It shouldn't be news to anybody that getting a tenure-track job in English is about as difficult as getting on a major-league baseball team. The job market is tight, the positions are rapidly being converted to adjunct and visiting positions, and there are more eager young grad students out there than you can shake a stick at. (Please don't shake sticks at the grad students. It only annoys them.)
So as I have been working up another year's worth of job applications I have been mindful of the advice drilled into my head: apply everywhere. You cannot be picky at this time of your life. You won't be able to tell if you'll love it there from the website or the job ad. Apply everywhere. Myself, I have been an application- sending machine, tossing envelopes at any job I seemed remotely qualified for.
I have seen fellow job-seekers be chided for leaving off schools in undesirable locations, with religious missions, with heavy teaching loads, schools with no name recognition. "You can't afford to be picky; it's easier to get a job if you have a job." It's understood now that no one ends up at their preferred level of school on the first time out and you have to work your way up. Apply there anyway --- you can "write your way out." While my department is still snooty, assuming that only students who get R1 jobs in desirable locations are a "success," they at least recognize that we don't get these kinds of jobs on the first go-round.
It's a buyer's market. Search committees can pick among hundreds of equally-qualified and brilliant applicants who do pretty much the same thing, so they think of the most exact "fit." Evidently us job-seekers are supposed to work to fit in exactly but not think about how the institution should or could fit to us.
Like I said, this is standard job-market advice at my school. But a recent dust-up over junior faculty who go back out on the market suggests that this is not as simple as it seems. All I've gotta say is that the whole profession should be talking more openly about how common it is for people with a job to go back out on the market, the "ethics" of it, and how it makes people feel. Because my department is openly teaching its students that this is standard business practice, not a sign of self-centered pomposity. Within the UC system itself it is common for us to "poach" junior faculty back and forth --- this is a major way our department moves up and down in the rankings. (Score two years ago: lost two, gained one. This past year: gained one.) When we lose someone, we are sad, (and it can be a huge inconvenience, especially for grad students, if this someone was supposed to fill a gaping hole in our studies) but it is hardly unexpected or described in the language of betrayal.
And this trend is just another sign of the crappy job market and larger structural patterns at work. The structure of the market itself is pressing junior faculty --- who don't have much "choice" in their jobs or locations before this stage of development --- to wait until they have jobs before considering their own desires and needs. If the "front end" of the system is structured to grant all the flexibility to the employers and none to the applicants, then it is not surprising that once applicants have jobs and some element of power they start seeking flexibility. It's like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, transposed to the employment world --- someone who is starving and unemployed (ahem! hello!) can't be picky about location or security or job quality, but as those lower needs are cared for, the job holder can move on to the more intangible needs and desires.
I like to think of myself as a pretty easy-going person who's happy pretty much anywhere and loves to teach and learn about a lot of different things. But I won't really know if I can thrive in any specific job until I get there. Right now my desires are for a paycheck. And some health insurance and retirement might be nice too. Once I have that I may be able to figure out what I really want, as a scholar and as a person. But I simply can't apply to only the places I am sure I would love --- the job chances just aren't that good. And I can't soul-searchingly ponder whether I could make a lifetime commitment to each and every school I am applying to --- besides the time constraints, there's the fact that I'm going to get a huge number of rejection letters, even if I do get some job offers, and the more I am invested in working at a school, the more heartbreaking each rejection is.
The old labor phrase goes, "we want bread and roses too." Is that too much to ask? Is there something wrong with the idea of searching first for one and then the other?