Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Grass is Always Greener

Bleah. I did not sleep last night. The choice was between cramps and high-caffeine daytime midol. I am not in any mood to think or work or do anything useful today. I skipped my exercise class and have been lying around, watching all my friends and colleagues freak out about the job market on facebook and various listservs.

And my, my, my. I won't go into any detail here but let's just say my department is being run by incompetent idiots at the moment. And I don't expect the placement advisor to step in and actually provide any help. And the comparative people here are running around like rabid hamsters because as a program rather than a department, nobody buys them MLA list access and they are told they are told they are on their own for finding access to the jobs so they are frantically trying to get help from us. Surprise. The only thing different from our department is the honesty of admitting "you're on your own."

But anyway, after I discovered that the job list was up, since I was on campus anyway, I started downloading and printing out various jobs that afternoon. The dept. owes me some printer toner at least, right? Another grad, who I keep thinking as a "new" grad but who it turns out is going on the market for the first time this year (god I'm old), came into the lounge and was soon joining me in looking at the list.

Well that was distracting and annoying, because she kept freaking out and laughing and being being appalled. "Sisyphus," she told me, "I am not going to get a job. I'm just going to have to leave academia. I mean, look at where these jobs are."

"Ah, the list." I smiled and shook my head. "It is a disillusioning experience to look for the first time. What is your field, anyway?"

"Contemporary postcolonial and global lit." I frowned, thinking, ok, aren't those really actually "diversity jobs" and you're not really going to be considered for them as a white person?, but decided not to pile on too many layers of disillusionment and depression all at once. She continued, "I mean, look, at this, there are no jobs. I mean, Minnesota? Milwaukee? This? where is this place even?"

Now I am really frowning. Those sound like good places. That teeny little liberal arts college on the east coast she is snitting at there, I have heard of before I started applying to jobs, and considering that I've only been on the west coast and done public school, that is saying something. I would love to have a nice little 3-3 at someplace like that.

"Just wait. I applied to places in rural Arkansas and Texas last year. At least those schools are in cities." Where did you think jobs would be, I am thinking. There are only 50 states, so there are maybe 50 R1s or so in existence, most of which are not along coastlines. And if you think applying to BFE Wyoming or whatever is humbling, wait until you get a rejection letter from them. But I don't say anything.

"Well, what about women's studies? Do you do women and gender type stuff in your diss?" I ask, and immediately feel a little pang when she says yes right away and starts looking for jobs that I myself am applying to. Bah. Soon I am back to printing things and updating my excel sheet and she is back to scanning through things and laughing softly to herself like a madwoman. "Comp? This place wants me to teach composition. What?" I am still printing things.

"I mean, this? What is this?" she gestures at the monitor. I look up. "Oh yeah, that's a nice place. I applied there last year and the year before." I go back to my own stuff.

"But, I mean ... Sisyphus. I had only planned to apply for a few places this year?" She looks at me, troubled. I am not reacting in the way she had expected.

"Oh ... yeah. Sure. A lot of people only do a small-scale search their first year." A pause. "I mean, I didn't do that. I applied out to everything, including a lot of stuff that I don't really fit. And then I did the same thing the next year, and the next year. I'll apply out to everything that conceivably fits me and everything that doesn't too, this year. --- What about postdocs? Are you looking at postdocs? Maybe you could just do a run of them this year."

It gets quiet in there for a while until the newbie grad had to leave to go prep. Meanwhile I'm thinking of a guy in our dept. who has done 2 years on the market to my 3 and had just as little luck. But when I talked to him at the last MLA (sharing beers over our shared lack of interviews) he had made a cutting-off gesture with his hand when I mentioned a specific college and said, "That's a 4-4- load. I didn't even send stuff out to the 4-4s." Now he's doing the office work that our undergrad work study student was doing for us last year.

So I'm actually unclear on whether I should be sending my stuff out everywhere. On the one hand, I want a job, any job. On the other, the faculty and other grad students here are pretty much united and open about their contempt for certain jobs and certain places. So, if Rural Cow College of Upper Nowhere already has it in their heads that our grads are prejudiced against them, and our grads are openly saying in public all over the place that they are prejudiced against them, what could I possibly say in my letter that would overcome this and show that I am not like the average grad from here? I don't have any liberal-arts college or rural location in my background that would work to show I "got it."

