Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Lady and the Tiger

I have had a shitty week. Back and forth I have gone shuttling between my advisor and another professor, who has been on the job market recently. And as I go back and forth, bearing my job materials like flags, I have gotten more and more frustrated.

How am I to present myself? In what way should I describe myself so as to actually get a job?

“You are a tiger,” Advisor tells me. “We have worked for so many years sharpening your teeth, and you have, if I do say so myself, such a beautiful coat of stripey fur, one of the best I have seen. Showcase it! Spend more time on describing the oranges and blacks, the gleaming claws — you need an entire paragraph here in your letter on the phenomenology of pouncing.”

“This pouncing paragraph needs to go,” says the Younger Professor. “You’ve already devoted quite a lot to it in the first paragraph. That might look good to the very top Tiger Departments, but you say that you have a lot of small, religiously oriented colleges with job ads this year — shouldn’t you be positioning yourself in a slightly more, uh, traditionalist way? And what could be more part of the great tradition than a Lady? This whole paragraph here should be rewritten to bring out your Ladylike qualities and show them how your research really does wonderfully exemplify Lady Studies.”

“Sisyphus, no.” My Advisor says with a frown. “Your materials are getting worse, not better. They are starting to sound incoherent. Where is the leaping, the gnashing of fangs, what’s at stake in leaping out of the forest at unwary travelers?”

“Don’t you think if I seem too tigerish, I might … scare some search committees off?” I mumble.

Sisyphus. No!” (Yes, when my Advisor talks to me it often does sound exactly like scolding a misbehaving puppy. I hadn’t really noticed that until writing this post.) I drooped, abashed. My Advisor looked at me sternly. “If they don’t want a tiger, they don’t want a tiger. You don’t want to waste your time and theirs.”

“But I want a job. Any job. I’m not picky; I’m quite an easy-going tiger; I can wear a gown and pointy princess hat…” (wait, did I say that out loud?)

“No!! You definitely don’t want to battle them at tenure time with them upset because they feel they have been deceived as to who you really are!” (Oh my god, she can read minds!)

Fine then. The moral of the job application: be your true self. But who am I?

I went in search of more advice.

“Marsupials are hot this year,” said Professor Nonsequitor. “And you did such a great job TAing for my Kangaroo class. Why aren’t you applying for those jobs?”

“I’m not in your field,” said Professor Traditionalist. “But I want to know more about the important scholars you are responding to. You should include them and how you are intervening in the critical debate here right after your first sentence about the dissertation.”

“You want my entire lit review?”

“Yes, but it shouldn’t be more than a couple sentences.”

“I really don’t see how this is humanist, or literary,” said The Humanist Prof. “Why should I even care about a bunch of savage tigers? You need to pretend this is traditional, at least for the first few paragraphs. Where are the Ladies?”

“We’re posthumanist,” I growled back. “And wouldn’t the mention of antihumanist theorists like Butler and Foucault and Deleuze and Guatarri and Leopold the Lion in the dissertation abstract tip people off?”

“Yeah, those … could you just lose them entirely?”

“But … then I wouldn’t have any argument.”

“Ooh, problem,” he smirked back.

“I don’t know what advice to give you,” said Impossibly On Top of Things Grad Student, “I’m just so busy fending off job offers I’ve got to beat them with sticks.” I felt a rumbling starting in the back of my throat.

Depressed, I held my job letter up to see my reflection. I didn’t even see a hybrid or monster; just a botch. So many people had scribbled words and suggestions over it there were entire passages that were not at all my own.

Where do I belong? Pacing around behind bars waiting to tear someone limb from limb suddenly sounded … disappointing. And boring. Would they even let me near a book ever?

And sitting at the top of a tower, embroidering the world and combing my hair sounded equally dull and limited. And how could anyone really reconcile both?

All I know is that somehow I’ve got to make some sort of decision, and put on some sort of disguise — when are we ever not wearing a disguise? — and wait behind this door. When someone opens it — if someone chooses it — either a lady or a tiger has to come out. And I have no idea what to do or what is going to happen.

These days I feel like mauling somebody, or maybe crying. Maybe both.

(the original)


Anonymous said...

I send you lots and lots of sympathy. The job search SUCKS.

I actually found that one of the things that most helped me figure out what I was, was going on the market and seeing how schools responded. It became pretty clear what messages I was sending, by who pursued me further.

I realize that this is NOT at helpful to you now.

Belle said...

Not helping either. But... can you have multiple job letters? Tiger for the tiger-seeking, Lady for the lady-seeking and so on? We do that in my field all the time. The old-timers wish their students were tigers, but probably don't hire tigers. They likely hire those who can fit best.

The problem, of course, is the awful job ads that ask for Lady Tigers with marsupial capabilities.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, Sis, this truly and utterly sucks. Probably the last thing you need is another person to read your letter, but maybe somebody who isn't related to your uni or program could be of use here - see, all these people are thinking about you as being an extension of THEM. You may well be a tiger, but your adviser's insistence on it seems to have a lot to do with HER. Prof not in your field? The resistance to the post-humanist probably has a lot to do with the prof's own territory in his/her field. Recently on-the-market junior prof? Bringing the recently-on-the-market baggage to your letter, thinking about the compromises he/she made in his/her own letter.

