June 23, 2003

Generation Gap: Junior versus Senior Faculty on the Current State of the Academy

In the comments to "Do Adjuncts Behave like Scabs?" Chris makes an interesting observation on the difference in perspective between senior tenured faculty and junior tenure-track faculty.

He characterizes the attitude of senior faculty as follows:

Many full time and tenured faculty are aware, however begrudgingly, that they are the last of their breed. In fact, I think many -- certainly not all, but many -- recognize that when they retire their lines will probably be re-classified, or eliminated altogether. And to the question 'why don't they do anything about this', the answer is that they feel powerless to do anything about the process, and in the interim -- that is, in the time between the present and their retirement -- they are more or less secure in their positions.

In marked contrast, he points to

an essential core belief that surrounds most younger tenure-track or tenured faculty: as a result of their success securing a tenure-track position, many younger faculty exhibit a stunning faith in the soundness of the institution.

Of course, he paints with a broad brush, and exceptions could be duly noted. And I'm pretty certain that at least some of my readers will see things very differently. But I have often observed much the same gap in perceptions between junior and senior faculty, and I think Chris's comment is a nice summary of the view from the margins.

For a very telling example of senior faculty pessimism, see James McPhersons's inaugural Perspectives column ("Budget Cuts and History Jobs: Many Problems, No Easy Solutions"), which opens on a decidedly gloomy note:

Inaugural addresses by American presidents typically offer upbeat and expansive sentiments. Franklin D. Roosevelt assured Americans that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. John F. Kennedy called on us to conquer tyranny, poverty, and disease at home and abroad. Ronald Reagan announced an era of national renewal. As the new president of the American Historical Association, perhaps I should follow their example. But a candid appraisal of the prospects before us inhibits optimism—at least in the near term...

I would argue that senior faculty like McPherson have a real point of comparison against which to assess current trends in the academy:

Many of us have known bright young PhDs who are unable to find anything except a series of dead-end one-year positions until they give up in despair and leave the profession. Over the years I have served on numerous search committees to appoint new assistant professors at Princeton. I have been simultaneously impressed and depressed by the high quality of many applicants who have bounced around in one-year 'visiting' assistant professorships or other such euphemisms unknown in the academic world a decade or two ago. My awareness that some of these applicants are smarter and better qualified than I was when Princeton hired me 40 years ago has caused me to experience a professional version of survivor’s guilt. I had the ironic good fortune to be born during the Depression when the birth rate was low and to come onto the job market during the expansive years when the first wave of baby boomers entered college. Young history PhDs starting out today had the ironic misfortune to be born during the prosperous 1960s and to enter the academic job market at a time of uncertainty and stasis.

I suppose the counterargument would be to claim that someone like McPherson views the past through rose-colored glasses -- ie, there's no decline or crisis or what have you: things are as good and as bad as ever, it's just that McPherson didn't notice or has forgotten the bad and only remembers the good. To which I would reply: the job market statistics support McPherson. See, for example, "History Faculty by Gender and Type of Employment, A Twenty Year Comparison."

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at June 23, 2003 11:01 AM

Serious question. Does the senior-faculty attitude remain the same when they are talking to grad students or new Ph.Ds, as opposed to each other?

One of my LJ friends, who is finishing up her dissertation and planning for a non-academic career, complained today that her dissertation director simply refuses to accept that she isn't going to look for an academic job. (And her degree will be in English, too, which makes this refusal downright irresponsible in my opinion.)

I've seen a fair few professors (some in links from this site) bemoaning the loss *suffered by their profession* when an especially bright student departs. Yes, all very well, but -- especially in an advisor-advisee relationship -- I firmly believe that the student's well-being trumps other considerations.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 23, 2003 11:51 AM

One thing I've been wondering about is exactly how they fill the few tenure-track openings that show up each year in history, English, philosophy, anthropology, etc. I have read that one year there were exactly two history TT positions being hired for, nationwide. Maybe that's an urban legend, but the actual number is low -- triple figures?

