Breathe, But How Thursday, Sep 1 2011 

A strange feature of the academic mind or, um, maybe just mine:

When everyone around you is so nice, so welcoming, it’s stupid hard not to wait for the wrinkle. You know, like, that moment when the apparently functional, adjusted, engaged, friendly new faculty colleagues turn around and say, “gotcha sucker.” Maybe I spent too much time in a mine field department, where ulterior motives abound and dissatisfaction lay in full bloom. Now, the weaker, damaged parts of my academe-hardened psyche are suspicious. Just can’t shake the irrational feeling that I was probably hired —

A) By mistake or-

B) To flame out or-

C) To keep a line open until a more suitable individual could be found.

Just to be clear, I don’t feel this way all or most of the time. There’s just that little nag in the brain, a synapse or two that refuse to accept good fortune or acknowledge that, say, my credentials warranted my hire…that I’m good enough and, darn it, people like me.

Oh Stuart Smalley, where art thou?

New Job: On Sunday, Aug 28 2011 

A brief bullet list of the opening of this new academic chapter:

  • New health insurance cards arrived in the mail yesterday.
  • Today, I became officially employed — the last week of meetings have been, I guess, pro bono work for the college.
  • This afternoon, the college celebrated matriculation with full regalia and, alas, two very boring speeches to doe-eyed freshpeople.
  • But then we split the new class into Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw based on a magical mortarboard’s suggestions, and had a feast complete with floating serving ware.
  • … or should have.

X. The Offer Friday, Aug 26 2011 

Just in time for a new job season, the last installment of my job search retrospective: the MLA Joblist goes live on September 15th.

As I come to the end of this little series of posts, I find myself with a heavy sense of anti-climax. I think most of us understand our likely response when a job is offered — such a moment includes falling to our knees, exhaling deeply, weeping, staring blankly into the middle-distance, sprinting naked around the neighborhood in a fit of rapture…the usual.

What you’re supposed to do:

* Listen to the offer with sobriety and professional detachment.

* Ask a few clarifying questions.

* Promise to get back to the school within the (typically) allotted two weeks.

* Call back and negotiate for more money, perks, etc.

* Come to an agreement with the school.

What I did:

* See second paragraph of post, then multiply by four.

* Immediately accept the offer, with no negotiation.

* Remain extraordinarily happy about that.

*****

In my defense, about not negotiating: I’m sure I could have. In fact, on the day I received the call from my dean offering the position, I was just a few days away from a campus visit for another job. That’s what they call leverage, I suppose. I chose (consciously, really, despite the thrill of the offer) to not exercise the leverage, even told the dean that I would immediately accept the position and forgo a planned visit elsewhere.

Why do that? Why miss out on what many advisers will tell you is your only chance to make a meaningful financial change to your situation? Why miss out on the compounding effect of a relatively minor initial salary bump? Why not ask for tenure credit for my four previous years of full-time professorhood?

1) I really thought the offer was a fair one. It constituted a raise from my previous position, at a place where salaries are pretty strong in the first place. Further, I thought the offer represented a fair market value for both the school making the offer and for the region where the school was located. Yes, I could pinch for more, but to me that seemed like economic tunnel vision. There was so much good in the package as presented, I felt that it would be petty to hold out for more. Isn’t that what we sports fans hate about professional athletes, that they get a great offer and refuse to accept it, that they hold out for more just because they can?

2) Budgets are tight. Money matters for an institution’s long-term health. Yeah, an extra grand or two wouldn’t break the school, but from a philosophical position of shared responsibility, I felt that demanding more cash would trend toward the greed line. Again, the offer was good. Just because I could make it “better” doesn’t mean I should. Because even, say, a thousand dollars more to me would be a thousand fewer available for student scholarships, for facilities upgrade, for all of the day-to-day stuff that makes a college a place where you want to be.