With all of those messages coming from people with their own agendas, obviously you don't know who the fuck you are :)

I suspect there's a middle ground somewhere in there, that is an actual representation of who you are as a scholar and teacher. I'm not saying that I'm the one to find it, but I'd definitely be willing to try. Also, I'll say that my letter spoke to the traditional (particularly in terms of how I framed my teaching areas) but I didn't hide my research light under a bushel and pretend I didn't do half of what I actually do, either. Yes, you've got to frame yourself to make yourself attractive, but I think it is important not to compromise too much for exactly the reason that your adviser states (you don't want them hiring one you and getting another and that hurting you professionally).

Blah. Too long-winded. But seriously: if you'd like a completely neutral set of eyes on your stuff, I'm your girl.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, and a totally unrelated aside: when you talked about being an easy-going tiger who would wear a princess hat, I totally imagined you as Mr. Stripey :)

Margaret said...

First, what everyone else said.

Second, there is definitely such a thing as getting too much advice.

And third-- you will hate this but-- you should avoid trying to come up with "the" letter. As someone who has been on many search committees now, I can't tell you how *awesome* it is when we see a letter that reflects that the scholar knows who WE are. What that means is that, at minimum, you should have a Tiger letter AND a lady letter, and should probably end up with various mutations on these.

This doesn't mean that you twist yourself into a pretzel to become something new for each institution. But it does mean you write intelligently and with some precision about how what you offer fits that particular place. This is why writing a "generic" job letter is quite difficult. It will be a botch (and a b*tch) by definition.

My advisers never gave me any guidance on this, and from the other side of the desk, it seems that not many advisers do. But all I can say is it really, really helps a candidate (at least at a non R1 place) when s/he addresses the specifics of the institution.

medieval woman said...

"Tyger, tyger, burning bright..."

First off, an awesome post - truly.

Secondly, I agree with Maggie. You need a Tiger letter and a Lady letter. And you need to have subtle versions of these that are more teachy and some that are more researchy. You can take out the second research paragraph for the teaching schools and add an extra teaching example.

If you want to send me yours (as Dr. Crazy said), I'd be more than happy to workshop it - and if you want to look at someone else's (I'm sure you've looked at a billion already), mine is at your disposal! I've found it relatively easy to extract a good template from those I've seen...

You will ROCK the market this year!

k8 said...

How frustrating! For what it's worth, I have different versions of materials for different rhetorical situations (I know, how very comp/rhet of me, but kairos is important).

My head spins with all of the contradictory advice I've received. I've decided that where those giving advice differ, I'll just have to trust my gut feelings about situations and hope that my gut feelings are right.

Great post!

Bardiac said...

You bring out the frustration brilliantly! Not that your blogging brilliance is a whole lot of help on the job market, alas.


As someone on the other side now, I would make sure the letter talks to the place you're applying to, and worry less about being exactly a tiger or lady. I'm sorry, that probabl doesn't help. BUT, if you want to get some response, I'd be happy to read and respond to your "teaching" and slac type letters.

Susan said...

What every one else has said. And -- from the perspective of someone who was always a little on the margins, you can't hide your scholarly interests and your post-humanist tigerhood completely. But you can suggest your "easy-going tiger; I can wear a gown and pointy princess hat…”

But I do think the problem is htinking that one letter works for everything. It's a pain if you are sending out 100 of these, but it's worth it.

Sisyphus said...

Thanks peeps!

I think, ironically, that what is making this so obnoxious a process is that both profs are being helpful --- both keep scheduling follow-up meetings (inc another set tomorrow). Which means really I should be drafting two separate letters and not showing the different drafts to the opposite profs, instead of trying to incorporate all of the changes into one letter version. Grumble. I wish I had thought of that a bit earlier, like last week.

And I haven't even gotten to balancing the research/teaching angle yet --- we're talking about literally different departments. Almost none of the places that requested writing samples in the past were English departments, also, which obviously I'm really ambivalent about.

Sigh. We'll see --- I'm currently using the time-honored problem- solving method of waiting until the very last minute and just not dealing with it. I highly recommend it.

Earnest English said...

I totally agree that you need tiger and lady letters. What I'm doing (and this is my third time out, with some success in the past) is writing a basic letter that shows who I am, knowing I'm going to kick around the scholarship and teaching paragraphs and then I have a bunch of optional paragraphs that I put in depending on the job ad. Then I tweak what I have depending on what I see on the website. It's a lot of work, but I've gotten reasonably good response with this, as opposed to my friends who have done big pushes with templates -- and gotten only a couple nibbles.

Anonymous said...

First, what a great post! And second, what smart advice from your commenters here.

I have sat on a number of search committees too, and one of the things that always makes a positive impression is a cover letter that highlights for us the way that candidate X has the things we've requested in the ad. The letters that just tell us who the candidate is, without really connecting it to our requirements, definitely stand out as not having been crafted for this position. So, as k8 noted, the rhetorical situation is important.

Some cover letters in the business world also do this in the form of "executive summaries" where candidates show, visually, in bullet form, how s/he matches up. Kind of a "You want this, I have that" presentation.

Anyway, good luck. It's a difficult process, and I'm sending all the best wishes to you!

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, bardiac said that too--sorry for the repeat!

negativecapability said...

I'm also happy to put some neutral eyes on your stuff; I went through a lot of interviews last year, so got a lot of that feedback that newkid mentions (I think she's right on this one). I also had to balance the tiger with the lady, too, and in my case, it was dressing up as a lady with a subtle set of claws that seemed to do the trick. No single advisor had the right advice.

negativecapability said...

Oh, that email address would be if you're interested.