Sunday, January 25, 2009

Dispatches from the Community College Job Fair, 1

"Yes, it's straight down the hall and then go left," explains the woman as she hands me a pen.

I examine it, puzzled, for a moment. Are you sure this is the right job fair? They're ... giving me stuff. I take another sweeping glance around, but no, the pen says ccc on it and the leadership development conference is up a floor, where I have been lost already. (So sue me: MLA usually has all its important meeting stuff on the second floor. I'm outta my element.)

I head down the hall, in my suit, passing many other people also in suits ---- so far, so familiar, especially the trays crowded over with empty starbucks cups and people leaning up against the walls nearby, awkwardly trying to juggle folders and coffee and a program while in expensive clothes. Then I pass through the doors into a large hall of organized mayhem.

Though I'm pretty early --- the fair will run from 10-3 --- the aisles are already packed. It becomes even more crowded as the day goes on, making it literally difficult to move, particularly when it's not clear whether we are stopped in aisle-traffic or have accidentally migrated into a line of people waiting to talk to a representative.

The place is strange. It's like ... the MLA book exhibit at its most busy and crowded. The community colleges of Southern California (with a few outliers from the north, and even districts in Oregon and Washington) each have booths set up, draped in brightly-colored cloths and with informational posters behind them. It almost feels as if they are the vendors and we the ones with purchasing power, instead of us as the job seekers in varying levels of desperation. The oddly corporate effect is heightened by the piles of swag on each table --- pens, notepads, postits, planners, mini-footballs and other squishy figures, key clips (Coastal Community College has decorated its booth with a beach theme and had to put "do not touch" signs out on the beach blankets and beach balls) and other tchotchkies sprinkled among the informational packets, job listings, and sample course catalogs. I take a few, but every time I do I am struck by the thought that the money spent on providing this free stuff could add up to an adjunct position if not a full-time one, and I soon stop, troubled by guilt.

But for some people the free stuff seems to be the point --- I am regularly elbowed aside so that someone can grab one of everything on the table, or have been waiting behind someone only to watch them ignore the booth attendant and methodically collect the lot. This, too, confuses me --- they appear to be dressed like job seekers (the brochure read "dress for success" and colorful suits are the norm here) but they seem focused on the wrong thing. Maybe they went and grabbed lots of stuff and then went back through and asked questions. Or they are sure they are getting a job. Or they are young and/or inexperienced and will regret this in a few weeks. I just don't know.

In fact, I'm not sure why I am here or how to make this experience useful, myself. Perhaps collecting a year's worth of free pens would have been the best use of my time. The job fair itself seems somewhat of a holdover from the pre-internet days. The booths are staffed by HR people, mostly, with the occasional dean or subdean in attendance, and while they are almost uniformly polite and helpful, one hour in to this day they are already looking glazed-over and faded. They do not take my CV --- "you will upload all of that information on our online application" --- and, with the exception of a few last-minute job openings, all of the postings and descriptions are already on line as well, and I have read them already. Still, I ask at every booth if they have English comp openings and collect some papers if they do.

But it's not clear to me why I am here or what I should be doing exactly, and I can't figure out if this means that the job fair is a holdover from a different time and way of hiring or if I am just so out of my element that I fucked it up and didn't do the important thing I was supposed to do that would give me an edge in a job. But what would that be? I'm not making face-to-face contacts with any of the people who would be hiring me directly, and I am sure that my name and face will be barely a blur in their memories at the end of this long, crowded day. There were a couple of deans who oversee the English departments and I did chat with them for a moment, but I didn't really have specific questions to ask and they only had vague recollections of how their English departments were structured. I couldn't leave them anything, and everything people told me about the application process ("the cover letter is very important") is something I knew already. It felt almost like they were enticing me to consider their campus and to convince me to apply, which just seems like a waste of time in this economy.

Perhaps, though, this job fair is geared more towards the disciplines and specialties that are more in demand --- although the place was crowded, I only ran into a few English teachers. I heard people talking about GIS, mathematics, there were several businessmen who wanted to teach in the marketing or econ programs, even a high school band teacher who wanted to lead a jazz group at the community college level. So perhaps other areas need to do more recruitment.

Or perhaps this fair was more about recruiting a diverse population of candidates ---- which it seemed to have done so already. I was actually touched by how mixed the crowd was in terms of age and race; inside the fair --- both the staff of the booths and the job applicants --- there was just as much diversity as outside in the LA streets and it was just wonderful. Like California, it was a "majority-minority" population and as a white person I was in a large group but distinctly under half. And I was surprised by the number of black people, of all ages ---- from clearly aiming to make a second career to a very young-looking man who is finishing his history MA now, I overheard ---- who were there. Latino attendance seemed a bit sparse, comparatively, but there were lots of Asian Americans; I heard what I thought was Korean being spoken and Asian Americans with accents and then others with the same surfer drawl as me. As I said, I thought it was great, and, especially because of the physical similarity to the MLA setup, kept wondering why the MLA and my other lit. conferences seem so overwhelmingly white. Let's get on that, MLA!