3) My leverage was, as leverage often goes, an illusion. Based on my initial interview with School B, and based on the vibe of conversations with reps from said school (and I’m pretty good with these vibes), it’s quite likely I would have had a second offer to dangle as evidence of negotiatory imperative. But I didn’t really like School B very much.

Certainly, in comparison to School A, there was no real race. School A has stronger students, a much stronger reputation, is a much better philosophical fit with my educational mindset, is better located, pays quite a bit more, has a lighter teaching load, offers a course rotation of far greater interest. No sane person would choose School B over School A (apologies to School B, but I think the faculty there would probably agree). I would have taken a job at School B under typical circustances, but not with a chance to go to School A. Even for less money, I would have taken School A.

Thus the lack of real leverage is clear.

How could I, in good faith, use School B as a means to rake more money from School A, when there just really wasn’t any competition? It would have been dishonest to do so. Money won would be dirty money.

4) From the day the job ads came out, School A was where I wanted to be.

*****

Call me naive.

No, really. Go ahead.

But I think as academics we need to be mindful of these things. When a salary offer is sufficient, in fact quite good by national averages and standards, there’s no shame in saying yes. Some job advice out there suggests negotiating as a default response. And from an administrative perspective, they’re probably right. I’m sure the dean had some money in reserve that could have gone my way. In fact, I’m sure the dean was probably surprised that I didn’t try to negotiate for more. During the offer conversation, the dean had already said that a) the school hoped I could give them a decision within the typical two week timeframe (read: we know you’ll probably negotiate); b) they would try to counter any other offer I had (read: we figure you have other offers, and we have money to beat them).

So, call me naive again. Even stupid.

But, truly, I think there’s no shame, even merit, in “settling” for an opening offer. To me, the opening presentation represented a fair and responsible gesture on the part of the school. Coupled with how much I enjoyed my campus visit, my interaction with faculty and students, how well the college fit my academic, professional, and personal profile, it seemed ludicrous to quibble. The bottom line was that the offer was plenty, and I wanted to be there.

Moral to this story?

A few, I suppose:

Don’t be an idiot and leave money on the table like this dude.

Don’t be afraid to like a place enough to make a decision irrespective of finance.

******

A final wrap up bit: as I mention above, the school where I now teach was the position I most coveted on the joblist that year. In fact, had I been able to (realistically) choose from any school in the country, this would have been at the very least a college in the top five and, frankly, probably number one.

But when I read the job ad, I figured it was worthless to apply. The school was a reach for me, I thought. My credentials, though strong, were not particularly brand sensitive. My Ph.D., for example, comes from a place I think is wonderful, but that doesn’t really have a tremendous national presence. I think people that know it know that strong people are there and often come from there. But people who don’t know the program would probably be more likely to assume that it’s pretty nondescript, even weak. Further, my credentials seemed light for the preferences listed in the ad. Even though the job was for a beginning assistant professor, the expressed publication desire was more-in-line with an advanced (frankly, quite accomplished) scholar.

I applied anyway.

In the end, my credentials were enough to get an interview. And once the dust had cleared, I was the candidate who best fit the position.

So you never know.

Happy hunting this job season!

IX. Big Candidate On Campus Sunday, Aug 21 2011 

Maybe the greatest thing about a campus visit is the invitation itself: you know this is an exclusive party, limited usually to just three guests. And you’re on the list. You get to duck under the velvet ropes and hang with the in-crowd.

Kind of like getting an invite to google+.

Yet, while the campus invite is obviously the objective of every job candidate out there (this odd article at the Chronicle notwithstanding), it is also (obviously) high stakes. This is where you win the job. Or as my brother informed me, this is where all but one person loses the job. Really, that latter philosophy is probably less pessimistic than it sounds. And probably a bit too close to the truth for comfort.