I dunno. I think I'll still send out an application to absolutely everything, but I hope to come up with a better answer or secret handshake, something, before I have to send those letters out.


Shane in SLC said...

You've got the right approach, and the newbie grad student is, no offense, a complete idiot who deserves never to have a job in the academy. She really had no clue how bad the job market is? (Especially for postcolonialists, which is my field, and yes, it's very hard for a white person to get those jobs, though there are several dozen white postcolonialists in the field!)

I strongly recommend reading this post from Tenured Radical on what it takes to get a professorship job:

Send it to your arrogant friend, too. Grr...

Shane in SLC said...

Oh, and I wouldn't worry too much about your department's prima dona reputation. I would think that most committees will consider each candidate individually, and will assume that if you applied, you're sincerely interested. And the conference interview is where the real weeding out of the hopeless snobs comes in...

Shane in SLC said...

I'll shut up after this. But consider: I'm a white guy doing postcolonial lit, but the department where I had my first job actually advertised for a specialist in multicultural American lit. That's a secondary specialization for me, so I applied anyway, they liked my application and my interviews, and they hired me. It was a job with a 4/4 teaching load in a small town in East Texas, and I was miserable for a while. Then I got a research postdoc, which allowed me to crank out a lot of research, which helped me get a great job with a 2/2 load. The location is one that many in your department would probably turn their noses up, but it's a great job.

So I say again: apply for everything, even the ones that seem like a stretch. And heed TR's advice: never reject a job you haven't been offered yet...

Fretful Porpentine said...

Nah, your approach is right and your colleagues are oh-so-wrong (although they may well have been encouraged in their oh-so-wrongness by well-meaning faculty, especially Newbie Grad).

You may not have rural or LAC experience, but you do have varied teaching experience with a reasonably diverse student population, yes? Stress this in your letter, make sure your passion for teaching shines through, and you should come across as someone who can walk the walk.

Lucky Jane said...

Wow. I didn't realize such prima donnas still existed. Color me impressed with your patience and diplomacy with them.

Are you sure their attitude really does characterize your department's reputation? I mean, maybe they're anomalies. Maybe? Many years before I went on the market, my grad department was infamous: alumni who thought they shat ice cream would take jobs where they antagonized colleagues before leaving for greener pastures. Commence job drought, years when t-t placements were the exceptions, and the rule was unemployment. News of 5/4 VAP placements elicited drunken debauches in the hallways. Well, I exaggerate a bit there, but less than you might think.

As the mantra goes, all you need is one job. If I were in your position, I would rank the jobs (you mention a spreadsheet, so I'm guessing you do, too) and research the most desirable ones more attentively. But I would also apply to the longshots with somewhat less intently tailored letters.

You know that a lot of the job search is predicated on luck. I got my first job almost by accident. I had applied for one job, which unbeknownst to me was already filled; however, another position in an entirely different field opened up, but my application had made an early impression on the SC chair. I hated that job, but it paved the way for better (for me) opportunities.

Wishing you nerves of steel and ever so much luck. . .

P said...

Speaking only for myself here, I think I could be happy pretty much anywhere if I a) liked my job, b) got along with my colleagues, and c) found that my partner was happy in said location as well (i.e. also able to teach, albeit as an adjunct, at said college, or is able to find decent work in the town/village/city.) Also, college towns invite an element that would otherwise be lacking in non-college small towns, so your colleague may want to think twice about poo-pooing small town America(ns).

Plus, the advantage of a small(er) town (and the SLAC scene) is that real estate might be more reasonable. This isn't always the case, but it's likely to hold true in many places, esp. non-coastal regions of the U.S.

You can be the candidate to buck the trend of your department's apparent dismissive attitude towards RCCoUN by hammering home the point that you REALLY value teaching and institutions that putting teaching and undergraduate enrichment first, etc. You don't need to have come from an SLAC or a rural location to value and understand the importance of teaching etc.

Renaissance Girl said...

You're absolutely right to apply to every job you think you might get an interview for, even at a stretch. It's a grim year, but the market is NEVER flush enough to be snooty at the front end. There are lots of pros and cons to every job, and if the first one you take doesn't end up suiting you, you can apply again. (How many faculty do you know who've stayed at one institution their entire career?) And Pocha's last paragraph is very, very good advice....

medieval woman said...