Of course, as I was finishing my rounds and trying to figure out what else I needed to do, this very same diversity made me depressed: here I am, a white girl with a PhD in a job market where only an MA is required and there is a large pool of people of color to draw from, some of whom, I assume, have come up through this very same community college system and who would thus fit the bill in ways far better than I ever could. I'm not ever so overwhelmed by my white guilt that I won't apply, but I do always have these roiling mixed emotions about whether I deserve to take a spot in such an undiverse profession and perpetuate the tradition of racial stratification and exclusion ("But I want a job!" "But we have to undo the history of preferential white hiring in the academy!" "But why does that have to happen now and mean I don't get a job!" "But we don't change anything structurally if we hire guilty-feeling liberal white people into the same old structure!" "But I want a job!").

This time, however, since I was at a community college job fair, and everyone kept reassuring me that an MA was the required degree, I was getting even more depressed about the sheer number of freakin' MA programs and how I was now competing against an exponentially larger pool of candidates, I'm sure. The rejection letters for my four-year college places regularly list that they had a couple hundred applicants; at least there is a fairly small population of people with PhDs. There's, what, 25 California State campuses? Each of which pump out massive numbers of MA students as part of covering their need for comp instructors? So if they're like my out-of-state-but-similar MA program, they take in about 30 people a year and graduate about 25 of them from a two-year program, meaning ... 25 x 25 ... plus all the ABDs at all the PhD programs ... plus adjuncts ... plus holdovers from previous years ... plus out of state people ... plus ... Aiiigh! Make it stop!!!! The burning!!!!!!!!!

When I finally met my ride and loaded up my bags full of stuff, I was tired, a bit overwhelmed, and in need of some time away from people to recharge. I also wasn't sure what I had learned or whether the day did any good. (At least I spent the afternoon today avoiding grading by writing about it!) Originally I had planned to go to both job fairs, the SoCal one and the NorCal one, which is next weekend, but now I'm not entirely sure what good would come of it. What do you suggest? Any advice?


Belle said...

Ten years ago, I had a couple of CC job interviews - and that was as a newly minted PhD. I really wanted the jobs too. CC is where I first discovered that I was smart, where my profs nurtured me and offered hope. So that was always my dream (since I was assured I stood no chance anywhere else). I also worked as an adjunct at a CC while doing the PhD; their entire social sciences faculty had PhDs. Yeah, an MA was all that was required, but they were delighted to have PhDs.

Here's hoping something really good happens to you, and that it happens soon. Fingers crossed!

Anonymous said...

I have no advice, because I don't get the job fair thing, either. We had one on my campus (obviously for law jobs, community colleges), and like you, I had no idea what I was supposed to be getting out of it. Partly this was because it was before the magic date when first-year law students could actually apply for jobs, but even then... how is it better to shove a resume in someone's face in a crowded cafeteria than just to mail it from the comfort of your home? Just so you can write in a cover letter, "We spoke at the Campus X job fair..."? It was so crowded and loud at ours, I can't imagine how to have any meaningful conversation - I couldn't even hear the employers.

So yeah, I'm no help, but you have lots of sympathy from this corner!

medieval woman said...

My job market elves are chanting. burning incense, and eating Cheetos by the truckload in your service....

André Dias said...

Yeah, I don't know a thing about life in the States, but I still have an advice, which I'm sure you won't like! Stop posting with an alias and assume your secret identity! Perhaps someone from an important literary department, impressed as we common readers are with your wit, would offer you a steady but glamorous job :)

Bardiac said...

Good luck, Sisyphus!

I don't think the CSU MA programs cover comp with as much of a TA program as the UC schools do; at least that wasn't my experience when I was there (though they did use lots of adjuncts).

My fingers are crossed for you. I had a wonderful experience at one of the CCs you may be in touch with. I wish you good things.

Anonymous said...

I'm kind of mystified about the career fair thing as well. Seems like "old think" on the part of the HR departments -- something that was done years ago and hasn't been questioned since.
One thing I've seen in jobs searches here at EMU is that there is an awful lot of chaff in the application pile -- in the end the department hopefully wants a quality candidate, not a minimally (if at all) qualified one.

And, if they don't then you probably don't want to work there anyway.

So good luck! Whatever gets you an interview is worth the effort.