Let’s put it this way — academics aren’t uniformly lauded for their impeccable social skills, and an on-campus interview is, above all else, dependent on the constant deployment of social skills. On the visit, you are with your desired colleagues all day long. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Social settings and formal settings. They guide you to the bathroom. They’re with you when you’re up, and they’re there when you’re tired and want to just unload. The candidate needs to be “on” in every moment when she or he is not sequestered in her lovely B&B (the job I got) or crappy budget motel next to a junkyard (the chosen boarding locale for the department I recently left).

“On,” however, is a word that needs clear definition. And that’s where I think I’ll make my focus.

First, the platitudes you’ve likely already heard, but bear repetition:

1) If you’re on a campus visit, the search committee has already decided that your credentials are more than good enough to warrant the hire.

1a) In fact, in nearly all cases, credentials are beside the point now. An easy way to appear grad-student-y would be to continually push ones credentials on the department being visited.

1b) That said, people will ask you constantly about your diss, your research, your plans. Good candidates answer these questions quickly, clearly, and with an aura of established professionalism instead of unsure, recently defense-battered doctoral student.

2) A campus visit is mostly about seeing which candidate will be a good colleague (professionally and, to be honest, often socially) for many years. Like — and I saw this point elsewhere, at a location I forget so I can’t cite, but I want to give general credit to someone smarter than me — the people making the hire figure they’ll be stuck with/glad for this colleague until they retire.

3) You’re always being interviewed…in formal situations like a sit down with a dean…and informal situations like driving around town looking at the movie theater and wondering aloud why there’s a Saw I through CM retrospective at the local “arthouse” cinema.

***The first job I ever lost I lost this way: at lunch, I remarked to the search chair that I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue working on the novel that had earned me my degree, that I’d chuck it and start over. Insignificant comment? Naw. That search chair offered me advice, after hiring someone else, boiling down to: don’t tell the search chair that your only significant piece of scholarship is something you personally find worthless. One could argue that in nearly all cases, theses and dissertations ought to be chucked, ought to be considered significant only as culmination pieces of education and not as future pieces of professional scholarship. But one should not argue that with a search chair. Anyway, the job sucked and I was lucky not to get it.***

4) Relax.

And this leads me to the definition of “on.” Or at least to my definition of “on.”

I think the last thing an on-campus candidate needs to do is sell him- or herself. There are no widgets in this transaction. There is only a self, a professional and personal identity that may or may not be joining an already established community. And that established community is infinitely complex and inscrutable. The best “sell” a candidate can present is the “self.” By that I implore authenticity. At the end of the visit, I think authenticity makes or breaks a candidate. There’s a wide, wide range of personalities that can fit into a job. Too many candidates, I think, try to pretend to be something they think the hiring department “wants.” Often, by this point, the department doesn’t exactly know what specific thing it wants. I mean, by now the finalists probably bear little resemblance to the original job ad (and that’s a good thing). Instead, the department has found three or four intriguing academics who seem like they might add something to the mix. Trying to fit into the department would mean taking away from the self, which is the “add” part of the whole deal. Thus, being “on” in a semi-smarmy, vacuum cleaner sales kind of way (I have so much more suction than the other candidates!), is not only offputting and annoying, it eliminates the most important part of the equation.

You.

On campus, that’s who the department wants to see. The real you. The person who will have an office down the hall. Who will sit across the table at meetings. Who will be teaching the students who (one hopes) the hiring faculty care about.

On the visit for the job I’m now in, I met with most of the individuals in the department, the college dean, the college diversity head, and a dozen or more students formal settings. I met many more in casual, informal hallway moments. There really would have been no way to fabricate “on” personas for each of these without become a muddle of vagueness. Thus, I channeled Sinatra and did it my way, which is to say, was “on” as myself. Certainly I tried to stay enthusiastic and energetic, but I didn’t try to sell anything.

Really, I think that likely distinguished myself from the other candidates. Now, in so doing I could have easily revealed myself to be not what this department wanted. That’s the risk. But that’s an important risk. No doubt your mama told you one day, if they don’t like you for who you are, then they aren’t worth worrying about. Same deal for job visits. If a department doesn’t like you and your authentic self, then you probably won’t have a happy career there if you happen to “sell” a persona and “win” an offer.