Ugh - I hate that kind of snobbery. Apply to everything you want to - and GOOD LUCK!!!

the rebel lettriste said...

Ha! I love the part about the grad student who's doing work study because he couldn't be bothered to teach a 4/4. I guarantee, I'm teaching a 4/4, I earn more money than he does, I have real benefits, I contribute to TIAA-CREF, oh yeah, and I have A JOB.

You are entirely right to apply as broadly as you can. And I'll chime with Fret: stress your teaching skills, be honestly yourself, forthrightly highlight your accomplishments, and pray.

I'll be praying for you, too.

Sisyphus said...

I think it's newness rather than snootiness, per se. And it's structurally perpetuated; too many of our profs are thinking "yes, _other_ profs will tell their students to go for anything but I will be rigid and have high standards and _my_ students will show up everyone else's with their wonderful jobs."

Shane, since I've never yet gotten a conference interview in 3 years of trying I was worried I was (well I *know* I am) being weeded out at the earlier stage, and I'm still not sure how much that is because of my institution or my lack of publishing or just the shitty luck of the market. Anyone can say "ooo I love students" but something in my letter isn't working as it is. meh.

And Reb: you think _he's_ annoyed at work study, you should ask his wife who's staying home with a bunch of kids. Hmm, maybe it's because she wants to stay in CA and not move them from school? But they got kicked out of grad student housing. Eh. I think of her and always think I could have it much worse than I do.

the rebel lettriste said...

Also, Sis., I am happy to read your job letter if you want another set of eyes. It's painfully sucky to show it to people, but I found that trotting mine around (to advisors, to friends, to trusted readers) really helped me tweak it. It also took away a lot of the mystifying fear of "what does the search committee think?!?!", because my advisor could say right away, "uh, this part really sucks. Take it out." Or, "this part made me tired to read it. Avoid doing that to an SC."

Email me if that is the case.

Susan said...

I have heard occasional stories of committees throwing out applications from people from "top" programs because "they will never come", but I don't think it happens often. I've heard one story of a committee saying to a candidate, "Why do you want to come here? You're too good for us". But for all my job market stories, these are surprisingly rare.

As to the "apply to anything for which you are remotely qualified": within reason. If there's a secondary field, connected to your work, then sure. If it's something about which you've written 2 sentences in teh diss, then, maybe not. But it's true that hiring depts will often have a somewhat expansive sense of what they need. Sometimes looking at their website will help you. And I would in some way address it -- "My primary work is in X, Y plays an important role in my understanding of whatever, and I find the areas closely connected." (This is important -- answer the questions people will ask)

Earnest English said...

Sis, that grad student is a flipping idiot. I really didn't believe that such people even existed anymore. I see how your department might perpetuate such ridiculousness, but I blame the grad student herself because no one should just be paying attention to her professors and shut out every other indication about the market. Hell, there are these things called blogs where really smart people write about the academic job market on a fairly regular basis, to say nothing of actual periodicals!

Anyway, I know of a job that your colleague might fit, but DO NOT TELL HER. I'm sure she would not appreciate the area, nor would she appreciate how good a job it actually is, comparatively speaking. It's very likely that her letters will convey the kind of person she is; if nothing else, she'll screw herself in interviews.

I would be happy to look at your letter if you wish. 1) It looks like I'm going to be on a search ctee this year. 2) I also know pretty well that concern of coming from big publics and seeming appropriate for the kind of close-knit relationships endemic to a SLAC. Maude might also be a great person to look at your materials since she is at a SLAC now.

kfluff said...

Ms. S---I'm late to this party, but I would agree with the commenters here. We used to be a 4-4, and have since changed. There are people in my dept. that will still occasionally make the comment "Oh, she's from X, she'll never come here," despite the fact that the last three hires we've made are from top ten grad programs. The job letter is key: you have to make a case for wanting to be at the place (hint: here, it's all about the teaching in the liberal arts, small classes, etc.). This allows the people who are interested in you to make the case to others that you sincerely are interested.

But that's only how it works at Askesis, you know.

Renaissance Girl said...

Sis--That offer that Reb gave you above: same goes for me.