With numbers that small you could actually plot it like the NFL draft (which at one time had around 200 slots). Some colleges would draft the "best scholar available", whereas others would be trying to fill a hole in the defensive secondary.

My guess is that there's a ton of backscenes activity and that if you don't have someone running interference for you, you're doomed.

Suppose that some middle-low dept. is hiring, let's say Colorado State. Everyone who knows someone on the CS history faculty will get on the phone. (Even if they hadn't seen the guy for 25 years.) People who have CS connections, if they can't think of a candidate themselves, will check around among their present friends to see if there are prospects. People on the CS faculty doing the hiring will call their old friends for tips.

It's not a crooked process or anything, but my bet is that the backscenes process trumps the formal search (especially in middle-low places). The formal search will have to choose between 2 or 3 choices thrown up by the informal search. The other 150 apps. are for recycling.

I'd be interested in seeing a response from someone who knows about this kind of thing. I have no real information, but this is my guess about how these things work.

So for most applicants, if I'm right, it's even worse than they think. Seemingly, if no one on your PhD committee tells you about an opening, you might as well not bother.

Or am I wrong?

Posted by: zizka at June 23, 2003 01:10 PM

Zizka: At least in English, I don't think it's quite that crony-ish. This year, I got two TT offers, both in your middle-low category (one *very* low). Because both searches ended up running at odd times, I know that no one contacted anyone at either school on my behalf. (I don't mean to represent myself as nobly battling alone, without anyone's help. For all the other jobs I applied to/interviewed for, I certainly mobilized all the resources I had available.)

Also, most faculty I've spoken with report that you have to clear at least one, if not two, hurdles on your own. So, for example, some advisors won't make a call until you've gotten an MLA interview at a school; others wait only until you've gotten a request for more material; and some few wait until you've gotten a campus visit!

Granted, some of this may be disingenuous or self-protective, but I've heard versions of this at job-seeker's meetings at three different schools now.

Posted by: Jason at June 23, 2003 01:27 PM

I agree that the process is not based on cronyism -- sadly, those days are long past. I say saldy because if the process were based on making a few well placed calls, or calling in old favors, or an old boy/girl network, or what have you, then many of us would have landed that TT job by now.

No, the process is at once far more unreadable, and far more out of control than anything like cronyism. Most departments begin with a vague profile of some sort or other, which can varry from department to department. There is the obvious issue of specialization, but one quickly moves from this to the issue of critical orientation -- e.g., textual based criticism versus cultural materialism. From this node, we then move to the issues of gender and race/ethnicity. A department (English is my working example) may want to create and/or maintain a basic gender balance of 50/50, or as close to that as it can get. Similarly, they may decide that this is the year they actively search for a minority candidate (not as easy as it may sound).

On top of these issues, there is the issue of pedigree. I've been privy to searches in which the committee, partly to lessen its work load, patly for the sake of prestige, have declared outright that they are only going to review applicants from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke, and Stanford. By the same token, however, some departments (especialy lower tiered ones) will pass over these candidates because they fear they will not be able to retain them. After these sorts of considerations, we come to the very variable realm of publications and awards. One rule of thumb says a candidate must have at least two publications in first tier journals. It's not a bad rule, but like all so-called rules it can be bent and/or broken. For instance, I know of a recent hire who has no publications, but she did have a Rhodes Scholarship under her belt, and for this department/college a Rhodes trumped publications. Obviously, that won't always be the case, but in this instance it was. (she also fit a number of other unannounced profile points.)

And personality enters into the equation as well, but there is no way to anticipate what sort of personality they want and/or are looking for. I was once asked about what sorts of hobbies I enjoy. I was flumoxed. Hobbies? It seemed to be such an outmoded, antiquated notion to me -- quaint, but antiquated. I knew I had to come up with something, and the only thing I could think of that sort of fit the bill was that I played tornament pool -- 9 ball to be precise. Well, this didn't go over so well. After about a minute or so of waxing eloquent and poetic about the game, a 40-something woman bellowed at me 'you mean in a salooooooon?' I knew then and there I was sunk. I wanted to say 'no, you moron, in a fucking bar, and I drink Guinness and enjoy Bushmills on the rocks --just like Tom Waits -- occasionaly, too'. I refrained, though to this day I regret that I didn't let her have it.