Indeed, this is your life. This is more than a paycheck. This is who you will work with, probably for many years, perhaps for your career (job hopping ain’t so easy in the humanities). This is the school where you will forge a mature, academic identity. This is the town where you will grow roots and join a community. How awful to gain entry to that future with a version of yourself? Gain it with the fullest self.

Which leads me to one last platitude

5) Remember, you’re interviewing them, too. Which is true enough — the department will be trying to show itself off as a fine place to work. And all of what I’m saying about authenticity applies there, too. If a place trumpets itself as on the cutting edge of technology, and all the faculty have 386s in their office, well you’ve just learned something valuable about the likely day-to-day atmosphere of the institution and not just its tech specs.

5a) But, in the end, you’re the one looking for the job. So try not to imply that they’re on the hot seat. Because, even if your authentic self is an imperious ass, well…that’s a tough sell anywhere.

VIII. Wait, Wait, Wait Saturday, Jun 4 2011 

Things to do while waiting to hear back about job apps:

1) Freak out — this will happen, of course. So I’m putting it first. Feel free to do so, because in some way freaking relieves stress.

2) Chill out — this is harder to do, but more important. #1 must be counterbalanced, lest your become insufferable, paranoid, self-righteous, depressive, and generally awful to be around. Try to remind yourself that you’ve done everything you could. You’ve put your best self out there, and no amount of freaking will change what’s already in motion. So chill.

3) Something else — do things non-academic, that provide pleasure. Be nice to yourself.

4) Check the wiki — as I detailed in a previous post, this can be all consuming, but still helpful. Usually, you’ll find confirmation from other waiters that waiting is all that’s happening. And when someone posts something that shows an inability to follow #2, you can feel better that you’re not that kind of pre-academic.

5) Trust in yourself and, sort of, in the process — I know the process sucks. I know the process needs to somehow be reinvented. But it still kind of somehow sort of works. And the waiting, at the very least, is a good sample of the kind of non-speed that academia employs. It might help to think of the wait as a learning opportunity. But you probably won’t (I didn’t), and you’ll probably just decide (as I did) that the process is &^#(*! up. Rely on yourself, then, in faith in your worth, your work, your life, your humanity, your friends, your significant others, your pets, your video game addiction, but mostly on yourself. As other, wiser bloggers have said, you’ve earned a Ph.D. Not many people ever do that and, despite what many people seem to think, most people couldn’t ever do it. The degree is a huge accomplishment in its own right, a valuable if intangible reward for hard grad school work. Revel in that. Really.

6) Understand the academic timeline — I put it this way…search committees are guaranteed to get back to you one day after you can’t possibly bear to wait another day.

Now, a few notes on waiting:

1) Often, if you’re waiting a really, really long time…well…you’re probably right to think that means what you think it means.

2) But often is not always. Timelines vary. Some schools are crazy slow (like the one I just left). On a recent hire there, the search committee called candidates for interviews two days before MLA. Then nothing happened. Campus invitations finally came out in late February, stretched out for a month (with Spring Break in the middle). Then nothing. An offer was made; the candidate strung them along; the candidate said no. A second offer was made; the second candidate strung then along; the candidate said no. A third offer was made in early May. May for goodness sakes.Two months after the campus visits. Four months after MLA. Six months after applications. Third candidate took the job.

