioned postcards have been distributed at the aforementioned rallies. Which leads me to side two of the betrayal LP. An email came across our faculty list the other day, within which a professor wondered where he might get such postcards, since he hasn’t been able to make it to the rallies. You see, he wrote, I only come to campus on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

So much, so wrong there.

A financial crisis looms, and a faculty member wants to get involved! Activate! Protest! Send those postcards! But, um, I really don’t like to come into campus more than three days a week. Can’t make any exceptions there, to attend a rally, lend my voice to the protest. So could you just send me something, which I’ll just kind of limply send on?

I dare say, there aren’t too many successful revolutions that would have worked out if the participation was similarly (un)motivated.

All’s quiet in Egypt on Tuesday, but expect more street protests Wednesday. Thursday is, of course, a “grading day,” so the streets should be fine again.

Could probably lend out the guillotine on Tuesdays and Thursdays, because the revolt will be quiet then.

Tea on Thursday? Sure. I only fight the British Empire on my M-W-F schedule.

Now, I’m fully aware that professors who “come into campus” on a limited number of days often use the other days to work from home, do field work, visit archives, and generally practice all sorts of legitimate, important academic work. But I’m also fully aware that most non-professors totally don’t get this. They see someone feverishly defending a M-W-F on-campus schedule as someone only working three days a week. Untrue, unfair, but that’s the reality of perception. And I think when the time comes to, say, curry public favor in support of education, it might be time to think about what we look like to people on the outside. Perhaps drive into work on a day we’re usually not there, so we can pick up that postcard.

But in Pennsylvania, where a faculty union defends our rights (and is currently negotiating a new contract — wonder how that’s going?), the battle for public image doesn’t fare so well. A couple of years ago, the union exacted its greatest public victory in overturning a system-wide smoking ban by invoking a meet-and-discuss technicality. It was a matter of principle, union reps said, conveniently ignoring the fact that the ban was exceedingly popular among faculty (the, um, union part of the union) and the public. That victory came at great cost, I think. It offered clear proof of the petty contract-waving the union could do. There was no moral victory despite the invocation of principle, because that “show of strength” by the union did nothing to make the state wary of, say, cutting a budget in half. It only made people outside of academe roll their eyes. Again.

Let me be clear that I’m not blaming faculty and educators for the current state of affairs. Without a doubt, the education cuts across the nation are a function of idiotic, misinformed Tea Party types who fail to recognize the definition and necessity of public service. But I do think we in education need to do a better job of reaching out to non-academics. We suffer under the cloak of stereotype, but our actions often inadvertently reinforce those same stereotypes.

I’ll offer local examples:

*My campus is located in a small town, which is itself about the size of the student population at the university. We might ungenerously call this town “provincial.” As a result, many faculty choose to live in Pittsburgh and maintain an hour-and-a-half commute. Not a big deal, since most of those who do so can firmly defend their M-W-F on-campus schedule. But it is a big deal because of the message it sends. Those faculty who live in the city are physically abandoning the community of the town where they work. Sure, there can be no argument against the increased cultural opportunities in the city, but I would wager that most who live there attend such events without the kind of frequency that would make the living arrangement transportationally efficient: they spend far more time on their work commute each week than they save by living close to the museum they visit once a year. The real reason people live in the city, I think, is because they don’t want to stand in a grocery line next to one of the locals. They don’t want to be part of this small, ex-coal community that suffers daily economic strain. They’d rather hang out in Squirrel Hill coffee shops and be all aristocratic. That, I think, is a betrayal of the public trust almost as vile as the slashing of budgets for political gain. Academics should be part of their communities, plain and simple.

(There are plenty — a majority — who do stay local. And there are many who are actively local. So I am not trying to offer wide castigation. But even though fewer in number, those who refuse to live in the provinces send a very loud message with their absence.)

*The pay-scale of our faculty, which is the same across the 14 universities, is un-freaking-believable. Our campus happens to be a doctoral institution, but the general profile of the state system is clearly regional, as is the student population of our own locality. Compared to major doctoral institutions, our pay scale lags behind a bit, and that’s a comparison many on our campus choose to make. But compared to the actual profile of the system — for which the contract is written — remuneration is higher than average, sometimes 20k to 30k better at a given rank. Full professors with seniority are pulling 100k under this contract, and they do this living in smaller towns with low costs of living. The effective salary of faculty at my institution is extremely competitive on a national scale. Further, the average faculty salaries far exceed the average incomes of local residents. Faculty build giant houses in exclusive neighborhoods, outfit them with Swedish saunas and wine cellars, then complain they’re not being paid enough. It is, of course, expensive to commute to Pittsburgh three days a week.

* I just can’t write a specific example about this one efficiently, but suffice it to say: we’re located in Appalachia, and many faculty choose to think of Appalachians (i.e. their neighbors) within the exaggerated and uncharitable stereotypes of popular culture. Faculty are superior. The locals are backward and ignorant. This does not engender a good town-gown relationship.

*Our union celebrates its strength and unity, but when the campus cafeteria workers formed a union that the contract food service company refused to recognize, the faculty union did nothing. A show of support there would have seemed morally imperative. And standing up for the low-wage earners on campus who were simply seeking a fair shake was both the right thing to do and, y’know, good p.r.

There’s some ungainly looseness to this post, I realize, but I’m seeking to connect it with a simple underlying idea: as academics, we moan a great deal about how the greater public doesn’t afford us the respect we deserve, while at the same time our actions often do not return respect to those outside of academe. Our professional activities are not the problem, even if those aren’t always easily communicated to those unfamiliar with the biz. The real problem is that we sometimes forget that we are members of the communities where we live (local, state, national). We are not voices above, outside, or lateral from the public. We are the public.

Faced as we are with tremendous political attack, it’s crucial that we start thinking about the coded message we send. A proper professoriate will always make waves, challenge standard thinking, and push a culture forward. But we need to do so with an inherent consciousness of image. I truly believe the “public” has no problem with academic culture as a culture of intelligent debate, but I think everyone rankles when confronted with apparent elitism. We can’t afford to positions ourselves as aloof, above, distant, different, any of those things. We can’t afford to do it even by accident. We need to clearly communicate how we are both vital to the public interest and, in fact, part of that public.

The slogan bopping about campus right now is, “United We Stand, Underfunded We Fail.” As academics, we need to parse that “united,” make sure that is clearly being defined as a public unity and not merely professorial privilege.