All of this is to say that the process is absolutely unreadable. And you can add utterly bizarre, and rife with quick sand and sink holes and There is no formula, no recipe. To the extent that there is a logic in play it's only discernable after the fact, and then only speculatively.

If you're looking for an analogy, I thik the NFL one above isn't quite it. Others have suggested, quite rightly I feel, that it's all a bit like being an actor going up for a part. Do you have the right look and feel for the part? The right vocal timbre? Are you bubbly? Are you reserved? Are you up, or are you down? Are you too pretty, or not pretty enough? Are your shoulders too broad? Are you tall and lanky? Long hair, short hair? Do you have a nose ring, or, if your male, an earring? And on and on and on ...

Now, is that all clear? :)

Posted by: Chris at June 23, 2003 04:52 PM

Very interesting. My cynicism seems to have been misplaced, in some of its specifics at least.

In a buyer's market they can be very picky, it seems. I heard it said once that one question everyone on the committee always is thinking about is "Do I want to have lunch with this guy for the next twenty years?"

Posted by: zizka at June 23, 2003 05:07 PM

True enough to the 'do I want to have lunch with him/her' question. The thing is, I think the whole 'do I want to have luch with them' issue is a myth. In almost all of the departments I've been associated with, there is little to nothing in the way of extra-curricular socializing going on. And personally, I tend to never socialize with my colleagues. I come to work, teach my classes, talk to students, do some busy work, say hi by the mailboxes, hold office hours, and go home. That's fine with me.

I think the underlying but unstated question is not 'do I want to have lunch with them' -- or cook outs or whatever -- but can I work with them on committees etc. But because of the myth of collegiality, and the myth that this is after all a very genteel little club, lunch substitutes for committee work.

Posted by: Chris at June 23, 2003 06:21 PM

It does depend on the institution, and the setting. I am currently at a small college in a small town where the likelihood of running into people on a regular basis is quite large. People live next door to each other, babysit each others' kids, take turns hosting department parties at their homes, etc. In such a setting, the importance of a friendly demeanor is not negligible; once someone gains tenure, it is not unlikely that they'll be living with these colleagues for the rest of their life.

Posted by: Rana at June 23, 2003 06:56 PM

Rana: This is really interesting to me because I think the issue has come into play when I've been interviewed. Here's the problem. I'm single, no partner or spouse, no kids, have little or no interest in either, and tend to do my own thing. I don't exactly give off a domestic vibe. I wonder if this has come across -- however subconsciously -- and had any impact on my cadidacy.

Posted by: Chris at June 23, 2003 08:02 PM

As someone who has chosen not to have kids, I do notice a difference in how I am "incorporated" into the social aspect of academia. People are friendly, but they tend not to invite me to parties because they are "child centered" events and the assumption is I wouldn't want to attend. Plus it is hard to carry on conversations that are child centered. I have a huge list of interests, but as soon as someone asks me about them and as soon as they find out that this list doesn't include children, they suddenly look at their watch. Granted, I don't mention right out that I am childless by choice, but if they see that I'm not talking about kids in the first 5 minutes, assumptions are made. It can be a challenge finding people who are interested in a variety of things. So yes, I do think this has an effect all around.

Posted by: Cat at June 24, 2003 09:55 AM

Eh. I don't think this is an effect unique to academia, Cat. I can tell stories...

One that stands out for sheer rudeness, though it is admittedly tangential to the current topic of employment exclusion, happened at Book Expo America, of all places. After a talk I gave, a net-acquaintance came up and introduced himself, and walked with me back to my employer's booth on the trade-show floor. "Any kids?" he asked, reasonably enough.

"No, no children."

"Well, when are you going to have them?"

"I'm not planning any at all," I said quietly, not thinking he needed to know that I had myself spayed (well, the human analogue thereto) a while back.

"Oh." He chewed on that a moment. "Well, you'll change your mind."

As I said. Not unique to academia.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 24, 2003 10:18 AM