3) And sometimes, the wait…oh the wait. For my own (ultimately failed) application at this same school: I applied for the job by an initial mid-March deadline, for a job that was listed as beginning the following Fall. Silence. I learn from inside sources that the committee forgot to advertise the job nationally. So they advertised and extended the deadline to April. Silence. Nothing. The committee did not meet at all. I received a letter in June announcing that the committee was suspending review for the summer, but would get back to things in the fall. Long summer of silence. Then more silence in the fall. I received a letter from the Dean, promoting me and giving me a handy raise after finishing my Ph.D. (though I remained on a contingent contract). Silence from the search committee. More silence. Did I mention that I saw members of the search committee on a daily basis? More silence. One day in October, I saw signs up around the department office asking for silence while the search committee conducted phone interviews. To me, more silence. In November, the faculty listserv announced the presences of candidates on campus to interview for the job. To me, more silence. At some point in December — without public announcement to the department — the committee hired someone for the job. Around March of the next year, I finally received a generic, short, thanks-for-applying-but-we-hired-someone-else letter. And that was the full extent of what I heard from my day-to-day colleagues about a job for which the department chair had told me I was a shoo-in. Time from initial deadline to hire = nine months. Time from initial deadline to my notification = one year.

4) Do not spend mental energy worrying about the waiting. You just can’t figure out what long periods of silence mean. In #2, the long wait led someone to a nice academic appointment. In #3, the long wait translated to a dysfunctional search committee in a dysfunctional department running an unprofessional search (disclaimer: I’m bitter about that application experience, of course. But I believe I am objectively classifying this search process as unprofessional — perhaps one day I’ll write more about the whole sordid thing).

5) In all things, waiting is the worst. The unknown and unseen lets our minds turn on ourselves. If possible, we should therefore treat waiting as merely nothing. It is time passing. It means little. Worry affects nothing.

6) Waiting makes it clear that our best friends in the job process are ourselves. We must act always at our best. We must feel we’ve presented ourselves as authentically, honestly, and fully as possible. And we must truly accept that as the reward. Consider a well-crafted application its own reward. Sure, that wins no job, but it is both all we do and what we must do. For ourselves. Maybe the Boy Scout Promise is a good model for the academic process:

On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to (academia) and my country
and to obey the (Search Committee guidelines);
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and (intellectually) straight.

VII. Conference Time Wednesday, May 18 2011 

I’m not sure who came up with the conference interview idea, but certainly that person (or committee…an idea like that had to come from a committee) harbored a great love for absurdity or torture. No doubt, most graduate students pondering the market have heard the usual conference tidbits:

* Interviews in small hotel rooms, where some committee members sit on the bed.

* Candidates meeting each other awkwardly in the hallway…

Okay. I’m stopping that kind of rehash/urban legend/horror story now. If you want ’em, google ’em. They’re easy enough to find.

On my successful job year, I garnered three conference interviews out of 55 or so applications. A five percent success ratio that, in the skewed statistics of English Studies, denotes terrific success. (Actually, I had 3.1 — more on that in a moment). Two of my interviews were at MLA, one at AWP.

MLA

Both of my interviews happened to be in the same hotel, so I booked my room for that same hotel. I figured it would prevent a difficult cross-town jaunt, which proved wise. This was the LA MLA, a spread out, not-great-to-walk location. Nonetheless, I didn’t want to appear stalkerish, so I agreed to usual protocols for meet-ups: this particular hotel had suites in a key-secured area, prohibiting direct candidate access to the rooms. The first interviewing school said they’d meet me in the lobby. So I got ready, rode the elevator to the lobby, and waited with several other applicants waiting for their own meet-ups.

We all tried to look nonchalant in our dashing interview get-ups, and we all whipped out our cell phones at exactly the same moment to call up and notify our escorts of arrival. In that moment, I overheard someone nearby calling the chair of the interviewing committee that I knew I’d be meeting in the afternoon. Competition now known.

My contact person came down, we made idle chit chat in the elevator, then arrived at a nice enough suite. Chairs in a little alcove, where I met with two members of the department I sought to woo. The conversation was amicable. I remember little.

In the afternoon, I followed more or less the same routine, although I met the committee on an agreed-upon public access floor instead of the lobby. There, I happened to run into a few committee members lolling around between sessions, and I successful greeted one by mispronouncing his last name and applying an unsolicited diminutive of his first name. I mention this because (spoiler alert) I got the job — so insignificant detail obsession has been proven to be worthless paranoia.

This brings me to what I’ll consider the theme of this job market posting: humanity.

It’s easy to forget that we apply not to committees and institutions, but to real people who happen to work in academic departments. Thus the kind of minor gaffes that populate the anxiety-ridden mind really aren’t that big of a deal. You know what I’m talking about — people who claim to have lost jobs because their shoes were the wrong brand, or because they slightly mis-spoke, or perhaps accidentally let it be known that they have actually applied to more than one school, or present themselves as human beings with interests that extend at all beyond their cv.

In my experience, the members of search committees are looking to hire future colleagues, not cvs. So they’re likely to overlook minor human foibles (unless they happen to be total @$$holes, and really, even in a bad market, you don’t want that job). More, I really think they’re looking to see candidates as people. They want to get a feel for them, who they are as whole beings. This isn’t to say that the entire interview should focus on, say, gardening, but I will say that in all of my interviews “gardening” came up, sometimes at length. True, “gardening” has a bit to do with my academic work, too, but I think the human angle mattered more. Both of these MLA committees seemed pleased to have an at-ease conversation, one that covered the necessary academic issues but also helped them understand who I am and helped me understand who they are.

Outside of the interview rooms, what struck me most about MLA this year (more so than in previous years I’ve attended…and unsuccessfully interviewed) was a palpable ether of desperation. Perhaps it was the layout, with the main entrance to the conference going straight through a bar to a multi-level escalator. But job seekers were on clear display: brand new suits and outfits generally accented with either a) fashionably retro shoes or b) hipster eyewear. To me, they all looked so young and so shell-shocked. And this even before I witnessed the pit of despair where mass interviews happen — more later when I write about interview 3.1.

The aftermath: 1 campus visit and 1 you’re-on-the-waitlist-if-one-of-our-top-three-don’t-work.

AWP

Same deal, different conference. More hipster outfits, but a generally cooler and more relaxed vibe.

This time, the interview was lower budget, in a small hotel room where one of the committee members had to sit on the bed. A little odd, perhaps, but not that big a deal really.

This time, I felt pretty darn prepared for the interview, having already weathered two at MLA and having already had a successful campus visit earlier in the week for the job that, y’know, I ended up getting. So relaxed would be the way to describe it. You want me, fine. If not, no biggee.

The important part of this interview is the often overlooked portion — the committee and the school are being interviewed too. I think candidates sometimes forget this, but even by the point of a conference interview, you’ve earned a bit of leverage. They want to convince you of their merits, even while you’re trying to win a visit. Now, I’m not saying one should be huffy and superior at an early interview, but you can notice things. And at AWP I did. The questions and conversation revealed that the school had quite a different profile than the others I’d interviewed with. Not bad, just different — a bit more cash lean, so a bit more like my non-TT institution. Even the room revealed something — schools that don’t spring for suites at conference time probably don’t spring for the good cheese at dean’s meetings. Again, this isn’t a criticism of the school (which I liked very much, more so when they invited me to campus), just a recognition that the subtexts of an interview can and should be read by a candidate.

Which leads me to:

Interview 3.1

One nameless school sent notice to applicants that they’d have a table in the Dante’s Inferno interview ballroom at MLA. Feel free to make an appointment for an informational meeting, not to be confused with an interview. “Our students are not illiterate” the interviewer told me, and that was all I needed to know about the school. Better put, that’s all I needed to know about the department and the faculty, that a person with that kind of disdain for students would be the official representative at MLA speaks volumes for the negative community there.

Wrap Up, or, Specific Details

* Research the schools with whom you’ll be interviewing. This is obvious, and I’d think everyone would do it, but I guess they don’t. It pays to have a sense of the culture at a given school.

* Prepare specific syllabi for each school. I don’t mean sample syllabi of courses you’ve taught. I mean syllabi for the courses you would be teaching at X State. Put the school’s unique course title on there (English 91, Rhetoric of the Garden), and write the syllabus as if it were really for that course at that place. Show that you can do this job, not a similar job.

* Just like a first date or the first day of kindergarten, be yourself. You don’t want to misrepresent either your personality or your academic credentials. Stand up proudly with what you have. If it’s a good fit, that’s all you can offer. If it’s not a good fit, you really won’t be able to fool anyone for very long.

* Expect to sweat through at least one layer of undershirt, so dress appropriately.

* Always remember that you’re talking to people, not committees.

Too Soon Saturday, May 14 2011 

I suppose if you show up on campus the day after final exams, before commencement, three months before the job starts, it makes sense that HR isn’t ready to have you fill out forms.

Cleaning Out the Office Saturday, May 7 2011 

Four cardboard boxes, an end-roll of blank newsprint, one umbrella, and one plant. I carried these objects across campus today, to the parking lot behind the only two dorms left standing since I was a student here in the mid-90s. While shell-shocked parents tried to figure out how to fit a year’s worth of college accumulation in the backs of their family cars, undergrads said goodbye to each other, promised to keep in touch, shot beams of lingering-adolescent embarrassment at fathers who didn’t properly conceal the tampon boxes in the trunk.

I packed my own trunk with the streamlined jetsam of a three-year career at my alma mater. And I couldn’t help but feel the melancholy of this departure, even as I now head to a new, better, brighter college. I’ve traded a 4-4 load of composition and, when I’m lucky, a 45-student general lit survey for a 3-3 load of majors courses in my field. This year, I averaged about 120 students a semester. In the fall, I’ll have…um…19. Total.

But six months ago, I wanted nothing more than to stay at this financially-strapped, open-acceptance, state-underfunded, in-fighting den-of-vipers infested soul crushing regional comprehensive uni that markets itself as a doctoral I.

Why?

Because I knew it could be better, and because I like and understand the students here. Yeah, many come for the beer, and way-too-many come for with the get-a-degree-to-get-a-job mentality that lies in stark opposition to my educational fiber. But many also come because they have to come here. They can’t afford to go elsewhere. They need to stay near family. They screwed up in high school and couldn’t get into fancypants schools like the one where I’m headed. Many feel badly that they go hear, are apologetic, nurse inferiority complexes.

That’s why I wanted to stay. For those students. For the lightbulbs of intellectual curiosity, the gradual limbering of rigid minds, the nurturing of psyche and grey matter that shows that, yeah, good students are here too, damn it.

I understand hating the place, because I did as an undergrad. I was forced to go because it was free, and the national liberal arts college where I wanted to go was not. So I came here, and I found myself. And years later, I forgave myself for my resentment. Eventually, as well, I recognized the uselessness of that resentment and, better, the gifts my school had granted me.

Thursday, I saw those gifts outside of my office. An English major Poe devotee chatted with a business major karate tough guy. Poe wears funky glasses and dark clothes, does well in school and plans graduate study in literature. Karate was hoping just to pass my non-majors course, and chortled strains of rapture down the hallway when he learned of the B he earned on the final (this following a sub-50% F on the mid-term). That they can sit in a hallway, chatting about boxing and karate, that they can be in the same space at all, learning with and from each other, marks one of the great values of the public-access uni. Here, the cross-section of community stretches wide. Students at such a place (and, really, professors at such a place) have an opportunity to meet so many others who are not like themselves.

Community. That’s really the focus of this post. Forming it, having it, supporting it.

To me, there are few things in the academy that matter more than community, as a healthy one serves as the cornerstone for fruitful intellectual growth. Without community, differing points of view become negative conflict. With it, they become mindful debate. Community doesn’t mean everyone agrees, or is the same, or has the same goals — just that everyone is similarly committed to the place.

My melancholy, as I moved out, drew from a withering erosion of community. I wanted to teach at this institution because of the value and potential I saw in the community, because of the many students who crave more and better intellectual life. I wanted to stay because I wanted to be part of this community, and I wanted to help cinch the fissures that have opened.

I’ve written before about some of this. In brief: faculty hate administrators; union fights myopically; administrators count beans foolishly; rural students fear urban students; Philly students disdain Pittsburgh students; urban students see only cow pastures and rednecks; faculty see only underprepared, under-motivated students; students see only grades…

…nothing new for academia. Common issues that plague many, if not all, large campuses to some degree.

Yet as I start afresh in a new place, still at the front end of my career, I find myself thinking about community a great deal. And I find myself refusing to accept the inevitability of the anti-community forces of academe. I think, then, of recent posts by Horace and Dr Crazy, both of which center on issues of failed community. Each laments the spirit of their institutions, where community has begun to lurch and wobble. For Horace, it is the perennial departure of colleagues seeking “better” positions. For Dr Crazy, it is the refusal of her department to recognize the necessity of academic community beyond the provinces of the department. For each, I think, community has eroded (long ago, I’m sure) because of the siren of career, narrowly-defined.

In the case of Horace, I fear the turnover in his department is related to a conscious effort within that very department to “raise the profile” of the program. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s very good and noble for a school (and state) too frequently overlooked by the rest of the country. But I wonder if the effort to build a profile has led to the hiring of junior faculty who feel little sense of community, who instead maintain unbroken focus on ambition. Community can’t form when many are thinking in terms of stepping stones, comparative resources, and moving on for greater and better things. That leaves Horace, who has made himself part of the community, reeling at the vacated offices around him. Somewhat ironic in a department where the chair literally wrote the (a) book on academic community.

For Dr Crazy, the community is shattered by the inverse, by a failure on the part of her department to recognize that a community of scholars is more than just a kaffe klatch that doesn’t really like itself very much. No, indeed, a community of scholars is predicated on the celebration of intellectual success and on the inter-departmental, campus-wide community that it comprises. Everyone (almost) has the same degree, after all, is a philosopher in title. So as academics we must see ourselves not as members of a department housed within a university, as a bit of an amorphous and impersonal whole but, instead, as a unified whole. The university is the community, and dean’s parties are important components of that. Not because of the hobnobbery. Not because of potential favors. Not because of glad handing. But because we’re all part of the same place. We’re all devoted to the same mission of the mind. We’re all…

…okay…we’re not all in it for these reasons. And this, truly, lies at the heart of my melancholy. I see at my own, now former, university the same problems of community. And I see new hires coming in disdainful of the students and the teaching load (the students are too provincial, they think; the teaching load too teachy). They’re repulsed by the town. But they love the pay and benefits. So they come, and they put in their time, and commute to Pittsburgh or State College or some other far-flung “better” place to live. And they worry not one whit about shaping and creating a vibrant community at their intellectual home. I imagine, rather, that the university is not their intellectual home at all, and that’s the very problem.

I’m not saying I could solve the problem. And I’m not saying that I should have been hired because I care about the community if my credentials didn’t fit (but they did). And I’m not saying I’m not lucky to be getting out of dodge (because I am). I’m just saying that the place could be better if academics started generally thinking about issues of community more. If they decided that roots are good things. If they decided that staying in one place for a career is a worthy goal. If they accepted the mission of their own place of hire, embraced its unique balance of teaching/research, and sought to make it the best IT could be. Not to transform a regional teaching school into a doctoral place. Not to de-emphasize research at an R-1. To take schools, and colleagues, and students, and towns for what they are. Learn to be part of that community, and desire to be part.

Too sappy?

Maybe. But I can’t help but think that the current crisis of adjuntification and budget dissolution may be directly related to the general weakness of academic communities. We fight so much with ourselves in an effort to fashion a place in our own image that we’re left without energy to fight for our community. The budget axe cuts freely through a loose collection of narcissists. When that same axe hits the tight grain of a community…well, there I think a college has a chance.

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.?

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